Wednesday, February 24, 2010

on being disabled

you think it would be so easy to imagine what it would be like to be disabled. but somehow, when you're at the dank bottom of a long flight of subway stairs and you're exhausted from getting yourself there, it feels insurmountable just looking at it. you can't REALLY empathize when you're late and bounding up to the top.

imagine wandering through a subway station, dragging your tired and increasingly heavy bag of bones, looking for the handicapped elevator. or trying to make it through the station by listening to the tapping of your cane.

even harder to imagine - at least for me - was being mentally disabled.

i'm used to my brain working fast, quick answers, quick leaps across logical chasms.

now someone tells me something and i stare blankly.

i went to my friend andrea's building last week. there was a small sign on the iron door: "if no doorman is available, please press bell for elevator operator." underneath was a small arrow pointing to the right.

i stared at the door.

it was locked.

i looked inside, there was no one in the lobby.

"ah!" i thought, feeling slightly relieved as i remembered the sign, "press bell!" but then i stood at the door wondering where the bell could be. i had to look back at the sign and look at the arrow.

while i did find the bell, it took me five or six minutes. something that might have taken me less than minute previously.

today, as i got to the head of the line in the crowded century 21 department store, a man stepped in front of me and threw his purchases on the counter. the woman at the register gave him a stop-right-there-look, "there is a LINE." then she looked at me, "you just stood there! why didn't you tell him, it's MY TURN!"

the reason i just stood there is that i got confused. someone walked in front of me and all of a sudden, i thought i was in the wrong place. the man seemed to materialize in front of me, i wasn't aware enough to see where he came from.

yesterday, i got off the subway and stood staring blankly. i knew where i was. rather, i had been there before. but i had no idea how where i was related to where i needed to go.

it was simple, i had emerged from a different exit in the subway station. but just taking a different route than my usual one erased my brain's RAM. i had no idea which way to go.

after 16 years living in nyc at a stretch.

and thoughts - oh, those delicious streams of ideas - they used to run through my head like moving sidewalks. i could get on and they'd lead me off through variegated landscapes, i could take trains of vaguely related trajectories without ever falling off.

now they are like clouds, blowing past so quickly i can barely make them out, disappearing like mist if i try to hold on to them.

what was i just saying?

what was i just thinking?

my favorite analogy is the main character in "flowers for algernon." charley, having gained consciousness, then slowly loses it, watching his ability to comprehend fade into the distance.

like charley, i remember that i used to know things. that i used to be able walk from the refrigerator to my laptop and remember what it was i needed to buy from now, i forgot the missing items i noted in vegetable drawer by the time i'm at the top shelf.

all of a sudden, i know what it's like to be mentally-handicapped. i know what it's like to be stupid. i've become one of those people who stands and stares. you know those people in nyc, they're the ones holding you up on the bus because they (like me) are looking at the change in their hands and they can't figure out how to turn what they have into bus fare.

i am one of those people standing on the sidewalk looking around me and tripping up everyone else as they hustle past. i am standing there, not even with an embarrassed smile, because i haven't yet realized that i am a public annoyance.

oh yes, that realization, that self-awareness comes later.

usually, too late to do anything to save myself from being a nuisance.

when the woman at the cash register rescued me and rang up my scarf and bag, i know what i should have said to her: "the reason i didn't say anything is because i am a little slow. i don't always get what's happening around me. it's like alzheimer's."

though, of course, i am too slow to have thought of this at the time. i only thought of it now.

not that i am complaining. i am lucky. my alzheimer's is passing. along with the sudden hot flashes. the night sweats. i have moments of great lucidity. and, for some reason, when everything is quiet and the amazons are finally settled into the homework, i can write.

i hope that i have learned some compassion for people who are not moving quite as quickly on the sidewalk.

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