Living Well is the Best Redemption

Over the past nine months, pandemic-induced isolation has forced me to get more comfortable than ever with my own company. To that end, I’ve been turning more and more to the Harry Potter series, my “problematic fave,” the one piece of pop culture that has shaped who I am more than any other.

Despite their many flaws, the Harry Potter books give my soul a safe place to rest. Reading them is like going home in the purest way, even when war and violence consume the narrative. If you’re an ardent fan, you’ll know what I mean. There’s just something about HP.

During this rereading, the most recent of at least a dozen, something stopped me dead in my tracks: The systematic abuse of Neville Longbottom, an anxious, downtrodden student whose brilliance remains hidden for most of the series because he is discouraged from gaining confidence. I’m not in the habit of armchair diagnosis, and I won’t try to guess whether Neville was disabled, but I do know that his anxiety and slower processing of educational materials were rarely addressed in a meaningful way. He was either ignored or berated for his struggles, so much so that a villain posing as a kindly teacher was able to manipulate him with sickening ease by being minimally supportive toward him.

The closer I looked, the more I found to relate to in Neville’s experiences at school. As a blind person who sometimes had trouble processing information in the same way my classmates did, I am familiar with the deep shame of feeling stupid, incompetent, behind. Helpful Hermiones have leaned over to whisper in my ear, less because they were altruistic than because it was painful to watch me flounder. I was a decent student in most respects, which gave me a leg up Neville didn’t have. Even so, the highly visual way most subjects were taught did a number on my confidence. So did the undiagnosed mental health condition and chronic pain issue that I didn’t have the language to describe at the time, guaranteeing I’d go without help for both.

To be crystal clear, I’ve never experienced abuse on par with what Neville endures from Severus Snape, the teacher who bullied him with astonishing regularity. No one was going around poisoning my pets. But I have dissolved in shame as grownups in charge of my educational development belittled me, because they mistook my anxiety for laziness, felt overwhelmed by their inexperience with my need for accommodations, or lacked the patience to wait around while the clumsy blind kid tried to keep up. When I shut down completely in sheer self-defence, their diagnosis of ‘lazy, passive kid’ was confirmed.

Most of my educational experiences were positive, so that I eventually developed the confidence we see Neville embody in his later years. I think most who knew me as a student will be shocked to hear that there was anything negative going on, surrounded as I was by Sprouts and Lupins who liked and respected me. With encouragement and support from dozens of adults, I transformed from a shy, passive mouse into a slightly-less-shy, proactive professional who is always up for beheading snakes and fighting evil. (By snakes, I mean writer’s block. By evil, I mean people who refuse to embrace plain language. Tomato, tomahto.)

So, no, there was nothing Dickensian, or even particularly Harry Potter-esque about my school days. Yet, I can’t help relating to Snape’s victims. as I read about Neville’s toad being tortured, occlumency lessons that involve insults and shouting, Hermione’s appearance and personality being mocked by a teacher entrusted with the education of young children, I wonder at the ease with which many Harry Potter fans have eagerly welcomed his redemptive narrative arc. Somehow, the man so abusive that he scared Neville more than anything in the world—and this is a kid from a sometimes-abusive family whose parents were tortured beyond imagining—becomes a sympathetic, even romantic figure.

It’s easy enough, I suppose, especially if you’ve never known what it’s like to be bullied by an educator. Being mistreated by your peers is one thing. Disabled kids practically expect that. Being targeted by an authority figure is wildly different. I’d wager plenty of Harry Potter fans have never been called babyish, stupid or ‘unlikely to amount to much’ by people who are meant to guide and encourage them. Assuming you’ve never been alone behind a closed door with someone who terrified you because they had the power to make your school life unbearable, who refused to accept you were genuinely doing your best with what you had, then it might be simple enough for you to dismiss Snape’s behaviour as entertaining, or at least excusable. The man was a hero, right? He probably hated teaching, anyway. He couldn’t be expected to suffer fools like Neville.

