What do you do?

“What do you do?”

The question I dread. The question I cannot answer. Not without losing face, anyway.

“What do you do?”

I sit on Twitter.

That’s what I do. All day. Mostly on a tablet. On a laptop or desktop PC when I am well enough. On a phone in bed when I am not. I’m there when I wake up in the morning. I’m there at 2am. I don’t really leave. I watch the stream of tweets flow past. And believe me, when you follow more than 3,000 people they really flow.

It fills the time between hospital appointments. The endless stream brings me news, jokes, struggles, friendship. It fills my browser with tabs to read. So many that I barely have enough time to look away from the stream to read them.

It’s not like I can do much else since I became too sick to work. Mitochondrial myopathy and a whole catalogue of other problems have robbed me of my concentration, my ability to go to my office, to talk, sit, walk or stand when employment demands it. I can’t do the things that employers are willing to pay for anymore, but I can tweet. And I do. A lot.

I still crave usefulness though.

“What do you do?”

I tell people what I think will make them see me as like them. As a productive member of society. I tell them I am an activist. A welfare and disability rights campaigner. I am, too. Twitter has got me involved in campaign groups, put me in touch with people doing anything they can to get the truth in front of media and MPs. Twitter has found me radio and TV interviews and eventually lead to me being part of a Judicial Review over PIP. Through Twitter I have listened to the despair of many sick friends when they try to get the help they are supposed to get. I advise them, tell them where to find the hidden rules, how to get help to get help. Through my own trivial tweets, I am told, I help others to realise they aren’t alone, that their illness isn’t imaginary. They have done the same for me. I have made people aware of injustice, of the fights against that injustice. I have shown them protests and struggles. I have done more than I ever did when I had a nearly functional body and brain.

But all of this takes a toll. I am not well. I am very much not well. Physically and mentally I struggle through every day, and these days, Twitter is an endless bombardment of despair. For me Twitter suffers from having split purpose. It is a space to meet friends, sure, but it is also a public speaking platform. It is a news stream. Since all my friends care about the horror of the world, even when I want to withdraw from that to recover I still see what they are talking about. Twitter is a place for intimate sharing, for larger social circles, for staying aware of what is happening, and for speaking out. The biggest problem comes when a tweet meant only for one of those purposes crosses over to the others. When a minor personal gripe to a close friend becomes an international phenomenon embedded in news stories everywhere.

Over the last few years my tweets have attracted attention. Not huge by media standards but still enough that I will often get 100 retweets on something I said. I am pretty good at accidental anger that people share and amplify. If I am on a roll I can have several tweets like this on the go at once and that makes my notifications… interesting. My tweets about illness attract replies from friends, of course, but also from more distant acquaintances. They often attract unwanted advice that is irrelevant or I have already tried and discarded years before. My political tweets often receive insults or abuse from right-wing people who have come across me being retweeted. The questions, advice, insults and abuse all make me panic and retreat from Twitter. Well, that’s not quite true. I have started retreating to a private locked twitter account which just a few friends are able to see. I don’t think this is uncommon either. Quite a few people have a locked Twitter account alongside their public one, especially people who aren’t straight white cisgender men.

Admitting to having a locked account will make some of my followers sad and for that I am sorry, but this raises another aspect that I am struggling with. I have been very open about physical and mental illness and as a result I have far more people emotionally invested in me than I could ever keep track of. I feel guilty about this every day because I wish I could return the friendship shown to me. Sometimes even the friendly responses are too much for me to deal with and so I have said less about personal things on my public account and only put a few of them on my locked account instead. When I finally managed to admit and talk about my gender dysphoria I did that almost exclusively on my locked account – which is messed up in itself because I have been unashamed of physical and mental illness yet too ashamed of my gender to talk publicly.

I am not sure if there is any solution to the problems I have mentioned. I am bad at segregating my tweets between accounts and in any case I feel useless when something I said could have helped someone else but stayed hidden away. I have thought about deleting my public twitter account but that would be a waste of something that can do a lot of good. I have considered unfollowing everyone and then adding back only a few people so that I see less awfulness but that would upset many people and not address the replies that I cannot deal with.

I am not asking for advice – as should be obvious if you just read this blog post. I guess I will continue with Twitter, continue to raise my voice about the problems that I see, because that is what I do.

“What do you do?”

I shout.

The complex issue of looking like a fake when I get up and walk

“Perhaps. Not yet but in the future. When I’m ready to face the complex issue of looking like a fake when I get up and walk.”

This was an answer given when I suggested to someone with chronic illness that a mobility scooter would help overcome some of the problems with walking. It’s a sad indication of the judgement by society that affects so many people who could benefit from mobility aids.

