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When Judgment Rang the Doorbell as I Sat At Home With Chronic Pain

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No one has ever started their own personal self-evaluation with the words “I am a judgmental person.” We all know those people, and we all like to think that isn’t us.  But how many of us, even those of us who belong to the disabled community, can be so unequivocal about our own prejudices?

I can’t, and I’m pretty sure you can’t either.  After all, how many times have you found yourself saying “I don’t like to judge, but…” or “It isn’t my place to judge, but…” A lot?  More than a few? More than none?

That little “but” is the Magic Eraser of verbal communication. It doesn’t matter what you said before it, or how much you think you meant it. The word “but” removes all traces of what might have gone before.

Judgments hurt. They hurt those being judged and those doing the judging; something I learned only after I was diagnosed with complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS).

As years go, 2017 stunk. I received my diagnosis in late 2016 and in true denial fashion thought I could will myself through my torturous symptoms. I returned to work, only to lose that job because I could no longer do it. After years of schooling and difficult clinical rotations, I was in too much pain to continue my career, yet I was still 100 percent convinced I didn’t have CRPS. I mean, I Googled it, and I did not look like those pictures. (Word to the wise, do not Google a disease – any disease – and then click on the “images” link as your first exposure to information post-diagnosis.)

By early 2017 my symptoms were progressing rapidly.  Maybe living in the Northeast moved things along; CRPS doesn’t seem to respond well to cold weather. Maybe the stress of losing the job I loved and fighting the Workers’ Compensation system was too much of a drain. I won’t ever know why, but life started to get more difficult as my symptoms progressed from just pain to full spasms. My fingers began to lock in place at random times, and I lost strength and dexterity to the point that holding silverware became problematic.

The amount of pain medication I needed to stop the pain left me unable to function, and taking less made every breath agony.  My days consisted of wandering around the house in an aimless stupor or sitting on the couch. Just sitting. I stopped sleeping and slipped into a deep depression.

Our two-income family became one, placing a huge responsibility on my husband, the sole-proprietor of his own firm. He left for work early and got home late. The cold weather of early 2017 dragged on and snow piled up. Snow I could not shovel, and snow that as the resident of a detached house was our responsibility to remove and manage.

We purchased what seemed like a good solution, a set of mats that heated up and were meant to melt the ice and snow that accumulated.  They were imperfect at best, only marginally operational at worst, but we hoped that they would at least keep our front steps from turning into solid ice until my husband could make it home and properly take care of them.

And then the doorbell rang.

My mail carrier was at the door. When I opened it, he told me he was there to warn me that he would no longer deliver my mail if I did not shovel the stairs when it snowed. I apologized to him that it had not yet been done and told him my husband was at work, that the moment he came home it would be taken care of. I pointed out the mats we bought, but understood he may have still felt unsafe. He told me the mats were the only reason he decided to give me the courtesy of a warning.

I apologized again, and assured him that if our mail went undelivered on a snowy day, I would understand.  His response left me shocked to this day.

“I give all the other houses a break because they are off working. You are here all day so you have no reason you can’t shovel the steps; you are just being lazy.”

I couldn’t do anything but watch him as he left and cry after he was gone.

This was how I looked to the rest of society. Unworthy because I no longer worked. Lazy because I could no longer shovel the stairs.  That I was the only house on the block who tried to deal with the snow on snow days wasn’t a kind thing, it was me – a drain on society — looking for an easy way out of a societal responsibility.

Looking back with a year’s distance, there are a lot of things I wish I had said to him that day — but not a single one centers around my disability. I am more upset that he judged me for the simple fact I was at home rather than somewhere else.  I could have been a household employee, a stay-at-home mother or the caregiver to an elderly relative. What if I had been too weak to shovel the steps, or too sick? What if I too was actually at work, but from a home office that left me no time to address the snow?

What if I really was just too lazy to deal with the snow? He had delivered his warning, nothing else need be said. But my mail carrier was willing to give every other house on the block extra time to shovel, because the residents had extra value that I didn’t. He judged and found me lacking. For a long time, I allowed this interaction to shape my self-worth, not because this one civil servant had so much power, but because it was the last, loudest note in a symphony of judgment. Sighs behind me in the checkout lines when my fingers fumbled with coins; rolled eyes that inevitably heralded some combination of the words still, not and working.

My disability is invisible, and it means that along with all the other things I’ve lost, I’ve also lost the benefit of the doubt. The days of my being judged on an even playing field by many members of our society are well and truly behind me, and that is not likely to change anytime soon. Laws about equal access and regulations around pre-existing conditions and pain management don’t magically alter people’s biases and prejudices.

However true this may be, I will never stop fighting to keep these protections in place. Experiences and interactions like mine demonstrate why they are still so very much needed in today’s society.

Getty image by Peter Spiro.

Originally published: March 20, 2018
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