Plenty of HP fans have experienced exactly that, though, and maybe that’s why these books have always struck a chord with the lonely and marginalized, with kids who felt small and Neville-like. Lots of us had our Snape growing up. Lots of us dreamed of a Dumbledore who would swoop in and put a stop to the injustice. Lots of us clung to these books because they told a better story than the one we were living. These books promised us that one day, we’d be rescued, or become powerful enough to rescue ourselves.

But these very same books largely failed to recognize the trauma inflicted by heroic, “bravest man I knew” Snape. Harry names his child after a man who delighted in making children miserable, and everyone seems fine with that, I guess? How has this never bothered me as much as it does right now? Where have I been?

Since I’m an insufferable optimist these days, I decided I had to move beyond this new understanding to something I could use. So I thought about who Neville becomes at the end of the series, the way he takes the good, does his best to drown out the bullying, and builds a full, compassionate, heroic life. As an adult, he is a respected educator, one who, I feel certain, actively seeks out the lonely and marginalized to show them their hidden potential. In a way, he redeems what was done to him, not through punishment or revenge, but through a life well and graciously lived.

In a less impressive, unconscious way, I have done the same. I have taken the good, tried to drown out the bad, and grown into a fairly capable adult who does what she can to help those around her. And I’ve done a ton of work to understand those who harmed me, because forgiveness is so much easier, at the end of the day, than resentment.

Redemption is neither cheap nor easy. I still wake trembling from occasional nightmares. I still sometimes fall into shame spirals that have their roots in childhood school experiences. There are moments when I wander into a maze of contradictory what-ifs: What if I’d been smarter, or worked harder, or stayed even quieter, or been less frustrating, or cried less, or spoken out more, or tried to explain, or gotten that mental health diagnosis sooner, or been a better blind person, or, or, or…

Self-blame is seductive, because it gives me the pleasant illusion that I had control over powerful grownups, even though that’s a ridiculous notion. Telling myself a soothing story in which I could have been treated better if I’d just tried a little harder is comforting in the moment. Still, I know that the best way to redeem this narrative arc is to live well in the present, to seek out the marginalized and reveal the potential they don’t know they have because they’re too busy holding back tears or trying hard to please the people who bully them. I can pour enough good into their lives to balance things out, at least a little. And a little can go a long way. It did for me.

Like Snape, the tiny minority of educational professionals who mistreated me as a kid have redemptive arcs of their own, perhaps as compelling and surprising as his. Unlike Snape, they usually had more understandable reasons for how they behaved. They did what they did out of frustration, bitterness, ignorance, even what they must have imagined to be tough love. Some were so invested in my success they inadvertently pushed me hard in the opposite direction. Driven by determination, by fear, by overwork and stress, they caused a kid who loved learning to dread school and mistrust her own worth. None of it is okay. All of it is redeemable.

If I choose to, I can play a small part in that redemption, by living well and replacing old, trauma-soaked patterns with positive ones. I can’t decapitate my trauma with a big shiny blade, but this cycle of hurt people hurting people is an evil I can fight, a dark lord I can vanquish because I’m a grownup now. I have a voice now. I can make changes now. I am not a child, and I am not trapped. I am more free, more courageous than that grade-school mouse could have dreamed.

There will be no final atonement, no reckoning. No one is likely to crawl out of the woodwork and say, “Meagan, I apologize for X Y and Z. I’m sorry I stood by and let this happen. I’m sorry I didn’t encourage you. I’m sorry I let my frustration and fear turn to judgment and shame. I’m sorry I mocked you for crying instead of sitting with you in your pain. I’m sorry I was so often the source of that pain.”

Knowing this, I am no longer bitter, or angry, or afraid. I am no longer waiting for an apology. I am no longer wishing for a Dumbledore to appear and see justice done. I am holding the humanity and well-meaning efforts of those who have damaged me in tension with the knowledge that their actions were not my fault, in no way deserved. I am impossibly full of hope.

