Storytelling: Courtney Gilmour

Inspirational Stories... on Whose Terms?

Comedian Courtney Gilmour spoke at Western University Presents The Walrus Talks Storytelling, which took place on October 29th in London.

You can watch all The Walrus Talks speakers from this event here: The Walrus Talks Storytelling on YouTube

Hello, my name is Courtney Gilmore. I am a standup comedian. On a somewhat related note, I am also an amputee. I find that this is a very good pairing for comedy. Comedian, amputee, the two go hand in hand. I’m so sorry.

I was born missing hands and my right leg below the knee. Somehow, none of this was detectable on any of the prenatal ultrasounds. I like to think it was because I’m an amazing prankster, and I know my angles. We’ve always thought that for babies to be happy, healthy, and normal, they have to have 10 fingers and 10 toes, and then I came along to stir shit up. Throughout my life, beginning very early, I’ve been told stories about who I am. As I navigated the world, I routinely heard certain words used to describe me, the same ones over and over. Brave, strong, positive. There was always subtext behind these words, innocuous enough in motive, but powerfully telling in narrative.

Examples include a woman who once told me, “It’s hard to believe you’re disabled. You’re so pretty.” A man at the bus stop who tapped me on the shoulder, prompting me to remove my headphones, only for him to say, “God is going to reward your patience with hands some day.” In the moment, I hadn’t thought to tell him that by this point, after 30 years I would have much preferred an espresso machine. From inquisitive strangers, to old ladies blessing my heart for being able to shove a piece of pizza in my face, I learned over the years that my presence in the world was inspiring people in a way that didn’t sit right with me.

As a side note, I generally don’t enjoy being celebrated for mundane tasks. However, sometimes even I have my moments where even I am impressed at how well I can shave my armpits. I don’t want to brag or anything, but you put me and a Gillette razor on America’s Got Talent, I’m getting the golden buzzer, that’s for sure.

Still though, I can’t honestly say that I didn’t light up a bit over people’s accolades. I liked the fact that I was brightening people’s day, but at the same time I was confused. What exactly did they think I was accomplishing? I didn’t understand. Was I not just like everyone else? I mean, I had my own apartment. I have a cat. I had 42 rotten bananas in my freezer. And yet these interactions with strangers, friends, even family members were telling me otherwise. No matter what I did or accomplished, big or small, the story was that I was under the category other and as the other I existed to uplift people and remind them of how good their lives are in comparison.

And I believed that story. I read it to myself every day. I felt like an amorphous blob moving through life, collecting definitions of myself from everyone around me, but not me. I lined my pages with them eagerly. “Courtney joined the running club at school. She’s such an inspiration. Courtney’s taking dance lessons this year. She’s such a trooper.” Surely these laurels were worthy of aspiring to. They weren’t being awarded to me, they were being awarded to by normies or as I like to call able bodied people, handies. As long as they approved of me, gave me pats to the head, felt gratitude for my presence, I was doing something right.

I’ve always naturally valued positivity and optimism, not as an amputee, but just as a person, and a Leo, but they hadn’t known it, I hadn’t known that I was using it to perpetuate a story about disability and what it should look like. It wasn’t until I moved away from home to go to university and sunken to the deepest, lowest depression of my life that I realized I had no idea who I was. My way of being was performative. I had a bottle of prescription pills that gave me a sense of comfort and power. I slept with a bottle under my pillow at night. I took them with alcohol, then not at all, then with alcohol for days, weeks. Sometimes I took just one too many. just to see.

I remember standing in my bathroom holding them up to the mirror, feeling both thrilled and relieved just knowing that if I really wanted, they could be my way out. I could control this, if I really wanted to. Just knowing that some nights was enough to help me sleep. I spiraled into misery, substance abuse, self-harm, only to come up for air long enough to wonder, “Is this allowed? Am I allowed to be depressed? But I’m so brave, so strong, so inspiring. Who am I without that story?”

I read an article that changed my life. It was called Inspiration Porn and the Objectification of Disabled People, followed by a Ted Talk called, I’m not your, I’m not your inspiration, thank you very much, both by the late Stella Young, an Australian writer, comedian, and disability rights activist. I was awestruck at the spunky blonde woman in a wheelchair with killer heels and a killer wit, perfectly encapsulating everything I had been secretly feeling. About how we are not disabled by condition, but rather by the structures and attitudes of society. She was brash, blunt, an outspoken atheist.

I had never seen this side of disability before. It wasn’t sweet or proper, bowing down to saccharine platitudes. It was honest, real, multifaceted. I had found a new cause to champion. I was going to be the least inspirational person anyone had ever met. I spent years thrashing against the system, embittered now, anytime I was congratulated for functioning adequately as a human being. “You should expect more from me”, I would shoot scathingly to a poor woman at the grocery checkout line. But soon enough that bitterness became exhausting, and slivers of sunshine peaked through. I realized as much as I admired Stella and her perspective, trying to become her wasn’t the solution either.

I was just so sick of being assigned happiness and positivity and bravery by others that I went the opposite way to make a point. Truthfully, I did want to inspire people. I did want to be brave, strong, positive. I wanted to make people laugh for a living. Challenge myself physically. Spread a message of positivity and true happiness as far and wide as possible. That’s who I was all along. I just had to choose it for myself, on my own terms. I had to write my own story in order to believe it. Thank you.

Courtney Gilmour