“You should put up with him,” my friend said as she flopped down on my bed, settling in to watch a movie. “Getting fired and drinking too much isn’t that bad.” She propped herself up on a few pillows and cracked open a can of Diet Coke. “Besides, guys willing to deal with all of what you got going on don’t grow on trees, girly. You’re lucky to have him.”
You know she’s right. I thought to myself as I felt that familiar presence of hopelessness taking over. Who do you think you are to have standards? “Do you think he’s the only guy that will ever like me?” I asked aloud, dreading her answer.
Of course! You know you’re nothing but a burden, whispered Worthlessness.
“Maybe. You know there is a downside to being with you, right? You’re more work with the wheelchair and all,” she said, waving her hand at me from head to toe. “I mean, you can’t even drive a car to pick him up when he drinks too much or get into places with stairs unless someone carries you! Plus about a hundred more drawbacks.” She sighed with unblinking eye contact, “I’m not trying to be mean, but facts are facts.”
“I know. You’re right,” I said, nodding in agreement, feeling a hollowness in my chest. Most people won’t give you a chance, my insecurities taunted. You better desperately cling to the ones that do, or you’ll be alone forever.
I was in high school when this conversation happened, and by then, I had fully absorbed the narrative that I had no right to even think about having standards for the kinds of friends I wanted or guys I dated. I thought without a doubt that my friend was right. I was lucky to be dating a guy who drank too much, couldn’t hold a job, and with whom I had nothing in common. A guy like that was considered a total catch for a “disabled girl like me.”
Eventually, this caused me to believe that having a good life with meaningful relationships was unattainable for someone like me. I had a hazy idea of what I dreamed of finding in a man but mostly put it out of my mind because I still thought of myself as just a burden, so I figured I should take what I can get. Not believing I could ever really be worthy of love led me to convince myself that guys who prioritized drinking above all else, weren’t focused on a career or goals, lacked overall integrity, and lived their lives in many other ways that were incompatible with my own as perfectly acceptable matches for me. I put up with things from some of my friends that I shouldn’t have, like being excluded from events, being used for material things, and being the rainy day last resort. Every time this happened, Worthlessness reminded me, Having you around just creates unnecessary work for others that isn’t worth it. You should gladly be excluded from events for the good and ease of others. And so I kept making excuses for them.
As easy as it would be to solely blame those not-so-awesome guys and not-so-great friends, I can’t. At the end of the day, I willingly accepted their subpar relationships because I thought that was all I deserved.
One day, I felt a new mental clarity that let me know it was time to change. I don’t know if it was the grace of God, a magic spell, supernatural intervention, a soul awakening, or listening to my wasted boyfriend puking in my bathroom, but out of nowhere, I felt a shift in my being that had a predestined energy I could feel in my soul. I suddenly saw with absolute clarity all the ways I had been selling myself short in every area of my life, and I knew it was time to stop. I felt energized to do better and be better. This was one of those moments in my life that kept me believing in miracles. A new and unfamiliar healthy sense of self was coming to me (complete with expectations AND standards), and I felt excited and hopeful. This was a significant turning point for me.
Before anything could change, I had to untangle and uproot all of the misbeliefs that were deeply planted in my heart and mind. It would take years and a lot of grueling work before I would come to realize that the thought-to-be impossible—living a life I wanted to live with meaningful friendships and a great guy—was possible.
Once I began the process of uprooting from my soul the lies about who I was, I started being extremely careful about whom I listened to and let influence me. For the first time ever, I realized that I could and should be selective about who I allowed into my life. It was so refreshing because, until then, it had never occurred to me that it was an option for me to be selective with who I wanted in my life. The notion that I deserved to have expectations of people—while still being disabled—mysteriously became something I knew to be true.
