I am 13 years old, and I go to seventh grade with crutches. I walk three blocks to school in the morning with two friends who walk too fast. I am quickly forgotten. After school one day, someone grabs my crutches and runs away. “I know you can walk!” They tease. “Come get them!” I stand paralyzed on the sidewalk, afraid to move an inch. I’m afraid to do anything to make them think they are right—that Olivia is an attention-seeking, overdramatic, disease-faking 13-year-old.
I stand up from my chair without using the crutches, and a classmate says, “See, you can stand! I knew you were faking it.” I don’t know what to say, so I say nothing.
I was very sick, but no doctor could find an answer. When I was diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, I thought I would finally be taken seriously. Finally, I had an answer for when people asked what was wrong with me. When I was diagnosed with chronic Lyme disease months later, I cried in front of the doctor, thinking to myself once again that things would be different—that I would be able to get better now that I knew what I had.
Eight years later, I am very sick and no doctor fully understands why. I start to occasionally use a cane to help me walk. When I walk down the street, almost everyone stares at me. They look at my cane, my face, my clothes, my feet. They don’t see what they are expecting; they look back up at me, puzzled. My boyfriend says no one is staring. But I see their faces. I look into their eyes.
Maybe you think I don’t look ‘disabled enough’ to use a cane. I am, after all, a young woman appearing confident; you can’t find a cast, a broken bone, wrinkles, or a hunched back to justify my disabled body. Have you never seen a disabled person look like me?
You have. You walk by me all the time. You don’t hold the door for me or offer me your seat, and you make comments that are offensive without realizing. I don’t get too angry, because I know you don’t mean it that way. But this black stick attached to my hand is a visible indicator that something is wrong. What is wrong with her?
I feel like I have spent my whole life proving that I really am sick, and every time a stranger stares at me they are asking me to prove it again. I remember every word said to me in seventh grade so clearly.
In the U.S., around 117 million people live with a chronic illness. That’s about 50% of all adults. I think about how many of those people don’t look ill— because what, exactly, does chronic illness look like?
It is not only older people with decaying bodies and visibly broken bones that use a cane. I am hurting, and infection spreads inside of me; there is no such thing as normal or right. My bones are not broken, but they are not strong. They cry every day, and aches spread throughout my body, up and down each leg. The pain does not stop. It has found a permanent home: me.
I go into my local Chinese restaurant, and the waitress I am friendly with looks at my cane and asks if I am okay. I say yes. “What happened?” she asks.
“I have a chronic illness that can make it hard to walk.”
“I’ve had it for a while, I just use a cane sometimes.” I say. She tells me she hopes I feel better soon.
It is the first time I have gone out on my own with the cane. I instantly return to middle school, overwhelmed with anxiety, wishing I could be swallowed by the air and escape the moment. I walk slowly, taking my time, feeling the freedom and breathing in air. I want so badly to use my cane with confidence, to yell at everyone who questions me, and to not feel burdened with embarrassment about my body. I want to tell every person who stares how not unusual I am.