‘If you don’t like me because of my hands, your loss.’ Our differences make us unique. We’re enough just the way we are.’: Best friends advocate for limb differences, ‘You’re perfectly made’

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“It’s funny how you meet people in life just when you need them. Call it fate or serendipity, life puts people in your life who will impact you and become such a big part of your life, later you can’t imagine it any other way. Shelly and I came together through what used to be an unconventional way but now is considered a great way to connect and meet people. Our mission or hope of our page is to inspire other kids and adults with a limb difference to live without fear or insecurities. That they can do anything they set their minds to, they just have to believe in themselves. That they can have a life without limbitations.

Sarah’s Story:

Being born with a limb difference has definitely been a unique experience of life. From the moment I was born, I had to be a fighter and I really think that fighting spirit has enabled me to use my limb difference for positivity rather than negativity. I was born in 1987, 3 days before Christmas, and my mom had no idea one of her twin babies would come out so small and without a left hand and only a thumb on her right hand.

I was whisked away to a NICU where I stayed till I graduated over a month later. My mom doesn’t talk about that moment in time very much, but as a mother myself now, I can only imagine how hard it must have been on her to have one baby at home and another in the hospital with hour-long trips to the hospital almost every day.

Courtesy of Sarah May and Shelly Harper

Eventually, I got to go home, and then it was time to live life! I had to learn how to do everything a baby does. Crawling, walking, and holding a spoon to eat. Every milestone a ‘normal’ baby achieves, I did too. I grew a little bigger and older and at age 5, I remember learning how to tie my shoes and ride a bike. I remember feeling like these tasks seemed impossible or very difficult at first but with extra help and effort, I eventually mastered those skills!

My parents did try to see if a prosthetic would help, but I found a prosthesis was more of a hindrance than a help… so it was the end of that after one took a swim in a kiddie pool. Thankfully, I had a mom who never let me give up, who taught me I could do anything I set my mind to. One of her favorite things was to tell me, ‘I think I can, I think I can,’ like Thomas the Train. I really believe teaching me this mindset along with an inherited strong will and independence made me who I am today.

Courtesy of Sarah May and Shelly Harper

I grew up learning to adapt and overcoming any challenges. I loved to do things like any other kid. From singing, dancing, go-karts, rollerblading, horseback riding, rock collecting, volleyball, badminton, and chores like folding laundry and weeding the garden. I didn’t let my limb difference hold me back and I had a childhood like all my other friends did. Finding friends as a kid was never a challenge, as my report card would constantly say, ‘Pleasure to have in class, but Sarah talks too much.’ I was a social butterfly and if anyone ever asked me what happened, I’d simply say, ‘I was born this way.’

Courtesy of Sarah May and Shelly Harper

I honestly feel blessed that no matter what grade or school I was in, I always seemed to make friends. Sure there were the few rotten apples in the bunch who used to tease me, but I learned to let it slide off my back. I adopted the attitude in middle school, ‘If you don’t like me because of my hands, too bad for you, your loss.’

Growing up with a limb difference and never seeing anyone else like you can feel somewhat isolating and alone though. While I had friends, they still didn’t understand how it was for me to be me, a person with a limb difference. Fast forward 20+ years, I joined a group on Facebook for people with ABS, Amniotic Band Syndrome (which is what I have on my left arm, Symbradtchly on my right hand) and I met who is now my Soul Sister and best friend, Shelly.

Courtesy of Sarah May and Shelly Harper

In between graduating high school and meeting Shelly, I also had some important life experiences that anyone else with or without a limb difference probably had too. I met a boy and had my heart broken, learned how I didn’t want to be treated and what my own self-worth was. Then my husband, who was just a friend at the time, turned out to be the one. He loves me just as I am and gladly helps me with anything, like opening a new jar of pickles. My husband is a man who treats me like any mother wants her daughter to be treated. I wear my wedding ring on my one and only thumb with pride. I also had a baby of my own and learned to change diapers, operate a car seat, and fold-out a stroller just like any other parent.

Courtesy of Sarah May and Shelly Harper

Being a mom with a limb difference has been a great way to teach my child about kindness and how to treat others with a difference. I feel my limb difference has helped her become the helpful and open-minded person she is growing up to be. Being a wife and mother has one of the biggest blessings in my life and I feel so lucky to have been able to hold those titles. A limb difference does not stop you from having a full, happy life and those who are in my life don’t even see my limb difference, they just see me. I also work in the medical field as a receptionist that requires fast typing and lots of multi-tasking.

