The dog heard the truck pull into the driveway before I did. She ran to the boys’ room, hopped on the bed and put her paws up on the windowsill. Her tail whipped back and forth as she looked frantically from the kids outside to me, and back again, as if to say Look Mom, our people are home! I yelled through the open window “Hey guys! How was your day?” My son turned to look at me. There was no, Hi Mommy or My day was fine. Instead, he scrunched up his face and said “Why are you wearing makeup?”
I was shocked into momentary silence. Granted, I didn’t wear makeup often anymore, but had I neglected my makeup bag for so long that the sight of me with a bit of eye shadow and blush on my face was startlingly out of the ordinary? I recovered quickly and smiled. Then I lied. “I just wanted to put some makeup on.”
He shrugged—seemingly accepting my simple explanation for having makeup on in the middle of a Tuesday—and turned back to get his school bag. This left me to face the real reason I did my makeup. The reason that was there, in the back of my mind as I went looking for my pink and white striped makeup bag. Look less disabled. The reason I told myself wasn’t really the reason, as I brushed a shimmery light brown over my eyes. Look less disabled. The reason I whole-heartedly planned on denying because nobody would bring it up or call me on it—except, apparently, my 9-year-old. Look less disabled.
It had been my silent mantra for months—maybe even years—after my injury. I told this to myself so often it was the the background music on an automatic loop inside my mind.
Look less disabled. Look less disabled. Look less disabled.
When I thought I could leave the house without doing my makeup, my mantra said to me “They will think less of you”. When I tried to convince myself to put my hair in a ponytail, it said “They won’t take you seriously”. When I started to feel confident in my own skin—on my own wheels—it told me “You don’t have the luxury to just be you. They will judge you. You have to try harder”.
In order to be taken seriously, I attempted to camouflage my disability with lipgloss and a hair straightener. If the wheelchair worked against me in making my first impressions, I would make sure that nothing else would.
As time went on, the mantra quieted. The more I navigated the world with a disability, the more I realized that most people didn’t actually treat me differently. The idea that I had to work for everyone’s approval became me knowing that if I had to work for their approval, their approval wasn’t worth it. But as my son accepted my easy explanation and left me to face the truth, I realized that somewhere inside of me, that doubt of being taken seriously still existed.
I did my makeup on this particular day because I had to take my daughter to her very first soccer practice. There would be coaches and parents I’d never met before and I needed to prove myself a worthy human—a worthy mother. These weren’t my people yet. My people and my community have known me and seen me long enough for the shock-value of disability to wear-off and for my own actions and words to overpower any misconceptions of wheelchair life. Without the safety of known acceptance, I slipped quietly back into that fear of being judged. And out came my makeup bag.
I took her to practice. I looked for the one familiar face I knew would be there because having an able-bodied sidekick boosts my confidence in these situations. As though having able-bodied approval somehow gives me an edge with all the other vertical humans. Even so, I didn’t introduce myself to the coach.
Ian texted me “Did you ask about being team manger?”
“No not yet. I’ve forgotten how to get past the wheelchair awkwardness.”
“That doesn’t sound like you.”
I paused. He was right. It wasn’t like me. What the hell was going on? From the moment I let that mantra slip back into my head that afternoon, every disability related insecurity I thought was long gone, resurfaced. It told me to try and conceal my disability—convinced me that it was all any of these strangers would see. And instead of saying I know better than what you’re telling me, I listened. I did my makeup and my hair, hoping to hide this supposed weakness but, in the end, I was still too nervous to introduce myself—not because of anything anyone said or did to me, but because of what I said to myself.
I quickly typed out “I know. I must be tired” with a laughing emoji and put my phone away. The practice ended and my daughter ran over smiling with her new uniform in hand—just like all the other girls did to their respective parent. Any inadequacies that had been bothering me faded away and I found the coach. “Hi, I’m Codi. I e-mailed you about being team manager.”
It’s easy to feel like a failure when you give in to the things you’ve supposedly overcome. But overcoming something isn’t about performing some magical disappearing act. The fears, emotions and vices we learn to deal with, wait in the wings for a trigger to reveal themselves. And then they take centre stage. Sometimes we let them stay there longer than we should but nobody’s path to change is straight and easy. When you’re ready, take everything you’ve learned and remind yourself that you have the power. Then, you move on.