The cool wind was harsh but refreshing across my face as I climbed to the top, 1,488 feet above the ground. As I took my last step onto the top I suddenly heard cheering and applause that shocked my ears after three hours of rigorous climbing in silence. Look at the view. Look how far I could see into the distance. Most importantly, look at what I did! It was quite an accomplishment. No one, including me, would have believed I could succeed. For most people, climbing a mountain is simply an adrenaline rush. But for me, the experience means so much more.
I have Charcot-Marie-Tooth disorder, a progressive hereditary disease that damages and destroys the peripheral nerves over time. It is invisible, meaning while most people do not see it, it still affects my everyday life. My grandmother passed it down to my mom, then my mom passed it down to me. I have grown up around leg braces, fused ankles, and high arches. I worry about someday needing to wear leg braces but for now my invisible disabilities include hand weakness, poor balance and neuropathy related pain in my legs. Because people cannot see that I struggle with these things, my disabilities are invisible to others.
The problem is, no one understands what they cannot see. For example, I’ve observed when people who consider themselves empathetic negatively judge strangers who are not clearly disabled that park in a handicap spot. That is the reason I was motivated to go on the Western Trip, a five-week backpacking trip throughout the western United States. The most challenging hike I faced was Angel’s Landing, an almost vertical rock formation located in Zion National Park in Utah. Trudging up the steep mountain, I paused for a breath after every five or ten minutes, but never once looked back. Straining my neck to view my prospective journey, I could see that all of the other kids were already halfway there. It seemed as if forever had passed until I stepped onto a flat surface that began to plateau. Oblivious to glaring stares, I went to the edge of the rock and admired the beauty of my surroundings. Not high above me, the clouds swayed in their majestic way as if they were dancing just for me. Far below me, the Pinyan pine trees appeared as if they were glancing up, swaying, wishing their congratulations. I contemplated what I had just achieved and genuinely felt proud of myself. Not only had I climbed a mountain, but I had done so with a physical disability.
Because my physical differences are not readily visible to people that meet me, my peers did not realize that I could appear perfectly healthy yet have numerous non-apparent challenges. They observed me both struggle and succeed. My participation on this trip therefore helped to educate and increase awareness of what it’s like to live with an invisible disability. I believe that many of the teens on the trip will now think before they make assumptions about someone’s abilities..
Before this camping trip, I was insecure about having physical challenges and worried about other people’s opinions of me. But now I can now proudly say that I successfully climbed two mountains that summer: the first was Angel’s Landing and the second was overcoming my own doubts and insecurities about what I can accomplish.
If you’d like to follow Zoe’s family and their important story, check out her Mom Lainie’s awesome blog, Trend-Able!