Years Ago, when I still lived on the mainland, I worked in the schools department of Bradford Central Library. Once, the department placed an ad in the local paper for additional temporary staff to help with a massive cataloguing job. The ad was supposed to say that disabled people could apply for the work; somewhere between the original writer and the print processes, the ad ran with the stipulation that only disabled people could apply.
The job involved being able to lift boxes of papers and books, use ladders to reach high storage points, and sort through material, placing each item in a relevant section. The interviews were conducted in our department, and as I worked at the book repair station, cleaning and sellotaping books which had been loved a little too vigorously by their young readers, I listened to the candidates for the posts describing their capabilities, and explaining what they could and couldn’t do. It was a chastening experience for someone who had rarely had a day’s illness and thought nothing of getting up in the morning, going to work, going out to eat, and all the other things associated with a lively urban lifestyle.
Most of the applicants were not wheelchair bound, but nevertheless had damage to limbs or nerves, sight or organs that put severe restrictions on their activities. Some said that they could only work for two or three hours before cramps would set in, or a particular movement such as raising arms above the head was not possible. As well as the physical difficulties, most of them were also attending lengthy hospital consultations for physiotherapy and other clinics, which ate into huge portions of time every week.
What most struck me and my colleagues about these people was their cheerfulness and willingness to get stuck in, and their delight in being able to actually apply for a job that wanted them. In stark contrast to healthy people who see a mild illness as a good excuse for a day off work, there was no whining or malingering. Like everyone else, I moan when I’ve got a cold, or complain if I wrench my arm, but it is possible to remain relatively cheerful when the problem is temporary and there is every expectation that it will not last long. I had never really before come into contact with people who had had to accept that they were permanently disabled, had been so for many years, and had no prospect of getting much better than they were.
I was reminded of all this when in October, I suddenly fell foul of a trapped sciatic nerve, and nine weeks down the line, am still hobbling about with a walking stick and wondering how the hell it happened, and why it still hasn’t gone away. Before I knew it, I was on four different drugs, three of which I’d never heard of before, and reduced to sitting on the sofa watching David Attenborough documentaries for comfort.
All of a sudden, things I used to take for granted, like driving, playing saxophone, swimming, walking out with my camera, standing in the kitchen preparing food and baking my daughter’s birthday cake, became much more difficult – or, in the case of swimming, impossible – than they used to be. Concentration has been interrupted by pain, and even sitting at my desk proved a problem in the early days.
Now, I still have the expectation that this is, although rather long-winded, a temporary glitch in the proceedings, but it has been a bit of a grim wake-up call that I should never take my health for granted. Limping into the craft market last weekend for the beginning of the Christmas season, I was painfully conscious that I couldn’t lug painted rocks from the car – which my daughter had driven – to the table, couldn’t help set up and break down the 30 tables required for the event, and had to watch my husband, daughter and son do everything they usually do, plus what I usually do as well.
In these situations, one’s newfound limitations to carry out the usual tasks are very frustrating. In the course of the day, several of our traders came up to ask what had happened. I discovered that quite a few had experience of the drugs I was on and had suffered the same problem, and some were dealing with long term difficulties that I had never known about, some of which were, quite literally, life-changing events.
In the past, I’d always listened sympathetically to people with long-term health problems, but there was nothing like getting a taste of it myself to make me understand, as I had in Bradford Schools Library all those years ago, how fortunate we are when we enjoy good, uninterrupted health – and how quickly we can cross the line. It’s also taught me the value of not whinging and thinking in terms of what I can do, rather than what I can’t, because as the old saying goes, there’s always someone worse off than you are – and whatever you’re dealing with, there’s always something in life to be grateful for.