For a disabled person, unsolicited advice is not welcome

(Dayna Smith - Dayna Smith/ftwp)
By Gwynneth VanLaven
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 4, 2010

A woman walks up behind me at Filene's Basement. I am busy balancing my cane and an overwhelming armful of bargains. She says apologetically, "I am sorry for the intrusion." I wait for it. "I know it's none of my business, but there's an herb you must try, it's called . . . "

I am sorry for the omission, but here is where I zoned out. As a woman in my 20s using a cane, I seem to be a magnet for community offerings. Have you tried ox blood in the bath? Do this: Squeeze your armpits chanting, "I love myself unconditionally." You must breathe more deeply!

From checkout clerks to dear friends, it seems everybody's trying to fix me. I feel like Humpty Dumpty on a daily basis, trudging from doctor to pharmacy, and in between all the king's horses, men and women try to put me back together.

I became visibly disabled after an accident. I was walking on a strip-mall sidewalk one day in September 2007. A car careened into the parking space beside me, jumped the barrier and struck my right side. The driver, looking at me with a vacant stare, gunned the gas again. His Lincoln Town Car smashed me against a building as he revved the gas again and again, pinning my right leg and hand. I suffered severe crush injuries and a resulting nerve disorder that causes pain and limits my mobility. At 29, I now use a mobility scooter in place of much walking, so my impairments do not go unnoticed.

I was recently at a college reunion when I was cornered by a stranger. I was sitting in my scooter talking with friends. A man walked up to me, excusing himself, and put his hand on my shoulder. He squeezed. "That's where you store all the tension," he said.

My friends scattered. The man stayed to tell me about fixing my pain and even offered to cure my cough, if I ever developed one. He said he couldn't help but share his gift for reflexology and healing when faced with someone in need.

I can appreciate these sentiments. It is a real testament to the power of community, to the genuine caring we share for others in suffering, to the kindness and empathy of strangers. Friends and strangers have tapped their resources, calling upon personal shamans and long-ago saints. One dear friend is painting an icon to watch over me. It is love, and this is powerful beyond my understanding.

Many people who offer me wellness advice don't know this history. I just seem like a wounded doe. They comment that I am "too young" for a cane or a scooter. I have come to represent something in my visible fragility. I become their fears; I am vulnerability incarnate.

If I tell them I was hit by a car, it furthers the fears. We just don't have a good way to respond to the news of someone's personal tragedy, especially when it challenges our own sense of safety and order in the universe. In response, people tell me the stories of other accidents. "Did you hear about the car that went through a house and crushed the people to death in their bed?" "You know about that girl permanently paralyzed by a drunk driver in Manassas?" "Some guy in a Town Car cut me off this morning going about 75 . . . "

Since the accident, I have had symptoms of post-traumatic stress -- anxiety, nightmares, flashbacks triggered by screeching tires -- but even if I didn't, such comments would not be helpful. Misery need not love company. I don't like to feel lucky that I didn't die when someone else did, and I don't find it at all consoling to think of others' accidents. Constantly hearing about these calamities further exaggerates my feeling of risk that this will happen again.

People are trying to relate, but they are relating out of fear. I think this is why the community's love can sometimes feel suffocating. While well intentioned, the intervention of friends and strangers can sometimes feel like it has more to do with them than with me. I sometimes feel ignored when someone approaches me about my disability. Aren't I more than a wounded lady? It feels like I'm wearing a scarlet D for "disabled-too-soon" and nobody can see past the fears it strikes in them.

I realize I do the same when my mom brings up troubles from work, for instance. I want to fix her problems. I feel powerless to intervene, which causes anxiety, and out of that anxiety, my offering up of solutions. She has taught me that what she needs most is listening. No problem-solving, just bearing witness. That's the sort of thing I most want from strangers and friends.

Active listening requires putting aside the anxieties of feeling vulnerable. When you see me rolling by on my scooter or hobbling along with my cane, the most difficult response may be to stay quiet. This means sitting with the feeling that the healthy can be suddenly struck down, that this fate could be yours or your daughter's. Well, pardon the intrusion, and it's not my business, but have you tried taking a deep breath at these moments? Try the mantra, "I am okay" while squeezing your left palm. Bathe in Epsom salts and the knowledge that you are not alone, not even in your attempts to help others.

VanLaven is an MFA candidate at George Mason University with a concentration on the cultural conception of wellness. Her art installation, a waiting room study, will be included in "Revealing Culture," an international juried exhibition for artists with disabilities, opening at the Smithsonian's International Gallery June 8.

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