Imagine being stuck on the side of the road, unable to talk, in tears, and a man comes up behind you and leans over, aiming to grab your tyre iron.
That’s what happened to me today. Several times, in fact. Not all the same way, of course. But over, and over, and over again. You might not be worried – you’re a man, stronger than they are, or you are someone who can talk, and you can tell them they’re not needed and they need to leave. Today, I was neither of those. I have a relatively rare brain disorder that makes it so I can’t talk. I was presenting somewhat female, if that’s what you call a minidress and stockings. I’m tiny, small enough that off-the-rack clothes are hard to find, even in our society where thinness is a celebrated attribute.
I pulled in to a carpark, hit the edge of the driveway awkwardly and my front tyre blew out. Initially, it wasn’t a problem. Despite being sick, I can change a tyre. I have to take breaks after putting my entire body weight into loosening each nut, a break after jacking the car up, a break after lifting the tyre off, and so on. Afterwards, I’m exhausted. It takes about three days to recover, longer if in that three days I do something other than lie flat on my back and stare at the ceiling, wishing for spoons. I can do it, though, so I wasn’t worried. I’ll just change it, and I’ll still make it to speech therapy.
It was twenty minutes before I managed to loosen the nuts. I had forgotten that I had to account for wearing a corset, the only thing between being able to stand and having to drag myself along on whatever wall or rail is near enough to hold on to. In that time, not a single person offered to help, though many walked past and I had an audience made up of store staff staring out their window and the customers that came in and out. I also had people sending me messages, and as soon as I said I wasn’t available to them at the moment, I had to deal with them wanting to take over and “help”.
I was jacking the car up again, squatting on the ground, my bad knee protesting against the position by sending searing pain up my leg, when someone started talking behind me. When I didn’t answer, between being busy jacking up my car, clearly being capable of doing so, and not being able to clearly understand what was being said because this person was behind me, he came closer. Suddenly his shadow was over me, and I was cold, bereft of sun, and he was insisting on helping. I moved closer to the car, away from him, and eventually he left. I sat down in the passenger seat of my car, and burst into tears. Who expects someone to have a conversation with a stranger they can’t see? I was clearly working on the issue on my own. I’d done the hardest part on my own. By that time, he had been watching me for half an hour.
He came back out a few minutes later, when I’d pulled myself together and managed to pull the tyre halfway off. He cornered me against my car. “Are you sure you don’t need help?” he said. I signed to him. Leave me alone. “Are you deaf?” he said. Then he moved closer, so close that he didn’t even have to extend his arm if he wanted to touch me. He pointed to his mouth. “Are you sure you don’t want help? Is it a flat tyre?” I signed again, I shook my head, I tried to back away but there was nowhere else to go. He reached for my phone. “Why don’t you text me?”
Then he pointed to the tyre, and, slowly, he said “Is it broken?”.
Broken. A simple word, because he thought I wasn’t understanding him; because he wasn’t understanding me. I had prayed that someone would come out, earlier, when i was flashing my bloodstained underwear at rush hour traffic in an effort to loosen the nuts. But that was done. Clearly I was capable. Except he, being a man, older than me, bigger than me, had decided I wasn’t.
He left, and I collapsed again, barely even moving. Then he came back with someone else, a woman, my height, but leaning on his arm. “Can we call someone for you?” she said, in between his explanation to her, talking about me in the third person like I wasn’t there. “She has the tyre out, she’s taken the nuts off, she’s jacked it up.” He outlined all the steps I had taken to solve my own problem, and told her what he wanted to tell me. “You have to jack it higher. Tell her she has to jack it higher.” “I don’t know sign language,” they kept saying, every time I asked them to leave them alone, when I backed away. Eventually she leaned in. “Let me do it for you,” she said, and she was reaching for the tyre iron. In a miracle, I screamed. I kept screaming until they left, and then it cut out, my brain collapsing back into its post-stressed state where the energy it takes just to function gets funneled through the part that’s supposed to be helping me make words. I’m used to functioning in high stress, which is why my brain is how it is. They made me feel so bad my brain thought it was back to normal; this undid months of work retraining it to function at a normal, stress-free level, to where my disorder is under control.
