Accepting anxiety

I’d say I’m pretty good at worrying. I’ve heard the phrase ‘practice makes perfect’ plenty of times and I reckon that if that applies to worrying, I’ve got pretty good at it over the years. I’m also pretty creative. If there’s nothing obvious to worry about, I usually manage to find something. Even if I have to work pretty hard at it, I’ll get there. Over-analysing, catastrophising, you name it, I’ve done it. If I was really stuck for something to worry about, I’d start being anxious about worrying itself which was pretty exhausting to be honest. Spending time I wasn’t anxious being anxious about being anxious. When you write it down it makes absolutely no sense but it took me a while to come to that conclusion.

I’ve always been pretty determined in terms of overcoming physical obstacles. If ever I came up against a logistical problem, whether that was the wheelie bins which blocked my route to secondary school or the fact that I couldn’t stand up and be a goalkeeper during primary school kickabouts. To solve the goalkeeping problem I just ended up kneeling down instead (I’m not sure my physio was too happy but it did enable me to dive around the muddy goalmouth and join in with everybody else).

For some reason, I was more reluctant to engage with anything concerning mental health. I always felt that engaging with my anxieties would somehow make them more real. My instinctive tactic was just to sweep my worries to one side and hope that they disappeared, which of course they didn’t. A bit like trying to pretend Aston Villa’s years of struggle in the Premier League weren’t actually happening if I didn’t watch any of the games, ignoring my difficulties did not make them go away.

Once I’d realised that I had to acknowledge my anxieties, my thoughts initially turned to concrete steps I could take to ‘solve’ the ‘problem’. I had counselling and there were definitely some solid strategies that I could take away from those sessions, lots of them based around mindfulness. But I think the most helpful thing I was told was that it’s OK to worry and that I should try to be kind to myself. Obviously, the levels of anxiety I was feeling at certain points were having an adverse effect on me.  However, expecting myself to stop worrying altogether was totally unrealistic too. As soon as I shifted my focus from ‘I was anxious about that today’ to ‘I was less anxious today than I was this time last week’, I began to feel much better about myself.

I’ve accepted that anxiety will always be an aspect of my character and that’s fine- it’s part of who I am. But in a way, I think it’s made me more sensitive to other people’s difficulties and that’s got to be a good thing too. Being more open with others recently has made me realise I’m far from alone in having anxiety. I’ve also come to realise that being anxious from time to time and being the positive smiley person I like to be are not mutually exclusive. I may not be able to do anything about Aston Villa and I might not be able to adopt a basset hound puppy but I can actively engage with my anxieties without making them worse or changing my generally positive disposition.

Initiatives like Time to Talk day are so important in helping to destigmatise the topic of mental health. The issues won’t go away completely but feeling able to talk openly with family and friends makes them a whole lot easier to deal with.

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12 days of Oxmas (2017 version)

Once again, it’s nearly Christmas and once again I’ve realised that I’ve been neglecting this blog. I have, however, found an amusing Christmas-related procrastination activity which involves substituting the word ‘Christmas’ for ‘Brexit’ in a variety of well-known festive songs. My personal favourites so far have been ‘We wish you a Merry Brexit’. ‘Oh I wish it could be Brexit Every Day’ and ‘It’s beginning to look a lot like Brexit’. I’m currently listening to James Arthur singing Silent Night on Radio 1 so I feel now is the ideal time for my annual attempt to write something vaguely Christmassy.

12- the number of different basset hounds on my much treasured 2017 calendar in my room (having said that, you’d feel a bit short changed if there were fewer than twelve, in fact I think I’d have asked for a refund). One particularly distressing moment occurred when the June basset hound decided to fall dramatically from the wall and into the bin. No damage was done but I feel like the basset hound definitely looked even more mournful than usual.

11- the number of hours I have spent on the phone attempting to book assistance on trains. I feel like me and the bloke on the Cross Country assistance line have developed a special bond. Once he even felt we knew each other well enough to ask who I was going to see at Wembley Arena (it was James Arthur, obviously). Another important turning point in our friendship was when he suddenly started to call me ‘Jay’. I don’t know if it was just a crackly phone line or he felt that we’d got to the point where we could start using shortened versions of each other’s names.

