The following is an essay written by Opal Besaw, a Disability EmpowHer Camp attendee who has been working with Kelly’s Kitchen founder, Kelly Timmons, and Kelly’s Kitchen/Disability EmpowHer Camp Mentor Jenny Boulder.
Content Warning: this essay depicts Opal’s experience with body image and disordered eating.
Finding Strength: My Journey of Self-Acceptance
(And the people who helped me get there)
By: Opal Besaw
Needing help is a fact of life. Every person on this Earth has strengths and weaknesses. This is the story of how I met Kelly and found strengths I didn’t know I had.
Strength to support those around me both physically and emotionally. Strength to try, even when things seem difficult and frightening. Strength to ask for help even when doing so means making yourself extremely vulnerable.
I was born with Cerebral Palsy. This means I need a lot of physical assistance to complete everyday tasks like preparing meals, getting dressed, and using the restroom. When I was younger, I felt bad asking for this assistance; like I was getting special treatment. However, as I have grown up and learned more about disability culture and self-advocacy, I have come to understand that it is not only my right, but my responsibility, to ensure that I am getting the support that I need to live life to the fullest.
I used to think that I would probably never be able to assist another person with a physical disability. That changed in 2021 when I was offered the chance to attend EmpowHer Camp with Kelly and learn about the concept of interdependence. The idea of interdependence consciously considers every person’s skill set, including the things that they need help with, and then matches them with people whose strengths complement their weaknesses.
For example, I discovered that even though I may need help getting dressed in the morning, I am excellent at helping my friend Jenny brush her hair because our heights complement each other so nicely. Spending time with Kelly and everyone else at camp really showed me that a person doesn’t know their limits until they test them. Because of the confidence I gained while I was at camp, I now have the courage to ask for help and to offer it.
I distinctly remember the Wednesday of our week at camp in the Adirondacks. That morning the rain came down in sheets. It was the kind of rain that soaked through your clothes after being out in it for just a few minutes. Despite the inclement weather, everyone was working hard to keep their spirits up. We were all crammed under tents in an effort to keep ourselves as dry as possible.
I asked Kelly what she needed my help with. She handed me a rocker knife and said that I could cut strawberries. I would be lying to you if I said I wasn’t a tiny bit scared. I had a very similar knife at home, but this one was much sharper, not to mention the fact that strawberries aren’t a particularly long fruit, which meant that the knife was going to be close to my fingers. I pushed through my reluctance, knowing I was in an environment where I could safely test my boundaries.
Although it was hard and sometimes a little scary, I managed to cut all the strawberries. After I was done cutting them, my arm got especially spastic, and I ended up knocking them into the dirt. Normally this occurrence would have upset me, but I persevered and cut a new batch. This was the first time I really felt empowered about food. Making my own healthy snack made me feel strong, independent, and alive, a feeling I try to carry with me on my worst days. In addition to the confidence I gained at camp, I also gained an extensive family of mentors, who are still helping and supporting me to this day.
In May I had the opportunity to attend super intensive physical therapy rehab, where I learned a plethora of new skills. Perhaps the most important thing I learned however, is acceptance of, and pride in, my own body. I have had a somewhat toxic relationship with food in the past, which I think stems in part from an urge to be as helpful as I possibly can to those around me. It is harder for people to help me if I am heavy, and since I never want to hurt anyone, I started trying to restrict the amount of food I ate. To make matters worse, I also consistently felt fat. My negative self-talk has gotten better over the years, but until recently I never felt actively happy about my body. That started to change when I attended rehab.
My Nana, who came with me on the trip, lovingly insisted that I eat three square meals a day. It also helped immensely that Jenny, my friend, and mentor from camp, came to visit me. Jenny has also struggled to develop a good relationship with food, so she understood where I was coming from. She also had some great personal advice to share and encouraged me to find my own small motivations to stay healthy.
One of those small motivations was going on my first semi-independent shopping trip with Jenny. We had quite the adventure, and I learned so much. For example, I never knew that at most grocery stores, there are people whose jobs including physically helping persons with disabilities get their groceries and push their carts. Although this is a very neat service to know about, Jenny and I didn’t use it much because we were trying to be as independent as possible. Jenny was certainly not afraid to ask someone for help if we needed it. I was a little too overwhelmed to do anything other than follow directions, but I am confident that with more practice, I can get better at asking for help. One of my favorite memories from this experience was trying to solve the complicated puzzle of how to carry a whole rotisserie chicken and a five-pound bag of potatoes with nothing more than two power chairs and a backpack!
Another motivation was the visible changes in my body, both in strength and in appearance. Usually when these changes occur, only people who see me on a regular basis can detect them. However, I hadn’t seen Jenny in almost a year, and one of the first things she mentioned when she came to visit was my impressive arm muscles. My body often frustrates me because it does not always do what I want it to. What feels like an extremely difficult exercise for me, may look to outsiders as though I am not accomplishing much. Jenny’s comment was uplifting and helped reassure me that rehab was truly making a difference. The stronger I got, the easier the tasks became, which made me push myself to work even harder.
I remember the first day of sitting in front of the mirror in the bathroom trying to figure out how to put my own shirt back on. I’ll be honest, it was a little nerve-wracking at first, looking at myself topless in that mirror. But as the days progressed into weeks and I developed more muscle, I started to like what I saw. My food intake also started to balance out, because I knew I needed fuel to support the building of further muscle.
As I grew stronger, I felt my mindset beginning to change. Now, rather than being apprehensive about what my body can do, I try to dive into challenges with a completely open mind. Rehab did more than teach me new skills, it changed my life…and none of that would have been possible without Jenny because she was the one who recommended that I go.
(Opal and Jenny)
Rehab and Camp were very similar. At both I did things I never thought I could do, whether that be making my own bed or drinking from the lake at camp or learning how to change my shirt and do my own transfers at rehab. At both I gained immense confidence, to freely express myself and to trust in my body. Both would not have been possible without my extensive support system.
There are so many people that I want to thank for my increased confidence and new skill sets: my parents, my Nana, Kelly, Jenny, Alexis, Stephanie, all the other lovely Disability EmpowHer Network mentors, and all my teachers at rehab, and the beautiful young leaders who stood alongside me in both spaces. You have made me a better person. You have given me strength.