Eating can sometimes be a struggle because of my curled fingers, many of which are immobile. I can sometimes manage to manoeuvre a fork or spoon to my mouth using both hands, but it can be very tiring to keep up for a long while, and these days I usually just bend down towards the plate and take a bite out of the food with my mouth. This, of course, isn’t very pretty. Therefore, I often feel embarrassed about eating in public.
I’m even too embarrassed to eat in front of my close friends: For the past four years, I have gotten into the habit of sneaking food in private at school. There is a long hallway in the underground section of my school which isn’t frequently used. It contains numerous toilets and a few dusty storage rooms for the Drama and Art department. The wheelchair toilet is the room at the end of the long hallway and I eventually learned that if I open the door to the wheelchair toilet and position my wheelchair in front of it, it creates a sort of closed-off space where I can sit and eat my snack or lunch without anyone seeing me.
If anyone comes to use the bathrooms, they’re on the other side of the door – And if they happen to come from the other side of the hallway, they come towards me while facing the back of my wheelchair and aren’t able to see me eating until they pass me. I have calculated and memorised the times in between my lessons when the hallway is the least busy so that I can sit there every day in silence and eat alone to save me the embarrassment of anyone seeing me.
When I do have parties with my friends or when we all go to restaurants together, I often find myself waiting until everyone is looking somewhere else before I sneak a bite. It, therefore, takes me forever to eat a meal when we’re all out together and I usually call it quits when I’m about half-way through. I don’t tend to have much of an appetite when I eat in public because it feels like feeding time at the zoo for the lions, and little children tend to treat it as such – examining me as if I’m a foreign species while I eat. However, it’s slightly different when I go out to restaurants with my family because I always feel safer and stronger when I’m surrounded by them.
It’s hard not to feel embarrassed about the way I eat, no matter how hard the people around me try to convince me otherwise. In the middle of my constant social battle to gain my friends’ attention and affections, I often try to come off as least ‘disabled’ as I can in front of them so that they’ll treat me the same as the others in our group. I know that this is illogical because most of my close friends love me for who I am regardless of how differently I do things, but I feel as if subconsciously I’m always keeping up an act to prove that I’m the same as them. An act which is extremely difficult to drop for three reasons:
- Firstly, I am a part of a big friend group at school and I don’t know everyone in it as well as I do my close friends, so there are a few of them I feel slightly less comfortable being myself with.
- Secondly, this ‘act’ to prove myself is one I have developed over the years after some past experiences with friends who weren’t so understanding and accepting. It’s hard to let yourself be you after you’ve been rejected in the past for opening yourself up.
- Thirdly, although I mention my ‘close’ friends – I’m not that close to them. Conversations with them are often strained, especially since I see them so rarely at school – Partly due to my own social isolation because of the points mentioned above. This creates a sort of paradoxical circle of wanting to open up to my friends but not being able to because I don’t know them well enough and not knowing my friends well enough because I haven’t opened up to them.
This is an issue that I still struggle with. Not caring how anyone else thinks about you is a great sentiment but can be extremely difficult to put into practice, especially during your teenage years and especially when you’ve experienced some of the situations I have with shallow teens who I thought were my friends. Apart from my friends, most of the people at school don’t even acknowledge me or bother to include me in anything. When this is the main reaction I have of people towards my disability, it’s hard to imagine anyone you know reacting any differently.
However, some of my friends are starting to understand this more. It makes me feel especially touched when they offer to cut something up for me or help me out while eating. I am trying to open up more to them and understand that I should give them a chance to see the real me because many of them are very loving and supportive towards me. It’s just difficult to imagine the way I eat as acceptable or normal in any circumstance when kids in restaurants stare or point at me as if I’m shooting fireworks out of my ears.