The first time I needed to speak up about my limited physical capacity was in my fourth and final year at university, when I was twenty one. I was doing a double major in Biology and Environmental Science. Up until this point I had pretty well managed to get away with just being one of the crowd, disappearing into the group (or so I thought). I had also managed not to make an issue of my physical limitations and be like everyone else. I didn’t want to draw attention to myself for all the ‘wrong’ reasons, things that made me feel ashamed, things that made me different, in not a good way, from my fellow students. This time though I had to move beyond my innate sense of not wanting to be noticed for having special needs. This was a major turning point in my journey of overcoming my sense of unworthiness and a new stage in acknowledging my disability.
We had an environmental management field trip to Newman, a mining town in the remote north of Western Australia and about a twelve hour bus ride from Perth. Our field trips were the highlights of our university years, not only did we learn hands-on environmental skills, we had a huge amount of fun and great adventures, in some of the most magnificent parts of the state. After field trips of previous years I was already realising that I couldn’t keep up with everyone else and that I needed to say something. Nevertheless it took a lot for me to approach the lecturer for the course and request a group project that didn’t involve a lot of walking. This was the first time in my life I was standing up and saying ‘I have a disability which limits what I can do and I need some special consideration’ and I so didn’t want to do it. This doesn’t sound like a big deal to me now because I’m so used to speaking up for my needs, but this first time was a big hurdle. I was reluctant to draw attention to my disability, as I was able to be in quite a bit of denial because at this age I wasn’t that limited. I felt ashamed to ask for special treatment. This was my lack of self worth speaking.
The lecturer was our favourite; a small, eccentric man, famous for his powder blue safari suit and the comb-over of the thin wild hair, who made us laugh and brought his uniqueness and passion for the environment to our lectures and field trips. He wasn’t long staying in academia and soon after this went on to become a senior environmental bureaucrat in Canberra. He received my request graciously, and I was relieved he didn’t make a drama of it, and proud of myself for speaking up.
What was weird was that my first ever attempt to speak up for myself was to no avail. I ended up being assigned to a group of six who was to map the vegetation on either side of the banks of the Fortescue River. There were ribbons of lushness and eucalyptus trees along the river banks while being surrounded with a vast, harsh, red desert landscape with mostly spinifex and no trees. The river only seasonally had water flow and was dry at the time. Our project entailed walking great lengths of the fifty metre wide river bed all day for seven days. It was the project that involved the most amount of walking, and for some strange reason, I was assigned to it.
Another project involved mapping quadrats of about one metre square of vegetation, so involving lots of standing but not much walking, which would have been more suitable. By the time I realised the extent of walking involved I was two days into the project, and was having a great time with the people in my group, and my self esteem didn’t extend to speaking up again. Asking for a change, and so making a fuss, felt too much, and besides it felt too late to swap and inconvenience others.
Each step from one of my group mates, with their longer legs, meant two to three steps for me, so in fact I was expending more steps than anyone else. I remember gentle giant Phil Scott who, at over six feet tall with a strong, fit body, was a footballer who went on to play for Subiaco Football Club, saying to me one day “I don’t know how you are managing to keep up with this Vanessa, because I’m finding this tough going. It’s really tiring.” That was when I realised the big feat I was managing, and that no wonder I was feeling so exhausted and sore.
Boy did I suffer on those long walks, they became trials of endurance, particularly by late afternoon. I doggedly kept going, despite the pain in my feet, legs, hips and back, and managed to keep up with my team, while somehow also doing the work, and maintaining a good sense of humour. I didn’t say anything of my struggles to my team mates, I didn’t want to be a drag on anyone. I would take any opportunity I could to sit on fallen logs along the way, which were few and far between; in fact I became obsessed with scouring the landscape for any logs or big rocks.
Each night I was utterly spent and in agony all over. I don’t know how I managed to get myself up the stairs to my room in the single persons’ quarters at the mining camp or to dinner across in the canteen.
By the fourth day my exhaustion manifested in getting flu symptoms and I was too sick to go out. I felt dreadful, aching all over, and spent the day in bed, mostly sleeping. As I lay there in the silent building I came face to face with what I had done, pushing so much I made myself sick.
The flu symptoms had magically disappeared the next morning, and off I went with my team for another two days. The six of us were dropped off in the morning, and were essentially alone in what felt like the middle of nowhere; I loved being out there. This was us out of the lecture theatres and labs into the real world of scientific surveys in a wild remote place, this was Uni life at its best and we were in high spirits. We worked hard but there was always lots of laughter and camaraderie, so I was loving it all despite the hardship.
Out of this rather extreme physical experience I learnt much. I find it ironic that my first public attempt to speak up for myself failed. But it ended up making me more clear that I needed to take better care of myself, inflicting that amount of suffering on myself was ridiculous. It made me more determined not to repeat my failure. I was probably quite tentative when I spoke to my lecturer, coming as I was from my lack of self worth, and may not have been clear and strong enough to register with him. The gift in the whole experience was that I never again allowed myself to not be heard about my physical needs.