“One of my earliest memories is not one I’ve openly claimed to many people. I wish my earliest memory was something happy, or something to look back on fondly. I was glamping with my family (who knows where) and my parents took me to the hot tub one evening to dip my toes in. There was another girl, about my age, there with her parents. The conversation wasn’t anything out of the normal, and our parents seemed to be getting on nicely.
We had been there for a bit when suddenly, the other little girl started screaming like she had just seen a monster jump out at her. She soon started pointing straight at my left hand and continued to scream as if it were a feral animal coming at her. Her parents immediately apologized to my parents and from what I remember, they left pretty quickly after that. How accurate that memory is I’m not entirely sure. I will say, though, that’s exactly what it felt like happened. I didn’t just establish a first memory with this experience, I established a belief about myself and how others would view me.
Since this moment, I have carried the weight of what others might negatively think about me, my hand, and how I was born. This has made me nervous to meet new people and be seen in public. It could be a passing interaction or a stare from someone I’m going to be working with at school or work— someone who will have a lot of exposure to my hand. This fear perpetuated a pretty constant urge to comfort others about whatever discomfort or curiosity they might have regarding my limb difference.
I would describe my experience of living with a limb difference since birth as a rollercoaster. Some ages were more difficult than others. I have both good and bad stories to tell, but what ultimately comes from each story is a new perspective and a new life lesson learned. Much of my life was spent viewing my hand as a negative. It hasn’t been until adulthood I’ve seen more positives than negatives associated with it. Maybe that’s just another coming-of-age story, but I feel it’s been something I’ve had to dig deep to find and continually practice.
Just before I turned 2 years old, my family moved to a small rural/residential town in Northern Utah. I went to preschool, elementary, junior high, and high school with the same kids. This is something I’m quite grateful for, as someone with a limb difference. I remember the fear I felt going from one grade school to the next, and I couldn’t imagine doing that more than I already had to. Shout out to Mom and Dad for picking a home and sticking with it! I’m the youngest of three daughters. We were raised by two amazing parents who encouraged us to do anything we wanted.
The elementary years were probably the rockiest when it came to figuring out my identity as someone with a ‘deformity.’ I walked into kindergarten with a bright orange cast on my left arm from a silly swing-set accident over the summer. Talk about drawing unwanted attention. I was quickly and widely known as ‘Chelsea with one finger.’ Sure, that’s a pretty simple way to be described as a kid, like ‘Ashley with the blonde hair,’ but this soon became my identity. I’m partly to blame for it, though. When starting out a new class with those get-to-know-you games, I would always introduce myself this way. I’d say, ‘Hi, my name is Chelsea. One fun fact about me is that I was born with one finger on my left hand!’ and I’d show the whole class right then. In my mind, this was saving me from having to tell everyone individually. My hope was the word would get around I was ‘just born that way’ and then we wouldn’t have to talk about it ever again!
While I was still learning about my hand and what I could or couldn’t do like other kids, I didn’t feel comfortable talking about it. I, as you can probably imagine, had the periodic boy on the playground call me, ‘Captain Hook’ (thanks for ruining such a fun cartoon for me, kid) or overhear kids talking about it negatively and this made me very bitter and scared. I am a firm believer in that saying, ‘Those who bully are bullied,’ because I was a bully myself.
A pivotal moment in my life happened when I was in first grade. A kid from another class kept teasing me in front of everyone about my hand. His teacher approached my mom and asked, ‘Would you be willing to bring your daughter into my class to talk to them about it?’ She told my mom, ‘After years of teaching kids, I have learned they just need to understand it and they will leave it alone.’ My mom asked if I would be willing to do that and I agreed, but only if she would speak for me. Mom explained to them, ‘She was simply born with one finger on her left hand,’ and as soon as I saw their reactions weren’t as scary as I thought they were going to be, I opened right up. I showed them how I tie my shoes (still a great party trick), answered questions they had, and even let them feel it.
A big hurdle I had in grade school was when we had to play games like Red Rover or Down by the Bank when another kid had to hold my hand. They would either hold the tip of my finger like they were trying to only touch my fingernail, or they would hold my arm above my wrist. I can’t recall a time I ever told someone how to hold my hand, but I remember the time one of my friends just held it like a regular hand, and I made sure every time after that to be next to her if I could manage it.
