It’s a Saturday night. And like a typical Masters student who hasn’t quite reconciled with the fact they’re no longer a buoyant undergrad, I’ve ended up in Flannery’s. The night unfolds as any night along Camden Street does…I pay upwards of 10 euro for a single vodka dash. I collide with a tipsy first year on my way to the dance floor, causing me to spill half of said vodka dash down myself. My shoes stick to the floor as I try to find the rhythm to “Hit Me Baby One More Time” without the rest of my drink meeting a similar fate and exacerbating already gluey surface. I’m enjoying myself.
Then nature calls, brought on by however much of the vodka dash actually made into my mouth, on top of the several shots I had gamely downed before leaving pre’s to make the thought of queuing for a club in the bitter Dublin winter less intimidating. For most people in this scenario it’s a simple undertaking. The most daunting aspect of going to the toilet in a club is undoing zips in time for the main event. However, I have a condition called Spina Bifida, L5 S1 Spina Bifida Myelomeningocele, if we’re being precise. (Don’t worry, I don’t know how to pronounce that last word either).
My spine didn’t fully form in the womb and as a result my spinal cord is damaged and the nerves in my lower back are worse at communicating than the protagonists in a Sally Rooney novel. This complicates things slightly, as, in part, it affects my bladder. I have to catheterise, and the bladder augmentation operation I had at 10 years old has bestowed in it a capacity enviable to most of my peers.
Herein lies the anxiety for me – I’m a man who has no other option but to use a cubicle in public bathrooms, already shady enough in a packed club. And the combination of a roomy bladder and a night fuelled by diuretics means that I’m in the stall for a suspicious amount of time. This undoubtedly attracts attention. At its most inconspicuous it manifests in the odd glance or double take as I bypass a line of free urinals to enter the cubicle.
Another manifestation is the more disconcerting, but ultimately manageable, incessant pounding on the door from a lad absolutely out of his tree, accompanied by yells of how desperately he needs to use the stall. Then we have the more difficult and far too common scenario of a cubicle without a functioning lock. Faced with no choice but to catheterise in here or count down the time it takes for my bladder to burst, I opt for the former and precariously navigate not missing the toilet bowl whilst stretching out an arm to operate as a de facto lock.
If the door is too far away from the toilet, my leg has to sub in. It’s an act that closely resembles a yoga pose you made in that one Zoom class you took during lockdown and never returned to because the discomfort wasn’t worth the smugness of being able to touch your toes. I stand by the fact that the university should award me some kind of STEM degree for managing to calculate, drunk, the precise angle to perform this task successfully. It should also be stated that I am a 5 foot 8 stick insect of a man, whose singular outstretched arm or leg has proved time and time again to be no match for a steaming clubber of a stronger build determined to bound into the stall.
The pinnacle of these anxiety-inducing scenarios is what happened to me on this particular Saturday, and many previous Saturdays for that matter. It involves a diligent bouncer clocking onto my use of the cubicle and proceeding to investigate further. The more considerate of these wait outside the stall and politely but firmly pull me to one side after I’ve washed my hands (an essential concession, as Spina Bifida leaves me more vulnerable to infection).
Unfortunately, the more standard course of action is constant banging on the door, complete with profanity-laden exclamations that I need to get out of the stall right this second, if not sooner. Once in the open, they grab me by whatever presents itself to them – sometimes it’s my wrist, sometimes it’s my shirt, haul me outside (hands unwashed) and begin to search me for contraband.
Fortunately, this case resembled the former more than it did the latter. The bouncer thumped the door once, explained that I needed to get out, and only pressed his fingers to my back whilst escorting me to the smoking area. Clearly he sensed I’d had a few too many drinks to channel my inner Usain Bolt and do a runner across the sardine tin of Flannery’s main bar.
He asked me to empty my pockets and searched every crevice of my wallet, finding nothing more illicit than a circuit laundry top-up card and a Books Upstairs voucher. He then turned to the catheters which I had cupped in my outstretched hands. Taking one from me, he remarked “what is this?,” inspecting it with a puzzled look on his face.
“It’s a catheter” I replied.
“What?” he said, bemusement glazing his features as he began shaking the one in his hand.