Hope is not a sword, but it’s enough.

Cooking My Way Toward Confidence

I’m not much of a cook. I’ll get that out of the way first and foremost. You’ll never catch me humblebragging about my culinary adventures, and my best recipes come from Google. I’m far better at googling than I will ever be at cooking. In fact, part of the reason I fell so immediately, intensely in love with my better half was that the man could cook, and I was in desperate need of a healthier relationship with food. Fiercely independent as I was, I was ready to let someone feed me, and he did so with relish.

I have a tower of excuses for my abysmal cooking abilities. I don’t have the time (I often do), or the spoons (I sometimes do), or the know-how (which I could probably learn if I applied myself, let’s be honest).
The real story is a lot less sympathetic. Simply put, cooking is scary for a blind person who lacks confidence during hands-on tasks, and I’m one of them. I’ll write you a set of speaking notes in less than an hour, for an event I’ve never heard of, on a topic I know nothing about. That’s juuust fine. But please don’t ask me to do anything with my hands other than write, play the piano, and carry your stuff.

“But Meagan,” you insist, “surely you’re overthinking this! It’s not that complicated.” (You’re right. Congratulations.) Special training is not strictly necessary, and the majority of blind cooks I know are at least partially self-taught. It’s tricky, but it’s not arcane.

And yet, the chronic diffidence persists, and it didn’t originate with me. For as long as I can remember, sighted people have been all too happy to enumerate the disasters that might befall me. Knives can’t wait to chop off those precious fingers that help me read and use my cane. Boiling hot liquids are just waiting to terrorize me with much spattering and spilling. Grease fires lurk around every corner, poised to consume unsuspecting paper towels. Measuring is messy. Preparing dishes without visual input is imprecise. Whatever I make probably won’t be perfect. (The horror!)

And so, being someone who fears messes almost as acutely as I fear failure, I stayed out of the kitchen unless compelled to do otherwise. The years I lived alone meant I subsisted on an insipid rotation of frozen dinners, canned soup, and snack foods that lacked nutritional value but quieted my hunger. Every now and again, when I wasn’t busy studying or writing papers in a feverish haze, I’d throw together a salad or heap a random assemblage of ingredients in my slow cooker and hope for the best. My standards were low and I was frequently too ill to eat at all, so this worked for me … for a while.

Once I started working full time and transitioning to “real” adulting, I began longing for more in nearly every facet of my life. I wanted to travel more, socialize more, and acquire the grownup skills I thought I ought to have picked up years ago. My student days were marked by severe migraines and appetite-killing pain, and I was mostly too ill to notice I was living a small, sad existence. Now that I was blossoming, really learning to thrive, I felt I should take the act of cooking more seriously—for my health, if for no other reason. And there they were, my faithful, time-worn excuses.

But this time, there was a new element: my afore-mentioned better half. He didn’t have a lot of time or energy, either, but when he did, he’d prepare delicious meals for me and, eventually, for our friends. Nothing made me prouder than a group of my loved ones sitting at our kitchen table, exclaiming over his prodigious talent. There was immense satisfaction in the act of nurturing people, of bringing them together through the medium of food. An ongoing source of suffering in my life has been the perception that I have nothing to offer. No one needs me, I can’t be counted upon, and I will never make others feel cared and provided for in the ways so many have done for me. It’s a common and heartbreaking reality of disability, which very few of us escape entirely.

But bearing witness to the magic my partner could call forth by simply whipping up a meal and inviting people to our table made me question those long-held assumptions about myself. Perhaps I really was capable of nourishing others as they had so often nourished me. Watching him at work filled me with such an expansive, buzzy feeling of well-being that I decided it was time for me to be brave and turn these one-man meals into a team effort. I wanted to do more than stand on the sidelines of his generosity—a generosity I shared but couldn’t easily express. I wanted to help make it happen.

