This article originally appeared in the blog Claiming Crip and is reprinted by permission.
Dear 15-year-old Karin,
I can’t believe I’m 25! I’m not going to lie, when I was your age I never thought I would make it here, and I definitely never thought I might actually like myself (gasp!). Don’t get me wrong, I still have bad days. There are still some things I wish I could change, but I know I’m fierce, beautiful, intelligent, and strong, and I don’t spend my days wishing I was somebody else anymore. I promise you that all those people who say you don’t have to be thin and able-bodied to feel beautiful — no, to be beautiful — are right.
Believe me, there are so many more important things in life than living up to somebody else’s arbitrary standards of what is beautiful. I know that’s hard to believe, I struggle with it sometimes, even now, but I beg of you, stop hating your body and fighting a war with yourself. I know it doesn’t seem like it now, but the only person you’re hurting is you.
Try and learn to be your own kind of beautiful, because in the future one of your greatest accomplishments will be doing that, and inspiring other people to do the same.
Now, we have to talk about mean girls, bullies, and staying true to yourself. I know this is hard to believe right now because the wounds are fresh, but one day you will talk about all the horrible things that have happened to you. You will have an amazing platform to tell your story, and you’ll show other girls experiencing the same thing that they are not alone, that they have no reason to be ashamed.
You will learn that mean girls never really go away, but also that it’s not about you, and that you should never change who you are because somebody else is cruel to you. Hang in there girl! You will find people who like you for exactly who you are.
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I know you’re sitting there right now staring at your leg braces and silently cringing. Well, don’t worry about them; you get rid of them when you’re 18, but much to your disappointment, buying shoes doesn’t get any easier. Looking back you’ll realize you never should have hated them as much as you did, because they weren’t evil. They were a part of you, and you’ll realize that all your attempts at hiding them were never really about the braces. They were about being different.
I know you hate it right now, even if you can’t bring yourself to admit it out loud. You hate your wheelchair, and your scars, and your spasms. You hate the fact that people stare at you and treat you differently. You hate the whispers and the giggles. You hate being treated like a five-year-old, when you are a full-fledged teenager. You wish you were “normal”, and you want absolutely nothing to do with your disability or anything that will make you stand out.
Sweetheart, I know it’s frustrating right now, but I promise you it won’t always be that way. You will learn to claim disability as an important part of who you are. You will become a proud disabled woman, and a fierce advocate who wants to dedicate your life to changing the world for the better instead of running from it. You will learn words like “ableism”, which will teach you that the way people treat you is not your fault, but is a result of the way society understands disability. You will learn to focus on changing the world rather than changing yourself. Your passion will lead you on a journey across the country, and eventually across the world. You will find a disability community that will mean the world to you and give you some of your greatest friends, best experiences, and even your first love.
Yes, you heard me right! You, the girl who’s secretly convinced you’ll be alone forever, will fall in love. He will love you because of who you are, not in spite of it. He will teach you that you are deserving of affection, not pity, and that you are most certainly desirable and lovable. Being with him will unlock dreams you never let yourself want and make you realize that all parts of life are open to you, exactly as you are. You will love him with your whole heart, and he will love you back. You will talk about music, movies, and your passion for disability rights. You will tell him things you never thought you could tell another person. You will talk about the future, marriage, and children.
You will love him, and he will love you, but you will not get to keep him. The night somebody knocks on your door to tell you that he’s gone will break your heart into a million pieces. You won’t exactly know how to deal with his death, especially since you weren’t a couple anymore. It’s been months, and I still don’t know how to deal with it, but there are a few things I do know for sure. You won’t regret loving him, or letting him love you. You will learn to value yourself more, and you will learn that you are worthy of being loved by another person. Loving him will teach you that you are enough exactly as you are, and that you deserve love, and not just mere toleration.
You will learn that you are worthy and lovable because of who you are, not in spite of it. Loving and being loved by him will teach you to love yourself better. You will always miss him, but I swear you will never regret him. I promise you knowing him will be worth the pain that you’ll feel. Loving him will show you the best parts of you.
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You will write in more than just your journal. You will use your words on a national scale to make a difference in the world, just like you always dreamed. You already know that life can be painful, and I’m sorry to tell you that will not change, but you will also learn that life can be tremendously beautiful. You will be stronger than you ever thought possible, but you will find a community of people who will make sure you never feel alone. I can’t promise you the future will be easy, but I can promise you it will be worth it, and I can promise you I am proud of who you become. I hope you are too.
Karin Hitselberger is a graduate student and freelance writer with Cerebral Palsy. She has bachelors degrees in communication studies and religious studies from the University of Miami, and is currently obtaining a Masters degree in disability studies from the University of Leeds in England. She blogs about life and disability issues at Claiming Crip, and the intersection of disability, fashion, and body acceptance at Ceepstyle. Follow Claiming Crip on Facebook. Karin is also on Twitter as @karinonwheels.
(Feature Image: Close up photo of young person with shoulder length dark brown curly hair. The person is smiling)