Why Asking For Help As A Disabled Person Was The Best Gift I Ever Gave Myself

As much as I put on a “brave face” and strive to have a positive attitude on days when my CP has me doubled over in pain, there is a lot of internal frustration that comes with living with a disability. Typically, my blog has been a place to vent those frustrations. But I’d be wrong if those difficult days were the only memorable ones. Does my disability frustrate me? Absolutely. Are there days where I wish I wasn’t in constant pain? You bet. But at the end of the day, I wouldn’t trade my disability for anything. I really wouldn’t. It’s given me a perspective on life and allowed me to cross paths with some of the most special people I’ve ever known, and without my disability, I don’t know if my life would have unfolded in the same way. A blessing in disguise, I guess.

Typically, “good” days aren’t memorable. They are simply a small break, even if only for a few minutes, of the physical and emotional pain I feel as a result of being a member of the largest minority in the world. However, a few weeks ago, I had a “good day,” in a sense, and it’s one I’ll never forget.

I was going to Subway to get lunch and looking forward to having an entire hour to myself (yay introversion!). I took my walker inside, as it is my preferred method of mobility these days when I’m by myself because it prevents falls. However, when I got to the door, I realized my conundrum. I couldn’t get the door open and maintain my balance at the same time. However, thankfully, as I was attempting to open the door, someone inside saw my struggle and came to assist (thank you, kind human). I said thank you profusely, and when the gentleman just smiled broadly and nodded, I realized just how much people long to help others. Typically, it’s difficult for me to accept help as I feel like a burden, but I have to realize that typically people don’t offer to help unless they are genuine and truly do want to assist you in some way. That realization really came to fruition once I was done with my lunch, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

I stood in line to put in my lunch order, which for the first time wasn’t a big deal because my walker has an attached seat so I can sit whenever I need (best invention ever!). Anyway, I enjoyed my solo lunch, counting myself lucky to have received so much positive support from others during this difficult transition regarding my mobility. I then got up to leave, pondering in my head how I was going to exit Subway without possibly falling over or calling even more attention to myself. It was in this moment that I knew the best course of action was asking for help, so when I eyed a group of EMTs eating lunch, I asked for assistance. One guy was so excited to help he practically bounced out of his seat mid-bite to assist me, replying “Of course!” with the most genuine smile I’ve ever seen. I thought I was going to fall over (ha!) from happiness.

I thanked him over and over for his generosity, happy to know there were still kind people in the world, but that wasn’t even the best part. A few minutes later, I got to my car, opened the truck, and went to place my walker in the back like I’ve done hundreds of times without incident. However, this time I lost my balance, and because my hand was still on my walker as I was falling, my walker fell on top of me. Don’t worry, I’m fine. But it sucked. I felt embarrassed (as usual) and just aggravated at my body for not cooperating.

After a sigh of relief and a reminder to myself that the choice is to either remain on the ground or get back up, I rose to my feet. Once I was standing and started to close the truck of my car, I looked up to see the EMT from before sprinting out of the Subway. In my head, it felt like watching Baywatch, standing in awe as an attractive, shirtless man ran towards you to save the day (but he was only shirtless in my head, haha). He came up to me and said, “From the way you got up, I can tell this happens often, but is there anything I could do to help?” As much as I wanted to say no, the kindness in his eyes made me want to hug him. I didn’t hug him (which was the wrong choice because he was attractive, muscular, and looked like he could throw me over his shoulder with just a finger). However, I did take him up on his offer to help. I said, “You know what would be really great? If you could walk me to the front door of my car and help me get in safely.” The “of course” couldn’t come out of his mouth fast enough. Once seated safely, I looked up at him and said “To be totally honest, it is really hard for me to ask for help, but I’m so glad I did today.” He nodded, double-checked to make sure I was okay, and softly closed my car door.

I waited until he was back inside to cry the happy tears I couldn’t hold back anymore.

