Lightning, Molasses, and the Search for a Happy Medium

It doesn’t take long for new acquaintances to notice that I operate at a quicker pace than most. I eat quickly, talk quickly, walk quickly (when I can safely do so), and get through tasks with a speed that stands out. I’m not sloppy, and I don’t like cutting corners, but there’s no denying my inner rhythm is a little out of whack. Sometimes it’s handy, like when clients praise my impressive turn-around time for assignments. Other times, it’s awkward, because when people ask, “What’s the rush?” I have no satisfactory answer for them. All I know is an austere, unforgiving clock has taken up residence in my head, and I can hardly think for the ticking.

I wasn’t always so frantic about everything. When I was little, I was frequently reprimanded for being the last one—the last to finish my dinner, the last to straggle outside for recess, the last to pack up my backpack. My punctuality wasn’t usually an issue, but I did tend to take more time than average with hands-on tasks where my agile little mind couldn’t save me. Give me an abstract problem to solve and I was a bolt of lightning. Hand me a pile of papers to organize and I was a pool of molasses. If the task required work-arounds to accommodate my blindness, that pool froze solid.

Somewhere along the way, I internalized the idea that I should always be in a tearing hurry. Part of it can be blamed on patchy time management skills that only improved with adulthood, but a lot of it can be traced back to my frenetic childhood environment.

“Hurry hurry,” grownups would chide, as I freed a stuck zipper or hunted an object I’d dropped. Never could I keep up, and even when I managed to accomplish something in a timely fashion, it was likely that I’d messed it up. The faster I moved, the clumsier I became, and my anxiety clamped down with crushing force.

Buffeted by duelling forces that insisted deliberate movements were bad but mistakes were also bad, I surrendered to a passive paralysis that froze me in place, unable to rush through tasks or tackle them at a pace that suited me. When you’re convinced that nothing you do will please those around you, standing in place seems safest, and that’s often what I did. Anxiety was mistaken for stubbornness, and I developed a reputation for being the kind of person who would stand gleefully by until someone else did my work for me. This couldn’t have been more off base, but I had neither the guts nor the eloquence to communicate that, and figured no one would listen if I tried.

Most kids would have dealt with this situation by learning by observation, asking questions, and/or finding trusted adults to fill in the gaps. I responded by nurturing an intense fear of failure, to the point where even minor errors seemed apocalyptic. Of course I cried when I got a mediocre grade or tripped in public; I genuinely believed the world was ending, and that judgment, when it came, would be swift and harsh. The vast majority of people in my life would have been horrified by the intensity of that fear, and would have done their best to set me straight. For whatever reason, I kept silent about it, and moved out on my own with the debilitating philosophy that doing something badly was infinitely worse than failing to do it at all.

For a while, I was able to coast along, with no pressing need to question this shortcoming. Eventually, however, after I realized I couldn’t even get a little turned around on my way to the grocery store without hours of brooding, I understood that if I didn’t learn to embrace my inevitable failings, I’d never get anything done. Learning by trial and error is one of the most powerful tools at a disabled person’s disposal, and it was vital that I teach myself to be comfortable with falling off the horse and clambering right back onto it. If I carried on believing that a job imperfectly done was not worth the effort, I was going to find the world an exceptionally inhospitable place.

Five or so years later and this demon is still with me. Every time I make a mess or move ungracefully, the urge to disappear overtakes me. Getting lost still feels like the worst-case scenario, and I hate to cook a new dish in case it doesn’t turn out. I’m still watching my disabled friends treat failure like an old friend or benign annoyance, wishing I could be so relaxed.

On the sunnier side, I’m making progress. When I learned during my first mobility lesson in years that I had been using my cane incorrectly my whole life, my reaction was a fierce desire to kill a decades-long habit and do whatever it took to improve. I didn’t dwell on all the ways others had failed to teach me the right way, nor did I fixate on all the people who must have noticed and thought less of me. Even one short year ago, I’d have collapsed in shame. I never would have responded with a mulish refusal to let my mobility journey end there. Getting lost is still the horror of horrors for me, but once I master proper cane technique, my next project will be to get good and lost, on purpose, repeatedly. I doubt I’ll ever enjoy the process, or intentionally seek out new routes just to challenge myself, but I can at least rewire enough to see failure as a bend in the road instead of a stop sign.

All this scares me silly. I could pretend it’s invigorating, that it feels like my world is opening up, but that would be disingenuous. Mostly it’s making me want to crawl in a cave where no one can find me. It’s not fun, it’s not an adventure, and it’s likely to be something I’ll struggle with for the foreseeable future.

There’s this, though: growth hurts. Growth is hard work, and it’s frightening, and if you’re entirely comfortable, then you’re probably not progressing. It’s lovely and warm here in my comfort zone, but I’m finally getting tired of the run-freeze-run pattern I’ve created. I’m content and confident enough, at long last, to think less about survival and more about joy. That means facing those demons with courage and—yes—a little stubbornness.

