I could see the knife in the reflection of my wheelchair. It was a small, serrated kitchen knife that I'd brought in from home. It was small, but it would do the job. I looked at my crippled hands and wondered if I had the strength to cut my wrists hard enough. What if I only slightly cut them and ended up crippling myself more? But my joints ached, and I wondered how I could bear to continue like this.
I was diagnosed with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis in all my joints at 9 months of age. Arthritis was all I knew. I was the "freak" girl at school. When I was much younger, kids wouldn't sit near me, because they thought they could "catch it." Now the girls had banished me, and the boys pretended I'd never existed.
"I might as well be invisible," I thought. I was sitting in my wheelchair in the locker room while the other kids played a sport in gym class. I could hear them and wondered how long it would take for anyone to find me. I felt so alone. I thought I was a burden to my family, and I felt hopeless. I didn't want to go on every day in pain and feeling so unwanted. I wanted to end my life.
But then I heard noises and realized that this might not be the best time to do it. I quickly put the knife into my purse when my assigned "pusher" arrived to take me to my next class.
Back in class, I couldn't hide my sadness, but no one seemed to notice. It was as if I were a statue on the wall that everyone walked past but didn't bother to look at anymore. It was like I didn't exist all.
There was a knock at the classroom door. It was our history teacher, Mr. A. He asked to take me into his classroom for his free period. Me? Why did he want me? No one had ever asked for me for anything. Did he discover that I'd brought a knife to school? Was I in trouble? I felt scared and confused.
Mr. A. was middle-aged with a big mop of curly hair that looked liked he never brushed it. He wore funny glasses and shuffled his feet when he walked. He was goofy and kind, and everyone loved him.
He pushed me in my wheelchair into his classroom. No one was there. It was silent. He brought me over by his desk and shut the door. When I saw his eyes, I began to relax. He had kindness in his eyes, and I knew I wasn't in trouble at all. He said he knew I had been depressed, and that he was worried. He said I didn't have to tell him what I was depressed about, and that I didn't have to talk at all. He just wanted to tell me something. He said that he needed me to stick around, and so did all my classmates. He proceeded to tell me that classmate after classmate would tell him that I was their inspiration. He said they would say, "If Mary can deal with what she has, then surely I can deal with my problems." He told me I was meant to be on this Earth to inspire people, and that if I just hung in there, things would get better. He said this with a tear in his eye. I hadn't ever felt so loved or cared about. I wasn't invisible after all. He saw me, and so did my classmates. I existed, and most importantly, I mattered.
I didn't know what to say except "thank you." Now, looking back on how that touching moment changed my life, I wish I could thank him a thousand times over. That night I put the kitchen knife back in the drawer and never brought it to school again.
Almost 30 years later that very important conversation with Mr. A. would come back to my mind when my own child was in distress. In September 2010 my child, whom I had thought of as my daughter, fell into a very deep depression. She came to me in tears. She said, "Mom, I am so sad. I am transgender. I am really a boy. I've tried to force myself to be a girl, but I just can't do it anymore. If I have to, Mom, I won't live." My mind went back to that day when I'd sat looking at the reflection of the knife in my wheelchair. I remembered how sad, alone and invisible I'd felt, and I saw that in my child's eyes that very moment. I would have done anything to take that pain from my child.
I said, "No matter what, I love you, and I'll find you help." I immediately took my child out and got boys' clothes, and that week I found a gender therapist. Our journey began. Slowly my child came out of that shell to become my brave son. I saw him become more confident, and his sadness disappeared. I wanted it to be clear to him how much he matters to me, and that that would never change.
I have come to realize how much good my disability has done for me, and I have grown proud of myself. I do believe that I have inspired many. I have an appreciation for life and an empathy for others that I might not have had. Although my disability has given me pain and many challenges to overcome, I wouldn't change it. It has helped me understand what my son has gone through and continues to go through as a young transgender man. I grew up feeling like a freak and feeling like my body had betrayed me. Now I am proud to be disabled, and I see my son becoming truly proud to be transgender. It's been a blessing in disguise.
I have often thought of Mr. A. and wondered if he ever knew just how much his words helped me. No matter what our differences may be, we all want the same things. We all want to be loved, accepted and wanted. We all want to matter. Mr. A. not only made me realize that I mattered but gave me a purpose.
The knife is long gone, as is my wheelchair. Instead, in its place, there is only hope and much gratitude.
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.