So I brought a walking stick…
Not going to lie, shopping for a walking stick at 20 years old was a surreal experience. It was not something I ever expected to need and it was something I most certainly didn’t want. But here we are, I’m now the owner of a sparkly purple walking stick.
Long story short, for those who are new, I have chronic pain in my feet and through that I’ve now got dodgy knees and hips. For the past year and a bit I’ve been in some degree of pain every day what often causes me issues with walking or standing. Some days I’m fine and I can walk around normally without help as whilst I’m in pain it’s manageable (though these days are now few and far between). However, other days I’m in so much pain I can hardly walk let alone stand, for example today it took me an hour and a half to get out of bed. I have a cabin bed with a ladder and I was in too much pain to go down four steps… it kinda sucked.
In a bid to have some level of independence back and to allow me to be as normal as possible I eventually started to use crutches to help me get about. I started off with only using one but eventually moved on to two for more support. Using crutches comes with it’s own set of problems, my main one being that I was off to university soon and needed to be walking with less support so I could have a more normal uni experience. I thought they would create a barrier whilst I was there. I’ve also been getting stronger walking unaided for short periods of time, so I found that on better pain days the crutch (I’d only be using one) would cause more issues than help. It’s big and clunky and if I’m not in massive amounts of pain and not using it properly, it does more damage to my feet than good. So at the start of this week I made the decision to get a folding walking stick, one that I could keep in my bag at all times. It allows me to walk without aid for as long as I can manage, building up strength, but have the security of having an aid when the pain gets too much.
It’s taken me a long time to accept that I need mobility aids now, but I think I’m pretty much come to terms with it, and now that I do feel comfortable talking about it I can write about a topic that’s been bugging me since day one of my crutches – The stigma of using mobility aids as a young person.
I’m going to tackle this in two parts, the first being my response and feelings to using mobility aids as a young person and the second part being how the public responded to it.
You would think that the only social difficulties I would have from my aids would be from other people, but it truth I was my own worst enemy in this for a long time and I don’t think that’s talked about enough. When I was trying find other people my age who used a walking stick I came across a lot of information about dealing with the public and effectively developing a thick skin. But I didn’t come across people’s experiences with how it effecting them as an individual. Using them took an emotional toll on me and I felt really alone in that, I felt ungrateful that I had access to these aids that allowed me Independence but I despised using them and was ashamed to leave the house. So, I’m going to break the silence on that and be real about how I felt and my internalized ableism.
But first I thought I should quickly show you what I use, just so we’re on the same page.
My response to using mobility aids
Shame, anxiety and embarrassment.
Those were the three most prevalent emotions I felt when I held my crutches for the first time and in that moment these two pieces of metal that were supposed to help me felt more like a prison sentence.
I wanted them, but I really didn’t want them at the same time.
If there’s one thing that I’ve learned through having chronic pain it’s that I’m a really prideful and stubborn person. This is going to sound awful, but I didn’t want to look disabled and I know that does sound awful but I said I was going to be real with this. I mentioned earlier about having a surprisingly large amount of internalized abelisum what I was really shocked with.
As far as I was aware I had no issues with disabled people/ people with a disability (use what ever phrase you prefer). My mum’s job and friends meant that I met loads of people from all different walks of life from a very young age. It didn’t strike me as odd when one of her friends would be over and she would wear a helmet when walking and instead of sitting on our sofa she would lie down (she had POTs and would most likely faint if she sat up or walked). I’d be round other peoples homes and they had a full time carer and that was normal for me. I even have a family friend who was a part time crutch user because their hip would randomly dislocate. These people were my friends, it was normal, yet I held my crutches for the first time and I felt so much shame towards them because I didn’t want to look disabled.
I was so shocked with myself.
On the same hand however, I was also embarrassed to be using the crutches, but not for the reason above, it was almost the opposite.
I thought I was insulting the disabled community by using mobility aids. I felt that I was a fraud, that because I had good pain days and could walk on those days that I was a bit liar. Even after having chronic pain for over a year and struggling to walk daily I don’t consider myself disabled, I consider myself to have an injury.
I feel like I’m insulting every person who needs and uses mobility aids because I feel deep down I don’t need them (despite being told by at least three doctors/ nurses that I should be using them) and by using them I’m mocking people with real disability. To add insult to injury, I don’t even have a diagnosis of what’s wrong. We think we know what’s wrong and it’s being treated but I’ve never been given a name to what is wrong with me. I’ve been passed on from one medial professional to another, to another as no one knew what was wrong or why I’m in pain.
I’ve been this mush of conflicting emotions when it came to using crutches and I felt so alone in that because I thought I was the only one who felt this way.
I had my own stigma about using mobility aids to over come and I think that’s been worse than dealing with the public. I thought I was weak for using them, I thought it was a prison sentence, I felt I was a fraud and insulting the disabled community, I was conflicted about going outside with them and not wanting to viewed as being disabled at such a young age.
One of the biggest hurdles this past year is recognizing that using my crutches or walking stick isn’t a bad thing or something to be self conscious of. I need them to be interdependent and that’s all that matters.
The public’s response
I’ve had very mixed responses when it comes to the public. However, I believe this is down to what my job was and me having such a large interaction with the general public. I worked in a well known opticians for three years in total (my employment ended with them just under two weeks ago because of my mobility aids and chronic pain) and I was constantly interacting with the public and as a result I had a lot more negative interactions and responses to my crutches. If you saw only 5 people a day the likelihood of you having a negative response to using mobility aids as a young person would be really slim. But because I could see maybe 50 people plus in a day, it upped the likelihood of me having bad experiences if that makes sense?
