Answering Awkward Questions

I’ve never been very good at answering questions, even when I know the answer! When people ask me what my PhD is on, I tend to mumble something inarticulate about nuns. The being asked questions thing is really common when you’re visibly ill – especially, I’ve found, if you use mobility aids or a wheelchair. I’m quite open about things, particularly online. Not everyone feels comfortable doing this and it should go without saying that it should be up to the individual whether and how much they share.

A couple of weeks ago, a wee girl asked me ‘what happened to you?’ Questions like this aren’t ones I mind being asked, especially by children – often are very patronising to kids when they can understand a lot more than they sometimes get credit for. Because I was using my wheelchair at the time, and most people aren’t used to seeing someone relatively young using a wheelchair, I felt it was important to give her a proper answer.

There are lots of different ways to answer her question. I didn’t want to scare her but I also didn’t want to lie to her or ignore her. It also wasn’t asked at all maliciously – she was genuinely just being curious. I could have said that I got sick and so have to use a wheelchair – but I was worried that if I said that, she might worry that the next time she, or a family member, gets ill they’ll need to use a wheelchair too. (This is not meant to imply that wheelchair = bad, because it doesn’t)

I ended up telling her the truth, or at least a version of it. Whether I end up doing the same thing next time depends on how I feel,

The other kind of difficult question has mostly come from adults, in my experience, and goes something like “are you better?” A good friend of mine, whose mother has recently been diagnosed with a form of cancer, mentioned this as being hard to answer because of people’s responses to it. ‘How are you feeling?’ isn’t something I personally find difficult, because I can say how I feel in the moment, and usually that’s something along the lines of ‘not too bad, considering’ or ‘tired but otherwise alright’. ‘Are you better?’ is much harder though, and much less straightforward. I’m not sure if I actually have an answer for this one – not a truthful one, at any rate.

Neither of the previous questions are malicious, so I don’t have anything against the person asking – it might be the best way they have of phrasing things, or that they are just curious. It can make you feel a little bit like a human Magic 8 Ball but otherwise it isn’t a problem for me asides from the issues about how to actually answer! (I do recognise that this isn’t the case for everyone and it must be even harder if people don’t want to answer the questions put to them) – or if people assume they are well or able bodied and make comments based on that assumption – Dad and I went to see The Shape of Water the other day (which was fantastic, if anyone hasn’t seen it yet!) and afterwards, I had to use the accessible toilet. While I was in there, I overheard the woman waiting say ‘I bet she isn’t even disabled’. When I came out in my wheelchair, her face said it all. I’ve rarely been more glad to have a visible sign of needing to use accessible facilities though, and it would have been much harder if the same thing had happened but I didn’t have a mobility aid. Fortunately that’s the only negative comment I’ve really had, but I know from speaking to various other people that this really isn’t the norm – plenty of people have to deal with these kinds of comments every day. The worst I’d had until that was people sometimes talking about me to the people I’m with and not to me, even when what they were saying was about me.

Awkward and difficult questions are, in many ways, just another thing I’ve had to get used to – actually having answers for the most common ones might make a lot of sense and stop me from stumbling over my words quite as much. As it is, though, I’m not sure I answer them correctly as such, but I’m also not sure there is such a thing as a ‘correct’ answer, and it’s more about what you as the person answering feels comfortable with. If that’s the whole story, that’s great. If that’s nothing, that’s also great. And if you want to make up a story about being injured while skiing in the Winter Olympics*, that’s (probably?) fine too!

*genuinely something I am tempted to do, which is probably a sign I watch too much TV

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