Somewhere There is a Doctor: The Reality of Disability and Forgiveness

I don’t know much about the doctor who delivered me, but I do know all of my life has been spent trying to undo his mistake.

In the hours preceding my birth, despite signs I was in significant distress, a single doctor insisted that my mother go through with a traditional delivery rather than offering her a cesarian section. As a result of this, I was born with no vital signs, no heartbeat, bright blue, with an APGAR score of zero.

In other words, I was born dead. The man who delivered me, also nearly killed me. I was left with the legacy of cerebral palsy.

Athena Stevens is an playwright, human rights activist, and spokesperson for the UK’s Women’s Equality Party

Like some sort of super hero I was told to guard my origin story with my life. This was something I was more than willing to do. Talking about my rather Dickensian start always seemed like a sort of bragging. Sometimes friends would tell me about how when they were born the umbilical cord was wrapped around their neck, or how they almost drowned as a kid on a family vacation.

I wouldn’t say anything. In the midst of their dramatic recitation I couldn’t help but wonder how close they came to losing their motor skills, or if they had any memory left of how fragile their own life was.

Sure, I could outdo just about everyone with the tragic story of how I almost never made it into this world, but I didn’t want to.

I hate bragging. I hate that I can top just about anyone’s near death story. And I hate that people thought they could lay claim to my story, when it really wasn’t any of their business.

Sometimes I would dodge the question about what happened entirely, giving the briefest explanation possible. “I’m not really sure, I think the guy who delivered me was drunk or something. Don’t worry about it.” Other times I would just act like I didn’t know what happened.

To my knowledge, he wasn’t drunk. I knew exactly what happened. I just wanted to bare my disability with grace, not make it the centre of my world.

More importantly, I didn’t want to be defined by what was another person’s mistake.

For the first twenty-five years of my life, this was easy. My disability seemed to lead to a finite set of problems which could be solved one way or another. Yes, the man who delivered me made a “mistake” but mistakes can be undone. Sort this, build a ramp here, hire some help, problem fixed.

It wasn’t until the day before my twenty sixth birthday, that I realised the day I was born was not a day full of joy for my parents. By the time night fell on the day I was born, they had me, but for how long and at what price?

Since then, I’ve had a complicated relationship with my birthday. Despite all the love given me, all the brilliant teachers I’ve had, and all the other remarkable people who have entered my life, a faceless doctor has had the most profound influence on my life. He most likely always will.

This morning I fell on my way to the toilet. I hadn’t even rubbed the sleep out of my eyes before I felt the cold tile hit the back of my skull. It’s my birthday and I know that, laws of gravity aside, there is only one reason why I fell, and it happened thirty three years ago today.

I stare up at the skylight from my bathroom floor. I’m fully aware of the fact that if I didn’t have cerebral palsy, I probably wouldn’t be able to afford an apartment with a skylight in the bathroom. I feel myself trying to take a deep breath but my lungs have never reached their full capacity because I didn’t run around as a kid. I’m not in pain, but I can’t get up.

Instead I’m having a debate with myself. I know full well that I would not be as financially stable as I am today without my disability. My condition has given me a purpose, a platform, and even some amount of success.

I’m on my back, the crack still ringing in my skull and all I can think is ‘Is being able to afford things like this skylight worth having the perpetual brain scramble that is living with a disability someone else caused?’

No. There is no amount of money or success that can make up for that.

If I dwell on it long enough, it can seem that every difficult or bad thing that has happened to me, links back to this man.

The times when I am hungry but there’s no one around to feed me. The daily living complications. The fact that I wake up and I’m in pain because my muscles can’t move the way evolution intended.

But what about the fact that the only college that accepted me, was also the only school that didn’t know about my disability? I applied to over twenty colleges. What about when my high school crush asked another girl to the prom because he wanted to go with “someone I could dance with”? What about the people I’ve had to cut ties with because they are blind to their own ablism?

These things were set into motion the day I was born. But are they this man’s fault?

When we think about someone inflicting disability onto an innocent person, we think of the physical loss. Putting someone in a wheelchair for the rest of their lives or making them dependent on another person is something that comes off as nearly unforgivable. What we are less likely to see is the emotional weight that disability bares on that person. How she was fine until someone else was careless or arrogant, how disability places you into a lower social class for which money and success provide little escape, how an injury brought on by someone else will affect every social interaction she will ever have.

That is the reality of my disability.

If I wanted to, I could entangle myself fully with the consequences of this man’s actions, making him the ultimate villain in my story and placing the full weight of all that I have suffered on him. I could even go so far as to blame him for my own actions and absolve myself of most of life’s responsibility.

With Facebook and Google it would be easy to seek him out. I could hunt this doctor down, bang on his door and stand face to face with the man who affected every move my muscles have made during my lifetime.

It would be as simple as asking my parents his name.

I never have.

I think about him more as I get older. As each year passes I am forced to the the consequences of a stranger’s actions with an increasing intensity. I have chosen not to know anything about him. Detailed descriptions are not conducive to forgiveness.

Forgiveness is a delicate thing. As much as our society misunderstands disability, we seem to misrepresent forgiveness even more. For years I thought forgiveness was an act you did once and then it was done. Much like my attitude towards disability in the past I always assumed that once sorted, you forgave someone and moved on.

The reality of forgiveness is the same as the reality of having a disability. Somedays it is easy to forgive someone, access is clear, the day is sunny, and you can see how it all worked out for the best.

Other days, when your heart is breaking and someone who you thought loved you has said they needed someone who ‘has less problems’ the barriers to having a life that is not overshadowed a very bad first day seem insurmountable.

I could say the doctor who nearly killed me took away everything the day my life began. He left me pain, a dependency on people who may refuse to understand, the rank of being a second class citizen in a society which likes to play at equality; revoking basic rights when they seem too complicated to ensure.

But the nameless doctor didn’t take everything that day. What he left was choice: I could either succumb to his actions and let them destroy me thereby finding both forgiveness and a life beyond his obstructions impossible. Or I could make a daily choice to take what was left and move away from the destruction and harm.

Somewhere there is a doctor, his name and face are as indistinguishable to me as a billion other people is this world. But at a certain time and place in history we bumped into each other, and is the case so often with humans, it caused pain and harm. Like any origin story, it is the character’s weakness which is the source of his strength. Origin stories should never ask us to minimise the adversity a person comes from. To ignore that pain is to force the person into a false pretence of living.

Rather, it is when we face that struggle, sit in a pain that demands to be felt, admit that the pain does to some extent create us, but insist on influencing the our story as well, that we begin to understand the impact each of our lives may have.