Dear Random Man at the Coffee Shop
An open letter to an older gentleman I met once at a coffee shop who bestowed upon me the single most uncomfortable experience in my life.
Hi! It's me! Well, to be honest, you likely won't remember me, which is fair given our interaction was much more significant for me than you.
Honestly, the word "significant" doesn't really highlight just how unexpected and unforgettable our interaction was. The hyperbolic expression "burned into my psyche" seems more appropriate.
I'm trying to understand
I've tried to put myself in your shoes to understand this experience better. I'm sure you thought you were asking an innocuous question. I'm also sure that you believed your question(s) came from a place of care and concern.
Unfortunately, I feel you are entirely wrong on both fronts.
What you said wasn't appropriate
Your behavior was kind of impressive in a sick and twisted way. The level of cognitive dissonance one would have to possess to believe that anything you asked me that day was appropriate is truly remarkable.
Now, I am not the most refined person. Thanks to a few neurodevelopmental diagnoses and many years spent affiliated with some less than savory characters has made me quite the potty mouth. Essentially I am not inherently blessed with knowing how to communicate or what is appropriate to communicate, and my old life did nothing but reinforce unhealthy behaviors. I had to be able to understand or even notice these nuances in conversation. So, I do know how it feels to say something offensive while truly not meaning to.
Your excuse was lame
I try not to assume that a random person is commenting on something so personal because your defense that you were "just concerned about the wellbeing of a young woman" was, for lack of a better term, complete BS. I don't need or want your concern, pity, or whatever other shame-based emotion you were hoping to pile on me.
You felt entitled to know about my skin
What did you intend to do anyway if my answer was truly a cause for concern? The answer to that is nothing. Your choices had nothing to do with concern and everything to do with entitlement and selfishness. You felt entitled to ask me about my skin in the first place. You felt that you were entitled to receiving an answer, regardless of my visible discomfort. You felt your curiosity was more important and that is the epitome of selfishness. Important enough to ignore two prior dismissals of your questions.
Then you started rattling off a list of the skin conditions you knew (like I was supposed to let you know when you guessed correctly?!).
My anger settled in
It was then that I could feel the last bits of refinement and politeness slipping away. Your "need" to have my skin conditions identified and explained as if I owed you an explanation was an act of pure and unbridled selfishness. The phrase "do no harm but take no s$#!" has always been a mantra of mine, and sir, you were expecting me to take the latter and thank you for your "concern" afterward. So, I suppose I should also offer up an apology. I did not mean to verbally eviscerate you. Or "be a b****," as you so aptly put it.
It's no excuse, but your words ignited anger that, at the time, I was powerless to stop. (Well, not powerless, more along the lines of "unwilling.") You should know that reaction wasn't because I personally felt shamed or hurt.
I've been through this before
Despite having had large periods of time between my atopic dermatitis flare-ups, I have lived with less-than-attractive dermatologic conditions the entire time. I have had enough experiences like ours to last me a lifetime. It took me a long time to understand that feeling anger, resentment, and rage for these experiences only hurts me. Because of this, I have done and still do the internal work required not to internalize commentary like yours. No, my rage was for the next person. That unlucky person will have your distorted beliefs and entitlement to information that doesn't belong to you forced upon them. What if they were not so desensitized to these kinds of experiences? What if your inappropriate questions were the "last straw" for them? We NEVER know what a stranger has, is, or will be going through.
It's happened to others too
I recognize that the chances of you reading this are hovering around 0%. This has been an exercise that is cathartic rather than confrontational. However, there is a chance that someone who has behaved like just might stumble upon this open letter. As this is a support-based website it is more likely that someone who has experienced stigmatization of this variety will read this. I hope it gives even a miniscule amount of comfort that you are not alone. Feeling hurt, angry, embarrassed, or ashamed because of these experiences is normal. You're not "taking it too personally," or "being dramatic." You are being a normal human reacting to inappropriate or in some cases, abusive messages.
For those persons who are the perpetrators of these experiences, I have three key pieces of advice:
We are already aware of our "flaws"
First, please understand that the recipient of whatever thing you are asking about or pointing out is more than aware of that difference. Often hyperaware. In fact, they may have spent hours preparing mentally and physically even to go out and do whatever activity or errand that has unfortunately now placed them at the mercy of your "concern" or "curiosity."
What you say, sticks with us
Second, you can never "un-say" something. Once you have asked your burning question about someone's physical disability or visible illness, you may feel better, moving along and forgetting about the interaction by the next day. I can guarantee you that they will likely never forget it. Even the strongest of us have moments where we feel broken, small, and question our worth. Your words or actions play like a record on repeat in those moments. A few seconds of dialogue can take years to heal from. Unfortunately, your intention is irrelevant if the message was poorly received.
Our skin is none of your business
I have saved the best for last with my advice. This one is perhaps the most important piece of advice I have for you. It is so fundamental that, had you known and understood this before our interactions, they would have been avoided entirely! There are many iterations of this message. Although there are exceptions and outliers depending on the situation, it applies perfectly in our case. The principle behind them has been echoed throughout history. Most individuals are children when they are learning this crucial life lesson. I guess you must have been away the day they covered this one? As this is apparently new information to you, I will use the same child-friendly phrasing my mother used to explain this to me. Hopefully, this assists you with deconstructing whatever mental walls were present that allowed you to behave as you did. So next time you are out in the world, before you comment or ask about someone's physical disability, visible illness, or diversity, remember these four words: "Mind. Your. Own. Business."
Sincerely, The girl with the "ugly scars."
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