'I've done a lot of soul searching over the last few weeks about getting back in my wheelchair.
A few years ago, I used some of my mobility benefit to get an electric wheelchair so that I could get around. That wheelchair made so much difference in my life.
A male friend of mine told me 'The first time I met you I saw you zooming around in your wheelchair, your bright red hair blowing in the wind, a huge smile of your face and without doubt, I could tell just by the way you looked, a great zest for living!'. I value that description of me because I found being in a wheelchair incredibly hard. I fought a battle between wanting to have the freedom to get around and do the things I wanted to do and feeling 'less of a woman'.
At the time of getting my wheelchair, I had come out of an almost coma-like existence after collapsing with M.E (Myalgic Encephalomyelitis). I had lost family and friends, a career, years of my life, hobbies and interests and basically everything my life had been. I had to start again. I was an empty book. I felt robbed and angry, frustrated and didn't know who I was anymore. My husband had managed quite well without me bringing up my son, so what exactly was my purpose in life? I battled against all the negative feelings that constantly engulfed me and eventually started to try to eek out a purpose for my life again ... something that would make me feel useful and part of society.
It was a hard and painful journey, not least because I still had this debilitating illness, on top of a past of trauma and abuse and its resulting damaged mental health.
Fast forwards a couple of years and I was used to being in my wheelchair, used to being stared at when I got on the bus as the wheelchair 'parks' facing all the other people on the bus! I was used to struggling to get in some shops and not able to access others. I was used to people looking at me as if I was a fake when I got out of my wheelchair and walked a short distance. I got used to it all, but, I never could quite get used to feeling feminine and a woman, whilst in my wheelchair, especially after my marriage ended and I was single again. Little did I know I was going to feel worse than not just being a woman, I was going to feel like I wasn't even human! Little did I know, I was going to meet YOU!
I was in the High Street in Barnstaple, North Devon one day, with my friend who had described me in the beautiful way above. We'd got into a conversation with you, a woman a little older than myself, while my friend stopped for a rest at a bench. At the end of the perfectly normal conversation that you'd had (mainly with my friend), you looked at my him and said 'It was nice to meet you. Goodbye'. Then you turned to me, looked down and patted me on the head and walked away!
Yes, you actually patted me on the head!
I was too dumbstruck to do or say anything at that moment. My friend and I just looked at each other incredulously. 'Did that actually just happen?'. I was shocked and then the anger set in, anger I'm afraid to say I still hold. Anger at your disrespect and total ignorance.
If you only knew how that one action would affect my life.
I came out of my wheelchair not long afterwards, as soon as I could. I shut myself away back at home and only ever went out in the car, parking up where I needed to go, where I didn't need to walk. I have not been back into the town much over the last year or two ... its too difficult to walk. I've not shopped, been round the pubs with friends, had nights out or done anything 'social' much.
Now though, I'm in a position to change. I'm done with not being able to go into town, shop, go to the pub with friends and get around more freely. I have to face the fact that however much my physical and mental health has improved, I still can't walk more than a few yards without having to stop and rest and I feel exhausted.
I've chatted to people about it over the last few weeks ... this dilemma that I want to be able to enjoy all aspects of my life and to do that, I need to use my wheelchair again. I've taken one step though ... charged it up!
People have said to me 'Do you see so-and-so as less of a person because they are in a wheelchair?' and I've replied 'No'. I've seen video's of incredibly brave children who have no choice but to be in a wheelchair, just 'getting on with their lives', and I feel guilty about my 'hang-up'. I've seen videos of adults too, sporting, working and doing well, being themselves in spite of their difficulties. I've chatted to a friend who uses her chair as a 'tool' to get around too, but I'm sorry to say, and ashamed to say, I'm still struggling with my pride, because you not only took my self esteem, you took the mild semblance of womanhood I was hanging on to.
So, what is pride? It is used as a terribly negative word but is it totally bad? Is it arrogance or is it self esteem?
I think it is a bit of both. I don't think I have a high opinion of myself, but I do need to have some self esteem because its something I've had to fight for many years to achieve. I certainly don't think of myself as any better than anyone else or have a high opinion of myself, but I do want to be seen as a valid person and woman in society. I think a bit of angry arrogance has helped me survive my childhood and times in my adult life, so I don't think its all bad. My experience with you though, ultimately showed me that my validity when I'm in a wheelchair is less than if I'd been standing up. How dreadful. I know its your (and many other peoples) prejudice and ignorance and not my own personal opinion of people in wheelchairs, but it blights my opinion of myself, because whether I like it or not, my history has made me a person that validates myself through other people. It's something I fight to change, and its slowly happening, but not soon enough.
One day soon, I will have to get in that wheelchair and on the bus into town. I want all the wonderful positive experiences my wheelchair will bring to my social life, but I'm dreading that day too. Dreading that bus journey being looked at with people lowering their gaze to their laps as they are as embarrassed having to look at me too. I'm dreading people talking down to me, as I struggle enough to feel valid when I'm standing up!
Most of all though, I'm dreading meeting another YOU, you ignorant woman, who put me down and treated me like a dog, in front of my friend.