By guest writer Catherine G. Parkinson
“As I walked down the busy street alone for the first time in over a year, I felt an intense sense of pride wash over me. It was one of the first times I’d done so since I began shielding because of juvenile idiopathic arthritis, a health condition that left me vulnerable to the coronavirus pandemic. Not only that, it was the first time I had ever walked alone outside using crutches. The idea was something I had become terrified of. ‘’I have no way to run if someone attacks me’’, ‘’I can’t defend myself if my hands are preoccupied’’ and ‘’what if I’m judged or ridiculed for being different?’’, were just some of the thoughts that ran through my head, so I avoided it for as long as I could.
So on that day, walking down the road alone was the bravest decision I had made in a long time. I felt euphoric, momentarily free from the mental and physical constraints that so often prevented me from leaving my house on my own. Juvenile arthritis is a form of arthritis common in children and teenagers that can affect any body part, but typically causes joint pain and inflammation in the hands, knees, ankles, elbows and/or wrists. For me, it has often caused the most problems in my knees and ankles. More recently, (due to a severe flare up) it has caused issues in almost all joints imaginable, including my jaw, hands, fingers, legs, and occasionally, patches of flesh on my face swell from inflammation. My life has undoubtedly been impacted by this illness. I’ve been hospitalised, scarred, injected countless times, medicated until I rattle and had a hip replacement at 22 years old. At 27 years old, I am still living at home, my parents often having to aid me when I am physically incapable of looking after myself.
But that day, I wandered down the street with unabashed confidence, allowing myself to feel long-forgotten happiness and independence seep through me. After months of shielding, it was liberating to know that I could go out again, that I could ignore the taunting words in my mind and step outside.
I turned the corner, head held high as I hobbled confidently down the street. And then, I saw him. A man, stood watching me. I saw his eyes swallow me, a wry smile creep across his face as I moved towards him. Then, I was catcalled. And a part of me shattered. You don’t expect the words of a stranger to belittle and degrade you so effortlessly. To send a ripple of dread through your body. You never expect to feel exposed, violated and humiliated by just a few simple words. But I did.
After living with my illness for 27 years, I have become accustomed to a heightened sense of vulnerability throughout my life. I have often felt the weight of sympathetic stares and questioning glances as I walk down the street. I am used to people stopping to watch as I walk on, especially if I am wheelchair-bound or armed with crutches. I’m used to it all. But this was something very new, something far more invasive than any look.
It wasn’t the first time I’ve been catcalled, and I’m sure it won’t be the last. But it was the first time I have felt so completely and utterly vulnerable. The truth is, I was scared.
The reason I was thrown so completely off-guard was not, to some extent, the cat calling itself. I am a woman, after all. I have, like so many others, experienced the vile thoughts that plague men’s minds; thoughts they deem ok to hurl at women as they go about their lives. It was not the cat calling that offended me – it was the realisation that I had been right.
After so long hiding, I was right to be afraid to leave my house. I was right to shy away from venturing into the world alone, for one of my worst fears had been realised: I could not protect myself. I could not hide from the judgement. I wasn’t safe. This time, it had been cat calling. But what if the next time, it was something far worse? What if people always saw my vulnerability and actively used it against me again?
As I hurried on, my confidence falling away with each step, I found myself questioning the sort of world where vulnerability is deemed as an opportunity. Who would want to be made to feel vulnerable when they are already vulnerable enough? Who would see a young woman walking down the street on crutches and feel it is their right to degrade and harass her? Who would grin and lick their lips at someone struggling and believe it acceptable to throw words into the air as if she were a possession to be owned? Who would see weakness and use it to their advantage?
It’s been some time since this particular incident occurred. Luckily, I have felt confident enough to leave my house again. I go for walks, I see my friends, I go to the shops, but I rarely do these things alone. Even now, I’m still cautious of leaving the house by myself, especially when I’m using my crutches. I’m still wary of just how vulnerable I am. There are things I try to do to help make it easier, coping mechanisms that ease my mind like concentrating on something else as I walk or using calming balms and essential oils for relaxation. But I would be lying if I said I feel completely fine. I would be lying if I said the idea of going out alone doesn’t fill me with dread.
I hope this won’t always be the case. Hopefully one day, the fear will not be so prominent. Hopefully one day, the idea of leaving the house alone, something I once saw as trivial, will seem a little less daunting.