Tuesday, February 8, 2011

On “Glee,” Dreams, and SCI Therapies

I will admit at the onset that this post is quite belated. I meant to finish and post it about a week after my last “Glee” post went up this past May so that there was much more congruency and relatability but I kept writing about other stuff instead and it kept getting pushed back. I also realize that proceeding to write a second pretty detailed blog post about “Glee” doesn’t exactly backup my previous denial of being a “Gleek.” A super fan of the show I still am not but I do continue to watch regularly, if anything because from my perspective I have found the show to be an interesting case study on spinal cord injuries in a number of ways.

For example, last time I broke down the controversy and discussed my thoughts involved with the fact that an actor who is able-bodied is playing the part of the paraplegic character, Artie. Many people in the disability world have been up in arms over such a notion, especially when it is such a featured character on such an mammothly popular TV show. To wit, check out all the articles I cited last time plus this pretty detailed and critical article about the Artie able-bodied actor dichotomy, how he does a poor job making himself a believable paraplegic and regular wheelchair user, and the show’s handling and portrayal of disabilities in general.

By extension, the focus of this post revolves around a few things that came to light in last spring’s “Dream On” episode, namely dreams and SCI therapies. Towards the beginning of the episode each glee club student is implored to write down their dreams on a piece of paper. One of the girl characters named Tina asks Artie what he wrote down, and with a little more urging he responded that his dream is to dance, but then quickly adds that it’s a stupid dream because it will never come true on account of the paralysis to his lower extremities. She also asks him to do a partners dance routine with her, which leads to some awkward and unsuccessful attempts. On both accounts Artie ends up wanting to be left alone, presumably feeling inadequate as both a person and a boyfriend. Later that day or the next day (I forget which) Tina approaches Artie with an armful of the latest research materials on therapies that could assist him in walking again. At that point Artie demurs but on account of her enthusiasm he takes the materials anyway.

Now when TV shows and movies start dipping into that “magic SCI therapies” territory it makes me (and I assume a lot of other people with actual SCI) cringe because it seems like a lot of times they do one of two things: 1) They give the impression that healing paralysis is simply a matter of getting the right kind of therapy, glossing over the fact that in most cases it’s a permanent diagnosis until scientific breakthroughs (e.g. stem cell research) result in a viable cure. 2) They suggest that living with paralysis is a below average, unhappy, day in and day out depressing lifestyle. Case and point to the latter theme: the premise at the end of the movie MILLION DOLLAR BABY that the Maggie character would much rather die than live the rest of her life as a quadriplegic, which was offensive to many people living with paralysis. Arguably, the most widely seen example of the former theme was the sub-plot in AVATAR that if the paraplegic character Jake successfully infiltrated the Na’vi people via his avatar technology and fed Colonel Miles insider information that Miles would ensure that Jake “got his legs back,” as if it were just that simple. And might I quickly add, no cure for paralysis all those years in the future? Man let’s hope not!

Back to the episode, now full of hope Artie visits the school counselor, Emma, to talk to her about said therapies. Where I thought the show did a good job was how Emma interjected a solid dose of reality, reminding Artie that he had sustained a pretty serious spinal cord injury and that there weren’t a lot of special therapies that were going to get him walking again right away, if ever. Now with Artie’s bubble burst, he leaves the therapy materials behind in Emma’s office, turns around and wheels out like a depressed sad sack, presumably having given up hope. That ties into the second TV/movie theme that I just mentioned above.

Smash cut to a little bit later in the episode and we find Artie shopping at the mall. Tina approaches him and he seems to be in much improved spirits. He quickly mentions that he took her advice and saw the therapists and that his therapy was going far better than expected. Then the camera pans down to Artie’s feet where you not only see one foot start to move, but then both feet come off of his wheelchair foot cage. At that moment I remember thinking, “What? No f------g way!” Then he proceeds to not only stand up from his chair, but he breaks into a full song and dance routine featuring the song “Safety Dance” by Men Without Hats. When the flash mob style mall dance party ends it quickly cuts back to Artie sitting back in his wheelchair and it’s revealed that the whole sequence was just Artie’s daydream. Here’s a link to the video, but it starts after Artie stands up from his wheelchair chair and ends a split second after he plops back down in his chair.

To many people in the disability community that whole dance sequence exacerbated the able-bodied actor playing a person with a disability controversy. Many of the comments that I’ve read about it described that sequence as offensive to SCI wheelchair users. Specifically, that “Glee” and the able-bodied actor playing Artie were throwing the fact that he didn’t really have a disability in the faces of all of us who really do.

Being in a relatable position I can clearly understand where those gripes are coming from. But after factoring in the scene in its entirety I ultimately came down on the side that I didn’t have a problem with it. The main reason for that is that based on my life’s own SCI experiences I found that kind of sequence quite realistic because I daydream about doing able-bodied things all the time. And much like the Artie dance sequence, those daydreams can be triggered by numerous situations in numerous locations, and can also involve very lengthy, detailed brain-fueled scenarios.

For example, during the summer I often daydream about the ability to dive in the lake at my parent’s cabin to cool off. When finding accessible parking is a pain in the ass or other similarly inaccessible situations creep up I daydream about parking anywhere I want and having unlimited access. Almost every time I’m around my niece and nephew I fantasize about getting to be more active with them and babysitting them on my own (for more about that see my post on the EasyStand Blog about being an uncle with SCI). Getting in and out of bed with ease on my own is a common one. Going on vacation or a lengthy road trip untethered from all the things that make it difficult springs up fairly often as well.

