I lay on the hard, unmade bed that I hadn’t really been able to sleep in the night before, and closed my eyes, trying to drown out the medley of Dublin city traffic below me: the deep hum of the Dublin buses, the screeching of random sirens, the faint echo of heavy footfall. Noises that were once so familiar to me ten years ago, as I lay on my overly-narrow single bed in Botany Bay in Trinity College. It should’ve felt like home, and yet, never have I felt so out of place.
I shouldn’t have been lying in bed at half three in the afternoon on such a momentous day as the 23rd September, 2017, a day that I worked so hard towards for the guts of a year. I had left my colleagues behind in the Mansion House to celebrate the lives of those who had established the Independent Living Movement. An event that I had put everything I had into, turning down paying jobs and little tidbits of work during the summer in the process. I wanted to give all my energy to this event.
Two hours beforehand, I’d tackled one of the things on my bucket list: I performed a piece of drama that I’d co-written in front of two hundred people. As I climbed the stage, I thought I could feel a brick beneath my posterior, I was so nervous. I felt overwhelmed with emotion as I played ‘Rachel’ out on stage, a disabled mother struggling to escape the negative labels placed upon her by an indifferent society. The only way I can describe the experience is ’emotional nakedness’. The tears – and the anger – were evidently mine, not Rachel’s. I couldn’t have dreamed of the positive feedback, and yet afterwards, I wasn’t elated – I was physically sick.
Afterwards, I told myself that it was stress. I panicked because I was filled with fear that I’d pushed it a little too far this time, that once again I had seriously overestimated my physical stamina and taken on too much. But it wasn’t that at all. And it’s only this morning when I feel semi-normal again that I realise when I’ve felt that particular sensation before – the feeling of darkness, heaviness in the pit of my stomach – and it was when my mother died.
Or more specifically, the moment of realisation that she wouldn’t be around for me any more and, as a fully-fledged adult (I was twenty-five when she died) I would now have to shoulder a lot more responsibility for my own life.
It’s easier to be a sheep than a shepherd, easier to follow than to lead. Many of us have followed for years. When Martin Naughton died last year, it felt like the bedrock of the disability activism world was slowly starting to wear away. You could always count on the seven activists that ‘By Us With Us’ honoured on Saturday to lead the way. to spearhead the protests, the fight. Who can we look up to now?
And then it occurred to me that although an intimate knowledge of past successes in disability activism are crucial, we need to trust ourselves and have real belief in our own ability to pave the way to the future. By the way, this nugget of wisdom is coming from someone who has absolutely zero self-confidence and who is still learning to assert her right to use her own voice, the result of years of internalised oppression and being underestimated by those around her.
It’s taken me three days to recover from the emotional rollercoaster that was Saturday (even though I missed most of it) and to get my head around the fact that although the pressure is off in many ways, there is still lots of work waiting in the future. And we – not anyone else – will have to be the ones to put ourselves forward. One of the things that I did manage to gather on Saturday is that there is a general consensus that society is now going backwards, and that the ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of People With Disabilities will not guarantee us our liberties.
That will depend on us. On every single one of us.