"Paging Dr. Crusher"
Last year, I spent three days attending a conference about creative writing in Washington, DC, along with thousands of other writers, editors, teachers, and publishers. It was fun, interesting, engaging—but by the end, I was in agony.
It’s been nearly two years now since I injured my back: I herniated a disk because of a series of abuses, some of which I didn’t realize were even harmful. The immediate result was pure torture, but after the assistance of a chiropractor (useful for a few visits), some exercises, a lot of TLC, and months of (im)patience, I’m in decent condition now. Unfortunately, “decent condition” is still not very good.
In my regular life, I have options: high-quality desk chairs that recline some, comfy couches and armchairs at home, and always my bed to return to, as needed. It’s manageable, in other words, though still a problem. Outside of my regular life, however, it often isn’t manageable. I frequently have long meetings to attend or have to travel significant distances. Even spending an hour or so in uncomfortable restaurant seating can be quite painful, sometimes for days afterward. The worst of it, though, is conferences.
I attend conferences fairly often because of my job, and I nearly always attend every session I can because I love to learn and I want to get as much as I can out of the experience. I went to almost every session at that conference in DC, for example, but by the time I got to the latter half of the last day, I was literally writhing in my seat. I used my left arm for lumbar support, but it dug my Fitbit into my wrist painfully. I tried using my right arm, but it made my shoulder injury hurt. I adjusted and readjusted my coat to help cushion my lower back. I considered choosing sessions to attend based on where they were located, because the chairs in the hotel were slightly more comfortable than the ones in the conference center. And I wondered what people thought when they saw me constantly shifting, trying to ease my pain. No doubt lots of people noticed my restlessness and wincing and wondered what my problem was.
What might have actually helped was lying face-down on the floor for a while, but the thought of doing that in public never crossed my mind. Only afterward did it occur to me that there were places at the event where I probably could have lain down without undue notice (there were two “quiet spaces” set up by the event)—though I’d have had to miss sessions. The important thing at the time was finding ways to mitigate and to ignore the pain--and to avoid, as much as was possible, being stared at, because that was somehow an important consideration.
By the end of the penultimate session, I was simply done. I wanted to go to one more talk, but I couldn’t bear it any longer. Even standing in the back, as I did in the last panel I attended, was too little too late—plus, people stared at me. So I left.
My experience at this conference made me realize, for the first time, that I have a disability. I have other health issues that are inconvenient in varying degrees, but this problem is constantly present, even when I’m sleeping, or trying to sleep. I can’t do a lot of things that I used to or sit in the same position for very long. I’m continually arranging for back support, no matter where I go, and worrying about lifting things or twisting my spine. And I live in fear of herniating my disk again, or maybe something worse.
As a science fiction fan, this is a somewhat different issue for me in several ways. The first is a very practical problem: I enjoy attending sci-fi/fantasy cons, but convention hotels nearly all have the same sort of uncomfortable chairs, differing only in the degree of pain they cause me. I lug around either a thick coat or a lumbar cushion to make it bearable for longer, adding to my burden and the number of items I have to try to keep from losing. This makes everything more difficult, including wandering the dealer room or the art show, getting water or food, or visiting the restroom. All of these things contribute to making it important for me to have a room at the con hotel, so I can leave my stuff and, most importantly, lie down to give my back a break. On those occasions when I don’t have a room—as when the hotel fills up before I reserve a space, or when I’m staying with friends in the area (as I was for the conference in DC), the problem is more severe, and my time is more limited at the event.
I’ve spent a lot of time, whilst wincing and shifting uncomfortably in my seat, trying to think of a solution. Some kind of inflatable or reclining chair might work well for me, but both would be bulky and even more awkward to manage—and the less I have to carry, the better for my back. Plus, I know from experience at cons that people are impatient with folks in scooters or in wheelchairs, or using walkers, as they try to move around the venue or find a good seat in a panel. As a middle-aged person with no clearly visible sign of a disability, I can only imagine the glares and snide remarks I’d get if I set up my own chair—and more than a few people would likely try to order me or my chair out of the room.
