Wheelchair Christmas


For decades, my Christmas was like other people’s:  I went home.  Every Christmas I would drive down Route 81 to be with my parents in Pennsylvania.  I took my antidepressants, not knowing that they were the cause of my continuing and worsening depression.  When my parents became too old and frail to “do” Christmas anymore, they would be invited to one of my sisters.  And, by the way, I would be invited, too.

There reached a time when my depression became so bad so often that I was hospitalized on inpatient psychiatry for three consecutive Christmases.  Wow, that was a thrill.  No family or pastoral visits, Christmas carols, cards, happy visitors or gifts.  Dietary did try to do a festive meal.

Off drugs in 2001 and therefore no longer hospitalized, my spirit improved even as my body got worse from the damage caused by the antidepressants.  I had become friends with a nurse whose husband was a minister and whose kids were—well, kids.  Every year they had the most splendid Christmas party.  They invited friends and neighbors, whole families.  Everyone brought a covered dish so there was a fulsome buffet.  We all decorated the Christmas tree then gathered around for readings and carols.

It was a perfect Christmas party and all the more wonderful because, other than the Christmas Eve service at church, it was my entire Christmas celebration.  My parents and I were too sick to drive, and my siblings and I had become estranged.  They gathered in our parents for Christmas but I was not welcome and, more’s the pain, I knew it.

Then one year I started to use a wheelchair.  It was a manual wheelchair, easily folded up, and I didn’t use it inside the home, just for traveling out.  As I eagerly anticipated the invitation to my friends’ Christmas party, I planned my travel.  A mutual friend always went to the party and I was pretty sure he’d pick up me and my wheelchair.  If not, my case manager would probably authorize funds for a taxi. 

I waited and waited.  The invitation never came.  I had no Christmas.

It took three months before I was far enough removed from the pain to carefully raise the question with my friend.  Yes, they’d had the Christmas party.  And I wasn’t invited because . . .

“Well, you know, the wheelchair.”

Around the same time, my niece got married at a church a few miles from my home.  My sisters and their husbands drove hundreds of miles and stayed at a motel in order to attend the wedding.  They would not drive across town to pick me up.  They made it clear that I was asking too much of them and that my wheelchair was a problem.  I spent $50 to hire a medical transport company to take me and my wheelchair to the wedding.

So time passed—a lot of time.  I got a power wheelchair (which weighs 250 pounds and costs $8500) so that I could take myself places under my own power.  At Christmas I had nowhere to go.  I figured it was because I am a total loser who nobody wants to have around; that’s what my siblings taught me.  Then I went to a meeting about paratransit.  At the meeting, I broke down in tears and had to leave the room.  Other people in wheelchairs gathered around me in the hallway and offered comfort—and education.

“It’s not you,” they told me, “it’s the wheelchair.”  And then they began to tell me their stories of being dropped by family and friends when they started to use a wheelchair.  I was shocked to learn how society rejects people because they use wheelchairs.  One story I have never been able to forget, told by a man who was born with cerebral palsy.  Cerebral palsy is not a degenerative disease but the effects of aging wear down the most vulnerable aspects of a body with cerebral palsy, so this fellow grew up walking but in his twenties he began to use a manual wheelchair.

He had always lived with his parents and every year his extended family would go on vacation together.  Then came a year when he didn’t hear anything about the family vacation plans.  When he asked, he was told that the plans were underway—and a babysitter had been hired to stay with him at home.

Well, you know, the wheelchair.

Once you start using a wheelchair, your opportunities for making friends become severely limited.  Most friendships begin in the workplace and most people in wheelchairs can’t work, so there goes that.  I spent many Christmases alone.  The day was as flat and empty as any other winter day.  Then I moved to the university section, which put me in a position to hire as my aide Amelia, a young woman who had been attending the university.  Later, I also hired MaryKate, another young woman, who was finishing her master’s degree in social work.  She introduced me to her brother Brendan, who became my computer-fixer, and her mother Annette, who worked in the university and became my friend.

On Christmas Eve in the afternoon, MaryKate and Brendan came, picked me up, put my manual wheelchair in the trunk, and took me to join their family for Mass, and thence to drive around town to gather up other friends, and then to their parents’ home for drinks, hors d’oeuvres, dinner, gifts and a jolly time with a large crowd of friends and family.  On Christmas Day, Amelia and her boyfriend came to my home for dinner, thence to the movie theater to see “Les Miserables.”