At this point, I gave in and texted my mum. It’s her birthday. I didn’t want to interrupt her, because I should be capable of this, but I needed to let it out, the same way I managed to make a sound.
While I was sitting in my car, shaking and crying, only then did people keep coming up to me. I was sitting in the car, leaning to the side of the seat, my legs dangling out the side, and the door open. Inevitably they would come up beside me, trapping me because they stood between the door and the car, in my space. “Do you need help?” they kept saying. They ignored the fact that I had started repairs, and ignored the fact that I was on my phone. They wanted my attention, and when I didn’t talk back, there were several reactions. Two of them waved their hand in front of my face. It took a lot of mental energy to not respond. It didn’t even occur to me to grab their wrists and twist their arms, forcing them out of my space. I was in the middle of a conversation with my mother – “the tyre is stuck, i don’t need you to call the raa i just need these people to go away, i remembered that i have food, i don’t need to worry about my blood sugar now, i’ll be okay, can you just check with dad and make sure i did everything right” – and I did not want to be interrupted by another person who failed to respect my autonomy, failed to respect my personal space, and expected that I would be grateful for their intervention.
Inevitably, when I didn’t talk, they would walk away. Nobody actually waited long enough for my phone to load a blank word document that I could type in to tell them to leave me alone. Nobody realised that by bringing their friend over to stand next to them (because two big strong men is
better more threatening than one) that they were making themselves more threatening.
The last man who asked started yelling at me when I didn’t answer him the first time. He waved his hand in front of my face.
Then, he said “fuck you, stupid fucking ungrateful bitch”.
That was exactly why I didn’t want anyone to help me. Entrenched in our society are a few ideas about people who present female, people with disabilities, and people with both. Included in those ideas are that we should be grateful for big men who help us when we aren’t supposed to do things for ourselves, because their insertion of themselves into our lives is an act of kindness, never mind that they assume we both need and are grateful for them. Not one of these men, not the one who came up behind me while I was bent on the ground, probably showing off my purple underwear, not the one who trapped me in my car, not the one who called me a bitch, thought that I would view them as a threat. I didn’t know any of them. I don’t like strangers touching my things. I don’t know what a big strange man would do with a tyre iron.
But it should have been clear, both by virtue of the fact that I was partway through the simple procedure of changing a tyre, and had access to a mobile device, that they were not needed. Perhaps they thought they were truly being altruistic, offering an act of charity, but the fact still remained that there was a social cue for them, being that as someone with long hair and wearing a dress, I shouldn’t have been able to perform the task myself, and it was their job to help. Perhaps it never occurred to them that by trapping me in a space where I couldn’t back away, they were acting in a manner that made them a threat. It certainly never occurred to them that they were treating me as a less than capable human being.
However, it did occur to me that any one of them may have expected something in exchange. I had my mother on the other end of the phone, and if I typed to her that something was wrong, she would have called the police and yelled at them until they sent someone, but in that amount of time I still could have been beaten, raped, and/or killed. After all, I have no way to say no. I’m dreadfully lucky that I was even able to scream.
The whole thing took an hour and a half longer than it needed to. Part of that was because of the way these people treated me – as ‘less than’, because of how I look and because I couldn’t tell them to get lost, because I broke down and had a panic attack and became more vulnerable – and part of that was that these incidences continued until roadside assistance arrived. If I hadn’t been interrupted in the first place, if I hadn’t been threatened and trapped and ended up going hypoglycaemic, I wouldn’t have needed to even call them. They took over an hour to arrive. In that time, the entire staff of the store whose carpark I was borrowing had taken turns watching me out the window, reporting my condition to the others. I prayed that they wouldn’t bother me when they left, and they didn’t, although two further incidents with customers and passers by had occurred. When the van finally arrived, it took two minutes for him to use a larger jack and switch the tyre, because I’d already done the hard work. He insisted on putting the old tyre in the back for me, and then he kept handing me my things. The jack, still half opened up. The tyre iron, because it was on the bonnet. I hate taking things from people. I bit my lip until it bled, because in my experience, asking him to leave me alone would be fruitless, and this was the fastest way for him to go.
