“How do you do it?” I looked up at the gorgeous, blonde, green-eyed woman who had just watched me use a knife and fork while having lunch at a café on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. It had been the first time Aviva Drescher and I had ever met in person. Just a few months before, to my delight, she accepted my invitation to write a Guest Flaunt and to share with the Don’t Hide It Flaunt it community her life-experience as an amputee. Not that I necessarily try to befriend every Guest Flaunter. Yet, after several exchanges, I felt a special synergy with Aviva, who was the newest co-stars of “The Real Housewives of New York,” a television show, on BRAVO. But that connection had nothing to do with wanting to know what it was like to be on a reality show, nor did it have to do with the fact that we were both the daughters of Jewish guys from Brooklyn or that we got our legal educations in Manhattan. No, there was something else that drew me to her.
She repeated herself. “Meg, I am so sorry for asking but I really am genuinely amazed at how much you accomplish so easily.” As I heard myself saying, “It all comes naturally to me. After all, it’s all I have ever known…..” I realized we both felt slightly embarrassed. Aviva, as a result of her fascination with what I viewed as ordinary (a topic with which she could easily relate), and my sudden realization that my response probably sounded a bit insensitive. Although I was born physically different, Aviva lost her foot in an accident when she was a child. In her case, it certainly wasn’t all she had ever known.
But despite the slightly awkward moment, our mutual comfort with each other was undeniable. More importantly, I realized that never before had I ever spent time with someone I considered a friend who also had a limb difference. Then she said, “While I don’t purposefully sweep my physical difference under the carpet, it is simply in my life’s background.” As I plunged in for another bite with my fork (my new friend no longer so amazed….), she then shared with me that she was in the process of writing a memoir. “I used to be a hider, like you describe it in your blog, Meg.” I listened attentively, already excited to read the memoir that would ultimately be titled, “Leggy Blonde.” Aviva continued. “I really want to share my story, there’s so much more to me than what people see on the show. There’s so much I want to do to help others so they can get through their own version of a dark period.” Unbeknownst to us both, Aviva would have her chance before the release of her book. Aside from the countless hours she had already been spending counseling children and teenage amputees and helping raise money for prosthetics for families that couldn’t afford them, within months Aviva would be up in Boston after the Marathon attack. She would commit to helping guide the amputees from that attack whose lives, like hers, had been changed forever in a matter of seconds.
As we continued to chat over our meal, Aviva and I agreed that the irony of our lives was that although accepting ourselves unconditionally was our greatest hurdle, we don’t spend much, if any, of our days thinking about our bodies. She paused and offered, “Although the public has gotten to know me as ‘the amputee Housewife,’ it actually is not the focal point of my everyday life.” I nodded, and admitted that although it was definitely worth it to start my “Don’t Hide It Flaunt It” website and blog, the fact that I was born with only one finger on each hand and one toe on each foot was hardly a subject that I focused on day-to-day either. Not only were we both on the same page about that, but we also quickly realized that shining a public light on our physical difference was already worth it. We both reveled in a deep sense of accomplishment from helping others accept themselves unconditionally, in pursuit of their own version of happiness.
“How do you do it?” For some reason this past week, I received emails from several people in different parts of the world that all started with this phrase or something close to it. All had some type of limb difference, whether born that way or as a result of an accident along the way. The only thing was, that as I began to type my response, I realized that my own “How-to guide to self-acceptance” had mostly to do with giving birth to my older two children who share my genetic condition, ectrodactyly. By raising them to learn to accept themselves unconditionally, despite their blatant physical difference, I was forced to nurture my own sense of self-worth. Of course, if I replied, “Hey, just give birth to your difference—it really works!” I don’t think my advice would be well-received, to say the least.
With this in mind, and in anticipation of my friend Aviva’s book launch party this past Wednesday–her memoir came out this week (http://www.amazon.com/Leggy-Blonde-Memoir-Aviva-Drescher/dp/1476722110 ), I began to re-read the galley copy she had given me over the holidays. Although Aviva and I both live our lives with a physical limb difference, unlike mine, Aviva’s was not genetic. Once again, I was pulled in as she vividly described the day of the accident that would mar her perfect six-year-old body. Sporting her favorite Mickey Mouse sneakers, Aviva was at a summer house upstate and snuck out with a friend to ride the conveyer belt in the barn. She slipped and her foot was mangled by the teeth of the machinery. The lower part of her leg had to be amputated. Although it was my second time reading it, again tears slid down my cheek. Any parent reading this chapter would have their heart in their throat at the mere thought of such an unexpected and horrific accident happening to their child. Throughout the book, Aviva describes how she manages life as an amputee, dealing with the discomfort of prosthetics, and the inevitable shame that emerges when you worry more about what other people think of you than what you think of yourself. Living in Paris as a young adult, as Aviva put it, “No one knew about my leg,” and even though her boyfriend was aware, she kept her prosthetic on at all times during their relationship. The passage sounded entirely familiar to me, having always worn socks on my tiny, misshapen feet whenever staying over at my college boyfriend’s apartment. As I poured through each chapter, I couldn’t help being proud of my friend for providing truthful insight into her life’s journey, something the reality TV show cannot even begin to approach.
However, in my quest to respond thoughtfully to those who had reached out to me, I realized that I had the benefit of knowing Aviva. What was the one moment where she realized that it was time to accept herself unconditionally? How did she get there if she didn’t give birth to her difference like I did? Sometimes I have wondered if I still would be hiding my hands in front of strangers and in photos had I not given birth to our sons. And so, this past week I called her. Without even taking a breath, Aviva replied, “I know when it was. I can picture the day. I was helping a teenage girl amputee in 2008. She told me she was embarrassed any time she had to expose her leg, like on the beach. I began to try and to encourage her to not worry what other were thinking of her.” She paused. “….and then, it was as if I had an epiphany, Meg. How can I spend the time trying to make this young woman and for that matter, any other children or teens feel comfortable with themselves if I still felt, at times, uncomfortable in my own skin. If I didn’t figure this out, then I would be nothing more than a hypocrite.” By helping others, Aviva had finally realized it was time to personally let go of any feelings of being self-conscious.
And that was it.
It’s not that I (nor anyone else) had to have children born with my condition to learn the key to unconditional self-acceptance. It is that I was provided the opportunity to lead by example. It’s the way you learn to let go and stop absorbing all the external judgment. Don’t get me wrong, some days are better than others. It’s still difficult for me to frolic barefoot at a pool or a beach each summer, even when I like how I look in my suit. And Aviva, who has learned to flaunt it on national television, admitted she still has awkward and embarrassing moments pool side on occasion. It will always be a process, for us all. After I thanked Aviva, I ran to my computer to respond. I now had the answer.