The Grey Areas of My Body Image

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Let’s talk about everybody’s favorite topic: body image. I hope that you could sense my sarcasm in that statement, so please know that I am being so sarcastic there! Body image is by far one of my least favorite topics to discuss. But it needs to be discussed. If you have found your way to this blog, you may be a parent to a disabled child, you may have a disability yourself, or you know me personally and want to see what I have to say. I would like to discuss the topic of body image when you have a disability. It is not as black and white as you think.

First off, I would like to make it clear that I think having a physical disability is one of the most beautiful gifts in my life. It forces me to think differently every day because I frequently have to adapt to my surroundings, and it has given me the ability to be a great empathizer. My physical disability connects me to so many wonderful people, and it is truly an honor when people reach out to me and tell me that I have influenced them in a positive way, or that they have discovered hope for their disability through my writings. I cannot completely express how humbling and amazing these connections are, and I hope that nobody is ever shy to reach out to me. You can always reach out to me. I appreciate it more than you will ever know.

I accept my physical disability for what it is. I know that I cannot change it or who I am, and I do not want to. I do not get caught up in the negativity anymore of completely despising my body. But, I still have days when my sub-conscience overrules my being and I believe that nobody else will accept me for who I am.

Let me introduce myself. My name is Jessica Paciello, and I am a soon-to-be 21 year old currently attending college to become a pediatric physical therapist. According to medical definitions, I am also physically disabled. I was born in May 1995, and I was immediately diagnosed with congenital hydrocephalus at birth. My diagnosis of mild hemiplegic cerebral palsy, which is definitely the greater and more challenging of my two evils, would follow eighteen months later. However, at two days old, I did have to undergo brain surgery to implant a shunt that drains from my brain’s ventricles, down my neck, all the way through my stomach, and into my abdomen. Basically in laymen’s terms, I had too much “water” (cerebrospinal fluids) on my brain, and that can cause serious health complications if the problem is not surgically corrected. When I inform people that I have undergone brain surgery, they freak out. That’s understandable, but on the scale of neurosurgical procedures, shunt surgery is so common and it is one of the easiest brain surgeries. I was never scared of it, and I am still not. The brain is the most intriguing organ to me. In fact, if I was not physically disabled, my dream job would be to become a neurosurgeon. Anyway, I want to give you a little bit of background about me so you can understand that growing up, I took viewing my body in a positive way in strides. However, I really am not ashamed about being disabled. I fully understand that every single person on this planet has their own unique story, and my story just includes a lot of medical talk and doctors’ visits.

Fast forward eighteen months after my birth, and the words “cerebral palsy” were discussed for the first time. Doctors explained my formal diagnosis of “left-sided hemiplegic cerebral palsy” to my parents. This is still in conjunction with my hydrocephalus. Neither diagnosis goes away with time. They will both stick around with me for the rest of my life. Hemiplegic cerebral palsy means the left side of my body, specifically my arm, leg, and trunk are significantly weaker than the right side of my body. I have full mobility in the right side of my body. Some activities that are harder for me to accomplish because of my CP include: typing (I am almost always solely typing with only my right hand), wiggling my left toes, and I walk with a little bit of a limp. Oh! And it sounds silly, but I cannot properly form a “peace sign” or “thumbs up” with my left hand. Sometimes, the littlest tasks like those frustrate me so much. I have rejected dinner dates with guys before as “first dates” because I cannot properly cut my food at restaurants in “normal” fashion. I cannot hold a knife in my left hand and cut my food. If you have ever asked me to grab a bite to eat before, I am so sorry that I laughed in your face. It is just a defense mechanism because restaurants are such a source of anxiety for me.

There are many more challenges I face because of my CP, but those few are the first that come to my mind right now. Growing up, I understood that because of my disability, my body had a “good side” and a “bad side”. There have been so many times when I had overcompensated for my “bad side” and I just did not want to use my left side at all. As a teenager, I felt very self-conscious about my disability, and I felt very alone because of it. I am the middle child and I have two sisters. I always compared myself to them, and I always knew I looked like the odd one out because of my physical conditions. Now at 20 years old, I actively try to change my pattern of negative thinking about my body, but I would be lying if I said that is always so easy. I am opening up about this issue because I know that I am not alone in the struggle of worrying about body image. Summer is just around the corner, and I just want to press fast-forward through this season because it means the scars on my body will be more visible to people. I know that my scars are overall a sign of strength that show all that I have overcome, but there are still so many days when I just want to hide from the world because I feel like it is not accepted. I trace my fingers down my skin, and there are more scars than I can count. I have avoided going out and being as social as I want to be in college because sometimes I still cannot shake the feeling of how down I get about my body, and during these times all I want to wear is loose baggy clothes so my arm and leg are hidden and not highlighted.

