“When you don’t fit in, you become superhuman. You can feel everyone else’s eyes on you, stuck like Velcro. You can hear a whisper about you from a mile away. You can disappear, even when it looks like you’re still standing right there. You can scream, and nobody hears a sound. You become the mutant who fell into the vat of acid, the Joker who can’t remove his mask, the bionic man who’s missing all his limbs and none of his heart. You are the thing that used to be normal, but that was so long ago, you can’t even remember what it was like.” -Jodi Pilcoult, Nineteen Minutes.
“There’s no such thing as normal”
This is what Mummy told 10 year old me, as I watched baby brother in the throes of an Autistic rage, the judgement of passerby’s stinging my cheeks. Even then I knew she said this as much for herself as for me.
Even back then, when Dollies and Barbies were still of the highest importance, I understood that despite what political correctness said, not everyone is created equally. Society has always been quicker to believe that the jigsaw pieces fit perfectly together, creating the pretty picture on the box, than to admit that someone got it wrong. Rising lumps of mismatched cardboard never were popular.
But the truth is, we aren’t all the same. Some of us are the mutants, the jokers, the bionic men. Some of us have to be the freaks, so that you can have your circus. And you don’t let us forget it.
I remember a time when my eyes were still young, my body not yet tired. A time when I understood that wheelchairs were for old people, that tubes helped Daddy connect the hose to the sprinkler, and that Pirates had wooden legs because they lost them in a battle at sea.
Sometimes I close my eyes, and try to see things as I once did. But every time I close my eyes, I just see my hands on the wheels, the tubes in their noses and the prosthetic leg propped up next to her makeup and silky scarves.
No matter what I do, they still look perfectly normal.
I remember the first day I realised I was a freak. My body was slowly but surely drowning in its own destruction, and was taking me down with it. I refused to give in, and was determined to make it to school. The only way this possible was in a wheelchair. I had never been so scared in my life. But really, how bad could it be?
1000 pairs of eyes on me. Whispers had never been so loud. Their comments and sniggers filled my eyes with salty weeps. I had never felt so small.
‘What’s like, you know, wrong with you?’
‘Why don’t you walk? You look normal’
‘Yeah so like, you can’t come on the shopping trip coz like…yeah’
Every single day, thousands of Chronically Ill and disabled teenagers and young adults face these same questions, this same pain, the whispers, the stares, the sympathetic smiles. It does not occur to society that just because we may have deformed facial features, missing limbs, use a wheelchair to walk, have tubes snaking into our noses or drag oxygen tanks behind us, that we are still normal young adults. That we are still beautiful.
Soon, I learnt to joke, to even put people in their place.
‘Oh, didn’t you hear? I was attacked by a shark. Awful stuff. But I have its head mounted in the lounge room now, so that’s pretty cool’
‘Oh nothing is wrong with me, I am just you know, too lazy to walk. I looked into a Segway, but wheelchairs are cheaper. And you can’t get fined for drag racing in them either’
People were now incredibly rude, or incredibly friendly. Never in my life had shop assistants been so eager to assist me.
‘HI!!! HOW ARE YOU TODAY?!!!!!’
I also discovered that being in a wheelchair means you can’t actually hear, so everyone must speak louder and more slowly.
‘SORRY. I CANT WALK, SO I CANT HEAR YOU’.
I had always taken pride in my appearance, but now that I could no longer walk, my makeup routine stretched into hours. Soft Sand, First Kiss, Pretty in Pink. Each of these shades was swept over my lips, lids and lashes. I had complete faith that by wearing these brands with the happiest of labels, I too would have first kisses and be pretty in pink, running along the sand.
My hair was cut, coloured, curled. Mum pulled the sweetest of dresses over my wilting bones, and slipped kitten heels on the feet which ceased to work. And still, I never felt pretty.
I remember as the beautiful Hollie happily pushed my wheelchair through the gardens around the hospital. We were just two more teenage girls wearing short shorts and poorly applied makeup. There were boys playing cricket on a nearby oval. ‘Do you want to go and perve on them?’ She giggled.
‘No, not today’. My unspoken words hung between us.
Who would look at a girl in a wheelchair anyway
Until one day, I wasn’t so sick anymore. And I could walk. People took notice of me. I was tall, thin, and blonde. I look healthy. Wolf whistles, mates jabbing one another as I walked past. Girls sent daggers and boys sent kisses.
The most beautiful girl I have ever seen was my best friend. She was a model, before the evil snaked through her bones, and later her lungs. It took her leg. She was, is, breathtakingly beautiful.
Tayla, you look stunning, I whispered, as I pushed her wheelchair through the shops. Never in my eighteen years had I seen any girl so beautiful. Vogue was created for faces like hers. It was impossible to notice anything but those eyes. A man stopped us. ‘You are beautiful’ he smiled to her. I agreed, and we kept walking. ‘He wouldn’t have said that if I wasn’t in the wheelchair’ she whispered. I promised her he would have, and one day, she would see for herself.
She never did get to see for herself. Two weeks later, she went to heaven.
I often wonder that if people didn’t look twice, didn’t whisper, didn’t point, and didn’t send upside down smiles to all of us with broken bodies, then maybe she could have believed me.
I am dancing. I am 19 years old and 3 days. I look like everyone else. I am a little drunk. I see a girl. Her looks take my breath away. She is a 5 foot 10 glamazon, long blonde locks float down her tiny frame, her teeth perfect. She is different to the other girls, the ones with too little material and too much breast. She has a class that they can only dream of. She is completely unaware of how stunning she is. I glance at her arm. From the elbow down, it is missing. I barely notice. And yet she notices nothing else. She continues to lean against walls, to tuck the curve behind her back. She tries to become invisible.
I walk over to her. I hold her shoulder. You are beautiful, I whisper.
She tries not to cry. Thank you, she smiles, blinking back the tears.
I look into her eyes. I mean it.
And I walk away. Later on, I see her once more. She is dancing. Her arm is not hidden. For tonight at least, she knows she is not a freak. She knows she is beautiful.
From a very young age, I have known that not everyone is normal. Some of us have scars, burns, tubes, and prosthetics, wheels, tracheotomies, no hair and oxygen tanks. Some of us can’t walk, breathe or even eat like you can.
But we can still hear your whispers, see your pointing tips, feel your stares, taste your smiles of pity.
For once, pretend that we look like everyone else. Treat us as you would the giggling girls in high heels, the boys with their hats on the wrong way.
Next time remember that we aren’t freaks, or someone to pity.
So that the next time we are told we are beautiful
We can believe it.