Math symbols and equations written in chalk on a chalkboard.

Living Without Pee Math

Some of you may remember I had surgery last year in April. The surgery was for placement of a suprapubic catheter tube (SPTube) for urination. The decision to have the surgery put an end to me having to practice “pee math.” Those of you unfamiliar with that term may want to check out this post.

I shared my initial thoughts after surgery in this post. I wrote it just six weeks post-surgery and I was still figuring out what it meant to live with the ability to consume unlimited amounts of fluid at any time. Now that I’ve had eighteen months to experience the freedom of being able to “go” anywhere, I have a few more observations.

Never underestimate the importance of peer support!

I was fortunate to have access to peers at every step of the way who were using SPTubes. When I was doing research and preparing for surgery, my friend Emily shared information about the supplies she uses every day. My friend Autumn, who got her SPTube just a few months before me, talked me through questions about recovery and hygiene. And thanks to social media, I found a group of SPTube users on Facebook. They were all generous with knowledge, tips and tricks. I would have been much more anxious without their help and reassurance.

“Accessible restrooms” are not always user-friendly.

I know, I should have known this. I’ve been using a wheelchair since 1994. But, I didn’t use public restrooms on a regular basis for more than a decade. So I forgot how bathrooms can comply with accessibility building codes but not be easy to use. Stall doors that don’t swing shut easily or don’t have an interior pull handle allowing a person to pull them shut; sinks which are set back too far for my short arms to reach the controls; doors which are too heavy for me to pull open – I could go on. These barriers are just some of the reasons I starting reminding myself to….

Take your phone with you!

It only took one instance of being stuck inside a public restroom without any way to call for help for me to grab my phone each and every time I head to the toilet. Usually all it takes is a text to a friend and help is on the way. However, I have had to call establishments and say, “Hi, my name is Denise and I’m stuck in your ladies room.” These calls are never as fun in the moment as I make them out to be in the retelling. There is a simple fix to this. According to the Americans with Disabilities Act, the law where I live in the United States, interior doors should not require more than 5 pounds of pull force pressure to open. I do my best to tell establishments about this law. Now you can do it too.

Why did I wait so long?

I spent two decades becoming an expert on pee math, dehydrating myself and restricting fluid on a regular basis. Now that I have spent eighteen months with my SPTube, I realize how foolish I was for not getting it sooner. One reason I did not get my SPTube sooner is none of my medical doctors encouraged me to consider alternatives. My doctors knew of my routine and never told me about options like the SPTube. Since my surgery, I have asked my doctors why they never recommended I pursue a SPTube. Sadly, most replied they didn’t recommend it because I was not experiencing any medical issues like excessive urinary tract infections or kidney trouble.

What I did experience before my SPTube was reduced quality of life. I enjoyed time with friends, but I was never free from worry about when I would get to go home and use the toilet. I had fun with family, but I always counted time until I could begin consuming liquid at parties. I was never able to drink as much as I wanted, when I wanted.

Now, I can drink as many cups of tea as I want to in the afternoon. I can have an extra cup of coffee in the morning. I can drink the water at a restaurant and still eat the soup for lunch without worrying about if that choice means I have to skip liquid for the rest of the day until I get home. My skin, nails and hair look healthier. My lips aren’t as cracked.

My days of pee math are gone. These days, when I do math I am calculating the quality of life benefits that come with additional choices and independence.

View of a grey Derwent River, with cloudy skies. Bruny Island is in the distance.

To Tell the Truth

I’ve been sitting on this post for a few months, writing when I felt the urge. It seems fitting to share this today, which I just learned is the International Day of Happiness, because I am the least happy I have ever felt in my life and I don’t know what to do about it. Admitting that is difficult, because I know my friends and family will want to help me, make things better, do something to make me happy. The reasons for my unhappiness are complex and there are no easy fixes. Trust me, if there were, I would have done them by now.

This has been building since I lost more physical independence after my femur fracture in 2016. That catastrophic event took away my ability to independently drive my van, and increased the number of personal care hours I require. It also caused me to change how I use the bathroom, limiting my ability to pee freely as I described in this post. OK – to be fair, I’ve never been able to pee freely. But, until I broke my leg I was not limited to the use of three bathrooms on the planet.

The loss of independent transportation required me to move – twice – in the past eighteen months. I have been using my local paratransit system for most of my travel to and from work and events. Paratransit is a shared ride system, which means you are not guaranteed a direct ride from your pick up location to your destination. There have been days that I am picked up at my house (which is 15.9 miles from my office) to ride around for two hours, picking up and dropping off other passengers until I am dropped off at work. On average, I spend two and a half hours every day on the bus to travel my 32 mile round-trip commute. This is time I don’t get to write, volunteer, read, work, or just relax.

