The Individual

I was recently interviewed by Cherie Burbach over at Working Writersjust a few short questions regarding my writing process, The Cage Legacy, literature and so on.    Working Writers is a terrific website, and you can read my interview right here:


In other news, time for a life update.  I got injured last week, everybody!

No, it’s not bad.  Due to a lifting accident, I’ve recently suffered from acute back pain in the lumbar area, with sciatica.

What’s sciatica?

Also known as “lumbar radioculopathy,” sciatica is due to strain or pressure on a spinal nerve as it comes out of the spinal canal.  Sciatica often begins after a sudden twisting, bending or awkward movement that the body simply doesn’t appreciate.  This usually results in muscle spasms, which contributes to the pain that the patient (me!) experiences.

As I hinted at in my first post, I tend to be fairly introverted.  I’m not someone who normally talks about my pain, or expresses it to anyone else; I had stomach issues for years before I actually opened up about them, simply because I made the stupid decision to keep this problem to myself and never do anything about it.  I also once had a problem tooth, with a deep cavity; I decided to simply leave it there until it got “too painful to manage” (Ha ha!), and let me tell you, that marvelous decision gave me a lot of sleepless, aching nights.

Luckily, I’ve learned better now.  Pain is there for a reason; it’s not to be ignored, it’s not to be simply drowned out with heavy painkillers.  Pain is your body’s way of screaming at you that HEY! Hello, asshole!  Something is wrong, get me checked out!    So, the second that I felt the sharp pain jutting up my back and down my legs, I made sure to get it checked out – they quickly poked around, gave me the diagnosis, gave me a five lbs. weight lifting restriction and then sent me on my way.   I’ve seen more than enough people suffer from debilitating back injuries; as a result, I’m quite aware that you can’t take any, any, any chances with these sorts of injuries—really, you shouldn’t take your chances with any injuries.  You never know what’s going to, as they say, come back and bite you in the ass later on down the road.  As a culture, we’ve gotten so used to avoiding pain that we often forget that it does have a purpose.  As David Foster Wallace (the author of Infinite Jest and Broom of the System) stated in a 1993 interview:

“It seems distinctly Western-industrial, anyway. In most other cultures, if you hurt, if you have a symptom that’s causing you to suffer, they view this as basically healthy and natural, a sign that your nervous system knows something’s wrong. For these cultures, getting rid of the pain without addressing the deeper cause would be like shutting off a fire alarm while the fire’s still going. But if you just look at the number of ways that we try like hell to alleviate mere symptoms in this country- from fast-fast-fast-relief antacids to the popularity of lighthearted musicals during the Depression—you can see an almost compulsive tendency to regard pain itself as the problem. And so pleasure becomes a value, a teleological end in itself. It’s probably more Western than U.S. per se.”

The first few days of my sciatica felt like hell, but I’m happy to say that the majority of my pain has dulled down quite a bit.  I had my back checked out again the other day, and luckily enough it appears that I’m recovering very quickly.  They even upped my weight restriction; now, instead of being restricted to lifting a maximum of five lbs., I’m actually allowed to lift about ten.  Basically, I’m now permitted to lift up a newborn baby – but definitely not a small child.  No, no, no, those kids are heavy.

Anyway, just to clarify, I’m not complaining about my pain – actually, I’m extremely thankful.  I’m thankful for the fact that I got off so easy.  Sure, my back felt like hell for a few days, but who the hell am I to complain about that?  It could have been worse – so much worse—and I can’t help but thank God for the fact that I was lucky enough to get off so easy.

The experience has also been incredibly revealing; it has given me a chance to truly understand what some people go through on a daily basis, even though my pain absolutely pales in comparison to theirs.  After going through a couple days where even simple acts like putting on my pants or picking coins up off the floor was a struggle, it really gave me an even deeper degree of empathy for what it must be like to truly lose one’s physical facilities.  Sure, I had a couple of days of pain – big fucking deal –  but what about paralysis victims?  Quadriplegics?  Alzheimer’s patients?   People like you or I, people who just had one bad day, one terrible accident – or perhaps the onset of a disease that crippled them, be it physical or neurological – and it resulted in them forever losing the abilities and the independence that we all take for granted, every day.  These people deserve our understanding.  They deserve our care.  They deserve to be endlessly appreciated for what they go through, every single day.

