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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8 characteristics of life in a wheelchair

Since losing my legs just over a year ago, one of the most common questions I get asked is “How are you coping?” I have learnt that life as a full-time wheelchair-user with disabilities has its benefits as well as its frustrations. In that way, it is no different from life as an able-bodied person. Here are a few of the pros and cons I experience most often, which I think are common to many other people with disabilities.

1) Most people are super nice to me

Even strangers go out of their way to offer me assistance, whether it’s a push up a hill, mounting a curb or alighting from a bus. It also seems to give me some kind of implicit authority – whenever I have been in a group of people that don’t really know me, they immediately fall silent when I start speaking and don’t interrupt me until I have finished.

2) But some people can be offensive

There are other people though, that seem to think I am also mentally handicapped, simply because I am in a wheelchair and have a physical disability. The first time my mum took me to the mall we went into a sports shop to look for wheelchair gloves for me. As soon as we started approaching the salesgirl she looked nervously at me and backed up slightly, and only looked at my mum while she was talking to us. As Emily Ladau’s post on The Mighty reveals, I know I am not the only disabled person to have this issue.

3) Going anywhere requires strategic planning

Inaccessible MyCiti bus stop in Cape Town

An accessible MyCiti bus stop – preceded by two inaccessible curbs.

Before leaving the house I must find out whether the place I am going to is accessible.

Will there be disabled toilet facilities?

Are the doorways wide enough for my wheelchair?

Is the outdoor terrain manageable for my wheels?

Are there accessible transport links or can I arrange a lift with someone?

Is it likely we’ll go on from there to a different venue (in which case repeat all checks)?

Living spontaneously just got a lot more risky.

4) Using the toilet requires much patience

First of all, 90% of the times I have used public disabled toilet facilities I have had to wait for an able-bodied person to finish up in the cubicle. Out of about fourteen able-bodied people I’ve waited for, so far only one has apologised for using the disabled toilet stall. The funny thing is, most of them look extremely surprised to come out and find an actual disabled person waiting for them. Yes, we really do exist. We are not unicorns or tooth fairies or elves. We are living, breathing people with disabilities who need to pee.

Secondly, when you literally don’t have a leg to stand on, pulling up your pants requires impressive skill.

5) The same goes for disabled parking bays

There is a reason disabled parking bays are wider than the average and closer to the entrance. Try assembling and dismantling a wheelchair next to your car and wheeling yourself across a parking lot where people drive above the speed limit and cannot see your wheelchair in their mirrors or over their bonnets.

6) People find it difficult to be angry with me

Maybe it’s just my winning personality, but there have been times where I have done or said something that would have made me angry if I had been the other person involved and yet they haven’t shown any annoyance or anger towards me. I hope that they are not too scared to criticise someone in a wheelchair.

7) Some months I spend more time with my doctors than my friends

Groote Schuur Hospital | darylhb on Instagram

Groote Schuur Hospital

I am sure this will change as more time goes by, but in my first year as a person with disabilities, I have been to the hospital at least twice a month. Usually it has been for routine check-ups or therapy, but there has also been one surgery (with all the pre- and post-care treatment that goes with it). As my body now has to function slightly differently, my vitals will always need to be monitored and physiotherapy, occupational therapy and medication may often be necessary. I have enjoyed learning about my body and my mind, and I am impressed by the physiological backup systems that the human body uses to compensate for what is missing.

8) I know the staff at the local hospital by name

Most of the doctors, nurses and administrative staff that I’ve met have been remarkably kind, friendly, efficient and supportive. There are of course other staff that should not be in the healthcare profession at all, as they seem to hate their jobs and resent their patients for any requests that might be made. The attitude of nursing staff has a profound effect on the wellbeing of their patients, many of whom are bedridden or dependent on the staff. A good nurse can make a patient feel safe, hopeful and confident that their condition is manageable.

Disabled, but not broken

When both my legs were amputated, they were closed at the upper-thigh, leaving stumps of 8-10cm each. This means that they are too short for me to walk with prostheses and I have been resigned to face life in a wheelchair.

A few weeks ago, one of my colleagues played the below TED Talk video for the whole team of us at work. The progress being made with bionic limbs is truly breath-taking. After watching this, I felt hope for the first time that I might one day be able to walk again.

My colleagues and I got very excited over this technology, and I felt blessed to be working with people who take an interest in my situation.

“A human being cannot be broken. Our environment is broken, our technologies are broken, but we can fix them…”

I felt some trepidation, however, at the suggestion that even able-bodied people should use these bionic limbs in the future to “make life easier” and “reduce the strain on our muscles”. Isn’t that a very bad idea, as obesity is already a huge problem and using bionic limbs for everyday life would surely result in an epidemic of lazy fat people with muscular atrophy?

Soldiers using bionic limbs also worries me, because I really don’t think our armies need anything that will make it easier to create war and kill each other (but that is a totally different discussion about the pros and cons of various methods of conflict resolution).

What do you think about the development of bionic limbs and the potential uses for them?