Just because I don't look disabled doesn't mean I'm not.
Just as I closed my car door and stuck my key in the ignition, a loud thud made me jump and look at my side-view window, which now appeared to have coffee streaming down it.
"What the hell?" I muttered to myself. But before I could even begin to process what had just happened, the woman who threw the coffee cup made the situation very clear.
"Get the f*ck out of the handicapped spot, you loser!" she screamed at me. "You have legs, so use them! I watched you walk in and out of that building and you are a lazy excuse for a human being! I've taken down your license plate number and have called the police. YOU ARE GOING TO HELL!"
I'm used to being in this situation by now (and admittedly past the point of mature restraint because it happens so often) so I told the woman that I would save her a seat in hell, which she would be occupying very soon if she didn't get out of my way. Then I slowly began to back my car out of the spot and pray that I didn't run over her feet.
As I drove away shaking, I realized I'll never get used to the vile attention that people throw at me (figuratively and now, apparently, literally) when they see me park in the handicap spot. In fact, just a few days before that incident, a woman came up and slammed her hands on the hood of my car as I was backing out; she demanded to know what was so wrong with my able body that I would steal a spot from someone who really needed it.
And the week before that? A man stopped me as I was walking into an office building and demanded I move my car. When my quivering and intimidated voice tried to tell him I did, indeed, have a placard and that I was legally allowed to park there, he physically tried to stop me from entering the building, as he called the police and reported my "fraud."
Because here's the kicker: I am legally handicapped. You just can't SEE my handicap.
I don't walk with a limp or anything "obvious."
You can't see my strength wasting away from a genetic disorder (it resembles Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome), which ravages my joints and steals my muscle tone. You can't see that there are times when my lung function hovers around 70 percent. You don't know I'm recovering from a cardiac condition.
You also don't know that I go to physical therapy for two hours a day, four times a week, in an effort to retain the muscle mass I have, and you can't possibly understand what it feels like to not be able to push a shopping cart with more than a few items in it before your shoulders begin to scream in pain and beg for mercy.
You'd probably roll your eyes if you knew that because of that pain, I break my grocery shopping list up into three different lists and unload each haul into my car before returning to the store to get the items on the next part of my list.
My shoulders simply can't take any more than that, and pushing a cart with everything in it at once has simply become impossible. But I can walk just fine, which is funny because I've had over 30 hours of surgery on each of my ankles, and have so much metal implanted int them that I have been known to set off many a metal detector.
In fact, I'm a donor recipient because my own body parts just weren't good enough anymore. But I can run, and I do — quite a bit actually.
Yet, I can't always do things that require any sort of strength and because of that, my doctor finally convinced me that parking closer to the door — in order to limit the amount of time I need to push a cart or carry a bag — would allow me to save my energy and not need a nap or a massage after a quick stop at the store. (That is, assuming the door is automatic or has a disabled button; otherwise, sometimes I can't even get the door into the building open.)
One of the most crushing moments of my life was standing in court just a few months ago, listening to the state's job specialist tell the judge I was unemployable on a full-time basis because of my medical issues, and then having the judge deem me permanently disabled. I had just turned 32 years old.
After being denied a year earlier, I had only agreed with my doctor and my lawyer to appeal the decision when my health took a sharp decline. But nothing had prepared me to actually face the truth about my health; a truth that up until that point I had adamantly shunned because it was so hard to accept.
It's a struggle for me to get up every day, and most days my first realization that I'm awake is the pain I feel before I even open my eyes. And it's even harder when I'm going through the motions as a single mother of two special needs children, but I get up and I move forward, because I have no other choice.
I survive on a very small disability check (that doesn't even cover my mortgage), food stamps, and writing jobs that can be done from my couch, or the waiting room of a doctor's office. I do what I can, because I have no other choice.
In fact, I do it with a smile on my face because eight years ago I wasn't sure if I would even be around to watch my kids grow up. But thanks to medical advances and a complete dietary change, the destruction of my internal organs has stopped (and almost completely reversed itself). Sadly, the same can't be said for the damage it had already caused to my joints and muscles.
The pain is still there and it's only going to get worse, but the only choice I have in this situation is to decide how much I want to complain.
So if you see me walking across the parking lot, even if I'm wearing heels, please stop throwing things at me. Please stop yelling at me, spitting at me, and getting in my face because you don't know what's really going on. You aren't my doctor, and you aren't my judge.
You are just the person who is ruining the blessing of me still being able to walk. Please allow me to have my dignity — and my parking spot.