Today I’m excited to host a guest post by my friend Elizabeth Stinson. Elizabeth is an amazing young woman, currently doing her grad work in microbiology at the University of Pittsburgh.
“No, I can do it ALL. BY. MY. SELF! I do not need your help.” How many times have you thought this or heard your child say it, whether you/they have a limb difference or not? I think it is completely normal to want to be self-reliant and not ask for help. When I was growing up, though, it went beyond that for me. I felt I needed to prove something not only to myself, but to the world.
First, let me introduce myself. My name is Elizabeth and I am twenty-two years old.
I was born with a left radial clubbed hand (my wrist was bent so my hand looked like an ‘L’) and I do not have a thumb on my left hand. I also have an incomplete wrist, elbow, shoulder, and clavicle. I had seven surgeries between the ages of ten and fourteen to straighten my wrist and lengthen my forearm to increase function through the use of an external fixator.
I no longer view myself as being deficient in any way, but that is not how many people saw me when I was younger and it affected how I viewed myself for a long time. In elementary school we had those faucets were you had to press down HARD to turn it on and as soon as you let go the water turned off. While I am sure this was quite economical, it was especially difficult for me. I could wash my left hand, but I did not have enough strength to push down and wash my right. The teachers quickly found out and from then on someone always had to go to the bathroom with me. While they had good intentions and were only trying to help, that was not how it felt to me. I was the only one that had to have a bathroom buddy and I felt singled out, so I tried not to go to the bathroom at school.
In fourth grade we were taught how to type ‘correctly’ in computer class. I could not (and still cannot) place my hands on the keyboard ‘properly’: thumbs on the space bar and fingers on the middle row of keys, so my teacher decided I should be put in a special group. In the special group it did not matter how fast I typed, if I memorized the placement of the keys, or how accurately I typed; I used a different program and was the only one in this ‘special’ group. While I am sure she had good intentions she chose not to challenge me because I could not do things the ‘correct’ way.
These are just a couple examples of adults who I am sure only wanted to help but ended up making me feel different, unworthy, isolated, deficient, incapable, inadequate, weak, helpless, frail, lesser than, and alone. These well-meaning adults made me view receiving ‘help’ as something that made me weak and stand out. (I am not saying that offering help to a limb different child will cause such negative emotions; it was the way the ‘help’ was ‘offered’ to me that evoked such emotions.) The school could have installed new faucets or placed hand sanitizer in the bathroom. The computer teacher could have allowed me to type my way and realized that I typed just as fast and accurate as the other students; I just did it my way. As I was growing up there were multiple situations like this and the negative feelings compounded. I would snap at anyone who offered to help me because I thought they saw me as weak or unable, not that they had a good heart, and I almost never asked for help, even from my parents. When adults would see me struggling they would call me stubborn for not asking and refusing help, which only made me that much more determined NOT to ask for help. I felt I needed to prove to the world that I could do what any ‘normal’ person could do, and more; I needed to do it better, faster, etc.
This slowly started to change around the time I started the surgeries because I was the one making decisions about my body and having an external fixator drilled into your arm kind of forces you to ask for help on a daily basis. While I hated asking for help, I started to realize I was not a super hero, I did not need to prove anything to anyone, and that asking for help can make you a stronger person.
I still have my days where I get frustrated that I cannot do a push up ‘correctly’ or that it takes me five trips to the car to get all the groceries when it is cold because my left arm is not strong enough to carry most things. I still do not like asking for help in a buffet line or opening a spaghetti jar because those are the things ‘normal’ people can do, but I put aside my pride and ask for help anyway (most of the time). I think having a limb difference makes you keenly aware of what your limitations are and when you need to ask for help. And while this may seem like a burden, I think it makes us stronger and more humble people because one of the hardest things in life is learning when to ask for help.
And then accepting it.