Last September, my friend and former college roommate Chris surprised me with a phone call. We hadn’t spoken since the start of summer, but our friendship is one where we can pick up exactly where we left off even if it has been months since the last conversation. We we played catch up and traded stories, I admitted that the past several months had been stressful. My exact words were something like, “I’m not really doing well and feel like I’m barely keeping it together most days.”

Chris was quiet for a moment, then responded, “Well, I wouldn’t have known that from your Facebook posts! You’re so busy, and always writing about volunteering with Rotary.”

The truth? I hate being negative all the time. So I don’t share all the crap I’m dealing with on social media.

I am not alone in this. According to a survey conducted in Great Britain, only 1 in 5 people are truthful in how they portray themselves on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. According to the marketing company Custard, who performed the survey:

When asked how people’s lives differ online, 31% of respondent said that their social page is “pretty accurate, just with all the boring bits removed” and 14% said that their profile makes it look like they have a “much more active social life.” The survey also showed that men are more likely to lie about their lives through social networking sites, with nearly half (43%) of men polled admitting to fabricating facts.

I don’t feel like I’m lying on social media. I am not making up the things I share publicly. In my case, I choose to try to keep complaints to a minimum on Facebook. I am consciously not sharing most of the daily stress that is causing me to slip further into a pit of unhappiness. At least, I try my best to keep the negativity to a minimum.

But I’m struggling. Right now, finding positivity is a chore I force myself to complete each day.

It used to be my natural way of operating. I am an optimist. I see the glass half full. I believe things could always be worse. Yet, recently I don’t feel up to the challenge of maintaining optimism.

I have withdrawn from friends and family who care. I text instead of calling because it requires less energy. Until last week, I hadn’t sent a birthday card to anyone in at least two years. At a time when I should be surrounding myself with other positive people because I’m an extrovert who gets energized in social situations, I am hibernating.

I am not writing as often and when I do it’s not my best work. Writing helps me process what is happening in my world. It is a way for me to maintain balance and emotional stamina. A glance at my blog statistics shows I only posted 55 times in 2017. That may seem like a good number. But when you compare it to 2015, the year before the femur fracture, it pales to the 164 posts I shared.

Before any of you start sending me notes reminding me that you love me and that life is not all bad, I need to tell you something. I KNOW this is temporary. I KNOW what is happening in my life is not the worst thing in the world that could happen. I KNOW there will (eventually) come a day when my new wheelchair doesn’t make me cry in pain. I KNOW I will (someday) get that new wheelchair accessible van with the high tech driving controls which will enable me to participate in my community at will. I KNOW there are millions of disabled people who would love to have the difficulties I am facing right now – people who don’t have accessible housing, access to paratransit, full-time employment, adequate personal care assistance. I KNOW I am speaking from a world of privilege they do not have and would gladly take in a heartbeat.

Knowing those things does not make the challenges I’m facing less real or less of a barrier in my life.

Last week I attended a book reading at my local independent living center. During the community discussion after the reading, someone mentioned the anger disabled people feel – anger that is not acknowledged or validated. Often, well-meaning people will listen to me vent in frustrated anger and respond by saying, “Well, at least it’s not this (insert awful thing here)” or “It could be worse! You could have (insert other disability or illness here).”

Those comments don’t help me feel less angry. They don’t acknowledge that here and now, I am living with levels of fear, anger, and unhappiness which threaten to burst out at inappropriate times. They don’t validate my feelings of discouragement at having to battle and navigate a bureaucratic system which is supposed to be helping me but has not produced anything meaningfully helpful in 18 months (I’m talking about you ACCES-VR).

So, today, on this International Day of Happiness, even a gratitude list doesn’t make me feel happy. I debated whether or not to share this post and eventually decided perhaps there was someone else who is not happy today who could benefit from knowing she is not alone. I edited, deleting swear words and prepared myself for the reaction it will bring.

Tomorrow I’ll be better. That’s the way it’s been for over 2 years. This too shall pass. Periods of happiness can be found, just not for me today.

30 Days of Thanks Day 16: Backup Personal Assistants

It is 9:37 PM right now as I sit writing this post on my phone. I am in the foyer of a local banquet hall, waiting for my paratransit bus. I requested a 9 PM pick up and it was scheduled for 9:25.

Here’s the thing with paratransit. I can only be 5 minutes late. But they can be up to 25 minutes late and still be considered “on time.”

At 8:27 PM, as I was eating dessert at the event, my Personal Assistant sent me a text asking if I could find someone to cover her 10 PM shift. She isn’t feeling well.

Thankfully, one of my other Personal Assistants lives just five minutes from my house and is willing to meet me when I get home so I can pee and go to bed.

