Who We Are When Life is Good

How much does society love talking about the impact of adversity on disabled people? The polishing powers of struggle, turning us all into sparkling gems? The motivation that comes from being told we’ll never be good enough, never measure up, never prosper? The myriad obstacles we’ve ‘overcome’ to be the people we are?

As a person with multiple disabilities, I can tell you with confidence that we love it a whole lot.

We love talking about it so much that you’ll rarely hear about anything else. Stories featuring disabled people centre around their troubles and barriers and the Debbie downers who insisted they’d never succeed. Disabled people are forever prompted: Tell us about the haters. The doubters. The people and institutions that stood in your way. Did all that negativity make you work harder? Did it make you stronger? Was it the driving force behind all your ‘inspirational’ achievements? Less often are we asked about positive sources of strength and power.

Societal hunger for tales of marginalized struggle is so voracious that I wonder if, on some deep, dark, shameful level, we quietly enjoy the idea of disabled people having to suffer in order to earn their place in the world. If access comes easily, if an environment is supportive and if barriers aren’t blocking a person’s path, do their accomplishments count?

Maybe not, or at least, not as much. No one wants to hear a story without conflict, so what’s the value of a disabled person’s story if it doesn’t involve plenty of misery?

This romanticism of struggle bled into the way I viewed my life, even as I was living it. I kept waiting for the adversity I faced to make me better, more resilient. Mostly it just made everything worse.

Logic dictated that being a blind person in a visual world would make learning, travel, and daily life more complicated. Of course debilitating chronic pain would make me less dependable, less inclined to pursue great things and explore my creative side. Why wouldn’t mental health issues contribute to my low energy levels and aversion to new challenges? Wouldn’t it be odd if they didn’t?

And yet, because I’d grown up surrounded by triumphant stories of struggle, of people being more successful precisely because they had suffered and come through, I expected that, if anything, my disabilities meant the bar was even higher for me.

The shoulds came thick and fast: my mental ill health should turn me into an unpredictable but admirable genius. My blindness should help me smash barriers to bits with superhuman aptitude. My personal haters and doubters should spur me to work harder, instead of making me feel unwelcome and afraid as they were trying to do.

Now, with the benefit of hindsight, I understand that I thrive best when my health is good and my environment is supportive. At present, I’m surrounded by positive, encouraging people who want me to flourish, and by God I’m flourishing. No longer do I cower at the very thought of a real challenge. Weirder still, I’m a bit of an adrenalin junkie. I crave variety and I need constant, low-grade stress to be content. Give me a new project, a tight timeline and vague instructions, and watch me crush it. If you’d told me all this five years ago, before I’d ever known such support, I’d have laughed in your face. “No no,” I’d say, “I’m more of a ‘scared of my own shadow’ type.”

As far as I can tell, I owe very little to pain and suffering. Adversity has been useful enough in some ways, but I will never claim to do my best work while beset by destructive forces. Shocker of all shockers: Not everyone soars in the middle of a hailstorm, and it’s strange and sad that we ever expected they should.

Perhaps you’re one of those remarkable creatures who functions well under the worst of conditions. Maybe you’re doing great during this pandemic, while most of the world flounders. It’s possible you’re one of those unicorns, disabled or nondisabled, who confronts terrifying situations—bullying, discrimination, six-lane intersections—and comes out of them more badass than ever. (Teach me thy way!)

But I’m not a unicorn. Many, many of my disabled friends are not unicorns, either, and we get down on ourselves when the troubles that are supposed to make us better end up tiring us out instead. Lots of us get bullied, discriminated against or hit by cars in six-lane intersections, and then we go home and cry because it hurts and it sucks and we hope it’s a long time before we have to go through that again. These things may not break us, and we might get a good blog post out of them if we’re lucky, but we sure as hell bend.

Let’s share some new stories — stories that make room for people who get things done in times of crisis, yes, but who also know the value of environments where they are supported and encouraged. I want to amplify stories about disabled people who get the tools they need, the access they deserve, and the inclusive communities they crave, and who accomplish wonderful things as a result.

I’ll start: Once upon a time, there was a disabled gal named Meagan who did okay in the face of adversity, but who wanted more from life than leaping from hurdle to hurdle. After years of being low-key miserable and unable to fulfill her potential, she found the access and support and community she needed. She blossomed. She accomplished some very cool things, which were no less valid because she wasn’t ‘overcoming’ anything more daunting than her own self-doubt at the time. Also, she had very few haters, and that was handy. She lived happily ever after, terrible mobility skills and nasty migraines and inconvenient mood disorder notwithstanding. (My blog, my ending.)

Not exactly riveting, sure. But it’s kind of a nice change, don’t you think?

Stay safe and healthy, folks, and make some space for happy stories.

