What a Letter Opener Taught Me About Life With Cerebral Palsy


The letter opener.

A humble, but truly magical office staple.

One swipe against an unruly letter, and presto — your letter is open and you’re forever hailed as the resident entry-level administrative goddess.

OK, maybe not.

But when you start a new administrative job with a boss who proclaims “You don’t need any special skills for this,” it’s practically a given that you’d at least be able to use a letter opener.

Unless, of course, your fine-motor skills are not-so-fine. Which makes people who can actually open a letter with a letter opener look downright magical to you.

I have cerebral palsy, which messes with my body’s ability to follow my brain’s instructions and, you know — move.  Basically, the left side of my body’s like that angsty teenage rebel who cuts class to smoke cigarettes in the school bathroom.  Or something like that.

Which makes using a letter opener seem like Mission Impossible.

So when I walked into the office for my first day — an office that, I should note, seemed pleasantly devoid of letter openers — I breathed a huge sigh of relief.

Until my perpetually-smiling supervisor uttered a single sentence that made me groan (internally, of course; this was, after all, my first day on the job!)

“First, we’re going to have you sort and open mail.”

Noooooooooo…

What a way for me to make a lasting impression.  In an office-themed version of “The Bachelor,” I knew I wouldn’t be snagging the “First Impression Rose” anytime soon.

Still, once my supervisor was out of sight, I dutifully swiped the edges of the stubborn letters with my nemesis — the letter opener.

It went… better than I had anticipated, actually.  My letter opener was — surprisingly — vaguely useful.  But I eventually gave up on the letter opener and went back to opening letters the old-fashioned way — with my slightly stiff, shaky hands.

And the most miraculous, shocking development in the dramedy that was my first day of a new office job?

I was OK with not doing my job in a “typical” way.

My inability to wield a letter opener was actually kind of funny.

As I accidentally created jagged edges on all the envelopes and smiled at my perceived lack of administrative prowess, I thought back to my very first post-college job — a ballot processor at my county’s Elections Office, at the tail end of the election season.  We were supposed to open the ballot envelopes carefully, creating nice, clean, straight openings all the way across. But despite my valiant attempts to handle those envelopes with all the care devoted to a newborn baby or a cuddly kitten, I inadvertently committed the worst office offense, manhandling the envelopes with my legendary lack of motor skills.

I remembered my co-workers looking absolutely flummoxed by my envelope-mangling tendencies.  “A college graduate who can’t even open a measly envelope?  What the heck is wrong with her?” I imagined them thinking as they stared across the table at me.

As I continued to (completely accidentally, of course!) rip envelopes at my newest office job, I laughed at how ridiculous I was just 10 months before at the Elections Office.  At that point, I pretty much thought my cerebral palsy, however mild, was The Worst Thing Ever (Me?  Melodramatic?  Never!), and, on that November day, I left the Elections Office close to tears.  I easily could have blamed my propensity to cry on the recent election results (and the fact that a solid portion of America was probably crying with me), but I wouldn’t let myself go there.

The truth?  I was embarrassed by my disability.

Which is why, in a very different, emphatically casual office, 10 months later, as I slid around on a swivel chair and laughably (but laudably) attempted to use a letter opener, I smiled at how far I had come.  The girl who swore she would never, ever tell anyone about her cerebral palsy is now practically a walking billboard for CP awareness. Who still can’t really use a letter opener. And is 100 percent OK with it.

Thankfully, I survived my time opening mail without a single peep from my supervisor about the interesting quality of my opened envelopes and promptly moved on to some other equally administrative task that didn’t require much in the way of fine-motor skills. I aced my first day. Well, maybe not aced, but I guess they liked me enough to let me keep working there!  (As a matter of fact, I’m still employed by that company, despite my dubious ability to use a letter opener!)

That day, I left the building laughing.  It turns out laughter really is the best medicine.

This article was previously published by Thought Catalog at www.thoughtcatalog.com.

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Thinkstock photo by Astrid860.

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