The Blog

Taking the Chair

Forgive the unexpected intermission. Where were we? Yes, that's it. I was fumbling around, trying to get the hang of living in a wheelchair in a new part of London, waiting for my broken back to heal a bit more. But in my last update, I glossed over some of the worst of what was happening.

Forgive the unexpected intermission. Where were we? Yes, that's it. I was fumbling around, trying to get the hang of living in a wheelchair in a new part of London, waiting for my broken back to heal a bit more. But in my last update, I glossed over some of the worst of what was happening.

I came out of hospital in late February, greeted by mountains of paperwork. Please, please, please - send me pdf files, send me emails, send me word documents. But please stop chucking paper at me. Nothing is guaranteed to send me over the edge more than that. And I was moving flats, scarcely able to open a cardboard box, let alone stuff a lifetime's worth of possessions into fifty of them. There were scores of forms to fill in, but you can never just fill them in. Every form requires ten enclosures signed in blood and presented in triplicate. On top of that, most of the doorways in my home were just one centimetre wider than the wheelchair. Bump into a doorframe once and it's a minor annoyance. But if it's how you begin every day and it proceeds to happen fifty times before lunch, it chips away at your sanity, slowly then quickly.

On day three, it happened. Alcohol. Defeat consumed me. I tried to pretend I was normal by buying beer, but there's a good reason why I haven't drunk since early 2009. I can't be trusted with it. Still, be normal, buy beers I thought, just four of them. OK, that's not doing the trick. Buy wine - you're still normal that way. Buy it in cartons. Yes, we're getting there now, but God it's acidic. You know what to do now. Yes, vodka. So I did. And a nasty, sour smell filled every room. I resumed smoking after four months off it. A vengeful, mean-spirited edge crept into my writing. I whinged about people who'd hurt my feelings when I was fifteen. I attempted to sneer at them and cast them as my inferiors. Now my prose strikes me as contemptible. Can I really, really say that I've never been unkind to anyone? No, of course I can't. So I'm not in a plausible position to moan about petty grievances more than twenty years old. Then came the night when I saw parts of my own stomach lining in the sink. I had thrown them up. They were pink and white. I looked at my puffy, haggard face in the bedroom mirror. I realised I'd retreated entirely to the wheelchair, not using surfaces and edges to try standing up. I'd completely discarded my exercises and the gym. And vital elements of my recovery had been ignored. The physiotherapy appointments meant to commence as soon as I'd left the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital had not been set up.

I drifted away into a fantasy world, watching little-known, late-sixties/early-seventies favourites, like Goodbye Gemini starring Judy Geeson and the extraordinary lost classic, Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny and Girly.. I lost myself in the vicious 1967 Suzy Kendall thriller, The Penthouse. I wondered why everyone in the late sixties and early seventies looked more attractive to me than their modern counterparts. And the colours. I felt passively suicidal. I didn't want to go to the trouble of offing myself; I just wanted to be murdered or for the alcohol to shut my system down once and for all. The silliest thing is that there was no shortage of offers of help; kind people ready, willing and able to help me pack and tackle the boxes of paperwork. I made the classic mistake I've made before. I thought to myself, 'Ah...people like the pleasant, warm sensation they get when they offer to help. They don't actually want you to take them up on it. What a ridiculous idea!' I forgot to consider that when someone asks me for help, I'm almost always pleased. I'm pleased that anyone might feel that much of a connection to me. I like helping people. Every single person offering to help me had every intention of following through. I started to let them. After another week of attempts to sober up, I did it. Seeing the stomach lining helped.

Doors start to open when I let them. Instead of whining about it, I eventually got myself to the Wheelchair Service. I expected some grim system that I'd be swiftly churned through before being turfed out, no better off. I couldn't have been more wrong. They listened, really listened, and they encouraged me to be active in my own care. They talked through the possible adaptations which could be made to my wheelchair and discussed the options for changing to a different one.

As I re-emerged from the horrors of drink, there were setbacks. I attempted a solo wheelchair jaunt in a chair that could hardly be said to be pavement worthy. I made it to Boots, shaking a little. I queued for fifteen minutes or more, only to discover that just half my prescription could be filled there. By now, I'd been in the chair for over an hour. The sacral region of my back hurts if I stay in it that long. I left half my prescription with Boots and returned to the pavement in search of Superdrug. They could fill the rest of my prescription, they said, but half today and half tomorrow. I took it personally. I wanted someone simply to extend their hand to me wholeheartedly and say, 'Yes. I can help you. Not half-help you. Not help you, but on different days. Just help you completely'. I returned to Boots for collection. There was some kind of hold-up. I explained, tearfully (yes, I'd got the waterworks going, and thought it might worth milking it by parading my blubbering face in front of the pharmacist), I had broken my back and it was not good for me to be in the chair for much longer. I got very angry. And then sanity returned. No one at either chemist was withholding elements of my prescription in order to confuse or upset me. I thought of my aunt who rides a wheelchair. Such a setback wouldn't phase her in the least. She wouldn't even think of it as a setback. She'd just get on with it and carry herself with an unfussy, inconspicuous elegance. I told myself to emulate her and felt better within five minutes.

Now I am OK. I wrestle with feelings of self-disdain. I did all of this to myself. There is a Peter Hitchens in my head who pipes up now and then to tell me I'm disgusting and worthless. Thanks for that. But mainly, I jettison self-flagellation, fun though it may be for some at certain types of parties and nightclubs. I feel the full seriousness of what has happened. The anguish I've caused my parents leaves me with a sense of wretchedness. Few of us want to hurt the people we love most. It's an awful thing to realise that in exchange for everything they've done for me, I've given them sleeplessness and heartache. I know that they'd rush to assure me that drinking aside, they love many of the things I've done. But I feel like a disappointment. For now, I'm tired of puns based on the word 'wheel'. I must think of something else. Thank you for staying with me.