Disabled or Just Broken?

Disability happened to me in an instant. One moment I was able, the next I was broken from the ribs on down, the result of a horrific car accident. But I was fortunate; I received excellent care from the first responders to my amazing surgical team to the dedicated physical therapy, occupational therapy, and nursing staff that comprised my caregivers for the three months I spent non-weightbearing. I was fortunate that most of my family survived, and that we had the love and support of many friends and our community. I was fortunate to have a body healthy enough that I recovered most of what I had lost.

Yet, that good fortune and my recovery is plagued by negative emotions. Frustration, because having been born able-bodied I can remember what I lost. Anger at what my body, as encouraging as its recovery has been, is no longer able to do. A sense of sadness, of loss, because the thing is I can’t really remember what it feels like to walk up the stairs without discomfort. It was through this able to broken to healed-but-never-the-same process that I connected with a character and fully felt like I saw a part of myself in a story.

As a reader, I first found Joe Abercrombie’s “The Blade Itself” and Inquisitor Sand dan Glokta when I was still able-bodied. I enjoyed the book and the character then, but it wasn’t until I came back to it as an able-turned-disabled person that I felt like I’d found someone I could relate to. Glokta’s morbid sense of humor, his bitterness both at himself and the world post-injury, the outbursts of anger, irrational as they are, and him not caring? That was me, especially in the early years after my accident when I was more inclined toward anger than annoyance. I bonded with Glokta all over again on the first page we meet him, in our shared loathing of stairs, our shared having taken for granted bodies that could skip up or down the damned omnipresent things without a second thought. “And down is worse than up, that’s the thing people never realize.” So, so true. He presents at first like he might fall into the “angry because I’m disabled” trope, but there’s more to the character than his disability, and his anger is multifaceted. He has good days and bad days (and he can’t be bothered to be your inspirational hero), with gallows humor to get him through. I recovered more than Glokta did, but the frustration when his body can’t do what he wants, the longing to be strong and able again, is a connection I don’t share with many characters.

But, I also feel guilt. I struggle with calling myself disabled, often defaulting to “less than abled.” Like I shouldn’t say I’m disabled anymore because in many ways I got better. My disability has become invisible over time as I’ve graduated from using mobility aids and the surgical scars are hidden beneath clothes. And, I’m glad; it’s easier to get around with both hands free and on my own two legs. I can hide my disability by avoiding situations where it would become noticeable. I can pass off my difficulty in kneeling or standing or sitting with bent legs for long periods of time by saying I have bad joints. That isn’t really a lie. But my experience is representative of only one side of disability, the acquired disability end, and I am only one person. The guilt I feel over calling myself disabled isn’t only a fear of rejection, but also a fear of appropriation because I do long for the things I’ve lost—to be able-bodied again. While that may not be unique to me, I struggle with wanting to tell my story while also respecting that the disabled community is not a monolith.

As a writer, the idea for “Contractual Obligations,” coming this year from Cast of Wonders, was born in those long months spent stuck in a bed, robbed of my independence, unable to get food or wash my hands or use a bathroom that wasn’t a bedpan. The story built itself during the nightly shots of blood thinner to stave off blood clots from my lack of movement. As I lay in bed, my legs strapped into a machine that bent my knees to break up scar tissue, the question “What would you do to get back your legs?” played in my head. It hounded me as I walked for the first time, hands gripping the parallel bars as my broken femurs and pelvis readjusted to my weight. While I went through basic balance exercises in PT and got annoyed because this shit used to be so easy, and realized that as great as my progress was I would never be who I was pre-accident. And thus, the story came to be. I wrote it and loved it because it was an outlet, but I worry because in a way it is also a cure narrative. At its heart it’s a story about an able-bodied person who doesn’t want to have changed, to feel less than what she was. In a sense, it is me.

Jaime O. Mayer

Jaime O. Mayer is a Korean American adoptee, tea drinker, and avid hobby collector living in the Seattle area with her husband and their two cats. Her fiction has appeared in Cast of Wonders and Cicada Magazine. You can find her online at jaimeomayer.com and on Twitter as @JaimeOMayer.

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