Twenty-five years ago when I was in college, I had a professor who "got" me. Not in a way that made me feel seen for who I was, but in a way that made me feel naked at a party. Once, when he and I were talking about a paper I was writing on recreation for the disabled, our conversation veered uncomfortably toward me and how I viewed myself as a disabled person. It had been eight years since I had lost my leg and I was trying hard to keep up with the best of them. I skied, kayaked, I had been on an amputee soccer team and had sky-dived. I felt I was nearly as competent as two-legged people. So when he said, "I bet you don't have a disabled placard for your car, do you?" my face flushed with a mixture of indignation (of course I don't. I'm not disabled!) and anger (how dare you know me better than I know myself). I squirmed in my chair and mumbled something about not needing one. "There's no shame in having a disabled parking permit, Colleen." Sure there is.
It was another five years before I could do get one. Not that there weren't times when I desperately wanted to use one. Sometimes walking through a parking lot was so painful that I didn't have any reserves left in me to walk through the store itself.
When I used my disabled parking permit for the first time I experienced a mixture of emotions. I felt relieved that I didn't have to walk so far to get to the grocery store. I also felt a little giddy and validated that disabled parking spots even existed. People in power understand that people like me actually need them. But I was also ashamed of using the disabled parking space. I wanted to dress in incognito so no one would recognize me. I felt guilty. Surely there are people more deserving than I who need the spot. But I had to admit to myself that saving my energy and pain tolerance for the store itself was infinitely better than using it up in the parking lot getting to my destination.
I've used my disabled parking permit for many years now and the little knot in my stomach, faint as it's become over the years, still presents itself most times I use it. Sometimes that little knot is tightening in my gut because the reality is that I usually need the disabled parking spot. This frequent reminder that my body is "less than" it was meant to be wears on me.
Sometimes the little knot reminds me that I'm using it for convenience rather than need. I know I'm being lazy, but I rationalize to myself that there's got to be a perk to being an amputee and parking close to my destination is one of the few perks I get.
What's the most difficult, though, is when I get out of my car to the stares of able-bodied folks who are probably wondering why the heck I'm using a disabled parking permit. I know that when I'm wearing pants, which is the majority of the time, I look normal. A brief internal struggle ensues: Exaggerate your limp to show that you need and deserve this spot. No, walk your best. It's better for your body. You don't need to prove anything to anyone. Depending on the severity of the stares by the on-looker, I adjust my gait accordingly.
One of my focuses this year is to practice gratitude. I know that my life runs more smoothly when I'm grateful for what I have. I don't know if I'll ever get rid of the internal struggle I have over using the disabled parking space, but if I practice gratitude, it'll be a lot easier to park those feelings in a corner parking lot in my brain.