My unsolicited advice to you? Slow down, and let the people in your life do the same. Encourage people to try (and fail) on their own. Give everyone, kids and adults, the space to be independent, even if it’s faster or more efficient for you to jump in. Kids, in particular, may fight you on this, but unless an adult has asked for help, stand your ground. Take it from someone who knows all about it: they will thank you. The gratitude may not come right away, but I promise you it will.

And if you take nothing else away, remember that as rushed as we all are these days, there is almost always time to let someone learn.

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Weightless, Wanted, Worthy

While reading Martin Pistorius’s powerful book, Ghost Boy, I was struck by a passage in which Martin, experimenting with a body that does not behave predictably, attempts to make breakfast for his partner, Joanna.

I forced the knife downwards, cleaving it to my will as it hit the side of the toast before skittering across the plate and leaving a glistening red slick on the table. I stared at the battered toast before looking at the floor, which was covered in coffee granules and sugar. The butter looked as if a wild animal had chewed it and jam had erupted like a volcano across the table. Euphoria filled me. I’d made toast, coffee was waiting in the cups, and the water had boiled—Joanna was going to have breakfast. I banged a spoon on the table to let her know I was ready, and a smile spread across her face as she walked in. “How nice to have breakfast made for me!” she said.

Some might interpret Joanna’s enthusiasm as pretense. As you read through the book, you quickly discover that while Joanna is fully aware of the many barriers Martin faces, she supports his efforts to try new things, even when they end in an imperfect, sticky mess. Martin and Joanna’s marriage is founded on genuine respect and validation, with no suggestion that she is giving anything up to be with him. Rarely have I seen such a beautifully balanced framework, where limitations are acknowledged but never allowed to overwhelm the entire structure.
Naturally, reading about Martin and Joanna got me thinking about my own relationship. My partner has a disability of his own, but it is invisible, and comes up so rarely I sometimes forget it exists at all. We live much like a couple in which only one party is disabled, and we both had to adjust to the different things we need from each other to grow and be happy.
In addition to needing all the conventional things, like love and companionship and the space to laugh with someone in the face of life’s trials, I also crave specific validation from my partner—the validation that says, “I acknowledge that you are disabled, but you are no less complete for it.” From day one, even as I walked him through my various barriers and how they might be an issue for him, he treated me like a whole, autonomous person, and nothing less. If I ever feel inadequate or out of place in the context of our life together, it is my own anxiety talking, not his. Again and again over the past few years, I have been caught off guard by the simple, implicit trust this man places in me every day, without thought and without a hint of charity. Strangers on the bus might wonder what I’d do without him, but he frequently asks me what he’d do without me.
What does this look like in practice? Mostly, it’s an intangible thing—more felt than seen, and usually unspoken. I can point to scores of small things that add up to a larger pattern, and that’s how I can best explain the dynamic.
For example, he asks my opinion on things, with the assumption that of course I’ll have one, and of course it’s as valid as anyone else’s. He doesn’t bombard me with questions about how “blind people” feel about X Y or Z. No, he asks about the best way to install a showerhead, or which ingredients would enhance a new recipe, or what political news of the week is most relevant. Far from assuming I mustn’t be knowledgeable about anything outside the realm of my disabilities and personal interests, he assumes that I am likely to know a little about a lot, and if I’m not sure, I’ll be straightforward about that. I don’t always have opinions or suggestions, but it is so novel and so satisfying to be asked as an equal—as someone who knows things and whose judgment can be trusted. It shouldn’t be so remarkable, but I think most disabled adults would agree that unless the topic is disability-related, our voices are often overlooked.
Like Joanna, my partner doesn’t expect perfection from me, but does expect me to experiment, and won’t ever shame me for the results. He would rather I demolish the kitchen cooking breakfast than have me avoid cooking altogether in case something goes wrong. It’s not that he humours me or enjoys watching me struggle. He simply expects me, as his partner, to contribute where I can and shed my irrational insistence on perfection. If I get hopelessly lost while attempting to conquer my travel demons, he’ll still be sincerely proud that I was brave enough to try, without resorting to empty praise or minimizing my mistakes.
As I’ve noted several times on this blog, living well with disability requires a great deal of self-confidence—or plenty of skill at faking it until you make it—because that confidence won’t come easily from outside yourself. If you don’t have faith in your abilities, you may struggle to find someone else who does. The less you feel you have a right to your place in the world, the less welcoming the world seems to be. While I’ve cultivated my own strong sense of self-respect, I’ve discovered it’s far more bracing when my partner reflects it back at me. I am fortunate indeed to make my home with someone whose faith in me exceeds my own, never hesitating to remind me I am whole.
I’ll return to Martin’s words, because he put it so beautifully: “I’ve lived my whole life as a burden. She makes me feel weightless.”
I, too, have lived my whole life worrying that I am too much like unwanted luggage. But he, together with so many others, makes me feel weightless, and wanted, and worthy.
From where I’m standing, there is no greater love than that.