I am ashamed to say one of the responses I had to how I was treated regarding my hand was to tear others down in an attempt to lift myself up. It lasted well into high school. It’s all thanks to my therapists over the years who have stopped my bullying behaviors by teaching me the skills I was lacking. I can now realize my triggers, practice observing my emotions in response to hurtful comments or behaviors, and continue to learn how to process that so I don’t feel the need to take it out on others.
Since I didn’t have a great start with my reputation through elementary, I knew I needed to do something different when going into junior high school. My middle sister helped me think up a short and funny story to tell about my hand as a sort of ice breaker. It goes a little something like this: ‘When I was a baby my middle sister was mad she wasn’t the youngest anymore. One day, she bit off my fingers and ate them!’ As I was showing them my hand and bending it how it does, I saw their minds racing. ‘She had torn off so much skin that they had to take some from my butt cheeks to save the only finger left!’ ‘OH, EWWW!’ they would say. ‘I touched your butt, then?’ We would all laugh and say, ‘You sure did!’ This helped all my classmates, new and old, know I was open to talking about my hand and even joking about it. If I didn’t have to take it too seriously, neither did they.
When I was on the junior high volleyball team, I felt very cool. I was finally able to prove not only could I do just as much as everyone else, but I could actually do quite a few things some people with two standard hands can do! My hand wasn’t about to hold me back from doing the things I wanted to do. I took sewing classes, ceramic classes, played the piano, learned how to ride horses, participated in plays. (Stage fright was prominent there, too. Forgot every line I was ever given. The after-school socialization was just too good to pass up.) I never had any accommodations for school projects, and I even spent extra time in the computer class teaching myself how to type correctly so I wasn’t overcompensating my right hand onto the left side of the keyboard. My one finger does EVERYTHING on the left side. It’s fun for me to be able to say, ‘I can type faster than my father, who is a journalist and has 10 fingers.’ (Sorry, Dad. And thanks for editing this for me.)
Ninth grade was when things started to get difficult for me romantically. Of course, I had liked boys and had crushes before ninth grade. I was boy CRAZY. It just wasn’t until ninth grade I felt the intense longing for those chick-flick scenarios like walking down the street holding hands with someone, admiring my sister’s and mom’s wedding rings on their beautiful hands with pretty nails, wearing bracelets, or watches, on my left wrist, and the list goes on.
I had a pretty overwhelming personality at that age and would rather believe someone didn’t like me back because of my hand being different than my personality. I remember when I started hanging out with this boy in the grade above mine. I always walked on his left side so he would hold my right hand and not worry about my left. One night, a group of us were walking to someone else’s house, and he just made his way to my left side, grabbed my finger like a regular hand, and held it not too tight and not too loose for the whole walk. Not because he was told to do it, or because of any malicious reason. Because he wanted to. This guy changed the game for me. In the most positive way. I’m worthy of being looked at romantically. Sad to say it took this instance for me to realize that, but it did.
In high school, I was able to have even more fun and lean into my hand more than ever. When we painted on sidewalks during homecoming week, I would imprint my hand so everyone knew it was mine. I left handprints on the glass railings just so when my friends would find them, they would think of me. I spent less time thinking about my hand in a negative way than I ever had before— until one day, the guy I liked made this comment to me via text message: ‘I thought you were cute until I found out about your hand.’ This CRUSHED me. He just validated one of my worst fears. I am unlovable because of my hand. I held onto it for a couple of days, but my friends finally got me to tell them what happened. He was on the football team, a senior when I was a sophomore, and things didn’t turn out great for him. When my friends found out he had said that to me, they confronted him and raised hell. I don’t know where he is today, but I hope he never forgets he did that, so he will never say such hurtful things, even if they are his truth, to anyone again.