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The Reality of PTSD as a Result of My Disability

*This post was originally posted on my first blog. I felt like it was applicable to the fear and anxiety I still have related to my past. I’m working through it of course, but change doesn’t happen overnight. It’s just one day at a time.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve always been a nervous person. Along with those nerves, I was also very scared, especially as a kid. Rather than using the word “fears,” I was simply told by my parents and my doctors that I had a “vivid imagination.”

Because of this vivid imagination, I remember one specific time when I was 12 and my parents waited a while before they told me about a specific scheduled surgery. I understand now that they didn’t want to alert me to it too far in advance because they knew I’d essentially be a nervous wreck right up until I had to go in for surgery. Though I can understand this now and I know it was a protective measure, I didn’t see it that way when it happened. I remember the night my parents sat me down to tell me about a surgery that would be occurring in about a month. I couldn’t exactly comprehend at first that my parents had waited to tell me, but once I did I immediately started to worry. Not long after that moment, the dreams I would always have leading up to a big operation started. The most common, of course, was the dream in which I woke up during surgery.

Due to my “vivid imagination,” my dreams were exceptionally vivid. In my dream, I was lying on the operating table. My eyes were open, and I was seeing everything. The doctors had the femur of my left leg in their hands, and they were twisting it to the left in order to straighten it out. Though I couldn’t feel any pain in the dream, I could imagine it, which was almost as bad. I looked at the doctor’s gloves, which were covered in blood, my blood. In a room as white as the operating room, the red seemed out of place. And yet, there it was. On the doctor’s hands was the blood that ran through my very veins. As I watched the doctors attempt to “fix” what was “not normal,” I tried to scream out. My mouth opened to make any kind of sound, but nothing happened. I tried to move. I focused so hard on trying to simply raise my right hand off the table, but it was too heavy. The doctors had to know I was awake. If they knew, they’d stop. If they knew, it would all be over. I just needed to do something to get their attention, but they were so focused on my legs. They didn’t even glance up towards my face, not even once, to see the fear and the anguish that was mirrored in my eyes. I wanted nothing more than to get as far away from that room as possible. I wanted to get away from the dead quiet that enveloped me like a blanket that was too heavy, practically suffocating me. The moment I closed my eyes to escape the horror I was seeing, I woke up.

When I woke up from this dream, I felt like I could barely breathe. Without even giving it a second thought, I yanked back the covers to look at my legs. I touched them to make sure they were still intact, still closed up tight. I looked on my legs, my hands, and my sheets for the blood. The blood that had been so incredibly red, so out of place in that white room. With my sweaty palms resting on my knees, my emotions took over. I cried out, knowing that tears couldn’t do this type of fear justice. I rocked back and forth, holding the stuffed teddy bear that was tucked into the bed beside me, and knowing as I started to shake that the tears were coming. When my body finally allowed me to cry, I curled up on my side, hugging the stuffed teddy bear to my chest like a shield, and let my tears speak for me. After the immediate emotion passed and I was curled up into the tightest ball I could form, I began to hum. I hummed the lullaby that my dad so often sung to me when he’d rock me in his mother’s rocking chair on the nights I couldn’t sleep. Eventually, sleep tugged at me again, and I opened my eyes for a pleading moment as I looked into the darkness, knowing the dream was waiting for me.

The Road to Acceptance

In the world of disability, there is a term known as “acceptance,” as in….acceptance of your disability and all that it means for you. I’m going to be honest. I’m 25, and I’ve had Cerebral Palsy since birth, but there are still plenty of days where I get just plain frustrated with my CP. Typically, most of my frustrations are aimed at the outside world and the lack of understanding of disabilities (physical and mental) in general. Yes, there are a lot of positive changes for the disability community, like the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. However, there is much more work to be done, and we can’t stop here. No matter how positive your outlook, 100% overcoming societal stigma experienced by being a member of the largest minority in the world is close to impossible (at least in my opinion), and for me, that is the hardest thing about being disabled. Living my day-to-day life with CP is a walk in the park compared to societal stigmas and societal responses to having a disability. I don’t know how many times I’ve gotten pissed because someone has parked in a handicapped spot without a handicapped placard or someone has parked in the access lane next to a handicapped spot and/or parked in front of an access ramp because they are “just waiting on someone and they’ll only be a few minutes.” Because, news flash, those spots and accommodations are there for those that need them. Just be respectful and realize that.