“It’s how I go to the toilet. I’ve got a condition called spina bifida that affects my bladder”, I offered, trying to act more sober than I was, suddenly alert to the onlookers peering my way, hoping to get a whiff of scandal.
This did little to satisfy his inquiry and I could tell he was still suspicious. Somewhere between 10 seconds and eternity passed in the following moments until finally he handed the catheter back to me, evidently not mollified but unable to adequately justify removing me from the premises.
He leaves and I’m stood alone in the smoking area, battling with the task of returning everything to its place within my wallet. I self-consciously try to tuck the catheters away from view, feeling like they signal my otherness, my incongruity and incompatibility with the club. I find my friends, pass it off as a light-hearted joke, and spend the remainder of the night dancing on one of the ledges, belting out the lyrics to cheesy pop songs but pointedly not drinking.
This isn’t intended as an exposé on the failings of Dublin’s nightlife culture, and this is by no means a Dublin-only phenomenon. I have experienced the above scenario in every city that I’ve had more than one night out in, and the apprehension of being challenged lurks over me like a spectre every time I go clubbing. Nor is it a bleeding heart, X-Factor-style sob story utilised for clout or sympathy. I have a much better deal than most with my condition, who manage an overwhelming list of complications from birth, including the inability to walk.
Instead, this is a reflective and importantly cathartic piece that I hope people will synthesise to broaden their awareness of disabilities in a historically ableist space. Personally, I struggle with the hidden component of my disability the most. I’m still developing the mental fortitude to explain my Spina Bifida to a new person without feeling an inherent shame for subverting their expectations of what kind of package disability comes in. I still feel awkward and embarrassed when I convey the accommodations necessary for me to subsist in environments that someone else with my appearance wouldn’t require.
Clubbing is an especially pronounced context for this uneasiness to thrive in. First: pockets. I’m sure plenty will join me in my petition for the minimum pocket size on every piece of clothing to increase by 20 per cent. That cute pair of jeans that would complete the edgy/effortless aesthetic to make me the talk of Workman’s? Can’t wear because my catheters conspicuously jut out the sides, signposting my difference and ruining the fit in one fell swoop.
Next: entry. It’s tiring having to brush off the same script every time a bouncer stares perplexedly at 6 batons that resemble something between a green glow stick and a fountain pen.
Finally: the bathrooms, the trials and tribulations of which have been adequately covered above. I know by now some will be thinking, wouldn’t this all be fine if you just used the disabled toilets? The answer is maybe. But honestly, when was the last time you clocked the disabled toilets in a club? And more importantly, I shouldn’t need to. I have everything necessary to utilise the facilities. All that’s missing is the understanding from fellow club goers and bouncers alike that a boy with a bladder-affecting condition will be in the stall for longer than 30 seconds.
I have no solution for my predicament, and that’s okay. It’s not stopping me from going out and enjoying myself because I truly love clubbing. Limiting my outfit options, reiterating the same explanations and navigating the uncomfortable encounters are all aspects of a night out that I have to reckon with to participate in one of the most exciting and formative features of the university experience.
Indeed, some of the best memories I’ve made in my four years as a student have happened on a sweaty dance floor or in a spirited smoking area. Equally, some of the most unpleasant and personally disconcerting moments have played out in the same environment. If there’s one thing I hope non-disabled readers take from this article it’s that people with hidden disabilities inhabit the same surroundings as you. whether it be on the bus, in the supermarket or at the club. Re-evaluating your conceptions of these spaces to include people whose disability isn’t immediately apparent will, I hope, lead you to a more informed and empathetic navigation of these settings, unburdening your friends, family members and colleagues with hidden disabilities of their innate feeling of otherness.
I too need to re-evaluate my relationship with my disability and the space I occupy. I need to shirk the discomfort I feel when discussing Spina Bifida with new people, and remove the stigma that I impose on myself by assuming that my, entirely self-managed, condition will lead to social exclusion akin to that felt by the oddball main character in a clichéd high school movie.
I’m not going to fantasise about a utopia of nightclubs and bars with bouncers expertly informed on the ins-and-outs of hidden disabilities and toilets pulled straight from the pages of luxury interior magazines. If anything, that will just make the reality of the matter harder to tolerate. But at the very least, can we replace the locks on stall doors when they’re broken? My back can only take so much strain and chiropractors in Dublin are expensive.