“WHAT ARE YOU HANDICAPPED ABOUT?!” yelled a man with a cane as he angrily approached my driver’s side window and signaled for me to get out of my car.
“WHAT ARE YOU HANDICAPPED ABOUT?!” he continued to shout as I backed out of the parking spot, avoiding eye contact as I pulled away from the gym.
In a rush to get to class, I sat down at my desk and tried to breathe – my hands physically shaking from the anxiety brought on by his harassment. I tried to focus on my academics, but could not help but acknowledge the flood of emotions that washed over me: anger, frustration, disbelief. This was not how I envisioned my Friday morning, but I am going to use this altercation as an opportunity to speak up about invisible illness.
Those who see me at the gym might argue that I am not disabled, and who could blame them? I lift heavy weights, I train intensely, hell – I deadlift over 2 and a half times my bodyweight! It would be reasonable to assume that I should not have a handicapped tag and that I am somehow manipulating the system.
Key word: assume.
Believe it or not, I am “handicapped.” Handicapped is defined as “having a condition that markedly restricts one’s ability to function physically, mentally, or socially.”
Those who are unfamiliar with my journey may be surprised by this as I do not openly discuss my handicapped tags. Admittedly, I am embarrassed to have them at times. I should not have to justify why I have handicapped parking. However, for the sake of advocating awareness, let me shed a little bit of light on invisible illness.
In 2014, I was hospitalized and homeschooled for complete loss of bowel function. In 2015, I was diagnosed with Interstitial Cystitis and Pelvic Floor Dysfunction. In 2016, I was diagnosed with urinary retention. I underwent several extremely painful urinary treatments and surgeries, and was routinely catheterized. I was prescribed Valium suppositories to insert on a daily basis and could not function in school due to severe side effects. Medication, surgical procedures, and biofeedback treatments failed. I was told that I was at risk of kidney infection, and ultimately, the possibility of being placed on kidney dialysis.
In August of 2016, I underwent a procedure to implant a pacemaker device in my lower back. This device, known as the InterStim, delivers Sacral Neuromodulation and allows my bladder to empty. I am extremely grateful to say that the surgery was a success and my quality of life has drastically improved. That being said, I still have issues.
I have pain every day. Two years ago, I was diagnosed with yet another incurable condition of the pelvic floor, known as Levator Ani Syndrome. This new condition tends to flare with my Irritable Bowel Syndrome, and can leave me feeling paralyzed. I have bad days; I cry, I lay in bed unable to move from debilitating pelvic pain.
I take medication to control the symptoms, but medicine can only do so much and each medication comes with unpleasant side effects. The InterStim device itself causes radiating nerve pain that can be very severe. Some days I wonder how I am going to manage my health issues and lead a “normal” life. But one thing is for sure – I refuse to stop living. I refuse to let my illnesses define me.
I will not surrender to my disabilities.
So yes, I have a handicapped parking tag. And yes, I also go to the gym 6 days a week. Do I walk with a cane like the man who harassed me? No. But does that mean I am not struggling with a disability? Absolutely not.
So the next time you see someone get into a vehicle with a handicapped tag, don’t assume anything about them. You do not know what lies beneath the surface, and you have no right to harass anyone based on their “healthy” exterior. The fact of the matter is, not all illnesses are visible to the eye. The “healthy” person you are judging may be fighting battles you will never see nor understand.
Be kind. Always. ❤