Wednesday, June 25, 2014

What Helps: Mobility Aids

This post is partly courage-training and partly the continued story of metamorphosis. Getting over that first hurdle—physically and mentally—to start using a mobility aid can be daunting so I wanted to share my experience. Many years ago, a lifetime ago even, I was a gymnast. I was the tallest on my team but I was a powerhouse. Floor and vault were my events. Let’s pretend uneven bars never happened. I used to soar in the air. We had a trampoline in our backyard and I would experiment and create new tricks all of the time. I remember what it feels like to fly.

For years, I was an avid hiker. My husband and I live two hours away from Yosemite National Park, and we would go hiking often, usually difficult, all-day hiking. On the long way up, sometimes you question why the hell you would ever choose such torture, but when you get to the top you feel exhilarated because you literally just-climbed-a-motherhumping-mountain.

Having to use a mobility aid before my geriatric years wasn’t my plan. Not everyone with POTS/dysautonomia needs a mobility aid, but some may be dependent on them. With dysautonomia, the body is struggling to maintain homeostasis and keep blood moving to essential organs, so movement and exercise can be exhausting and taxing. Gravity is a bitch for the vertically challenged, and sometimes the only way to be mobile and leave the house is to use a mobility aid. When the realization sets in that some kind of mobility aid is needed, it’s a disappointing and scary prospect. The physical struggle can pale in comparison to the emotional struggle to accept having to rely on a mobility aid. This is an invisible illness, and when you take that first step to get aid, it is no longer invisible, and some may question why you would need it if you “look fine.” Whatever our preconceived notions are about what disability and illness “looks like,” those notions are wrong.

I suddenly started having trouble walking a year ago. Since the POTS started, I have struggled to be able to stand still for any length of time but I could walk. Walking more than 30 feet at this point is extremely exhausting and precarious. My doctors have told me that the walking issue is not related to dysautonomia, so I am once again on the long road to diagnosis to figure this mystery out. Comorbidity and compounded illnesses are typical with dysautonomia.

I started using a cane in November last year, but I needed one long before that. Almost all dysautonomiacs have been told by some doctor somewhere somehow that it’s “all in your head.” Being told this when you are unable to function as a human being can permanently warp how you mentally navigate your disorder unfortunately. Unraveling the stranglehold this kind of invalidation has on your psyche can be a battle. I'm still trying to unravel it, so I spent months trying to pretend it wasn’t happening and believing that it was all in my head. 

When I finally relented and bought the cane, I was relieved. It has made getting around much
Sitting FTW!!
easier and I use it almost all of the time.  I also put off getting a disability placard and it has also changed my life. On the bad days, the VIP parking makes all the difference. I’m learning to let go of my pride and let my desire for a higher quality of life take over. The walking problem has worsened so I upgraded (downgraded?) to a walker, and I am also using a wheelchair. I can either leave my house more and use my wheelchair or walker or I can try to walk longer than 10 minutes and have to spend the next few days bedridden. Those are the breaks. Now I have to figure out how to decorate them. I bought my cane and wheelchair at a local medical supply store, but there are some websites with mobility aids, and I really want a cane from

For the chronically ill. you’ll encounter a variety of responses in the world when you have your cane, walker, wheelchair, etc. You’ll get
1.      Double-takes: “Why does she need that if she looks fine?” “Is that cane a fashion statement?” “Why is she pushing her grandmother’s walker?”
2.      Stares: Your days of blending in are over. At least look fabulous as people stare at you.
3.      Looks of terror: When people see me, sometimes they jump out of my way, rush to open the door, tear their children from my path. This comes from a place of kindness and can be pretty amusing.
4.      Questions: People will ask you about it. I don’t mind that much but I have never found a succinct way of explaining it. I was at a store with a friend recently and a guy said “You look too young to use that walker.” So I said “Oh, I’m older than I look. I’m actually 75.” Depending on how snarky I feel that day, my response varies. People will often ask if I was in an accident. Sometimes I’ll give them the 10 minute explanation of what is happening. They asked for it!
5.      Derision or Annoyance: This one is rare, but it can happen. If you are a human being in the world, you’ll encounter douchebags everywhere. Some don’t understand what it is to have an invisible illness and refuse to try to understand. These people have worse problems than needing a mobility aid. Try to smile at their ignorance.
6.      Sympathy: This one makes me the most uncomfortable. I don’t feel sorry for myself so please don’t feel sorry for me. I don’t mind if you want to hold the door open for me though.

This experience has given me a profound appreciation for the struggles of those who have been disabled their whole lives. Being disabled makes everything more complicated. Before this, I had no idea what the disabled went through on a daily basis. I had no idea how people treated them. I had no idea what a constant struggle it is. I had no idea how much people will focus on your difference. 

When I finally accepted that I needed a mobility aid, my life changed for the better, but I still resist every change along the way. I constantly tell myself “You can hold on to your pride and suffer and be home-bound, or you can get out in the world and try to live a more full life. You are not weak when you use resources. It takes an incredible amount of courage to take steps to protect your health.” Find the words you need to tell yourself to let go of whatever is standing in your way (no pun intended).

I may be kind of broken, but I can still do this
I may use a walker, but I’m still strong and athletic. Whatever abilities you had in the past do not matter anymore, but today does. Don’t let others' perceptions determine how you manage your health and the choices you make. You can take charge of your health and make a new life in the body you have now.