Positive affirmation is a funny concept when you have a disability. I frequently get called “pretty” by friends, family, guys, and strangers. I do not say this because I want attention or anything like that, but I need to make a point. I strongly believe at times that because of my physical disability, I am not any of the compliments people call me. It is hard to get out of my head sometimes. I am my biggest critic. I have such a hard time trusting people who say nice things to or about me, and I want to own up to that fact and apologize to any person who has been kind to me and did not receive a proper thanks. I feel imprisoned in my body some days because half of my body works perfectly and the other side does not. It is hard for me to believe that people find that “pretty”. But I really am trying to be more positive every single day of my life. I am trying to be kinder to myself, and kinder to my body. I am trying to be kinder to those who are kind to me and those who do not get frustrated with me, because they truly understand that positive affirmation is so difficult for me to wrap my head around.

Having a physical disability is very much a learning process every single day of your life. You will not magically understand your body and your perceived limitations overnight. I am still learning about my body daily. I want people to know that people with disabilities do not need or want your pity. I do not need pity. I do not want pity. I hope for understanding however, and that also begins with me understanding myself and owning up to my body image issues.

I know it will get better. Again, I am not ashamed of my physical disability. I would not know who I am without it, but I do know from personal experience that it can at the same time lead to confusion every single day. You can like and accept something that is important to you, but at the same time believe that nobody else will understand it fully. Not everything is understood in black and white terms. Life is full of grey areas. I want you to know that it is okay to be confused about your body. It is okay to be frustrated at times. It is okay to be honest. 

They say there is beauty in vulnerability. I hope they are right! XO

Dear Cerebral Palsy, Thanks for Everything…

Annie now & then

Dear Cerebral Palsy,

Hey there, friend. I can’t believe It’s been 21 years. Starting from the days in the NICU, now in my third year of college and here you are, always sticking to my left side. Years of stretching, physical therapy, injections, leg casts, and braces, were all focused around helping improve the strength, flexibility and gait. But I would have never thought that having you with me physically would lead me on such an incredible path of self-actualization. I consider myself really lucky; not everyone comes to understand what place a chronic condition can hold in their lives. At 17, I felt shadowed by you. But now at 21, you make my life brighter! So I felt the need to say thanks… for everything.

Thank you for helping me understand my body, my challenges, and my personal goals. Without you, I would have never learned the values of compassion, courage and perseverance. CP is the one thing in my life that has been with me through every endeavor, and I truly believe that this is what has given such a deeper meaning to many of  life’s experiences. While I can only speak based from personal experiences, I do not consider you as a disability. Yes, I understand that Cerebral Palsy technically fits into this category, but for me it’s a stretch (no pun intended). I rarely need to take advantage of, let alone qualify for accommodations. And let’s get one thing straight…I am not “differently-abled” as some campaigns like to call it, and I definitely do not “suffer from Cerebral Palsy” When things don’t feel comfortable for my body, I adapt. And yes, I’m weary about asking for help. But I’ve learned to speak up for myself! No one knows my body better than I do! I’ve come to terms with the fact that I may be better off avoiding ice skates, that stilettos probably won’t find a place in my closet, and that I’m going to fall over cracks in the sidewalk every now and again. Patience is important. And of course, making make my entrance into the world 7 weeks early, I’ve never exactly been the patient type! Thanks for teaching me how to take life one day at a time.