And I discovered that I am a fine and lovely person with whom to share the blessing of Christmas, and that a wheelchair doesn’t limit me, it limits those with a tightly closed heart.  To young hearts open in love, a wheelchair is not an impediment.

About annecwoodlen

I am a tenth generation American, descended from a family that has been working a farm that was deeded to us by William Penn. The country has changed around us but we have held true. I stand in my grandmother’s kitchen, look down the valley to her brother’s farm and see my great-great-great-great-great-grandmother Hannah standing on the porch. She is holding the baby, surrounded by four other children, and saying goodbye to her husband and oldest son who are going off to fight in the Revolutionary War. The war is twenty miles away and her husband will die fighting. We are not the Daughters of the American Revolution; we were its mothers. My father, Milton C. Woodlen, got his doctorate from Temple University in the 1940’s when—in his words—“a doctorate still meant something.” He became an education professor at West Chester State Teachers College, where my mother, Elizabeth Hope Copeland, had graduated. My mother raised four girls and one boy, of which I am the middle child. My parents are deceased and my siblings are estranged. My fiancé, Robert H. Dobrow, was a fighter pilot in the Marine Corps. In 1974, his plane crashed, his parachute did not open, and we buried him in a cemetery on Long Island. I could say a great deal about him, or nothing; there is no middle ground. I have loved other men; Bob was my soul mate. The single greatest determinate of who I am and what my life has been is that I inherited my father’s gene for bipolar disorder, type II. Associated with all bipolar disorders is executive dysfunction, a learning disability that interferes with the ability to sort and organize. Despite an I.Q. of 139, I failed twelve subjects and got expelled from high school and prep school. I attended Syracuse University and Onondaga Community College and got an associate’s degree after twenty-five years. I am nothing if not tenacious. Gifted with intelligence, constrained by disability, and compromised by depression, my employment was limited to entry level jobs. Being female in the 1960’s meant that I did office work—billing at the university library, calling out telegrams at Western Union, and filing papers at a law firm. During one decade, I worked at about a hundred different places as a temporary secretary. I worked for hospitals, banks, manufacturers and others, including the county government. I quit the District Attorney’s Office to manage a gas station; it was more honest work. After Bob’s death, I started taking antidepressants. Following doctor’s orders, I took them every day for twenty-six years. During that time, I attempted%2
This entry was posted in disability, God, Inpatient psychiatry, Mental Illness & Health, power wheelchairs, Spirituality, Values and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Wheelchair Christmas

  1. idebenone says:

    When I think about how much I do to make other people’s birthdays special for them, it really frustrates me to feel like my birthday is treated with less and less importance every year. Theoretically, a birthday should be a person’s opportunity to be queen or king for a day, right? That is how I treat others on their birthday, and it is how I am starting to wish I would be treated on mine. But to actually vocalize that would make me sound like an ungrateful, spoiled brat. We could probably throw self-absorbed in there too, for good measure. So for the last few years, I have thrown around huge hints to my boyfriend and friends, wishing out loud that my birthday could be a bigger deal than it usually is. My secret hopes being that they would throw me a party before or after I headed out to my parents’ for the holidays. Those hints have been futile, making me increasingly bitter with every passing birthday.

    • annecwoodlen says:

      You have put your happiness in other people’s keeping. Why does it matter so much that other people acknowledge you? Why are you not content to know yourself and know that you are valuable?

  2. Idebenone says:

    I put together a memeory book for my parents anniversary along with the help of family and friends(sending in response cards of their favorite memory of them). It was put together for their 50th anniversary party and made much like a scrap book. I found as I was putting it together I would maybe put a picture of my mom and myself or my dad and my brother and then I would write something that I remember us doing when I was small. Like I remember sitting on the front porch and laying out coins and my dad teaching me how to count money. He would give me a penny or nickel when he would come home from work, I remember the sound of the change jiggling in his pocket and how pretty the shine on a new penny was. Or my mom and I cutting out paper dolls out of the sears catalog in the middle of the den. Or when my mom use to watch Dark Shadows in black and white while rocking my brother to sleep. Just stuff like that. I kept adding more and more and they really enjoyed the book. And it’s kinda surprising put my dad seem to enjoy it more and goes back and reads the memories. May be something nice for you to do for them and try and include some pictures or in your discription smells, textures,sunlight or moonlite, etc. May help them to remember and visualize better. Good luck in whatever you decide to do.

