I was born with cerebral palsy, and though I'm 30 years old, I didn't really accept that until I moved to Seattle last June. It was something I hid from, something I denied, and it was relatively easy to do so, because a lot of people seemed to notice other things about me before they noticed that. I'm from New Orleans, where anything goes, and I spent a long stretch in New Mexico, where anything goes but less flamboyantly so. The other side of my family is from the Midwest, where nobody really focuses on bodies one way or the other. Even when I walked around for long stretches in fitness-obsessed San Francisco, no one flinched at me or explained me away from their kids.
In Seattle, though, a lot of people seem to be a little unnerved by my disability, and in a way, I'm glad of that; it's forced me to recognize my own body, to stay aware of it. But the way I've been treated has been surprising. Most of my struggles up to now, though difficult, weren't confusing: My surgery at age 9 was hellish, but I knew that in six weeks, the casts would come off. My father's sudden death when I was 22 was horrendous, but I wasn't alone in going through it. In the last year, three more close family members died. I could deal with this, horrible as it was. I thought that meant I could deal with anything.
But I was caught entirely off guard by this sudden understanding that being alive in the only body I've got apparently makes some people uncomfortable in 2014, in one of America's most progressive cities. I moved here for books, coffee, writing, nature, food, even rain—not a daily crusade.
Seattle is the most accessible city I've ever lived in, but nearly every time I step out of the house, some weird shit goes down: When I remarked to a bookstore owner about the proliferation of memoirs in this age, she told me she had tired of, in particular, cancer memoirs. "Cancer is a reality," she said. Then she looked at me with sad eyes. "But cerebral palsy is a reality, too." I said, "Uh, yeah, and I don't write about it," and left the place in a daze. I've never had anyone assume I was sick, so at first I didn't even realize that she was comparing cerebral palsy to cancer. I've never felt comfortable going back in; I'm a little uneasy walking by. The worst part is knowing that she thought she was being nice.
So did the spandex-wearing passerby who told me on a steep street, "You are so brave." I told him I was offended; he said, "I wish I could help you." He didn't take in a word I said. A mellow voice does not a listener make, as even more effectively illustrated by a motorist who stopped halfway over the pedestrian line and smiled at my partner and me as though she was being gracious. "Why don't you move BACK," my boyfriend said, as she had ample room. "It's easier for you to move back than for her to walk around you!" She replied, in the sweetest, calmest voice, "Yeah, why don't you go fuck yourself?"
Life is better on the trails, where I'm treated like an equal. I had no idea, before I got here, that I could scale 800 feet, but on Cougar Mountain, people smile in a way that makes me feel they're glad I'm up there with them. The problem is, I have to come down.
One night, after a beautiful day of hiking, we passed a guy on the way home who hassled my boyfriend for money. I was prepared to ignore the question. But when I walked by, he didn't ask me for money. He shouted, "WHO DID THIS TO YOU?! WHO DID THIS TO YOU?!"
I kept walking. Then he shouted, "WAS IT HIM?!"
That scared the shit out of me. He'd accused my boyfriend of violence and looked quite ready to commit some himself. From all my fear, and my anger, and the burning insult of the accusation, I yelled back:
"BIRTH! I WAS BORN TWO AND A HALF MONTHS EARLY, YOU FUCKER!"
I was relieved. Then I noticed several people across the street, all staring at me. Were they on his side? Did no one see the potential danger of the situation? Remember the crutches? If someone goes after me, I'm fucked, y'all. I'd like to be assured that if I stand up for myself against an aggressor, I'm going to be supported, not judged.
It's no better, though, to be simply ignored. A Sea-Tac Airport TSA agent fixed his eyes on my boyfriend while asking for my boarding pass. When I asked him to address me directly, he said, "Oh!" and apologized. "I'm used to talking to... you know," he said, gesturing in inscrutable circles.
"To what?" I asked.
"Talking to people and... talking to their caretakers."
Helplessness is an offensive assumption, but one I can swiftly disprove. How, though, can I convince people that there is nothing tragic about the way I walk? I ran into a pair of sweet parents with three adorable children, and the youngest child said, "She has a owie," so I explained that I was born this way and didn't get hurt.
"Some people need tools to help them," added the mother. "It'll heal."
"No," I said lightly, "it won't heal, but that's okay." I don't get a body other than this one, so it has to be okay. Why can't we tell our children, and each other, that all bodies are different, that some need more help with certain things than others, and that's fine?
Is it because it's not?
I've never lived anywhere full of such anxiety about health, let alone about the way health looks. Southern California has a reputation for being superficial, but my body feels welcome there; I get the same glossy smiles everyone else gets.
The smiles I get in Seattle seem to vary by neighborhood. At the top of Queen Anne Hill, no one treats me like they're trying to remember what to do, what to say. No one flinches in working-class neighborhoods, either. I can only surmise that if you've never had the privilege of expecting physical "perfection," you're fine with me, and likewise, if you can imagine having a child who's born with the same disability and you're financially secure enough to be able to adapt any of your family's activities to include a body like mine, you're fine with me too.
To accept someone is to listen to them. In Seattle, I've felt dismissed as confrontational, or been outright ignored, when I've tried to correct strangers' assumptions about myself. I would love to feel listened to, and to know that the questions I get come from curiosity, not fear.