Overcoming the Stigma

This past Friday, Clark Writes held its first creative writing forum of the semester in the Little Center. Lyndsey Hawkes, a talented actress, humorous friend, and Massachusetts local took the stage. She proceeded to make everyone laugh and gain a new perspective through a piece on what it is like to live with Achondroplasia (the most common form of dwarfism). Read her captivating essay below.

walt-disney-screencaps-peter-pan-walt-disney-characters-34413160-4326-3240Overcoming the Stigma

Lyndsey Hawkes

I can’t decide if I love or hate kids.  It depends on a variety of factors- how old they are, where I am when I see them, whether they’re in a pack or not, if I’ve had coffee that day… The point is that kids can be my favorite type of people, or my biggest bullies. For example, I was at a coffee shop with my boyfriend a few weeks ago and there was this cute little girl in a high chair eating breakfast with her mothers. My boyfriend was frustrated because I couldn’t hold a two-sentence exchange with him without getting distracted and making faces with this kid across the room. I kept making her laugh, and it was probably the best part of my day. But sometimes, kids are unintentional assholes.

I do a lot of theater, and two years ago, as a Senior, I was playing Peter Pan in our high school’s musical. For the month leading up to the show, I drank a gallon of water per day, exercised multiple times per week, and went on a big health food craze. I was strong, prepared, and excited to fly in front of three audiences of children. But then… I went to the mall. It was February break, so everywhere I looked, there were kids with their moms and dads, roaming around JCPenney, at the food court, and the shoe stores. And so, my personal Hell began.

You see, kids are dumb. It’s nobody’s fault, it’s just that they’ve had a very limited exposure to people… Especially odd looking people, like me. I have Achondroplasia, the most common form of dwarfism. One in ten thousand people are born with it, and it has many visible traits. Clearly, I’m short, but it’s actually only my limbs that aren’t average-sized. My torso, head, and internal organs are disproportionately large compared to my short legs and arms, so when I sit down, I look as tall as the average adult, if not taller. I’m 4 feet and 3 inches, which is actually a few inches taller than most people with my condition. My parents are average-sized, but there was a heightened risk of me being born with Achondroplasia because my dad is older- he turned seventy-five a couple of weeks ago. My parents didn’t even know that I’d have dwarfism until my mom was eight months pregnant with me. That was a surprise. Thankfully, I’ve been very fortunate to not have had any major physical complications because of it. I have the typical symptoms – in addition to a disproportional body, people with Achondroplasia that have Lordosis, an abnormal curvature of the lower spine, and Spinal Stenosis, a severe narrowing of the lower spinal cavity. As if back problems aren’t enough, we have loose joints in our knees and ankles. So, all my life, I’ve avoided gym class- no contact sports or excess of running for me! My doctor even declared an arbitrary limit for me- due to medical reasons, I cannot run more than 200 feet at a time. Thank God for theater and music.

Anyway, it’s very noticeable that I’m different. So, when I go to public places- restaurants, the park, and (especially) the mall, there’s a lot of attention on me. Usually it’s from the kids, because, like I said, they’re assholes. They haven’t been exposed to a large, diverse variety of people, so it’s hard for them to hide their surprise at my appearance. They point, stare, run away, or say things such as, “Mommy, what’s wrong with her?” “Why is she so small?” “How old is she?” Depending on the day, I can either pretend to ignore it all and sulk, or try to confront the issue politely and directly. That day at the mall last year was, unfortunately, categorized as the former of the two circumstances.

