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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