“What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger,” or so my mother believes. This cheery colloquialism is one of those used in an effort to make horrible, hateful things that happen to you seem part of a grander plan and give the hope that once you have pushed through the latest injustice, you will somehow emerge as some sort of super human on par with The Hulk or Superman or something. The truth is that I have been hearing this saying all my life and am still waiting for my honorary super strength or, at the very least, a gold badge.
Most of the offenses I have withstood in my, albeit short, lifetime have been due to a breach of conduct between myself and what is accepted as “normal” in society. I never thought of myself as being abnormal, but then people would hear that I was homeschooled through elementary school (“That means you wear long skirts and don’t know how to talk to people, right??”), or that our family did Foster Care (“But those kids are wild, aren’t they?”), and little by little I began to realize how much I am not like the majority. When I was 12, I had two foster sisters who had severe Cerebral Palsy. It amazed me how people would have no qualms about staring wide eyed at the wheelchairs, and tubes, and drool as we passed them on the street. You could visibly see some people squirm as you rolled up closer to them in a Wal-Mart line up, or wheeled in to sit beside them at a school concert. Rarely would someone who was staring then make the effort to walk over and talk to us, or the girls.
At age 14, my first of two wonderful little brothers was born. To my shock and dismay, this meant that I was just the right age to appear as one of those “Darn Teenage Mothers,” as I chased my brothers up and down shopping aisles, or fed them their bottles while waiting for my Mom at the Dentist. I never expected the snide comments and dirty looks, along with the occasional pitying sidelong glance, that were dished out (mainly by middle-aged women). I found myself often saying loudly things like, “Ok, Baby, let’s go find our Mom!” or “Who loves sister! Yes, you love sister!”.
Then there was that awkward stage - all through high school - where I was determined to be cool even though I didn’t drink or party: a recipe for success. And let us not forget that wonderful growth spurt which left my limbs flailing and people wondering if I had succumbed to Anorexia (being told that you are “a little too skinny, if you ask me” is hardly more complementary than being told that you are too fat).
I have been a victim of social stigmas, and most likely so have you. They make us who we are, and give us the bias that we uphold as our truth. I still clarify as often as I can that I am SISTER to my six and seven year old brothers, I am still sensitive of my gangly legs and spindly arms, and if you should even dare to make a Helen Keller joke around me I will make you feel like the lowest person alive. We are all acutely aware of the wrongs that have been inflicted upon us, but are we cognizant of the words and actions that we are inflicting on others? If we are using derogatory words such as “retard,” or saying that things are “so gay,” or taking time out of our day to gawk at the homeless, the disabled, or the just plain different without following up that stare with a kind smile or a simple hello, then we are contributing to the ostracizing of others and adding to the stigma likely already felt by these people. If you would like a challenge, here is one: go out and befriend someone who makes you feel uncomfortable today. What doesn’t kill you does make you stronger, but what they don’t tell you is that it’s a lot easier to make it through the hard times if you have a friend who is willing to go through it with you.