It started with a twinge. In 2006 I was a new freelancer who jumped at every job offered me. Sometimes that meant working 50 hours a week, but I’d happily do it because I knew that next week, there might be no work at all. I couldn’t believe I was getting paid to write; the very idea of turning work down seemed ridiculous.
But then... the twinges arrived. I started getting pains in my hands and wrists when I worked too much. I went to the doctor, who said it was probably too much keyboard use or a poor set-up (or both). I stopped using my laptop’s integral keyboard and mouse and bought external ones. I cut down on the blogging and emailing I did in my spare time. I sent fewer texts. I went to some Pilates classes. The pain sort of went away. I carried on accepting every project I was offered.
The pain returned in 2008, when I was editing Leys News along with other work. I ignored it, then made a few minor changes to how I worked, then ignored it some more. Until, one morning, I could no longer ignore it. I was trying to drink a cup of tea but my hands were in so much pain, I couldn’t hold the cup any more. I burst into tears and took the day off work.
I was eventually diagnosed with repetitive strain injury (RSI). That three-letter term covers a whole host of different conditions with different levels of severity and different causes. In my case, it was clearly caused by overuse of computers and awkward desk set-ups in the places I worked. The doctor referred me to a physiotherapist and advised me to stop using computers until I got some mobility back. But she couldn’t say if I would ever be back to “normal”.
The weeks that followed were among the worst weeks of my life. I had no idea if I would ever be able to work again. The rest of my life was affected too. Things that I’d taken for granted, like walking home with a carrier bag full of groceries, were now completely impossible. On bad days, tasks like doing up shoelaces or filling the kettle caused me pain. I relied heavily on my husband. I got my last issue of Leys News to press with the help of colleagues who acted as my hands. That was frustrating. The office manager offered to type articles up at my dictation, but would interrupt if she didn’t like what I was “writing”. The designer would correct some of the typos I pointed out, but only if he thought it was worthwhile. I no longer had control.
Other clients contacted me with offers of freelance work. I had to turn them down. Most days I stayed home because I wasn’t working. People who I thought were good friends melted away when I stopped using email. My confidence hit rock-bottom. At night the pain in my hands and wrists kept me awake. I dreamed I was an overheating computer.
There were little glimmers of hope, like the woman on a train who saw me burst into tears because I couldn’t open a bottle of water. She shared the story of how she’s become a successful lawyer despite nerve damage in her shoulders. She recommended resources like Access to Work. A blogger called Sean McGrath wrote about his own experience managing it (full article now missing, sadly). Some friends and family members made an extra effort to see me, which helped with the loneliness and despair.
My husband never gave up on me either, reassuring me that one way or another I would rebuild my life. He correctly worked out that my old laptop was part of the problem – it ran so slowly that I would type a whole sentence before seeing it appear on the screen. It made my movements impatient and jabby and RSI-inducing. So he bought me a new laptop, a beautiful pink Dell, and assured me that I’d be back to working on it soon enough.
Slowly the clouds lifted. Getting physiotherapy on the NHS changed my life. I couldn’t believe that doing these stupid exercises for a few minutes every day could make any difference whatsoever, but I did them anyway. And they worked. I slowly got back to normal, whatever that means. I started using a computer again.
For a long time after that, I would have considered myself disabled because there were so many things I couldn’t do, and because I had to strictly limit my computer use. Now I don’t think I could be classed as disabled any more, because my life is so very nearly normal. Yes, I limit my computer use, which is what I should have been doing all along. Working 45 or 50 hours a week and then spending all your spare time emailing, blogging and instant messaging isn’t healthy for anyone. But I’m back to freelancing successfully.
There are just a few little things I can’t do. For example. gripping a heavy bag in my hands is right out, so I use a rucksack or bike panniers for food shopping. And I’ll never be able to deal a deck of cards properly. Something about the way you have to move your thumb is agony for me. But I’m so grateful for all the things I can do, things that I took for granted until the RSI took hold.
I do the physio exercises daily. Only in genuinely exceptional circumstances do I go a day without doing them. I’ve tried skipping them in the past and the pain always returns within a few days. There’s a whole host of other things I do to manage the condition, but the physio is the most important.
Why am I blogging about this now? Because it’s the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, and I want to share my story of living, however briefly, with a disability. I don’t believe there’s a clear line between having a disability and being able-bodied. I think it’s more fuzzy and flexible than that. I’d like to see a world where there’s more understanding of people with disabilities. I’d love to see a world where more people recognise that disabled people are not “other”. They’re people like me.