It’s safe to say I haven’t reached the point where I’ve fully accepted my disability. However, I’m doing much, much better with it now than even just a few years ago. I’ve gotten more comfortable expressing my needs and asking for help when I need it. I’ve started to better understand the reality of getting older with my disability as opposed to still thinking I can do the things I did even 5 years ago. I’ve settled in, in a sense. For some, that may look like giving up. But trust me, I’m far from it. I’m way too much of a fighter to stop trying to have the most fulfilling life possible. Trust me, those who know me know that “giving up” does not even exist in my vocabulary. Yes, being disabled is just a piece of who I am, but from my standpoint, it’s a pretty big piece simply due to how much it impacts me on a daily basis.

Best of all, I’ve reached a point where I actually want to utilize my experiences of living with CP to connect with and help others. That used to not be the case. I used to want to get as far away from my disability as I could. Simply put, I was in denial, and I was in a space where I just felt like I couldn’t process all the emotions that come with living with a disability. Day by day, I’m processing through those emotions. And best of all, processing all those feelings is best done for me through writing. I have a feeling that’s partly because not only do I love to write, but I am hopeful that my words will connect with someone else, even if only in a small way.

So, have I fully accepted my disability? Likely not. And why do you ask? Because there is always, always more work to be done on ourselves and more thoughts, emotions, and situations to sift through. I’m content with that, though. As long as I’m processing through things and changing, I’m growing and ultimately becoming the person I’m meant to be. And for me, there’s nothing better.

Dating With a Disability [Part 2]

The initial dating with a disability post I wrote back in March was such a hit that I wanted to do a follow-up. I think sometimes society has a hard time understanding that people with disabilities want the same things everyone else does: love, success, lifelong friendships. And those things are attainable for the disability population. However, it may just mean there are more logistics to figure out.

In the case of dating, for me that meant thousands of questions were going through my head: 1). When should I tell him about my disability? 2). How will he respond? 3). Will he care? 4). If we get serious, will he resent me for what I can’t do? 5). If we get serious, will he feel like my caretaker?

Even now, after my boyfriend and I have been dating for 3 and a half years, some of those questions still surface. However, we’ve dealt with them just like we’ve traversed the rest of our relationship: with openness, frequent communication, and love.

When should I tell him: Honestly, it was answered on its own. Because my disability is visible, it’s not something I could hide. No, I didn’t have a “I have CP” tattoo on my forehead, and I have never introduced myself to someone by saying, “Hi, my name’s Amelia, and I have CP.” However, I’ve always prided myself on being open with people. The reality of my disability came out pretty early on…and even though I fretted over how the conversation would go, it went as smooth as though I had said, “My day was good, how was yours.”

How will he respond: My Cerebral Palsy mattered to him, but it didn’t all at the same time. It didn’t prevent him from wanting to date me. However, it mattered in the sense that he wanted to understand it enough to know how to help me when he could, which I was grateful for. More than anything, he wanted to know how living with a disability shaped the way I viewed the world. And in that moment, I knew I wanted to spend my days helping him to understand the world I lived in: the world of oppression, marginalization, discrimination…but also the world of a culture that has its own language, values, history, and perspective.

Will he care: He did. But he cared in the sense of, “It hurts me to see you in pain,” as opposed to, “I don’t want a girlfriend who has a disability.” Yes, it’s part of our relationship, but it’s not the only piece. It means we have to do certain things certain a little differently, but it doesn’t prevent us from loving each other. However, I will say it does take a special person to care in this way. You want someone to care enough about your disability that they see it as part of you, but not so much that it is the only thing they see when they look at you. I’m happy to say that’s what I’ve found. And honestly, each day it amazes me. Sometimes it still takes my breath away that I’ve found someone who cares enough about my disability that he has taken up the disability fight out of sheer love for me. For example, the first time my boyfriend became enraged when he saw a car parked in a handicapped space without an appropriate license or placard…I felt heard, I felt seen, and finally, I felt like I didn’t have to face the injustices of the world alone.

