Things didn’t start out badly; don’t get me wrong.
I actually found her while resarching dating sites for ThisAbility 25: Love Connection. I didn’t intend to join Dating4Disabled.com. I’d never dated a disabled person before. I had yet to meet a person with a disability I was physically attracted to, and I always thought that by introducing a second disability into my life, I’d be compounding my own challenges. Still, I knew I couldn’t be a hypocrite forever, so it was time to finally open my heart to the possibility.
On paper (or in this case, “in profile”) she had a lot going for her, so much so that even without a picture, she was the main reason I joined the site at all. She’s Jewish, (so am I) she’s into improv theatre, (so am I) she feeds on celebrity culture, (so do I) and she loves to try exotic foods. (I’m still waiting for tripe and chicken’s feet to take the western world by storm) We had a lot in common, right down to our disabilities. (cerebral palsy) My only non-negotiable when it came to the actual disability was that it couldn’t be mental. There needed to be equality in our intellectual capacities. I guess I forgot to factor in emotional capacities as well.
Taking advantage of our mutual interest in new and exciting culinary exploits, we arranged to meet at Harlem Restaurant. Not only do they combine wicked soul food with live jazz, but it’s no accident that I selected a place less than a block from my apartment in the event things went incredibly well.
Things start off great, we’re hitting it off and she’s getting more comfortable — maybe a little too comfortable. She takes a stab, hoping we’re not just into the same things, but we think the same way too.
“Do you ever wish you could be rid of this curse? I wish I was never even born.”
“What?” (I know what she means immediately. but I want to hear her say it.)
“The disability, don’t you hate it? Don’t you wish you were never born?”
There it is. I’ve been asked that question occasionally, usually by evangelical Christians who interpret my disability as the physical manifestation of sin. Never on a first date, and never by someone with the same disability.
My answer is the one it has always been. Since the day I was conscious that I even had a disability, I’d always felt that God gave me a disability for a reason, whether that be as a blessing to others who needed to meet me in order to learn a lesson in their own lives, or as a teaching mechanism for how to live my own life in the best way possible.
This answer has never been about me making lemonade out of lemons. My life has taught me that disability gives you a multitude of concrete life advantages that an able-bodied person may never put into practice because their circumstances don’t make it a necessity. Disability teaches you the patience of a monk, as sometimes there’s no other way to do something besides slowly, deliberately and with precision. Disability forces remarkable improvisation, ingenuity and inventiveness, muscles that may never be flexed by an able-bodied person as frequently, especially not daily. Most of all, disability constantly teaches you not to take life for granted and savor every moment as if it is your last. It’s not that I don’t take risks, it’s that my risks are more calculated. I’ve always seen the stupidity and naivete of youth a lot sooner than my friends do. In one sense my disability isolates and insulates me from those “wild oats” experiences that everyone fondly looks back on, but in another, I gain wisdom beyond my years. My existence has been much more contemplative. I found myself seriously considering life’s big faith questions (why am I here? Where did we come from? What happens when I die? etc.) a lot sooner than most.
To my very core, I continue to believe I’d take my current circumstances over the chance to be cured any day of the week, and that isn’t just illogical pride and defiance. As an adult though, my resolve is waning. When this girl asks me the question this time, it comes with an addendum. Outwardly, I give my usual positive response, but inwardly, I can’t help but relate, at a lower level, to her self-hatred.
As a child with a disability, the world is your oyster. People are willing to move mountains for you. They are, for all intents and purposes, seduced by your natural childhood innocence into nurturing, teaching and helping you. The support systems of rehabilitation and enriching activities are there to empower you in childhood. Countless charities are built around children with disabilities, sending them to camp, or giving them other once-in-a-lifetime experiences. This helps mold a belief in the child that people will always be there for them and that people are out to serve the common good. They’re always following a higher purpose and the golden rule.
All of that disappears as soon as you age-out of eligibility for these programs and opportunities. You are on your own. People respond to you in a much colder, stilted, suspicious way as an adult. Old friends lose touch and disappear. The optimism and endless possibilities of childhood slowly started to erode for me, as I began to recognize the majority of society acting not for the collective good, but for their own self-interest. Suddenly, simply opening the door for me came with long sighs, begrudging looks, and this overwhelming subtext of, “Don’t say I never did anything for you.” Living with a disability becomes harder when you get older as well. There is more weight to move around, so movement becomes less graceful and more lumbering. You’re taller, so there is further to fall when you do and therefore, higher probability of injury. All of this gradually darkened the light I use to have as a child; optimism turned into pessimism and my worldview became more and more cynical and negative. I was always waiting for the other shoe to drop, always looking over my shoulder wondering what creative ways the world come up with to screw me.
For the the last two years, I’ve been doing battle with these dark thoughts enough that I have moments of feeling the way this woman sitting across from me does. In that moment, I felt like I was gazing into the future and I saw its harsh warning immediately. It was that if I ever committed to the darkness that I sometimes feel, I would become her. I would hate myself as much as she does. I would be friendless and alone, as she admitted to me she was. I would constantly be looking over my shoulder, sensing those leering eyes seeing my disability and judging me for it:
“Does this make you uncomfortable?” she said,
“The fact that we’re the only ones in here with disabilities.”
She was what I would become if my entire sense of self was consumed by darkness, hatred and negativity. God (who else could it be?) was showing me what would happen if I ever fell into the pit at the moment when my constitution had been teetering on the precipice between light and dark.
Did I want to be that? No.
Did I want to condemn myself to the notion that I would never have children with a disabled person because of my mistaken impression that it would increase the risk of my child “catching” my disability and suffering those wretched slings and arrows that I had already trudged my way through?
No, I already saw where that poisonous thought pattern would get me when she warned me that this is how she felt and that I could expect nothing more.
There’s nothing like seeing who you don’t want to be to show you who you really are.
This whole time, I’m measured and diplomatic, quietly listening to her dig her own grave. This was not the time to argue; it was clear I wasn’t going to change her mind.
What I felt most, was sadness for her and a realization that this could happen to anyone. This wasn’t a woman with a severe form of cerebral palsy, a case where you may be able to deduce where this attitude stemmed from, this was someone who, if you didn’t know she had cerebral palsy, you would believe she was completely able-bodied. To the objective observer, she has nothing to worry about, but I keep being reminded that brokenness takes many forms.
I knew that if I ever continued seeing her, she’d eventually change who I was in such a fundimental way that I couldn’t see myself ever coming back to the life-loving indvidual I once was. She would do so much damage there would be no going back.
In one sense I mourn her potential, but in another I’m very thankful I went on that date and saw the end result of a road I had once stepped on, but, now more than ever, I never want to go down.