One of the weirdest things I found was that people suddenly didn’t know how to talk to me. Depending on the circumstances I could easily see the same member of the public three or four times in the span of a month or two. I didn’t use my crutches everyday at work though most day I did, sometimes I’d leave them at home and others they would be in the staff room if I felt a flare up coming on the morning. This meant that I could see a person and build a good rapport with them, get to know them and chat with them and deal with what ever problem they were having and they’d never know I used mobility aids. On the odd occasion, that same person could come in a second time and that day I wasn’t using my crutches and we’d chat happily as I was working. But what happened was they’d eventually come in, I’d see them but I had my crutches with me and the rapport would vanish. Most people were ok until I explained I hadn’t broken my foot and had chronic pain and I don’t know why but people seemed to just lose the ability to have a casual conversation with me. It was so weird, but people just couldn’t hold a conversation with me anymore and they treated me differently. Sadly, a lot trusted me less when I was using my crutches even though I’d helped them in the past and they trusted me then.
On the flip side to this I’ve also been accused of faking my pain by people in store. One time I can see a person with my crutches, a few weeks later they will see me without them and when they come in for the last time and I have my crutches again, it confuses them. It’s ok to be confused by it, not everyone will get that I use them part time. But to be accused of faking my injury or only using them for attention by a complete stranger isn’t nice.
I was even told off my a patient at work once for using my crutches what was the most bizarre experience going.
I was upstairs sorting out bits and bobs. I was doing the collection clinic, my next patient hadn’t turned up for their appointment, and there was a gentleman waiting for a sight test in the area where I was working. I’d been sitting down with my crutches tucked round the side of the desk and when I stood up to go to the lab I picked up my crutches and this gentlemen pipped up. He asked me if I had heard of this man (I forgot his name sadly) and I said I hadn’t. He then proceeded to tell me about this WW2 veteran who was in the RAF and his plane got shot down and as a result of the crash both of his legs were amputated. I find history fascinating so I was interested and asked what happened to him. What I didn’t expect was this gentleman to turn around and abruptly say this veteran never used crutches. The abruptness of it threw me a little but I motioned for him to carry on. He then proceeded to tell me that if a man who had had both of his legs amputated didn’t need crutches then I didn’t need to use mine either!
It’s not often I’m speechless, but I just didn’t know how to respond to that. I couldn’t get my head around a stranger who doesn’t know my medical history thinking it’s ok to tell me I don’t need to use my mobility aids just because they’d heard a story of an amputee who was older than me not needing them. To be told off for using my crutches by a stranger was just so bizarre and it threw me so much that when I left him and told my work colleague in the lab I just couldn’t stop myself from laughing in shock.
Thinking back to it, I honest feel that if it was one of my older work colleagues on crutches or someone who was 10 or 15 years older than me, the gentleman wouldn’t have said that to them. My generation is often viewed by some older folks as being snowflakes and a bit wimpy and I do think that if I was older, the gentlman wouldn’t have said that to me.
Another thing that happened a lot was I was told I was too young to have chronic pain. This once again mainly happened at work when I felt rude to not answer a customer when I was asked why I was on crutches. Some older people (I’m not picking on older people but they were the ones who were the most verbal about things, I have yet to have a child or someone my age say what they’ve said to me) would tell me about how they had real pain because of arthritis or a hip replacement and I was too young to understand pain. To be told to wait until I was their age and then I’d know what real pain was, was really hurtful. Some people were smug that I used crutches at age 20 and they were in their 70’s and didn’t need a walking stick and were very verbal about that. All in all it’s been demoralizing and I was in a constant state of anxiety at work.
I didn’t realize how horrible people could be until I looked vulnerable. But on the flip side, I didn’t realize how kind people could be until I looked vulnerable.
It’s this weird balance of in a year I’ve only had one person offer me their seat on a bus and I’ve never had a person offer me their seat on a bench at a bus stop when. Public transport is hard and I’m not sure if it’s because I am young and viewed as being more able despite the crutches so people won’t offer me a seat or if people just don’t care. But then bus drivers are kinder and ask if there’s anywhere I’d like them to stop that isn’t a bus stop to minimize how much I have to walk.
People don’t rush me when I’m walking in the street, they don’t barge past me or knock into me. When I need to cross a road, drivers stop for me and allow me to cross safely. I’ve had a stranger walk with me down the street after work when it was dark to make sure nothing happened to me and I’d get to my destination safely. Having mobility aids validate my pain and people tend to take me seriously when I say I’m in pain and people do tend to be more understanding.
I’ve developed thicker skin now when I use my crutches or my sparkly stick. What I’ve learned is that mobility aids are there to help the user and I’m not just talking about crutches here, I’m talking about mobility scooters, wheelchairs, walking frames and the rest of them. They offer independence and security when out and about. They’re not something to be ashamed off and they’re not something to be made to feel ashamed off. It doesn’t matter if a person uses them 100% of the time or 5% of the time and it doesn’t matter if that person is old or young, people shouldn’t question or be attacked for it. What is happening to your body is your own business and not other people’s and you have no obligation to share your medical history or life story with a stranger.
As someone who is young, using a mobility aid is ok. Walking sticks are often thought of for old people but they’re not exclusively for them. I like my purple glittery stick and it’s helped me so much in the short time I’ve had it and I think it looks rather nice.
I know this has been a long post and you’ve done really well to make it this far. This has been a topic that’s been on my mind for a long time and I’m glad I’ve been able to share it with you. If you take away anything from this post let it be this- be kind to everyone you come across no matter their age, if they use mobility aids or look different. You never know what’s happening in their life and a little bit of kindness goes a long way.