A short story based on real events
By James Taylor
The irony of life is not lost on me. As young fella with my friend Jack in a shopping centre. He had to make a deposit in the toilet but all the cubicles were full. The disabled one was free empty and clean. He came out and in stitches. The conversation went something like this.
“Have you ever been in the wheelchair jacks?”
“Come here and get a load of this.”
Andy showed the interior of a disabled toilet. It was spacious, very.
“What’s with all the bars it’s like a fucking climbing frame in here.” We were kids messing. It was harmless. Funny, in a matter of two years, using facilities just like these would become the new norm.
A few months after the bathroom instant, during fourth year and we had started to go on day trips on. That particular Wednesday we were going ice skating with the school. That morning my body was filled with tension: being nervous about going into the city centre. My reasons for being on tender hooks about the capital city was during the early 90s I had been caught up in a bomb scare on my way home from town, which rattled me. Then another one while in 3rd year around 95 someone rang my secondary school saying there was a bomb somewhere. The whole school had to be evacuated into the nearby GAA club. Remembering looking at the teachers faces who were also just as terrified didn’t help the situation. Shortly afterwards, the panic attacks started. They were starting to restrict my life, like a carpenters vice. Rigid and tight. It was some time later that I found out who had made the call, wanting to throttle him so bad but instead I laughed it off. The trip to the Ice skating rink in Phibsborough was a an ordeal. The effort of loosening that vice grip would consume me right up until only recently that at last I’m almost completely free of anxiety and panic.
Back to the story, taking to ice skating like a duck to water, like a kola to trees or like pig to shite. Rolling backwards, sliding on my hunkers and doing a little 180 jump. Friends who were scared to leave the side wall were asking, “Are you sure this is your first time?” they would ask, with their arms windmilling. It was of course, if you count sliding on an icy path during winter, then no.
Everything about her I loved, the way she tied her hair back the way she laughed, the tone of her voice. She had a little nose piercing too. Long brown hair matched with hazel eyes finished off with an olive skin tone, she was a picture. Ahh Niamh. . . well I was smitten. She, however just couldn’t manage the ice skating. When I saw her struggling, grinning to myself thinking, now’s your chance, Mick, now’s your chance! “Do you want a hand?” She beamed at me, “Yes please, Mick.”
Taking her by the hand and we glided around the rink together. Three months prior to this outing, I wouldn’t have the balls big enough to ask her (or any other female) for a loan of a pen never mind to skate around a rink. But my confidence had grown in the past few weeks and I was actually chatting with girls.
We finished up and handed back our ice skating boots. Then while we were waiting for the bus to take us back to school a huge panic attack took over. The bus was running late was freaking me out. Thinking it was another bomb threat. My heart was pounding in my chest, the pulse in my ears was ready to explode. Starting to sweat buckets while sparks were clouding my vision. Pacing up and down the bus stop no one knew the torment I was going through, fearing it would push me over the edge.
As soon as the bus then came around the corner my breathing was returning to normal rate. We all went to the top of the bus because that’s were the cool kids sit! Sitting on my own in silence just saying to myself. This doesn’t feel right. My body feels strange, out of my control. My legs seemed to be weakening. The very next day, returning a video to the shop, my brother asked “What’s wrong with your feet?” “Oh, it’s just from the skates.” Was my response.
A week later, while doing my part time job in Centra serving a lady, she had asked for 4 slices of ham. While wrapping it in a plastic bag, saliva fell from my mouth on the countertop. Fumbling with putting the price on it, my hands were shaking and had to repeat myself three times to the woman the cost. My speech was now slurring like a drunk. In my mind the thought of with trying to ask Niamh (or any girl for that matter) out now was too risky. My body was stumbling and there was no way of hiding or controlling it.