Being single for as long as I have a whole plethora of my able-bodied daydreams revolve around women: the want to be more approachable without the wheelchair;  showing off the buff bod I no longer have; the desire to sit or cuddle up next to a girl on the couch or other close contact situations to more easily be able to start generating that subtly obvious “I like you” chemistry; being more of a helping hand when it comes to moving or home repair type situations that score you close, one on one time; being able to stop by her place whenever I want without stairs or other inaccessible obstacles preventing it; opening the door or pulling her chair out on a date instead of vice versa; being able to step in to plant a kiss on her instead of needing her to bend down to my level first, which also often quasi-requires her to make the first move; etc. Whenever I’ve felt like I’ve been passed over for someone who’s able-bodied in terms of a potential relationship, those “I wish I could have been able to do more able-bodied things to ‘woo’ her” daydream thoughts tend to kick into a higher gear, whether disability was a factor in her decision or not. It’s just the nature of the beast.

Related, one of my most recent guest posts on the EasyStand Blog was about what I would do if I could utilize virtual reality technology to do able-bodied things, and since all of those items apply to the aforementioned daydream list I refer readers to that post for my more detailed thoughts on the matter.

My point is that I didn’t have a problem with the Artie daydream dance sequence because it’s deeply rooted in my own reality. Moreover, I would say that well over half of the night time dreams that I’ve had since sustaining my spinal cord injury have consisted of me being in some form of able bodied state, and I think that is a common thing with many other SCI folks as well. Christopher Reeves used to say that his dreams always consisted of him walking around. When you’ve lived an able bodied life for a certain period of time the “dream zone” of your brain doesn’t exactly switch to a strictly SCI-disability perspective automatically.

I slept awful for the first few weeks right after my diving accident and not very well for up to a few months later either because I was predominantly a stomach sleeper most of my life and I had a hard time being forced to sleep on my back every night in the hospital. Thus I rarely dreamed because I didn’t hit that REM sleep zone when I was constantly sleeping like crap. But once I adjusted my dreams were always fully able-bodied and it was a major bummer to dream about doing fun high school things with my friends then wake up to a quadriplegic body in a hospital bed. But as time went by over the years I just got more and more used to it and adjusted to it. I’ve gotten to a point now where if I have a good able-bodied dream I can wake up and go, “Damn, that was a good one” or “That would have been fun if it was real.” I would say that the most common dream theme I have involves me standing up from my wheelchair, walking away and looking back at it thinking, “Well that was easy, why haven’t I tried that before?” Another common theme has me able to easily roll my wheelchair up stairs like an ATV, and again I find myself wondering why I don’t do that more often. Not quite an able-bodied thing but still extends beyond straight disability.

But the more interesting thing is that armed with fourteen plus year’s worth of SCI life experience, over the last few years my dreams have more often than not taken on more of an SCI/able-bodied hybrid form. So a frequent dream sequence will start with me walking around, etc. but then the logical portion of my subconscious must kick in and brings me back to the SCI world. So I might suddenly think to myself in my dream “Wait I can’t go down these stairs.” A lot of times if I have to go to the bathroom in my dreams it’s still not by standing over the toilet to take a leak like normal, and I still search out an accessible bathroom situation. Or if it it’s a sex dream they often don’t involve a lot of lower body sensational pleasure because I’ve found that if I can’t feel parts of my body in real life, in that case my “man bits,” then I usually don’t in my dreams either.

The best example of the latter is a dream I had recently. I was hanging out a pool with some friends and my sister and I had a “Screw it, it’s been fourteen years and I’m finally going for a swim” moment. I threw off my shirt and walked to the edge of the pool. Behind me I heard my sister say, “Good for him” because in a lot of respects I’ve always limited myself in what I can and can’t do with my disability, as well as been pretty guarded about bodily things I’m self-conscious about vis a vis my SCI. In this particular dream’s case, the scars on my torso from chest tubes that were put in for both my pre- and post-SCI collapsed lung surgeries, the big gross scar on the back of my neck from my neck fusion surgery, and the “quad gut” that has me looking a few months pregnant. In that dream I just let it all hang out and dove in the water. But although in the dream I was gliding through the water with full able-bodied ease, I could only feel the coolness of the pool water on my face, neck, hands, arms, and chest above the nipple line, as is the case with my level of sensitivity in real life. Those kinds of dreams are very strange and interesting though obviously, both to have and to wake up from.

The last Artie, SCI therapies, “Glee” issue to quickly cover came up in this season’s “A Very Glee Christmas” episode. Artie’s aloof girlfriend, who inexplicably still believes in Santa Claus, tells a a mall Santa that all she wants for Christmas is for Artie to walk again, and he agrees, which sets up an awkward plotline inside and outside of the episode. At the end of the episode we find Artie wearing a pair of mechanical legs and in Christmas miracle fashion he is able to stand up and walk. I would have called BS on that too had I not already seen this cool video of paraplegics regaining the ability to walk via mechanical eLEGS from Berkeley Bionics. Can’t wait for the quadriplegic version to come out!

If any more interesting “Glee” SCI related issues come up on the show you can bet that I’ll cover it.


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  2. Search Project Walk or www.sci-therapies.info
    Doctors aren't always right. They said I'd never get rid of my asthma or it'd go away when I was 14 but I cured it when I was 8. So HA.