I was separated from my mom and my aunt in an unfamiliar mall that was much bigger than the one I usually go to. I was hot, and I was shoe shopping. Three triggers right there: unfamiliarity, temperature sensitivity, and finding footwear that is a size children’s 3 that doesn’t sparkle, light up, or have cartoon characters on it. I don’t have any desire to dress like Kimmy Schmidt. The temperature thing is a big deal. As I mentioned, I have an average size torso with disproportionately short limbs, so that means that my internal organs are the same size, and do just  as much work as yours (people don’t realize this and just wonder how the hell I can eat a large pizza by myself at my size). However, there is less skin surface area to ventilate all that energy out, so I’m usually pretty hot. And sweaty, and gross. Lovely- I get all the boys. So on this wonderful day at the mall, I was already pretty worked up. And as I walked from shoe store to shoe store, sweating and lugging around bags and a backpack, I couldn’t avoid the infestation of small urchins who would continuously point me out. I turned so many heads, but not in the sexy way at all. By the time I regrouped with my family, I was overheated, exhausted, and close to tears with social anxiety. I felt like an alien – a freak. All of the daily insecurities that I had managed to overcome in 18 years were shouting, screaming, mocking me on the car ride home. You look funny. You are a dwarf, not a regular person! You’ll never be attractive. You look obese! You walk funny. I cried a lot that night – I even called myself the same cruel name that I had avoided years earlier – “A freakish fetus.”

As I ruminated over all of this hateful self talk, a specific, but unavoidable fear came to mind- how was I supposed to play Peter Pan in a month, in front of hundreds of these judgemental, cruel children, looking like this? Peter Pan is thin, nimble, a prepubescent string bean! Not a waddling dwarf with a big ass! Kids won’t believe it – what the fuck was my director thinking when he cast me as the lead?!

This crisis hovered over me all week- even after I had returned to school, I felt different as I had never before. My friends, teachers, and even the principal all treated me exactly the same as they always had, but because of that stupid experience at the mall, I didn’t believe it. They must be treating me so kindly out of pity, and then gossiping about me behind my back. Everyone is judging me for being an ugly dwarf. Nobody actually likes me. I built up this facade so much that by the end of the week, I couldn’t stop crying in the hallway. In math class, I took out a piece of paper and tried to psychoanalyze myself, revisiting and writing down all of the negative encounters I’d ever had relating to my disability. Bad idea. Don’t ever psychoanalyze yourself. My anxiety after that peaked in my psychology class when I was seen crying in the front row during my teacher’s lecture. He’s an amazingly kind person, so he discreetly asked me to stay and chat with him after class.

Talking to him was what I needed to regain my usual sense of self: comfortable in my own skin, outgoing, crazy, and generally accepting of my physical differences. Essentially, after I had told him how shitty my week had been, he did anything but sympathize. “Lynds – you’re gonna let a bunch of dumb little kids get into your head and ruin being Peter Pan for you? That’s bull! You are smart; think about how stupid that is!” As insensitive as his words may sound to you, the tough-love approach was exactly what I needed to regain my emotional footing. Too many people treat the issue delicately, sympathize, and that lets me over-dramaticize my situation. But my psych teacher pulled my head out of the sand and made me realize that my self-pity would only guarantee my sadness; I had worked so hard to prepare for this lead role, and he wasn’t gonna let me fuck it up a month before show.

I proved him right- between then and opening night, I pushed myself even harder, and tried not to give any room for negative self-talk. The first rewarding moment for me was to learn how to “fly” on the professional rigging system, only three days before opening night. I may have been the first person with dwarfism to ever be flying on stage. Soaring through the open window for the first time in rehearsal made me really appreciate my teacher’s pep talk. If I had listened to my own idiotic, biased brain, I wouldn’t have been there, laughing out loud and feeling my stomach jump in midair and seeing my best friends smiling up at me from the floor. The best thing is, the flight wasn’t even the most rewarding part of it all. When I finished each musical number and the lights went out, I could hear hundreds of kids clapping and cheering! For me! They didn’t care that a dwarf was playing Peter Pan; all they cared about was the singing, dancing, flying, and the magic of the story. When I greeted the audiences, I blew fairy dust over countless children’s heads, saying quietly to them, “Now think lovely, wonderful thoughts!”. Their eyes would light up and we’d pose for a picture, and not once did any of them treat me as I had been treated at the mall. Theater does that – it makes old scraps of wood and paint become an enormous pirate ship. Wire systems give characters wings, and awkward disabled high school drama nerds transform into beloved storybook heroes in the eyes of children. As long as I am onstage, I don’t have to worry about feeling bullied or pointed at because of my unusual physical appearance. All I need to have is faith, trust, and pixie dust.

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