Not your inspiration

Muscle Memories

“Wow, I can’t believe you’re able to do laundry!” my friend exclaimed. My Tide Pods shuffled around in my overflowing laundry basket while I awkwardly shoved some quarters into a laundry machine. Although I never asked for help, my friend began grabbing and throwing sweatshirts and jeans into the machine with a surprised smile on her face. “You’re such an inspiration, you know.”

I was just like any college freshman, completing a mundane Sunday afternoon task, but because I have myasthenia gravis, I was suddenly worthy of praise. The ridiculous adulation prompted me to focus on sorting my light and dark clothes faster than I had been. Suddenly, the timer on the machine couldn’t move faster, and even my rhetoric textbook couldn’t distract me from my friend’s gaze. Her eyes widened as she peered up at me through her glasses and even shoved her own quarters in the washing machine. Although it seemed trivial, it was condescending.

As I sat down on the bench to wait, she rushed over and shook her head in gleeful shock. “I would never be able to do what you’re doing.” My throat tightened as I looked away. There were no medals for simply living, yet I was being hailed as an inspiration for doing so. To me, living is only the beginning and simply serves as a conduit for something actually praiseworthy. However, with a midterm looming over my head and two papers to write, I couldn’t find the words to articulate my frustration to my friend.

Since it was unclear whether she was talking about laundry or attending school, I managed to mumble, “It’s hard.” It was hard, but I’d imagined that completing laundry would be the least of my struggles.

“You’re just so talented, and I always see you taking out the trash and making your bed. That’s incredible.” I nodded my head and attempted to shift the conversation to school, but her words sharpened my breath. It stung to think that my friend would never recognize my accomplishments in other fields, but instead, I would be rewarded for completing mindless tasks devoid of any skills.

When I shared a poem that I had labored over to send to literary journals, she nonchalantly responded, “That’s good. It’s a cool one.” Her expression remained unchanged as she swiped through pictures on her phone. But to me, publishing that poem warranted more praise than simply pressing buttons on a laundry machine did. Arduous work had its challenges, but the dullness of the task could hardly be construed as praiseworthy.

On a similar occasion, an elementary school teacher prompted me to share my experiences living with myasthenia gravis to the rest of the class. I remember her calling me in early from recess. As I sat across from my desk with my feet barely touching the floor and her hand resting on her chin, she enthusiastically claimed, “It would be really inspirational for the other kids to hear about how you’re able to do things just like them.” At the time, I believed her suggestion had good intentions, so it didn’t strike me as problematic. However, now I wonder why I couldn’t instead speak about my passion for poetry. Surely, learning new skills in an academic environment would be more valuable.

Instead, the people around me urged me to talk about the banal realities of brushing teeth and doing homework. When I stood in front of my classmates with some speaker notecards and a list of chores that I was expected to complete, I noticed people glancing inattentively toward friends and the clock behind that would signal time for lunch. As my teacher watched from the corner, she would periodically motion for me to continue, and I racked my brain for something not on these notecards. Even as a fifth-grader, I rocked back and forth, feeling ridiculous and merely like a pawn that my teacher had paraded around in order for her students to feel better about themselves. Perhaps she believed that it would help me feel less excluded and make friends more easily.

But I am not someone to look up to simply because of my experience with myasthenia gravis. In fact, focusing on that diminishes my other accomplishments. I shouldn’t be an inspiration for merely existing. Of course, I am capable, and so I do a lot more. My identity is not so one-dimensional that it only revolves around my illness. As writing is my long-term goal, I hope that I will earn praise where praise is due. For now, I don’t want to be considered inspirational for completing routine tasks, as it wouldn’t be fair to others without an illness or disability. I’m inspirational — or at least I should be considered inspirational — because of my ability to see tasks through and work hard.

Simmy Khetpal writes the Friday column on having myasthenia gravis. Contact her at [email protected].