Sunday, 16 July 2017

On vulnerability

This week, I have been reflecting on vulnerability, on my own vulnerability and that of others, especially those who are close to me, of why few of us want to admit to being vulnerable, of why it would be empowering if more of us were able to admit to our vulnerabilities, whatever form they may take.

Fear and vulnerability go hand in hand. In my case, my vulnerabilities are physical - I have two club feet, arthritis and a damaged lower back. While these afflictions cause me some level of pain most days, I do tend to just get on with things and, fortunately, I have a career in which skills such as mountaineering, skiing or tap-dancing are not required. 

But when I have a bad pain day, it doesn't just hurt me physically, it upsets me, although I seldom show this side of my psyche in public. I had one such bad pain day on Monday - I was too proud or vain or silly to retrieve my crutches from the cupboard under the stairs to help with my commute, even though that would made life so much easier. I got angry and annoyed when someone walked at me when I was using a handrail on the tube station staircase. By the end of the day, I was in so much pain, I had to cancel my plans for the evening and limp home to wallow in the bath.

On those days, the fear is that my feet or knees will seize up at an inopportune moment. Awful scenarios often pop, unsolicited, into my head - maybe I will be rendered immobile in a busy tube station in rush hour, or a cyclist or scooter rider will come up behind me on the footpath and I won't be nimble enough to get out of the way in time. This nearly happened to me this afternoon and all I could do was impotently shout: "Use a fucking bell, you twat, or ride on the fucking road!" when a cyclist silently rode up behind me on a footpath as I walked to the shop and gave me a massive fright. Not my finest moment, I admit, but it's just what came out as I realised that a stray step to the left or right could have put me in hospital.

For me, it is these feelings of powerlessness and the fear that one day, being in pain will put me in real danger that make me vulnerable. What if someone is chasing me and, despite my commitment to flat shoes, I just cannot run away? What if the next time I fall over, I'm home alone? So many what-ifs...

Getting older, and its inevitable physical consequences, add to this fear. And I hate it, I fight it, but sometimes I need to vocalise it. If I cannot go out because I genuinely cannot walk, I should not be afraid or embarrassed to say so.

For others, their vulnerabilities stem directly from mental health issues, rather than the psychological distress following on from a physical condition. Anyone who dares tell me that mental health issues are not real, that sufferers can simply "snap out of it" can, with all due respect, get the hell out of my sight. Mental health conditions cast long shadows over the lives of patients and everyone around them. 

Such conditions can be managed but they can also lead to irrational behaviour, to frustration and despair among those who love them, to ends of tethers being reached, to crippling feelings of guilt when one feels that one has not done enough or can do no more. 

Insidiously, mental illness does not discriminate. To say that someone is too pretty/rich/intelligent/successful/talented or whatever to suffer from a mental health condition is reductive and asinine. The suicide of Robin Williams is tragic, the suicide of a member of my family was also tragic, there is no hierarchy here, no one more or less deserving of help. Vulnerability has a distressing power all of its own.

Any one of us could be felled by mental illness - and the causes are myriad - so to dismiss someone's condition because they don't fit the perfect victim stereotype is to make it harder for these conditions to be understood. It creates stigmas, it makes it harder for people to seek the help they need. 

It's as awful and unhelpful as condemning rape victims who don't fit the perfect victim stereotype - as if a woman who had the temerity to sleep around or be a sex worker or walk home by herself in a short dress is somehow less deserving of sympathy than a violated virgin. This mentality causes monstrous behaviour. When a hitherto strong, gutsy woman is reduced to a fragile, vulnerable mental state after being raped, she too needs support rather than being merely expected to get on with things. 

But it's not just about us not being afraid to admit our vulnerabilities. We all have a responsibility as a society to ensure there is a safety net for the vulnerable, that it's not just left to charities to pick up the pieces, that governments ensure that their programmes and institutions are properly funded and offer real help, not false economy Band-Aid solutions. 

This weekend, I experienced first-hand an NHS emergency mental healthcare service and I was impressed with the patience, efficiency and compassion that was shown on behalf of a friend in crisis and towards me as well. It was reassuring to be told that I had done the right thing and not to be made to feel as if I was wasting time. But I know that the excellent work of NHS mental health workers is undermined by underfunding, overstretching of resources and overwhelming demand.

I have no easy answers but as I shut the door on an emotional weekend, I do know that the safety net is gossamer-thin and when someone falls through it, it doesn't really matter who they are. What matters is how we can do better, how we can not be brutes, and how we can be kinder to ourselves and to each other for we all have our vulnerabilities.

Photography by Beth Punches/Flickr

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