Gesture of love conveyed the wrong message

Paige Burton, from Yarrawarrah, has been selected twice for Impact 25: The 25 Most Influential People in the Social Sector.
Paige Burton, from Yarrawarrah, has been selected twice for Impact 25: The 25 Most Influential People in the Social Sector.

I suffer from chronic pain; the kind that you tell people is an ache in your knee but actually feels like someone has started squeezing your spine.

It's the kind of pain that starts in your back but shoots into your joints until you're dizzy and can't talk, can't think, can't do anything but breathe and wait for it to pass.

I'm fairly lucky. I am usually able to go about my work, study, and life with relative ease. But some days the pain is more than just physical.

On a recent “not bad” day, I went about my life, walking with a cane. Crossing the road should not have been particularly remarkable for me or for the small girl and her mother crossing too.

But as the light turned green, the girl let go of her mother's hand and darted across the road. In a panic, her mum ran into the street to restrain her and pulled her close.

“That's very dangerous, not holding my hand. If you do dangerous things like that, you'll end up ...” A scared parent desperate to make an imprint on her child scanned frantically, and settled her eyes on me, pointed, and spat out “like that”.

I was speechless. Clearly she was trying to convey,  “I care about you and don't want you getting hurt” to her daughter. But, in effect, what she communicated was, “you will be punished for stupid choices, and you'll get what you deserve”.

Some people have opportunities, some have disadvantages. That people deserve either is possibly the most damaging idea that conservative ideology has embedded in modern Australia. I didn't opt in to this pain. I did not cause it. The assumption that anyone noticeably impaired is paying a price for their choices is repulsive.

We're taught to believe that when good things happen to us it's a direct result of our hard work and our hard work alone. When we convince ourselves that all of the good things that happen to us are a reward for individual achievement, it becomes hard to recognise that we, and people in our immediate experience, don't also deserve the terrible.

It has taken me a long time to deal with the fact that one day I woke up in pain and will continue to do so. But it has taken even longer to believe the people who tell me it's not my fault. And it's not the point, but I think there are worse things that woman's daughter could end up being than like me.

  • Paige Burton, from Yarrawarrah, is the 2017 Youth Representative to the UN and has been selected twice for Impact 25: The 25 Most Influential People in the Social Sector.