10- The number of Villa games I’ve been to over the last year– being closer to Villa Park has continued to be one of the unexpected advantages of living in Oxford (although some would argue ‘punishment’ is a more accurate description). Villa still haven’t lost a game me and my brother have watched together. We even brought our undoubted footballing influence to the mighty Oxford United, who scored a 90th minute winner having no doubt just become alerted to our presence.

9- Number of times I’ve reminded my college that perhaps parking a lorry over the main access point wasn’t one of their better ideas– Apparently college has won awards for the initial phases of their rebuilding project, I can only assume that accessibility wasn’t on the list of criteria. They’ve continued to find ingenious ways to block my route. Last week they really went the extra mile, outdoing themselves by blocking the back entrance to college as well as the front. Don’t get me wrong, I love my college, but sometimes I feel like they don’t always make the most sensible choices.

8- number of times I’ve wondered whether our college tortoise actually exists. I remember being told last year about the existence of a wonderfully named college tortoise called ‘Aristurtle’. Naturally, I was quite excited to hear about something in college that may actually move around the grounds more slowly than me. However, distressingly, I am yet to see any actual proof of its existence. Here’s hoping 2018 is the year we can finally meet…

7- Number of students I’ll be teaching for a German translation class next year. From January, I’ll be faced with the terrifying/exciting prospect of teaching an actual uni class for the first time. I’m fully intending to exploit this position by starting with translating an excerpt out of Harry Potter. Who knew that looking at how to translate ‘Hippogriff’ and ‘Diagon Alley’ into German could be classed as work?

6- Times I’ve pretended to be a tourist to avoid having to give directions to people. My stock reply is ‘I’m new here too’ (which could be partially true if you take ‘new’ to mean ‘I’ve lived here for 18 months). Being responsible for people merrily heading off in the wrong direction is not something I especially relish. I feel like the Oxford United shirt I have recently bought and the fact I can now recognise the ‘we all hate Swindon’ chant slightly undermines my claim not to be ‘local’ though.

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5- Number of times I’ve been to watch a local open mic night (obviously without singing myself, that would be very painful for all involved). One of my friends introduced me to a great open mic night in Oxford which has been a perfect way to relax and get away from the Oxford ‘bubble’. Bearing in mind a singing teacher used to complain that she could hear me singing out of tune at the age of 6, I felt that the best place for me was definitely in the audience.

4- Length in hours of the wheelchair tennis session I attended: If ever I needed reminding how tiring wheelchair tennis is, a mammoth 4 hour session teaching the basics of the game seemed to do the trick. I still couldn’t hit a backhand properly but I did find a good excuse to continue my attempt to masquerade as a die-hard Oxford United fan of many years. It was all going so well until they asked about whether I though the current team was any better than the one a couple of years ago…

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3- The (minimum) number of years I found out I’ll be staying in Oxford for. In March, I was very surprised but also very happy to be offered a funded PhD looking at multilingualism in South Tyrol, a trilingual province in northern Italy. Despite all of the doom-laden talks which largely focused on how I would be unlikely to encounter another human soul throughout the three years of my research as I worked in a sinister darkened library, I’ve found far more social opportunities than I expected.  I’m also attempting to perfect the art of sounding like I know what I’m doing even if that isn’t always the case!!

2- Times that random strangers have attempted to push my wheelchair without asking me. I was happily going about some last-minute Christmas shopping in town when I suddenly felt two unfamiliar hands on the back of my wheelchair. After briefly fearing I was being kidnapped for no apparent reason, the guy just said ‘you looked like you could do with some help’. Strangers can be very helpful on occasions but I’d rather they took a minute to ask before launching into ‘must help at all costs’ mode.

1 successful year- I think 2017 has been really positive overall. Obviously, there are always things which don’t go to plan but I think I’m now more resilient when coping with those setbacks. I feel I’m less anxious than I was this time last year too. I’m gradually learning to live in the moment more and am taking all the opportunities that come my way in the hope that they will lead to even more exciting adventures. Now, where’s that basset hound puppy I was trying to adopt…

 

Have you booked assistance?

Have you booked assistance? These have to be 4 of my least favourite words in the English language (or any other language for that matter). Admittedly, train travel isn’t always easy for anyone at the best of times. I know that sitting in a crowded carriage with a load of strangers isn’t most people’s idea of fun. However, having a disability tends to add a little more of a challenge.