  3. It was a really enjoyable evening. The boys had a great time. Our orthotics place does a lot of good for the kids. We don’t have a lot of choice when it comes to orthotics and I am so glad that this is the place we get to go. Most of the kids who were at the party wear orthotics (duh!) and they range in ability from mild to severe problems, even kids in wheelchairs. They closed down the bounce house for a while and let the parents take their wheelchair-bound son into the house and “bounce” him. When there are bounce houses, the kids with special needs have difficulty participating because it’s aways such a wild and chaotic place to be. This time it wasn’t like that. Someone even said something to the owner of the company, thanking him for doing something for “our kids”. He was a little surprised because he hadn’t really thought of it that way. He was just doing something nice for his clients. But to his clients it was so much more.

  4. Lisa says:

    It doesn’t make sense that anyone would be against someone in a wheelchair. I’ve seen people in wheelchairs and I have nothing against them. I helped push people in wheelchairs and didn’t think anything of it except that it would be great if they could walk if they can. I’ve never seen anyone be against anyone in a wheelchair, either.

    Those people are ridiculous!! Maybe you should get new friends?

    Also, I saw your about me section, the title on prev. blog (where I was linked from) and I frankly cannot believe there are /still/ inpatient hospitals or mental institutions. I thought we got rid of those inhumane places? If I had any political power, I would do a massive campaign against them and force them to close. People should be independent and on their own terms, with full control. I’d close them then maybe institute affirmative action for people in wheelchairs and other physical disabilities and a stronger social security program so homelessness would be eliminated (then no one would be supposedly “diagnosed” just because they have nowhere else to go). It would be a shoe string budget and a jump start for a career, but it would work. Nursing homes should be changed to in-home care. I would also campaign for an entire new model – which wouldn’t label ANYONE with so-called “mental illness” – but work to tell them they are having /normal/ reactions to trauma, stress, ect, then target the causes (e.g., reducing crime, –reform) and trying to improve their independent living conditions (social security, freedom of movement, home life, person inflicting the problems on person ect). This model would never place the person as the “problem” but the /cause/ as the problem. This would give them self-control but also give some support until they can stand on their own.

    Then I’d try to reduce the amounts of anti-psychiatric drugs by doing a campaign which showed its harmful effects and little to zero actual improvement. I’d show them it is taking more control from the person, which is what they /really/ desired in the first place. I’d show graphs showing its little effect on change. I’d have to take them down by public approval, otherwise, there is no way as they are too rich (unless I convinced someone higher up about their hindrance). This model would be based on people being healthy (normal), but coming for support if they need it without worry of being labeled with a so-called “disease” and remove all supposed “genetic mental illnesses” (which is based falsely on the claim that chemical changes in the brain in reaction to NORMAL emotions, NOT a “disease,” are some supposed “abnormality”) It would be focusing on establishing self-control back into their lives (or more so) and attacking the /cause/ and /infiltrater/ firsthand. No one would be a victim, but a survivor who overcame a bump in the road.

    This, I believe, would be the best model.
    (Merry Late Christmas and Happy New Year – it is /NOT/ your fault it is the fault of WHATEVER OR WHOEVER IS CAUSING IT, don’t listen to them!! Attack the ACTUAL cause, NOT the person who is having normal reactions). 😉
    Good luck to you!!!!

  5. This would save a lot of people from having to get individual baby sitters…the parents could be free to go and check on their kids from time to time…but not bring them into the adult party area.

    • annecwoodlen says:

      Excuse me? Do you not understand the concept of a “family party?” Children also decorate Christmas trees, sing songs and eat meals. Your attitude toward childen as impediments and unwelcome is offensive to me.

  6. Like I said above, we’re huge Christmas fans. In 2010, we went to three Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Parties. We absolutely love it. The Magic Kingdom gets decked out for the party, with cool decorations, snow, an excellent lighting package, and even different background music. It’s these little details that make the party worth the money for us–even if it is around $55 each for us. While some contend that you’re better off saving the money and seeing the fireworks and parade for free after December 18th, this is really just part of what the parties offer (not 75% of it as some many contend). The ambiance and other little details are what make these parties great. To be sure, if you’re on a limited budget and your trip includes dates before and after December 18th, you should consider skipping the party. It’s also worth noting that these hard ticket parties used to be “known” for low crowds and, as a result, short waits. This is still true on certain nights, but it’s no longer the rule. Many party nights are just as crowded (sometimes more crowded!) as a normal night in the Magic Kingdom. So if you haven’t been to a Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party in a few years, this is something that might have “changed” since your last Party.

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