Navigating Sensitivity and Disability: When a Simple Outing Becomes a Major Challenge

By: Loolwa Khazzoom, Founder, Dancing with Pain

December 16th, 2012 • Living with Chronic PainPrint Print

Many people with disabilities – those that are visible as well as those that are invisible – isolate from community and hide out in their homes. There are just so many challenges inherent in socializing with the world at large – specifically, with people who are unable to recognize the signs of and needs associated with said disabilities. The issue is exacerbated when there are multiple disabilities and when those disabilities are invisible to the naked eye.

Take an example from tonight at a post-Hanukkah party I attended. It was already a big deal to go to the event, because it involved overcoming my anxiety about driving on freeways – in this case, two of them. This anxiety stems from the fact that my whole life got turned upside down 15 years ago, from a hit-and-run, head-on car collision.

When I arrived, most of the guests were in the living room, playing a game that involved a television monitor and sound system with a very loud bass. Because of a debilitating auditory injury from two years ago, I am sensitive to certain vibrations, and this bass was definitely hitting the registers that cause me pain. I asked if there was an equalizer that could lower the bass volume but was informed there was none. So I went into the dining room, where two women were talking, and worked my way into the conversation.

About half an hour later, a man came into the dining room and stood next to me, munching on some of the pastries. I said hello and asked his name. As he answered me, he began extending his hand to shake mine. I do not shake hands, because most of the time doing so leaves me in pain – as a result of wrist sensitivity, stemming from an injury years ago. As I always do, I told this man that I do not shake hands, so as to ensure he would not take it personally.

The thing is that some people cannot accept someone not shaking a hand. Rather than just saying “OK” and withdrawing said hand, they try to bump fists, elbows, or any other body part. Some of them gesture without attempting to carry the gesture through – ie, they motion from a respectable distance and pause to see if I take up their offer. Others, however, actually go ahead and attempt to bang their elbows/fists/other body parts against mine.

Tell me something: Who the hell wants to bang elbows? It’s quite amazing to me how this keeps happening.

Unfortunately this man turned out to be the kind of guy who can’t deal with someone defying social order. When I said I did not shake hands, he proffered his elbow. I said, “No, I don’t do that either.” Then, unbelievably, he made a fist with his hand and did a gesture of coming down on my head with it. Not only was it a decidedly unfriendly gesture, dare I say bordering on violent, but while he stopped his fist just an inch or two above my head, the energy of that motion continued down through my head and triggered the sensation of being stabbed with an ice pick.

Suddenly the whole right side of my head was in pain, especially areas that previously had been injured – including my right eye and ear. Those injuries had caused years of agonizing pain and had prevented me from driving, working, and otherwise functioning. So when the pain got triggered, so did the associated anxiety: How long will the pain last this time? What repercussions will it have? Will I be able to work? To drive? To use the computer?

Meanwhile, it all happened unexpectedly and fast, and purportedly the guy’s intention was to be playful. So rather than barking, “What the hell is wrong with you,” I simply said, “No, I don’t do that either.” Someone who is going to behave like that clearly lacks awareness and sensitivity. So what is my saying anything going to accomplish? To most people’s awareness, in fact, he “didn’t do anything.” When people have no point of reference for a phenomenon such as the power of energy, and when I look totally able-bodied, I will appear to be making something out of nothing if I say anything. Aside from which, I really do not feel like educating the world about chronic pain, energy, and the like, when I just came to socialize for an hour.

Put it all together, and the experience was just one more factor discouraging me from going out into the world. Which sucks, because by nature, I am a very social creature. But by circumstance, it’s just too damn hard interacting with people most of the time.

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