help

I’ll be the first to admit this: having a disability is not easy. I’m not referring to the limitations of it (which for me have been few, if any) but rather the perceptions of it. Most people seem to view disability as an inherently bad thing and thus focus on the negative aspects, emphasizing the “dis” part instead of the ability. With people constantly staring with sad expressions and extending their pity, it’s easy for someone with a physical difference to fall into a sympathy spell of his or her own creation once in a while. I’ve fallen into this trap quite a few times, throwing myself mini pity parties and forcing my boyfriend and closest friends to attend. They’re all party poopers, though, and are always unwilling to indulge me. My boyfriend Chris is quick to roll his eyes at me and remind me of what I can do. He refuses to see me as weak or incapable in any way.

Sorting out baby clothes

I hope no one misunderstands me; I’m not saying that going out and finding a significant other is going to fix all your problems and make you think 100% positively all the time. I had to face my issues on my own, long before I was in any relationship. Having a great support system in my friends and family and boyfriend is a real blessing, but it’s not a panacea. In my 20 years as a one-handed girl, I’ve had plenty of time to figure out ways to find the strength and acceptance in myself. And there’s one particular way that changed my view of myself immensely.

The title of this post is not meant to be taken as a noun (as in “I need help”), but as a verb (“Go help”). When I was 18, I went on a weeklong service retreat in upstate New York. It was before I began dating Chris, so he wasn’t even in the picture at the time. It’d been a tough year and I was still adjusting to all the new changes. I was a college girl who was no longer forced to wear ugly uniforms and who went to a coed school (I had gone to an all-girls high school), and I was about to spend a week of my time volunteering at several new locations and explaining to a whole new group of people what was “wrong” with my arm. In short, I was nervous. More than nervous, really. I was freaking out, particularly about the thought that people might give me a lighter load or not let me work because of my hand. I was determined to prove myself, though.

It’s funny because I don’t recall a moment that week when anyone questioned my ability to do something. On the first day of the retreat, I was painting the interior of a replica building of St. John Bosco’s childhood home in Italy. By the time I got back to my dorm room, I couldn’t move or feel several parts of my body. My clothes were covered in dust and dirt, and there was a huge paint stain across my cheek that wouldn’t wash off for nearly two weeks. I didn’t want to leave my bed and I even doubted my ability to make it through the week. But in spite of the exhaustion and pain, I was extremely grateful that I was able to do the dirty work (literally) without anyone mentioning my arm.

The rest of the week went just as smoothly. I did what the other volunteers did. We served at a food pantry, lugging heavy boxes of canned food down to the storage area. We helped out at a safe haven for abandoned and/or unwed pregnant women, where one mother asked me to hold her beautiful 2-week-old infant Elijah. We repainted and remodeled a park in a poor neighborhood. And at the end of it all, with my tired limbs and sore muscles, I felt great.

At the risk of sounding cliche, I really believe that that retreat changed my worldview. For the first time in my life, I felt like I was strong and so unworthy of anyone’s pity. It allowed me to take the focus off worrying about what people were thinking about my hand and to concentrate on helping others with immediate needs that I could meet. Who cares if you have a minor physical disability if there are people who are crippled by poverty, abandonment, and fear? Sometimes it’s our “flaws” and perceived brokenness that allow us to relate and get through to another person. In the end, all we can do is embrace everything we are and try our best to help.

Peace,
Caitlin 🙂

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perspective

As I mentioned in my last post, I’m currently taking a really cool photography class. I never gave photography more than a passing thought for most of my life (excepting Instagram here), but I needed the credits and I liked the idea of walking around the City taking pictures during my lunch breaks. Anyway, this week’s assignment was about perspective and how the photographer is in control of making the viewer see his or her artistic vision. Photographers play with different angles and techniques in order to get the perfect shot. The very essence of the art is making people see a certain object or person in a new light (often literally.) It’s funny, though, because even though the students’ assignments were all exactly the same, none of our photos looked a bit alike. Everyone had drastically different views and ideas that they captured in their pictures. And the even funnier thing is that that’s a pretty good metaphor for life in general. Everyone has ideas and thoughts and stories, and they don’t always align with what others think and do and feel.

NYC Windows

When I was a teenager and my aunt drove me to my high school, I used to spend the half-hour trip reading in the front seat. My cousin always conveniently left her fashion magazines in the car, and I loved flipping through them. A lot of the magazines featured real women writing short memoir-like pieces about a particular aspect of their life. One day, I found one about a woman with a disability and her experiences with dating. I don’t recall the specifics, but the woman had something along the lines of a lopsided back and misshapen legs. She wrote about how she would hide in dark corners at swanky bars so that attractive young bachelors would not notice her “flaws.”

I distinctly remember feeling a shred of pity for the poor woman who, I believed, had it much worse than I did. After all, I’ve always had a decent figure and shapely legs that I consider to be my best feature. But as I continued scanning the story, I read something to the effect of “It could be worse: I could be an amputee….” Yup. While I was rejoicing that I wasn’t shaped like her, she was thanking her lucky stars she was not missing a limb like me.

NYC Street

It was a pretty insightful lesson I learned from that fashion magazine. People have different ideas about EVERYTHING. There’s no objective hierarchy in terms of whose disability is worse or better to have, just like there are people who prefer blondes to brunettes and people who are willing to hurt each other just to prove that their ideology is more correct. There are people who will consider a disability a deterrent to a relationship and those who will love someone with a limb difference, not in spite of, but WITH the disability. It really depends on the person’s perspective.

NYC Art

So there you have my thoughts on this. I’ll leave you now with this short anecdote: My boyfriend and I were at his parents’ house last week when his mom started talking about a new adoption show I’m working on (I’m Having Their Baby on Oxygen, if you want to check it out.) I casually mentioned that I’d like to adopt a special needs child someday. Her response was not what I’d hoped for; she said it would be very. difficult to raise a child with special needs.

“Well, I turned out okay,”I said sheepishly.
“Oh Caitlin,” she laughed. “But you’re not Special Needs!”
I have no idea what “Special Needs” means to her, but it’s nice knowing that the picture of me in her head is one that doesn’t fit the category I’ve been placed in all my life.
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