So, who was I?
Hmm, difficult to recall, but it was something like award-winning international radio journalist; foreign correspondent; writer published in all the UK broadsheets (and a few tabloids for good measure); news presenter to ten million listeners; chronicler of pestilence, war, famine and death; interrogator of president and peasant; arts correspondent; habitué of Venice and Cannes, openings and premiers; interrogator of celebrity and star; someone who lived and worked – extremely hard – across three or four continents.
Three or four miles is the general circumference of my life, the reach of my being from the hub of my house, on the days when I can leave it. Nowadays that means most days, but there are still, occasionally, some when I cannot.
Yesterday I had a huge sense of achievement. I managed to post to a friend the reading glasses she had left behind after staying here at the weekend (which, in and of itself, was a pretty notable achievement, having people to stay).
And what did this require? It required the finding of a padded envelope, a pen, some cellotape and her address. It required that the glasses be inserted into the envelope, the address written on it with the pen and the flap sealed down with the cellotape. It required the parcel to be taken to the post office, weighed, a stamp purchased and affixed and the parcel deposited in the correct place for collection.
The friend left her glasses on Monday morning. I managed to post them on Wednesday afternoon.
This was not because my life was so full of activity I overlooked the task. Quite the reverse. It was the achievement of the task itself which took that long. But that was far quicker than is usual with such things, hence my huge happiness and the sense of achievement to which I have already alluded.
My life, my ability to function in the world, has utterly changed.
I am not looking for and do not require sympathy. What I would like is some effort at understanding.
What makes me extremely upset is the assumption, usually from people who are entirely well-meaning but sometimes from people who are not, that my situation is something over which I have control, a choice, something over which I only have to make a slight effort and all would be… well. “But you’re so strong…” “I’m sure if you tried…” “Surely someone like you…” It is a pernicious variant on the “pull your socks up” and “snap out of it” approach.
Let us imagine that, instead of suffering from an alteration to my mental capacity which affects my ability to operate in the world, I suffered from an alteration in my physical capacity which affects my ability to operate in the world. I could, through accident or illness, have lost my sight, for instance. Or as a result of accident or illness become paralysed from the waist down. Immediately there is a visual co-relative – the white stick, the wheelchair – which signifies the situation. Immediately there is a frame of reference within which the onlooker can make judgements and act accordingly. One would not, I presume, tell someone in a wheelchair that one was sure they could walk if they only tried. Or say to a person wielding a white stick that surely someone a strong as them really ought to be able to see, if they made the effort.
I understand that it is difficult to comprehend the disabling effect of mental ill-health without the clear visual cues provided by physical alteration. So let’s look at it from a different direction. Let’s look at the before and after. Let’s look at who I was – a person with a fantastically interesting, varied, stimulating, high-status, financially and intellectually rewarding job with a concomitant lifestyle. And who I am – unable to work, to earn money, to read a newspaper or listen to the radio, unable to do innumerable basic day-to-day activities most people take for granted, with a concomitantly impoverished lifestyle.
I am not complaining about my situation. What I have great difficulty with is the attitude that it is some sort of conscious lifestyle choice born of laziness or other character defect. That my situation merely requires moral fibre, effort or the exertion of will to overcome. That its continuation, perhaps even its very existance at all, is therefore my fault. Is it not possible to imagine the devastating frustration and shame that this situation engenders? how difficult it is to come to terms with the change?
How or why would anyone choose to lose what I have lost? How or why would anyone choose to be in a position not to be able to provide their children with most of what they want and even, on occasion, things that they need? How or why would not anyone do whatever they were capable of, fight, fight, fight to overcome such a situation?
And if they are not, by an effort of will, able to walk again, able to regain their sight, how or why should they be blamed?