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When I was first diagnosed with scoliosis, the image was seared into my retinas. The stark, back-lit X-ray transparencies in my chiropractor’s office showed my spine dramatically double-curved, the obvious cause of the pain that shot through my pelvis and back every time I tried to stand or walk.
A week ago, I had attended a somatic therapy session, where my therapist, a mild-mannered woman who spoke with quiet conviction, said I might feel some pain in my body over the next few days as psychological conflicts in my life resurfaced.
I imagined a pain that came and went – and that was easily dismissed – but the discomfort in my lower back began as a dull throb (almost a muscle sprain), which then flared exponentially into agony. I could not sleep because of it, lying flat on the floor at 2am in an attempt to soothe what I still thought was a strained muscle. I ended up at the chiropractor’s, something everyone warned me about. Did I really want to entrust my healing to a practice originating with a message from a ghost?
When I told a dear friend that I had scoliosis, her immediate response was, “Because you’re always bending over backwards for other people?” I said, “Probably” – a non-response, because as much as I had ignored my own unhappiness over the past few years, I thought pretending that this development was inconsequential would make it pass from me.
I am not usually seen as a people-pleaser. In fact, quite the opposite: I am often characterised as a rule breaking trespasser of boundaries, an uninhibited (and perhaps slightly unhinged) person who does not generally understand or even care to conform to social norms, values and traditions. I cut my teeth on making art that freed the self through subverting conventional practices.
My bread and butter is pointing out the flaws in the well-oiled machinery of Singaporean culture: what it values; whom it throws away. To a lot of people, a sexually liberated person and artist who is endlessly vocal about inequality, and actively seeks out pleasure as a driving force in her life cannot be someone passively relegated to unhappiness, especially in a romantic relationship. I believed my pleasure could be derived from pleasing someone else. To me, I was in control of the choices I made.
Perhaps, I even believed my own mythos after a while. I ran up against circumstantial unpleasantry, or other conflict, and tried to maintain a certain invincibility. We’ll get through it no matter what. I tried my hardest to bulldoze through financial crises, housing insecurity, and even psychological coerciveness. It would pass, because I was strong. Wasn’t I? Did not everyone see me as such?
The back problems subsided, but various injuries, all with my legs and feet, kept occurring. Stabbing calluses, phantom splinters, a twisted knee – it became difficult for me to walk without pain. It was difficult for me not to link that to a feeling of being trapped, of forcible stagnation.
After all, what use are your legs when you choose not to advance from a place of danger?
“I am used to thinking of my body as something to command at will. The flesh is weak, and this weakness manifested anew in my life. The truth is, the mind resides within the body.”Marylyn Tan, award-winning poet and author
When I ignore my body in pain, there are two things that happen. The first is the emergence of a disconnect between mind and body. Suddenly, the body I inhabited no longer belonged to me. I could dance, but I was just going through the motions. I gestured, but I did not believe the movement. The pleasure I felt through tactility and touch was shallow, evaporating quickly, powder-dry. I felt ravenous, but fundamentally insatiable. I found myself turning to addictive activities in an attempt to squeeze a last hit of dopamine any way I could.
The second thing that happens is a deep- seated frustration at the betrayal of the flesh.
I am used to thinking of my body as something to command at will. The flesh is weak, and this weakness manifested anew in my life. The truth is, the mind resides within the body. We imagine ourselves as being able to control our bodies, but not when our bodies are themselves inhabiting a space of subjugation. I only paid attention to what my body was telling me when the hurt started. Why did it take so long for me to stop pretending I did not hear it?
We often imagine pleasure as a means to forget pain. For me, that pain was a means to reroute my imaginations of pleasure, and how to create a new space for myself and the things I was feeling. Your body tells you what you must not pretend to any longer.
Ultimately, after negotiating, bargaining, and even repressing myself so I could keep the status quo alive, I discovered that I, while trying to hold the fort together in all kinds of ways – financially, socially, spiritually, experiments with non-monogamy – had been betrayed. Not merely betrayed, but lied to, in much the same way the threat of my lying to my erstwhile partner had been used as a means to coerce me, to control my movements, to cow me into doing things I never wanted.
Thereafter, I left (it felt more like I was being extracted from) a miserable situation when the hurt got too much to bear. All I obtained from holding back was a feeling that the relationship stayed alive, but I was not. In leaving, I accepted the weakness in the flesh. Perhaps pleasure is about surrendering. Perhaps healing is about not resisting. And perhaps the most transgressive, emancipatory thing I did for myself was to fall unresisting into the knowledge that our bodies have needs we cannot subjugate, command or control. Should it matter if we know what comes after?
I babied my knee, tried to extend kindness to my overwrought legs. I saw specialists and stopped walking for a bit. Surrender is a choice. I trusted that acknowledging my weakness would give it a safe landing.
And I was right.
PHOTOGRAPHY Phyllicia Wang
COORDINATION Chelsia Tan
ART DIRECTION Adeline Eng
HAIR & MAKEUP Benedict Choo, using Nars