I've never raised my head above the parapet before. I'd recommend it without hesitation. There's great freedom in revealing oneself in a wholly unflattering light as I did with the piece about taking mephedrone and breaking my back. It's bracing, for certain, and you have to get ready for a bit of online heckling.
Since the first time I was published (1993, the Sunday Telegraph), every piece has been about someone or something else. back when I begun, online comments sections did not exist. If a nasty reader's letter came into the office, you could shrug your shoulders and put it in the bin. The vast majority of responses to my piece on mephedrone were somewhere between neutral and positive. It really is true that most people are compassionate, forgiving and accommodating of the flaws and defects of their fellows. But then comes the other kind of message: "Idiot!", "Ass", "A*shole", "W*nker!", "F*ck-face!", "Moron!", "You should have been left to die!". Talk about kicked while you're down. I am startled and do the best two things I can think of; I either do nothing, or I join in, concurring with their negative assessments of my personality. I present no resistance, no argument, no defiant come-back. It's my first encounter in a while with that slice of the population who are only capable of itemising the faults of others. Self-reproach is beyond them. Do I feel envy or contempt for them? Or both? I can't work it out. They remind me of the baying Jeremy Kyle studio audience, whose frothy delight at the downfall of others never fails to shock me.
One of the recurring themes is 'good paraplegia'/'bad paraplegia'. Good paraplegics are people who fall off ladders while vaccinating entire villages in war-torn countries. Bad paraplegics are people like me, the ones who deserve it. This distinction reminds me of the 'good AIDS'/'bad AIDS' concept that was satirised by Chris Morris on Brass Eye. In case anyone missed it back in the 90s, it goes something like this: 'Good AIDS' you acquire through heterosexual activities, or in utero, or via tainted blood transfusions; 'Bad AIDS', however, is the wretched, pitiless condition which you get because of IV narcotics or unsafe gay sex. I once looked after someone in the latter group. It was like watching a photograph develop in reverse. I saw the way that the syndrome slowly leached life out of a once-vibrant body, rendering the person I loved a wraithlike, deathly shell. I'm not convinced I've ever recovered from the experience, but if it's given me anything it's a complete lack of judgement towards people who, by their own actions, bring disease or damage upon themselves. Come to think of it, that's something I already had. I recall in childhood hearing one of the monarch's offspring on radio, making a rather ugly statement about the 'innocent' victims of AIDS, thereby hinting at the existence of another category of victim. She didn't spit it out, but it was clear that this category might be labelled 'deserving'. It was jarring. It may have been a prophetic moment. Fifteen years later, I would start to dwindle and deteriorate as I witnessed the HIV-ravaged body of the person I loved. Three friends, all of whom had shouldered the caring with me, led me into a room near Old Street. I can't remember if it was a morgue or some kind of resting area for cadavers. They left, to give me a few moments alone with the body. I wept to see the lifeless, six-stone corpse. I started talking, blabbering madly, begging for life to be returned, holding on to the last fibre of the possibility that it was all just an elaborate joke.
Last Thursday, I finally tasted life on the outside. Kind friends drove me to a wonderful Lori Lieberman concert and the pleasure of it kept the pain at bay. I had no idea how many obstacles the next two days would hurl into my path. I'm still picking them up and tossing them out of the window. Food falls onto the floor. Everything needs meticulous planning. If I don't put the shampoo bottle in the right place first, it'll be too late to reach for it once I'm sitting in the shower.
Today, I bump into the edges of doorways. While stretching to pick up one thing, I manage to drop several others. I reverse into tables. I crash into entrances and misjudge distances. There is so much to learn about wheelchairs. I cannot think where to start. The thread connecting me to life and to sanity is a slender one. It is fraying as I write. I try to get perspective. I think of the lovely people I met in hospital whose higher level of injury means the loss of arm movement, the loss of anything below the head. It is good to get perspective. At the same time, the fact that someone else's problems are bigger than one's own does not magically take one's own away. I panic to realise that I cannot find my passport - my sole form of photo ID. I wonder how I'll get through the week. The men and women who sent me angry and unpleasant messages cannot begin to hate me more than I hate myself, so I don't need to concern my head with them. Oh, maybe I don't hate myself; maybe it's just a momentary, intense dislike. My 'To Do' list is so long that I feel immobilised by it. It winks and taunts me and I don't know how to make a start. It's as though I haven't hit the ground yet. I am back near the Westway, tumbling through the air. The worst is still to come. I wonder how to title this piece. 'Drowning, not waving' seems too obvious and unimaginative, even if it is accurate. I will come up with something else. I won't try to be witty or profound. Thank you to all those who are staying with me as I career and careen my way through this new life.