On accidents

I recently read a book called The Ontology of the Accident, by Catherine Malabou. I was intrigued when I first saw it – accident, to me, read as a more physical occurrence, a trauma caused by a car or a fall – but ultimately found it to be somewhat irrelevant to thoughts I’ve been having lately. After all, I don’t really know what ontology is. A few paragraphs did catch my eye, though:

What is denied, the state of what must not be made present, reveals the existence of the secret question, the question that cannot be asked and which, at the same time, cannot but be asked for any psyche: what if something else had happened, anything else, something unexpected, something absolutely different from everything that happened? That’s exactly what we cannot know. It’s also what cannot be taken as possible.

The question that cannot be asked yet cannot but be asked; what we cannot know. What if…

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I did not, of course, expect to become physically disabled at 25. Mentally I was a shambles – and I suppose bipolar disorder can be counted as a disability, at least on the “optional” part of a job application – but physically I’ve always been robust, rarely ever get sick, am allergic to nothing. Certainly I expected a decline in physical health as I aged (heart disease, most likely; it runs in my family and I smoke on and off), but then, well, you know the rest. From able-bodied to disabled in one movement, one happening.

The changes in my body I have adjusted to, and I’ve written about them at length, and am quite frankly getting a little sick of the subject. Mind-wise, though, sifting through the changes that have happened there, is like taking a fine-toothed comb to a three-inch-wide knot of hair. You tease a little bit of a tangle out then find even more to undo. Maybe it never stops. I’m not sure it does.

Lately I’ve been mulling over the mourning process, the five stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance – and trying to apply it to my “journey” of becoming disabled, with little success. There is a gap, a lack: life does not go back to “normal;” there is no baseline. It’s easy to counter this with “well, it’s just a new normal, of course,” but I’m not so sure. Disability is not stagnant: there is always something new to deal with, something breaking, something hurting; you might even uncover a new disability, or become disabled in another way. It requires a vigilance that is often exhausting. At the end of every day I examine the ends of my legs, checking for bruises and cuts and – please no – any blossoming infections, which, when they happen, are incredibly painful and dangerous, potentially leading to sepsis if I don’t take care of them and get rather unlucky.

Do I resent this? Potentially bad form to admit it, but – absolutely. I don’t want to have to sit in a plastic shower chair and take off my legs to get clean, or waddle off to urgent care in near-tears if I get a bout of cellulitis. And so I cycle back to the beginning of this essay: what if something else had happened, anything else, something unexpected, something absolutely different from everything that happened?

But like what? My “old” life simply carrying on? Anything else, anything else. Perhaps I would have become disabled later in life, in another way. Perhaps I could have died. Sometimes, back at the beginning, I thought that was the better route: how was I going to deal with this for the rest of my life?

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Ontology of the accident. Ontology of my accident. A single bang that ultimately ripples through the rest of my life. In this essay I wrote about how there was a physical cleaving, a before-and-after harshly delineated when I lost half my legs. But lately I have been thinking about the mental cleaving, too.

A line from Ontology of the Accident that I found myself mulling over:

Since the accident is in no way interiorized by the victim, it remains foreign to the fate of the psyche and is not integrated into the history of the individual.

My first thought after reading this was no, that’s not true, it’s definitely possible to integrate some sort of brutal happening into your psyche, how could anyone go on if it wasn’t? But now I’m not so sure. What I want to know, what I might really spend the rest of my life thinking about, is whether the psyche is left intact at all. Perhaps there are two, pre- and post-occurrence; perhaps the pre-accident psyche frays, spirals out into many smaller psyches. Maybe they braid together, a mingling of acceptance and lack thereof.

And is integration of the accident into the psyche really all that desirable in the first place? How does such an externality blend gracefully into what may have been a difficult life at the start? I am conscious of the fact that that happened to me; I am conscious of the fact that this is what was done to me, and here is how I live now, after the fact. But the accident itself – the actual physical occurrence – remains outside of me, a thing that was done to my body and nothing else. I am not it. My mind accepts the before and the after; I integrate my current life and physical form into myself, but see no use in becoming my accident entirely.

And so the psyche wavers between wanting and not wanting to know: what if? If I think too hard about it I get upset, and find myself ricocheting back to no, don’t think about it at all, you’ll just get sad. A depressing back-and-forth; brutalized by the external. Escapable, yes, but only subconsciously, only via distraction. By saying “don’t think about it” I’m still thinking about it, after all. I can’t just push it away.

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I have been thinking lately about the framing of disability – becoming-disabled – as a loss. Easy to draw a line between the two: you used to be able to do these things, and now you can’t. And just as easy to erase that line by saying “but you’ve gained knowledge, and experience, and tenacity!” I don’t find it that simple, although what I do think isn’t much more nuanced: I see it simply as a change, a launching into a new type of flux. To become disabled, especially in a violent way, is to be ricocheted into a new way of experiencing one’s body and how that body moves through the world. Externalities. Internally, I can only speak for myself, but I’ve felt myself expand in some directions and contract in others. All I know is that near-death does not take away the death drive. Still, essentially, my human parts are all there.

How is it possible for a subject to no longer coincide with their essence without going mad?, asks Malabou. I come back to the supposed cleaving of the psyche: do we ever recover when this happens? Malabou asks if it’s possible; I’m not sure it matters. Perhaps a certain modicum of madness is required for us to continue living, whether it be after a “tragic” accident or the death of a loved one, a divorce, a sickness. And I suppose we’ve all lost some of our essence during Covid, and are going mad: what is the mutation of the psyche through trauma if not a collective reckoning with the concept of near-death?

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If you Google my name the first auto-generated result is “Sophie Helf accident.” People are nosy; they want details. My accident is not private, it is not mine: it lives outside of me, is an existence out in the world in and of itself. I wonder sometimes if it ever actually ended.

What does this do to a psyche? My trauma is personal; the occurrence itself is not. Quite frankly, sometimes I just get scared – “the mortifying ordeal of being known” and all that. It worms its way into my brain, makes me conscious of not my body but my past, the death-drive that got me to where I am now, the incredible amount of involuntary work I had to do to get back to living a life I don’t totally hate. The prosthetics are secondary to what goes on in my head.

You can’t draw a psyche or a soul; “essence” is far too vague a concept for much of anything. Obviously. What an accident, a sudden trauma, does to any of these things is untraceable, not something one might ever entirely put into words. A body changes in a black-and-white sense, before and after, but our psyches meld and change over time. Perhaps there is no “cleave.” Come back in five years and I’ll tell you more.

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