at traction

“I don’t know you well, of course,” my physical therapist says as she pulls the traction belt tighter, “but within the first few minutes of meeting you, I knew you were a control freak.”

That trait is hard to hide.

Control freaks are an interesting breed. We don’t need to control everything; we just need to control ourselves. For instance, I can’t do much about my back pain, but I can be prepared for it; I can work toward making it disappear as soon as possible. I need to be able to control the management of the pain. During my first shot, for instance, as my back was being wiped with cotton and liquid, I had to know what it was. And when the doctor began his work, instead of telling me what was happening, he tried to have a conversation, take my mind off of it. You can’t do that with a control freak. You must narrate: “I will now stick this ginormous needle right inside your spine. First the Novocain will go in. Now you’ll feel the medicine—the sensation of rubbing alcohol being poured over a cut. Now it’ll hurt for just 30 seconds longer.”

When I walked in today, Jennifer was leaning over an email by some right-wing friend of a right-wing client. He calls Obama, “B. Hussein.” How mature. He went on to describe “Markism,” which set her off. She read her literate, intelligent response. “But why do you bother?” I asked. I should have known the answer.

It’s the same reason I flinch when she yanks the pelvic belt tighter.

Jennifer’s a control freak, too. And she likes that in a client. “Some people come in and lie there and say, ‘Fix me.’ I don’t have any patience for that.”

Control-freakism has not served me well in the areas of sleep, meditation, and massage—any place that requires total relaxation, trust, and an abandonment of the self. (Orgasm is different—probably because the moments up to the loss of control are controlled and deliberate.) And it’s far less easy to be a control freak when you’re disabled. You need something to do, something over which to lord—like a physical therapy routine.

My at-home PT is my new religion: I do the knee tucks and spine rotations and hikes and alternate swims and camel humps and leg lefts. If I’m supposed to hold my position for fifteen seconds, I hold for sixteen; if I need ten reps, I do eleven.

As I lie strapped to the table, I reach for my camera and try to take a shot; a self-portrait only counts if you shoot it yourself.

But sometimes you can’t get the full picture unless you’re outside yourself. And to get there, you have to let go. Jennifer takes my camera out the door to get the whole contraption in the frame.

My heart beats hard in my throat, and she takes my pulse. Fifty-four. “It will serve you well,” she says. I am stretched at 75 pounds of pressure. The E-stim is sending jolts into four spots on my back. The belt slips, and the traction machine readjusts to 75 pounds. Appliances buzz and hum and tick.

For fifteen minutes, there is almost nothing I can do about it. Beside me is a kill switch, a red button with hair-trigger sensitivity. “Think long and hard before you press it; all of Russia will disappear,” she says, closing the curtain on her way out.

I look for something to control. Words. I control my thoughts, arrange the words, these words. This is what I write.

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