I’ve often wondered how a person goes from being a non-cane user to a cane user. Especially when the need for a cane is premature due to disease or sudden disability. It seems although we commemorate most of our “firsts”, this isn’t one of them, and so those of us who aren’t sure how to make this transition, make it alone without the wisdom and experience of someone who has walked this path before, because, well, no one talks about it. I knew, when I first made the transition, I would memorialize it in a way, even though I despise every part of it.
For way too long I have allowed my superficial, vain beliefs attached to a cane convince me that by using one, I would be less of a person, less of a woman, less attractive, and frankly appear weak.
The truth is, I’ve needed a cane for a long time. This pattern I have of losing my balance, and falling into people isn’t attractive either.
Some time back, Dr. Neuro suggested I start with a trekking pole to ease the transition. I’m not really sure what about this made me think I would blend in more easily. After months of using my trekking pole, it occurred to me that indoor nature hiking is anything but inconspicuous – in other words, me and my trekking pole/substitute cane stood out like a flashing neon sign. Numerous times I was asked “What is that?” or “What is that for?” So, my attempt to hide my weakness, only highlighted it all the more as it forced me to explain the very thing I was trying to avoid.
However, I remember clearly the first time I used this trekking pole in public. I was at an amusement park, and for a few minutes I was by myself making the “trek” (okay had to do it) from the car to the front of the park, a very short distance as I was parked in handicapped, but I was surrounded by crowds of people, which is normally very uncomfortable for me. One of my struggles in my mobility is walking around people and obstacles. As I walked with my trekking pole, I felt a joy and freedom I hadn’t felt for a long time. This pole gave me the stability I no longer possess, therefore, I could confidently walk through the crowds of people without fear I was going to trip and fall on my face or into an innocent bystander. Until this experience, I hadn’t realized the fear I had of going places without someone to link arms with; especially the fear of unfamiliar places.
Yet, it is critical that I emphasize a point on behalf of myself and other individuals forced to use a mobility device or other walking assistance: these devices are never welcome, they are never natural, they are always an adjustment, and they are always a tool in order to live normally. It is the strength and courage of a person which makes these devices appear arbitrary or inconsequential.
Suddenly becoming a user of a mobility device opened my eyes to the difficulties others must experience daily. It is truly incredible the number of people who do not pay attention to their surroundings, and it is clear to me that many people walking around with their eyes on their phones, or distracted in some other way, simply don’t know they’re obstructing the path of those of us using a walking aid, they’re oblivious, and others who might be paying attention, aren’t sure what to do, so they scoot past as though their quickness is helpful. Only rarely does a person recognize that they simply need to give us the right of way, not because we deserve special treatment, but simply because it is much more difficult for us to maneuver obstacles than a person without mobility issues. And quite simply, you are the obstacle. One time in particular, I was so frustrated by the number of people who walked in front of me or raced past me, and not having the rubber foot on my trekking pole, exposing the sharp tip made for rough terrain, I thought to myself, “the next person who walks in front of me is getting stabbed in the foot.”
Although I was terrified (for some twisted reason), a few weeks ago I bought a real cane. As much as I dreaded the idea of being a cane user, it’s amazing how much more confident this thing has made me. Often I can walk just fine for short distances. My challenges are distances greater than some undetermined amount depending on other circumstances, obstacles such as people, crowds, tables, couches, just about anything, stairs or hills, or sudden abrupt movement, for example getting up after sitting, or suddenly changing directions.
This cane was used for the first time at a concert we went to for my daughters birthday. The first thing I noticed was independence. I didn’t feel the need to hang on to someone every second. Furthermore, as a rule, I don’t dance. I’m too unsteady on my feet. But, while at this concert, I realized I could sort of do a standing-feet-planted sort of dancing because my cane kept me balanced.
A few days later I took my youngest daughter to a birthday party. Knowing the party would be at a busy pizza restaurant full of obstacles, I brought my cane. But suddenly on the drive there I started feeling extremely nervous about using it. I imagined the reaction of the other parents who didn’t know I even owned a cane, to the wrongly assumed embarrassment of this daughter, who had not yet seen me use my cane, but knew I bought it. It helps me to talk about things, so I simply said to her, “I brought my cane and I’m thinking about using it at the restaurant. I think it will be difficult for me to maneuver the people, tables, and chairs, to use the restroom and such. Would that be embarrassing for you?” She answered, “Let me think…it would be more embarrassing if you stumble and have a hard time walking. I think you should use your cane if it makes it easier for you to walk.” Bam. Worry number one lifted, freedom from fear was in sight.
Walking into the restaurant full of people that know me very well as a non-cane user, yet suddenly now as a part-time cane user, was easily one of the scariest things I have ever done in my life. Heart racing, quick breathing, irrational thoughts and fears as I imagined ninety-nine scenarios that likely weren’t going to happen and thirty awkward conversations that never happened. In fact, it was too easy. If anyone made it awkward, it was me. The truth is, my insecurities make things much more difficult for myself, as if they aren’t difficult enough.
Each time I use my cane, I get a little more comfortable bringing it out in public. And each time the realization of how much easier it is for me to walk, gives me the confidence I need to use it. It must become a part of me, because it’s proven to be more reliable than my own legs.
One final note for the sake of those who cannot get around as easily as most others. We need to be aware of our surroundings. We need to teach our kids to hold open doors and step to the side. We need to keep our eyes open and watch where we are going, yielding to those who need a clear path and who would love nothing more than to be as quick and agile as the next person…otherwise, I’d hate to have to stab you in the foot.