I began traveling out of state for brief summer trips when I was seventeen. I had only been on a plane once in my entire life up to that point, and I didn’t really remember how it went. I was four years old during my first flight, and when I was seventeen a lot had changed. I had terrible anxiety, I had sensory issues and an abundance of health issues that would later make traveling much harder. Just a year later before my second trip, I was diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis. It was a hard pill to swallow. I had to, at age 18, succumb to the need for a wheelchair as I traipsed around airport terminals and after spending hours in a cramped airplane seat, I would have to use it again to get from the plane to the baggage claim. I eventually got used to it--I never noticed people staring at me with judgement in their eyes, and when I was visiting people they didn’t care. They knew, with a basic understanding, exactly what I was dealing with. There was no shame in it, because I needed it.
However, I just flew from Austin, TX to New Bern, NC for a two-week vacation to visit family, and to have some nice quality “quiet” time. I had never flown out of Austin’s airport, but it was easy enough. I had a connecting flight in Atlanta, and that’s when things began to go downhill. I had a two-hour layover. I was picked up in what could only be described as the worst possible wheelchair known to mankind, and was asked only if I needed to stop at the restroom. When I replied “No,” my attendant took me directly to my terminal. Thanks to the brain-fog I was experiencing, I saw that the terminal was preparing for a flight to Arkansas. Frustrated, confused and drenched in anxiety, I grabbed my heavy carry-on duffle and began to look for a nearby attendant. I was exhausted, and I needed food--but I also needed to make sure I was in the right place. When it was confirmed I had just misunderstood the scheduling, I went about my way to find food. That nearly had me dropping to the floor.
For one, it was crowded in the terminal. Secondly, I couldn’t find anything I had been wanting. I wanted either a smoothie, or some iced coffee and something with heavy protein. This was a hard to find item apparently, and my layover was dwindling away the more I spent time dragging myself and my carry-on across an unfamiliar airport.
After finding a smoothie and a place to sit (twice) and resting (twice) I got up and attempted to head back to my terminal. It was far too late when I realized I had gone the opposite way. Confused, overwhelmed and anxious as a chihuahua, I sat down in the nearest handicapped seat at a nearby terminal and begged the desk attendant to call wheelchair assistance for me. I could barely speak. Heck, I could barely think to speak. I was dripping in sweat, I was trembling from the pain and the fatigue and my mind had become scrambled eggs. But what got me was that she looked at me as if I was crazy. I saw her judging me, criticizing me, and just being plain annoyed by my presence.
I had to wait for wheelchair assistance since people who had stayed in their designated wheelchair or who had yet to receive the one they requested came first. I understood this--but it did nothing to quell the shame and guilt I felt. As I watched the same woman happily interact with seemingly able-bodied customers, I was sitting next to her, struggling to breathe and avoid passing out. I was holding back tears and the intense need to just fall apart. When the wheelchair did come for me, I couldn’t bear the shame I felt. I hid my face in the duffle bag I carried in my lap as the attendant wheeled me back to my assigned terminal. My tears flowed down my face despite the fact I tried so hard to avoid it. I took off my glasses and continued to hide my face as I sobbed into my duffle bag.
When I arrived at my terminal I called my mom to explain to her what had happened and how horrible and disgusted I felt. My flight was beginning to board and I truly felt invisible. I was sitting in a wheelchair, waiting to be wheeled towards the plane since I had priority boarding. My anxiety began to set in--my name was flashing on the screen and yet I was sitting in plain sight, still unnoticed by the person allowing other passengers to board. Never, in my entire life, had I felt more of a burden, waste of space, or piece of garbage than I did in that airport.
The thing is, I look young and pretty--and for the most part, I am. I am 23-years-old, I have a nicely applied makeup and maintained hair, I’m dressed nicely--even with the moccasins that are considered house slippers as my choice of footwear--no one is going to look at me and believe I truly needed that wheelchair, nor would they be able to imagine the pain I was feeling--the physical, emotional, mental or spiritual pain. Being so young and living with an invisible illness is a battle in of itself. I am constantly fighting to be seen. Because I am not always obviously sick or near-death in my appearance. But, you know what? That shouldn’t matter. I shouldn’t have to cater my appearance to an able-bodied persons idea of what a disabled person should look like.
Because, I am disabled, and I look young, with well-maintained hair and decent makeup. I wear nice clothes, and yes, I do need that wheelchair.