That moment sparked an interest in learning more about my hand. I really didn’t know much more about it than the person sitting next to me in class. I sat on that interest for a while until a research paper came along in one of my classes. I wanted to write it on deformities so I could learn more about my own ‘birth defect.’ My mom helped me set up an appointment with a hand specialist to get more information. He told me,’ You have monodactyly, meaning one digit on a limb.’ Mine is on my left hand, and there is no evidence something specific caused this to happen. I was born a day after my due date, so I wasn’t premature. His best guess is there was simply a glitch in my DNA strand. I left a bit bummed that was the extent of the information he was able to give me. We discussed potential surgeries to allow my finger to bend in places it’s ‘locked,’ but I chose not to pursue it, purely because I don’t want to relearn basic tasks.
After high school, I was admitted into the school of my dreams, The Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising, and went to the Downtown Los Angeles campus when I was 18. My degree was very hands-on and difficult. When I interviewed with the dean, she asked, ‘Do you want any extensions or accommodations?’ I told her, ‘As of right now, I’m confident I will be able to complete my assignments as asked and on time. If that changes, I will be sure to ask for those accommodations.’ She was surprised, but I’m proud to say I reached my goal by graduating with almost a 4.0 without any special accommodations.
After graduating, I got a job as an au pair with a wonderful family in Barcelona, Spain. I lived with them for 10 months and talked to their 5-year-old daughter and 8-year-old son in English. This was a very vulnerable experience for me. We had a serious language barrier. How was I going to explain my hand to the family and the kids? It turned out there wasn’t anything I needed to worry about. Those kids have the softest hearts and were nothing but kind to me. I spend most of my time with the girl, taking her to and from after-school activities while her mother spent more time with the boy taking him to his activities.
The little girl and I became great friends, and one day she came home from school having just learned a new game! ‘Come, Chechi, I teach you.’ We sat down, and she showed me what she was going to do and what I needed to do. This was a game played with our hands and signing with our hands. After she was done explaining, I looked at her a bit sadly and said, ‘I don’t think I can play this game’ as I held out my hands for her to see. (It’s very common for people close to me to forget about my limb difference because I don’t ask for much help or draw attention to it.) She took a breath and said, ‘Hmm … you use mine!’ And she took her left hand and put it next to mine as if she were letting me borrow her fingers for this game. We didn’t end up actually playing the game, as she was then out those fingers she let me borrow, but it was the purest, most loving thought behind it. This was the exact moment I knew I didn’t have to fear kids. I learned if I approach the situation lovingly and patiently, they will understand better and be able to move on.
At the end of every day, I’m in control of how I respond to reactions, statements, questions, and behaviors. I can use that as information to learn from and even help educate. Being born with one finger on my left hand, and feeling alone until I was 23 before finding out about the limb-different community has definitely been a trial in my life. It’s one of many, but I definitely realize I’m lucky to have even one finger on my hand. I wouldn’t be who I am, or where I am today if it weren’t for all the wonderful people I have come into contact with, and the amazing friends and family who have advocated for me time and time again.
I’ll continue to be frustrated when I can’t open something immediately, dislike gloves, get nervous when I check someone out at the register, feel silly for not grabbing my drive-through food with my left hand, and reach across with my right. I will also continue to push myself to try things I’ve never tried before, to let myself fail, time and time again trying to accomplish a task, to explore the option of a prosthesis and be okay if it doesn’t work out how I had planned. I hope I will have a child or two of my own someday so I can show them no matter what trial they are facing, they will not only survive, they will thrive because of it.
No matter what our trial is, we all have one. Let’s be kind to others. We need to remember boundaries and just because it’s human nature to be curious about someone else’s situation, we are not in any way shape, or form entitled to that information. It is my personal opinion one should wait to be told about what caused someone’s limb difference or there should be an established relationship or door opened to ask those questions. If you are a stranger to that person, please stay in your lane. Instead, compliment something else about them instead of making them feel like a zoo animal.”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Chelsea Porter from Salt Lake City, Utah. Follow her journey on Instagram. Do you have a similar experience? We’d like to hear your important journey. Submit your own story here, and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories.
Read more inspiring stories of children with limb difference:
‘What? No hands?’ My Dad was minutes away from picking my husband up. The Universe chose me to be Ivy’s mom.’: Mother learns of daughter’s limb difference, refuses terminating pregnancy because ‘she was ours to love, protect’
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