Here’s How I Learned to Accept My Cerebral Palsy

My mom believed in tough love. Eventually, I learned that being tough meant fighting for what I wanted. In the seventh grade, I watched the Olympics on TV. I saw Greg Louganis and I thought, “I want to be a diver.” My parents took me for a sports physical so that I could try out for the middle school diving team. The doctor took my mom out of the room and said, “You realize that Hilary has cerebral palsy, and cerebral palsy and diving don’t really go together.” My mom asked, “Will she kill herself?” He said, “No.” She said, “Sign the paper.”

I tried out for the diving team in seventh grade but got cut because I couldn’t do a flip. I spent the whole next summer in the local pool, teaching myself how to do a flip. And when the eighth-grade tryouts came around, I made it. I couldn’t do the high-level dives other kids could do, but at least I tried. And I loved it. I loved flying through the air and feeling the freedom of my body not inhibiting me.

In every other part of my life, my body did hold me back. It was so hard to accept myself because I knew I was different and I couldn’t hide those differences. Everything came to a head my sophomore year of high school. I had no friends and I was absolutely miserable. I tried to kill myself. I ended up in a psychiatric hospital, where I stayed for three weeks.

One night in bed, I just started crying. I’m very spiritual, and I believe God put in my mind the idea that “Anything I make is not junk.” That formed the basis for the beginning of my self-esteem—the belief that God does not make junk.

I met a counselor at the hospital who taught me that I was unique. He just knew that I was an old soul. Until that point, no one had fostered that feeling in me. By the time I left there, I finally had the confidence to make friends. My junior and senior years of high school were pretty great.

Even as an adult, though, I sometimes have to deal with misunderstandings about who I am and what I can accomplish. One of the most frustrating things about having cerebral palsy is when people hear my voice and assume I’m not intelligent, which is so untrue. I have a Master’s degree! But often when I walk or say anything, people think I’m drunk. These kinds of assumptions actually did contribute to me becoming an alcoholic. I was like, “I’ll show you drunk.”

While I was an undergrad, for instance, my roommates and I would go out, and they would end up carrying me home. Then we’d do it all again the next night. I tried to get sober and stay sober on my own. But it was only after I passed out while driving and hit a tree that I fully applied myself to recovery and the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. I’ve been sober for almost 20 years.