Last week, someone I’d just met opened up to me about his struggles with mental health and depression. He used my disability as a segue to talk about his own problems, even though I’d only mentioned my impairment in passing because I’ve been writing about it. I didn’t bring it up in order to talk about it (or worse, cry about it). I used to mention my disability upfront to people because I liked the attention and it gave me space to talk, but I don’t typically make it a topic of conversation anymore and would rather other people didn’t either.
I understand now that this person I met simply wanted someone to listen to him. He needed to talk and he wanted to know that someone cared and would understand him, and he thought that my own physical limitations gave me a certain understanding of his own mental health struggles, even though I find the two wholly unrelated and incomparable. I think he just wanted a way in to discussing his own problems, and that he genuinely needed someone to listen.
It was a strange experience because I finally felt like I was on the reverse side of an experience I’d had all my life: listening to someone else who really needed to talk. For once, I actually felt stronger than someone and – while I don’t feel that he and I necessarily share a similar experience – I know that he felt comfortable enough with me to open up to me because he knew I would listen to him.
Other people have used my disability to try to relate to me or tell me their own problems, but it’s been a long time since someone was so upfront about it. The truth is that I wish that had happened more gradually and that I knew other things about him, that whatever struggles he had would have come up over time rather than straight away (though I understand why they did). Everyone faces challenges every day; they don’t need to be openly discussed within the first twenty minutes of meeting someone. I learned this lesson the hard way, but it’s been beneficial for my own emotional health and my relationships. People know other parts of me that make me who I am and not just my cerebral palsy.
My therapist has asked me more than once that if I could take away my disability and all the negative feelings associated with it who I would be. I finally gave her the correct answer the other day, ‘Me. I would just be me.’