The Man Who Walks Backwards.

Anyone who has ridden a London bus will know full well what it’s like to view conflict. People start arguments frequently, occasionally these turn violent but mostly it’s just verbal. On a recent bus journey listening to some music on my headphones as usual, I always listen to music when on my own, because I enjoy it but also to block out the audio sensory overload that public transport can be. getting through the journey with as little discomfort as possible is the main hope. A young man got on and sat at the back, he looked angry and I’m guessing he was Bengali, but certainly of Asian heritage, behind him followed a man, wearing grubby and worn clothes and bring an unpleasant smell, the face of a weather beaten drunk. Although I couldn’t hear at first he was shouting abuse towards the young Asian guy, who kept waving a hand dismissively and telling him to sit down. Eventually the shouting became racist and the young man confronted him, myself and another guy said to stop, sit and ignore him. The old drunk seemed to have an eastern European accent and sat irritably for the rest of the journey before shouting something else before getting off. The confrontation and nature of it aren’t hugely important to what I am saying here, sadly it’s quite typical of London but ultimately reason won out, no one got hurt. More often than not the arguments I see will be between one downtrodden, worn out looking guy, maybe homeless, maybe just a drunk, likely with a mental health condition and the other person probably a normal Londoner who is stressed or had a tough day, someone who may not often argue but had a bad interaction on that day. But in this interaction I thought that it’s very easy to dismiss the situation in this way, to make assumption about either persons’ mental health or personal situation.

We see these kinds of things and often will immediately jump to the thought.

“Must have mental health”

“Crazy”

“Old drunk”

Or any number of terms to justify exactly why someone would behave publicly in a way we personally wouldn’t, but in that situation above I genuinely don’t know who started it, so I shouldn’t jump to conclusions.

Even more recently I was on the tube on my way to work, I travel in rush hour so my commute is always busy. As I got to the platform, running slightly late I saw a man who I guess was in his early 60’s wearing an incredibly bright orange hoody, he had with him a 4 wheeled shopping trolley with a square basket, not particularly large but definitely too big for a rush hour train. I get on alongside him and many others, he naturally takes up the amount of room 3 people could comfortably fit into and starts reading his newspaper, it lightly jabs me in the armpit as I hold the rail. I give a gentle nudge to ensure he’s aware and it stops. I keep watching him discretely and my sense and experience tells me he does indeed have some kind of mental health condition, but I think that about a lot of people, it’s part of what I do. At the next stop more people get on and it’s more cramped, his newspaper begins to jab me right in the armpit, I look to see if he’s aware, he at least pretends not to care, another nudge.

Nothing.

A stronger nudge, he looks at me and carries on.

A powerful push, crumpling his paper, he continues.

I grab his paper, take it and tell him he’s got enough space and has no need to jab the paper in my armpit, he mumbles and looks angry.

Suddenly I wonder, do the other people on the train think I’m the crazy one? I’m snatching a newspaper off an old man? I think in reality most of those people knew, and they could see his trolley, they saw the escalation. I was aware after that incident which was ultimately pretty harmless, the man seemed to realise there was no point fighting back and the fact he took that trolley on the train at rush hour and the fact he repeatedly jabbed me with the paper meant he either doesn’t care or isn’t aware of others.

I’m sure many of you have done something publicly and wondered how others viewed your behaviour. I am a professional in managing behaviour and understanding people, even just being a good manager means you need a good sense of the way people function. This means I probably can and do see things in people I encounter, I probably can spot a mental health condition, I can see Autism and learning disabilities, simple behaviour is only a part of this and I have surrounded myself with people with disabilities for so long I just know.

I don’t just know, there are signs but I analyse so quickly I’m unaware of it, if you were with me and asked why I think the guy across the road has Autism I could tell you. This isn’t really about me, but more about how frequently I do encounter people who have conditions of some sort and how frequently you do, we all do.

Some of you may be reading and thinking, I do have a condition, I have depression or Autism or dyspraxia or something else which is partially the purpose, that “conditions” are just ways of being, does it make you different to have depression? 1 in 4 people or more are going to experience a mental health condition, at least 1 in 100 people have Autism, I suspect many more, and other conditions are common. If we include purely physical conditions then that makes even more of us, it might be those without conditions are the minority.

