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To the Man Who Left Me Shaking on the Street After Judging Me and My Service Dog

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When I was a toddler, I used to cry to my mommy about how upsetting I found it that everyone in the world couldn’t know each other. I brainstormed (incredibly impractical) meetups for all the people of the world to come together — hundred-mile-long handshake lines, restaurants made up entirely of communal tables, buses where passengers had to introduce themselves and tell their life story before they were allowed to sit down. I cried when the iPod came out and people started walking around with earbuds in because the earbuds were keeping me from knowing what they liked to listen to. I thought stranger danger was a load of BS (and thankfully never was put in a situation where that hypothesis was tested).

I love people. I love knowing people. So it’s appropriate that I now work at The Mighty, a place where I get to know the personal stories of 50 strangers in a day’s time, a place that encourages curiosity and compassion, understanding over assuming. Here, I am constantly being inspired by tales of courage and strength. I am constantly receiving an education on empathy, on compassion, on hard-to-pronounce medical conditions I might have previously assumed were Harry Potter spells. I am constantly reading about people who have been judged or disrespected by those who don’t know their stories, and as it might have been when I was younger, my heart is constantly breaking for them. I know how it feels to have a story inside of me that no one can see.

To an outsider, I am a 21-year-old, able-bodied, blonde-haired female. I drive a “nice” car. I go to a “good” college. My closet looks like the rainbow threw up on it, I wear cat-eye eyeliner, and I smile more than the average Walmart greeter might be comfortable with. This appearance affords me distinct societal advantages. It is my cloak of “normalcy.” But in many moments, it can feel more like a cloak of invisibility. And you, sir, sponsored one of those moments today.

I don’t know that you meant to. I know very little about you. But what you chose to do was come into a stranger’s life carrying nothing but judgment and unkindness. And that tells me far more about you than you’ll ever know about me

I had just returned from work and was taking my dog on her afternoon walk, when I took an unexpectedly difficult, exceptionally long phone call. I sat on the steps of a storefront and put my dog in deep pressure therapy position for the duration of the call — over an hour.

You see, that dog I have, that dog you saw, is my service-dog-in-training, my lifesaver, Willa. She is my source of unconditional, non-judgmental love and support; the outlet for 90 percent of my energy and my time, both of which are resources that run low to this 21-year-old female body of mine, which happens to be battling two chronic health conditions and several associated neurological disabilities. Willa is training to recognize hints by my body language that suggest my brain is in disarray, and is training to make my life safer and more bearable in those moments. I don’t expect you to have known this.

black service dog sitting in front of colorful mural
Katie’s service dog, Willa

I had finished one phone call, started walking, and promptly jumped onto another with a professional counselor of mine, who was helping me work through the emotions the previous call had created. Losing steam, as I was, Willa had begun misbehaving, jumping up on me. I was shouting “Off,” visibly overwhelmed, juggling a phone, a leash, dog training equipment, and more anxious thoughts than my mind has capacity for. I don’t expect you to have read my mind.

It was then that you decided for our paths to cross. It was then, in that vulnerable moment, that you walked towards and past me, shaking your head, shouting “If you put the phone down, maybe your dog would listen to a word you’re saying,” your tone one of contempt. “Get off the phone when you’re training your dog!” You shouted the name of the local dog training school as you passed us, without stopping, and repeated the cross streets of the location until you were out of my sight. Until I had fallen to my knees.

I don’t expect you to have known this would happen, that out all the people you could have insulted today, you’d pick the girl whose legs give out when she’s upset, the girl who disassociates when she’s overwhelmed. I don’t expect you to have guessed how much of my being is invested in the fluffy black creature at my feet. I don’t expect you to have anticipated that your words would hit me so hard, that I’d cry not just for myself, but for Mary, for Laura, for Chanel, for Bree. I don’t expect you to have known my story.

But I do expect you to realize there is one, that there always is. I expect respect. Thoughtfulness. Care. These things, unlike my condition, unlike my neurology, are universal. They lack assumption. They lack exclusion. And there is so little sense behind assumption or exclusion in a world of over seven billion bodies and seven billion brains; an infinite amount of stories, some like yours, some like mine; an infinite amount of ways for their intersections to go.

I hope our next way is different.

Originally published: July 6, 2016
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