Institutionalised

I am eight years old. My parents are in the front of the car, I’m in the back. I’m the only one of my siblings who is being spoiled with one of these many trips to Dublin. They want to look at me again, to bend my legs back and forth, to mock me by “testing” the strength in my arms. At least it’s a day off school, I suppose, a day free from being reminded that unlike my classmates, I can’t knit. I can’t run. I am not like the others. The others don’t make these trips to Dublin.

I am outside a brown building. Coming out of the automatic doors is a little boy, around my age. He is wearing exaggerated metal splints around his stick-thin legs and walking like a tin man. He stands out, he’s too obvious; he might as well be wearing a bell and shouting “leprosy!” I’ve been threatened with these splints a number of times. A punishment for my legs, for not cooperating. Inside, I am stripped down, exposed. The experts stick markers to my legs and calls them diamonds. Then I walk and walk and walk. I am tired, but I am told to keep going. Push that body. Don’t let it defeat you.

Now I’m ten. We’re staying with my aunt in Belfast. Well, mum and I are staying here. We’ve been coming up and down for weeks, going to the Musgrave Park Hospital. I wear the special markers again and the computer shows the doctors how my muscles move. I walk up and down and up and down. The doctors tell me I am a supermodel, and it must be true, because only supermodels could have their bodies scrutinised and discussed at every angle. They’re recommending botox to loosen my muscles, so I can walk better. Mum tries to make a joke of it, saying that she would love botox. Perhaps, after all this time, this botox will make my life better. Yes, this is the miracle cure I’ve been waiting on since forever. After waiting in a hospital bed for what feels like days, they give me the injection to the back of my right calf, and I am disappointed. Surely to be made normal, I must be ripped apart and sewn back at the seams?

I’m fourteen. To appease my mother I’ve gone into respite, knowing that in spite of her insistence, I won’t enjoy it one bit. I wake up on the first morning to find a nurse, evidently bored on the night shift, unpacking my things. I’m angry, yet I don’t interrupt. There’s no point: she won’t understand my anger. Instead I lie there, silently watching her as she judges my clothes, raises her eyebrows at the sweets my mum packed me. She checks every corner of my suitcase. I feel invaded, but I’m not sure if I am justified in this. Maybe this is just something we disabled people have to put up with. I don’t like it one bit.

Transition Year and one month off my seventeenth birthday. I’ve written a play, and the year head has agreed to allow the drama teacher and I to produce and direct it. This is the beginning of a blossoming writing career. I have so much to do, but I am not in school. Instead I am in Dun Laoghaire, the NRH to be exact.  I am to get two weeks’ intensive physio-, speech- and occupational therapy. Have I any idea how lucky I am? I’m only in TY, I’m told. I won’t miss much. I am put on the children’s ward. The girl in the bed next to me is called Stephanie. She becomes breathless when she tries to talk, but she is sweet. She’s also frighteningly institutionalised. She is my age and has been here a few months, but has already forgotten what life outside is like. The happiest part of her week is when one of the nurses does her nails. Life here is regimented. On the first day I wake up looking for a shower, and I’m told that showers are not an everyday thing. Instead I am presented with a basin of soapy water and told to wash myself. On my days to shower, despite my insistence that I can manage, I am told that it is unsafe for me to shower alone. I have to tolerate a stranger touching me, seeing my bits and pieces (“nothing we haven’t seen before” they say cheerily)  as I am scrubbed much like a horse might be. The nurses laugh at my embarrassment. Typical teenager. But I am not a typical teenager. If that were true, I would be in my home economics class, not here. We go to bed with a video at half eight. I haven’t gone to bed this early since I was eleven. It’s not really an opportunity to rest, either: people need to be turned and toileted during the night, sometimes people cry out for assistance. I am only here for two weeks, but the memory of it will last a lifetime. They prescribe lots of physio. Even now, at thirty-five, I still do it. It’s good for me.

I’m still in Transition Year, back in the safety of my own routine in Tullamore. I’ve done work experience in the Tullamore Tribune, and my play is about to go live to an audience of four hundred people over two nights. It feels surreal; it’s what I’ve always wanted, and yet I feel like I’m on the outside looking in. I also feel exposed, as these characters are based on real-life people that I know and love. I also feel immensely proud and validated that my teachers trusted me with the task of writing and producing this play. In a parallel universe, we have to visit the National Learning Network as part of the “Community Care” module.  It’s an alternative to college for disabled people, people like me. As I sit listening I recognise its merits, but I also find myself wondering whether there is more to life. Will I end up in a day care centre in my twenties, drinking tea and making idle chit-chat about the weather? The prospect terrifies me, though I don’t know why. In many ways it may be easier than the mainstream route, but I am stubborn. Too stubborn sometimes.

