When Everyone Stares: How I Deal With the Attention of Disability…

When Everyone Stares

Do you ever get a feeling someone is watching you? As you walk down that creepy alley on a Friday night to get to your car? Tiptoeing to the kitchen in the middle of the night for a sip of agua? Stealing from the Mini-Mart on the corner? I have that feeling all the time. Because people are watching, not because I’m robbing stores. Just to clarify.

I use an electric wheelchair on campus. An ancient and disruptive machine. Amplified through the stark halls of the university buildings and on the crunchy carpeting of the library. Every time I cruise into a building, everyone stops and looks at me. It’s only for a moment. They feel bad for looking at the poor soul in the wheelchair and flick their eyes back to their task. I giggle in my head.

Society has strange standards for treating crippled people. Don’t stare. Don’t ask questions. Try and be as normal as possible, even though they’re out of your realm of experience. The results are awkward. The stares are only quick glances. Quick flicks of the head are more noticeable than slow turns. Common’ people, body language 101.

The absence of people’s questions leads to assumptions. Like the one that I’m wheelchair bound. False. I’m what they call a part-time wheelchair user. Like many of these millennials in their twenties. Get a fulltime job. Move out of mom’s basement. Yesh.

All the stares can be uncomfortable. Every time I enter a room, I usher in an obnoxious humming. I disrupt everyone as they turn to identify that abhorrent sound. “I’m interrupting them. I’m annoying them. Everyone is annoyed at me. Why can’t I be quieter in the library? Why can’t I just walk? Why am I so selfish to make everyone else feel so uncomfortable?”

I’ve come to understand my friends with social anxiety a little better. Especially after one particular day: I was feeling very poorly. Sick to my stomach and experiencing pain. I had to send in my resignation letter for my job that day. I was sad and grumpy as I entered the library. Twenty pairs of eyes met me all at once, I wanted to scream “Stop looking at me! Mind your own freaking business!” I put on my headphones and turned up my music until I could only faintly hear my wheelchair and the cold sound echoing off their stares.

Those of my friends who have explained social anxiety explain it like this. “I feel like everyone s watching me. They don’t like me. They disapprove of me. I’m afraid of doing something wrong. Saying something wrong. They’re judging me. They won’t like me. I rather be alone than rejected.”

Having the feeling everyone is watching us can lead to self-absorption. Not in the style of an amoeba. Self-absorption in constantly checking the way we look, the way we act, the way we talk. With constant image management, we miss helping those around us who are hurting.

Being sick has made me more self-consumed. I’m less able to look outside myself and function socially in mutually beneficial relationships. I’ve learned to be my own selfish pig.

It’s good to hold to social norms: manners, civilities, not screaming “fire” at a Metalica concert. Those are pyrotechnics. Stop it. We shouldn’t, however, be constantly self-checking for character inconsistencies, which would ruin how people perceive us. Such an obsession with oneself doesn’t allow a Christian to function in the way God intended.

Jesus lived in the most selfless way possible. He left behind the most honored throne in existence, the glory of His position as God, to meet us on earth. Not only did He come to earth, He was from Nazareth. The Pueblo of the Middle East. He wasn’t concerned with image management. As He spoke against the Pharisees, He couldn’t care less about the Jewish social norms. He did all this to reach out to the lonely, the broken, the untouchables.

Disregard of self-consciousness is not to say I should proclaim “Screw what anyone thinks. I’m just going to be myself.” Perhaps the most toxic idea in modern society is “be yourself.” It fosters a whole different kind of identity obsession, one in which an individual doesn’t care about other people.  A person becomes self-absorbed with their personal wants and needs. Exclusively. In the same way a Christian misses ministering to the broken by trying to please others, he also ignores the needs of the broken in only pleasing himself.

A middle ground needs to be identified between self-consciousness and a total disregard of self-awareness. All things in moderation. Like donuts.

As a loud person in a loud wheelchair, I need to work on the self-conscious side of the issue. The anxiety stemming from people always watching me. Watching. They’re always watching.

I need to care less about what people think of me and more about how I treat others. Instead of caring about whether or not they regard me as the “weird girl in the wheelchair,” I need to be actively seeking out those who need encouragement. Looking outside of my own consciousness and comfort equips me with the skills I need love in the way Jesus did.

So, here’s to the prayer I don’t become a paranoid puddle on the ground. Here’s to the hope I can use my noisiness to attract people to God’s love. Here’s to the wish my wheelchair will magically silence itself.

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