Sexual Harassment in the Chronic Community

I’ve been working on that promised blog about the shoes that have helped me walk, during my 17 years of MS, but there’s something pressing, going through my mind, that I don’t want to ignore.

The tragedies, shootings, and murders that occurred over the last couple weeks have stirred the nation. We should be moved towards more than just prayers for the victims and their families. People lost their lives. It is sad, it is depressing, it is preventable and we as a society need to do all we can to protect women, protect Asian Americans. I have friends that I have been worried for since the beginning of the pandemic. I worry for the world my children are growing up in. Here is a helpful article pointing to organizations to support in the efforts to end this hate and violence.

Thoughts were going through my mind, and uncomfortable memories welled up as I was writing a scene of my fictional novel, in which a disabled woman experiences sexual assault. I have three other blogs I’m aiming to finish soon, and I hate delaying them further, but, as I writer, I’ve learned the only way to get anything accomplished is to go with my gut, so here it goes…

After my relapse, I was still figuring out how to yet again navigate through physical therapy. It was hard, I was so tired, I was struggling. I booked my physical therapy and occupational therapy appointments back to back, because I needed to go to them when my kids were at school, I needed to get an uber most of the time, so I wanted to get them done, and get on with my life. As a consequence I was often exhausted by the end of therapy.

I was assigned a therapist, but some days she wasn’t available and I was ok with meeting with whichever therapist was free, as long as I got my therapy.

There was a male therapist that I was assigned to, for a couple of appointments. Everything seemed ok with that first appointment, he was friendly and seemed kind and supportive. It wasn’t until the next appointment with him, that I had an issue.

I was laying on the therapy table, and the therapist was instructing me on the table pose, or the lift where you lay on your back and raise your buttocks, so that you look kind of like a capitol L, leaning on its side. I know how to do this pose, I’ve practiced yoga, and done it for physical therapy before, but my muscles were weakened by numbness caused by the last relapse. I guess I wasn’t lifting properly, and the way the therapist chose to bring this to my attention was by cupping the bottom edge of my butt, to tell me that was were I needed to lift. The first time I thought he may have done it on accident.

He did this not once, but twice. I said nothing, because I am rehersed in that mental line that as a woman I tell myself, “he must not have meant it.”

However, I’ve come to realize that it is very seldom a man will touch a woman on her ass and not mean it. Even more importantly, I felt violated, so it wasn’t ok.

This incidence did not stop me from going to physical therapy, but I got back on my female therapist schedule, and if she wasn’t available I never consented to have an appointment with my harasser again.

Plan and simple, that was what he was doing, he was harassing me. He didn’t need to touch me there, to let me know that I needed to lift myself there. I told myself it is fine, after all I was the only young person there, in her 30s. Most patrons of the establishment were on in their years. Could I blame him for seeing what he could get away with, when he didn’t get to work with someone like me very often?

Yes, I can and I should blame him. I let it go. I didn’t want to affect someone’s job, even if he was a handsy asshole. He should have kept his hands, to the appropriate places when dealing with a handicap client in a professional scenario.

I was not paying for him to touch my body in ways that make me uncomfortable, I was paying for rehabilitation after a relapse.

When I think of it now, I see the possibility for future violations that my silence does nothing to stop. It’s not comfortable to talk about this. I don’t much like reliving in of the experiences I have had, where I was touched in a way that made me doubt myself, and feel like I wanted to hide away. After all, it happened before, I was an American woman, in her early 20s, who traveled through India twice. I was targeted for being unique. It was 2005, and there weren’t a lot of women that looked like me, traveling through India. I tried to blend in. I wore long skirts, I wore Punjabi suits, I wore loose fitting clothing and had been told to not dress flashy, to try to blend in for my safety. No matter what I wore, I couldn’t determine the way some men would look at me.