I’ve long been used to the requirement that you have to book a ramp and wheelchair space on a train at least 24 hours before you’d like to travel. This situation is not helped by the fact that someone, somewhere has decreed that having two wheelchair spaces per train is sufficient (one in standard class, one in 1st class). Although I’m normally pretty good at booking (I’m practically on first name terms with the Cross Country operators), yesterday I forgot. Even so, I made sure I turned up the obligatory 20 minutes before departure, feeling more than a little apprehensive.

As I came onto the platform, I spotted two other wheelchair users waiting for the same train. With something a sinking feeling, I approached the nearest assistant. After explaining the situation and admitting that I had committed the cardinal sin of not booking a wheelchair space in advance, I was promptly informed that it was likely the train guard would ‘throw me off the train’ even if they succeeded in putting a ramp down for me to get on. He then went on to say that the guard would not move the train until I got off, before adding rather unnecessarily, ‘it’s health and safety, he’s not going to risk his job for you, is he?’ In response to my suggestion that maybe throwing someone off a train simply because they happen to use a wheelchair perhaps wasn’t the best approach, he bluntly stated ‘those are the rules’.

What if there was a ‘rule’ that only 2 people of a certain race could travel on a train at any one time? Or a by law which asserted that only two foreigners were able to travel on a train at once? On second thoughts, maybe I shouldn’t give UKIP any new policy ideas… Seriously, though, it was one of the most unpleasant and degrading conversations I’ve been forced to have. There was somehow a free wheelchair space but it had been helpfully blocked up by luggage. I know that wheelchair spaces on trains to make great luggage racks but they actually make even better spaces for wheelchairs.

As it happened, the actual crew on the train couldn’t have been more helpful and helped to move all of the luggage, but the attitude of the man at the station had added unnecessary stress to what was supposed to be a fun day watching Aston Villa (before you say anything, I’m aware that ‘Aston Villa’ and ‘fun’ don’t often appear in the same sentence). Even then, the drama wasn’t over yet. Just as I’d begun to think the worst had passed as I settled down to reading Harry Potter on my Kindle and enjoyed the biscuits which had come about from my surprise upgrade to 1st class, a lady approached me. Without a word, she dumped her inexplicably large suitcase right at my feet, ingeniously placed to completely block my exit. I quickly explained the situation to the very helpful guard  who moved the monster suitcase, although I did get extremely evil looks from the lady involved for the remainder of the journey.

All of the anxiety caused yesterday was totally unnecessary. Wheelchair users should be able to be as spontaneous as anyone else. The worry over whether or not you will be able to board a train could be easily avoided if more train companies had seats which flipped up and could be used as wheelchair spaces when necessary and regular seats when not. Casually explaining to someone that they face being removed from a train because of their disability is offensive and wrong. Secondly, people need to realise that luggage does not belong in wheelchair spaces (the clue’s kind of in the name). I’m still going to travel by train and I do really appreciate the staff who were especially kind yesterday. It’s just that I’d rather wheelchair users were always treated as welcome passengers rather than a nuisance or just a ‘health and safety risk’.

How do you solve a problem like Sunday evenings?

I’ve got to admit it. I’m not a massive fan of Sunday evenings. You don’t really know what to do with them. They just sit there pretending to be part of the weekend whereas in reality they’re just that annoying little bridge between the weekend and the start of a new week. Just a matter of minutes ago the whole 2 days of the weekend seemed to be stretching out gloriously in front of you. But now evil Sunday evening has returned, replacing memories of promising but ultimately disappointing nonleague football matches with rather more mundane thoughts of a presentation on Monday morning.

I feel like Sunday evenings don’t really do themselves any favours. They’re too near the end of the weekend for you to do anything too adventurous but because it is the weekend, you feel like you should make the most of the last bit of free time before the madness of the week begins. I feel like I become more anxious on Sunday, partly because I start thinking about all the things that are going on in the week ahead. Don’t get me wrong, I’m really pleased to lead a busy life. It’s just that sometimes I wish I didn’t think about things quite so much. Having said that, there’s a few things that I found quite helpful to make me feel a little bit more calm and positive.

