Perhaps I should say more clearly, I have never felt that I fit in.
As a very young boy I knew deep inside of me that I was different from other people. I lived in a small mining town where boys were boys and girls wore frills. It was the kind of town where when a girl wore pants to the elementary school because it was the deepest of a deep cold winter she was expelled for the day. What a fight that caused. In that environment I had identified somewhere deep inside of me that no one could ever know the secret I carried.
It’s a huge burden being a child with a secret.
You fear every day. You fear your own weakness. You fear your trust of others. You fear your need not to be alone with a secret that grows proportionately with your fear of exposures.
It’s a huge burden being a child with a secret.
I learned for fear others. Fear being with others. I felt that when I was with others, I had no place to be. No place simply to be.
As a very young boy, I was ‘big boned’ according to my family and ‘fatty fatty two by four can’t get through the kitchen door’ to everyone else. I was called names every single day of my life. I was called names multiple times every single day of my life. My weight was like a target placed on me. People, boys and girls equally, loved tormenting me. If I’d be standing at my locker some young ‘wit’ would push himself against the opposite way and shout, ‘He takes up so much space!’ Some other young wit would point out my chest and bemoan that she didn’t have tits like me.
Sitting on a bench was torture, if my body touched others, most often caused by the number of people on the bench, it would result in a ‘ewww, gross!’ Even though everyone’s sides on the bench were touching everyone else’s side. I’d be the cause of the tightness. I’d be the cause of what happened to me. I always thought it was my fault.
It’s does damage, never fitting in anywhere. It teaches you to hate yourself. It teaches you that there is no where safe. It teaches you that the world, for all that it is, isn’t big enough to have a place where you belong.
Years later, becoming a wheelchair user, this was amplified. My taking both space and time – needing a second longer to get into an elevator or off a subway. Needing space in a restaurant – a bother. Needing space on a subway car – a hindrance. Needing space on a sidewalk – why do you people go out?
No where to belong.
And now I have another secret. I fight and fight and fight to keep silent about my own complicity in my own oppression – I believe they are all right. I believe that I am too big, too bulky, took different and that I should be grateful for what I’m given. I don’t believe I’ve earned anything, I believe that those who are kind to me are simply charitable. I believe I am not worth of that charity.
I found a slow rage building in me. A rage that surprised me. I didn’t know it’s source. But it would burst out every now and then. I’d snap at anyone who did something that reminded me of the cruelty of the boys at school or said something that bit like the girls at school. I’d find myself feeling like a little angry boy who had been a little angry boy for a very long time.
Oh, I managed to create a safe space around me. In my home, in Joe’s company, in the life we built together. But even there, even in those places, I wasn’t entirely safe from me. From the blame I heaped on myself. From the apology always on my lips about taking space and time and help.
On February 1st, I started a new way of living in the world. I wanted to do things to ease the pain I felt every day of my life. I started lifting weights and controlling my blood sugar. Simple things. Private things. But then the private became public. I stopped allowing Joe to push me. I pushed myself down hallways and on to buses. I pushed myself from the car to the hotel lobby. I pushed myself from the movie theatre to the restaurant.
The reaction to this wasn’t pretty. I’m slower. I take longer. Hills are a challenge and I slowly push up them. Ramps are even more of a challenge and I’m even slower. But I determinedly make my way. I am going to be stronger and I’m going to be as pain free as I want. I came to realize that if I wanted to stop feeling the pain in my body I was going to have to deal with the pain inflicted by impatient people who simply want me out of the way.
Now let me define out of the way. Wheelchair users in general, and fat ones more specifically, are like rolling Rorschach tests. People see what they want to see. People see what they fear or what they loathe or what makes them angry. I am not human. I am not real. I am simply something in their world that they get to interpret in any way they want. I can be rolling towards a door, there can be space all around me for people to easily pass, and people will get behind me and ‘be’ inconvenienced. There can be a mile of space all around me and people will follow me and complain about me slowing them down. There can be another door to go through but they will wait as I push myself through the disabled automatic door. People want me to know the results of their Rorschach, an aptly named test because it sounds like a combination of ‘roar’ and ‘shock’ which is how I’m responded to most often.
A few days ago, in California, I am pushing myself up a hill on the way to the hotel we are staying in. Joe is getting things from the car. He knows I prefer to do this now myself. Even if it’s hard, I want to get up the incline myself. Two people get behind me. I look around. There is so much space to walk around me and get to the door.
I realize that they want me to feel in the way.
I realize that is the message they want to send me.
I realize that none of this is an accident.
I realize that this is prejudice made flesh.
I realize that they want to define who belongs and who doesn’t.
I realize that they want me to know that I don’t fit.
That little boy in me, the one with the secret, the one with secrets, the one who knows he doesn’t fit.
That boy spoke to them. The voice was a man’s voice but it was a voice that had never spoken before.
“I HAVE A RIGHT TO THIS SPACE!”
They look shocked.
I told them to go around me. One of them said that I should either hurry up or get help. I raged, “THIS SPACE IS MINE, I BELONG RIGHT HERE.”
The tone startled them and they stepped to the side and walked into the hotel. I pushed myself on my path.
It’s my path.
And I have a right to be here.
That little boy was wrong. I do fit in this world. I do have a place in this world. It’s simply been waiting for me to claim it.
And I claim it.
This is the lesson that it took 63 years for me to learn.