Does he really need that stick?

The first rule of stick club is that you need to have a stick. A common phrase I’ve come across is, “Not every disability is visible,” which is very true.

I finally accepted I needed a walking stick because I kept veering into other people or, rather more worryingly, lurching off the pavement into oncoming traffic.

It was incredibly hard to accept my mobility and coordination were being severely affected. I used to describe how I felt as being constantly hungover but recently I came to realise it was more like being drunk all the time. I’ve had my fair share of big nights out, the aftermath of which my wife will attest to, having seen me lying lifeless on the sofa curled up in my big hoodie in front of the Formula 1 on a Sunday lunchtime, but this was more like feeling as though you’ve had just one too many, all of the time.

I ordered a collapsible, cheap, lightweight walking stick in early spring 2018 with the intention that it could go in the recycling when I’d recovered. Except I didn’t know at the time if I would ever recover enough to walk without it.

I started using it where I wasn’t visible. My encroaching disability didn’t need to be on display to everyone just yet. I knew questions would spark up that I didn’t yet have any answers to. My parking space at work was a short distance from the office but after falling over a couple of times during the walk I had to admit defeat and use my stick. I would diligently collapse it, hiding it in my work bag before entering the building. I could just about make it from reception to my desk on the fifth floor without falling over. Colleagues parking in the same car park realised I was walking with a stick and out of the blue the office manager visited me to ask if I needed a personal evacuation plan in the event of a fire.

By the time I was fully signed off work I was using my walking stick all the time. I even needed it to put the wheelie bins out for collection.

It was brought home to me during my recovery from radiotherapy. In early 2019 my wife and I made it out to do a bit of shopping and have some lunch. Prior to my illness we used to be experts at having lunch, usually accompanied by a nice bottle. Walking down the main street of our local city centre my wife became aware that one of a group of lads was shouting, “Does he really need that stick?”

I didn’t hear it, I was already in a bit of a daze from fatigue. It happened so quickly, the moment passed. I wasn’t really in a position to defend myself. No one particularly enjoys confrontation on the streets. We tried to laugh it off. In hindsight I should have told them why I needed it but it wouldn’t have done any good. The trouble with stupid people is that they’re so stupid they don’t know they’re stupid, so presenting an intelligent rebuttal is a waste of time and effort.

What struck me was how vulnerable I suddenly felt. Walking with a stick earmarked me.

On another occasion in the local town centre I was walking as usual with my earphones in. I probably got my phone out and continued on my wavy path using my stick. I was being followed. Daylight muggings aren’t common locally but I was becoming easy pickings. Without missing a beat I saw two more people join my original follower. It was obvious they thought I was heading for the local dimly lit multi storey car park where I could be relieved of my possessions.

Except there’s an entrance to Boots just next to the car park which is where I was actually going. I ducked in, saw the three of them glare at me as they headed to the car park. How were they to know I couldn’t drive? It made me more aware of my surroundings and I rarely walk any more with my earphones in.

I think about my previous attitudes to disability. I never harassed people or thought unkind things, but I probably didn’t take as much care as I could have done around vulnerable members of our society. I don’t think I saw disabled people, wrapped up in my own busy life.

Now I see vulnerable people everywhere. Spending significant amounts of daytime in the local town centre highlighted to me how many people are either unemployed or unable to work. I think of them in my privileged position of a phased return to work. I have a physiotherapist and I’ve learnt to walk without my stick. Taking more care around such people, being the first to offer assistance, stopping to help someone who’s dropped all of their loose change (as happened to me on several occasions) are small actions that might be appreciated.

I haven’t put my stick in the recycling. I can’t bring myself to do it as it’s literally been by my side when I was at my worst.

It’ll be quietly put away.

I will probably need it again in the future.

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