What I Learned About My Friendships When I Became Disabled

PHOTO BY FRANCESCO SAMBATI/EYEEM
It took an instant for my entire life to change. When I look back, the memory is always black and white; spring flowers poking hopeful heads through the tangled grass on the verges, the line of vehicles snaking before me, the sky full of rolling clouds. I couldn’t tell you now what was on my mind as I waited for the traffic to clear. I couldn’t tell you whether I was hot or cold, happy or sad. But although the memory is hazy I can recall with absolute clarity the feelings; my mounting horror as a flash of movement drew my eye to my rearview mirror as a car hurtled around the bend, coming up behind me fast. Too fast.
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The sickness in my stomach as I realised the driver was rummaging for something on her passenger seat, not looking ahead, not realising the traffic on this normally free-flowing road had ground to a halt. That deep gut knowing as I was violently thrust into the car in front that everything, from that moment onwards, would be irrevocably altered. My fragile health was always house-of-cards precarious and if my skeleton were stronger, perhaps I’d have walked away unscathed. As it was, the damage was such that I couldn’t walk away at all.
The first few weeks passed in a fog of pain medication which didn’t eradicate the excruciating agony I felt each time I moved. I was reliant on crutches and a wheelchair. My friends rallied round, as good friends do. My washing was hung out to dry, my carpets hoovered while I tried to cling on to a semblance of normality. With three children to look after I couldn’t allow myself to crumble, on the outside at least. On the inside I was dust, finding it harder to fight the increasing panic I felt every day. The same frenzied thought circling my mind: What if I can never walk properly again?
I couldn’t articulate what I was feeling; I was scared of voicing my fears and giving them shape and weight. Instead, my face was a mask, smile pinned into place each time a visitor came. My group of friends still gathered at mine as they always had, cups of coffee in hand, dunking biscuits, trading gossip, opinions on the soaps, weekend plans. I listened. Nodded. Smiled. Internally I was screaming. It all seemed so trivial. My joy had been left at the roadside along with the wreck of my car.
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One day my friends arranged a night out. Come, it’ll do you good. Sweat prickled at my skin as anxiety about going out, being seen in public, overwhelmed me. A sea of faces gazed expectantly at me and although I didn’t feel ready, I found myself agreeing. Someone suggested our favourite bar, and it was left to me to say I didn’t think I’d manage the steep steps to the entrance. Another venue was offered as an alternative, this one I knew didn’t have a downstairs toilet. A third, no parking close by. Phones were pulled out, calls were made. Disabled access was checked and at last we found somewhere suitable. They left in a cloud of excitement, leaving me alone with the dirty mugs and my dread.
It was a disaster. The pub was too busy, there weren’t enough seats, we gathered around the bar, me painfully leaning on my crutches for support, unable to hold a drink and fighting off tears. There, in a heaving room full of people, full of my friends, I had never felt so invisible. So alone. I feigned a headache and left.
After that, there was a shift. A pulling away. It became apparent that whatever recovery I might make, it wouldn’t be a short road. Visits dwindled, mostly stopped. At the time, I thought the end of our friendship was their fault. I thought I was too inconvenient. Too different. Unable to socialise in the way I used to meant the group, if I were to be a part of it, had to make a change. They didn’t. I would torture myself daily with Facebook, scroll through posts, everyone tagged but me. I wasn’t invited to anything else.
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Now, I believe that I am also to blame. My friends didn’t understand me because I didn’t give them the chance. Each time they asked how I was, my stock answer – "I'm fine" – was a lie and they must have known that, as I struggled to get out of my chair. When I couldn't lift my own child. Perhaps they felt I didn’t trust them enough to be open, to let them in. But it was never a case of not wanting to let them in, I see that now. I pushed them away because I was gripped by shame. Shame that my body felt old, and tired, and not like theirs. Shame that I looked different with my crutches and my wheelchair. Shame that at that point in my life I needed more from others than I was able to give in return. Perhaps my friends valued me less because I valued myself less.
I have come to accept myself now, to love myself again. My health has improved, although I will likely never be pain-free or completely mobile again. I have learned that I still have friends. The best kind of friends who didn’t leave when I tried to push them. Who don’t care that I can’t get up and dance and run and walk for miles during marathon shopping sessions because I can talk. Listen. Laugh. I am more than my body. More than my disability. To anyone who finds themselves in a similar situation I’d say please don’t feel ashamed and don’t feel any less. Be honest about your limitations. Don’t push people away without giving them the chance to adapt along with you. You have so much more to offer than you might think.
The Family by Louise Jensen is published by HQ on 3rd October (paperback, ebook and audio).
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