If we get serious, will he resent me for what I can’t do: Honestly, I still worry about this one. Since we are serious, it’s a thought that bounces around in my head pretty regularly. And since we are so open with each other, it’s also conversation we have often. Do I think he resents me now? No. Do I think there are things he wishes we could do together that my disability prevents? Sometimes, yes. The majority of those things have been centered around activities that require extended walking. However, about a year ago, when I invested in a mobility scooter, a new world opened for us. With my scooter, I was able to get out and be more active and not be as easily exhausted like I’d get if I was walking everywhere. Therefore, we’ve been able to enjoy things like going to the mall or walking around downtown, whereas previously I’d avoid those things because more walking meant pain…and pain meant both of us being unhappy. However, in another sense, sometimes I worry how my disability will impact me as I age. What if in two years I can’t do what I’m doing now? I’d be lying if I said I didn’t worry about it. But if I know one thing, it’s this: I’ll figure out a way to handle those obstacles as they come my way. I always do. It’s who I am.

If we get serious, will he feel like my caretaker: I still worry about this one too. It’s a conversation we have very openly, as neither of us wants to reach a point where we have a caretaker/patient relationship. Honestly, what’s made the difference is understanding and perspective. Are there things he has to help me with? Absolutely. But do I help him with aspects of himself that are weak because those are my strong areas? Yes. At the end of the day, that’s what it’s all about. The give and take. In my case, many of the ways my boyfriend supports me are physical in nature, but he’s also incredibly kind, loving, and caring too. When I look at a caretaker/patient relationship, I see it as very one-sided. And that’s not what our relationship is. It’s two people supporting and strengthening each other to be the best versions of themselves.

At the end of the day, dating with a disability is just the same as typical dating, but with a double scoop of openness, communication, understanding…and a dash of humor (because if we’re not laughing through life, what’s even the point).

Learning to Drive With a Disability

As I was entering my teenage years, my parents and I were unsure whether I’d be able to drive a car. However, as with most things in my life, I knew I wanted to drive a car, and I was going to do anything I possibly could to make that happen.

While I didn’t drive a car until I obtained my permit, I was driving as early as 5 years old. I used to drive my Barbie Jeep around and around my neighborhood for hours on end. I’d turn on the little Barbie radio in the Jeep and “floor it,” flying down the sidewalk in my hot pink Barbie Jeep. As I got older, my Barbie Jeep transitioned to a go-cart and eventually a four-wheeler, but the go-carts we had were always my favorite. I know I likely drove way too fast, but I remember my neighborhood used to say that they always knew when I had my go-cart out because they’d hear my laughter and screams all the way down the block. Therefore, when I eventually got behind the wheel of a car, I had years of driving practice already. It’d be a piece of cake, right? Not quite.

I have spastic diplegia cerebral palsy, meaning my CP primarily impacts my legs and causes them to be incredibly stiff. Due to the stiffness of my legs and because I knew that my legs had a tendency to involuntarily shake if my foot was placed in a particular position (called clonus), I was pretty nervous about learning to drive a car. I didn’t know if I’d be able to move my foot from the gas to the brake quickly or easily enough. I also didn’t know whether my legs would become tired quicker due to having to be flexed when using the gas pedal and brake pedal. I had been told by my physical therapist at the time that there was always the option to utilize hand controls to control the gas and the brake as opposed to using my legs. However, I also knew that I wanted to do my best to drive just like everyone else.

A benefit I had when learning to drive was the fact that I lived in a small town. Because of that, I practiced driving on dirt roads, empty back roads that hardly had any traffic, and through town where the speed limit was only 25 miles per hour. Typical kids learning to drive might have been frustrated by this, but I was not. I wanted to become as comfortable driving on country back roads as I could. In order to test my response time, we’d be driving around and my mom would say “deer” (proof that we lived in the south), and I’d pretend I saw a deer in order to practice slamming on the brakes. We learned pretty quickly that I had no problem moving my right foot back and forth between the brake and the gas (which was a major relief on my part because I didn’t want to have to utilize hand controls).