I’m still a bad cook. (What’s that? You thought this would be a story of radical transformation? Triumph over adversity? Sorry, wrong blog.) I’m not sure that will change, though experience will help me hide it better. What I do have is patience, inspiration, and determination to improve. I also have a partner who appreciates every contribution I make, whether it’s researching recipes or taking care of the food prep he finds unendurably dull. He knows I have a long way to go before I’m satisfied with my skill level, but he is happy to celebrate the baby steps between where I am now and where I want to be. The pure, unbridled joy he takes in those baby steps gives me the space and freedom to celebrate them, too.

With every meal we coordinate together, with every recipe we choose and every cozy conversation that plays out over our cutting boards, I feel my confidence building and, more and more now, a growing closeness not only with the partner I cook with, but the people I cook for. Showing love in words has always been easy, but showing that love with my hands was always an epic struggle. Now, with practice, I am learning to embrace the work of my clumsy, imperfect hands as a pathway to enhanced self-worth and a better relationship—with myself, my partner, and my loved ones.

The cherry on top of the sundae? I haven’t yet managed to chop off any fingers or start any grease fires. (I’ll just have to try harder.)

TLDR: If you’re looking for a way to bring more big buzzy waves of well-being into your life—and really, who isn’t—cook for yourself. Cook for the people you love. If you can, cook right alongside those people, even if the thought of others watching you work is uncomfortable.

Running low on spoons? Don’t have enough time in the day? Scared you’ll mess it up? Do as much or as little as you feel you can. I promise you that whether I do the heavy lifting for a meal or merely slice a carrot or two, the happy buzzy vibes show up either way. It’s the sense of competence and collaboration that matters, not the volume of work done or effort made. The benefits of cooking for yourself and others are endless, and you can’t go wrong with a little extra confidence now and again. I learned that the hard way, so you don’t have to.

The Year of Eating Fire

“The only way to do it is to do it. … There is no trick. You eat fire by eating fire.” ~ Tessa Fontaine, The Electric Woman

