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When a Cashier Noticed How Painful Shopping Was for Me

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As a young person with a mostly invisible illness, I have heard my fair share of comments that other people (mostly strangers) have made about my condition. Sadly, many of these are negative and, unfortunately, I know that many other people with health problems also experience these unpleasant remarks that stem from a lack of awareness and understanding. What hurts the most about these interactions with strangers is that they can really bring me down, especially on bad days. And, oddly enough, on a bad day, I can already feel pretty low.

What is a bad day like for me? Maybe every breath is a shallow, deliberate chore, as the stabbing sensations left over from a recently dislocated rib or two take a while to abide. Perhaps it is one of those days where I have massive amounts of pain pulsating through what seems like every inch of my body, impervious to any medication or other intervention, leaving me incapable of what seems like most everything, even comprehensible thought. Maybe I’m experiencing a flare-up of my brain and spinal cord issues, which leaves me with weak legs and slightly unresponsive arms, making every step feel as if I’m walking against the current of a deep stream, combined with the slow, difficult motion of dragging the left side of my body slowly to catch up with my right. There are days where I experience all of these symptoms and many more, all at the same time.

Sometimes, the most difficult thing about these rough days is the emotional turmoil that comes with them: the pain of having to give up the things I once loved and lived for and the realization that there are many other things I will no longer be able to accomplish. On a day like any of those, I grasp desperately onto anything that can make me smile, that can return any amount of happiness or normalcy into this life that can look fairly bleak in the moment.

The most difficult and painful part of a bad day is when the cruel words of a stranger flutter in through my ear and very quickly destroy the little bits of happiness I was managing to cultivate. Suddenly they come crashing down like dominoes all around me, diminishing me to a simple pile of wreckage. They say that words can never hurt you, but the thing about the sticks and stones paradigm is that when your bones are already fragile, hurting or broken, what you live off is words. When a heavy is word placed on top of an already fragile body, it can wreak all sorts of havoc.

The great thing about words, though, is that they aren’t merely capable of destruction. They can become the mortar that holds my fragile self together, while an accompanying smile acts as a bolster here and there. For this reason, the comments from strangers that really stick out are the ones that show pure compassion and acknowledgement of my struggles. What is most touching about these heartfelt, inspiring comments is that they come from people who truly show they care, whether they are strangers with whom I only interact with for a few minutes, or lifelong friends.

The interaction that stuck with me the most happened last summer. At the time, I was recovering from my spinal cord being sheared by my vertebrae and I had just transitioned out of a wheelchair. I took a trip to the grocery store and was feeling pretty good to start as I used my walker to make it inside, but by the time I had gathered my four items and made it to the checkout counter, I was exhausted and feeling fairly sick. The cashier, a young guy, probably only about 15 or 16, greeted me and started to ring me up. I was sitting on the little seat of my walker and carefully loading the scanned items into a bag when he said, “It is really awesome that you’re out here doing this.”

A bit shocked because no one has ever really said that to me, especially about going to the store, I turned to him. His eyes were just shining into mine, showing how much he meant his words. I started to smile and his eyes sparkled as he continued, “It must be really hard, but you’re doing a great job.” I nearly had tears of joy in that moment and I feel like I couldn’t have thanked him enough for such a compliment. I look back to that moment on bad days and I feel as if I shine a bit brighter. Not only was my pain acknowledged, but my accomplishments as well. This recognition of how difficult some things are for me made me so proud of my body. Look what I can do! It hurts, it took all of my energy, but I did it! And someone noticed, and did so with so much sincerity in their voice and kindness in their eyes!

Most of the time the world assumes that I should be able to do “simple” things like stand, walk, lift a carton of milk, hold a pen, all because I do not “look” frail. In that world where I have faced judgement for my inability to do some things, scorning looks and comments on my “laziness,” most of my struggle remains unseen. The reason for this is because the things that I see as massive barriers or accomplishments many other people don’t even have to think about doing. So it came as a complete and utterly uplifting fact that out in this fast world of grocery stores and tasks that need to be done, someone acknowledged the difficulties of the world I live in.

Because of how much it meant to me, I always try to pass along a kind word to help someone. Even on a bad day, I know my words are still strong and capable of making someone smile, and that is something I will always be able to do.

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Originally published: June 20, 2016
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