When I arrived at the rehabilitation hospital I let out a weary sigh. The building itself looked like something from a horror movie. It was grey and old with the distinct smell of disinfectant. As a frequent flyer in hospitals since the age of five I knew the drill. I was led to my little cubby with my bed and bedside table. An overwhelming feeling of claustrophobia came over me as I saw I was in a mixed ward with sixteen beds. This was going to be my home for the next twelve weeks. Once I was given my wristband and had my blood pressure checked I was brought off on a guided tour. The main highlights being the canteen and dayroom complete with 70’s style wood paneling and frosted windows. It’s hard to believe from that first day I would become so attached to all the souls in there with me and would have tears in my eyes leaving.
As I mentioned I was pretty much a dab hand at hospitals and had stayed in hospitals for up to a month at a time over my thirty years. I have battled with tumors along my spine since I was five years old. With the latest tumor I lost my ability to walk so was shipped off to rehab.
This place was different from the regular hospitals I had been in; it was full of people my own age. Usually when I went into hospital I was surrounded by fellow patients with a good forty years on me. I became their adopted granddaughter for the duration of my stay, which was lovely but often I felt I was the only young person in the whole country dealing with illness.
Suddenly, I was in with young vibrant people. Of course, we were all in there for varying reasons, some brain injuries from falls and violent attacks, some damaged spinal cords mainly from bike accidents. We were all just trying to come to terms with this new reality we were each facing. As a consequence of this we formed relationships quickly. In everyday life we were the exception, the thing to be looked at. In rehab we were all damaged in some way or another. There was nothing to look at because everyone had something.
When you were in there you didn’t have to listen to the staff saying what a ‘complex case’ you were. You felt like you could do anything. If someone was having a bad day, which everyone eventually did at some point during their stay, the rest of us would rally around. We all became each other’s mini counselors. Nothing was too private or taboo, something that you need when you are dealing with a myriad of strange and socially unacceptable symptoms. Along with learning practical skills such as how to get around in your wheelchair the staff tried to instill a sense of independence in us all. For the majority of us we were still the same people, only our bodies had changed. With a busy schedule and evenings spent hanging around with my newly formed gang the weeks seemed to fly by.
As my time to leave was looming everyone kept saying you must be so happy to be going home but all I felt was anxiety and sadness. I would joke and say I couldn’t wait for my own bed but in truth all I wanted was to stay. I was leaving my rag tag bunch of friends, my support system. Obviously, I had my own family and friends but they were different, they hadn’t been through all the pain and stress of losing the ability to walk. They hadn’t had to deal with their bodies deciding to no longer do what you wanted it to. As our dates came closer we all tried to get more time, just a week or two to keep improving, to stay in the safe place. Unfortunately, due to the constant need for beds they were unable to extend our time in the rehab so after three months it was time to say goodbye. I spent my last day finding people and saying thank you for the last time. As I was leaving I was handed a card signed by everyone telling me how much I would be missed.
When I arrived home all I felt was empty and bereft. To go from having someone around you constantly to spending part of everyday alone meant the silence was deafening. I went from having a full timetable of physiotherapy and occupational therapy to sitting watching TV. When I went out in public I was back to being the oddity. I would go to the supermarket and fellow customers would leap out of my path when they saw me apologizing profusely for being in my way. They almost looked scared of me, this young girl in a wheelchair, what happened to her?
Of course, by this stage these instances weren’t unusual, I had been dealing this before I ever went to rehab. One thing had changed slightly though, was my reaction. After being in rehab I seemed to care less about the reactions I got. Before my stay I had been embarrassed to tell my friends and extended family I was in a wheelchair. I avoided messaging people on their birthdays or commenting on pictures on social media for fear they would ask me what I was up to. I was ashamed to tell them I had left university because of illness and was living with my parents. On the rare occasions I would go out in public I would feel self-conscious and worry constantly about the logistics of getting to wherever I was going. Even going out to for dinner with family. We would arrive at a restaurant listed as wheelchair friendly only to find a giant step at the entrance. My chair would have to be hitched up and I would have the feeling of burning humiliation in my stomach. But somewhere along the way while being in rehab I realized that unfortunately the world wasn’t going to change so I had to instead.
A few weeks after I had come home I decided to do my ‘coming out’ on social media. I put up a picture of me in my wheelchair. I just wanted everyone to know all at once so that if anyone saw me I wouldn’t have to go through the hassle of explaining. The response was very positive; I felt a weight had been lifted from my shoulders. I no longer had to worry about seeing people on the street, which meant I was able to get out in the world again and feel less lonely and sad about leaving rehab.
In relation to my new confidantes from rehab we still talk and with some of them I feel we have gotten even closer. Others, as in any group situation, have faded back into acquaintances on social media. I suppose when in rehab you are cushioned from real life and once you get back to that it takes over once again. I know that some of the people in there will be at important life events such as having kids or getting married. Next step is to get back to work and show people that I am still the same person despite my wheelchair, rehab taught me that.