An inspired, fresh-start feeling comes to most people in January, filled with promise and hopeful resolution. By late March, many of us realize our goals feel far less attainable when not bathed in the glow of New Year motivation. By the end of the year, only the extraordinarily disciplined remain standing.
In my case, motivation came calling in springtime, in late March of last year. January and February had trudged by in a haze of inertia. My job had hit a dead end. Chances seemed slim for finding another. My lack of disability-related skills was weighing on me more heavily than ever, and my desire to hide from those who might look down on me left me frozen. Time had failed to pull me from my rut, and fear, not to mention despair, was taking over.
And then came CSUNATC—a tech accessibility conference in California that was, by the grace and generosity of a dear friend, within my reach. All I had to do was overcome my fear of mingling with the disability community, muzzle my travel anxiety, and say yes. Pretty simple, or so you’d think.
But saying yes to CSUNATC was, for many reasons, one of the scariest things I’d ever done. Crowds aren’t my thing. Travelling terrifies me, as do fellow disabled people. Just to add to the drama of it all, the friend who agreed to be my guide was someone I’d never met in person. It was as though some sinister committee had conspired to invent circumstances that would encapsulate my personal nightmares. All that was missing was a nest of angry insects.
As many of my readers know, I said yes anyway. Clarity pierced my fortress of quiet desperation, convincing me this would be good for me. Maybe it would open some doors, professional and social. At the very least, it might shake me from my funk, and deprive my anxiety of some of its power.
I attended the conference, faced a multitude of demons, and wrote a recap so emotionally vulnerable that total strangers reached out to thank me for my courage. Perhaps it was the sudden change of pace, the audacious decision to publish my failures, or the landslide of goodwill from a community I’d assumed would judge rather than embrace me, but I understood, all at once, that there are no shortcuts to true forward motion. No “one weird trick” or easy lifehack would help me conquer my fears. There was only the choice to say yes, grit my teeth, and do the scary thing. The only way to eat fire is to eat the damn fire, after all.
Buoyed by this revelation, I began eating fire every chance I got. My springtime resolution wasn’t an easy one to keep, but it stuck where dozens of others had failed. To this day, I don’t have a proper exercise routine, and I am incapable of keeping a regular journal. But touching my tongue to flame has become a valued part of my life, if not second nature.
A few months after returning from CSUNATC, I applied for an internship, even though the competition was fierce and I was certain I’d not measure up. (They hired me).
I tried my hand at speechwriting, which a university course had persuaded me I’d never master. (I’m now a full-time strategic writer, crafting speeches for people more important than I will ever be.)
I practiced being more assertive in everyday life, advocating more consistently and experimenting with “No” rather than letting courtesy outweigh common sense. (I’m now rather good at getting people to let go of me.)
I explored intermittent fasting, regardless of how drastic it seemed. Restricting food made my anxiety spike, but I persisted. (I’ve kept it up for months now, and it has transformed my relationship with food, all but eliminating disordered eating along the way.)
I ask for what I want, not because I am entitled to a thing but because if you don’t ask, you’ll surely never get. (I have taken on several side projects at work that would not have materialized if I hadn’t spoken up.)
The ultimate manifestation of my new resolve was a little like metaphorical flaming-sword-swallowing. I reached out to an orientation and mobility instructor who had recently begun working in my city, and asked her to make me into a respectable blind traveller. In just two lessons, I’ve corrected my cane technique—breaking a decades-long bad habit was no mean feat—and have begun to really understand how cities are put together. (I even let her blindfold me, without the debilitating panic I’ve come to expect from blindfold training.)
It sounds straightforward and unremarkable when I lay it out this way, rather like the automatic revolving door that gave me such grief a year ago. But in my world, these were huge steps forward, a series of daunting obstacles, and there was no shortcut to navigate any of them. There was only my choice to say yes, grit my chattering teeth, and plunge straight into the scary thing. Planning is important, and impulsiveness will never be my custom, but there’s a lot to be said for closing your eyes and swallowing that flame down—because while you’re standing still, waiting for the fear to ebb, time has a way of ticking along at an alarming speed.
The upside of regularly staring terror in the face and carrying on anyway is that if you’ve done it once, you can do it again. It may not go the way you hope, but you’ll always have the knowledge that you’re capable of working through fear, and nothing can take that away. My small but mighty triumphs at CSUNATC, and the subsequent support I continue to receive from many faithful cheerleaders, assure me that while I can’t guarantee good luck, I can be brave when it matters.
Skills are great. Experience is useful. A large network is handy.
Courage? Persistence? These are essential.
It may well be that at least one person reading these words is hesitating, waiting, praying for motivation. That person might be you—or if it isn’t you now, at some point it probably will be. More than likely, you’ll face a task so unpleasant, so uncertain, that you’ll retreat into your very own fortress, hoping motivation will spring from nowhere, or that inertia will outlast the fear.
There is nothing I can say to lessen that fear or quiet that anxiety. But I can tell you that I’ve sequestered myself in that safe space many times. While it has occasionally spared me the trouble of confronting that fire, I can promise you it’s never left me better off.
So go ahead: say yes, grit your teeth, and do the scary thing. Whether it turns out well or leaves you singed and disappointed, you’ll still have the knowledge that you can be brave when it matters.