The most important thing for me when learning to drive was taking it slow. Initially, due to my own fears, I drove really, really, really slow, but that changed as I became more comfortable. Once I got my permit, took driver’s ed, and accrued a certain number of driving hours, I was ready to take the driving aspect of the test to obtain my license. And despite all the practice I had, I was completely terrified.

When I took the driving test with a woman from the DMV in the passenger’s seat, initially everything was fine. However, within a few minutes my legs started shaking so badly that it was difficult to keep my foot steadily on the gas. The DMV woman noticed the shaking and said, “Why are you shaking like that?” I responded, “I shake when I’m nervous,” not wanting to bring up my disability for fear of her using that against me when determining if I passed or failed the test. Upon hearing my response, she asked me to pull over so I could “compose myself,” though I knew that no amount of sitting still would prevent my legs from shaking. Eventually, the shaking lessened to the point where I got back on the road and completed the test. Once we returned to the DMV, the woman’s response wasn’t what I was expecting. She said, “You almost didn’t pass,” as opposed to, “Congratulations.” Looking back on it now, I still feel like she was just overall skeptical about my ability to drive a car.

Because of my disability, learning to drive wasn’t just about getting my license and having a car to drive. It was so much more than that. It meant independence. It meant feeling included as a functional member of society. But more than anything, it opened so many doors in my future. There have been a few instances where people have been surprised to learn I am able to drive on my own, and I know in the disability world it is no easy feat. But I also know that if I had been unable to drive, I would have found some other way to take on an active role in my world. After all, my life has always been one of adaptation, but it has never been one of defeat.

 

Dating With a Disability

Even though I eventually got lucky with my boyfriend (who I’ve now been with for 3 years), the dating scene was intimidating for me through all of my teen years and throughout college.

I used to consistently doubt that I’d even ever find someone to be with because I thought, “who’s going to love me that way with my physical disability?”But the point I’m trying to make is this: that thought wouldn’t have entered my mind so strongly were it not for societal perceptions of disability. People don’t think about disability and intimacy in the same sentence. That may be harsh, but it’s true. I know this because it’s been my reality.

I remember when I was a teenager and I started liking boys. I went through the typical phases of having crushes, but with an added hiccup. I constantly wondered whether the boys who liked me actually liked me or if they felt sorry for me due to my disability. Most of the guys I ended up liking in those early years were the boys who were consistently nice to me, and because I was so used to being indirectly bullied through school, I gravitated to the boys who treated me with kindness and friendship that felt genuine and real. However, even with those boys, the crush was only one sided, and I was “friend-zoned.” I liked them in the “I want you to be my boyfriend” sense, but they just wanted to be friends, and that was heartbreaking for me at the time. It took me years to realize that those friendships were not only real, they were the kind to stand the test of time and still be strong throughout the seasons of life.

I should also add that up until my junior year of high school, I attended private school, and at my private school, I was the only student with a disability. Being surrounded by friends who had no problem getting boyfriends was consistently frustrating. I watched my friends with their boyfriends, knowing they didn’t have the added challenge of wondering if someone would ever take them on a real date as opposed to a “pity date.”

It wasn’t until I was in college that I started feeling more comfortable with guys. Yes, I still had a lot to work through, but in the weird (and wonderfully hippie) city of Asheville, I had finally found a place where I belonged. Throughout my sophomore and junior years of college, I still had some experiences with guys that weren’t ideal and didn’t last, but I was learning. Once, I started talking to a guy who worked at a nearby bakery. When one of the first texts he sent me was, “Are you even capable of having sex?” I blocked his number and never talked to him again. In another instance, I had a few dates with a guy who was incredibly outdoorsy but also incredibly full of himself. While he was initially respectful of my disability, he later wanted to be intimate before I was ready. When he would not respect my decision to wait until I felt comfortable, his inner jerk surfaced, and he said “But no one’s ever said no to me before.” My response, “Looks like I just did.” I kicked him out of my apartment and my life.

