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My Decision to Start Using a Cane in Public

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“A crutch is a funny story; a cane is a sad story.” – George Costanza

I was going through a hat store one day when I saw them…a collection of stylish canes. I zeroed in on one with the brass head of a horse. For 14 years I’ve held off on carrying one. But standing has become pure hell. I plan each moment of my day not to stand. I strategize about my trips to the bathroom at work —what times and routes will get me there without stopping for conversation? But I’m often stopped. Then it’s just like in the movies when you have the point of view of a distressed person who is looking right at someone jabbering on but the cognitive dissonance distorts and drowns out the voice. Like the static on the radio that rises to a screech. I just want to get away from people and sit down. And I like people. Mostly.

So I finally bought the cane. I sometimes take it out of my car and into work. But I use it sparingly. I don’t want to be an object of pity or look “weak.” Doesn’t jive with my talk about camping and biking and working out – the absolute joys and salvations of my life – as I’m afraid people will think I’m faking.

Compared to his cousin, the crutch, a cane connotes permanence. A crutch is often a header into the bushes and a cast for six weeks. People sign your cast. They don’t sign your cane – many give you a look of pity. The next step, you see, is a four-pronged cane, then a walker with wheels, then a walker with tennis balls on the legs, then a wheelchair, and before you know it, someone’s pushing it for you. Yes, I’m 50-something. Yes, everybody has “something.” But do I actually need to look like it, or look even older? Many of the volunteers where I work are 20, even 30 years older than me – do I need them looking at me with pity? Does it help or hurt me to provide a visual of the depth of the pain I feel every moment, the pain that is otherwise hidden as I smile and carry myself like a healthy, fit person?

So far I’ve found that using it sparingly, even just carrying it with me into work, has had mostly good results. When I think I’ll get stuck standing I take it with me; if I don’t need it, I set it aside. It signals my disability, but perhaps it also enhances my work and achievements – people now see what I overcome to show up and be effective.

When we talk of propping ourselves up emotionally, we speak of a “crutch,” not a “cane.” Why? For most of us with chronic pain and related depression, our accommodations are there for the long-term – probably for the rest of our lives. And I have other canes, and just like my stylish new one, I don’t use them enough because of my fear of pity. They are time off, working from home, working shorter hours, having a heating pad in my office and a yoga mat to lie down on. Using ice. Going to the gym at lunch. Sleeping later. Making all plans on contingency. Time alone. Doing less. All “canes.” I need them and will always need them. And perhaps they gently remind others that I have a chink in my armor – not in my character. That I am not ashamed of it, that I didn’t ask for it, that in spite of my “canes,” I’ve achieved and sometimes thrived and will continue to do so.

So while I’d rather be a funny story than a sad one, I need a cane. And maybe my willingness to be vulnerable, to use my cane, will not only relieve my struggling but engage those around me in my care.

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Thinkstock photo via Creatas Images.

Originally published: June 25, 2017
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