12 Years A Slave (To A Wheelchair)
It was my birthday the other week. Not my real birthday you understand, but rather my wheel birthday; the day I lost control of my car, broke my neck and swapped walking for wheeling. I'm always aware of the day when it rolls round, largely due to how soon after New Year it falls. What's changed over the years however, is the way I look upon the day and similarly, the effect the day has upon me.
With that in mind, I thought I'd take a brief foray down memory lane, look back over the years at how my feelings towards that day have changed and what the possible reasons are for this progressive metamorphosis. Of course, everyone is different; I know people who have taken spinal injury completely in their stride and others who are constantly struggling to accept their situation. I didn't make a conscious choice to react to it and move on from it the way I did; and any changes that occurred happened without me even realising. We all react differently to events, we all have our own ways of processing things, and we all move forwards in our own way and at our own pace; this is just my personal experience.
For the first couple of years, January 3rd felt like a monumental date stamped on the calendar: The Day That Everything Changed. I'd wake up, look at the clock and think to myself, "Had I set off by now? Was I driving? Whereabouts was I by this point?" My mind would begin wandering into thoughts of, "If only there was a way I could go back in time and change things, stop the car from starting that morning; hell, stop me from driving the car up to university in the first place! If only I hadn't had that crash, then all the negatives would be gone and my life would be an eternally blissful euphoria." That's how it works right, no wheechair no cry...
|"Me next song I'm gonna sing is called 'Get Up, Stand Up'!"|
During that initial phase, whilst I was still coming to terms with everything, I also barely touched alcohol, something that would stagger most people that know me now! This was almost entirely down to the fact that I still didn't fully understand how my body worked post-injury and was terrified that, a) I'd forget to go to the toilet and end up either voiding or exploding and, b) I'd lose balance and end up on the floor in a drunken heap of disability!
I still felt somewhat self-conscious about being in a chair at that point too and everywhere I went I could feel invisible eyes staring at me. I especially hated people watching me as I got out of the car, shuffling across the bright yellow slide board I relied on at that time. Sometimes I'd even purposely delay getting out if I felt anyone nearby was watching!
The Fun and Friendship Factors
Gradually though, once the initial couple of 'coming-to-terms-years' were out of the way and I started to get some idea of how my body worked and what my capabilities were, my confidence began to seep back, I started venturing out more (hello pub!) and began feeling more like my old self. Then I would often use the day of my injury as an excuse to meet up with friends, either at my flat or at the pub and drink the night away in an ironic celebration of the day I freed myself from the shackles of normality! I'm sure, deep down inside, there was still a part of me that was doing this as a distraction to stop my mind from dwelling on things, but as long as I was drinking and laughing with friends, that was good enough for me. None of them have ever treated me any differently than they would if I could walk; we freely and mercilessly take the mick out of each other on a regular basis, and no matter which friends I'm with, none of them feel the need to wrap me in cotton wool and make sure I'm managing okay. They took away many of the stigmas I might have had about being in a wheelchair and made me feel completely at ease. In all honesty, one of the best pieces of advice I could give someone who's gone through a life changing injury would be to surround yourself with a close group of friends. Without wanting to sound overly saccharin, I think it would've taken a hell of a lot longer for me to come to terms with my situation had it not been for the friends I had around me at the time of my injury and the friends I've made since.
The Times They Are A-Changin'
Other factors that have unquestionably helped are those of accessibility and a change in public perception. Years ago, access for those with mobility issues was largely ignored when it came to the planning and construction of new buildings. Whether they be shops, pubs, restaurants or hotels; odds were they'd have a combination of steps, narrow doorways and inaccessible bathrooms, pretty much denying entry to anyone who struggled with mobility. It never struck me at the time, but looking back on my school days, there's no way I could have attended the school I did if I'd been in a chair at the time, with numerous winding staircases being the only way to access a large proportion of the classrooms. Which is one of the reasons why I'm thankful that, if I had to have my injury, I had it at the time I did. Accessibility is now one of the primary concerns when plans for new buildings are drawn up and many existing ones have undergone alterations to improve accessibility. Public transport too, whilst by no means perfect, is getting better; with the majority of buses, trains and major taxi firms having ramps and wheelchair spaces available. Recently, a man in a wheelchair won a Supreme Court case that means bus drivers will have to give disabled passengers priority to the spaces available for them. All these things, though they may seem inconsequential to many, have made it a whole lot easier for people like myself to come to terms with serious injury and see that it may not be as life changing as initially thought.
As for the change in public perception, that's been an even more recent development, with London 2012 really thrusting disability and disability sport into the public eye. Those few weeks in September, when television and media were focused on all the things people with disabilities could do instead of the things they couldn't, gave the public a far greater insight and far better understanding of what it means to have a disability than anything that had ever come before it. At the same time it sent a message to people with disabilities all over the
|This? Oh it's just |
Nowadays, when the Day of Destiny comes round, I greet it fairly nonchalantly, with it barely even registering on my emotional scale anymore. This year, when I woke up and realised what day it was, my initial thought was, "Twelve years?! Jeez, I am getting old!" And then it was just another Tuesday; I got up, did some work, went sofa shopping (like I said, I'm getting old!), followed by wheelchair rugby training on the evening. Without me realising, it went from being that day to just 'that day'. I don't think it's ever going to be a date I forget; as I said previously, it comes too soon after Christmas and New Year. However the emotions and feelings that initially resonated from it are now massively diluted as I have come to realise that my spinal injury is really only ever going to be as life changing as I choose to make it. Now, if I feel eyes watching me as I get out of the car, I just get on with it; even if there may always be a little voice in the back of my heading whispering, "Come on Gareth, don't f*** this up now!"