I should note that even these early experiences taught me a lot about dating and relationships, and especially dating with a disability, and they helped prepare me for when I would meet the right guy. My friends and family will tell you that I spent years wanting nothing more than a relationship. I used to get so discouraged when they’d say, “It’ll happen when you least expect it.” Turns out they were right.

Sometimes it blows my mind that the first guy I entered into an actual relationship with ended up being the one that stuck. But in other ways, it made total sense. We met in an unconventional way, but looking back on it now, I know that we would never have crossed paths had we not met in that way. By the time we met in my senior year of college, I knew what I was looking for in a guy: someone who treated me with kindness, had a good sense of humor, and wasn’t at all repelled by the fact that I had a disability. When I first met my now-boyfriend, he was all those things and more, and within a few weeks, we were completely smitten with each other.

However, I was still unsure of a lot. I was unsure whether this was a guy that could see my disability, but also see that it was only a piece of me. I didn’t know whether he would comfortable with the fact that I have certain limitations that are always present. But more than anything, I knew I didn’t want to screw this up. For once, I didn’t want my disability to prevent me from experiencing something I really, truly wanted.

I remember the first time I caught my boyfriend staring at me. We were in the kitchen of my apartment, and I was washing dishes. I glanced over, and he was staring right at me. Confused, I responded with “what?” See, up until this moment, I had been stared at my entire life because of my disability, and I couldn’t even fathom that someone staring at me could be a positive thing. When he responded with, “I’m just looking at you,” I broke down crying. I broke down because I was falling for him, and I broke down because for the first time, I truly felt seen. For once, I wasn’t being stared at because of my differences. And for the first time in my life, a guy wasn’t just seeing my CP, but every single part of me…and it was wonderful and terrifying all at the same time. But it was love. It was our story. And it was only the beginning.

To the woman at Target whose daughter was curious about my Cerebral Palsy

I saw you in the Tupperware aisle and couldn’t stop smiling at your daughter sitting in the shopping cart. Her hair was pulled back into braids, and I smiled as her braids twirled from side to side as she looked around, taking in the wonder of the world around her. You were looking at lunch boxes, likely planning out your meals for the week and hoping your child did not place another Frozen-themed item into your cart. But your daughter kept sneaking glances at me, and I smiled at her, taking note of the curiosity in her eyes.

Your daughter kept looking at me, and I remained patient, waiting for her question. She began to speak, but I didn’t hear what she said.

“What?” I asked her.

“Nothing,” you said, hushing her.

As you hurriedly walked away, your daughter’s eyes drifted back my direction, but I didn’t call after you…even though I wanted to. I didn’t have the chance to tell you that this kind of situation has happened more times than I can count, and that I am not embarrassed or hurt.

Instead, I wish you would have allowed your daughter to ask me about my disability. I wish you would have thought about the importance of teaching your child that differences are okay, and that just because I have a disability doesn’t mean she should be afraid to approach me and talk to me. What most people don’t realize is that I love to talk about my Cerebral Palsy. I love to answer questions to allow children and adults to better understand what my life is like. I love to have the opportunity to explain my perspective on the world.

I am not the first person your daughter will meet who is different. Though you may have felt uncomfortable because your daughter tried to initiate a conversation with me, don’t be. You are her role model. If you feel uncomfortable around me or instinctively want to walk the other direction, so will she. And don’t be worried about saying the wrong thing or that she might. The only wrong thing is not saying anything at all.

Allow your daughter to talk with me and ask me anything under the sun. Allow her to learn that differences are unique and something to be proud of. Give her this moment, even though you may have so many other things on your mind. I’ll be glad to talk with her for as long as she wants. I’ll tell her that this was the way that I was born, but that I would not change it for anything. I’ll tell her that I do things differently, but that’s okay. I’ll tell her normal is just a setting on a washing machine.

Allow her curiosity to bloom and her questions to flow freely, because guess what? She’s learning the most important lesson of all: inclusion.