The experience that inspired this piece was in fact about a man who appeared to walk backwards, yet again witnessed on public transport. A few weeks ago during a work journey, going to a meeting of some sort and taking a bus. As the bus was approaching a stop it slowly passed a pedestrian who was walking backwards alongside the bus, he was looking back in the direction the bus had come so I assumed he was parting ways with someone, saw the bus and they were finishing the conversation as he approached the stop. The bus passed him and he went out of view, the bus came to a stop and he came back into view still walking backwards, he got on the bus, swiped his card and sat at the back walking backwards the whole way, he only turned his head to see where he was going just before sitting down.

To see this as a prank, or bet or joke of some sort, even as a performance wouldn’t be surprising in London but it didn’t appear to be any of those things, he did it with such ease, completely natural that it certainly looked like that was how he walked, it was normal. I discretely observed him before I eventually got off the bus and he sat there calmly, not expecting or looking for anyone’s attention.

I wondered all day what it could be, is it some type of psychosis is it a curious proprioceptive sensory condition? Something else, it has to be neurological rather than physical?

Naturally I did some internet research, one person talks of his mother involuntarily walking backwards due to her Parkinson’s, but this guy was in full control as far as could tell.

Another man developed this skill in relation to difficulties with his spine, even though he suffered from some neurological issues he had in fact developed this due to physical issues.

There is a condition called Dystonia which can cause abnormalities in movement and physical functions which has been reported to cause at least one person to walk backwards.

However it appears that Parkinson’s is the most likely cause, and there are numerous cases where someone may walk backwards if they suffer from it, it is a movement disorder and this is one of the symptoms but also somehow helps people manage as well.

I probably will never know if this man has Parkinson’s or not, or anything else. It seems just as likely that some kind of psychological/schizophrenia related condition or indeed Autism could cause such an unusual behaviour, nevertheless it was fascinating. It reminds me there’s a huge amount about how humans function that I have little to no knowledge of and I will continue to see more people with odd conditions throughout my life, particularly in a big city like London.

This is a somewhat obvious condition even if I can’t name it, his behaviour was most definitely unusual, but what makes something a condition versus just odd behaviour? We all have behavioural traits which others will likely find odd, it’s mostly because it’s socially unusual. I’ve written about social rules and expectations before so no need to go into that here.

If I see so often, people who have very clear conditions due to behaviour then what off the many conditions that we can’t see, like depression? It may materialise in some behaviour, but you could be sitting next to depressed people on the train every day and not know. Is it important you know? Awareness is valuable, but of course it’s a person’s private business. I was very tempted to speak with the man who walks backwards but I’m sure he has received a great deal of attention for it before. And I also hope we all think about the difficulty many of these individuals face, life can be a struggle. I completely accept that Orange Hoody Newspaper pest may not have fully been in control, I still won’t tolerate it, but some empathy is needed and I was probably more patient with him than with certain others. The horrible racist on the bus was probably just that, a horrible old drunk, who said racist things, his own dignity and the opinion of the public seemed irrelevant to him, but he was in conflict with someone and I don’t know why as I didn’t see it.

I could relate many more stories of the unusual, weird, sometimes scary, occasionally fun, aggressive, out of order behaviours I have seen in my life, particularly in glorious London but I won’t, one more does stand out except it was from my childhood in New Zealand. In my local area there was a woman with Dwarfism, she was shorter than me as a very young child. I remember my mum saying something about this woman being horrible as she’d obviously seen or encountered her before. I then eventually saw it myself and over what appeared to be an imagined conflict she hissed and spat at someone in a shopping centre. I assumed at this young age it was a symptom of her dwarfism, but as I got older learned that this clearly physical condition didn’t have behavioural issues. But I later realised it was probably a defence mechanism of some sort. This would have been the early 80’s, and although not long ago in historical terms the world and our understanding of each other has advanced considerably, so I imagine she’d encountered a fair amount of problems with others due to her appearance. This also made me think again about London and all the conflict that people may develop what are on the surface seemingly unwarranted behaviours that seem random as a way of defending themselves against the world.

I don’t know what normal is, I’m sure there is such a thing. I know I’m not normal, and I try to have empathy for people who struggle through life much more than I do, but I also won’t allow someone to be abusive and simply defend it as a behaviour or a condition. There is an element of self-fulfilling prophecy with things like this, you are expected to act crazy, and so you do. What I have learned is that my assessment of people is usually right, but never assume a situation is exactly as it appears without having enough information. Don’t simply dismiss a person as crazy because they do one crazy thing.

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