My partner John and I recently enjoyed a beautiful three-week getaway in New Zealand and Sydney. Travel used to be so scary, but as I fly longer and longer distances, it’s an absolute joy and adventure discovering different lands and people. In fact, it’s one of our top priorities.
One beautiful morning in Sydney’s Circular Quay, we boarded a ferry to see the zoo. I immediately noticed a woman using a crutch, joining us with difficulty. I thought “Good for you. You’re one tough, spunky lady being a tourist with a disability.”
In my wheelchair, I was already aware that Sydney was not nearly as accessible as New Zealand or say Europe – which came as a surprise. Then as the ferry departed and the harbour opened up to amazing views, I forgot about everything including my fellow mobility-impaired traveler.
The zoo was amazing. You have to start at the top and work your way down, as it’s built on a breath-taking hillside – and all the while the Sydney skyline was in view. Paradise for sure.
I have to admit, I have a thing for kangaroos, and before long, I found myself amidst them in a unique exhibit that allows you to stroll – or roll – in their habitat. Even petting them as they hop by.
There she was again! My crutch-toting sister adventurer. We caught each other’s smiles and got into a conversation about the kangaroos and emus (her favorite). Before long, she asked me why I was in a wheelchair.
Not being in a spokespersons role, I made it brief (so unlike me): “I was a ballerina and 26 years ago a ballet injury triggered a chronic pain disease in my body.” And that, I thought, was that.
She asked me what the disease was called. “It used to be called Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy.” She responded with eyes widening, “I have CRPS!” She then immediately shared clever anecdotes about how male physicians – and most everyone – disbelieved her due to her gender.
John and I practically fell over into a pile of emu poop. We were hearing first-hand the gender disparity half way across the globe.
Due to the recent world awareness of CRPS, my new friend, Lynne, had been diagnosed and treated early. She was going to be O-kay. But she still wasn’t believed by most everyone. We shared healthcare battle stories and talked much about the work at For Grace that is bringing the gender pain divide to light.
She told me of the humor she’s armed herself with to deflect the abuse of disbelievers. With her tight, British accent, she mocked herself, exclaiming, “You’re right! I’m just an attention seeker.”
That killed me. How clever to turn the absurdity on the abuser. And she reported that no one had anything further to say after that retort. Thinking that we Americans cornered the market on sass, it was an eye-opener to discover women all over this globe can stand up for themselves.
John and I spent two glorious hours bonding with beautiful Lynne, her 13-going-on-34 year old daughter (due to the stress of caregiving), and their Australian friend who insisted that we come back and let him tour us through the Outback. Nice, nice people, those Aussies.
Obviously, being dismissed and discounted as a woman in pain has no borders. At For Grace, we hear from women all over the world who make this known to us – but the global problem hit me on a profoundly personal level that beautiful day among the kangaroos. Thank you, Lynne.
Cynthia Toussaint is the founder of For Grace, a nonprofit organization raising awareness about gender bias in treating chronic pain. As a leading advocate for health care reform in California, she has been featured in media including The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, Public Broadcasting System (PBS), and National Public Radio (NPR). Cynthia has Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy and fibromyalgia. Prior to her illness, she was a professional dancer, actor and singer.