"You must work out to be able to lift her."
"Ugh, you are getting so heavy."
"You should watch what you eat or no one will be able to lift you."
"You're so small, how can you lift her?"
I’ve heard these comments regularly since adolescence. I use a wheelchair for mobility and require assistance with basic living tasks, such as using the restroom. When the school nurse first began making comments about my weight, I tried my best to ignore what she was saying. In order to avoid hearing her complain about lifting me, I started limiting my school restroom breaks to once a day, which meant I also had to limit how much I drank during the day. As time went on and the comments did not stop, I began limiting my food too – I was already limiting how much I drank, so restricting my food intake became just as easy.
High school is a stressful time for just about every teenage girl, so I easily explained away my weight loss as a symptom of stress. When I went away to college, no one was around to hold me accountable, and it became even easier for me not to eat. I learned how many calories were in everything I ate, and I limited my intake as much as possible. I lost weight quickly, and I was okay with not eating; after all, the comments and complaints from the people who assisted me had stopped. It took me a while to realize that the comments had stopped not because of my weight loss but because I had able-bodied, kind peers helping me with my needs, which was a world of difference from a school nurse who should have had more assistance and training before working with me.
I lost more weight, continued restricting calories, and kept pretending to eat, until I finally grew sick of constantly worrying about calories and always sitting awkwardly next to my friends as they ate. I realized I had become anorexic, and I decided to speak with a peer counselor. Over the next few years of college, I slowly gained weight and I thought I had conquered the illness. After college, I began my career and moved to a brand new city where I had to hire new assistants. The pool of people to choose from was very small, and I had to hire any available aide while waiting to be matched with a better fit. One of the assistants I hired was an older woman had trouble with the physical requirements of the job. Soon after I hired her she began making comments about lifting me, complaining that I was too heavy.
It wasn't long before I returned to the familiar routines of counting calories and not eating; this time, though, I had discovered diet pills. I had no idea what they were doing to my body; I just knew they were helping me to lose weight quickly. I wasn't even eating enough calories to sustain basic bodily functions, including breathing, and I ended up in the hospital with organ failure. The physical pain was unbearable but the emotional pain of watching my mom in distress was even worse. I eventually became medically stable and once again began the long process of trying to conquer my anorexia; this time, though, I understood that it was something I would always battle, and that recovery is a lifelong journey.
Five years after being hospitalized with organ failure and resuming my recovery journey, I had the life I wanted: I was now married and we were expecting our first child. Being a mother was always something I had dreamed of, but due to my disability I was never sure it would happen for me. I was overwhelmed with joy; the weight gain that would accompany the pregnancy never even crossed my mind. However, around month five, my weight began going up, and I was horrified. Logically, I knew that I had to gain weight and that gaining weight was a good sign for the baby, but anorexic thinking was taking over. When I was weighed during month six, I broke down in tears. My OB/GYN made the decision that neither I nor my husband were to be told what I weighed.
For the rest of my pregnancy, I forced myself to eat as much as my body told me to, and I tried my best not to worry about calories or my weight. However, once my healthy baby girl arrived, my eating disorder returned with a vengeance as I tried desperately to lose the baby weight. I will always struggle with my eating disorder, but right now I am at a weight that is healthy for my height and my disability. My battle with calories and weight is a daily struggle but I have a good support team. Strangers still make comments when they see me being lifted and I work hard to just ignore them, reminding myself that they are not coming from people I deal with on a daily basis. Those who work in healthcare and assist individuals with disabilities have a tremendous amount of influence over them. Some of the people who have assisted me had no idea of what their comments can do to a person, especially to a teenage girl. As the mother of a wonderful, perfectly healthy girl, it is very important to me that my daughter develops a good body image; I am very conscientious of what I say to my daughter, and I always remember how life-altering even the most casual comment can be.
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