Speak for Yourself

"Cat and Mouse" (1975) by Robert A. Nelson, on exhibit at the Worcester Art MuseumOne evening last week, during a seemingly endless stretch of hot, muggy days, I was reading at the dining room table with the widows wide open when I heard a cat crying outside.

Our neighbors have two cats, and they often prowl around our back yard now that Ginger is gone. I looked out the window and saw the yellow tabby curled contentedly in their upstairs window, enjoying the meager breeze, silent.

Mrroww, mrroww, mrowww, cried the mystery cat.

Where could it be? This didn’t sound like your ordinary cat commentary. I went out the kitchen door and looked around. No cat.

Mrroww, mrroww, mrowww, cried the mystery cat.

I walked up the path to our front drive. No cat. I walked back to the kitchen door. No cat.

Mrroww, mrroww, mrowww, cried the mystery cat.

Then I realized that the cry seemed to be coming from our garage. I opened the back door. There was our neighbor’s white cat, hiding among my older daughter’s furniture, in storage until she moves to a new apartment in September.

It did not take much to coax the cat out of its self-imposed prison. I have absolutely no idea how it got in, since I’m not parking in the garage while the furniture is there. A mystery, indeed.

The cat ran back home, and I was quite thankful that I’d been around to hear its cry.

So, you may wonder, what does this have to do with living with scleroderma? Well, Dear Reader, it’s all about speaking out when you need help. That kitty knew how to get attention (how long it waited to complain, I have no idea—it probably snuck inside somehow to escape the heat) and kept asking for attention until someone paid attention.

Speaking up for yourself when you need help, without any shame or embarrassment, is a crucial skill when you live with any kind of disability, including the physical limitations that are part and parcel of scleroderma. In this Sunday’s New York Times, Rosemarie Garland Thomson articulates it beautifully in her essay, “Becoming Disabled”:

As we manage our bodies in environments not built for them, the social barriers can sometimes be more awkward than the physical ones. Confused responses to racial or gender categories can provoke the question “What are you?” Whereas disability interrogations are “What’s wrong with you?” Before I learned about disability rights and disability pride, which I came to by way of the women’s movement, I always squirmed out a shame-filled, “I was born this way.” Now I’m likely to begin one of these uncomfortable encounters with, “And these are the accommodations I need.” This is a claim to inclusion and right to access resources. . . .

Becoming disabled demands learning how to live effectively as a person with disabilities, not just living as a disabled person trying to become nondisabled. It also demands the awareness and cooperation of others who don’t experience these challenges. Becoming disabled means moving from isolation to community, from ignorance to knowledge about who we are, from exclusion to access, and from shame to pride.

Unlike Garland Thomson, I wasn’t born with my disabilities. I can still remember what it felt like (barely, it’s been so many decades) to have fully functioning hands. It’s taken me many years of living with scleroderma to assert myself with strangers when I need help. But I’m no longer afraid or ashamed to ask. Much as I want to do for myself, I also realize my limitations. It’s good to know, more often than not, there’s someone willing to open that door, pop that tab on a soda can, or hoist that carry-on bag to the overhead luggage rack—who’s glad to be of assistance.

If a cat knows how to get the help it needs, when it needs it, then surely, so can I.

Evelyn Herwitz blogs weekly about living fully with chronic disease, the inside of baseballs, turtles and frogs, J.S. Bach, the meaning of life and whatever else she happens to be thinking about at livingwithscleroderma.com.

Image: “Cat and Mouse” (1975) by Robert A. Nelson, on exhibit at the Worcester Art Museum


  1. Pat Bizzell says:

    A moving post, Ev. I can’t help but feel that the discomfort a person might experience in asking for help arises from the extreme individualism of our society. Our favorite hero is the lone hero, who accomplishes miracles all by himself (and I choose the pronoun’s gender deliberately). Seldom do we encounter a hero in popular culture who inspires admiration through his or her ability to bond a group in an endeavor for the common good. An exception to this observation might be found in sports movies, in which a heroic coach (oops–so there is a stand-out individual there) bonds a disparate group together into a winning team. We love those movies, too, maybe because we crave the experience of being part of a group in which every member helps every other member willingly.

    Consider, too, how very good you feel when someone asks you for help and you are able to give it–I’m thinking of little moments like seeing that the person ahead of you has his arms full of packages so you hold the door for him, or realizing that the person trying to boost her carry-on into the overhead needs an extra push. Extreme individualism can be exhausting!

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