  1. Often, I put on some relaxing music. I’ve yet to come across a problem which everyone’s favourite X Factor winner, (James Arthur, obviously) can’t make seem a little better. After a few lines of his timeless classic ‘Impossible’ (much better than the original), I often feel ready to take on the world-not that that’s always a great idea last thing on a Sunday evening.
  2. Amusing YouTube videos are always one of my other go-to strategies. Videos of incredibly cute basset hounds are a favourite at the moment. Let’s face it, is pretty hard not to smile when watching a basset hound reluctantly being given a much-needed bath (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R4u4ZvrHqe8) or observing a group of basset hound puppies happily cantering through a meadow (admittedly, ‘cantering’ is very relative when used to describe the movements of lolloping bassets). Hilariously bad X Factor auditions are also a pretty surefire way to lift your spirits. Keeping a straight face when watching Ant and Seb’s ‘unique’ rendition of ‘Mysterious Girl‘ (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qLVKPL9FwNQ) is a pretty tough challenge.
  3. One thing I also do regularly, usually just before I get to bed, is reading a familiar book. At the moment, I’m working my way again through the Harry Potter series. There are so many things that my 11 year old self missed when I read the books for the 1st time and it’s a welcome break from the reading I have to do for my PhD. I feel like everyone could do with a bit of Hogwarts magic from time to time. Also, I think all Christmas Carol services could be improved with the simple addition of ‘God rest Ye Merry Hippogriffs’ to the order of service.
  4. I’ve found Headspace to be a really useful app. It’s made up of lots of different 10 minute sessions which are a bit like a cross between meditation and mindfulness. I think there’s a student discount on some of the things too! (https://www.headspace.com/)
  5. I’ve heard people say that drawing is also quite a good way of replacing any negative thoughts with more positive ones. However, given my distinct lack of any artistic talent whatsoever, I’m not convinced that this would be a productive strategy. I feel like I only got vaguely decent marks in my year 7 art class because my teacher insisted that my name was Peter for the whole year (whoever Peter was, he was definitely better at art than I was). Nevertheless, I have found doing something creative can prove a useful distraction from any anxiety. I usually end up writing some ridiculous limerick which at least serves a purpose by making my mind focused on light-hearted things.

I should probably leave it there, got to get through James Arthur’s greatest hits before the end of the evening whilst watching basset hounds try to type on a computer.

Happy Sunday evening!

J

Happy (belated) World Cerebral Palsy Day!

I just realised yesterday was, in fact, world cerebral palsy day so I figured I’d belatedly write a little bit about how cerebral palsy affects me as well as answering some common queries.

  • My legs aren’t broken, they just don’t work very well: As some of you who have come across my blog before may have gathered, I have not broken my leg. My legs are not broken, they are not in plaster and, rather surprisingly, I haven’t ever actually broken any bones (unless you count when the doctors decided it would be a great idea to deliberately break my hips when I was 8 in order to reset them in a better position. Ahh, fond memories…

 

  • I don’t mind answering questions, as long as they’re at least vaguely thought through: I’m always happy to be open about my cerebral palsy and try to answer all questions when I can, especially if I know the person asking them pretty well or if the question still clearly has good intentions. Interestingly, the least sensitive questions tend to come from those people who have only just met me. These range from invasive, personal questions that people wouldn’t dream of asking a non-disabled person who they barely knew, to the downright stupid. My favourite one so far has been ‘Would you rather you broke your arm or your leg?’ Just in case the 1st point failed to clarify things properly, I HAVE NOT BROKEN ANY BONES IN MY BODY. Also, it’s not like someone comes up to you and says: “Here’s a fun game, how about you choose your own disability?” It’s not something you can wake up one day and decide. Yet another example of how ‘taking back control’ doesn’t always work in practice.

 

  • My sense of direction/general spatial awareness is impressively appalling: I always smile inwardly (sometimes outwardly) when people start explaining in detail about the name of a particular street or a part of Oxford which is more than a few hundred metres away from my college. Despite living here for a year now, I still find it impressively easy to get lost. One of the benefits of living in a town popular with tourists, however, is that I am easily able to masquerade as a tourist myself when asking for directions. The truly horrible moments occur when well-meaning tourists decree that I am a reliable, local person so they choose me for the noble task of providing directions. I either panic and point vaguely left or right or quickly explain to them that I’m new here as well (12 months is still pretty new, right?)

 

  • I’m quite bad at recognising faces from a distance due to my perceptual difficulties. Very often people say to me ‘I saw you in town and you ignored me’. The chances are I didn’t actually take it in as I was walking (well, wheeling past). I didn’t really think about this much until recently but it’s definitely linked to my CP.

