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.

Chicken Soup For The Nondisabled Soul (And Why You Won’t Find It Here)

Along with being asked why I’m so angry and negative, I’m also advised, by able and disabled people alike, to be more positive. Sure, I’m allowed to write about exploitation and discrimination, but why am I not serving up more feel-good, inspirational content? Where’s the comfort food? Where’s the acknowledgement that the world is, at its core, full of decent people who just don’t understand me? Where?!

I know what so many people want: they want chicken soup. They want brief, digestible content that reminds them it’s not all bad and that life is essentially good, no matter what. People certainly enjoy rage-fuel, and my passionate posts receive far more attention than my sweet little gratitude pieces, but there is still, it seems, a demand for what we in the disabled community lovingly call “inspiration porn.” You know the stuff—content that portrays disabled people in a light most pleasing to the nondisabled eye. In these pieces, we are courageous, steely individuals with more guts and gumption than anyone else would ever need (and the drive to use them). These pieces highlight inspiring people who have achieved ambitious heights, shattering expectations with an appealingly musical crash. They are high-powered athletes, successful entrepreneurs, survivors of devastating illness and injury, or astonishingly talented superstars. They have “overcome.” They have “transcended.” They have “made it.” Life as an everyday (and unbearably boring) disabled person is a battle, and they have “won.” The rest of us? Well, nobody really wants to hear about us unless we’ve been thrown out of a restaurant for having a service dog, or been paid less than minimum wage by Goodwill. The stories the public seems most attached to are the ones where a disabled person is either beating the odds in the face of adversity, or standing proud and unflappable after shameful mistreatment.

These reassuring bowls of chicken soup are not just favourites of those with no disabilities. They’re also beloved by many in the disabled community, who are convinced that the only right way to be disabled is to reach newsworthy goals. There’s only one acceptable narrative, and if we don’t fit neatly into it, we’re doing it wrong. The only way to get the world to care about how we are mistreated is to uplift them. Make them admire us, and after that, maybe they’ll come around to respecting us as well. You know, eventually.

I like a good story as much as the next person. I’m proud of my disabled peers, who really do work very hard and yield impressive results. I admire and respect their strength, even though I know they wouldn’t have to be so strong in a different, more accessible world. I laugh and cry with them, exulting when they succeed and commiserating when they fail. I share empowering stories when they do particularly well, so that others will know they are more capable than many might imagine. Inspiration is not, in itself, toxic, and positivity in moderation is indeed excellent nourishment for anyone’s soul, disabled or otherwise. The blog has been, I hope,  a vehicle for empathy and understanding as often as advocacy and education.

We need to be vigilant, though, because it’s so tempting to conform to the narrative of disability I discussed earlier—the one demanding we remain appealingly brave and heroic at all times. We already know that living our lives does not necessarily require heroism, and we also know that we deal with disability because there’s no alternative, not because we’re superhumanly strong. The public doesn’t know that all the way down, though, not yet. If we don’t pay attention to how we are portrayed by popular media (and by each other), we will inadvertently place strain on ordinary disabled people simply trying to live their lives.

Not every disabled person is brave at all times. Not every disabled person will soar to new, hitherto unexpected places. Many of us will stumble, and fail, and give up, at least temporarily. Many others of us will live quietly and contentedly, just as the majority of nondisabled people do. We need to remember that it’s okay to stumble. It’s okay to falter. It’s okay to break away from the inspirational mantras circling in your head long enough to remember that you are not obligated to feature in the Huffington Post. Your life is meaningful because it is yours, and is not made less meaningful if you never break a glass ceiling or awe the masses. Plenty of people go through their whole lives without doing anything of note (I expect that will be my own lot, and I’m okay with that) and they’re still perfectly happy. You deserve an accessible, welcoming environment whether you’re “making a difference” or going quietly about your business. Our deeds do not render us eligible or ineligible for decent treatment. Having a disability or illness does not have to shape your personality or desires. Being brave and strong should not determine whether you deserve the struggles you’re up against.

Reach for the stars, if that is what you believe you should do. Don’t succumb to the doubts and misgivings of others. I’m the last person to limit you. While you’re aspiring, just keep in mind that you don’t have to function as living chicken soup. If you want to be ordinary, if you feel too exhausted to be strong at all times, or if you fail spectacularly, know that it’s an acceptable circumstance and, while you can always get back on the horse, you don’t need to be inspiring while you do it. If you need to cry, to rage, to crumple, please do. Gather your support system close and let them carry you for a moment. You’re allowed.
In short, you do you.

Looking for chicken soup? Sorry, I’m fresh out.