Having a physical disability vs having depression

At a media summit last year, a journalist asked me a question that, on the surface, I anticipated would be difficult to answer. After a few moments’ thought, however, I realised the answer was shockingly simple (and rather troubling). The question was, “Which do you find more difficult to deal with – your double amputations and life in a wheelchair, or your depression?” This is what I told her:

Disability on Muscle Beach

And how could I complain about my disability when it allows me to hang out with studs like this?

Every day I am forced to confront and overcome the physical limitations that my disability places on me. I have to figure out how to get in and out of the car, or up and down the stairs, or how to reach a mug on a high shelf. They say time waits for no man and I am no exception to that rule. Unless I allow life to leave me behind and go on without me, I must face these everyday obstacles, and so I do. I hardly have a choice.

Confronting my depression, however, is far more difficult. For years I tried to push it to the back of my mind, but ignoring it only made it worse. Like a wound that goes untreated, it became a festering toxin that tainted all my thoughts and attitudes. That habit of masking my depression and distracting myself with external interests and activities is now a barrier to overcoming it. I must make a concerted effort to acknowledge my incorrect assumptions about the world, evaluate my motives, and construct new patterns for my thoughts and behaviours. It is very easy to neglect these mental processes and “just get on with life”.

Someone who has always placed more emphasis on physical activities, like sport and exercise, may find coming to terms with a new disability more difficult than I have, as my focus has always been on intellectual and creative pursuits. I nevertheless believe that we should all take special care with the way we treat our minds and psyches, because it is much more difficult to fix the unseen than the physical, once it has been damaged.

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When will we be done?

It’s been about nine months since I lost my legs, but sometimes it still doesn’t feel real to me. I’ll be engrossed at my computer, turn to stand up and then realise I can’t. When I see a person struggling to carry something, my body will prepare to rush forward and help, but then I have to sit back in my wheelchair.

For the first few months after my amputations, it felt as though I was simply ill and as soon as I got better everything would go back to normal. But of course it won’t go back to that normal.

A new normal

Coming home to Cape Town jolted me into reality in many ways. My brother and I used to stand eye-to-eye, so when he picked me up from the airport and I saw him towering over me in my wheelchair, I realised for the first time that my legs were gone forever.

Driving through familiar neighbourhoods again, old haunts where I once had such a full life, brought home to me how different life will be now. At the time, I only saw all the things I could no longer do. The places I could no longer go. Sometimes that is still all I see. I try to think of all the things I can do now, or how I could do the old things differently, but sometimes I just can’t.

The big picture

Although I have no legs, in many ways I am more fortunate than many others on this planet. I’ve never gone seriously hungry and my family and friends have always done their best to support me (when I’ve let them). Thinking of people that have never been loved, have never had a full belly, and have never been given dignity and respect, changes my perspective on my problems slightly. But honestly … it doesn’t change that much or for very long. My problems are still real to me. And that’s okay.

Someone else may have no idea how to deal with my challenges and I wouldn’t know how to handle their debt or children or drinking habit. The truth is, we never know how to cope with something until it happens. And then, most of the time, we just do it. We get through it, because we have to.

For the first time, I am acknowledging my problems and doing what I can to change them, rather than pretending that everything is fine. Fixing me is going to take years, if it is ever completed at all. But then, we are all works in progress, aren’t we?

Introducing … me! (and my disability)

After I lost my legs in a failed suicide attempt, I was presented with new physical challenges on an almost daily basis. In some ways those first few months were easier, because I was so determined to overcome my new limitations and I was certain that life would get better. Learning to use my wheelchair, increasing my upper body strength and figuring out how to beat those odds was invigorating. Now that my life is normalising to the point that I can’t really do things much better, faster or easier than I am currently doing them, I have to get used to the still-unreal fact that I have a disability and I must finally face the depression that got me here in the first place.

During my physical rehabilitation at an amputee centre in London, all the other men in my ward had diabetes. Thinking that my newly incompleted body suddenly put me at risk of developing diabetes myself, I immediately visited the dietician’s office. She explained that it actually worked the other way around – all the men in my ward had lost their limbs because their preexisting diabetes reduced their blood circulation! Although I dodged that  particular bullet, I have had to make a concerted effort to keep fit.

MyCiti disabled bus trip | darylhb on Instagram

Before losing my legs, my fitness regime involved walking through the park or dancing in a club. Now that I spend most day in a wheelchair, I have had to adapt my diet and exercise regularly to prevent putting on weight. Maintaining my upper body strength is essential to my independence, ensuring that I can transfer from my chair to another surface and lift myself from the floor to my chair or bed or car. As long as I can get on and off the bus, I can go almost anywhere (this photo was taken on my first bus ride as a disabled person in South Africa).

I gave up on sports early in my life when I had no aptitude for it and no interest in learning. I took for granted the freedom I had for skipping (which I was prone to spontaneous outbursts of), jumping, walking and pole-dancing (don’t tell). Now that my physicality represents such an obstacle to me, I am determined to show my body who is boss. I have taken up paravolley (volleyball played sitting on the ground) and personal training. Although all my friends have been unfailingly supportive and inclusive of me since I became disabled, it feels wonderful to socialise with other disabled people and not worry that I am inconveniencing anyone or slowing others down.

The stumps remaining of my legs are too short for prosthetics. Perhaps in the future there will be a new solution that will enable me to walk again, but for now I am embracing the Professor X look. Being wheelchair-bound has placed limitations on my life, but it has also opened a world of new opportunities and introduced me to several amazing people that I would not have met otherwise.