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I Am More Than My Disability

For three years, I lived alone with my mother. She worked long hours and was never really in a fit state for a conversation when she came home, so I kept myself company by writing stories. I typed line after line in a frenzy — words flew from my fingertips.

I especially liked the art of developing my characters. I felt like the master of a chessboard of my own making, willing the players to move in the directions I determined. In a way, writing fictional characters was a personal escape: I could create ideal people without broken pasts — characters that exuded perfection (not the arrogant kind, but rather the admirable).  

Or so I thought. It never occurred to me that my creative outlet, writing, could actually be something of a tool of self-harm. There was nothing creative about the static, beautiful characters I created. In fact, there was always something evil about them: Images of my artificial heroines floated around my mind, antagonizing me. They were exaggerated versions of my female peers in school, who wore better clothes than I could afford and walked around without the awkwardness my Cerebral Palsy caused me.

I fully realized my unhealthy self-image after one particularly life-altering event in the spring of 2009. I had just participated in a school play for drama class, which my teacher recorded and made the class watch so we could critique our performances.

I expected to be pleased with my performance. Despite my other insecurities, I considered myself a fairly articulate speaker. I had also worn my best dress pants and nice top during the performance — an outfit that matched those of the other girls in the play, so I wasn’t concerned about competition in the fashion department. I had to do a lot of walking across the stage, which is normally challenging for me, but that didn’t bother me at all during the performance. When I am in motion, I normally don’t feel like I have a disability: I’m simply so accustomed to the way my body moves that it feels perfectly natural. Even on days when the spasticity is worse, or when I have an injury, I don’t feel out of place.

But then I saw myself in the video recording of the play. I couldn’t believe the nightmarish version of myself I saw walking across the stage, addressing the crowd. I had a limp — not just a limp, but the very particular gait typical of someone with Cerebral Palsy, which to me, was abhorrent. My hands were raised a bit in the air; I rocked back and forth as I walked. I didn’t look like I had any balance. More importantly, I didn’t look like any of the other girls in school. I didn’t resemble my fictional heroines with their perfect lives and bodies. And I certainly didn’t walk the way I thought I did.

I’d never seen myself on camera before — at least not for this length of time. I despised the sight of myself. Even though I have always been OK with the fact that I have a disability, I had never really thought of myself as "disabled." But all I could see in that video was a disabled girl. I couldn’t pay proper attention to how I delivered my lines or enjoy my classmates' performances. I just sat there in utter dismay, praying that I wouldn’t walk across the stage again for everyone to see.

"That is what I look like?" I whispered to myself while watching the video.,

"Yeah, that is what you look like. And we all have to look at it every single day," my ex-best friend, who was sitting at the desk next to me, responded in a cruel tone of absolute revulsion.

I looked toward the door, my hands shaking. I desperately wanted to dash out of the room. My heart pounded, I had pains in my chest, and my breathing wasn’t natural. I thought I might be sick. I didn’t end up leaving, afraid of what would happen if I moved, so I sat in the dark classroom, surrounded by 30 other kids, while the video continued. I was thankful that no one could see my face, because it was stained with tears.

When the class was over, I walked out of the room like a zombie. I couldn’t think. It felt like everything I had once believed to be true about myself were lies. I felt I had lost something intangible, yet so real — was it innocence? Was it hope? Although it was warm outside, my heart was stone cold.

The most difficult part of realizing how my physical disability looks to others was not that my self worth was suddenly, desperately caught up in others' perceptions of me. It was not even that I felt I could no longer disappear into idealistic literary escapades of my own creation. It was that I felt like I no longer knew who I was. 

But at the age of 16, my feelings toward my body slowly began to change. I knew I needed to transition — to transform into a person who confidently grasped self-acceptance like a trophy. I knew all the things I hated about myself as well as how I wanted to change both my mindset towards and behavior regarding my disability.

While watching that video shook me to my core and at first only made me feel hatred toward myself, I began to slowly replay the videotape in my mind. Yes, I walked like I had a severe disability, and, yes, I hated it. It haunted me and I felt lost. But now I look back at the girl who watched that video and while I still identify with her sometimes, I identify with knowing that who I am doesn’t truly have anything to do with how I look more. I may wear beautiful makeup, but that does not make me stereotypically beautiful, and that's fine. I may walk differently than other people, but that does not mean my worth is any different. 

We may live in a society that tells us that self-definition is somehow beyond us, but we actually have the ability to choose how we define ourselves. This ability comes from the deepest parts of our hearts — from allowing ourselves to use our imaginations and apply them to ourselves. Just as I could create awful, tragic, perfect heroines in my stories, so too can I reject those ideals in my own life in favor of a more powerful, genuine identity. We all can.

 



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