Meet Chris. He is not a person with disabilities, but nonetheless identifies as one and sits in a wheelchair whenever he can without giving his secret away to the people that know him. On last night's episode of Showtime's documentary series 7 Deadly Sins (this week's sin: envy), Chris shared his story.
"I identify as a guy in a wheelchair," he said. I feel like I have the wrong body. I feel like I'm supposed to be disabled. What I want my life to be like is what is the detriment of a lot of people's lives, the worst thing that's ever happened to them, and I think it would be the best thing that ever happened to me."
Chris says he has felt this way for as long as he can remember—"deep down these feelings were always there."
He travels out of town so that he can go shopping and eat in restaurants in his wheelchair without being spotted by anyone that he knows. His closet is big as closets go.
Chris is part of a subculture called "pretenders." In 2011, New Mobility published a piece on the phenomenon:
The medical literature on this wheelchair pretender form of self-invention is pretty thin, though there are whole books written on a parallel phenomenon called "factitious disorders." A factitious disorder is when some needy soul feigns cancer to the point of starving themselves and shaving their head to look cancer stricken. Or a nurse — true story — who injects herself with live bacteria to make herself sick with life-threatening infections.
...As for pretenders, they are generally seen by clinicians as having a mental disorder. In a long article in the journal Sexuality and Disability, researcher and clinical psychophysiologist Dr. Richard Bruno reviews the history of pretenders, devotees and "wannabes" and describes two pretenders. Bruno concludes that pretending is, at root, a cry for love. He describes the origin of pretending "as the pairing in childhood of a disabled person with the expression of love or sympathy by normally cold and emotionally aloof parents." Pretenders discover very early in life," Bruno says, that "having a disability is the only way one can be loved."
The Morgan Spurlock-produced and -presented 7 Deadly Sins, by the way, is quickly becoming my favorite show on TV right now. Topically, it is as lurid as anything you'd find on TLC, but it is shot beautifully and has a compassion and emotional depth that is above and beyond typical freak-show-programming fare. It's basically the ideal show for me.