BY COURTNEY EDGAR
I was eleven years old in my best friend's bedroom, surrounded by N*Sync and JTT posters on the walls. It was 1999 and we were doused in Calgon Hawaiian Ginger body mist. We were sitting on her bed in our bathing suits eating straight out of a bag of all-dressed chips and talking about the boy we both had a crush on. Jonathan. He was tall and sporty with big blue eyes and a mean sense of humor. He wore a silver chain and got detention on the regular—the stuff tween dreams are made of. We were head over heels.
She was telling me about something he did and how she hoped it meant that he liked her. I don't remember exactly what she said that led up to it, but as she looked me right in the eyes without changing her tone to show she was joking or showing any embarrassment at all, she said, "But you're lucky you don't need to worry about love."
I didn't understand what she meant. I gave a half-laugh and said, "What?"
She blinked and smiled as if it was obvious.
"Oh, you're just lucky you don't have to worry about things like this. Because no one will love you."
I squinted, confused. My face grew hot, tears welled in my eyes. I didn't understand.
She paused, finally realizing she would need to explain.
"Well, yeah, Court, because of your leg," she said. "How could anyone ever love you?"
This was the first time my disability was brought up, out of the blue, and used to hurt me. By my best friend. In such a nonchalant way. It was the first time I realized I was different and that difference meant something so much more than it seemed to at the surface—I would have it tough. Not just in the ways of love, attraction and sex, but also in the ways that my friends, acquaintances and strangers would view me, categorize me and make assumptions. There would be others who would use it knowingly, or unknowingly, to tell me I couldn't do something, have something or be something because of my congenital defect. If even my own best friend, the person who I saw virtually every day since we were eight years old, who lived across the street from me and whose family I shared dinner with more than my own, could do it without regret, then I knew I would have to prepare for much more of these red-faced, teary-eyed moments of someone else assigning me a limitation.
I had never really thought about it before that day in her bedroom. In my mind, as I walked about my days, I rarely noticed the limp. Unless I was trying on new pants in a boutique and looking at myself in a store mirror, I didn't think much about how one leg was bigger, longer, stronger than the other. I just didn't think about my hip dysplasia until then. I thought others didn't notice it or that it didn't really matter. The difference in size wasn't gigantic. But it isn't small either. I had never thought that it would be just another obstacle to stand in my way at finding love or being accepted—another reason to not feel normal.
There were already enough obstacles as it was.
I grew up in a home headed by a single mother who had dropped out of high school at fifteen and had been on social assistance her entire adult life. In her 55th year now, she is still. I had a deadbeat dad whose every-other-weekend visitation rights were ignored by the time I was seven, and who I would see once in a bad year or twice in a good year. We never really had a relationship though. I always sensed he was not present even when he was physically. To this day, I can't think of a single conversation we had that wasn't painfully awkward because I knew that he knew that I knew he didn't care at all and was just going through the motions.
My mother raised my three siblings and I in nine different apartment buildings in my childhood, always moving every year or two when the lease was up or the landlord got tired of her not making rent on time. She was a drinker and a chain smoker. The apartment walls would turn yellowish gray by the time the lease was up. Because of all the cigarette smoke my sister and I had so many ear infections before kindergarten that we needed surgery. There was always a Coca-Cola bottle at the front of the fridge for the kids and another Coca-Cola bottle at the back that tasted bitter and got us yelled at or hit if we drank from it.
She became abusive, both emotionally and physically, when I was four around the time she started to date my stepfather who had been a heroine addict and was also an alcoholic.
There were other obstacles I was aware of.
In her drunken rages she would tell me to kill myself—as a six year old child crumpled on the floor crying, as an eight year old who complained about having to wash the dishes, as a ten year old who "gave her sass." There were obstacles.
I often had to lie to friends and teachers at school about black eyes and cut lips, bruises on my neck and arms from where she had pushed me against a wall or kicked me on the floor. I mentioned to a friend once when I was seven that my mother and stepfather bent my sister and I over a dresser with our pants down and were spanked over and over again, while demeaned with words, until we cried and apologized. I think it had something to do with chores. She stopped coming to my house immediately after I told her this.
Yes, there were other obstacles that I thought about much more often than the symmetry of my lower limbs.
And for me to discover that there was one more reason I might not ever be loved--that really hit me the hardest.
It was around that time that I went to a really dark place. There was a lot of crying, cutting, suicidal ideation, angsty poetry and rebellion. I can't say exactly when the depression started but it creeped up gradually around then, like a dark cloud over me, cloaking my vision, my moods, my energy, my judgment. The cloud hovered over me for more than a decade. It took my hand and brought me from one abusive relationship to another. It took me to college and dropping out; to university and dropping out. To bad choices. To bad people. To a bad place within myself.
I would find myself often, even as a grown adult, thinking, "Who could ever love you? You're deformed. A freak."
Of all the abuses in my childhood, that was the one memory that returned the most. I had either blocked out all memories of my traumatic family situation, or I recognized there was a difference between someone speaking verbal abuse to you that was so obviously abuse, with the swear words and the angry eyes and the physical violence—when they had a mental illness or a substance abuse problem—than when it was said in such a gentle matter-of-fact way, coming from a seemingly normal friend in a seemingly normal middle-class home who had all the Christina Aguilera cd's, a giant wardrobe of halter crop tops she lent you without hesitation, and more Lipsmackers than you could ever dream of.
She had said it with such confidence and certainty. And so I believed it. For years.
Just as I don't remember exactly how the dark cloud rolled in after my childhood best friend told me what I took to be my romantic fate, eventually at a certain point the dark cloud rolled away, and with it my belief in that sentence.
It could have been the books, which had always been the light at the end of my tunnel, to get me through each day. It could have been the SSRI prescriptions I took for several years. It could have also been that I've learned to find beauty in the awkward and strange. It's probably mostly though that as I've grown older I've realized that every body is shaped differently and everyone has their deformations, disorders and strangenesses. Some are visible—most are not. Some are known and accepted, while others are hidden away beneath the surface and never acknowledge and addressed. One of mine is visible. It is slight. A few of mine are invisible and they were harder to face. It's been my experience though that those who care to discriminate or objectify others based on their strangenesses have a disability of their own which is far more tragic.
I don't know if I've ever been loved. I don't know if I ever will. But I give my own love out to the universe, first to myself, and quite frankly, I think that is the only love you truly ever need.
Courtney Edgar is a Canadian freelance journalist and writer who likes to find magic in the mundane, or make it. Equal parts tender and shrill, she's a truth seeker, spinning stories about the things some people find spooooky. She writes about cultural and social issues news, short stories and personal essays on stuff that makes her heart flutter or makes her shake her fist. She tweets and instagrams from @marmaladedroppr.