I don’t like things that make me stand out, things that made me stand out as different. (Isn’t it liberating that you can start blog posts with the dread ‘I’?) I’d hate to wear white trainers, huge ocean liners of glowing white-ness (albeit briefly). New shoes too make your feet feel enormous and obvious. But there’s other things too, the ones you dreaded and loathed as a child and teenager: glasses, braces, spots. All glowing Belisha beacons shrieking ‘look-at-me, look-at-me’ and not even in a positive way but in a morbidly distressing, humiliating ‘look-at-me-I’m-a-freak’ kind of way. A beacon with a siren call invitation to others to mock, stare and tease.
I like to keep things to myself; I don’t like to stand out as different. (This may be a slight paradox when you consider that my standard dress code involves DMs and a Western hat but I have often noted the Jekyll and Hyde inconsistencies of my personality, normally despairingly with a hint of frustration). It’s not that I want to blend in, choosing some teenage high school stereotype persona to morph into; rather there is a degree of wanting to fit in. To find a place in the world for myself, to be accepted for myself. There is a difference between the two.
I fight a long time war with two illnesses, both invisible except to the trained eye, and I have perfected the mask I wear in public. I don’t want to make a fuss; I don’t want the eyes on me. So it’s just easier. No-one sees me battle.
Then last summer my husband came up with a cunning plan. A friend of ours uses one of those hiking sticks, trekking poles kinds of thing. (I would like to point out that he’s eighty so this is a perfectly acceptable accessory). Husband decided that one of these would be just the ticket for me. I think he was fed up of towing me up hills.
So we went and investigated walking sticks, I, for my part, very reluctantly. A stick is a badge of shame, a sign of failure. I do not need a stick. I’d rather wobble and be towed and be stuck at home by turns than have such an outright Belisha beacon of my ineptitude.
I could come up with a lot of other, more solid, reasons why I had no need of a stick. Well, for starters, I have a husband. No, that didn’t wash particularly well. Apparently ‘for better or for worse’ doesn’t include towing. Who knew?! Well, sticks are for properly ill people. Husband was convinced that as I had been struggling all year to walk anywhere that I was most likely in this category. Thanks. They cost an awful lot of money. Husband set his chin in a stubborn line and told me that I needed it. Thanks. (I hate spending money on myself). The final straw I clasped to, the last rock between there and losing my dignity forever, was that I would never be able to walk safely with a stick, I would trip over the third leg all the time. (Well, I already have perfected tripping over two, a third was just adding to the confusion). Husband didn’t buy it. The excuse not the stick. Stick was purchased.
The problem is that people see me with the stick. They then think that something is the matter. Have I trouble with my knees, hurt my leg? It’s a little bit hard to explain that actually I’ve had ME for fourteen years. (The majority of my circle was beautifully oblivious to this). I sigh and explain that it was my husband’s brilliant idea because he was fed up of towing me places. It makes people laugh. I like making people laugh.
Reluctantly, I have to concede that the stick has actually been a good thing. I can use it to poke things off high shelves, to gesture and to sheepdog clueless younger brothers to the safety of pavements when they attempt to walk out in front of a car. It’s also quite good for poking and beating them with too. A well-aimed jab of a walking stick to a foot makes people surprisingly docile. I can actually make it up the stairs to my flat and it’s jolly useful for levering myself out of car seats with. I don’t tell husband this of course.
I can lean on it and prop myself up on it. It steadies me when I’m walking. It helps me up stairs and hills. It stabilises me on the way down. I quite like my stick and take it everywhere with me. I call it my third leg and feel lost without it. I don’t tell husband this of course.
But now everybody knows that something’s up. I’m still not comfortable with this. My main circle of associates are on average a lot older than me so I’ve spent a lot of the last few months feeling rather guilty about the stick. I’m not thirty yet and they’re all sixty plus. If they don’t need a stick, why should I use one? It seems selfish, lazy, attention seeking. All characteristics that I loathe.
On the plus side, I have now been asked if I would prefer a disabled access carriage when I went with young friends on a miniature train ride. I’m not sure entirely if that is a plus. I was embarrassed. Youngest friend was very disappointed that we didn’t get to go in the ‘special’ carriage. But I can now use lifts in shops without being evilled by well-meaning strangers who previously seemed to believe that I was a specimen of lazy, modern youth. This peace of mind however is exchanged by the discomfort of being seen with such an aid. I can’t win.
And yes, I have on occasion tripped over my third leg. I can think of two incidences, one of which was spectacular and involved a pirouette (no, I didn’t know I could do those either) and landing very heavily in the concrete communal hallway outside my flat, ouch. But that’s not quite as often as I was expecting.
So on the whole, the stick has been useful whilst absolutely mortifying. It has ‘outed’ me and my illness to the world, which may or may not be a good thing. I’m still undecided.