 

  • I jump incredibly easily: Many people with cerebral palsy never lose the startle reflex that most people leave behind as a baby. This has inevitably led to a variety of weird and wonderful moments. I like to think that my keenness for equality extends to the things that make me jump. I’m an equal opportunities jumper: It doesn’t matter whether it’s sudden cough in a silent Quaker meeting or a hideously loud fire alarm at 3 in the morning (who doesn’t love those?!). I’ll jump at anything, ‘cos that’s just the way I roll…

 

I guess what I’d really like to get out of writing this, and actually out of most of the blogs that I write, is to say that having cerebral palsy might mean there’s a few things about me that are a little bit different, but I still want the same things out of life as anyone else, disability or no disability. Having said that, I’m convinced that cerebral palsy has given me a more sensitive view of the difficulties that other people might be going through. It’s part of me and it always will be. In fact, I’m sure that I wouldn’t be where I am today without my disability. Ultimately, I’ve come to the conclusion that those people who can’t see past my disability just aren’t worth bothering with.  It’s not always easy but if my cerebral palsy puts me in a better position to help other people, then I’m pretty happy with that. Happy belated cerebral palsy day!

The importance of being open…

British people have a reputation for apologising. We apologise when we run into someone even though it blatantly is not our fault. We apologise for the torrential rain outside even though it is clear that we haven’t quite yet developed a way of controlling the weather ourselves. We even sometimes utilise the insurance apology, reassuring ourselves that, just in case we should do anything in the near future that requires an apology, we are already one step ahead. Let’s face it, apologising for something after you’ve done it just too late nowadays.

I admit that I’ve often keenly felt this need to apologise in the past. However, there is one thing that I’m fed up apologising for, namely my disability. When I was younger, I spent a lot of time feeling awkward about having cerebral palsy and using a wheelchair. I was always keen to minimise the visible impact of having a disability on my everyday life. But whichever way you look at it, my disability is part of me. It’s certainly not the most interesting thing about me (to be fair life would be pretty boring if I talked about splints, wheelchairs and booking train assistance for twenty four hours a day). Nevertheless, my disability is part of me and If I’m minimising the apparent impact of my disability, I’m also not allowing people to really get to know me.  In lots of ways, trying to play down a disability is a bit like trying to pretend that you can speak fluent French whilst on holiday in Paris. It might work while you are ordering food at a restaurant, but as soon as someone starts asking for your opinion on raising the retirement age, the linguistic illusion is quickly shattered. Equally, I might be able to manage a few steps on flat surfaces indoors, but I will soon come unstuck when faced with a charming spiral staircase in a mediaeval castle (memories of a sixth form history trip to Ludlow Castle spring to mind….

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Here’s a picture of me with a suitably relaxed basset hound 🙂

I’ve realised it’s just too bad if I have to see if someone can push my wheelchair up a particularly tricky hill. I shouldn’t feel guilty if I have to ask a friend in advance to come back with me from a social event so that I don’t spend the whole time worrying about how I will manage it myself. I’ve gradually developed the confidence to realise that those people who feel uncomfortable with my disability or view it as a ‘problem ‘are not worth bothering with. At least by being open, I can be confident that friends like me for who I am rather than the version of myself that I present to them. I’ve come to the conclusion that everyone has their own difficulties, it’s just that mine are more visible than most.

Having said all that, the same principle of openness applies to my anxiety. I may be able to keep up the façade of relaxed serenity, but in lots of ways my own anxieties helped to make me more sensitive to how others may be feeling. I’ve often found that being open with other people invites more openness on their part and allows me to make more meaningful connections with others. I think that people also sense if you are comfortable with being you. By not viewing either my disability or my anxieties as being a problem in my own mind, I can help others to accept that part of me as well. If I need somebody to walk a bit more slowly so that I can keep up with them, that’s fine. If I have a habit of overanalysing things, owning up to it has the effect of making me less anxious, not more so.  I’ve noticed that since I’ve tried to become less apologetic and more open about everything, I’ve felt much more positive about myself and I think that’s a pretty good place to start.

The art of choosing a wheelchair

The writing had been on the wall for a while. I’d tried to put it off but i couldn’t delay it any longer. Struggling around the streets of Oxford with my footplate scraping on the floor, I finally bowed to the inevitable- I was going to have to get a new wheelchair.

