Body Language & Conversation Escapes

We’ve all been there before. You’re at a party or social gathering and you find yourself cornered by someone who can’t stop talking. Escape seems impossible. You don’t want to be rude but it’s obvious that the person thinks what they’re saying is much more interesting than it actually is so you start to scheme an exit plan. The easiest excuses are usually the bathroom or the need to get a drink or food but sometimes it’s not quite so easy. At this point, whether conscious or not, your body language starts to indicate your immediate desire for an end to the conversation.

Maybe your eyes wander around the room, desperately seeking the welcoming face of a friend, or you start to lean or move away from the person, or your hands and body give some other cues that you’re simply not engaged in the conversation. One way or another, you finally make your way out and are grateful for the social freedom that seemed unobtainable just moments ago.

While scenarios like this are difficult enough, navigating them is even more challenging if you’re a wheelchair user.

I’ve written previously about the challenges of moving through the world two feet shorter than most others and how it impacts my mentality, but I’m long overdue to share a few thoughts on the differences of body language cues that I’ve encountered. I share these not only to express my perspective (and yes, to vent a little bit…) but hopefully to educate and raise awareness for others for when they’re talking to someone using a wheelchair or who simply can’t walk or move “normally”, particularly in crowds.

1) Just because I’m sitting and facing you doesn’t mean I’m interested in what you’re saying.

I know it’s blunt but I have to be 100% honest. This is my number one pet peeve and my most common body language struggle when it comes to social interactions.

Countless times, I’ve been stuck talking to someone (or, I should say, listening impatiently to them) and they’re clueless that for whatever reason, I’m not interested anymore. My theory is that because I’m sitting down and facing them and, yes, looking up at them, they think that I’m a captive audience. And I can understand some of the reasoning for that. I think it’s natural that if you’re standing above and talking down (literally, not figuratively) to people, you’re inclined to think that they are interested in listening to you. Think of a teacher in a classroom or a performer onstage or a speaker talking to a roomful of seated people.

But there have been too many times where I’ve tried to subtly express my disinterest in the conversation and only been met by the person continuing to talk at me. And because they’re standing right in front of me and blocking me from seeing most of the room, it’s hard for me to find an obvious excuse to cut the conversation short.

Like it or not, our respective physical presence has a huge impact on the way we interact. If a seven foot tall person is towering over you and talking, you’re more likely to listen than if it’s someone who’s much shorter than you. But if you’re the person with a larger physical presence, that presence can feel intimidating and cornering.

And that brings me to point number two…

2) Body language is muted when you’re not using your whole body

I’ve been in too many situations where I’ve needed to quickly leave a conversation (i.e. urgently need to use the restroom, wanting to catch someone before they leave, or just simply being in a rush to leave) and my body language cues are not being picked up by the person(s) I’m talking to. I can’t step back or lean to a side or fidget the way an able-bodied person could that would likely convey the need to let me out! On top of that, because I can’t see above people’s shoulders, it’s nearly impossible for me to look around the room and make eye contact with someone else to call out for a conversation rescue.

3) Being cornered or trapped in any way is very limiting and unpleasant

I think everyone can relate…. This situation has occurred to me the most frequently in restaurants or large mealtime gatherings. I’ll find myself at a table that’s difficult to get in and out of. Therefore, not only do I feel awkward having to ask people to move or bump into purses hanging off the back of a chair, I’m less inclined to want to use the restroom or simply get up and leave the table for any reason. And so I unwittingly accept that I’m stuck, and it’s not very fun.

I used to love parties and concerts, crowds and gatherings, and being in a big group of people. But often times now, these situations make me anxious and uncomfortable and so I avoid them. But I will say that I’ve become EXTREMELY grateful and appreciative of people when they DO recognize these physical challenges and go out of their way to pick up my cues or simply ask me what I need. It makes all the difference in the world.

So let’s all try to be more mindful of how we move through the world, how we converse with others, and the social and body language cues that we encounter. And if you see someone in a wheelchair or physically limited, be extra nice and considerate of them. You may think your story is super interesting, and there’s a chance that it is, but they may just be dying to have a bite of food or use the bathroom.  🙂

My own little island

Let my absence from my blog end! I’ll explain later why I haven’t kept up for a while but for now, it’s time for another update.

I’ve recently come to the conclusion that to continue my effective recovery from Spinal Cord Injury (SCI), I have to remain isolated on my own little island.

I’ve probably mentioned in the past that recovery from SCI is all over the place, to say the least. Depending on a variety of factors (many of which are not well understood, no matter what the medical community says) one’s ability to regain function, get stronger and recover is largely unpredictable. I’ve also explained how one’s initial functional capabilities following the injury is largely dependent on where the injury occurred on the spinal cord (higher up towards your neck and head or lower down towards your tailbone). But here’s where the ambiguity of this injury (and its recovery) becomes prominent.

People who are injured in the same exact location on their spinal cord can have drastically different capabilities and recoveries. For example, I’ve met a few dozen other people who broke the exact same vertebra in their neck as I did, C5 and C6 in the lower neck. Each and every one of these people’s situations is different, as is their respective recovery.

Unlike more common and less severe injuries (i.e. a torn ACL, broken bone, strained muscle), there is no standard protocol for how to pursue recovery following a SCI, even for each specific level of injury. Some are left with little function in their hands while others have an iron grip; some with zero core control, others with boxer’s abs; some can wiggle a toe or lift up a leg and some can’t even feel where their lower body is in space (proprioception). As a result, the timetable for recovery is all over the place.

I bring this all up now because the desire to compare one’s injury to others’ progress and recovery is, I think, inevitable and only natural. I hear of another person with a C5/C6 injury who was able to move something or regain function at a certain time after their injury and I immediately start to compare to myself.

“Can I do that yet? What does it mean if I can or can’t?”

“I wasn’t able to do this certain thing that someone else did at a specific point after the injury, so am I doomed?”

“Well, if I wasn’t able to do this function at this time then I may never be able to.” 

“If this one specific aspect of recovery was going to happen (like it did for someone else) then it should have happened by now.” 

These are the thoughts that run through my head when I talk to anyone else with a SCI. While it’s inspiring and motivating to hear that someone was able to perform a specific task or function, it also messes with my head and threatens to endanger my confidence and resolve. That’s why I believe that comparing one’s SCI to someone else, no matter how similar they may seem, is a zero sum game.

I don’t want to stop these conversations with others about their recoveries, so what I’ve had to do is place myself on my own little island of recovery, and force myself to remain there, all by myself. It’s difficult because I want solidarity with others. I want to hear someone tell me that it’s going to happen to me because it happened to them. I want to think that my recovery is linked to others, that I can use their timetables to structure my own and manage my expectations, but that’s just not the way it’s going to be.

This recovery is a solitary one. Comparing doesn’t get me anywhere, which is why I’ll stay on my own little island, and keep working towards my goal.

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I’ve been away from the blog for a bit because I’ve had my hands full following up on my survey and garnering momentum for a petition I started to change the way SCI is approached and dealt with. My goal is to get the word out, get as many signatures as possible to my petition so that I can get it out to multiple forms of media. If you’re interested in signing my petition, check it out below. If you have any connections to media (journalists, websites, news sources….anything at all) and you want to share them with me, I’m grateful in advance.

http://www.change.org/petitions/healthcare-providers-medical-insurance-companies-provide-the-minimum-care-to-paralyzed-individuals