So I enter fifth year, still terrified. I am just another number, I tell myself. Nothing special about me. I’ve convinced myself that the only way to avoid that day care centre is to study. I resolve to get enough points to get into Trinity, although I have no idea what I’m going to do after I get my degree. I become fixated with this aim; it’s the only thing that keeps me going.  My life revolves around school. I stop eating, watching with satisfaction as my belly shrinks into nothing. I am normal, I tell myself. I don’t stop studying until after midnight every night. I silently cry my way through lessons, despising my own weakness. I am lonely, but I don’t have time to go out gallivanting at weekends. I have no choice. I must do this. The Leaving Cert nearly breaks me, but I conquer it. Great triumph over adversity story. I am going to Trinity.

Trinity is a different world. I am equal here. With the right supports in place, I blend into the background, silently struggling with imposter syndrome. I can’t compete with these genii who claim to have been reading Jane Austen since they were five. I struggle in silence. I got a scholarship to go here. If I ask for help, people might think that I’m a dumbass and kick me out. I’ve resolved to leave when I am compelled to confide everything in Orlaith and Declan, the disability officers. They tell me not to leave. They also confirm something that I have suspected my entire life: that there is nothing wrong with me and that we need to use our inner fire to eliminate barriers for disabled people. I shamefully tell them I broke my electric wheelchair by bringing it across Front Square, but they don’t berate me (much!!). Instead they insist that the solution is to build a level-access pathway across the cobbles. I start to think that if an institution as old and as steeped in history as Trinity College is can make such dramatic changes, then there is no excuse for the rest of the world not to make these changes too.

During my time at Trinity, I learn so much more than how to write a critical essay. I learn how to be independent, how to cook, how to work and pay my bills. Every morning I wake up, and know that I have choices. I don’t always make the right ones, and having that freedom to fail and learn from those mistakes is vital. For example, one month I spend my rent money on God knows what and have to spend the next few months eating cereal. A hard but important lesson! I leave Trinity with the second class honour that was so important to me, though now I can’t remember why. I don’t even have the Latin parchment on display, I think it’s in my attic somewhere. After I leave college, I have no idea what I’m going to do. I feel like I’m leaving part of myself on campus, but with the grey buildings and the beautiful campanile and the leafy trees and students in their dufflecoats, I forget I’m not in the real world. The real world is cruel and it reminds me of my place: outside it. I apply for hundreds of jobs, but I do not get called for a single interview. What was I thinking, I berate myself, nobody would want a useless cripple.

Eventually, I am thrown a lifeline and Offaly Centre for Independent Living offers me a job. Mum tells me she was happier when I got offered a six-month internship with HP, an experience which would’ve cost me more money than it was worth. But I am delighted, and I still look back on my time there with fondness. My job is ridiculously easy. It is the emotional toll that is harder. I learn all about independent living and equal rights only to discover that these are only theories and that in reality Independent living cannot be achieved. I witness people becoming afraid to ask for what they wanted as the focus shifts to what people need at a basic level. There’s no money, we are constantly told at staff meetings.  We need to prioritise services, get people out of bed. Nothing we can do about it, we are told. Things are tight at the moment. I am an upstart, a troublemaker. I am not cooperating. I find myself trapped in an institution of my own, the dark depths of my own mind. I think back to my own respite stays of my childhood and feel physically sick at the thought of them being a long term arrangement, for me or for anyone.

It bothers me, even now in my position of privilege – I live independently, in my own home, with my husband, daughter and naughty little puppy – that there are people out there who are incarcerated by circumstances not of their own making. Many are living in hospitals either because their own houses are not wheelchair accessible, or because there are not enough ‘community supports’ like home helps and Personal Assistants, and it annoys me. It annoys me because I know that I am lucky. It annoys me because I constantly feel that I have dodged a bullet. It bothers me to hear about disabled people who are ready and willing to contribute to our economy being stuck at home because only their personal care needs are being met. It infuriates me sometimes that I was naively led to believe that disabled people could ever be viewed as equal when the story on the ground, as well as the lived reality, seems to be disturbingly different.

Sometimes, I wish I didn’t care. That I could get on with my life and writing and ignore the many rights that are being denied to disabled people at the moment. I’m not trying to make myself out to be a martyr, I promise. All I’m saying is why must there always be barriers to break through, obstacles to overcome? Why do I say the same thing over and over again to the point where I’m nearly boring myself?

Because, dear reader, I know what the alternatives are. And I never want to become institutionalised, in body or mind. I reserve the right to live a life of my own choosing, and I’m lucky to be free to exercise that right.

I am getting older now. My body – my fabulously unpredictable body – is letting me down in ways it never did before. It is scary, and I know that it is partly my own fault. But this is my vessel. It will never be perfect, it cannot be fixed, and nor would I ever want it to be. This was the way I was made – not worse or better, just me – and after all these years, believing that makes me stronger than any physio regime ever could.