When Chris was a boy he saw a child at a Sears store walking on forearm crutches and thought, "I'm supposed to be more like that kid."
Later, as a teenager, Chris "laid in bed at night wondering what it would be like to be in a wheelchair." He turned to the internet for answers about his strange feelings and found groups of other people, called "pretenders," who felt the same way he did. "As I matured, I developed an identity of myself as a guy in a wheelchair," he said in a Showtime series called 7 Deadly Sins.
Chris, whose last name was withheld, hides his pretend disability from people he knows, but says that when he's not in his wheelchair, "I feel at conflict with myself." The phenomenon is known by the name of the "pretenders" subculture group, profiled in the magazine New Mobility in 2011. It is related to other so-called "factitious disorders" that have driven some to starve themselves and shave their heads to feign cancer. And it seems distantly akin to being transgender in that the way a person was born does not match the way the person feels.
In the most extreme cases, people are so embattled by their disabled identity that they'll do anything manifest it, including taking chainsaws to their own limbs. The New York Times wrote about that emerging disorder, called body integrity identity disorder, in 2005. The reporter interviewed a Columbia University psychiatrist who was researching the topic. "It's one thing to say someone wants to go from male to female; they're both normal states," Dr. Michael First said. "To want to go from a four-limbed person to an amputee feels more problematic. That idea doesn't compute to regular people."
For Chris in the Showtime series, he says he envies (you know, one of the seven deadly sins) people who are actually disabled. At the same time, he is deeply afraid that a real disabled person will discover his secret and confront him. "What I want my life to be like," he says, "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."