Topic: Individuality

Alex

You Are Worth It

Finding your voice when you live in a world that tries to speak for you can be tricky. It took me years of life experience to realize I could use my voice to express my feelings as a disabled teen / adult living with SMA to cultivate understanding and friendships. When I found that voice, I never looked back.

I think everyone would be surprised to know that I wasn’t always as outspoken as I am now. Don’t get me wrong … I’ve always been a feisty and passionate person, but I didn’t start really expressing my feelings about my disability until I started publicly sharing my life on social media.

My strategy for creating a supportive environment when I was a teen versus now is vastly different. I think the main difference can be summed up in one thing we all (mostly) gain as we age: maturity.

My teen self was always in survival mode. Growing up with a disability is the most challenging thing I’ve ever experienced. We’re all just trying to fit in, be cool, and express our inner pent-up teen hormonal imbalances, which is just as complicated as it sounds. With that being said, I cultivated my own sense of inclusion and social life by letting my personality shine. I focused a lot on my hair, makeup, and fashion as well — because that’s what other teens could relate to. I was also a rebel. I found solace in my newly acquired disabled rebel high schooler status. When have you ever heard of that, a disabled rebel? I took pleasure in breaking stereotypes and expectations people had of me because I have SMA.

“My friends and I bonded because they saw me as something unexpected: a teen just trying to fit in like everyone else.”

Teen logic is quite interesting. Let’s break it down: disabled me + skipping class + wearing a rebel outfit = friends. Don’t ask… that’s just the way it works… or how it worked for me.

When meeting someone new, I do carry some of my teen strategies along in my “educate an abled” handbag whenever I need to break those out. A little swear word or winged eyeliner goes a long way with creating a socially accepting environment, believe it or not.

I still use fashion and makeup to let my inner personality shine on the outside. However, now that I’m an adult, I find that talking about internalized ableism and my disability with my support network makes me feel like those things matter. It also makes my support network more in tune with my experiences as a disabled adult, which helps them be able to support me that much more. I’m not as shy when talking about why I eat slower or why I douse my chicken nuggets in ranch so they can slide down my weak SMA throat easier. Those are things I would try to hide as a teen, to make my disability more palatable for others.

The abled-gaze (how able-bodied people view disability) is something I tried to appeal to my entire life. I tried to come off as less SMA than I really am. By doing that I was only hurting myself and distancing myself from who I am which made it hard to create a supportive network.

“By being who you truly are you let the people in your life one step closer to knowing how to support you best.”

Don’t try and become more palatable to please people around you. Being you is so much more freeing.

Brianna

Finding My Identity in Stories

Brianna smiles in front of white bookshelves filled with colored books.

I can’t remember when I realized that, more than anything, I wanted to be a writer. Like most things, it dawned slowly. As a child, I loved stories. My dad and I spent hours in an oversized, weathered rocker, with dark blue fabric that felt somewhat like a cross between velvet and corduroy. We lost entire days to reading about different people and different worlds.

I now know that stories were a refuge to my eight-year-old self. She found something in stories that she couldn’t find in the real world. First, it was the sprawling hills of a childhood favorite. Then it was the adventure and thrill of finding a long-lost repository of gold and knowledge. Then it was the wonder of space.

The psychoanalyst in me realizes that, as a young, disabled girl, part of me was yearning for another life. A different one, with a body that worked right, a body that wasn’t constantly trying to sabotage itself. But the counselor in me knows that, really, it wasn’t that I wanted to escape my reality.

It was that I wanted to see myself in theirs.

I was a writer in a world that denied me my own existence. There were no disabled girls in my Saturday morning cartoons. There were no disabled girls on the big screen, fighting the bad guys for the greater good. There were no disabled girls in the background of adventure movies and cult classics. There were no disabled girls in princess movies, even when media executives went out of their way to show that, look, anyone can be a princess! Yes, even you!

“It’s hard to find your passion in a world that tries to erase you. It’s hard to find your passion when, most of the time, disabled people are relegated to hospitals and living rooms.”

We don’t go to prom. The Force isn’t with us. And we certainly don’t steal significant historical documents.

But that’s a narrative. And a false one at that. Disabled girls are everywhere. We go to concerts and poetry readings and midnight premieres. We climb mountains and write papers and sometimes, if we’re really, really lucky, we find someone who will take our wild dreams in stride—even the ones that have to do with significant historical documents. We fall in love. We have families. We stare at the sky and feel, for one blinding moment, that we, too, are made of stardust. We rage and cry and, at the end of the day, we pick ourselves up and do it all over again.

“The world tries to convince us that, no matter how loud we scream, our stories are swallowed by the void. But that’s a narrative. And a false one at that.”

Someone is listening. Someone needs your poem, or your app, or even just your laugh. The real challenge is convincing yourself that, just like everyone else, you deserve the world, and whatever lies beyond.

From one disabled girl to another? You do.

Alex

Different is Not Ugly

Picture someone wrapping you in yellow caution tape, but the tape didn’t just say “CAUTION” in big bold letters – it was followed by “DISABILITY IS UGLY.”

