Whangarei Base Hospital accident and emergency department, sometime before midnight, Sunday, November 24, 2014.

Life pivots around events that take place in seconds. Split seconds. A chance meeting, a lottery win, an accident. Events that take us and hang us upside down and shake us until the change falls from our pockets and our brains turn dizzy, and our sense of who we are and what we are is so thoroughly turned out and dusted that we can never be the same again.

In New Zealand, a quarter of us are disabled. According to official figures, in 2013 (the year in which I had an accident), more than one million New Zealanders were coping (or not coping) with some form of long-term disability. That’s a lot, when you consider there are barely 4.5 million of us in this country.

As you’d expect, impairment is most common in the elderly (59 per cent of those aged 65 or more). But don’t think that we middle-aged folk get off lightly; 38 per cent of those of us aged between 45 and 64 have some form of long-term impairment (lasting more than six months and affecting our ability to function). And disabilities affect 16 per cent of young adults (15 to 45) and 11 per cent of children.

The numbers are scary. One in every four people you meet is dealing with something. If you go into a school, every 10th child – that’s three out of a classroom of 30 – has to overcome some sort of hurdle (in the young, hearing, learning and psychological issues are the most common form of impairment) before they even start the day’s lessons.

Disabilities come in all shapes and sizes. Hearing loss, blindness, developmental delays, psychological impairment, memory loss and intellectual impairment are all common disabilities. But among adults, at least, it’s physical impairment, caused by accidents or illnesses, that is the biggest problem.

Less money in the bank

What surprises me is that I’m one of those statistics. If you’ve been fit and healthy most of your life, you don’t expect to suddenly not be. You know you’ll slow down as you get older, your eyesight will fail and your muscles will wither, and you’ll probably need people to help you with some things, but you don’t expect to lose your fitness – your physicalness – in an instant.

The event that changed my life was a horse-riding accident, an occurrence so small in detail that sometimes it’s hard to trace the line that runs directly from there to here.

Admittedly, the accident came at the end of a tough year, and just a few weeks after I’d been made redundant from a job I loved, so I’d already drawn pretty heavily on the emotional, physical and financial capital I had in the bank.

Nevertheless, I expected to get through an accident in much the same way as I got through everything else, by hanging in and working hard. I didn’t imagine that a seemingly inconsequential decision, followed by a split-second occurrence, would spark a chain reaction that would turn the world upside down.

Unplanned and unwelcome

Neither did I realise that I was about to become a person I would despise – dependent, whiney, incapable and weak, who would make dreadfully bad decisions and fail at some critical moments.

Moving from the world of the “able” to the “dis-abled” (interesting that the “dis” form of the word always takes the past tense) was unplanned, unwelcome and unnerving. Part of me sought to divorce itself from the process and watch it objectively, so that I could write about it, because writing about issues, but also experiences, is what people of my ilk (journalists) do. But to my surprise, I couldn’t do it. I wasn’t up to it. The ball of energy I had rolled through life on had been kicked into touch by my beloved horse’s stumbling legs, and I no longer had what it took to do what for me is the simplest thing on Earth – write.

Obviously, this had implications for my working life, and therefore my family’s income. For nearly two years I tried to push myself into working, because the ramifications of not working were too awful. And besides, it’s what people – including insurers – expected me to do. But it wasn’t until I stopped trying and gave myself the time and space I needed to get better that I started to make progress.

New Zealand is blessed to have a publicly funded health system (albeit a creaking one) providing free care for its citizens. We also have a full-cover, no-faults, national accident insurance scheme, called ACC. But the fact that, as a society, we show enlightenment about healthcare and insurance doesn’t mean that we don’t also have an attitude about “bludgers”. That is, in fact, what has finally made me set fingertips to keyboard; a few days ago I saw a bitter little post in a Facebook group about a person who was on “disability” (the poster probably meant getting ACC payments because he was unable to work because of a disability) but that didn’t stop him painting the house or going out.

We’re put here to work

It was heartening to see some people gently rebuke the poster for jumping to conclusions, or for taking the attitude that if you are unable to work, you shouldn’t do anything at all, but the majority of the comments took a hard line. Rehabilitation is not an instant process but a continuum; you aren’t disabled one day and at full strength the next. Our bodies take time to repair and then to build up strength again, and getting active around the house and going out is an essential part of that.

I know this from hard experience, and yet curiously, as I wrote these words I began to feel anxious about what people would think, because the work ethic is such a part of our culture that to be seen to lack it or doubt it is to put yourself outside the culture.

What I needed when I was injured was to be told that everyone is different and that the road to recovery is long and full of pitfalls. I also needed to know what practical issues I would face.

When I left the hospital, I asked for a brochure on what to expect. The staff told me there wasn’t one. This, then, is my attempt at a brochure, a user’s guide to having a broken leg, as it were. As I have time (I am now back at work full-time, so there was a happy ending), I will write posts about what I experienced and what I learned in case it’s of help to anyone else.

Please also feel free to ask questions or share your experiences.

5 thoughts on “Life in the pain lane

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