At that point, I checked my phone again. I’d texted my mother only a few minutes before, to say that the van was finally on its way. She had a message for me – “Dad says he’s proud of you.” I don’t know why. Was he proud of me for not accepting the help of strangers whose motives I didn’t know, who approached me in ways that were actively making me uncomfortable, and who treated me like I was ‘less than’ because I didn’t act the correct way? Was he proud of me for trying first and, in realising that I had been forced into a condition where I could use help, asking for it from someone who was safe, whose entire job was to sail in, help, and leave again, without intruding on personal space, and who had a boss I could complain to if he acted in a way that was threatening? Was he proud that I’d done what my psychiatrist has been training me to do, in that I recognised I was reaching a point of extreme stress and instead of pushing it down, emphasising the way my weird brain works just to get back to functional, and instead expressed it a safe way?
Or was he proud that in trying to change the tyre, and when it got so that it wasn’t safe for me to keep trying, I called roadside assistance myself (because, wonder of wonders, they have a special line for people with speech and hearing issues), and effectively, needed none of the help these men tried to force me to accept?
Apart from the one who’d come out with the first man, no woman asked if I needed help. A female-presenting person walked past, talking on her phone. She did what I do, when I see someone who may be in trouble. She slowed down, made eye contact, saw I had my phone, and kept going.
I never made it to my appointment, though. The entire process took nearly three hours. I first thought, maybe, if I hadn’t tried to do it myself and just called first thing, that I could have gotten there, but then it occurred to me – all of these incidents occurred after I had stopped exerting visible physical effort. I would still have had to wait at least that long for someone to come, and all of those incidents would have occurred, but I wouldn’t have had the time after to eat half a muffin (supposed to be a present, oops), and I wouldn’t have stopped crying by the time roadside assistance arrived.
I kept my facebook friends updated, in part because that’s one of the ways I’m supposed to express my stress, and in part because some of them have disabilities too, and would understand. In one of the posts, I said this: “this is literally the most terrifying thing since i was raped at knifepoint”. Apart from the physical aspect of that crime against me, everything else was the same. Multiple men attempted to enforce their will over me, sure I would be grateful, sure that they were entitled, sure that it would show they were more powerful than me. That’s what it felt like, each time.
The point of this was to emphasise that being in a position where other people assume that you need them, where society tells you you’re not expected to be independent and you should rely on what others deem kindness, can really suck. None of these people approached me in a manner that wasn’t threatening – they invaded my personal space, they made sexual gestures, they swore at me and called me names for not responding correctly, they treated me like I wasn’t there, they talked to me like I was a child. None of this was necessary. It was scary. I’m emotionally exhausted now, for typing this out is like going through it all again. But I had to tell people – it doesn’t matter if you’re a girl, if you’re sick or small, if you’re deaf or anything that isn’t a big strong man, and even if you are a big strong man: if someone makes you feel unsafe, you don’t have to accept their help. Nobody should assume you’re incapable, or pressure you into accepting what they think of as help. That first man? He should have left me alone when I shook my head. He should have left me alone when I told him to leave me alone, and when it became clear there was nothing he could do. He shouldn’t have brought someone else back out. They shouldn’t have tried to take my tools from me. None of the other men should have waved their hands in my face, they shouldn’t have trapped me in my car, and not needing the help of a man does not make me, you, or anyone a “fucking ungrateful bitch”.