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Like any young girl, I’d had my fair share of crushes. There was the blonde boy in my second-grade class who I used to daydream about on a daily basis, and my red cheeks matched the color of my hair any time he’d walk by.
There was the boy on my high school newspaper. We were co-editors, and I spent meetings thinking not about the upcoming story assignments or proofing a new layout, but studying intensely his piercing eyes, wavy brown hair I desperately wanted to tousle and the way his orange shirt brought out his smile.
And then there was Him. My first love. I was sure of it. It started innocently when I was 13, where I referred to him as “a major babe” in my journal and morphed to deeper feelings of envisioning myself growing old with him. I found myself falling for him. Hard. I analyzed every chance meeting we had in those tattered journal pages. What did his body language mean? What was he wearing? How long did we talk? What did he say? How did he say it?
But for some reason, I could never muster the courage to tell him – or any of these other crushes – how I felt, not because our differing personalities may have gotten in the way, but because I could feel my disability already had. And I was crushed.
“Why am I 20 and never had a boyfriend?” I wrote in my journal in 2001. “No boy has ever been interested in me. Am I deficient in some department? Do I turn guys off with my disability? I really want to experience true love, but I wonder if that could ever happen to someone as ugly and undesirable as me? I want guys to take me for who I am and look past my disability. Can't they find someone to love in this invalid body?
By the time I transferred to a major university a year later, my childhood bubble finally popped. I couldn’t run. I couldn’t hide. And what I could see made me feel even more exposed. Hoards of beautiful blondes scurried around in their tank tops and flip flops. They had perfect, slender legs. They had cute tan arms. And on those tan arms usually hung an equally tan boy’s arm. Couples canoodled by the fountains in the center of campus, laughing and giggling. Some even whispered sweet nothings into each other’s ears, probably prose filled with words like “I love you” and “You’re beautiful.”
And there I sat, literally, in my wheelchair, watching romance blossom right before my very eyes. It looked so easy. I was left feeling, well, empty. In my world, where all the twentysomethings around me could easily couple up, I stood somewhat on the outside, peering through the window of a life I desperately wanted but would never have. I even started to feel like an invisible ghost that no man could ever see “in that way.” My crushes had systematically dissolved – unresolved, of course – as silently as they had come. It was amazing how good I got at hiding how I felt.
“I’m a feminist. Who needs a piece of arm candy?” became my mantra. I put on my shield of armor and vowed never to take it off. I didn’t want anyone to see what lay underneath – in my eyes, a deformed, scared little girl.
Maybe I was afraid to admit that I’d grown disgusted with my body, or maybe part of me just didn’t want to think about it anymore, but from that moment, I shifted my focus to my mind. I excelled at all things academic, and by my junior year of college, I may not have had a fling with the quarterback, but I did have a shelf of shiny accolades. A 3.9 GPA. A plaque for the Best Damn Reporter on my college’s newspaper. A certificate for being an outstanding women student. But I still felt alone. Empty. A yearning I couldn’t quite put my finger on.
I had a beautiful mind. But the little girl in me – the one who sat on her bed and dreamed so long ago of the flowing white dress – still wanted so desperately to feel pretty on the outside. I wanted to feel that rush, that excitement, that thrill of love. As a woman, you want to feel desired. My physical disability didn’t change the fact that, yes, I was indeed a woman.
There’s a large lagoon in the heart of campus. I must have walked around it hundreds of times, darting under the weeping willows, or feeling the gnaw of nostalgia when I passed a group of preschoolers leaning into the water to feed bread crumbs to the squawking ducks. The ducks. I finally saw them for the first time one day. As the early summer air breezed past my cheeks, I stopped on the grassy banks for a moment to observe those winged birds who flapped and fluttered in the shallow water. There was always one duck the flock seemed to leave behind as they paddled toward the majestic geese. The poor duck looked all alone and lost, like he was somehow desperately searching for his place in the world. I felt an instant connection with that lonely duck. We were both ugly ducklings in a sea of beautiful, graceful swans.
And that’s when it hit me: I’d spent so many years feeling ugly on the outside and looking for validation to make me feel loved on the inside. When men never seemed to take an interest, I assumed it must be me. There was something inherently wrong with me. My nose was too big. My eyes were lopsided. My wheelchair stuck out like a sore thumb, scaring them all away. And my feeble attempts at focusing on my mind had merely been a way to avoid my body, something I’d come to view as an “ugly mess.” I’d immersed myself in books and papers and tests as a way to distract myself – and way to distance myself from my body and try to convince myself that my mind was somehow separate.
I wasn’t just coming to terms with my looks, I now realized. I was coming to terms with my disability and what that meant for my life. For so long, I’d tried to run away from my disability, trying to inconspicuously hide behind it. After all, my disability had become a wall that got in the way of everything. But it’s not that men were uncomfortable with my disability. I was. And I had been afraid to admit it to myself.
A few years later, I stood outside on a crisp fall Midwestern morning, and my attitude matched the promise of the changing season. From my vantage point in my driveway, I could see the yellow ball of sun blanket the Earth in a warm glow. For the first time, I was glowing too. I finally realized I’d been looking for love in all the wrong places. All I wanted was for a man to look past my disability and see the real me – she was tucked in there just waiting to come out of her shell – but it had to start with me. The next time I looked in the mirror, I started to notice my wavy red hair, my freckles and my piercing green eyes. But what stood out most were my surgical scars, not as a hopeless reminder of my differences, but as a badge of honor. A symbol of all I’ve overcome – even a symbol of what makes me beautiful. My swan had finally blossomed.