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Learning It's OK to Ask for Help in My Adult Life With Cerebral Palsy

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Let me introduce myself: I’m Sara, and I absolutely hate to be helped. Don’t offer your hand to me to step down from a curb; I can do it alone. Don’t offer to counterbalance me. If I fall, I’ll fall and get up in a minute. Don’t carry items for me, carry me, pick stuff up for me — just don’t. Most importantly, don’t you dare tell me I can’t do something, because, highly annoyed and affronted, I will find a way to do it anyway.

I’m not sure how I became this stubborn. Part of it might have been the genetic lottery that landed me with the wonderful parents and support network that have stood by me my entire life; part of it might have been the experience of sitting out of 90 percent of my physical education classes as a child. However, I know most of my surly attitude towards challenge has to do with my quietly competitive relationship with diplegic cerebral palsy. Every day of my life, my body and I have had a conversation that goes something like this:

Body: I really think that today you and I should just… not do anything. It’s too hard.

Me: Sit down, shut up, buckle up and let’s go.

For as long as I can reliably remember, I have competed against my disability. I wanted to be as close to normal (whatever that actually means) as I possibly could, as in control of my own actions and movements as I imagined everyone else was. Almost every day for 18 years, my mother, little brother and I would trek 45 minutes downtown (and then later, a closer location) to physical therapy, singing along to silly pop songs and discussing the night’s schoolwork as we went. It meant multiple surgeries to both improve my quality of life and mitigate some of the challenges associated with cerebral palsy. It meant lots of challenges, some easier to beat than others, and each time, I came away just a little bit stronger. It meant enjoying my childhood and college years, able to fend mostly for myself. And after a while, my disability and I reached an understanding: we could co-exist, perhaps not as competitors, but as allies. I could handle that.

Then post-collegiate adult life appeared like an interloping third wheel. It seems to have different ideas. Over the last two years, I have fallen more than I have in years, some of the old challenges have resurfaced, and I don’t feel as in control of my own self anymore. My body is in revolt. The old adage “You have cerebral palsy; it doesn’t have you!” seems hollow on some nights. I try to repeat the same conversation the two of us had as kids, but it doesn’t come as easy. Sometimes, I am the loser rather than the winner. It’s occasionally disheartening, but it’s also OK. Circumstances change. My body’s changed, gotten older and more rambunctious. But so have I.

After some deep, honest conversations with myself, I am ready to ask for help. I am ready to let others walk this journey with me. Help doesn’t limit independence, as I used to think, but rather, it clears a wider path to who I want to be. Of course, help comes in many forms. It may come in the form of a friend, a physical therapist, increased use of my mobility devices, or perhaps, hopefully, a more positive relationship with myself and the body I was given. I have no qualms that it will take me a while to relinquish the stubbornness I’ve held onto for so long, but I know it will be worth it in the end.

Asking for help isn’t a weakness; it’s a propellant. With it, all the stars are within arms reach, and competition doesn’t seem as important as the path to the future ahead.

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Getty image by Vitaliy Mateha.

Originally published: February 12, 2018
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