But there was ONE moment, and I should have seen it coming. I was talking with a patient, somebody I had met before outside of the clinic but hadn't gotten to know well.
The PT commented that I was familiar with a lot of the exercises that he was doing and I agreed.
"Yep, I've done that one, like, eighty billion times," I said.
"My hips are like the hips of a one-hundred-year-old," he said.
"Oh I think I've got you beat!" I laughed.
He laughed too. Then silence. Then...
"So.......what is...what is the problem that you had?"
His voice was measured, cautious, politely curious.
It was then that I realized...I am not allowed to ask the patients direct questions about their medical conditions, but that protection is unidirectional.
They can ask me all they want.
And here's the thing:
I still can't say the words 'cerebral palsy.'
I took a deep breath, silently summoning all of the courage I could manage, trying to keep the panic from edging into my voice, trying trying trying to pretend that this question didn't make me want to crawl under the exam table.
"Oh, I...I have CP, so PT has been pretty much a lifelong thing for me," I said.
He smiled. "Ahh, ok!"
I think he was politely feigning understanding, because "CP" isn't exactly a well-known acronym, but somehow it's a million times easier than "cerebral palsy," and at this point in my life, those two letters are the best I can do.
During our lunch break, the PT pulled me aside.
"Somebody is coming after lunch, and he is probably going to ask you questions...personal questions. Please know that you don't have to answer anything he asks you."
"It's fine," I said, in spite of myself. "I can answer questions."
"No, I need to protect you," she said.
I see the way they stare at me. I see them wondering, and some of them will never dare to voice their questions, but some of them will. She can't protect me forever. She can't protect me from the world, can't protect me from cerebral palsy. I certainly don't feel obligated to answer anything invasive, but at the same time, I don't feel as though I should hide this part of myself, least of all in a physical therapy clinic, where my CP might help somebody feel just a little bit less alone.
Sometimes it's hard...sometimes it's crushing, lonely, seemingly unbearable. Sometimes it's painful...physically, emotionally, mentally, everything. But mostly...mostly it's just a part of who I am, a beautiful, irreplaceable part of what makes me ME.
Somehow, I need to find the strength within me to say those words out loud—without shame, without panic, without hesitance.
I have cerebral palsy.