Learning to Be Okay with Medical Trauma

Friends, a new orthotics consultant referred to my feet as “a deformity” today. Several times. It almost feels like I could just finish the post with this one sentence, hey? Still, I am determined to work through the ugliness of my deepest insecurities here, in a space that continually proves itself to be safe. Let’s start at the beginning, shall we?

The pivotal point in my lack of dedication towards exercise and embracing my disability enough to manage it properly came when I was approximately thirteen. I was beginning to prepare for the possibility of having an operation on my hip, so when my surgeon asked about some background information, I mentioned that I regularly used a stander at home. “What for? Torture? It’s not going to make any difference whatsoever” was his reply, which is something that I have never forgotten. Initially, I was genuinely thrilled by his professional certainty, I’m not going to lie. I mean, it was boring and sometimes painful, so I was willing to accept any excuse not to put myself through that. Pretty quickly, I decided to stop with all of the things that disabled children are supposed to do, including physiotherapy. I couldn’t understand why I should bother taking care of myself in ways that only exaggerated my sense of otherness, if it was ultimately not going to improve my health, you know? For a long time, this approach felt like a Good Thing. If I could function without relying upon these extras, then I was somehow less disabled and therefore living life more fully than anyone had otherwise expected. Little did I know that it would instead take me a whole decade to begin addressing this as internalised ableism.

Aside from the turmoil that I’m going through as I type this: so far, I am having the best year of my life. I am really, truly starting to get my shit together. When I read back through older posts, it’s so clear from my writing, too. For that, I am endlessly proud of myself. However, I have been getting increasingly anxious that this self-improvement has arrived too late, leaving my health set to follow a downwards trajectory from here, no matter what I do. I had been trying to focus on how irrational these thoughts sounded, until today, when I heard: “some of this deformity could have been prevented if you’d had intervention sooner”. Genuine question: what am I supposed to do with that information? It’s not like I can reverse any of the choices that led me here, which means that I just feel guilty about it instead. Fun.

A picture of Danielle with her brother, Jack, from when they were small children. They are in a twin buggy, both wearing sunglasses and blue hats. Danielle is wearing a green jumper with white leggings. Jack is wearing a white top with black stripes and black trousers.
Just a disabled child and her brother wearing funky clothes in the 90s for your enjoyment.

Even before this happened, it’s an issue that I discuss with my physiotherapist often. I suppose that she has become something of a regular therapist, too. But I do get frustrated with my younger self and it’s not always easy to move forward from. When I was growing up as a visibly disabled child, the sense of exposure felt almost violent. I wasn’t represented anywhere by the people that I knew or the environments that I found myself in. I wanted nothing more than to exist quietly and fit into the groups that had always eluded me. Back then, just making it through to the end of every day was difficult enough for my brain to handle, without trying to simultaneously contemplate what my adulthood might look like. Let’s be real: I am living that now and I still don’t have many of the answers.

Since this experience still feels vulnerable on my heart, I’m not entirely sure how to conclude. There is one thing that I’m absolutely certain of, though: the disabled community is not defined by our experiences with shitty medical professionals. In particular, right now, the treatment of Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (also known as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome) needs to be radically overhauled without any further delays. Exercising is harmful when your body is not physically capable or prepared for it — and it turns out that symptoms don’t just magically disappear when you talk about them in therapy. Shocker. Sign the petition for change here.

Éowyn, you have changed my whole life in the most beautiful way. Thank-you for making it all worthwhile. I love you so much and will never allow you to forget how magical you are. xxx

Reflecting on my Disabled Childhood

Today marks nine years since I had surgery on my left hip, pinning it into place. At the same time, I also had at least one other minor procedure, to loosen the tightness in my hamstrings. In truth, my memory of this time is a little hazy, though I can piece together flashes. Mostly about the pain and throwing up when I was given morphine. I have tried really hard to redirect my brain’s focus over the years, to think about something else whenever June approaches, although this has so far been impossible. The two (incredibly neat) scars on my legs are a daily reminder of how different everything would have been if I was born into another body, you know? Often, this is also visually represented to me through the lives of my non-disabled siblings, too. In a first draft of this post, the next lines were: I find myself craving an adult experience that isn’t dictated by my dependence on those around me, even now. I can imagine that it must be so wildly liberating, despite the fact that everyone else gets to make these choices without a second thought. However, whilst I might never be completely comfortable with the permanence of my situation, it’s important to recognise that different is not always synonymous with better. Things have been intense since this fateful day in 2012, sure, but I’m not going to be defined by my experiences. For the first time in probably forever, I am genuinely and consistently happy. I am slowly learning to be proud of my disability. The heaviness that used to sit on my chest has largely disappeared. I feel lighter. I have come so very far, which is why it’s necessary to look back on occasions like this one.

I wasn’t a nice person when I was fifteen — or really any time before that. Not really. It would be so easy to blame the system for its lack of support, but I do have to hold myself accountable. For a long time, even from a fairly young age, I was more mentally unwell than I’d like to admit. If the help had been offered to me, I doubt very much that I would have accepted it. It’s so hard to explain what it’s like to give up on yourself, without really trying in the first place. I couldn’t be bothered with any of it, I guess. I was convinced that my life would amount to nothing, no matter what I did. I was angry all of the time and I put my family through a lot, which I plan to write about in more detail next month. Some of the memories still make me feel physically sick, though.

I hated my time in hospital. More than that, I have some heavy trauma associated with my recovery, which isn’t something that I’ll ever go into detail about here. When this unfolded, I decided that I had to protect the softness of my heart and be unapologetically good, despite how cruel life can sometimes be. I am so proud of my adult self, truly. I’m always trying to make other people’s lives brighter, which is something that I am relatively successful at. I think. You tell me.

Still, with that said, I hate my legs and it would be a lie to pretend otherwise. I have a new physiotherapist these days and when we first met, she asked if she could take my shoes and socks off. I said, “you can if you want, but my feet are really ugly”. She replied, “I don’t think that anybody has pretty feet, Danielle”. I could have cried on the spot. Last week, she asked me to wear shorts, for practical reasons. I cried about this when I put them on. Like, I cried in the most ugly way that my mum later came home with a pair of jogging bottoms to stop me from feeling gross about leaving the house. It’s a process and we can only do our best with these things.

A screenshot of a Tweet by maya circe, which reads “i think we need to move away from the idea within body positivity/neutrality circles that bodies are worthy of love and respect bc they “work.” disabled bodies dont always “work.” disabled bodies are still worthy of love and respect, no matter if they “work” or not”
I’m leaving this reminder here for myself and anyone else who’s in need of it.

So, to recap: I survived! I am happier than I have ever been. I wish that I could tell my younger self. Not every day is perfect, but I am better able to handle the waves without drowning. That’s something worth celebrating.

Éowyn, you used to live inside of my dreams before we met, I’m sure. I’m not scared of the future anymore, because you’re here. I love you more with each day that passes, which is both clichéd yet true, so I don’t care. xxx