I know I touched on this once before, but after today's events I feel compelled to say more.
The kids and I made a trek to Costco today to stock up on a few needed items. If you've ever shopped at a warehouse store before, you know how tiring it can be. Now imagine doing that while also suffering from chronic pain. After lifting so many large boxes and containers into the cart, then onto the conveyor belt at checkout, I was almost at my limit. And it was very nearly all I could do to lift each item once again into my car.
With the last box finally loaded, I climbed gingerly into my seat, wincing and gritting my teeth at the stab of pain that tore through my back with each movement. As I settled in with a sigh and started the engine, I saw a man pass in front of my car. As he did so, he turned, looked straight into my face, and gave me the dirtiest look I can ever remember being subjected to. It felt like I had been slapped. There was no need to guess what he was thinking, as his expression clearly gave it away: How dare you park there?!
For you see, I was parked in a reserved disabled parking space. And I was parked there not only because my license plate gives me the legal right to park there, but also because I very much had the need to do so today. There are days when the pain is somewhat less, and I'm glad to park a little farther away and get the exercise that the longer walk provides. But there are also days like today, when each step is a struggle and I am eternally grateful that I can park a little closer.
To look at me, particularly if I am sitting still and not attempting to lift or bend or walk or grasp something or any of the other activities that cause pain, I suppose I look like a normal, healthy, thirty-something woman. All of my injuries and deformities ("disabilities" if you like) are internal, and none of them cause any noticeable physical symptoms. I'm not in a wheel chair, and apart from the foot brace that I sometimes have to wear, I don't require any assistive devices. As difficult as my life with chronic pain has been, I count my blessings every day that I have it as good as I do.
But there is another side to it. Being disabled, but not "looking" disabled, means that I am judged - often very harshly - by complete strangers who know nothing about me. I've gotten the dirty looks before, and I've been openly (and loudly) ridiculed. And I'd like to think that I've developed a bit of a thick skin and can turn the other cheek. But as I discovered today, these angry, hate-filled looks can still hurt.
As I left the parking lot, trying my best to not let this man's unnecessary anger get to me, I passed him again just as he reached his own car. His icy glare stabbed me once again before he shook his head with a very obvious look of disgust. And as sad as it makes me to say it, I couldn't hold back the tears. His open hostility brought back too many painful memories of judgment and ridicule that I have received over the past 20 years. All because I don't "look" disabled.
Yes, what happened to me today hurt, but more than anything it made me incredibly sad. Not just for myself and my hurt feelings, but because I know that I'm not the only one who has ever gone through something like this. It made me want to reach out to this man and ask him what had happened in his life that made him feel such a need to show me this kind of hatred. And to try to explain something about my situation, and to let him know that I would give almost anything to actually be the "normal" person that my appearance suggests I am. Of course I didn't reach out, because I was wounded, and I couldn't have handled the confrontation.
But now that the initial sting has passed, I am reaching out to all of you.
If you've ever been on the receiving end of this type of behavior, please know that you are not alone. It may not be much, but I hope you can take at least some comfort in the fact that someone else knows how you feel. (I know from experience what a difference that can make.)
And if you've ever been the perpetrator... I make no judgment, and I feel no anger toward you. I understand that we are each a product of our experiences, and you had reasons for acting the way you did. But please consider this: Pain is invisible. Just because you can't see anything different about someone doesn't mean that we are not suffering. All I ask is that you try to remember this if you are ever again tempted to judge someone based solely on outward appearances.