I understand why most people stare at me when they see me for the first time. I really do. I actually respect and tolerate most people’s reactions: curiosity, admiration, compassion, and even aversion. What I do not tolerate are negative and offensive reactions like the ones I experienced in my home country, Puerto Rico. Experiencing them was disheartening and a huge disappointment. However, from these experiences, I’ve learned to discern between those who look at me with compassion and those who do not.
I get it. As social beings, we have developed a mental stereotype of what is "normal" and what is not. Nevertheless, to some people, a deviation from what they consider “normal” generates a level of anxiety and discomfort that makes them react offensively. I have seen people turning their eyes away from me, and others expressing their feelings towards me in a very inappropriate fashion
Needless to say, I have experienced a great deal of good, bad, and really ugly reactions. Curiously, those who dare to say unpleasant things to me have done so when I am by myself or with my young daughters. I am not sure why, but my role as a mother seemed to push emotional buttons in some women.
Soon after I became a mother for the first time, my ex-husband, the baby, and other relatives went to a restaurant. When it was time for a diaper change, I took my baby to the restroom to do so. As I am changing her diaper, a lady stood right next to me and started talking to my baby. I could not believe what I was hearing. She said to my baby: "Oh, look at you! You are so cute, so beautiful! But, what a shame! You have such an irresponsible mother." I instantly replied: “EXCUSE ME!" My reaction did not make her stop or even look at me. She continued talking to my daughter: "Yes sweety, your mommy hasn't looked at herself in the mirror. It's so sad that you don't have a normal-looking mommy,” and then she walked away. In disbelief, I finished changing my daughter’s diaper and went back to the table and said nothing about this encounter to any of my relatives.
A few months later, as I am at a department store with my baby, another woman walked to me and said: "You should have thought about the impact you will cause into that baby's life before bringing her into the world." In disbelief, I asked her: “Why are you saying all these mean things to me? You don’t know me.” She replied: "Don't you know that you are not a normal person? Don't you know that she will be ashamed of you as she grows up? That’s child abuse!" I kept my composure and said: "Why are you saying that I'm abusing my child when all I'm doing is caring for her, loving her, and providing all that she needs with love and respect?” She walked away.
As these encounters continued to occur, I made an appointment with a psychologist to get her advice on how to raise a child as a mother that is not "normal." I walked into her office; she introduced herself and asked what brought me to her office. I share with her these and other incidents I had experienced and asked for her advice. Once again, I could not believe what I was hearing. She validated the strangers’ reactions and reiterated that I did not look “normal,” that I did not fit in; that I needed to be aware of that and be ready for the time that my child would also react to my looks. She even said that more likely than not, my child would be embarrassed to be seen with me as she grew up. I was so shocked to hear that, that all I could do was thanking her for her time and leave.
I walked out and got in the elevator. The elevator made a stop, and a man walked in. He looked at me and immediately asked me: "Have you ever considered suicide?" I looked around to make sure he was talking to me, and I realize that there was nobody else in the elevator. In my head I was thinking; "Oh, God! He is really talking to me". I chose to ignore him, but he repeated the question: “Have you ever considered suicide?” I looked straight into his eyes and said: “No, why would I consider taking my own life when God has given me a second chance? But hey, if you ever consider committing suicide and need a hand, let me know.” I just had to make good use of my really dark sense of humor to get myself out of this situation.
Over the years, I have lived with my family in Texas, New Jersey, North Carolina, and California. For the most part, people in those places display more restrained reactions to me. Some people stare, some others make comments, yet others nod and smile or share some reassuring thoughts, while others— visibly uncomfortable— attempt to ignore my presence.
Besides all the negative and unpleasant experiences, I've also had good experiences, especially with my daughters. They have even painted their faces with markers in an attempt to mimic my scars or swap faces on Snapchat to make themselves look like me. Also, as they have gotten older, when they notice people staring at me, they embrace me and protectively stare back at onlookers and explain why I look different if they need to.
Because of how I have coped with my accident and its aftermath, I've also had the honor to be invited to share my story at schools, churches, and conferences. Whenever I get the opportunity of doing motivational speaking I end up learning a lot about myself through the stories that people in the audience share with me. For example, it is very special to me to address kids because they are not afraid to speak their minds. I am also shocked when I hear kids saying that they are sad and do not want to live because they are overweight or because they do not “fit in.”
Normal is overrated. What is normal? I ask this question because I don’t know the answer. All I know is that we are all different. We look different. We talk differently. We feel and think in many different ways. Normal is an illusion. Normal is a marketing product. We are told by the media that we have to have a certain body type, hairstyle, makeup, clothes, and on and on. I love those very rarely seen marketing campaigns focused on being different and real-looking. I am happy to see TV shows that embrace individuals such as veterans and accident survivors with prosthetics and scars. Hopefully, those marketing campaigns and shows will make the general public more receptive to people like me, who do not fit the so-called “normal” mold.
I am hopeful…