Spinal injuries suck balls.
I can tell you this from personal experience.
It's shit. No two ways about it. Except you can't shit, 'cos your arse doesn't work. True story. Not being able to walk is the tip of the paralysed iceberg. In fact, for me, not being able to walk is like the fourth worst thing about being paraplegic. Pissing is probably my least favourite thing about having a spinal injury. Probably because I depend upon a regular delivery of urinary catheters to survive. Literally, survive. If I forget to manually stick a 40cm piece of plastic down my urethra then my bladder will explode. Okay, it won't necessarily explode, but I'll probably die of renal failure. Which actually is the cause of death for over 65% people who die because of spinal injury.
In fact, part of your rehabilitation in a spinal injury unit is to make sure you know how not to kill yourself. At Stanmore, where I was situated, they don't let you go home until you've passed your spinal theory test. Seriously, I had a multiple choice exam to make sure I could be trusted with my own life. And rightly so. Real life is a minefield for us crips. We could contract a pressure sore and be dead within a month. It's all part of the adjustment process. In much the same way that I had to learn how to dress myself without being able to stand, I also had to learn that without regular bowel excavation I would become distended and could choke on my own vomit of backed-up faeces.
This process is obviously extremely arduous. Not only have you just gone through a near death experience, but you're also faced with the prospect of an existence that is fraught with shit-puking peril. Dark times. All you can do is take each day as it comes and measure your physical, mental and emotional progress with as little resentment as possible. It's a hard task, but there really isn't much choice. So it helps to have as much support as possible from the people around you. I was extremely fortunate to have an incredible network of support and it benefitted me massively.
But not everyone has such a willing and able group of family and friends. Not everyone has a partner who is able to instantly find and afford accessible accommodation. For those people, they find themselves at the bottleneck of a deplorable situation. Having spent months in hospital, they're now ready to go home, but there is no home for them to go. Their previous abode is inaccessible. They don't have adequate financial resources. And their council is unable to find them suitable accommodation. So what happens? The hospital can't keep 'em. Where do they go?
I mentioned in my previous blog that I've recently become a Peer Support Volunteer for the Spinal Injuries Association. It's a role I've pondered in the past but haven't felt as if I'm ready. Essentially, it means meeting people who have recently become affected by a spinal injury and offering them, well, support. As far as I'm concerned, it's the most significant form of charity work that I could do. Not that I'm trying to one-up myself. It's just that if I'm gonna do voluntary stuff in the third sector, this is the place where I genuinely feel as if I can make a real, first-hand difference to actual people.
My first outing under the banner of the SIA took me to a nursing home in Grays that cares for people with severe brain damage. There, I met up with my new mentor, Lady-Marie Dawson as she was preparing to give an instructive talk on life with a spinal injury to the staff and residents. Why, you might ask, was a Peer Support Office from the Spinal Injury Association talking to staff at a nursing home for people with brain damage? The reason is simple. When there isn't anywhere for people with a spinal injury to go, they end up in a place like this. I couldn't believe it. In front of me was a room full of people with severe brain damage and very little capacity to care for themselves. On numerous occasions, Lady-Marie had to cease talking while one of the residents appeared to choke on their own phlegm.
Imagine the scenario, if you will. You've just spent six months being rehabilitated in a spinal injury unit, coming to terms with your new situation. But instead of going home, you're sent to a nursing home for people with brain damage. In fact, you're the only resident who has a spinal injury. Everyone around you has brain damage. They can't communicate. They are entirely dependent on the people who care for them; and they are seemingly unaware of the situation they are in. While you, without brain damage, are acutely aware of the situation you are in.
It's a devastatingly tragic state of affairs that contributes to a life of depression and suicidal thoughts. But that's where the SIA comes in. They do their utmost to reach out to those stranded people, for whom, so far, a spinal injury represents nothing but woe. They provide practical advice and advocacy. But more importantly, they try to let the person know that this isn't necessarily what life with a spinal injury looks like. They only have to take one glance at Lady-Marie to see that a spinal injury is not the end of the road. She's a formidable and ambitious woman, for whom a spinal injury was simply an adversity that she felt compelled to overcome. To make this point during her talk she referenced a quote from the Disney film, Mulan:
"The flower that blooms in adversity is the most rare and beautiful of all."
It's a sentiment that means more to me now, after experiencing a spinal injury, than I think it ever could prior to my accident. But while I'm able to draw strength and meaning from such a statement, I can't help but think that there's a thing as too much adversity. As a white, middle class, male this probably represents some sort of revelation. But as a politicised human being, it signifies a semantic shift from adversity to injustice.
After all, we can overcome adversity. But injustice must not be tollerated.