Silence: A Missed Opportunity for Education?

My mouth is dry. My heart is pounding. I’m beginning to sweat.
No, I’m not about to perform on a stage or give a speech to a roomful of people… and yet… everyone is looking at me—not at him—waiting, expecting me to do something.

Or are they?
I’ve just arrived at a small get together, hobbling in with my walker. I’ve barely have made it through the door when I hear someone, over all other conversation already in progress, loudly exclaim:
“Hey, gimpy!”
Those words have stopped me in my tracks, and I scan the space for the source. Ah. Right there. It came from someone a few decades older than me, with a beer in one hand, a cigarette in the other and a proud grin on his face.
I don’t recognize this stranger, though I was later told I’d briefly met him once before.
This man doesn’t know who I am or anything about me. He doesn’t know I’m temporarily using a walker because I recently had surgery on one of my legs and I cannot put weight on it for two and a half months. He probably doesn’t know I have MS either, and if he does, he certainly doesn’t know anything about it or why what he did was so tasteless. He doesn’t know that, someday, I may need to use a walking aid to get around.
Even if he was privy to any of that information, is it any of his business?
I’ve written before, here and on my personal blog, about how illuminating this injury recovery has been in offering me small glimpses into what my reality could be if my MS progresses in that direction. And that’s why this man’s failed hilarity stung the way it did.
So, what do I do? Do I perpetuate the scene he created, only moments after walking through the door, and make the rest of the evening uncomfortable for everyone? If I call him out, will everyone think I’m dramatic or overly sensitive or unable to take a “joke?” Do I offer an explanation? Do I owe him one? Is that really what he’s after, or does he just want a reaction from me? Do I do what I usually do and crack a self-deprecating joke and sacrifice my mental and emotional peace for the rest of the night? Or do I do nothing and wonder if I’m condoning the behavior?
I can’t speak for anyone but myself, but to me, a “joke” of this nature—no matter how innocent and no matter who it’s coming from—is cruel. These trite one liners are things I’ve heard ever since my diagnosis. I go about my day, dodging eye contact with people and abruptly changing conversation topics, knowing that a cheap joke could be on the tip of anyone’s tongue. And it’s not just a quick, fleeting comment. No. It’s a reminder. It’s a reminder of a life I didn’t choose, the life I didn’t dream of as a child.
It’s a life we all live, loud and proud, but always on edge, anticipating the next time we have to make the decision:
Do I call him/her out and risk ruining the night for innocent bystanders? Or do I suffer alone and risk contributing to the core problem by remaining silent?

This article was authored by Cat Stappas and originally published on the National Multiple Sclerosis Society’s blog,, on December 6, 2017.

One thought on “Silence: A Missed Opportunity for Education?

  1. Milly

    Hi Cat,
    As always, thanks for your post. I think the best way (for me anyways) to deal with this type of situation is to figure out where I am (mentally, physically, emotionally) at the time the idiotic comment is made. Seriously idiotic! Sometimes, I might be too mentally fatigued to deal and want to just take every bit of energy I have to make the best of the night. On the other hand, if I’m reared up and in the mood to deal, then I might………Nope, I’d still probably let it go to be honest. He’s not worth it, and even if he was, trying to educate someone like that is of no use in my opinion. You said it perfectly-you don’t owe him anything. And I don’t necessarily look at it as a missed opportunity for education but rather an opportunity for me to silently observe and take note of how far I’ve come personally in how I react to others actions. In my head, I am still most likely telling him to f*&% off, but in my world, I probably end up smiling back at him. My smile may even come with a hint of feeling sorry for the man. Sorry that this someone will likely go his life never having to deal with disease whether personally or to someone close, someone who will never understand what invisible symptoms and side effects are, someone who will never know true strength. And Yes, it scares me too, to think of what our futures hold, what our new normals might look like and be, but for now, we flick our hair and carry on! You rock Cat! You really do!

    PS. I lost power the first time I tried replying and had to type my comment again. Here’s hoping the second time works 🙂 So I guess I’m also saying-You are worth it.


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