- Text by Dawn Foster
For a week now, I haven’t been home. My cat has been fed by my flatmate, my bed has remained empty; the food that stood on my shelf in the fridge the last time I left has likely expired. Instead, I’ve been in hospital, shunted around various wards, and now mercifully in my own room. It’s akin to a stripped back version of something you’d get in a Premier Inn, though the shower and wifi is better, and the single bed is mechanical, with raised buttons moving the mattress into whichever position offers most comfort.
I have, of course, been ill. Every hour, nurses come into my room to check my blood pressure, pulse and temperature; give me medication in tiny plastic shot glasses; deliver meals reminiscent of school dinners on green plastic trays; check on the heart monitors or the cluster of wires stuck to my scalp to record the electrical activity of my brain. I’ve had palpitations, racing heartbeats, low body temperature, high and low blood pressure, seizures, dizziness and periods where staying awake was impossible.
I have looked ridiculous: the wires were affixed to my head with a glutinous paste, a mass of bandages – the kind that indicate a head injury in a Looney Tunes cartoon – were wrapped around my head and under my chin. A striking black eye I received during a seizure is slowly diminishing, but the head wound I incurred at the same time is taking longer to heal. The mass of glue they used in place of stitches has fallen off, revealing that the concerned comment from the doctor who treated me (“You know… I think a chunk of flesh is missing”) was entirely correct now the swelling has abated.
Ended up on the ‘stroke and neurorehabilitative’ ward, with v ill people & am completely in awe of the limitless patience of nurses. They should be paid salaries equal to or higher than the MPs in the building opposite, they’re harder working, more skilled, & doing far more good.
— Dawn Foster (@DawnHFoster) August 2, 2019
My flatmate helpfully brought some clothes, face cream, and a clutch of toiletries I’d pinched from posh hotels, meaning I’ve been clean, fragrant, and moisturised. But I’ve gone a full week without makeup, which while by no means essential, is something I find enjoyable. Taking some time each morning to choose a few eyeshadows, a shade of blusher and lipstick, and taking gratification in the perfect cats eye liner application, is a process that cheers me up. When I’m ill, makeup can hide the telltale pallor and dark eyes, perk up dull skin. In hospital, I look ill without makeup because I am ill; the face that stares back from the mirror clearly sleepless and nauseous, my black eye causing people to stare then turn away, rather than being hidden away from judgment under concealer.
It might sound shallow, and many will likely dismiss it as so, but being disabled or chronically ill makes you long for some semblance of normality – make up can often provide that, and hide the extent to which you look as bad as you feel. But you also internalise a lot of the more insidious attitudes of society, and accept that if you have a disability, or your illness stretches out into the foreseeable future, no one will find you attractive. That you are broken biologically is a fact, yet that reality causes you to imagine that this very brokenness renders you romantically invalid, and on the scrapheap when people contemplate potential partners, or even find people attractive in the street.
That’s not a frivolous or bizarre notion: walk onto the tube with Transport for London’s badge for disabled people stating “please offer me a seat”, and you immediately become invisible. (This is especially when it comes to young men in suits – women and older men tend to offer their seats instead.) Disability reminds people of their own mortality, so it’s difficult not to internalise the disdain for disabled people prevalent in society. Silently refusing to give up a priority seat is common, but people are still vocally abusive about disability too: I’ve been called a “spastic”, had someone pull my top and bra down in public during a seizure while being egged on by their friends, and once spent 15 solid minutes having abuse about being disabled yelled at me, because I dared to put a woman’s carrier bag on the floor of a tube carriage after she ignored three requests to move it out of the priority seat.
Many people openly hate those with disabilities, so if dating is all about choice, and Tinder and other apps make it feel like a consumer endeavour, why on earth would someone date a disabled person when they could choose someone able-bodied?
The problem with all discrimination is you cannot help but internalise that hatred. I’ve argued endlessly against prejudice and discrimination, but still encounter it endlessly – in the purportedly progressive editor who happily sacks disabled journalists in an organisation that hasn’t promoted a disabled journalist to a senior role in a decade; in comments online and in public; in casual attitudes that people may not even realise are abusive. Being sick makes you feel lesser, as well as out of sorts. But it’s also incredible how much disabled people achieve in spite of a society that is stacked against them.
Disabled journalist Frances Ryan documents just how horrifically society discriminates against disabled people, and the fact that this is no accident in her new book Crippled. Feeling repellent and unattractive is small fry compared to the onslaught of political discrimination we encounter, but it all comes from the same place. Discrimination against disabled people is commonplace: internalising it is natural, but everyone needs to be vigilant and fight back against internalised ableism, racism, sexism, and homophobia.
Follow Dawn Foster on Twitter.