I’ve been thinking a lot today about definitions.
I studied communication in college, and one area in particular I always found fascinating was the field of Symbolic Interactionism. I’ve touched on this subject quite a few times before on my blog, but in case you’re not familiar with it, Symbolic Interactionism is essentially a theory about how language defines our reality and how we interact with it. Or, as Wikipedia puts it:
…people act toward things based on the meaning those things have for them, and these meanings are derived from social interaction and modified through interpretation.
This concept had a big influence on the way people view health, disability, and medical conditions. One of my Rowan University professors wrote an academic article on the subject, discussing how parents respond differently to their children’s difficulties based on whether or not they can name and define the problem. For example, if a child is struggling in school, parents may simply say, “You need to try harder,” or, “If you applied yourself more, you’d do fine.” However, if the parents learn that their child is dyslexic, they come to view the child’s difficulties differently. Because the problem has a name and a definition, they can look at it through that lens. They no longer treat the child as if they’re to blame for their own struggles.
Over the last few months, I’ve been struggling more and more with my physical health. I often work 8 to 12 hour shifts where I’m on my feet all day without any break (New Jersey state labor laws don’t require breaks for workers unless you’re under 18). My feet, ankles, and knees end up in major pain by the end of the day. I’ve done everything I can to combat these issues (new shoes, Dr. Scholl’s inserts, Gold Bond Pain Relieving Foot Cream, etc). I would see a doctor about my issues, but I have no insurance, I can’t afford insurance (even under Obamacare), and my job won’t give me insurance until I’ve been working there full time for a year. So I’m left with unmanageable pain that is reaching the point that it’s interfering with my ability to do my job, and with my ability to live my life.
I’ve had to start riding the electric carts at the grocery store because I can no longer walk around on my own without unbearable pain. I can barely climb stairs. And today I finally broke down and bought a cane, because at the end of my work day, I’ve been having to lean on tables and counters in order to keep myself upright.
But I don’t know what’s actually wrong. I know my feet hurt. I know it’s gotten to the point that it’s more than just typical aches and pains. When I can afford a doctor’s visit, I expect I’ll need to get some kind of orthopedic shoes or supports to combat the pain. But I don’t really know how to address these issues, and I don’t know how to explain them to people.
One of my coworkers today asked me if I could try getting some kind of government disability aid. I struggled to phrase a response: “Well, I’m not disabled. This…probably…won’t be a lifelong problem. I just can’t get through the day.”
I couldn’t explain what I was going through because I don’t know how to define it. I don’t know what to call it other than “foot pain.” I don’t know if it’s something that will go away once I change jobs to something where I’m not on my feet all day. Or if some kind of treatment will fix the problem. Or if I have some kind of more permanent damage.
What I do know is that last Saturday, I had to walk away from my workstation after 11 hours on my feet because I was feeling nauseous from the pain. I know I sat for half an hour, unable to move, before I could gather the strength to walk out to my car. Then I sat in my car in the parking lot outside my apartment complex for another half hour, unable to manage the task of walking inside and climbing the stairs.
I know there’s something wrong that goes beyond “I had a long day and my feet hurt.”
But I don’t know how to approach it, how to address it, without being able to define it.
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