Fantasy author Bryan Davis wrote, “Assumptions are unopened windows that foolish birds fly into, and their broken bodies are evidence gathered too late.” But I prefer my grandfather’s take on the matter. He always told me, “Jamie, when you make an assumption you make an ass out of you and ‘mption.'”
For those of you who don’t know, I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis nine years ago. If you don’t know what this disease is, I’ll tell you in a nutshell. It is a chronic disease that attacks the central nervous system. Symptoms may be mild or severe, depending on which course of the disease a person has. The progress, severity, and specific symptoms of MS are unpredictable and vary from one person to another. If you want more information, you can visit the homepage of the National MS Society and read until your heart’s content.
I am among the 85% of MS patients who have relapsing-remitting MS, which means it comes and goes and never progresses. Basically, I have an exacerbation every so often. It doesn’t get worse each time, but each time I experience one, permanent damage is done. Depending on where it attacks my nervous system, I could lose the ability to see, walk, or remember. These periods of disability could last weeks or months. I might recover from them. I might not. As you can imagine,when I was first diagnosed, I didn’t take it well. In fact, I wrote about it last year in In Touch Magazine, which you can read here.
I’m not telling you this to make you feel sorry for me. I’m telling you so you can better understand the rest of this post. I am handicapped. Not everyday. Not all the time. But because of my disease, things have changed. I sometimes become incredibly fatigued—so much so that it takes me several days of rest to recover after a stressful week. I am also more prone to headaches and body aches of various sizes and intensities. When I’m tired, my feet often go numb. My vision gets blurry at times, which makes it much more difficult to do my job, to read music, and even to drive.
That’s why I applied for a handicapped permit using a form signed by my neurologist who I see every three or four months. There are times when I need to save my energy. I live in the South, and it can get fairly warm. (If that’s not the best example of litotes I’ve ever seen, I don’t know what is.) Heat isn’t great for MS and can actually bring on an attack, so when it’s 98 degrees with 100 percent humidity, I might whip that parking pass out to cut some time out of my walk across a parking lot. However, I try not to abuse it. If I’m feeling okay or there’s only one handicapped space left, I leave it and go in search of another one. Why? Because I know someone else who has a disability might need that space more than I do.
But if several are open, I feel I have the right to utilize one, which is what I did today when I went shopping for a few new outfits. When I came out, I found a note tucked under my windshield wiper.
I’ve been harassed for using a handicapped space before, so this is nothing new. But what galled me was the fact that this person automatically assumed that, because I wasn’t using a walker, crutches, or some other device, I wasn’t “allowed” to park where I did. There are dozens of diseases including fibromyalgia, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis where patients look perfectly “fine” on the outside but are struggling to get through the day thanks to extreme pain and fatigue.
Having one of these “invisible diseases” has taught me just how important it is to never judge someone or her situation before I know all the facts. I have no idea what burdens a person is carrying during the course of a given day. And even if someone does something that I don’t agree with or that hurts me personally, I try not to retaliate because I have no way of knowing what the source of that anger is. I always try to smile at people, to say hello, thank you, and excuse me. I always try to give a person a kind compliment. I open doors for people. I share. I do these things not because I’m a saint, but because I know how much those small gestures meant to me when I was at my lowest.
But that’s not what this person did. He or she assumed I didn’t have a care in the world, that I felt perfectly fine. (For the record, I didn’t. Long Friday = Tired Saturday) Instead of thinking about the situation and giving me the benefit of the doubt, he or she felt the need to wag a disapproving finger in my direction. And rather than confront me directly, which a few people actually have done, this person chose to tut-tut-tut me from a safe distance where I couldn’t explain my situation. To me, it was cowardly. Haughty. Pharisaic.
Dear Sir or Madam, I really am handicapped.
I may not have looked like it to you. I may not have lived up to your preconceived notion of what a handicapped person is, which is yours and yours alone. And that doesn’t make me wrong. It makes you wrong for addressing a problem only you thought existed.
If I could give this disease (and the handicapped parking permit that comes with it) back, believe me, I would. I would love to live without yearly MRIs that show me what new parts of my head are damaged by lesions. I would truly prefer to live without the small splinter of fear that’s permanently stuck in my heart–the one that pricks me when I think about waking up one morning and not being able to see, to think, to walk, or to care for myself. But, as there is no cure for multiple sclerosis yet, I can’t. I’ve learned to live with it, to embrace it, and to recognize it is one of the many things that has shaped me into the woman I am today.
You began your question with “What if…,” and I would like to respond in kind. What if another person’s life is much more complicated than you thought? What if you considered things from my perspective and reacted with kindness rather than judgment? How much better would your life and mine have been today if we had crossed paths and exchanged a kind word instead of a critical one? I don’t know how you felt after leaving the note—justified, righteous, maybe proud. But I know how I felt the moment I saw it. I was deflated and even a little ashamed for something that isn’t my fault. Today, you reminded once again that compassion isn’t everyone’s default setting, and I am more determined than ever that it will always be mine.