In school, keeping to myself was difficult but it had to done. When people asked what was wrong, my answer was silence. Turing my head, the shame and frustration was choking. Wanting to be surrounded by my friends, also hating them seeing me this way. With – drawing. Closing myself off. Refusing to eat with my family at the kitchen table. Every bite, every dribble, made me feel like a toddler. It wasn’t long after this that dropping out of school was the only option. The fallout meant not going to my debs. Not having the chance to do my Leaving Certificate. The dream of becoming an animator working for Disney was buried. When attempting to speak, the muscles in my lips would twist my mouth, my tongue became rigid and my throat would clamp up. My mobility was screwed up, the dexterity had gone haywire and my speech was banjaxed to put it politely.
Fighting so hard, but it was a losing battle. In the privacy of my bedroom, practice saying “My name is Michael” easy peasy it sounds in my head, when verbalising my words, they come out slow and drawn out. There was a huge sense of embarrassment when my first piece of assistive technology arrived. I was reluctant to look at it, let alone use it. But it was fun hearing the robotic voice swearing.
My cousin came to live with us as he was starting a course in town. There’s just a year between us. Always idolizing him, from the music he listened to to the clothes he wore, I always looked up to him. When he came to stay with us, my speech actually improved because when he came home from his course, we would play on my games console. But on weekends, watching him getting ready to go out to get locked with his own friends made me feel sad. Meeting girls, having relationships seemed like a far fetched idea for me now. “Mam, will I ever kiss a girl?” a 17 year old me wondered as I looked down the hall at my cousin saying goodbye to his girlfriend. So as expected, loneliness and isolation stole my confidence. In my life there have some dark, dark times. Depression and anxiety swallowed me up and plunged me into a pit. Trying to climb out was hard as the walls were slippery and I kept falling. Daemons in my head were yelling things like, “You are a burden, you are worthless” And you know what, I was starting to believe them, thinking and pondering to myself about. . . Well, I’m up out from the pit of despair, standing strong supported by my family and walker, giving the middle finger to those thoughts.
Living with a disability can be challenging, especially one that robs you of your speech and your mobility. It’s frustrating when you can’t use your own voice to verbalise, to communicate with. Instead you have to type out what you want to say or smile politely and nod. The silence particularly in a workplace environment when typing my words can be deafening. My cheeks starting to flush and my hand begin to shake. Knowing that people are waiting for me to reply. Taking deep breaths. Telling myself to relax seems to work or maybe I’ve just adapted? Anyway, it is said that talking is just a small fraction of communication. Eyes, I’m told are far more expressive so I’ll go with that.
When people ask me what my voice was like, not many do mind you but when they do well having grown up in a particular area of Dublin where it would be expected of me to have a thick accent, that wasn’t so. Maybe that’s because befriending the local boys wasn’t something that appealed to me, apart from one lad who lived across the road. We shared a common interest in drawing. He and my school mates were all that mattered. This however, brought it’s only challenges as we were called posh and other more insulting profanities. Standing up for myself and my brother became a constant battle, which of course lead to many fist fights. Nowadays when passing these same guys on the street while about on my mobility scooter, with a smile, a wave and an often “Alright!” one of the few words that don’t cause a lot of effort. They always respond with the same amount of respect that is given to them by me.“At ease boys, the war is long over!” I say to myself.
Coming to terms with my speech impairment, means not caring when my mouth twists and tenses up. Meeting new people has its challenges as it always did even before the whole acquiring the disability situation. Part of me will always wish I didn’t have to tap tap tap tap out what I want to say on the iPad! Because I do feel at times that I’m missing out on the craic but that being said, it has made me the person I am today. The strong determined type that won’t stop until I succeed in my goals. Achieving a part time job last year was something that I would never thought possible but I did and proving my worth each and every day is something that I thrive in.
That cliche, you know about, the strong silent type – it’s true, we do get the women. This is a story for another time, but they say good things come to those who wait, boy was she worth the patience. Nineteen years together, with a 15-year-old daughter and a job, it’s fair to say I didn’t do too badly!