My Disability Story
On April 19, 2003 I had an on the job injury that left me with chronic back pain and eventually cost me my ranger career. Over the years I’ve allowed that moment to stand in as a sort of D-Day, before which I was able-bodied, and after which I wasn’t.
That simplification has its advantages, particularly when providing a quick, and distinct answer to the question: “What happened to you?” The real answers—Life. A series of unfortunate events, coupled with systemic forces (sexism, homophobia, pressures of capitalism), and my own genes and health (physical and mental) issues—tend to elicit eye rolls.
Possibly because the question itself, “What happened to you?” rarely seems to arise from genuine interest, at least judging from the subsequent attention span of the person asking the question. So, instead, I say that I was injured on the job, 16 years ago today. And that is true.
But suggesting that on April 18th 2003 I was 100% able-bodied and healthy and on April 20th I was disabled belies the real complexity of my, and many people’s lives and experiences of disability.
Something I want to write more about is not feeling able-bodied even as a kid. I did not experience a childhood that was pain or depression free. or absent of chronic illness. I had asthmatic allergic reactions that sent me to the emergency room multiple times unable to breathe. I had kneecaps that would slide off and lock out of place—after my right one did that while I was studying abroad in college, I took a semester off to have and recover from knee surgery.
As a kid I also suffered from depression and anxiety and by 11 had been diagnosed with migraines and ulcers. My depression got worse then better, then worse. Even with therapy and antidepressants it was sometimes debilitating. Eventually I would figure out part of this was due to my unrecognized gender identity issues. I do mean eventually. As of that day in 2003, I had yet to have that epiphany. Of course I recognized that I had a nonconforming gender presentation, and I saw how that, and being lesbian-identified led to social discrimination. I just didn't realize I was trans until after my 2003 injury.
What I had had by 2003 was a previous back injury, the result of a 1997 car accident, which led me to spend nearly 18 months on my back in recovery. In fact, the truth is, that when I first started the 1999 seasonal open space assistant job that led to my ranger career, I hadn’t fully recovered. I was still in pain every day and terrified that someone would find out and I’d lose the job. It eventually got better. When the position ended, I started working at various Marin County Parks, which was terrible on my back. Lifting 70 lb garbage barrels was excruciating. There were days I didn’t think I could keep doing it. I spent the next summer with the open space district again. As fall approached, I had an on the job injury that hurt my neck and right shoulder and sparked tendinitis in my right wrist. I was put on light duty. A month later a full-time park ranger job opened up I was told I could have it—if I had recovered. I said I had.
But that injury continued to plague me. After I injured by lower back in 2003 I went through a retraining program to become a graphic designer. I liked the work and was excited about doing it. But once I switched from classes to employment I quickly learned that the repetitive motions of the mouse triggered the tendinitis in my wrist. It got so bad doctors thought I might have carpal tunnel. Basically I couldn’t do the job that I’d been trained to do. This problem still crops up sometimes if I use the mouse too much in editing my writing or in working on my artwork. It can be so debilitating that I’ve had periods where I’ve had to stop using keyboards and rely entirely on voice activated software for months at a time. In the years since, that neck injury has developed into arthritis which led to cervical spinal stenosis, which is now part of my chronic pain.
In early 2003—or maybe late 2002—I had a different kind of incident at work. It started out like a regular migraine. When it hit, I was working on a trail, had to hike back to my truck and drive out of a preserve to go home sick. By the time I made it to the ranger residence, the left side of my face had slumped and my words were so slurred Diane couldn’t understand me. Even the doctors originally thought I’d had a stroke. An MRI and CT scan showed that I hadn’t. Instead it was the start of a new era of complex migraines for me. I’ve had another stroke-like incident since then, which apparently makes me more susceptible to having mini-strokes and dismissing them as being just another migraine. And I’ve had a couple of month-long migraine outbreaks, like my 28-day run in March, which came with some unusual symptoms and more left-side numbness, leading to my current round of diagnostic tests.
Some of what makes me disabled at this moment did indeed start 16 years ago today. Some was reawakened that day from a previous injury. Some, like my hearing problems, developed afterwards, and some existed in one form or another long before April 19, 2003.
Sure, some people have a single disabling condition. But many others have multiple disabilities or are disabled by a multitude of injuries; or a combination of injuries and chronic conditions and mental health concerns. It’s easier to use shorthand and pretend our disability stories aren’t complex, but it does us a disservice to never share the complexities of our experiences.
Photo: sunset from Midpeninsula Open Space in San Francisco Bay Area where I was a ranger when I was injured in 2003.