The Empathy Gap: When “Been There, Done That” is not Enough

As someone who has been told several times she is too empathetic to survive in this harsh world, I assumed I knew a lot about empathy. I never pretended to know how to kindle it in others, but I rarely had difficulty placing myself in even the most unusual positions to investigate all sides of an issue. While this tendency to favour the empathetic response is often involuntary and sometimes overwhelming, I always viewed it as a net positive. Surely, by being such an effortlessly empathetic soul—if not an effortlessly kind one—I must be adept at feeling and demonstrating compassion for others, especially when I’ve walked in similar shoes. Since I’m privileged to be trusted with so many personal stories of struggle, my well-ingrained empathetic response was one of the few traits about which I was fully confident.
Like so many of my long-held and cherished assumptions, I ran into compelling evidence that I was wrong. What is more, I should not have needed a formal study on the empathy gap to convince me; my own negative experiences with the disability community should have been sufficient. According to the authors of this study, the common belief that walking in someone else’s shoes ought to inspire compassion and even leniency is statistically inaccurate. This might not feel true at first, but the more I pondered it, the more sense it made.
Take this example from a few years ago, when I was beginning to find my place in the disability community: An acquaintance, who lived with physical and mental disabilities, was finally able to obtain permanent, fulfilling employment. I expected he would dedicate some of his emotional resources to encouraging others who had not yet reached that goal, or at least affirm that the struggle is, in fact, real. Within months of his triumph, however, he was already cutting fellow disabled people down, suggesting that aspiring workers should simply try harder, and campaigning to cut benefits meant to help those aspiring workers survive while they continued their job searches. The years he had spent searching for his own job, the discrimination he had battled, the pain he had suffered—he had either forgotten them altogether, minimized their power, or attributed his success to superior mettle. Whatever the reason, I drew away from him in shock and disappointment, unable to believe someone could be so hypocritical and heartless.
The idealist in me is loath to admit it, but his response wasn’t just statistically normal. His response, extreme though it was, is one I see in most people I know, including my oh-so-empathetic self. I’m working to exercise compassion and empathy more consciously and intentionally, but I still catch myself dismissing or minimizing someone else’s experiences on the bogus basis that I’ve been there, I’ve done that, and I’m on the other side of it or, at least, I’ve learned to shoulder it. Meanwhile, the nondisabled people I know are more likely to listen attentively and judge less readily, because they have not worn those shoes and do not feel qualified to do more than be supportive. You will find far too many people, disabled and nondisabled, who are quick to judge a situation even and especially when they have no knowledge of it, but most people know when they’re out of their depth, and won’t pretend otherwise.
Now that I’ve been a multiply-disabled person for decades, and worked in a disability-adjacent field for a few years, I am forced to confront the reality that lived experiences don’t automatically result in increased compassion and empathy. In fact, disabled people and those close to them tend to err on the side of harshness, reasoning that they or someone they know managed to “overcome,” which means they have little or no sympathy for anyone who is less successful. There’s a well-worn joke in the disability employment field about how case managers with disabilities are the toughest, and for the most part it checks out. Disabled case managers, and those with disabled family members or friends, may have more knowledge and may make fewer generalizations on average, but they are also likely to say something like “I was able to do this, so why can’t you?” When I wrote about my fear of blind people, this is the core of what I was describing: nondisabled people typically take me at face value after a while, but disabled people often seem to be sizing me up. In an ugly and ironic twist, I have caught myself sizing up my clients in precisely the same way.
As is my custom, I thought about calls to action before sitting down to write this post. I dislike bringing up an issue without pointing toward potential solutions, and this is no exception. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be much direct action to be taken against the empathy gap, besides acknowledging it exists and fighting the instinct to judge, give unsolicited advice, or condemn when we encounter someone who is wearing shoes very like our own.
When you feel empathy, ask yourself the hard questions: Is this a pure feeling? Am I using my past experiences to offer guidance and validation? Is the advice I’m giving, the story I’m telling, the wisdom I’m dispensing welcome? Solicited? Needed? Useful? Am I sharing understanding, or centreing myself? Do I have any right to speak to this situation at all, or am I talking when I ought to be listening?
I’ll close with insightful advice from the authors of the study I referenced earlier. According to Ruttan, McDonnel, and Nordgren, it’s best to get out of your own head, place less emphasis on your individual experiences, and focus on the situation in front of you. If it helps, think of all the many people in the world struggling with the same burdens, instead of zeroing in on your personal journey.
Armed with this knowledge and these strategies, I hope we can all put our empathy to good use, and grow into a more supportive, less judgmental community. Come join me!