This recent incident has been illuminating in other ways, as well.  I recently read Erving Goffman’s 1969 book Asylums, which gave me a great deal of insight as I went through the emergency room.  In Asylums – which is a series of essays regarding total institutions such as prisons, nursing homes and, of course, mental hospitals – Goffman discusses the way that, through entry into one of these institutions, the “individual” ceases to exist.  He/she becomes part of a process and has his or her individual traits (clothing, makeup, hobbies, personal items, etc.) stripped away from him/her.  The individual is, essentially, broken down.  Crippled.   Individuals forcibly placed into total institutions are required to have mandatory relationships with people they might not necessarily choose to converse with in the outside world—relationships with workers who are often intimately aware of the patient’s most personal details.  Generally, it’s not so much a fault of a particular institution itself (since many institutions today take great pains to ease the transition as much as possible), as it is a fault of the process.  It’s a process wherein patients are stripped of their dignity, stripped of their right to go wherever they please, stripped of every tool that we normally use to define ourselves as unique human beings.


For a brief sample of what this is like, try taking a trip to the doctor’s office, or even a grocery store.  While I, unlike an inmate/patient in a total institution, was only in the hospital emergency room for all of an hour, the experience allowed me a fascinating glimpse at what an inmate might experience.  Consider: when you go to the emergency room, you sign in.  Your name is called.  You go to a room, answer questions, and you’re then brought to another room where you answer more questions.  The doctor comes in, gives you your diagnosis and then sends you on your way.  If one analyzes this course of events, you begin to see the fact that from the moment you step into that hospital you actually have very little say in what happens; you have become part of a process, part of a daily routine, a routine that you actually have  very little say in.  It’s a treadmill, and once you’ve stepped on it, you pretty much have to take it to the end.  Now, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with this, per se; it’s generally true that the bigger an organization is, the less attention it can devote to an individual customer’s needs and wants.  Considering the amount of patients that a hospital sees every day, this process of depersonalization is probably necessary so that the hospital can even function.

But now, let’s come back to the topic of total institutions.  Total institutions have certainly improved a great deal since Goffman wrote Asylums.  For one thing, mental hospitals certainly don’t perform lobotomies on troublemakers anymore.  But we still have a long way to go.  In a hospital, the loss of self is understandable, for the same reason that you don’t have an identity in a grocery store; you’re going in for a very specific reason, for a very finite about of time, to receive a very specific service.  You have a problem, you go to a hospital, and ideally you get rid of it and go home.  You need food, you go to Market Basket, you buy lasagna and you go home.  Bing, bang, done.

Total institutions are different.  For example, the paralysis victims and/or Alzheimer’s patients in a nursing home aren’t going to be cured.  They’re most likely going to remain in a total institution for the rest of their lives.  These people should not be subjected to a loss of individuality simply because of the hand that fate has dealt them.   It’s not fair to punish those who have already suffered enough.

It’s a long road, but in the future, total institutions should passionately devote themselves to the effort of maintaining each individual’s sense of identity — for every patient.  In mental hospitals, nursing homes and all similar institutions, we should try to foster a smaller, more home-like environment.  I’ve read about a variety of nursing homes that are already doing this, working to change the shape of what a “nursing home” is and can be; hopefully, this is a sign of things to come.

Remember, we’re all human beings.  We all deserve to be treated like human beings, as well.

-Nicholas Conley



2 thoughts on “The Individual

  1. Thank you for visiting my blog! I have an aunt with rheumatoid arthritis. Her skeleton is disintegrating, literally. I don’t know how she bears the pain day in and day out. We really do have a lot to be thankful for–even when we injure ourselves (knowing that the pain will be gone soon)–don’t we?

  2. Very true, Lisa, very true. I’m sorry to hear about your aunt. The painful hand that some people are dealt is insanely difficult to watch–but it is amazing to see the strength and bravery with which people combat that pain, pushing on day after day. Having worked in healthcare, I’ve seen more amazing, inspirational people than I could’ve ever imagined beforehand.

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