Trigger warning: mention of depression, anxiety & wishing to die
This guest feature has been written by Brianne, creator of The Healing Archive. She talks about her experiences of having a physical disability, from being subjected to mean remarks, to building up her own self-love through helping others online. This is a really special guest feature, as it really highlights how we should all embrace – not mock – people’s differences, and that we could all benefit from a little more compassion! Here’s Brianne’s feature:
“I wasn’t different or odd or broken, but I was lucky, first and foremost“
From my birth and onward, I was told that I was lucky. Even though I had a dramatic and painful start to life — consisting of a lack of oxygen and the result thereof being a disability called ‘cerebral palsy’ — I had a life, and a few months of it were spent in blissful ignorance of what my birth had brought forward, exactly.
My inability to sit up as a baby, to walk and form my mouth to voice what I wanted to as a toddler, had led to a diagnosis of a physical disability caused by the brain damage I’d obtained when I was born. I was lucky to have parents who didn’t shy away from immersing me in a world where everyone’s first priority was having me succeed in a world that wasn’t adjusted to me (yet), and as a young girl I grew familiar with doctors, therapy, those black beds in examination rooms, the type of wooden toys every single waiting room had.
It was my mother, as well. Whenever she pulled me out of school for another doctor’s appointment, we’d get McDonald’s together and it’d be our secret so I wouldn’t upset my older siblings. She always tried to turn something so bleak into something fun.
And it was my Dad, who drove two hours just to be there for his daughter whenever she needed him. My family and the way they cared for me, led me to believe I wasn’t different or odd or broken, but I was lucky, first and foremost.
“[The teachers would] tell my parents that perhaps the special ed school across the city would be a better fit“
I only recently discovered what my disability meant for my parents when I was young. The thing is, inevitably: people take what they see, and judge it based on how they perceive it.
When the schools my parents wanted to enroll me in looked at me, they saw a young girl with trembling knees and a strange pull at the muscles surrounding her lips when she spoke. I drew outside of the lines and had bulky orthopedic shoes that looked heavier than myself, and I rode a tricycle because balance was one of the many things I struggled with.
When a school considered me, they didn’t actually consider me. They’d study me, and watch me be the complete opposite of the kind of child they were used to welcoming, and they’d tell my parents that perhaps the special ed school across the city would be a better fit.
My mother, in particular, fought for me. She wanted me close to home in a school with my brother and sister, sure, but she also knew what I was capable of.
I might’ve had trembling legs stuck in gigantic orthopedic shoes, but I ran around the house with them when I was playing with my family. And even though my speech wasn’t great, I had entire stories to tell that proved the vastness and large detailed schemes of my imagination, and my deep understanding of the world even at such an age. I drew outside of the lines, but I drew carefully, as best as my spastic hands could manage.
Most of all, my mother knew of my unwavering perseverance. I tried and tried and tried again until it worked, even if it didn’t look right to the ‘normal’ people around me. My satisfaction was always of great importance to me, so she persevered and pressed until one day I was standing in the middle of a Montessori school classroom with my hand clutched in hers and twenty kids eager to play with me, and have me sit at their table, and learn my name.
“I didn’t even know the name of my disability, but now I had to”
My personality at that time and the years following it was shaped after the environment I grew up in. The world I knew as a child wanted me to be obedient, and to answer when asked a question, and to play when grown-ups asked me to while they scribbled words I didn’t understand on a clipboard and later conversed with my parents while I counted cars outside. I made friends, only because they approached me. They were always more social than I was, but they made me feel comfortable because they were protective, and that protectiveness was something familiar I always tended to seek after.
I was always safe. But then I got confronted with myself, and my disability in particular, when high school came along. I got scared of being bullied, and spent lots of sleepless nights worrying about what those high school kids would say if they saw me talk and move and even breathe.
I didn’t know what I would say if they asked me why, because I’d have no answer. I never learned about my disability as much as I kind of went along with it, but for the first time I wondered if that was because I didn’t have to know, or because I didn’t want to. I didn’t even know the name of my disability, but now I had to.
I didn’t end up getting bullied at school. There was a time outside of a fast food joint when a group of teenage boys — years older than I was — banged their fists against the windows and laughed as they pointed at my orthopedic shoes, and a group of girls I didn’t know cornered me at a bus stop once as they laughed and mocked me (and plenty of occurrences alike), but it was never at school.
Still, none of these occurrences were exactly ineffective. I got anxious about going out in public, school included, because there was always the possibility of being cornered again, or filmed, or mocked from a distance. I started resenting my disability, and myself for being disabled, and it affected everything: relationships, grades, hobbies.
And when people asked me what college I was planning to attend, or when I’d start taking driving lessons, I’d shrug and turn away, even though I knew that I never wanted to do anything ever again until the day I was lucky enough to die.
My problem was that I didn’t want to live a life where I was the person I was. Even though I’m religious, I found myself hoping that reincarnation was a real thing, so that I could die young and awake as anyone else, someone with gentler hands and normal legs.
“I do know this: self-love isn’t a sudden change“
My turning point was the internet. I started writing pieces that were so positive and happy-go-lucky that they kind of sickened me, but people from all over the world reached out to me and thanked me for them as if I had any idea what I was talking about.
Not to mention that it was easy making friends online, where I was free to say what I wanted and be whoever I wanted to be without feeling strained and embarrassed of myself. At one point, when my social media accounts grew, when I discovered that designing mock-up internet and app pages was actually fun and that I had ideas and thoughts that carried weight for complete strangers, I thought to myself: “Maybe now is not a great time to die anyway” and “Maybe I have more to do“.
Most of all, I grew comfortable talking about what made me uncomfortable. I used my disability to educate the people who were willing to listen, sought out books with main characters that had my disability, and spoke with the authors about how it felt and how we experienced things that are normal for anyone else but terrible for us, and I found joy in it. So much, even, that I started making plans again.
My mindset changed because I was able to talk about it and mock it and annoy it by being the exact opposite of it. When I thought, “I’m scared of going to college. I don’t want to,” I’d almost literally reply to it and say “Going into new situations might become a less terrifying idea if you eliminate the generalizations for yourself and instead stay open to the possibilities of who you might find there. Not everyone in this new environment will be as judgmental and ‘normal’ as you’re afraid of. People aren’t scary, they’re just multidimensional.” And then I’d publish that exact thought on the spot and people would share it, again, again and again.
To be honest, I don’t think I’m ‘there’ yet, but I do know this: self-love isn’t a sudden change, nor is it a switch that turns off and on whenever you please, nor is it a destination to arrive at. It’s a process that repeats itself every day again. I think I’ve stopped waiting for it to find me, but have started to craft it with my bare hands.
I’ve known self-love when someone complimented my pants and I, unprompted and proudly, showed them my leg braces that fit underneath. I’ve known self-love when my grades started corresponding with my growing confidence again. I’ve known self-love when I sat on a blue boat somewhere in a random city and took the prettiest and clearest photograph I’ve ever taken.
I’ve known self-love when I stuck all my art, shaky lines and all, to my bedroom wall and stared at it and prided myself on it. I’ve known it, I’ve tasted it, I’ve felt it— and although the absence tends to weigh heavily upon me at times, I trust that I’ll be able to craft self-love in moments like those, and each moment that comes before and after, again and again and again, for the rest of this life that I now don’t really mind living.
Thank you Brianne, for sharing your story! Readers can connect with the author via Instagram (@healingarchive).
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