Many people over the years have commented on my ability, complimenting me on my work and how amazed they are to see what I can do, that they are proud of me for overcoming my limb difference. This feedback has really helped me to see others don’t see my limb difference as a disability or scary or gross, but instead as inspiring and strong. My hope is anyone with a limb difference would carry this on through the future and continue to prove what can be done in spite of their circumstances.

Shelly’s Story:

Being born with a limb difference has shaped my whole life and made me the person I am today. I’ve always lived by the motto, ‘Where there’s a will, there’s a way,’ and although I am able to do most everything in my own way, self-acceptance was always hard for me.

It wasn’t until my son was born 5 years ago with a rare eye condition I found the motivation to work on my insecurities so I could show him how to embrace his own difference. In this time, I have learned one of the most helpful things is hearing other people’s stories and finding comfort in knowing you aren’t alone. It is because of this I am so honored to be able to share my story with others now.

Courtesy of Sarah May and Shelly Harper

I don’t remember much from young ages, yet I do have a vivid memory of my first, traumatizing bullying encounter in elementary school. Maybe it was the young age or the fact we were surrounded by others who heard that left it scarred in my memory. I remember feeling so panicked and helpless having that embarrassing negative attention drawn to me. What did everyone think? Did everyone else believe this cruel-minded kid when he called me a freak loud enough for what seemed like the entire gymnasium to hear?

I suppose that’s why the word ‘freak’ has always been a trigger for me. I had also felt left out a lot by friends. I’d question if it was my personality or my arm or something else but always wondering, ‘Could it be my arm?’ had a very isolating effect, leading me to feel I did not fit in and to believe I was not good enough.

Courtesy of Sarah May and Shelly Harper

I have one memory at a sleepover in middle school where we were all making up a dance. I wanted to shrink into a hole in the floor and disappear because I was so uncomfortable I couldn’t do some of the dance moves. I wondered, ‘Maybe they wish I’m not here.’ I remember wanting to cry, holding back tears, and feeling like no one understood. The thing is though, none of my friends made me feel that way. One specifically came over, encouraged me to dance, and reassured me that my alternative moves were great. It wasn’t my arm holding me back, it was my insecure mindset.

The only other negative experience I recall having an impact on my mindset was the ignorant words of an old friend of my parents. He told my parents, ‘She will never find one due to her arm.’ It was crushing to hear because I had already wondered if it were true. All the foolish calls to boys and giggles for attention, notes passed asking if someone liked me? Well, they weren’t returned with a ‘Yes, I do!’

Maybe it was simply the whole ‘girls have cooties’ at that age but for a girl with a limb difference, I had always worried if my arm was the reason and began feeling like I needed a boyfriend to prove I was worthy. The ignorance was far from correct though. I have now been happily married for 9 years.

Courtesy of Sarah May and Shelly Harper

One of the hardest things for me to accept was the fact no matter how completely capable I was, there were always people who would automatically assume I wouldn’t be. It took me almost 32 years to realize although it was always very disheartening if someone assumed I wouldn’t be able to do something, it wasn’t about me and my abilities. That it was only misinformed people doing their best with what they knew.

Regrettably, though, I admit because it was such a demoralizing feeling to be underestimated, I had avoided situations in life just so people wouldn’t have the opportunity to make those judgments. I can honestly say it was never my limb difference that held me back in life though, nor was it other people as I was always given fair chances. It was always my own, sometimes debilitating anxiety, that would cause me to doubt myself, question people’s interpretations, and convince myself I even needed to hide my difference.

For most of my life, I’d carry a jacket over my arm even in hot summer months. Looking back now, I am ashamed to admit most of my life, I hadn’t wanted to acknowledge I was different. I just wanted to be like everyone else, to not have to learn how to do things differently, to not worry about the stares and assumptions. But while working on embracing my own physical difference over the past 5 years, I have had some uplifting experiences that remind me to be proud of being different.

Courtesy of Sarah May and Shelly Harper

I’m now at a stage in my life where I am even thankful for being born this way because it has shown me how strong I can be, things that I can accomplish even when others doubted me and it has taught me about differences and compassion in ways I sometimes wonder if I would have fully understood otherwise.

