IntroductionThe title of this book is Life Among the Walkies.
If you don't understand the word Walkies, you probably are one.
It refers to the 90 percent of the world's people who, when walk-time comes, just get up and do it.
For those of us who are disabled, this simple act of get up and go is one of those miracles that continues to bemuse us - - - feet & arms & legs & balance & potential & kinetic energy all coming together in apple-pie order, working solemnly, beautifully, to get through the room, the city, the country, the world.
You want to take a jog around the neighborhood? Pull on your Reeboks and go.
Time for a shower? Drop your pants, turn on the hot water, jump in.
How about a dance? Head off with your love for the stadium or the street or the ballroom (or the bedroom). Once there, do it. Willy-nilly. Cheek to cheek. With or without music.
§ § §
I've been disabled for well over a half a century. Now, at age eighty-three, as I prepare to pother off into the sunset, I want to offer a final survival guidebook to those of you who are first learning what it is like to be a non-Walkie.
It does pain me to tell you that there's going to come a day when you will be joining us here. We in America do manage to live on and on, pretending that our bodies will be ever powerful and true. But one of these days, alas, you'll find your body going AWOL, probably long before you expect it to do so.
You may have already found yourself beginning the Geezer Shuffle, assisted by a cane or a walker or wheelchair or some exotic powered device so you can make it from here to there without toppling over.
Forget the stories about those ninety-five-year-olds pressing two-hundred-pound weights, graybeards swimming the Hellespont, a sweet granny from the mountains of Carpathia (or California) blowing out a hundred and seven candles on her banana cake. These are the ones who make the newscasts because their stories are so rare.
The rest of us? One day, you'll go around the corner and suddenly find yourself a full-blown duffer with leaky heart, cracked hip, wheezy lungs, blurry eyes, savaged drainage system - - - and heart or kidney or liver gone into open rebellion, leaving you adrift. At that point, believe me, you're going to need a few gimmicks to help you keep on going. You can't believe how galling it can be; you cannot imagine what your body will do to your mind. Trust me. I've been there.
And with such upheavals, we don't want you bailing out any time before it's time. For these last years of your life can provide you with some spectacular surprises, a few more vexing than you could believe possible. It can turn into a Théâtre du Grand-Guignol draped in ecstasy, or nightmares, or even - - - listen! - - - a classic idyll.
All is a crap shoot. No guarantees. But that's how it resolved itself for me and some of my superannuated chums.
§ § §
When I say I don't want you heading down the wrong road, let's be clear about what I'm getting at.
Many years ago, the physical therapist Mary Hopkins wrote a pioneering article on suicide and the disabled (and by extension, the aged and the lonely).
Don't look for her study on Google. It's there, but it's a bitch to find; hidden, I suspect, because it's just no longer respectable. The two words - - - "suicide" + "disabled" - - - are no longer allowed to appear together anywhere anymore nohow. Those in charge of The Truth have vetoed the mere conjoining of them.
Hopkins' original article was entitled "Patterns of Self-Destruction among the Orthopedically Disabled," and it was published by the American Psychological Association in Rehabilitation Research.1 She came to some rather startling conclusions. She began by quoting research from Finland that stated that the rate of suicide among the disabled is almost 40 percent higher than for the population as a whole. For amputees, the rate was 300 percent more than the non-disabled of their age group.
She also cited a study conducted by the Veterans' Hospital in Long Beach, California, where it was shown that the suicide rate for the spinal cord injured was close to double those figures for the population as a whole.
In addition, among the same group, she found that suicide occurred most often after five years rather than immediately after whatever it was that caused the disablement. She cited a U. S. Army study in which 1,500 new paraplegics were interviewed --- and all of them stated that someday they would recover completely. Which, I suspect, may be the key to the problem.
It's called excessive optimism --- and can often lead to a critical, bitter reaction.
Hopkins' message was that when we finally stumble onto the truth of our bodies, it can be dangerous for all concerned. It usually turns up conjoined with what Winston Churchill referred to as "The Black Dog," a beast that jumps the fence, snarling, running over to bite you on the ass and leave you with an infection that can be ugly, if not fatal.
When this dark reality arrives on your doorstep, I want you to have some leverage, some inkling of how to depart the Valley of the Shadow of the Walkies without falling apart. I want you to leave the final depths without despair, with some little confidence. Even, if possible, a smidgen of joy.
§ § §
Years ago, I reviewed a superb book by Aleksander Topolski2 about his time during WWII in a Russian prison. He only asked, as we read of his wretched three-year confinement, that we should imagine the words I Am Hungry inscribed at the top of each page. No matter how cheerful his memories - - - and some were quite merry - - - he asked us to remember that he and his companions were always starving, sometimes so much so that they were near death.
In the same way, I'll be asking readers to recall that my narratives here were composed as I was busy doing hard time, living among the Walkies.
1http://psycnet.apa.org/psycinfo/1973-31509-001 Rehabilitation Research & Practice Review, Vol 3(1), 1971, 5-16. See also http://www.mass.gov/eohhs/docs/dph/com-health/injury/suicide-youth-disabilities.pdf
2 Without Vodka: Adventures in Wartime Russia, Aleksander Topolski (Steerforth)