Sure, I have days I wake up with my leg muscles so tight and fatigued that I’m convinced I’m an 81-year-old trapped in a 21 year old’s body. Adding any kind of cold weather or uneven terrain to that equation takes the discomfort to a whole other level. My condition will never change, but my symptoms often do! Everyone says it’s unhealthy to stretch to the point of pain, but just extending my legs out can be agonizing sometimes. And I’ll never forget my senior year of high school, having bags of ice wrapped around my leg daily because of the regular muscle spasms.  Senior year comes with so many expectations, but it felt as though my body was betraying me. As a teenager, I was guilty of letting a lot of negativity go to my head, and for a while, I couldn’t fathom the thought of having Cerebral Palsy for the rest of my life. Performing on my high school stage didn’t make any of this easier either. I often felt like my best wasn’t good enough, and I know a lot of those feelings stemmed from a deep place as a little girl. I crossed paths with more than one choreographer who have flat-out said that my C.P. got in the way of them being able to teach me. But the last time I checked, my leg doesn’t affect my ability to understand how hurtful words can be. Not everyone is going to be open-minded, and that’s okay. Thanks for allowing me to experience pain, criticism, and even rejection. I can’t control what people think about my  abilities, but I can control my attitude. In living with CP (or any chronic condition for that matter) perspective is key. I don’t want to look back on my life knowing I woke up every morning frustrated by my body. Every person is in control of how they feel, regardless of what life throws at them. It’s a choice. I’m glad I choose optimism.

Thank you for helping me realize how incredible my parents are. From day one, their unconditional love and encouragement has served as my saving grace. My mom, the woman who always reminded me that living with a big heart will take me farther than any physical ability. She devoted many hours to making sure I was able to complete my home program of Physical Therapy with incredible patience, even on the days where I would grumble and whine. My Dad, the guy who always reminded me to face my challenges with hustle and heart, and who comforted me through painful procedures, telling me to was okay to howl as doctors injected the back of my leg. Mom and Dad were the first to console me as I awoke from each of my five surgeries, and made sure chocolate milkshakes soon followed! Together, they have pushed to give me the best life possible, insisting nothing took precedence over getting my education, and making sure that I stayed on a mainstream track in school where I belonged. Decisions like these are ones that have helped me reach my full potential in life. From day one, they have taught me and given me more than any other two people on the planet, and I love them so very much.

Most of all, thank you for helping make my dreams come true. This May will mark two years since my tendon release surgery. To be honest, an operation didn’t phase me at all-I was excited! I will never forget the morning I stood up from my hospital bed and began my trek down the hall. With every step, it was as if all my doubts were disappearing behind me. It’s so hard to explain the joy I felt in that moment. My soul was happier than I ever knew it could be. I am incredibly thankful that my surgery became all I’ve ever wanted. The way I walk will never truly be perfect, but in a way, it has become perfect to me. To know the feeling of dream come true is indescribable and gave me the confidence to pursue other dreams as well. I didn’t think my surgery could be topped by anything, but when I got the news from Chicken Soup for the Soul that they were publishing my piece in their book, Think Possible, I was more excited than ever!! Being able to share my story with the world about being a seventeen year old performer with CP (and a major side of insecurity) was eye-opening and a real honor. Over the past few years, you have transformed from my biggest insecurity into my greatest gift. And I know that I am not alone. I  have had the ability to form instant bonds with people who know what it’s like to live with CP.  Together we’re unstoppable! I want to be a part of spreading hope that living with a chronic medical condition can, in fact, be a blessing in disguise.  My dear CP, If I know one thing for sure, it’s that I wouldn’t be the  person I am today without you…literally always on my side.

Much Love,

Annie

CP Awareness Day Video Project!

Hello All!

Well, as most of you may know, March is CP Awareness month! But today is even more special– March 25th is the 3rd Annual CP Awareness Day here in The United States! To commemorate this event, I’ve put together this video compilation for those in need of a little reassurance about their bodies & to express what we deal with on a daily basis with a physical disability. Thank you to the lovely ladies who were brave enough to share bits of their experiences with cerebral palsy, I am so grateful & couldn’t have done this without you! Enjoy… 🙂 And please feel free to share!

-Katy

(PS. Please check out more fun stuff from TeenCP on Facebook!) Watch this video on YouTube

CLICK HERE! Reflections on Cerebral Palsy for CP Awareness Day 2016

Featured Spotlight: TeenCP in 2015!

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Hi All,

I do hope your November is off to a good start! I’d like to give a warm thank you to James Randolph of Artiscend, a digital archive spotlighting inspiring stories from artists, musicians & people from all over. This article below is a lovely profile piece on me & TeenCP. I really appreciate how genuine these words come across, especially as they are so personal to me & everyone who has been alongside my internet journey. The power of voice proves to be yet another way to extend our reach beyond amazement!

What is Artiscend?