The great thing about being born with a limb difference is there is nothing to compare it to. We don’t know what it’s like to have two full arms and two full hands. THIS is our normal. We learn the same as any other person, we learn with what we have. The same trial and errors that any child has, we have and like any other child, we learn to do things our own way. My parents never made me feel like I couldn’t accomplish something and gave me every opportunity to try new things. Their belief I could do anything I set my mind to, helped instill the belief in myself I was just as capable as anyone else.

Being born with one arm has definitely taught me persistence. I’ve spent my whole life determined to do everything anyone with two hands can do from the simplest things like tying shoes, braiding my hair, painting my nails, typing, carrying heavy things to learning to crochet, skiing, horseback riding, and raising my children. One of the only things I haven’t been able to figure out is the monkey bars, but I always like to joke I am going to figure them out one day. While I did try prosthetics in earlier years, I never liked them. I use my right arm to help with a lot of the things I do, but when the prosthetic was on it was always just in my way and took away that ability.

Courtesy of Sarah May and Shelly Harper

My biggest regret is I wish I hadn’t waited until I was 30 to start reaching out for help, but better late than never! I found a lot of inspiration in meeting other people with similar limb differences and was lucky enough to find Sarah, someone who understood me in so many ways and was so insanely like me. Though with our luck, we live on opposite sides of the country and we’ve only met once in person!

It was an amazing week though, despite a quite traumatizing discrimination experience at a widely known and popular amusement park where we were not only publicly, humiliatingly kicked off a ride because of our limb differences, we were also incorrectly told we couldn’t ride several rides at the park due to our differences. So, while we’ve only had one week in person, we’ve been through a lot together.

Sarah and I had a connection early on that just grew, and without my limb difference, who knows if we’d had found each other. Our passion for helping and inspiring others led us to create our social media page, and it’s amazing to know our stories can help. It gives me hope and makes me thankful for the differences I was once ashamed of. Too often we waste so much time worrying about our image, comparing ourselves to others, and wishing to change things about ourselves, but the truth is, our differences make us unique and beautiful. We are enough just the way we are, and I can only hope our stories will help empower and show others that anything is possible despite any limiting beliefs.

Courtesy of Sarah May and Shelly Harper

Our Story:

So here we are, in Oct 2016 and a post pops up by a girl named Shelly introducing herself to our ABS page. Her post resonated with me so much, I commented, and we instantly connected. We became friends on Facebook, then started messaging, then text messaging, and eventually many, many phone calls that lasted 3-4 hours long each. Not only did we have a limb difference in common, but our views about it were the same and we liked a lot of the same things! Music, nature, hiking, and family… so many things in common it’s scary sometimes! I honestly believe it’s rare in life to meet someone who you feel like you’ve always known, like a soul sister. That’s the kind of friendship that we have.

Courtesy of Sarah May and Shelly Harper

In 2018, after being long-distance besties for 2 years we finally got to meet when I flew to the East Coast to ‘meet’ Shelly in person. I live in the PNW and she lives on the East Coast. Talk about torture living so far from your bestie! That week together was so much fun, filled with great memories! We went to a Miranda Lambert concert (amazing), danced the night away for her birthday, went on roller coasters, got matching sunflower (our favorite) tattoos, and went to the beach. Then came the tearful goodbye at the airport. It was one of the roughest days of both our lives because saying goodbye to someone with who you have such a special bond is tough.

Courtesy of Sarah May and Shelly Harper

We went back to our normal lives and before we knew it, it was summer of 2019 and we started to see a lot of social media posts advocating disability and insinuating ALL limb differences, no matter the extent, should be embracing the term ‘disabled.’ We were so appalled and shocked by it we started our own Instagram page called Inspiring Difference to let kids know just because you have a limb difference doesn’t mean you are disabled! We didn’t want them to grow up seeing these influencers telling them to embrace a term that didn’t feel right to them.

Shelly and I have always agreed your limb difference isn’t a disability, it’s all about your mindset. Your mind is the power and determination to do anything you want! Our mission is to show our limb difference is just that, a difference, and we can do anything anyone else can. We want kids to embrace their difference, not hide it or feel less than anyone else because of it. To know they are worthy and capable despite the difference they have.

We know the challenges physically, mentally, and emotionally but that doesn’t mean that your limb difference has to be sad or bad. Our hope is to inspire kids to realize they are perfectly made in their own way and they have a life worth living, a life without limits or limbitations.”

Courtesy of Sarah May and Shelly Harper

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Sarah May and Shelly Harper. You can follow their journey on Instagram. Do you have a similar experience? We’d like to hear your important journey. Submit your own story here. Be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.

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