This isn’t just paranoia on my part—I’ve heard people in hallways muttering that people in wheelchairs should stay out of crowded halls when people are moving between sessions. And my friend who uses a guide dog has been refused entry to restaurants, though that’s a violation of federal law. Until I find a decent solution, my approach is to work hard at cushioning my lower back, and just skip things I want to go to when I can tell I need to lie down. And that blows.
What makes it worse is my understanding of how easy my back issue would be to heal for any number of doctors, including McCoy, Crusher, Pulaski, Bashir, the holographic Doctor, and…well, maybe Phlox. This is particularly frustrating for me as a child of the Sci-Fi era. The genre certainly wasn’t created in my lifetime, but it became mature enough as I grew up that it suffused my childhood and young adult years with a powerful sense of optimism, excitement, and expectation for the technological marvels to come, including hover cars, robot housekeepers, and nearly instant repairs for breaks, bruises, and cuts. My friends--it was a lie. On every level. Compared to replicators, 3-D printed pizzas are nothing more exciting than a Play-Doh Fun Factory. A Roomba is no more Rosie the robot than a wind-up toy. And while Tesla cars are super cool and they rarely kill anyone, the best they can do in stop-and-go traffic is free you up to read a book or watch a video on your iPad (which I grant you is pretty cool). Mind you, I can’t actually afford any of this stuff: I teach for a living.
The worst of it, though, is the absurdly low-tech approach to medicine that we’re still saddled with. Broken bone? Let’s pop that back into place while you scream. Or if it’s really bad, they can cut you open with a knife and screw it back together with what’s essentially parts from an erector set. Cuts can be treated with superglue if they aren’t too bad. Isn’t that marvelous? And every bit of it takes time and suffering to heal, because we’re still in the stone ages, medically. Imaging equipment and antibiotics are great, sure (and many decades old), but the bones or tissue still have to repair themselves. And my herniated disk can apparently take a decade to heal, assuming I take good enough care of it, which…well, I’m trying. But life continues on, and I can baby it only so much. This barbaric system of medicine is pathetic, and it is most definitely not what the 21st century was supposed to bring us.
Where does all of this leave me? It leaves me looking to the stars for a solution. Because if human doctors are truly capable of so very little, my only real hope is aliens coming to save me. It’s an overused trope of fiction featuring disabled characters that the hero cures the disabled character or is healed as some sort of reward for their heroic deeds. It’s a bad approach in fiction, for a number of reasons, but you know what? Sign me up. Whether it’s an alien medical bay, or some kind of nanotech, or even pure magic, I don’t care. I want to be fixed. I want to be able to treat my back like crap with impunity. I want to be able to lean, bend, twist, and lift whatever I want. I want to be reminded of the existence of my disks basically never—or at least not before I turn 250 years old. If this means I get uploaded into a robot, or have my brain transplanted into a clone, or find myself listening to Vogon poetry recited for hours or even days, I am totally cool with that. Because this sucks.
I still sometimes feel a sense of vague optimism, because new treatments for various ailments are developed all the time. Plus, the aliens could come any day, any moment, and it’s just possible they won’t KILL ALL HUMANS. But there’s still pain in my lower back right now, and it still sometimes shoots down my right leg, and it’s still dreadful. I know I’m lucky that this injury isn’t worse. And I know I will likely be decomposing before the technological promises of the 21st century are made real, and that I just need to deal with that. But oh, how I long to be abducted and repaired. And in the meantime, how I long for a comfortable chair, wherever I go.
Meriah Lysistrata Crawford is an associate professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, as well as a writer, editor, and private investigator. Among her publications are short stories in several genres, essays, poems, a variety of scholarly work, and the co-written novel, The Persistence of Dreams, which was released in 2018. Meriah has an MFA in creative writing from the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast MFA program, and a PhD in literature and criticism from the Indiana University of Pennsylvania. For more information about her work, visit her website!