With a vague sense of foreboding, I turned up at my local wheelchair centre. The previous wheelchair centre had once been an old people’s home complete with textured wallpaper and floral carpets, so I was still slightly hopeful that this new, exciting wheelchair centre may prove to be more welcoming. How wrong I was…

Here is how to transform the fun process of choosing a new wheelchair into a never-ending nightmare in 5 easy steps…

1. Feign ignorance: On arrival at the wheelchair centre, I was promptly asked by the physio, ‘so what would you like from us today?’ I felt like replying ‘Well actually, despite coming to a wheelchair centre, I thought that wheelchairs were getting a bit mainstream, I actually quite fancied a ride on lawnmower instead. And besides, I had nothing better to with my Tuesday afternoon so I thought I’d just drop by my favourite wheelchair centre for a little chat’

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Random picture of me sitting in my current wheelchair (there are no plans to remove this wheelchair yet!!)

2. Abdicate responsibility- Clearly frightened by the fact that they might need to actually provide me with a wheelchair, the physio’s next tactic was to ask where I went to university. When I said Oxford, I could almost hear the sigh of relief- they were off the hook! Gleefully they suggested that perhaps I should ask Oxford wheelchair services instead. I explained that I still spent some time in Yorkshire but undeterred, she asked if Oxford Uni provided funding for a wheelchair as ‘I needed a wheelchair to get to lectures’. Sadly, Oxford hasn’t yet introduced a ‘free wheelchair with every offer’ initiative. It’s hard enough getting a note taker out of the disability service, never mind a whole wheelchair…

3. Ban customer from sitting in wheelchair– The physio may have just about accepted that they might have to give me a wheelchair but the thought of me actually sitting in one was a step too far. After all, why would I possibly want to sit in the wheelchair? It’s not as if I would be using it every day. No, no no. I just fancied having a vintage wheelchair with armrests as an elaborate piece of modern art. I could admire it every day as a beautiful object, wondering at its aesthetic qualities yet never wanting to actually sit in it.

4. Threaten to remove existing wheelchair. Clearly still shaken by my brazen cheek in wanting to sit in a wheelchair, the physio tried to bring me back in line with a vengeance. They quickly established that I was outrageous enough to own not one, but two wheelchairs- a powered wheelchair provided by the NHS and a lightweight manual one funded by the charity Whizz Kidz. Both chairs are essential in enabling me to live an independent life. Armed with this game changing information, they smiled menacingly, paused, and casually dropped the bombshell whilst stroking a black cat like a true supervillian. ‘Well, if we fund your new manual wheelchair, we may have to withdraw your powered chair. Any wheelchair left unattended may be removed or destroyed, without notice, by the security services!.

5. Destroy any lingering enthusiasm: Clearly upset that I was still showing an interest in one of the lightweight, shiny manual wheelchairs, the physio delivered the coup de grace. As I was admiring the orange trim on the wheelchair, she quickly informed me that ‘we only do that wheelchair in black’.

We left with the physio promising to ‘see what she could do’, about funding a new wheelchair, which was about as reassuring as a vicious neighbourhood cat insisting it had only dragged in a mouse to give it a guided tour of the house… Put it this way, I’m not holding my breath…

Five ridiculous misconceptions about disability…

5 ridiculous myths about disability…

When I was younger, I always joined in with various frantic school games of football and cricket using a three sided walking frame.  Ever since it became clear to me that Villa defender Gareth Southgate didn’t use a frame to block vicious shots in the same way that I did, or that ‘frame before wicket’ wasn’t a recognised cricket dismissal, I’ve been aware that the world is not designed for people with disabilities. As I’ve been travelling more by myself over the last couple of years or so, I’ve realised that such problems aren’t limited to childhood games of football or cricket. I’ve realised there’s so many implicit assumptions made about disabled people that I thought I should write some of the especially silly ones down.

  1. Disabled people have lots of time on their hands

Whenever I realise I’m travelling by train, the excitement at going somewhere is quickly punctured by the crushing realisation that I have to book ‘assistance’.  The word ‘assistance’ makes this process sound like a happy, joyful experience. It is not. Booking assistance does not take a few merry clicks of a mouse; it requires clearing a slot in your day and allowing at least 20 minutes on the phone to explain that yes, I have booked assistance before and no, my wheelchair is not infact the size of a monster truck. I was so keen to make this deeply painful process as short as possible  that I ignored one man calling me ‘Jay’ for a good ten minutes. I couldn’t decide whether he’d misheard my name or whether our conversation had been so long that he thought we’d reached a new level of familiarity.

