And it was, without a doubt, one of the most mortifying experiences of my life.
It shouldn’t have been.
Let me just preface this by saying that I am not elderly. In fact, I am very young. I’m not even into my twenties, and yet last weekend I poked my way around York using a walking stick.
I ordered it specially for this trip. I knew I was going to be doing a lot of walking, so I ordered a fold-up walking stick, and it arrived a couple of days before we left. I unfolded it and stood in front of my mirror with it… and I wanted to cry. I felt like an old person. (That is not meant to be offensive in the slightest – but I’m being honest here, at a young age, you don’t want to feel like you’re in your eighties.) I knew, logically, that anybody can use a walking stick regardless of age, but that old stereotype stuck in my head, of the octogenarian shuffling along the road hunched over their walking stick, like you see on road signs sometimes.
I sat back down and thought, Can I use this? Am I ‘disabled enough’ to warrant a walking stick? Because I don’t have a formal diagnosis yet. I have been diagnosed with scoliosis, for which I’ve had surgery (that will feature in another blog very soon) to fix it, but it has been established that that is not the cause of my widespread chronic pain, subluxations etcetera. Investigations are still ongoing with regards to that. But all through that evening, I was gripped by this insecurity, that by using a walking stick when others have it so much worse than me, I was somehow doing them a disservice or being offensive to them.
Logically, I knew this was BS. If I have pain, I am perfectly within my rights to do whatever I can to ease it (within reason). And if that means using a mobility aid, so be it. And I did. As soon as I left my hotel after checking in, my hips started to feel as if they were being ripped from my pelvis, so I cracked out the stick. And it worked! My pain eased considerably, even doing 11,000 steps that first day, to the extent that I felt like a new woman when I got back to the hotel that night. Right then and there I declared that it was worth it. I had several more moments like that throughout the trip, where in my heart I knew I’d made the right decision.
But in between these moments of clarity, the old insecurity struck again. One of my friends told me, “as soon as you start using one, you’ll notice how many other people use them too,” – and I did, it was true. But all these other people were older than me. I think the youngest person I saw was in their late thirties or early forties. One fellow woman with a stick – I’d say in her fifties – locked eyes on mine and we shared a little smile of solidarity (nothing overly emotional… we are British, after all). But so many other people stared at me.
I tried to dress well, so at least they’d be staring at someone who looked half-decent. But only on the first day did I have the energy to put on make-up, and I knew that that probably made me look even younger. I could see it in people’s furrowed brows – Why is that young girl using a stick? – and in their occasional bemused looks to each other. Every so often, I’d be strolling along, living my life, having a grand old time, and then the realisation of what I must have looked like hit me, like a punch in the gut.
I try not to care what people think of me, and most of the time I succeed. But using a mobility aid made me feel more vulnerable because of the misconceptions around them: that they are only for the elderly or wheelchair-bound, that they are a one-way slippery-slope to infinite dependency. They are not. And we need to smash these misconceptions once and for all.
If you are a fellow mobility-aid-user who’s nodding their head in recognition – I see you. I hear you, and I’m here for you. My Twitter DMs are always open for a chat if you need me. And whoever you are, whether you use mobility aids, know someone who does or are just interested… firstly, congratulations on making it to the end of this blog. And secondly, please share the hell out of it. This message needs to be spread more widely.
<brandishes walking stick>
THERE IS NO SHAME IN USING MOBILITY AIDS!
THERE IS NO SHAME IN DOING WHATEVER YOU NEED TO EASE YOUR PAIN.
IF IT HELPS YOU, DO IT.