Chronic pain revealed more than the ways my body hurt.
As a disabled person, a subtle but constant source of discomfort I experience when navigating able-bodied, neurotypical spaces is toxic positivity. I loathe receiving long-winded explanations as to why I’ve become disabled and how, if I really think about it, there must be a good reason my body works the way it does. Offering me an unsolicited example of a “silver lining” is not the encouragement some folx think it is, and if there’s anything I can ask of non-disabled people, it’s that they don’t attempt to convince me that my disability is merely a teaching opportunity for their higher power of choice.
That doesn’t mean it hasn’t taught me anything, though.
My chronic pain has revealed to me every way my muscles can ache, and exactly how long I can stand before my legs start to burn, and the true limits of over-the-counter Tylenol — but it’s also helped me realize a thing or two about my gender identity.
Being physically disabled forces you to become extremely intimate with your body. Slowly but surely, you notice everything that does and doesn’t help soothe your pain, down to the way you sit and the clothing you wear. Depending on your disability and personal experience, you might find yourself uncomfortably present in your own skin, suddenly hyper-aware of every subtle push and pull, every rogue sensation. As I practiced genuine rest and spend more time with my body, feelings I’d long suppressed rose to the surface.
It was suddenly apparent how uncomfortable “disabled girl” made me feel without really knowing which part of the phrase felt wrong. When I’d wear loose clothing to let my achy body breathe, I found myself strangely elated and secure in how I looked, only to feel like an imposter the moment I stepped outside. I spent hours before the mirror examining myself, searching for some external cause for this discomfort I was feeling, and when I returned to the doctor for another test, it was then I discovered the answer.
“Nineteen-year-old female,” my paperwork read. The notes left by the nurse addressed me as ‘she,’ referred to my limbs as ‘hers,’ and in that moment, it felt as though they were speaking of someone else. Another person — perhaps the girl I almost was — inhabited my body when they looked at me, and my true self, which I had not yet identified, lingered somewhere in the far corners of my mind, just waiting to be set free.
I had to acknowledge then, though hesitantly, that I am not a girl. I’m non-binary.
This was a hard pill even for me to swallow. Most of my fears were rooted in internalized misogyny, my existing insecurities, and fear that I was “faking it,” but I also feared that, should I come out, I would make the world even more inaccessible to me.
Mind you, as a white disabled enby, I maintain an incredible amount of privilege, and I can navigate the world far more safely than BIPOC disabled and non-binary folks. Still, there was the lurking concern that I would further isolate myself from a world that was already unfriendly to me because of my invisible disability.
Would I have to defend my pronouns as I’ve had to defend my use of a wheelchair? Would my doctors cast doubt about me if I asked them to use my pronouns in the same way they doubted the severity of my pain?
Would this be another part of me I’d be forced to “earn” to call mine?
So much of my disability journey has been trying to prove my pain. It took me more than a year to even call myself disabled, because I was so convinced that I couldn’t possibly be disabled. Not at my age. In my body. Not with the (limited) mobility I had. I couldn’t possibly be living the experience I thought I was, and thus I viewed my existence through someone else’s lens — until I couldn’t anymore.
My pain (and my dysphoria, right along with it) got worse. It was a terrifying experience to feel as though my body was betraying me, but instead of resenting it for the changes I was going through, I looked inward. My body and I were long overdue for a heart to heart, and though I expected the conversation to begin and end in the same breath, it seemed my body had far more to say that I had expected.
Believe me, it pleaded.
I replied, “I do.”
In the quiet dark, my body and I safe in our solitude, it seemed to reject my answer.
See me, it commanded.
So I went to the mirror once more. In my reflection, I saw hips that shifted to bear the throbbing ache of my back, and knees that bowed when stretched for too long — and a person who could not and would not be defined by the pervasive heteronormativity and ableism that had crept into my identity and self-image.
Other people’s perceptions of me, my disability, and my identity are not my concern. Whether others respect and acknowledge my disability, I will still live with my symptoms and practice the care needed for me to survive and thrive. If others seek to belittle or delegitimize my gender identity, it won’t suddenly cease to be my identity; it’ll merely be a facet of me that others struggle to understand, and their lack of understanding bears no real consequence on who I know myself to be.
I’m under no obligation to sacrifice or “prove” my experience and identity for the sake of others’ comfort, and neither are you. It would be easier to feel understood and accepted by able-bodied, cis/het people, but the only person whose opinion truly matters is your own. Just as we yearn for respect from others, we deserve that respect from ourselves, and believe me — there is nary a more freeing feeling than finally, after so long, learning to accept your truest self.