I recently started a new job in Denver at a local nonprofit, and after my first day of work, I was radiating with excitement. I called my mom to tell her all about my day as I made the mile and a half walk home along congested roads. As I was crossing a street, I suddenly felt my body falling towards the gravel. Honestly, nothing tripped me besides my own body: a common consequence of having cerebral palsy. As I placed my hands in front of me to try my best to shield myself, my body slammed into the hard street as a car rushed by me. I forced myself up to make sure I didn’t get hit. It wasn’t until I had reached the sidewalk that I realized I was bleeding all over.
I had scraped up my hand, knee, elbow and a huge portion of my hip – what would eventually become a scar tracing my hip bone. Only the right side of my body was injured: the disabled side. My left side, my non-disabled side, was able to catch itself and remain unharmed. My cerebral palsy only affects the right side of my body, leaving my left side much stronger. The open sore on my hip burned as my jeans rubbed against it to the point that my eyes filled with tears.
Unfortunately, I had just moved to Denver, so I had no idea where the closest bus stop was, and I could not find an available Uber or Lyft to pick me up. With no other options, I continued walking the remaining mile home. I limped more severely the longer I strained myself, and I eventually became worried about whether or not I would make it home without falling again.
Unsure of what else to do, I texted the only other person I knew in the city – my roommate. To my surprise, she got on her bike and rode down the length of the street I was on until she found me about half a mile from our house. She got off her bike, offered me her shoulder, and walked me the rest of the way home. I leaned against her the entire way. Once we returned home, she followed me into the bathroom and got down on her knees to help me wash and bandage my hip – an act that astounded me because it was so compassionate.
I fall a lot because of my disability. It is a consequence of the disability that has become second nature to me. My body is so often covered with scars and bruises that it has become as commonplace as the freckles on my face. I have learned how to relax my body as I fall and how to best catch myself. I know when I will be the least coordinated: when I am tired, when I have been on my feet for a long time, when it is cold outside and when I am in the shower.
It is embarrassing to fall in public and it is often humiliating to require help when you do. Our society embraces independence and strength – especially when you are an adult. As a child, I never had a second thought when I fell and my mom picked me up and bandaged my knees. But when I was a teenager and I would fall, I would grimace when I required a stranger’s kind arm. Needing help from others felt like a confirmation of the negative stigmas of my disability. Every time someone else extended their strength, I felt weak. When I discovered how dependent I was on others, I yearned for a sense of independence, but every definition I had of independence contradicted what I knew about my disability.
Having cerebral palsy has required me to redefine what strength is. Strength does not just mean that you have the physical ability to pick yourself up when you have fallen, but it is also the willingness to ask a stranger for help, even when people often put a wall around themselves. My disability has taught me that there is not just a binary of independence and dependence, but that there is also interdependence. It is possible to live a life of interdependence, where you require others in your life to help you exist and thrive, while also simultaneously seeing yourself as strong and independent.
Through living an interdependent life, I have learned just how kind people can be to one another. I cannot exist without the kindness of strangers – without Uber drivers and people to hold open doors for me, for example. I have had strangers offer me a hand, carry my bags for me, and help me up from the ground. A dangerous side effect of living in a world where asking for help is seen as a weakness is that people often do not reach out to one another because they fear being seen as weak or as a failure. We live in a world where many people would rather suffer silently than tell someone else they are hurting and need help. It is part of why mental illness and disability are so isolating and stigmatizing. But because of my cerebral palsy, I am forced to bridge the divide between myself and the person next to me. I am forced to ask for help, and then I get the honor of witnessing their compassion.
As much as it hurt when I fell on the street that night, I was rewarded by receiving the love and care of my friend. That night represented one of the many moments my disability forced me to question how our society defines success, strength and how we interact with other people. I feel grateful every day that my disability forces me do this.
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Thinkstock photo by LiudmylaSupynska.