  1. Disabled people only have carers

If you somehow manage to book assistance to get on the train, the next task is booking the elusive wheelchair space (everyone knows only two wheelchair users will ever want to get on the same train, right?) It’s hard enough booking a seat for yourself and one other person but adding anyone else into the mix is met with such a reaction that you’d think I’d just been caught speeding in my wheelchair through fields of wheat.  You mean you want to sit with other people? Like, friends, who have actively chosen to spend the day with you because they, you know, like you and enjoy spending time with you? No, no, no. I thought wheelchair users didn’t have friends, just carers who came with them for a cheap day out.

  1. Disabled people know exactly what they’re going to do 24 hours before it happens

Obviously organising a ramp so a wheelchair user can board a train is a complex process. So complex, in fact, that it takes a whole 24 hours to sort out. Ring 23 hours before and it’s too late, 24 is the magic number.  I’ve always wondered exactly what it is that requires all the preparation. Does the ramp have to be custom build using organic wood from South American forests to fit the precise dimensions of the wheelchairs? Must the ramp be taught to sing the passenger’s name to the tune of ‘God Save the Queen’ as they gloriously board the train? Have all the previous ramps been destroyed as a nasty reminder of our former membership of that evil underground organisation they call the EU? After all of that, you’re still asked to announce your arrival 20 minutes beforehand (that’s if they even have a record of your booking). Evidently a red carpet must be rolled out from the customer service desk all the way to the platform…

 

  1. Disabled people carry letters with them which prove their disability at all times

Whenever I’m booking tickets on the phone for a football match or a concert I’m asked to send in proof of disability, which is understandable if a little frustrating. What’s even more annoying, though, is being asked for proof of my disability when I’m actually sat in front of people in my wheelchair. It’s as if people expect you to go to the trouble of hiring a wheelchair all day just to get a free ride on the bus or half price entry to a museum. I’m sure some people half think I’m going to turn around and say ‘Yep, you’ve got me there. I’ve got away with pretending I need a wheelchair for 23 years so I can jump the odd queue but now the game’s up’, before I reveal my secret career as an Olympic pole vaulter.

  1. Disabled people cannot speak for themselves

I’ve lost count of the number of times that people automatically ignore me when asking questions and automatically address the person I’m with, as if my inability to balance for long periods of time without falling over in an undignified heap has also affected my capacity to remember what train I’m catching or whether I’d like a tea or a coffee. I might not be able to walk very far and the Customer Service desk might be set too high for you to make eye contact, but it doesn’t mean I have to be constantly talked about in the third person.

I better leave it there, I’m not travelling by train again until next week but I should probably give them time to source the raw materials for the ‘assistance’ process. Those ramps won’t build themselves you know…

 

 

Overthinking about overthinking

I’d say I overthink things. In fact, I definitely overthink things. I’m even overthinking this blog. But I reckon the best way of tackling anxiety is writing about it, so that’s what I’m doing. I’m pretty good at worrying about stuff. You would think that after handing in my master’s dissertation I wouldn’t have much to worry about, but I’d like to think I’m pretty talented at finding stuff to worry about. I think having a disability has meant I’m pretty used to solving problems, whether it’s having to ask a stranger if I could go through their garden after getting locked in a cricket ground, or persuading the University’s Estates and Buildings team that Oxford probably does have enough money for an automatic door so I can get into my PhD office.

Anxiety is a more difficult one. It’s not a problem that easily lends itself to being ‘solved’. One thing I’ve learnt is that my anxiety doesn’t attach itself to one particular thing like a lazy sloth. Instead, it enthusiastically grabs on to the first thing it can find like an unusually lively basset hound. It’s not always at the front of my mind but it’s usually there a bit like the nagging feeling that Aston Villa are somehow going to lose a game even when they’re 3-0 up with 5 minutes to go (obviously this is a hypothetical scenario, Villa would never actually score three goals in the same game). Even when things are going well, I still find something that could be better.

I’ve actually found it quite helpful to write down some of the positive things that have happened recently so I’ve got something to refer back to if I’m feeling a bit down. So in the spirit of positivity I’ll name a few of them here. I’ve settled in really well to a new place, met lots of lovely people, finished my dissertation in good time and I have funding to stay in Oxford for a PhD. I’ve even managed to watch more Aston Villa play semi-regularly (although some of you may well not feel that this is a positive development).