The bus just pulled up at 9:43 and with any luck I’ll be home by 10:20. I can hear my bed calling me.

Tonight I am grateful for backup Personal Assistants who come in on short notice so I can pee and go to bed.

30 Days of Thanks Day 14: My Peers

I spent today at a meeting of the New York State Independent Living Council (NYSILC). This council is a non-governmental nonprofit comprised of 25 appointees from around the state. As a council, we are responsible for developing, monitoring, and evaluating the Statewide Plan for Independent Living. We also conduct surveys and develop reports about issues impacting New Yorkers with disabilities. You can learn more by watching this video:

After the meeting, my friend Blaise and I spoke about disability and independent living to a class of local community college students. We have done this once a semester for almost three years now. Tonight’s students were engaged and asked GREAT questions about disability policy, etiquette, personal assistance and language.

Today I am grateful for the relationships I have with my peers. I am fortunate to have this strong network of other disabled advocates. I learn from them every day, and grow through our interactions. When I have questions, they are quick to offer answers and insights. If I am struggling, they offer suggestions and advice.

 

The words 'Disability Rights are Civil Rights" appear in red, white and blue lettering on a black background.

What the ADA Means to Me

When I was a participant in the 2002 Ms. Wheelchair America Pageant, I was selected as one of the five finalists. As a finalist, I had to answer two extemporaneous questions on stage during the crowning ceremony for the final judging session – a serious question and a light-hearted question. Like most of my peers, I chose to answer the serious question first.

In one single sentence, explain what the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) means to you.

I don’t remember my exact answer. I do remember thinking, “One sentence?! Do they know me?! How am I supposed to answer this in one sentence?!” I could hear my sister Sandy laughing in the audience, and knew she was probably thinking the same thing.

I said something about the ADA being crucial civil rights legislation which gives protection and access to millions of Americans with disabilities. I kept it to one single sentence as requested, at least I think I did.

Today is the 27th anniversary of the signing of the ADA. As I write a draft of this post while riding the paratransit bus to work, I am thinking of the many ways this civil rights law has changed my life and the lives of those around me.

This bus, every public bus that is accessible – all thanks to the ADA and the ADAPT activists who literally put their bodies on the street to force change.

I am going to work today, along with my good friend Bill who happens to be on the same bus this morning. Bill acquired his disability just a few years ago, but thanks to the ADA has been able to remain employed with reasonable accommodations from his employer.

I got out of bed this morning, went to the bathroom, took a shower, got dressed and styled my hair with the help of the Personal Assistant who came to work for me today. My personal care needs can be met in the community rather than an institution because of the ADA (and because I live in a state like New York which offers a Medicaid Buy-In Program for Working People with Disabilities.)

Think the ADA only helps those with disabilities? There are many examples of how ADA regulations have helped more than the disabled population, but here is one that is prevalent. Have you ever pushed a baby stroller down the street and used the curb cut to gain access to the crosswalk? What legislation do you think required those curb cuts? On behalf of all disabled people who fought for access, you’re welcome.

The ADA is about more than just physical access though. For me, the ADA creates a sense of entitlement because it tells me I am worthy of equality. Because of the ADA, it is illegal to discriminate against me and other disabled people. I have expectations of access now that I did not have twenty five years ago. When I travel in the United States, I expect to find curb cuts, accessible toilets, wider doors in hotel rooms, accessible public transportation, and accessible parking.

Does that mean I always find these things? Of course not. But thanks to the ADA, I have the ability to pursue legal action if I feel I am being discriminated against because of my disability.

Equality – that’s what the ADA is all about to me. It is not a guarantee I will succeed, but it is an important guarantee that at least I will be afforded the same opportunity for success as my nondisabled peers.

Of course that is not the way it really works. For many reasons, disabled people still face significant barriers to education, employment, housing and transportation. And of course, like the rest of the United States, we are waiting to see what our legislators will do to healthcare and Medicaid. For many, today is not a day of celebration, but a day of anxiety and fear.

That may sound extreme for those of you who do not rely on Medicaid for your daily needs. I have had friends tell me, “Oh, don’t worry. They won’t take away your personal care.”

Here’s the thing – we don’t know what will happen. And it is far too easy for someone who is able to get out of bed, pee, poop, shower, eat and live without the assistance of another person to dismiss our concerns.

My needs are not “special.” They are the same basic needs every human has. I have the right to expect that I can meet my needs in my community, just like everyone else. The ADA guarantees me that right, and when you need that level of assistance (if you live long enough, you will!) hopefully you will have that right too.

Freedom. Life. Liberty. The pursuit of my career, hobbies and other things that bring me happiness.

That’s what the ADA means to me.