As I changed my view of myself—from worthless to worthy—my life started changing in little ways that I didn’t even notice until, one day, I realized I had stopped tolerating the nonsense I used to. As I continued to change, my self-concept also changed. The dark places of my mind that used to play loudly on repeat—I am too much work, I am nothing but a burden, I’ll never be enough, who I am and my disability will have to disappear for me to be worth it, take what you can get, and so on—got quieter and quieter. As these beliefs lost their power, I was gaining mine. I felt myself becoming stronger and learned that when you have a strong mind and a (in my case, much overdue) healthy sense of self, you can overcome much more than you think—even lifelong oppression.
Even though I was changing, the societal attitudes regarding disability weren’t. In order to keep working toward true self-acceptance, I had to develop intense discernment skills. I learned to pay close attention to what was being said to me and how I was feeling as a result. Oftentimes the cutting remarks were so subtle that they were easy to miss, but nevertheless, they took their toll.
When talking with others, I frequently checked in with myself to see how I was feeling. Was I relaxed and content? Was I seen or invisible? Was I being treated like an equal, or being infantilized? Before I took in other people’s prejudices and internalized them as who I was, I considered the source. Did they have good character, trustworthiness, and self-awareness? Did I feel comfortable being myself in their presence? Had they dealt with their own issues, or were they projecting their own insecurities on me?
Once I could clearly see and understand the ingrained responses and negative self-thoughts that were triggered by the various comments, I wrote them out in a list. There was something about seeing them on paper that helped me unscramble the mess of thoughts and feelings they had created in my mind. For every misbelief I wrote down, I made another list to refute those beliefs. I had to train myself to ask if the statements I was taking in as truth were actually true to who I was. By constantly questioning the lies (especially on paper), they became less powerful. Through the discipline of repetition and, I believe, a lot of help from God and my angels, it got easier and easier to feel empowered instead of overpowered.
It took (and takes) tremendous work and self-control for me to learn this and to keep habitually applying it to my life. The opportunity to let the various misbeliefs and devaluing attitudes that come from almost every direction all the time define and diminish my sense of self is always going to be there, it’s just part of the package. Through a lot of practice and success in defeating the misbeliefs, I became more confident than ever that I could handle anything they threw at me without them affecting my sense of self. But I was wrong.
Years after I thought I had overcome buying into the misbeliefs, I faced my biggest test when I started dating the man who would later become my husband. I had never met someone before with whom I instantly connected. We got along effortlessly, were completely comfortable together, and agreed on most of the major issues—like kids or no kids, marriage, money, do dogs sleep on the bed every night (yes definitely), etc.—that can make or break a relationship. I was in love, and the thoughts I had worked so hard to eradicate from my mind came rushing back. My insecurities taunted me day and night: He won’t stick around once he finds out how much work you are. If he seems too good to be true, he probably is. Any man that would want you must have something very, very, very wrong with him. You’re too much work for anyone. You’ll never keep a guy like him around.
For a moment, I fell back into believing the lies, and I began pushing him away. I didn’t want to get more attached to him and have a bigger heartbreak once he realized just “how disabled” I was and left. However, there were brief moments when the thoughts subsided, and I realized they didn’t have as tight of a grip on me as they used to, and this gave me hope. I kept making my lists of misbeliefs and their refutations, fighting the urge to go back to believing I was worthless and give up. When my courage and confidence faltered, I would remind myself that I had overcome these thoughts before so I knew I could do it again. I continued affirming my truth about who I was, and as I saw him faithfully show up time after time with complete acceptance of me, the thoughts stopped tormenting me.
When my friend from high school told me to settle and said she wasn’t trying to be mean, I knew she wasn’t. She meant well and was speaking from her heart, but she could only see me like the masses do—reduced to their narrow view of my physical disability. The problem was that I could only see myself that way too, and I believed every false and devaluing attitude they had about me.
Those misbeliefs will always be part of my life experience, but now I know they’re not a reflection of who I am or what I have to offer. I have found that the best way for me to live with them is by simply accepting with grace that, while I can’t get rid of them, I can defeat them (because I’ve done it before). When they do start to creep in and get to me, I use the skills I’ve developed to counteract them. Sometimes it takes only minutes, and other times it takes days, but eventually, my soul takes a long deep breath, and I’m whole again.