Unfortunately what other people think of us is something that keeps many people from accepting that they need help. I myself delayed using a wheelchair for a year or more after I really needed one because I was scared of looking different, scared of being accused of using it only to get sympathy or benefits. In delaying my use of it I no doubt subjected myself more pain and more time stuck in bed recovering than I would otherwise have endured, and prevented myself from doing as much as I might have done.

The problem of being thought of as a fake when standing up from a scooter or wheelchair is a particularly pervasive one. The common assumption amongst the general public is that people are “wheelchair bound” or “confined” to a wheelchair because they cannot walk. Full stop. Of course there are people who cannot walk at all but it is usually not the case. Much of the fuss around the introduction of PIP to replace DLA is that the maximum distance you can walk before help is withdrawn has been reduced from 50 metres to just 20. For those that haven’t thought that through, it should be obvious that you could therefore see someone walk 20 metres or even 50 metres who still gets help to move around. If that seems unfair, think about how you would get through your day if you could only walk 50 metres in one go. For those who are chronically sick they often could walk if they had to but are rewarded with pain, exhaustion and eventual collapse. Because of the stigma around mobility aids they often put up with this until such a time as trying to keep walking ends up confining them to bed in perpetual recovery. In fact, when they finally give in and accept their need for help, far from being “confined” to a wheelchair they are actually freed up by it to go further and to do more. As a result of not wasting energy on trying to walk most of the time they have more energy to stay out and interact with people.

My use of a wheelchair actually means that when I do need to walk I can do so relatively easily as long as I don’t overdo it. The problem is that to an ignorant observer it looks like I was faking my need for help in the first place when instead I can only get up at all because I was using the wheelchair. (Although one of my symptoms is that after prolonged sitting my muscles feel like they seize up and I end up quite wobbly when I try to stand, at least for a few minutes.)

The same judgement affects people who have a Blue Badge entitling them to use a disabled parking space. (I hate that name. Mobility parking space maybe?) The use of a car and a parking space near to their destination may well mean that they can walk the short distance from car to destination without apparent signs of struggling and so passers-by jump on them and accuse them of faking it. If they did not have the car and the parking space they would probably have visibly struggled to walk the greater distances between public transport options and their destination.

If you have read this far then you are probably already convinced but the message I would like people to take away is that you don’t see everything about a sick or disabled person. You don’t see the pain and the recovery time after they have done something without apparent struggle and you don’t see what they would be like if they did not have the use of mobility aids or help from others. Don’t judge, not least because one day it may well happen to you, and if you see someone else judging, set them straight.

Related blog posts:

Embarrassed to be me

Fear and mobility

Blue Badge Blues

Why I am suing the government

Thoughts on my first long powerchair trip

I went on my first long powerchair trip on Friday night. It was a 5 mile round-trip from Badsey to Evesham and back. On reflection, this was never going to be an easy journey. There are two routes that can be taken on foot. Unfortunately due to roadworks, one of those was not an option and so my wife and I were forced to take the other route, along the main road into town. This involved about a mile along a rural road with a 60mph limit, and hedges on both sides. Before leaving I checked through that stretch of road using Google Streetview to make sure that there was a path all of the way along. All seemed OK, so we set off.

Here are my thoughts on that journey.

  • My powerchair goes faster than 4mph. I think it probably manages 8mph. Excellent!
  • It doesn’t go as far as it should. The battery light was blinking after about six miles of use, not 24. Maybe a few charge / discharge cycles will fix that.
  • Using a powerchair requires planning to make sure that route and transport are accessible.
  • According to my wife, I operate a powerchair like I play Mario Kart. I’m choosing to take that as a compliment.
  • You can’t operate a powerchair like you play Mario Kart. It likes to stop before making the next move.

And some more problematic thoughts.

