An expanded, revised version of this article is now available only on The Plaid Zebra.
There's been a lot of talk recently about words. The R-word, the S-word, the N-word, the P-word. There are a lot of things to be offended about and a lot of people who don't understand why.
In fact, I was one of those people, until just a few months ago.
Growing up as a straight, white, mostly-healthy guy, I didn't have much to complain about. Aside from coming from a lower-middle class family and having serious body image problems as a chubby, out-of-shape kid, I had never been looked at differently in any serious regard. No one attacked my race, my gender, my intelligence or anything that I was born with. Sure, kids might have picked on me about being socially-awkward or not being good at sports of any kind, but that's just the nature of childhood bullying in general.
But discrimination? Full-on different treatment from others? Now that's something else.
Last August, I suffered an abdominal injury while training for a weightlifting competition. After having an intense training day, I went out shopping for groceries and, while climbing the car, felt an incredibly sharp pain shoot from the very depths of my abdomen down into my left leg. It would not be revealed until months later that I had severely strained my psoas - a muscle responsible for the upward flexion of the hip joint - and that, on top of all this, I had been most likely suffering from a disease for many years.
It's an event that now defines my life.
Even after losing a lot of weight due to starting to go to the gym at 16, I never was able to gain very much muscle. When telling people I did, indeed, actually lift, they would laugh and ask if I played with 10lb dumbbells for fun. In reality, I was training with great intensity five to six days a week since I was 17. I tracked my calories in a diary and slept well. I built my life around lifting, thus I could never under why I was unable to gain weight.
There other things that stuck out, too. Why was I always cold? How come my skin got so dry? Why were there entire months where my libido would be non-existent? How come my muscles always felt tight and achy despite a consistent stretching and yoga routine?
Flash forward to November of last year, I was at my rheumatologist's office when he assembled all of the evidence he had gathered on me over the past week to deliver the news. Based upon the fact that my mom's side had a history of similar illnesses and on what my test results turned back, he rendered a conclusion: I was most likely the sufferer of an autoimmune disorder called polymyositis, and I was probably going to have to live with it. Forever.
For some context, autoimmune disorders are a wide variety of diseases ranging from multiple sclerosis to lupus, all of which involve different aspects of the body being attacked or fucked with by its own immune system. In my case, it meant things like fatigue, muscle weakness and pain, as well as a myriad of other issues that I had been experiencing not just since the injury, but for most of my life.
Like a ton of bricks, it hit me.
For all these years, lurking beneath the depths of my impeccable privilege, I had my own form of adversity, and it was only when becoming aware of this reality that I got my first taste of what true insult is like.
It starts simple. People joke at you for limping or being slow in a line. They call you lazy for using the automatic door button because opening heavy doors feels like your shoulder joint is going to rip in half. Taking an elevator a single floor makes it seem like you don't respect other people's time and as you exit the sliding doors, grumbles of curse words and loud sighs erupt behind you. You give your spiel to people and they apologize, but after doing this a few times a day, it becomes tiring, so you start to take the punches.
But it progresses to more than that. People begin to ask why you don't just "man up". They tell you to quit school or your job and to go back home. They tell you why you can't blame other people for not understanding and that you just need perspective. They will say hateful things both in your vicinity and directly to you, and while your anger will build, you always make a quiet admission.
"I was like that."
At one point or another, I said things that shouldn't have been said, I made fun people I didn't understand and complained about people who I thought I had figured out. It was not out of calculated intention - it seldom is for most people. But while I was never a hateful person, I was ignorant. I said and did things out of an instilled sense of freedom and a general though of "Whatever."
Now, being on the other side of the spectrum - being the person that people crack jokes about, even if unintentionally - fucking sucks. While it can be hard and annoying to unlearn using a word or terminology, it is just that: a word. The barbs of prejudice are buried beneath the decades and generations past. Our parents' ideas of right and wrong, our ideas of right and wrong, and the societal perpetuation of these concepts keep most of us snuggly comfortable while the rest writhe at our subtle disregard.
Truly, the only reason these ideas have power is because conversations about changing our perspective are not being had in those elevators or rush hour lines. Instead, we tuck them away in the corners of blog posts, hushed chats among friends and the hum over our own minds.
At the end of the day, what matters is this: there are people who were born with privilege, those who weren't, and those who lost it. Without talking to each other, we will never be able to distinguish between the three, and at one point, you may just cross the floor without realizing it.