Backhanded Compliments and the Tyranny of “Nice”

Many children learn early on that their smallest accomplishments are cause for cheers, applause and glowing social media posts. When you’re very young, your every milestone and every “first” are worthy of celebration, and with good reason. There’s nothing wrong with praising a child for walking well or pouring drinks with accuracy. For most people, this trend eases and finally stops, and they start earning praise for more impressive stuff like finishing a degree or landing a great new job. It would be pretty weird to keep cooing and cheering over an adult who can navigate their own home without guidance and pour coffee independently, yes? You’d be mortified if someone seemed surprised that you, a fully-grown adult, were capable of essential daily living tasks, right?

Right?

Sadly, an awful lot of  very well-intentioned people appear to have missed that memo—the one that says admiring someone’s basic skills stops being cute when they’re all grown up, and that disability is no exception to this rule. It is no less embarrassing to hear “Wow! You handled those steps so well!” or “You got your own coffee!” when disability is involved. While some of us do work harder than the average person on cultivating everyday skills—some of us very hard, in fact—drawing attention to our prowess can feelmore patronizing than validating. I don’t speak for everyone, which is the caveat I always mention at this point in a post, but I can say with confidence I do speak for a very large number of us.

Look, I get it: you want to say something nice, make someone smile, acknowledge what you consider to be exceptional talent or strength or perseverance. Maybe you feel inspired by the person you’re complimenting, or perhaps you can’t think of a better way to break the ice. It could be that you’re genuinely curious about how they get things done given the barriers they face, or you’re anticipating they’ll need help later and you want to develop rapport in advance. You’re a nice person, just trying to do a good deed for someone else. I truly do understand.

Keep this in mind, though: a great many times, being kind is preferable to being nice. Emotions tend to run very high in these types of situations, because no one likes discovering their attempt to make someone happy might be backfiring. Nevertheless, I do believe most people want to treat disabled people kindly, and kind people don’t make others feel condescended to or humiliated, even with the best of intentions. Kind people consider context, and compliment accordingly. And kind people don’t let “I was just being nice” outweigh any harm they might cause.

You may be shaking your head, feeling down on yourself because you know you’ve messed up this way. I beg you not to take this personally, however. In my experience, just about everybody makes this mistake at least once. It’s not isolated, and it’s not rare. Even if you actually have a disability, you have probably done this to someone without being aware of it. Proximity to disabled people should never be mistaken for immunity, and I’d be hard pressed to think of someone who hasn’t fallen into this trap. I’ve certainly spent some time there myself, and I ought to have known better.

So, here’s a simple test to help you. Next time you plan to praise a disabled person for a specific skill, ask yourself whether you would feel awkward if that compliment were directed at you. Would it make you uncomfortable if someone patted you on the back for, say, picking out your own outfit? Might it be a little off-putting if someone congratulated you for knowing where the staff kitchen was, six months after you started working in the building?

If you determine that the compliment you want to offer would make you feel pretty good about yourself, go ahead, as long as it’s contextually appropriate. Feel free to tell me if you like my writing skills. Tell my designer friends they have excellent creative instincts. I have no doubt my partially sighted partner would love to hear that you enjoy his cooking. These are all respectful compliments, and there’s no backhanded “You do well … for a disabled person”subtext attached. Further, you avoid giving the impression that people whose disabilities mean they do need help with basic tasks are somehow inferior to people who are able to do those tasks independently. After all, an adult who needs assistance with grooming, for example, is no less worthy for needing that help.

On the other hand, if the compliment you’re considering would feel insulting or at least bizarre if directed at you, that is your cue to pause. Think about whether you might be causing more discomfort than goodwill, and be mindful of who is around. Being complimented on my travel skills when I’m crossing the street is one thing. It’s distracting and unnecessary, but I’ll survive. In a professional setting, however, it’s likely to make other people notice me not for my solid work ethic or valuable skills, but for a disability that does not and should not fully define me.

Don’t be shy about telling people what you admire about them. Nothing in this post is suggesting you have to conduct a full-scale cost-benefit analysis every time you make a positive comment around a disabled person. I’ve received quite a few thoughtful compliments in my life, and while I’m not as graceful about taking them as I’d like, they’re always welcome. I do ask that, in future, you run through that simple test in your mind, and practice being more deliberate about how you dish out praise. Many, many of us will thank you, if only inside our heads.

Oh, and if you simply want to know how something gets done, or how a particular barrier is managed? Google your question, or ask. If we’re not crossing an intersection or trying to do our shopping, most of us are quite happy to answer.