  • Getting to a junction and finding no dropped kerbs and therefore no way to leave the pavement and cross is frustrating.
  • Having to backtrack to the last dropped kerb is also frustrating.
  • Having no matching dropped kerb on the other side and having to take the chair along the road is dangerous.
  • Curved dropped kerbs that go round the corner are a pain. Wheelchairs are supposed to take the kerb at 90 degrees to avoid toppling. Having to turn 45 degrees to do that is irritating, AND the pavement is at odd angles that push the chair to one side.
  • A dropped kerb that crosses the pavement all the way to someone’s driveway makes the chair go down then up again. Having these repeatedly all the way along the street makes the chair go up and down continuously. They can also make the chair swerve into the road unless paying perfect attention and deploying light-speed reflexes.
  • A dropped kerb is supposed to be dropped. That means going down to road level. Not two or three inches above it. When a chair goes over that, it lurches wildly back and forth.
  • When a too-high kerb is combined with a round-the-corner curved dropped kerb that simultaneously goes up a hill on one road and down a hill on the other road, the combined angles plus speed necessary to climb the kerb mean that the chair will topple.
  • Flailing wildly when going over will wrench muscles, twist the back, neck and shoulders, and cause extreme pain and swearing.
  • Finding no way to get from pavement to road to pavement so that you can cross is bloody annoying. Did I already do that one? Well I’m doing it again because it’s BLOODY ANNOYING.
  • Tree roots growing under the path and tearing it up can lift one side of a chair, causing it to tip disturbingly to one side.
  • Cars parked on the pavement deserve to be scratched as I go past.
  • Pavements full of pot holes, cracks, patches and worn away surface are not just a minor irritant, they make the journey a hell full of dragging, rattling, lurching, bumping and worse.
  • A path is supposed to be wide enough to use. Six inches of goat trail with smashed up tarmac surrounded by tall grass and weeds right at the edges on both sides is not acceptable. Grass to within six inches of the road edge is definitely not acceptable.
  • Paths so old that their height varies by several inches NEED FIXING. You can’t leave that.
  • I got stuck on patches of broken pavement so bad that one wheel went in a hole. Not once, but twice. I couldn’t avoid the hole because the grass verge had covered the pavement.
  • I had to negotiate places where the broken, narrow path went through potholes, gravel and old stones at the edge, merged with driveways, with grass covering it at 45 degree angles. I lurched wildly. I nearly went over. And this happened in at least three places.

I’m going to stop there. There are more things, but I have complained enough for people to get the idea. OK, so most of the time I won’t be trying to travel from my village to the town, but I should be able to. It should not be a challenge, it should be a nice smooth ride along tarmac or paving slabs. Not a wild lurch along broken, grass-covered ancient pathway.

Oh, and I did manage to get to town and back, but not before the shops had closed, rendering my trip to buy cheesecake completely meaningless. I enjoyed a coffee at my sister’s house instead.

Embarrassed to be me

Sometimes I have to use a walking stick. I walk with a stick because sometimes the pain is too much to put weight on my legs, or my muscles are too weak to hold me up, or I am too dizzy and lack the balance to remain upright. I especially need the stick when I am standing still as without it I can fall over due to all of the above.

I hate my walking stick.

I hate it because it is awkward to use.

I hate it because it prevents me carrying anything with that hand.

I hate it because it stops me holding hands with my wife.

I hate it because it is noisy on the pavement.

I hate it because it allows me to walk further when I should stop and rest.

I hate it because it transfers the pain from my legs to my hands and arms and back.

But most of all, I hate my walking stick because it is a symbol of my weakness. It is a sign to anyone that sees it that I am sick. Weak. I feel self-conscious when I use it, because people look at the stick and judge me. Many of them see a thirty-something man with no visible problems using a walking stick and decide that I don’t need it. Some of them assume that I use a stick in order to look sick to get benefits. (Even when I wasn’t on benefits.) Some of them actually question my use of it, and in the worst case, verbally attack me, even swearing at me.

So I leave my stick at home. That doesn’t work out so well, because what happens is that I walk all the way to the doctor, the pharmacy or the shops without too much of a problem apart from stopping to lean on a wall every so often. Then comes the problem. I get tired. I get pain. I am out, ten minutes walk from home, rapidly losing the ability to stay upright, and I don’t have a walking stick. Having to ask for a chair and stop for a fifteen minute rest in a shop is even more embarrassing than using a walking stick in the first place.

I have got around the problem of not having my walking stick when I need it by using a folding stick which can fit in the (large) pocket of my trenchcoat or in my bag. It’s still a pain to carry around so I don’t always take it, but it’s better than never taking it. I can also surprise people by pulling the stick out of my pocket suddenly and having it click together in a most satisfying way!

Given my embarrassment at using the stick, you can imagine what I think about using a wheelchair. I’ve never used one but the thought fills me with fear. Fear of what people will think, especially if I get out of it occasionally when I have no need to be in it. People do not understand that health problems are variable and that it is possible to need a stick or a chair on some occasions and not others. Or that I could use a wheelchair for a journey but walk around inside the building at the end of it.

I was thinking about all of this again because I have been offered an electric wheelchair that used to belong to a family member. My immediate response is NO NO NO but actually that is stupid of me. There are many times when it would be useful to have one, and there are plenty of occasions when I could actually use it to get around the house. There are times at the moment where I cannot get from the bed to the bathroom or the kitchen, and so I go without food and drink until someone can arrive and help me. I will soon be living several miles from my nearest helper rather than next door, but with an electric wheelchair I could get food and drink several hours earlier than I would otherwise. I might even get more hours in the day because I would start to feel better earlier.

I have to learn not to be embarrassed to be me.