“You can never assume that someone is ‘faking’ [a disability] or even that a stranger who doesn’t appear to be disabled isn’t suffering from chronic pain or something else that impairs their ability to do things that able-bodied people take for granted,” wrote Domi Shoemaker on Facebook in response to “Yes, Ableism Is Seriously a Thing.”
I’d recently been considering something similar, how people’s pain—chronic pain—can be completely invisible. As a teacher, I’d assume that the perky, young, fashionable student showing up every day cheerfully had not yet faced any challenges in her life. Then—*WHAM*—she’d turn in a memoir draft about surviving horrific abuse, or enduring homelessness, or overcoming addiction.
People’s pain, their suffering, their heartache, do not always leave visible marks; it doesn’t mean the pain is not there, maybe even during the very moments you interact with them.
I remember one student who came to class every day with her best friend, both of them manicured, hair styled just-so, fashionable outfits, and giant cups of Starbucks coffee sipped neatly through straws. They were both good students, and I enjoyed having them in class. Because of their stylish looks and breezy attitudes, I assumed they’d had pretty smooth lives, were on their way to the careers they wanted, would buy houses next door to each other, and marry brothers or best friends.
Well, even if that does become their destiny, a cute house and white picket fence do not mean one’s past has been sunny and sweet.
One day after class, the student stayed after to talk with me. Her friend either stood by her or waited outside; I can’t remember. We’d discussed some readings in class that I no longer recall, but they prompted her to tell me her story.
Standing there, manicured hand on hip of trendy jeans, Starbucks held aloft in the other hand, dark hair straightened and smoothed into a crisp bob, she told me she’d been homeless.
After suffering all kinds of abuse at home, she ran away as a teenager. She quickly became homeless, figured out how to live on the streets, and begged for money.
She told me that the worst part of it was not when people said hateful things to her or refused to give her money, it was the people who ignored her completely, as if she were invisible, looking right past her, as if she and all of her efforts to survive did not exist.
Well, one thing led to another: selling drugs to make money to get off the streets, taking those drugs to take to make the streets bearable, numerous illegal activities to support drug habit, and then: jail.
You see what I mean by how you never know what a person has suffered or is suffering? This outgoing, funny, smart, hard-working student had lived on the streets and then behind bars.
Maybe I’m taking the point of the article Domi posted one step further. As the article argues—you often can’t see a person’s pain, physical or mental, or what burdens they shoulder as they go about their day. Similarly, when you think “inmate” or “addict” or “homeless,” some of the most delightful people you interact with in any given day, might have been one or all three of those things.
People are resilient and strong. Pain and suffering do not always erase beauty or mute cheerfulness. Thank goodness for that.