Our last morning in Portland was a bright one. We enjoyed a relaxed start, packing slowly and getting ready for the long trip back to the UK. By mid-afternoon we were on the first leg of our journey, a short flight from Portland to Phoenix, before the longer flight home.
Portland airport has been voted the best in the USA and I can see why. The staff were friendly and efficient, we quickly cleared security, and were helped onto the plane by the special assistance team.
It wasn’t a busy flight so Leftwing Idiot had arranged with the crew that I could have three seats to myself so I could lie down and be in a bit less pain. We were settling into our seats when the other passengers started to board. I was stretched out happily listening to an audio book.
Shortly before take-off I was suddenly aware of the woman in front of me leaning through the seats and in an annoyed tone, saying, “Can you stop it?” I felt my whole body tense up with a familiar and paralysing mix of shame, sadness and humiliation.
I tried to explain that I couldn’t stop the noises I was making but my words were jumbled by emotion. Leftwing Idiot, sitting behind me, noticed the situation and stepped in, explaining very clearly that I had Tourettes and that I would continue to make noises that I couldn’t control throughout the flight.
The woman seemed to understand this and even said she’d initially thought this might be the case. She turned back to face the front again and left us to it. The whole incident was resolved quickly and without fuss but I was stunned by how thrown it had left me feeling. Tears trickled down my cheeks as Leftwing Idiot and Lily gently reassured me.
I’ve dealt with situations much more upsetting and hostile than this before but this rocked me much more than I’d have expected. It’s been quite a long time since anyone asked me to stop ticcing in this way.
Before I was a wheelchair user that type of response was much more common. As a visual symbol of disability my chair means I’m much more likely to be treated with understanding and compassion than I was when I was still walking.
But being asked to stop something you can’t help doing is uniquely confrontational. This simple phrase, ‘Can you stop it?’ managed to unlock decades of guilt and worry in a split second. It made me feel judged and unwanted in a very deep and specific way.
The strength of these emotions caught me by surprise and I fought to maintain my composure.
Leftwing Idiot continued to talk to me gently, reminding me of the ideas I often share in talks and performances. I reached for all the positive memories of the last few weeks and used these to stay calm, keep hold of my self-worth and stay resilient in the face of this challenge.
This tiny fleeting moment reminded me of the huge impact we can all have on each other. For those who haven’t experienced close scrutiny and assumptions from strangers this might sound trivial. For those who have, I imagine you’ll understand some of the conflicting emotions that surged through me.
I’m sure the woman sitting in front of me would’ve had no idea of the impact of her words and I’m sure it wasn’t her intention to upset me.
It got me thinking about how small interactions can have a big impact. They can make you feel welcome and included, or isolated and rejected.
I’m going to make sure that wherever possible I extend compassion and kindness to those around me and that before I ask a question of someone else I’ll ask myself what it might feel like to be asked it myself.
Love and solidarity to all those who experience barriers and judgements in their lives.
For the remainder of the flight I’m going to practice feeling proud while I relax back into my audio book.