Philip Hensher: Two weeks of learning the hard way in a wheelchair

'Suddenly people start to be nice to you - black cab drivers become complete angels'
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The Independent Online

Like most men, I fear, I am not bad at being ill, but absolutely terrible, a complete whining coward, when it comes to pain.

It began a couple of weeks ago, when I twisted awkwardly hoisting myself out of a swimming pool. I took a couple of steps, and then, all of a sudden, it was as if some invisible puppet-master had taken all the strings at once, and given them a great hoik.

I bent double, and then, involuntarily, fell onto my hands and knees. "Ggghhaarr! Aiiiiieeee! Grarrrkh!" Laurent gave me an old-fashioned look, no doubt surprised at my suddenly acquired ability to speak Armenian. I crawled after him, uttering Biblical cries of pain and suffering, until I got to the drawing room and collapsed. "Are you all right?" he said. "Back," I said. "Nurofen." "How many?" "How – khgrarr – many have you – arrrrrr – got?" A sleepless 24 hours later, and I was transformed into Father Ted's Father Jack, a bundled-up pile of human detritus, issuing occasional screams of pain, interspersed with "Feck! Arse! Brandy! Nurofen!"

The health service's telephone advisory service, NHS Direct, offered the helpful but obviously wrong advice that I'd probably strained a muscle and should take an aspirin or two. My GP offered me an appointment in six days' time ("If I could get to the damn surgery," I said, "I wouldn't need to call. And it's Dr Hensher to you.")

Twenty four hours later, I was more or less continuously screaming, my right leg was simultaneously agonisingly painful and numb (you'd think it could only be one or the other, really), and, with thoughts of permanent paralysis looming large, I phoned for an ambulance. "You've probably strained a muscle in your back. Why don't you go to bed and take an aspirin. And, no, we're not going to come out for you." Finally, my GP came out and diagnosed sciatica, which, I have to say, was pure hell.

I've never been disabled before, and being confined to a wheelchair has come as a bit of a revelation. Tiny tasks turn into major undertakings. Can I do without a morning newspaper? But there's no loo paper, and I've run out of milk and cigarettes, and Laurent won't be home for eight hours, and all my neighbours seem to be out. So off I trundle the 300 yards, even though I just haven't understood how people manage to wheel themselves home with a bag of necessities on their laps. I always seem to spill everything, usually halfway across Queenstown Road. One morning, my leg seemed a lot better, and I decided to have a go at shuffling there. That was a great mistake, since the leg gave way underneath me after three minutes, and I sat on the pavement howling with tears of pain – an unforgettably humiliating moment.

And you grow horribly thirsty for any kind of company; from seven o'clock onwards, I just sit listening for the blessed sound of the key in the lock, and look forward to hearing about what sort of day Laurent had. Even though I know that I am grumpy, and not very good company, and am going to have to give him a shopping list as soon as he arrives, still, at least it means conversation, and someone else to think about.

Suddenly, people start to be nice to you – black cab drivers are complete angels, for some reason. Everyone has seen the Paralympics and knows that There Is Nothing The Disabled Can't Do For Themselves, but, thank God, occasionally a patronising stranger does offer to give you a bit of a push. I always accept the offer eagerly.

But you grow acutely aware of neglect and thoughtlessness, too. Friends have been terribly kind, but it's hard to swallow back a tart response when someone comes round and comments on the untidiness. You feel they ought to have guessed that you couldn't make it from the sofa to the bookcase, and so just dropped the novel you've finished on the floor. Or people generously come round to eat with you, and leave without offering to do the washing up, and you wave them goodbye, all the time thinking that you are going to have to stand at the sink for an hour of complete agony.

And some people actively aren't interested; one friend, happily now an ex-friend, who has devoted his life to caring noisily for the distant underprivileged, saw me in the street, and almost ran away rather than inquire what on earth had happened to me. I really start to see how constant pain, in the end, works away at your mind, breeding depression and resentment.

Thank God, it's not going to be forever, and in another two weeks, it'll be over, and I'll be back in the land of the tall, where I can talk to people's faces, rather than their groins. But perhaps this ought to be a sort of annual duty for everyone, like military service, spending two weeks in a wheelchair. For the generally healthy, like me, it is an amazing reminder of your normal luck, just to walk out of the door, to run for a bus, and never think twice about it. Yes, it ought to be compulsory: only without the sciatica, because that – Christ – I would not wish on anyone.