“Growing up, I let that statement take control of how I viewed my body.”

This conditioned and toxic way of thinking was the mental space where my body image existed, although I never told anybody that. Why would I? There was nothing I could do to “fix” my body. I couldn’t go to the gym and sprout abs after having a protruded SMA belly. I couldn’t tone my atrophied arms and legs. There was no use in discussing it because my fate was to inevitably succumb to the fact that my body wasn’t appealing and never would be.

These sentiments were reinforced by the media and lack of representation of disabled bodies portrayed in a sexy way, anywhere. I’ve been taught to think that my body is broken and doesn’t work. I’ve been taught that I need to be fixed. I’ve been taught that my body curves in ways it shouldn’t, which means it inherently isn’t sexy. I’ve been taught that disability isn’t sexy because I’ve never seen a disabled person in a lingerie ad or in a teen heartthrob-type movie. The only way I ever saw disability portrayed in the media was as inspirational – the type of inspirational that only exists to soothe able-bodied people’s insecurities about themselves. Essentially, using disability as a vehicle to make themselves feel better at our expense. Gross. But, that all shifted as I started searching for answers.

When I decided to start sharing my story on social media, it consisted of my basic life narrative – showcasing how I live with SMA by showing people that my life might look a little different, but I’m still a human being just like everyone else. Looking back, it started out very natural and innocent. As I started diving into self-advocacy and hearing from other disabled activists on a myriad of different topics, one caught my eye and changed my life.

What I saw hit me like a ton of bricks. But not in a bad way – more in an “oh my God, where has this been all my life?” way. It was a post that included a picture of a disabled person in their underwear, owning their disabled body in a way I had never seen before. I knew I had to find out more. I read their post, along with their photo, and felt each little hair on my arm stand up as my mind started racing. They talked about how disabled bodies deserve to be represented in a sexy way and that they are NOT broken. They are whole… they don’t need to be fixed to be seen as sexy, because “pretty” and “ugly” are not real. They’re ideas that we are taught.

“Surely, we can retrain our minds to sustain this way of thinking so we can stop hating our bodies.”

That’s what I began doing, one sexy disabled body photo at a time. I posted these photos with a newfound respect and love for my disabled curves that weren’t ugly, like I had always thought. They were unique – just like everyone else’s body.

I made it my mission to teach all my followers my life-changing revelation: different is not ugly.

Brianna

Filling the Gaps and
Building a Community

Shane & Hannah

Saying Goodbye to Sorry

Many of us living with SMA can identify with a recurring pattern of thought that I have named my “Burden Complex.” It’s an idea that I’ve written about at length, but I believe it’s such a common part of growing up with SMA that it’s worth mentioning again.

“My Burden Complex was simple: growing up, from the ages of about 10 to 25, there were times when asking for help from others created a feeling of immense guilt within me.”

I felt like I was bothering people. I felt like I needed to minimize my needs in order to be less of a burden to my loved ones around me. It wasn’t a constant feeling, but it was certainly hard to deal with when it did arise. These challenging emotions caused me to repeat a similar phrase when asking for help, “I’m sorry, but…”

“I’m sorry, but could I have another sip of my drink?”

“I’m sorry, but could I use the bathroom?”

My apologies were often met with the same reaction. My loved ones or friends would say, “You don’t need to be sorry, I’m happy to help!” Still, this constant reassurance did very little to alleviate my burdensome feelings.

It wasn’t until I met (and fell madly in love with) my fiancée, Hannah, that I was able to truly say goodbye to saying sorry. With a seemingly simple question, Hannah helped me better understand my Burden Complex, and thus, move on from it.

The conversation went something like this…

“Hey Hannah, sorry but can you grab me a snack?”

“Sure, my handsome and intelligent and funny Shane, but you don’t need to apologize. You know I love helping you.”

“I know, but what if you’re just saying that because it would be mean not to say it?” (This was a classic way that my Burden Complex would negate the reassurances from others.)

“Do you enjoy being my boyfriend?”

“What? Yes, obviously.”

“But what if you’re just saying that to be nice?”

“Of course I’m not! I love you!”

“Do you see how that feels? To be questioned about something that you obviously mean whole-heartedly?”

“And just like that, it clicked. I would never lie to Hannah about my feelings towards her, so why would I question her reassurances about my Burden Complex?”

This is obviously a simplification of a healing process that takes time. Even today, I have moments where I catch myself thinking of myself as a burden. But by stopping myself from apologizing for every request and reminding myself that loved ones have no reason to lie about their willingness to help me, I’ve made great progress in seeing myself and my needs in a healthier way.

Alex

Catching SMA curveballs

In life, bad days are inevitable.

When you live with SMA, just getting through the day can feel like an impossible task. Sometimes, just eating and watching a movie are my only accomplishments of the day, and that’s okay.