  • That night on the train, I was wearing a long stripped linen skirt that a good friend had leant me. I felt the eyes of two men on me, as I tried to get under the sheets and cover myself. I pushed the thoughts from my mind I slept.
  • One man posed for a photo and reached down to grab my chest until I slapped his hand away. He told me it was ok. I got out of there. Later, when I told my female Gujarati friend she told me I should have hit him with my shoe. I wish I had known that then, but I was shocked and in disbelief. I wish I had known that the appropriate response was for me to take of my shoe and hit him with it.
  • Two times guys on motorcycles hit my ass. After the first incidence I told one of the male students I was traveling with. He got upset, in a way that felt aggressive. He said I should have said something, so he could have done something. Sure he may have been concerned for me, but he made me feel more ashamed.
  • In Southern India, men were required to sit at the back of the bus, women got the front, but in some regions of Northern India these restrictions, or really protections, were not observed. There are few things more uncomfortable than feeling a strange man getting hard behind you on and overpacked bus and literally have no where to escape to. You are afraid that saying anything would bring more attention and unwanted contact, so you look out the window and will yourself away from your body, until you can get out.
  • A man invited me behind a jewelry counter to see a necklace I was interested in. He politely had come out from behind the counter to let me have a look, but came back behind the narrow counter before I could get out, and I had to feel his erection, which he obviously, had obviously planned this encounter, and again my response was just to get out of there. I didn’t know how to stand up for myself, I just wanted to get back to my room and feel safe again.

I’ve supported the #metoo movement, but my incidences, though they made me uncomfortable, sick to my stomach, nervous and scared of future encounters, I didn’t feel like they were enough to speak up about. What right did I have to take up space when other women have been through situations worse than me?

However, I started thinking, that maybe I’m not alone in the Chronic Community in getting unwanted attention from medical professionals. I really have only worked with one physical therapist that was a man, and the time that I did, I was groped. I purposely select women, so I can feel comfortable, I can feel safe, I can feel relaxed and I can focus on my therapy without worrying about protecting my body.

I saw my harasser in the room at my other appointments. I was hoping he wasn’t looking at me, but he always came over to say hello. It may have not even occurred to him that what he did was inappropriate, and caused me undo discomfort. He didn’t know the emotional pains he triggered.

I had to get better, I needed physical therapy. I needed help. I needed support. I needed to feel safe. I didn’t need to be touched inappropriately.

I have a coping mechanism when my legs get tired to rest myself forward, and lean on a counter, to give my legs some relief. When I was at the counter of the physical therapy office, paying for my next session, he came, he corrected my stance, and kind of playfully poked fun at me being lazy, and leaning against the counter. Today I was washing some dishes at my kitchen sink, and I unconsciously did the same thing as my legs weakened, leaning myself against the counter. It brought this whole scenario to mind again. His unsolicited advice, and misunderstanding of my coping mechanism. I tried to make myself appear as strong as I could, and tried to hide that I was struggling, and leaning on the counter so I didn’t fall over after I was already tired from my physical therapy. I didn’t need him to correct me. I didn’t need for him to come close to me. I didn’t need this memory that repeats itself over, every time I need a break from standing while doing the dishes.

To that therapist, if you are reading, if somehow this blog gets before your eyes, don’t do it again. I came back to therapy. I didn’t let what you did stop me. You have no idea the triggering this unwanted touch created at a time when I was trying to heal. When I am touched in a way I don’t appreciate, memories of other instances come flooding back. Shame on you for getting a quick thrill when you were supposed to be professional and help me feel supported. Don’t do it again, to me, or to anyone else!

To anyone else who has felt unwanted touch from medical professionals who were supposed to be helping you, you aren’t alone. You deserve to feel safe, you deserve to feel supported, you deserve not to be taken advantage of.

Even now, I’m sitting here with my stomach folding in, in the spasms of MS hug, thinking about publishing this blog. These feelings are obviously more raw than I thought they were, and I’m considering scrapping it.

I was trying to find articles of support, other instances and investigations of this happening to others, but was not finding a lot, so I’m wondering if I am alone on this one. But then I looked down, and saw my Myelin & Melanin t-shirt, with the words inscribed on my chest- “i am not invisible.” I’m going to rip off the bandaid and publish this in the hopes it will help someone. (I’m not alone, and neither are you. Check out this article in Teen Vogue from 2018 about sexual harassment and abuse in the disabled community.)

I almost wrote, please like, comment or subscribe, because that is what you are supposed to do at the end of a blog. It feels kind of wrong.

Instead, I just want to say, feel comforted. Feel supported. Don’t feel alone.

May God be with you til we meet again… 🧡

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