I have heard and read many stories from people who are grateful for their disability. It seems counterintuitive to be grateful for something that can limit your mobility, independence and experiences, but the lessons and insights gained from living with disability can be enlightening and empowering. While I won’t say I am grateful to be disabled or for the events that caused my disability, I will say I am extremely grateful for the personal growth and wisdom I gained from them. Disability made me a better and happier human being.
Before I developed Bickerstaff brainstem encephalitis (a variant of GBS), I was an unemployed, suicidal alcoholic in an unhappy marriage. I had struggled with persistent depressive disorder since I was young, for which I took medication that only took the edge off. I had attempted suicide six months prior, and struggled with trying to avoid a second attempt. Having missed several opportunities to build a fulfilling career, I was terminated from yet another dead-end job, and had given up on searching for another. I languished at home in front of the computer, smoking cigarettes and drowning my angst in beer. My two-year marriage was ending, and I didn’t have the energy or desire to heal myself, let alone my relationships.
The years following my illness were no picnic, either. The depression was at its all-time worst, and even though I was confined to bed, I managed to find ways to try to end my suffering, so frequently that it was recommended that my parents sign a DNR because I “obviously wanted to die.”
And then it began to change. It was right around the time when I went from resignation about my future to acceptance of it. My marriage improved. My husband didn’t leave me (as many friends had advised), but instead stuck by me and supported me in so many important ways. My family gathered around me and I began to see the ordeal through their eyes. I began to have a better understanding and sympathy for what they endured. Spending time around other patients in rehab and group homes opened my eyes to others who were struggling as I was. My empathy and compassion for others grew, and I developed the ability to see others’ pain even while struggling with my own.
Because I couldn’t work, I no longer felt the pressure of trying to “find myself” through career goals. I had more time to explore how I could contribute to society in a way that fulfilled me. I started giving speeches, sharing my experiences with the hope of helping others cope. I began a Facebook page and a blog in order to advocate and spread awareness. I spent more time on creative hobbies and left the house more often, gaining more and more independence and confidence. My mood improved and the depression lifted. With that, I had more energy to give to others, and I started to grow in leaps and bounds.
Before I became disabled, I was typical of many other able-bodied people, compassionate and supportive of the disabled community, but still ignorant of the deeper issues. I would think and say ableist things like: “I agree that ‘the handicapped’ should have more rights, but we shouldn’t have to change everything to accommodate them,” or “That person doesn’t look disabled to me.” Suddenly finding my backside in a wheelchair and my body far less functional than it used to be was a rude awakening to what people with disabilities face on a daily basis.
I quickly learned about many different kinds of disabilities and their common, as well as unique obstacles. I began to understand invisible disabilities and the societal struggles people with them face. I learned appropriate language to use when discussing disability, and the dangers of inspiration porn. I became an advocate myself, and continue to use my own talents and skills to spread awareness and ideas of inclusion.
Because I was an educated, able-bodied, straight, Caucasian, cisgender woman from a middle-class family, I had many privileges I was unaware of until I became disabled. I was still a kind, compassionate person, but did not have a deep enough understanding of those who are considered “other” and my role in it all.
When I became disabled, I began experiencing being considered “other,” and understanding how it feels to be treated with ignorance based on other people’s judgments. I started to educate and open myself to a clearer understanding of social justice and human rights. I learned about intersectionality, mindfulness, and the history of cultural and societal pressure on various groups of people. As a result, I treat people more respectfully and sensitively, and try to embrace our differences and uniqueness.
Patience and tolerance was never my strong suit before I became disabled. I couldn’t stand waiting, especially for other people, and I had no tolerance for ignorance or lack of education. Being ill and completely physically dependent for so long, however, I was forced to be patient most of the time. I was at the mercy of other people’s schedules, time, energy and moods. Now, as a wheelchair user, there are many circumstances where I must wait, so I’ve discovered that learning patience really is a virtue!
Since becoming disabled, I seem to have far more situations where I encounter ignorant or uneducated people than I did when I was able-bodied. What can I say? When it comes to disability and wheelchairs, some people just say the most clueless and offensive things! I used to get really angry and defensive, but over the years, I’ve begun to realize that most people don’t actually intend to be offensive or hurtful when they open their mouths. They are simply uneducated about or inexperienced with disability.
This doesn’t change what they said, and it doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be accountable. But it does change how I feel and how I react to it. Sure, I still get offended and angry sometimes, and there are those people who are intentionally hurtful. But when I am calmer and less defensive, I’m the one who comes away happier, and sometimes they learn something.
I’ve always had a average sense of humor, but was a fairly serious person. Since becoming disabled, I have developed a much greater sense of humor. If I didn’t learn to laugh at myself and life’s little loop-de-loops, disabled life would be a misery! There are so many weird, painful, frightening, offensive, alienating, challenging, patronizing, embarrassing, frustrating occurrences that happen time and again in the lives of people with disabilities that it almost (and often does!) becomes a joke. For me, it’s often easier and liberating to create joke or a comic strip about it. Life with a disability can be serious enough without getting bent out of shape over every hurdle.
I can’t say what kind of person I would be today if I never got sick and carried on with life s I knew it. But I can say that I kinda dig the person I am today, and it’s because of my disability. Am I happy I’m disabled? I wouldn’t go so far as to say that. But am I grateful for the lessons I learned, knowledge I gained, person I’ve become and happiness I earned. Hell yeah!