We have all this pressure on us to accomplish and “achieve” things in an unrealistic timeframe that doesn’t acknowledge everyone’s unique lives. Everyone should live their life at a pace that’s suitable to their specific needs, goals and aspirations. Even if we do that and respect our boundaries and disability fatigue — SMA can throw a lot of other unexpected curveballs our way, and I’m no stranger to the curveballs of SMA.

There’s unexpected sickness that can stop your life right in the middle of the train tracks. There’s the back and forth to try to get a new wheelchair or medical equipment approved. There are social aspects, like combating ableism all while trying to balance having a healthy social life. There’s internalized ableism and mental health you need to manage. Sometimes, it can all seem very daunting.

Having lived for 26 years and counting, I learned how to catch those curveballs.

“Catching SMA curveballs is like rock climbing.”

I know this metaphor example uses rock climbing and I can’t walk, which makes for the perfect amount of irony, so stick with me.

When you rock climb, it can be really scary at first and the unknown is waiting for you at the top. You might slip and fall on your journey to the top — you might even scrape your knee. But you get up and try again, even if you fall down multiple times. You must keep going. Finally, the moment is here, the part where you reach the top. You remember each step and how much anguish you were in as you took those last few steps to get to the top.

You stand (or sit) at the top… your long hard journey has brought you here and the view is great. You feel the sun shine on your face and remember that the journey of life isn’t always easy, but it’s always worth it in the end.

“That’s how I get through hard days living with SMA — being able to look back on my journey and appreciate all the moments in between because nothing good in life ever comes easy.”

Brianna

Hunger, Desire and
Learning to Be Alive

It took me years to realize that I struggled with mental health.

Looking back, I feel like it should’ve been obvious. There’s anxiety, and then there’s gasping for breath in a waiting room because your doctor mentioned surgery and you’re having trauma flashbacks of anesthesia and bloodwork and life-threatening operations. There’s depression, and then there’s sleeping till 4 p.m., playing video games till 7 a.m., losing entire years to the black pit in your brain.

“There are bad days, and then there’s living with a disability.”

Things changed for the better when I realized, quite suddenly, that I wasn’t just nervous, or sad, going through a tough time. I was anxious. I was depressed. I spent the first 15 years of my life waiting to die. When that didn’t happen, I didn’t know how to live. I didn’t know how to be a disabled person in a world that values the perfect body, with healthy lungs and straight teeth and a correctly shaped skull.

No wonder I was confused. No wonder I felt alone.

In my experience, things start to change when you acknowledge the truth of your situation. Sometimes, most times, the truth is ugly. Many of us are dependent, and lonely, and frustrated with our lives. We want more for ourselves, but we have been conditioned by society to ask for things we know we can get, like pity or discrimination. We don’t dare ask for the big, scary, marvelous things, like dreams or miracles.

Things start to change when you look the truth of yourself in the eye. You are an animal with hunger and desire. You want things—love, and recognition, and chocolate, maybe, if you’re anything like me. You want the world, and your want makes you human.

Humanity is hard to acknowledge. Especially when you grow up in a world that tells you through subliminal messaging and targeted ads that disabled bodies aren’t pretty, disabled people aren’t worthy, disabled _____ aren’t _____. (Fill in the blank. You might be surprised by what comes to mind.) Standing in front of this wide, wondrous world and asking for more, demanding it.

“I don’t blame you for shying away. But I am here to tell you that everything you’ve ever wanted is yours to have. You just need the courage to ask for it.”

People will turn you down. It’s inevitable. And, inevitably, their rejection will sting. But that is part of being human. That is part of being alive.

I could talk for hours about mental health. Meditation (try it), or acceptance and commitment therapy (my counseling framework of choice), or support groups (you never know until you show up). But I know from experience that, once I acknowledged all of the things I’d spent years pretending I didn’t want, life got better. Not because a magical switch was flipped, but because I allowed myself to be, for the first time in a long while, human, with hunger and desire.

I let myself be present.

Brianna

Finding and Loving
My Voice

I was a self-conscious middle schooler when my English teacher asked me to read a short story I’d written at a school event.

I realized halfway through the reading that my audience was comprised of blank faces. No one understood what I had said. The story — something about siblings and ghosts and a tragic car accident — was lost in the glare of the spotlight.

It took me years to get over that incident. I found that, when people talked to me, I no longer had the words, so I stopped talking. I tripped and fell into silence.

But then I went to therapy and worked with a counselor to address my depression. And, perhaps the scariest of all, I told my story. Again, and again, until the memory grew blunt edges.

“With time, I grew to love my voice. There are days of silence and uncertainty and wishing my voice was different — but then I wake up and start again.”

If you’re struggling to find and accept your voice, here’s what I suggest:

  1. Explain your situation
    Nothing changed until I found people who were willing to listen.You might have to repeat yourself a few times, but don’t give up. People might surprise you.
  2. Troubleshoot
    I recently invested in a portable speaker with a microphone that attaches to my wheelchair.It helps to know I don’t have to shout.
  3. Push through the discomfort
    Will you be anxious? Without a doubt!Will people understand you? Maybe! Will it be awkward and uncomfortable? Probably!
“Will you survive anyway? Yes.”