Uncomfortable Liminal Spaces: When We’re Caught Between Here and There

Ever wonder why you feel weird when you're on an elevator?

Benjamin Hofmeister avatar

by Benjamin Hofmeister |

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Every time I find myself in a multistory building, I end up on an elevator. It’s not as though I’m too lazy to take the stairs — well, OK, I am lazy — but in this case, it’s because my wheelchair won’t climb one, much less a flight of them. I have no doubt it would go down the stairs, but probably only once, especially if I happened to be in it at the time.

Regardless, I was recently on an elevator all by myself, which is rare. Since I was alone, rather than worrying about running over someone’s toes or being the last one in and having to awkwardly face backward, toward everyone else, I had the opportunity to feel — uneasy.

Do you ever get that uncomfortable feeling that something isn’t quite right when you’re on an elevator, on a long bridge, in a hallway, in a stairwell, on an airplane, or the like? It’s normal because these are all examples of liminal spaces.

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“Liminal” comes from the Latin word “limen,” which means “threshold.” These spaces are a pathway between two or more points, and other than that, they have no purpose. In my elevator example, the elevator is a means of getting from one floor to another and is not meant to have the same weight as the origin or destination. Since it doesn’t have the purpose or permanency of either, being on one too long, or without other people to distract you, feels off.

Lumped in with these pathways to a destination are empty spaces that would otherwise be busy. For example, a school, church, or shopping mall is normally full of people and various noises. This is their normal state, and when these stimuli are absent, it can feel abnormal and perhaps even a little creepy. If you haven’t already made the connection, there’s a reason these and other liminal spaces are a favorite feature in horror movies.

Liminal spaces are not limited to physical locations, either. Puberty, retirement, or going through a divorce are a few examples of a mental liminal space. You’re in the process of moving from one state to another, and as with physical spaces, the journey between the two can feel very uncomfortable, especially if it lasts too long.

Multiple sclerosis (MS), in my humble, completely nonprofessional opinion, is a prime example of both a physical and mental liminal space. It can be either an unnerving, frustrating, in-between place, or a space full of confusing silence where there was once bustling activity.

My primary progressive MS is anything but invisible, but many with MS have an invisible, almost invisible, or occasionally invisible illness along with the accompanying disabilities. Everyone’s journey is different, but visible or not, we all seem to be on an eerie path between completely able and completely disabled.

That journey is a mental liminal space as well. We share a predictably unpredictable disease and have no way of knowing where we are between origin and destination. For me, this is especially unnerving and frightening. How do you adapt to, or compensate for, something that may change (unpredictably)? How do you plan for the unplannable?

MS has taken my ability to walk. My leg and core muscles, along with the nerves that activate them, are there and can function, but not enough to hold me upright for very long or to take a step. I’m not paralyzed, but I seem to be on a frustrating elevator ride somewhere between the floor where I last walked and the floor where my legs are completely useless.

If you use a mobility aid of any sort, that’s liminal too. I use a wheelchair, and when I’m with my family at a restaurant, I pull it up to the table and stay in it throughout the meal. This is the most practical thing to do, but it often bothers me that I’m not transferring to a chair. I think it’s because my mobility aid is liminal — a pathway between places — and sitting in a chair at a restaurant table is the natural destination that I’m not quite reaching.

Finally, MS has a way of quieting what was once a life full of activity and noise. I’m still as involved in life as I can be, but there are many things I can’t do anymore, and the stillness is foreign to me. I sometimes feel like the occasional bout of MS noise sensitivity may be partly because I’m not the one making it, and it feels like I should be — sensory underload instead of overload.

How about you? What are your liminal spaces? Please share in the comments below and let me know how to avoid being limited by the liminal.

Note: Multiple Sclerosis News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Multiple Sclerosis News Today or its parent company, BioNews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to multiple sclerosis.


Cecilia M Rich avatar

Cecilia M Rich

I laughed and really enjoyed your article! When my husband walked into the room, I asked if he knew what "liminal" meant. He read your piece and enjoyed it, too. I'm a state representative, and I certainly relate to the feeling when a meeting is scheduled at a high table, or upstairs/downstairs. I've gone from embarrassment to openly pulling myself up and speaking up.

Benjamin Hofmeister avatar

Benjamin Hofmeister

Thanks for reading! So glad you and your husband enjoyed it. When others (unwittingly) contribute to staying in a liminal space longer than necessary, it is even worse. If I can sit at the table with everyone, even in my wheelchair, it's better somehow than being forced by circumstances to acknowledge my mobility aid/liminal space. I guess I feel like I'm closer to the natural destination if I'm not made to take extra steps (prolong the liminal)?


Donna Wolpoff avatar

Donna Wolpoff

I am 74--have had MS many years-it is what it is-dealing with it is second by second-as you probably already know

Benjamin Hofmeister avatar

Benjamin Hofmeister

Thanks Donna! I was never the most spontaneous person on the planet, but the unpredictable aspect of our disease almost takes that option away entirely. MS also seems to sneer at planning, so I guess I'm unwillingly flexible? That may sound like spontaneity, but those of us with forced, MS spotaneity, know it's anything but.


Jennifer Potter avatar

Jennifer Potter

I certainly identify with the unpredictability of PPMS - I walk with a rollator, but sometimes even this is hard and I can't go far. Sometimes my hands work, other times they don't - my world has become very small

Benjamin Hofmeister avatar

Benjamin Hofmeister

Thanks for the comment Jennifer. I want to plan so badly, but as you know all too well, we don't even know what we'll be up to this afternoon. I suppose, "quit wasting energy fighting it. Relax and just go with the flow", sounds like good advice, but when we're forced by MS to not stick to a plan, relaxing isn't relaxing.



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