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.

Owen, 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

Surviving Social Situations as a Disabled Person

Throughout the whole of my childhood, I was intensely bullied. To a certain extent, this has continued within parts of adulthood, too. I might have briefly mentioned that here before, but it’s something that I wanted to discuss further. See, I don’t find it especially easy to talk about, since the emotional scars still affect me today. This feels important to be truthful about, in the knowledge that my peers have probably never reflected upon their own behaviour before, nor considered that their attitudes were deeply problematic. Get ready for an education, bitches.

If I think about it for too long, I’ll probably have a panic attack. Still, there is one particular memory that I have never been able to shake, which occurred during a time when things were particularly difficult at secondary school. My mum had arranged a meeting to create an action plan with the relevant staff, in order to try and protect me from all that had been happening. However, she was simply told that it would be better if I left the mainstream education system, instead moving to somewhere with other people like me. In truth, I did consider this as an option for a while, which just makes me impossibly angry now. Of course, the implication is that I’m doing something wrong by daring to exist within a space where I am so obviously different. Almost as if it’s something to both expect and learn to live with. I mean, I’d prefer it if everyone else could just stop being horrible, but okay.

For several years, I had a wheelchair with a switch at the back, which would turn the controls to manual. On more than one occasion, some lovely people did this and literally just left me sitting in the middle of the road. That’s a whole new level of powerlessness, you know? It hurts me to know that they found it so hilarious. Within all of this, it felt like I was running out of options, so I started offering people money in exchange for their friendship. Looking back, I know that this was not real or healthy, but I was so desperate to feel safe. I thought that this would finally turn me into a cool person to hang out with, though it did nothing but ensure that my vulnerability was fully exploited. Anything to survive, I guess.

A screenshot of a Tweet by Hannah Diviney, which reads: “Being a people pleaser when you're disabled is actually not a personality trait but a survival mechanism. We unconsciously absorb that we must do everything we can not to rock the boat because that just makes it awkward & uncomfortable when we need things. It's protection.”
Hannah is so wise and her words are always so validating. It is an honour to tell people that we’re friends — in the truest sense of the word.

Thankfully, I have finally found my people. It has only taken me twenty-three whole years, whilst also embracing the idea that internet friends are real friends. Finding it hard to platonically connect with people in the area does not make me a loser — it’s actually sort of beautiful. I still want everyone to like me, of course. I mean, if they don’t like me, then I find it very easy to become convinced that I’m just a terrible person. With that said, I am learning that liking yourself is a much more liberating goal. Reminder: if my disability makes you uncomfortable, that’s really not my problem. Have fun watching me live my best life all the same.

To the few people that were consistently and unapologetically kind to me back in those days, I appreciate you. You deserve nothing but happiness. To Australian Hannah, you are going to change the world and I can’t wait to see it. To my favourite burrito, Owen, thank-you for bringing such an incredible kaleidoscope of colour into my life. xxx

PS: if you bullied me, I do not forgive you. But I am healing. That journey is not defined by you anymore, no offence.

The Trauma of Being Disabled

Unfortunately, being disabled is often associated with some level of trauma, even if only through the way that it has been perceived by society. On a personal level, research has shown that adults with Cerebral Palsy are statistically more likely to be diagnosed with mental health problems such as depression and anxiety than those without.

When I was fourteen, one of my doctors randomly asked about my social life. I had been getting ready to leave the appointment and the question caught me completely off-guard. I couldn’t understand why that was relevant in any way, so tried to lie and tell her that I was generally pretty popular. In reality, I was decidedly unpopular and very depressed about my whole situation, though I didn’t have the language to express that back then. Just a few weeks before, I had started seeing the school counsellor, but left after the first session and never went back. Still today, I remember her looking at me enter the room and saying: “well, I can already tell why you’re here”. The whole interaction was fairly damaging — it felt like the only thing that anyone ever saw when looking at me, you know? So, when this doctor asked about my social life, my mum wasted no time in exposing the lie and asking for help. They promised to refer me to a therapist that specialised in working with disabled young people, but I never heard anything. It has been almost nine years and there was never any follow-up.

When I was about twenty, I cried in front of my GP about how bad my body image was (I had been there for an entirely different reason). Afterwards, we both just pretended that it had never happened. In that moment, the only advice that she could give me was to “focus on self-care and personal grooming”.

As I reflect upon these two examples of pivotal moments in my life, it’s difficult for me to even place responsibility or blame onto these professionals in any way. See, the key problem is that nobody truly knows how to help or understand. They can’t really be expected to, since the circumstances are complex beyond anybody’s imagination, so it’s probably not something that they are faced with on a regular basis. However, what it also means is that I’m left unable to truly understand myself, either.

Last night, I had a lengthy conversation with my good friend, Sonia. She is very wise and brilliant. She reminded me of how illness and being constantly surrounded by ignorance (however unintentional) causes your brain to be shaped differently to everyone else around you. You know, studying in a mainstream school when there are so many voices insisting that you don’t belong in that space kind of forces you to become mature very quickly, for example. It is almost like a protective barrier, which only creates a lifetime of difference, since it’s impossible for anyone else to be on exactly the same wavelength without experiencing those things. This is day one of my journey towards accepting and acknowledging that I have been through some heavy stuff, but that things do have the capacity to be better. To anyone reading this, even if we are not in touch, I want to thank you for coming along on the ride with me.

Reminder to self: I do not have to be defined by other people’s shitty treatment of me. It is possible to grow past that and move forward. I am determined to make sure that these experiences mean something.

My next post is going to be about disability and identity. I have some feelings about that myself, but it’d be cool to get some other perspectives, too! If you are disabled or chronically ill and want to have a conversation about it, send me a message. Let’s change the world. xxx

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