This piece by Tom Shakespeare is so good, I have to write a whole blog post in response
How can it be that on the whole, sick and disabled people are happier than people living without impairments? Doesn't that seem counter-intuitive? "Poor" disabled people are surely those we pity, however kindly? How can you possibly live in constant and terrible pain, or perhaps restricted by physical bonds that seem insurmountable and enjoy a better quality of life than those who don't?
I've thought long and hard about this for many, many years. As Tom points out, it is indeed a paradox. Whilst anecdote is not evidence, my own experience of life confirms the theory. Roller-coaster-like, my life-lows have been very, very low, but where else does that leave you to go?
The most powerful illustration I have is of those first precious few hours after leaving hospital after a long stay. Life in hospital gets greyer by the day, emptier, less stimulated. Days are marked only by the grindingly repetitive appearance of the tea trolley, food is bland, light is neon and flickering. Sound is muffled and amplified all at once, like the echoes of chlorine-heavy municipal swimming pools. Loneliness bites sharper than any scalpel, fear hovers as surely as the ubiquitous drip stand. And it goes on. And on. And on. And on. Until sunlight occasionally streaming through blinds hurts your eyes, phone calls seem an intrusion and life seems something other people do.
Staying in hospital for weeks or even months on end has nearly always stretched me to the limit of my tolerances, punished me, isolated me, distorted my sense of reality and self.
And here is the paradox. It's only when you're the most tested you find out exactly what you can do. Only true loneliness can teach you the value of love and friendship. Only indifference can show you how important it is to care. Only pain can show you vitality and freedom.
Until we've been really hungry, we can't know the full abundant wonder of food, until we've faced fear full in the face, we can never truly be brave. Until our senses are dampened, we take for granted the heights they soar to every day, un-noticed through the piles of gas bills and rent demands.
That moment when they say you can go home is more magical, more wonderful, than any moment most people will experience even once in a lifetime.
Those plate glass doors slide back for the last time and the very first thing you notice is the breeze on your skin. How had you never noticed it before??? Birdsong explodes like bombshells in a vast-sky-stillness you'd forgotten. The light is bright, almost miraculous, like shards of gold falling through stained glass windows.
You get into the car and feel the warm leather on your skin. As the door clunks satisfyingly shut, the sense of freedom is so overwhelming that you realise with dazzling clarity that this moment - every moment - is the first moment of the rest of your life. You could just drive and drive and drive, chasing the horizon. Any horizon, you imagine the million world-horizons you could choose and know in that moment that any one of them is open to you.
The joy on the faces of your children when you finally walk through the door threatens to dissolve you. Pudgy arms rush to cling on and never let go, heads crushed to you in relief. The words "Mum!" and "Babyyyyyy!" sound like a symphony.
Beautiful things you've spent a lifetime collecting dazzle your eyes with memories. Home. Vividly you realise that home is the only place in the world that you ever really want to be. No-one to tell you when to sleep or eat, no-one keeping you chained to one place, music that reminds you of warm summer festivals, a glass of ice cold wine shimmering with crystal-beaded bubbles.
I always stand at the door, blinking in shock, fixed with joy so overwhelming I gulp to breathe. Were colors always this vivid? Did music always sound this magical?
This headlong rush from utter despair to infinite opportunity defines happiness for me so powerfully, it's never really left me since. On a grey day, I notice the thunderous power of the clouds. At a fairground, the tinny happiness of the carousel infects me. I look beyond my small life every day towards those infinite horizons.
But this discharge-fever is an extreme example. If you become paralysed in an accident and have to learn to walk all over again, that first step you take will equal any Olympic gold. If you live with the fear of cancer for endless grueling months, the day they give you the all clear is the most powerful happiness drug known to man. But just making a cup of tea after a week unable to get out of bed or making a phone call when depression has left you spiraling in lonely misery since breakfast is an achievement.
And achievements make us happy, however small. Overcoming challenges is satisfying, finding courage is empowering.
My disability has meant that I've lived my life in glorious technicolour. Never dull, never predictable, never half a life. However painful or successful, however terrifying or miraculous, happiness is always defined by the constant challenges it inevitably follows.
Above the door to my old hospital was a plaque that read 'Whatever it is, it will pass." Over the years, I hated that sign. As I found myself endlessly repeating the horrors of an in-patient stay, I would wonder exactly when it would pass.
But as I came to trust that such powerful joy in simple things would always mirror the depths of my hard times, I realised that whatever it is, it does always pass. Maybe not forever, but for a few fleeting hours, happiness will be so tangible that I will taste it again.