“Our job is to be the avenue for the talented craftsmen and artists who want to see their work appropriately spotlighted and for the patrons of those artists to have a place to express their appreciation.We always feel like those who deserve it most are those who are appreciated least and we hope to help change that. Musicians can receive direct support from their fans,  Application designers and game developers will have a platform to receive credit and contribution from the technology they’ve created and inspired. Wherever the artists are changing the world, we’ll be there to help them realize their vision.”

Click me: >>>Artiscend Article on TeenCP

Hope you enjoy it, I know I did! 🙂

-Katy

“Give a girl the right shoes and she’ll conquer the world” – Marilyn Monroe

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Hi everyone,

I’m Jessica and I’m 23 years old. I was diagnosed with Cerebral Palsy when I was 4 months old in a unique way. I got pneumonia which caused one of my lungs to collapse. When that happened I lost oxygen, and as all of us know thats one of the ways to get CP. I was placed in a coma for a week, and eventually I became healthy again. From a young age I had to become a fighter. Cerebral Palsy has a funny way of forcing you to get thick skin. Eventually you learn to let the looks and comments roll off your shoulders, because in my head those people who say things don’t matter. I have a mild case of CP that affects me from my waist down on both legs. I got the percutaneous lengthening surgery twice. Once for my hamstrings and the other for my achilles tendon. The surgeries were life changing for me, it gave me a chance to have loose muscles along with stretching everyday. Also for the past two years I have been getting botox injections in leg muscle to help with my spasticity. Im loose and flexible now with very little spasticity but still walk with a limp.

When I was young I never thought twice about it, I never knew anything was wrong until kindergarten. My Cerebral Palsy never held me back, I did everything I wanted to do. It might have taken me a little longer, but I did it and thats all that matters in the long run. I pretty much came to terms with all things related to Cerebral Palsy, Physical therapy, stretching, gate training, strengthening exercises, but the one thing I can’t come to terms with is SHOES! I’m sure you all can agree with me having CP and shoe shopping is not fun! It’s the one type of shopping I dread and try to put off. After having years of experience of shoe shopping with CP I think I got it down to a science. I have some shoes & tricks that I want to share with you all.

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Sneakers– I am definitely a Nike girl! Although I am picky with the weight of the sneaker, I usually get the sneakers used for running, I find that these are not to light but not too heavy. Right Now I love the Nike Dual Fusion line.

Slippers– Even though slippers are meant for comfort it’s still important to keep your feet in the right position all the time. I am in love with the brand Vionic! They have an arch and a heel cup, they are made for people who need medical footwear. I have the Relax Luxe they are my favorite.

Sandals– I’m definitely the most difficult with sandals, It took me a while to feel comfortable and confident in them. I have two brands that I will only wear they are Bare Traps & BOC. For me finding a sandal with a sneaker like bottom works best. I also make sure the sandal has a ankle strap for extra support. When I walk in the BareTraps & BOC sandals it’s almost compatible to sneakers.

Sandal Tips– I hate when my foot slides around in my sandals.It is impossible to wear an orthotic with some sandals. My fun tip is I buy the Dr. Scholls gel heel cushions and trim them to fit my shoe then glue them to the inside by the heel & the toes.

Boots– Again I have to say I love the brand BareTraps & BOC for boots. If I do stray away from those brands I always make sure the the boot is flexible & has a rubber bottom so you don’t slip! Again I look for that sneaker like bottom for comfort & I make sure I can slip in my Orthotics.

Heels– Wearing heels is a struggle but lets be real having CP and balancing on a stiletto is out of the question for me, and thats something that took me a long time to accept. I would give anything to walk in heels and be confident and comfortable, but thats not always the case. I am not a toe walker so feeling the pressure of being pushed onto my toes gives me anxiety, I feel like I’m going to topple over. As of right now I only wear a heel with boots or booties, I normally wear a low heel about 1 inch to 1 1/2 inch. I make sure they have a rubber bottom and is a flexible shoe. Right now I have the Kenneth Cole Women’s Riding Boot. I love them and I’m very confident in them, and thats all that matters. I recently have been gate training in wedges so I can wear them outside and not only in the comfort of my house.

Orthotics– I wore day and night AFOs until I was 17 years old. I am now able to buy over the counter orthotics. I wear them in every shoe except for sandals. Two of my favorites are Vionic and Spenco.

Now, I am definitely not a Doctor but these are just some shoes and tips that work best for me. Also I would like to thank Katy for making this blog, it’s always nice to relate & talk to people who are going through the same thing as you!

xoxo Jessica