My captivity has redefined my ‘freedom’


My captivity has redefined my ‘freedom’

Laid up after a shoulder replacement, ISMAIL LAGARDIEN reflects on the futility of his decisions to keep family and friends at arm's length.


AND now for something different. I write from my sick bed. It’s much less dramatic than it sounds. I’ve had major surgery and the doctor’s orders were to stay in bed for a week to 10 days. This is not an act of supplication. Definitely not of self-pity. It is, rather, a type of confession that my decision to put great distance between me and the world, futile and absurd as it may be, has left me tied to a post of unfreedom. Indulge me.

With my right arm held in place against my body and the surgical wound on my shoulder heavily bandaged, pain radiates across my head, neck and torso. I am dictating this essay with voice-recognition software, editing it with my left hand. In addition to the trauma of major surgery, I am unable to feed, clothe and clean myself. It’s extraordinary the impact that anaesthesia has on the body, how it leaves you feeling as if you've been hit by a truck. After having my right shoulder replaced, the doctor and physiotherapists say I should wear a sling for six weeks, avoid driving and lifting and do a set of gentle exercises until the wound has healed.

There isn't much pain from the shoulder because it’s prosthetic. The wound and the enduring effects of anaesthesia are the issue. The surgical incision is 10-12 cm long and cuts across a lot of muscle and scar tissue from previous surgeries.

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The difference between this surgery and the 10 or so I've had previously is that this time I told the surgeon I was prepared to take the strongest painkillers available for two weeks. When you work as a freelancer or in the gig economy, there are no such things as “sick days” or even holidays and weekends.

Then again, I really am a wimp, but I need to put food on the table and pay next month’s R5,600 medical aid premium. With the doctors, surgeons and anaesthetist being “out of network” and my no having gap cover, I am about R105,000 in the hole (again, this is not a supplication). This is besides the fact that I need to write to pay for utilities and for the only luxury in my life — access to the internet.

Lying in bed for days on end, one has a lot of time to think. And so I have come to learn in the last two weeks just how much, perhaps too much, I have made of freedom and independence, the distances I placed between me and friends and family, and especially avoiding relationships that are transactional. In fact, my relationships have suffered the most. There have even been times when I have stopped a relationship before it started.

I’ve been quite surprised, then, by how far into the world's wild oceans I have pushed my boat of independence and self-sufficiency. What I actually did was chain myself to a pillar called freedom, failing to realise that freedom’s moorings are shallower than those of captivity.

Because I live alone, I rarely see family and almost never rely on friends. I refuse to be a burden on anyone. I was happy to call a taxi to drop me off at the hospital at 6am, then call another to take me home when I was discharged (I'm aware of my privilege). But it made me think: how the hell do other people do this? Does everyone have a family or friend who takes them to hospital?

I am not new to surgeries and trauma. Over the past four years or so I've had one operation after a violent attack and another for sciatica because I sit on my arse all day, writing and reading. In both those instances, the dearest, most loyal friends (and people I had never met) helped me. As a rule, I do not go on a borrowing spree among friends.

I should mention nonetheless that the Rev Michael Weeder, a remarkable human being, generously spent a couple of hours with me during recovery four years ago. He brought food, we spoke, and it just generally lifted my spirits. It restores one’s faith. Michael’s act of kindness and generosity (following a request from a loyal friend) summed up the non-utilitarian nature of relationships. You do kind deeds for the sake of doing kind deeds, not because you expect anything in return. It also taught me something about family — other than a single brother, they have been largely unavailable — and the “need” to at least acknowledge the futility of freedom as removing oneself from others.

We are never just individuals, but we’re as much products as we continue to be shaped by history writ long and large. I realised over the past several days that I may have lived apparently rootless but I have remained tied (quite firmly) in captivity.

In this state of captivity and almost complete incapacity has come the realisation that self-deception is one of our greatest flaws. If self-deception is the act of lying to oneself, then I am the liar and the one being lied to.

I think the painkillers are wearing off.

♦ VWB ♦

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