Another talent I have is over analysing. I blame all of the essays I’ve been writing this year. On reflection, I feel like a casual passing comment or a brief message probably doesn’t merit quite the same forensic attention as an essay about identity in South Tyrol. The problem is, what seems like a faintly ridiculous, trivial issue as I write this in the middle of the day can seem like a problem of life-changing importance at 3 o clock in the morning. I’ve only just realised that I’ve gone a good couple of paragraphs without attempting a tenuous simile involving one of my favourite animals, so to address this distressing oversight, I’ll finish on a couple more. In many ways, you could describe anxiety as a koala bear which clings resolutely to the eucalyptus tree of worry. It’s not very easy to let go. But essentially, anxiety’s a bit like the tapir in the room. It might be awkward if no-one mentions it and it’s unlikely to leave in a hurry, but talking about it makes life a whole lot easier.

Writing about worrying

Writing about worrying

I reckon I worry too much. And I also think that the best way to combat something is to make fun of it. With this in mind, I’ve decided to try to compare worry to eight seemingly random objects. Happily, this also coincides with the primary purpose of any blog, which is talking about basset hounds, tapirs and Aston Villa. Here goes…

Worry is an overly keen tapir: It might seem quite sweet at first. I’ve often heard people say ‘a little bit of worrying can be a good thing’. But then, just like tapirs, worry starts to stick its snout into every aspect of everyday life. And just as tapirs become less attractive as they get older, so does worry. It stops being helpful and just becomes annoying.

Worry is a persistent basset hound: It moves pretty slowly and steadily but is determined to keep going and reach its goal; namely to make you steadily more anxious. Just like a basset hound’s short legs, worry seems to serve no obvious purpose. What’s more, just like its long ears, it seems to drag on for an unnecessary amount of time.

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I wanted to find an excuse to use this cute picture again

Worry is like watching Aston Villa: There might be moments where you think you’ve turned a corner and worry is behind you, but just like Villa letting in last minute goals, it always come back to bite you at the least helpful moments. Much like watching Villa, the best way to stop yourself from worrying seems to be to distance yourself from it, which is sometimes easier said than done.

Worry is like the temperamental light switch in my bathroom: You can’t easily control when you switch it on and off and sometimes it just stays on for an inordinate amount of time for no obvious reason. It took me a good while to work out that shutting the bathroom door was actually a pretty good way of solving the problem. Sometimes the most straightforward solutions are the best ones, even if they’re difficult to see at first.

Worry is like playing chess against an all-knowing computer (Note: I haven’t ever played chess against an actual person, never mind a computer): It always seems to be one step ahead. Once you stop worrying about one thing, you can’t help yourself from moving on to the next ‘problem’. And just like playing chess against a computer that always wants to stop you from making progress, you often seem to be going round in circles. That’s at least until you ask yourself what you’re achieving from worrying and decide to switch the ‘computer’ off.

Worrying is like an annoying SatNav that keeps telling you what to do: You find yourself going off in the wrong direction and making a U-Turn in the middle of the road just because someone else told you to do so, even if you know deep down that it’s a bad idea. So, if someone says ‘you must be feeling stressed about your exams’, you immediately feel that you should be feeling stressed, otherwise you must be doing something fundamentally wrong. Much like doing a U-Turn in the middle of a busy road, this approach rarely ends well.

Worry is like the random daily alarm on my watch that I still can’t quite work out how to switch off: For at least 3 years, my watch has had an alarm that goes off at precisely six minutes past ten (or eleven) each morning. I’ve no idea why it started or why it’s still going but I’ve found the best way to stop it annoying me is to put it another room. It’s still there but at least I don’t need to listen to it every day.

Worry is like that time I when I was 8 and ended up breaking my Aston Villa alarm clock by mistake after they let in a last-minute equaliser against Birmingham: It was utterly pointless and achieved precisely nothing. And now I can laugh about it and how ridiculous it was, even if it seemed like the worst thing in the world at the time.

In the spirit of making fun of worry, I’ve decided to give mine a name- Jürgen. I think that’s probably enough worrying for one day. At least Villa have stopped letting in last minute goals now. Oh, hang on a minute…