Eat, Pray, Panic: Dubious Advice for Uncertain Times

Most people alive today can’t remember a crisis like COVID-19. But as I fumble my way through this strange new way of life, I find myself leaning heavily on lessons I learned ten years ago, during my first brush with life-or-death crisis. Maybe it’ll be helpful for you, too.


I was home alone on summer vacation, lounging in my sloppiest house clothes, when two men, professional thieves judging by the efficient way they ransacked my home, showed up in broad daylight to ruin my day. They kicked in our patio door, tracked mud all over the carpets, and convinced my sheltered teenaged self that I was a minute or two from death or, perhaps, something worse. Like the tough, brave gal everyone knows me to be, I cowered on my bedroom floor and hyperventilated a bunch.

It was fine in the end, other than the afore-mentioned mud-tracking and the disappearance of some of our possessions. No one got hurt, and I would go on to spend many more lazy afternoons in that house, safe and sound.

In the moment, however, it felt every bit the traumatic event that it was. For years afterward, I’d have bouts of irrational panic so strong that I kept many a friend and partner on the phone with me for hours until I had the guts to fall asleep.

What stands out to me now, far more than the horror of that experience, was the way we handled it as a family. Everyone came over—grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, the whole herd—and there were tons of hugs. We cried. We complained about the mud. We had a pizza party, because of course we did, and chatted excitedly about the family reunions and music festivals we would be attending later that week. I sent upbeat messages to all my friends—“I’m lucky to be alive but it’s all good, lol”—and absorbed their love and relief. I pulled out the gallows humour, and everyone let me do what I needed to do to keep it together.

We acknowledged the crisis, we made space for our terror, and we carried on. In my entirely inexpert opinion, there’s a lot I, and perhaps some of you, can take from that into the present moment, as we continue to deal with a much larger, more devastating situation.

Desperate Times Call for Desperate Feelings

While it’s vital that we keep cool heads in the face of hysteria, we need to make room for all that fear and bad feeling. Sometimes you need to have that good cry, or that venting session, or that long, dark night of the soul to be okay again.

I’m a pragmatic person who shrinks from drama, but I’ve sent a few melodramatic texts and made a couple of tearful phone calls over the last few weeks. It was good and cleansing and 10/10 would recommend.

This is not a time for us to police our own or others’ grief at the loss of normalcy, sadness at cancelled events, or fear for the fate of sick loved ones. These feelings are new, and the coping mechanisms might also be new. I’ve found myself praying after years of vague agnosticism, and I’ve never found hymns more encouraging than I do right now, even though I have no idea to whom I’m singing. And boy does the gallows humour come in handy these days.

Cry your tears, pray your prayers to whoever, and keep on truckin’.

Life is not Cancelled

Lots and lots of things aren’t happening right now, or have moved to digital spaces that can’t provide the same experience and present accessibility challenges for many disabled people. I am writing this from a place of extraordinary privilege, as I still have a job at the moment, but I am feeling the restless dissatisfaction of being cooped up at home, lacking my routines and suffering declining mental health as a result. Nothing feels right, and we’re far from done with this distressing new normal.

That said, I find it empowering as all heck to hang on to as many things as I can in the face of a crisis. I keep my work schedule as regular as I can, even though I’m working from home and the internal pressure to work extra hours is mounting. I’m carving out time to enjoy my hobbies and keep up with life admin as much as possible, given COVID constraints. I’m taking shelter in the things that haven’t changed, and still writing blog posts, for better or worse.

Some days I don’t have the wherewithal to pretend all is business as usual. Most days, in fact. But I leave the door open to the idea that life can and does trundle along much as before. Disappearing into a comforting, everyday task, even for a few minutes, is more restorative than I ever imagined. Everything may be on fire, but the kitchen still needs cleaning.

Crises are Special Occasions

It’s easy to forget this, especially for those of us whose lines of work involve interactions with a terrified public, but it’s not selfish or unseemly to prioritize pleasure. I, along with many others, am intimately acquainted with the pain and anxiety of strangers, and it is my duty, professionally and personally, to offer aid where I can, and compassion where I can’t.

Nevertheless, crises are special occasions, so I’m using the high-end soap. I’m wearing the outfits that make me feel competent and in control (except when I’m wearing my bunny onesie, obvs). I’m indulging in bubble baths and moisturizing, like some kind of grownup. I’m doing all the hackneyed self-care rituals that aren’t productive but are, in their way, the glue that keeps me in one piece.

So knock yourself out. Play the frivolous video game. Read novels all day long. Order the greasy pizza, and stuff your face with abandon. Bake those cookies. Make a mess. Create fancy, over-the-top cocktails with whatever’s in your house. Drink the good coffee. Let yourself enjoy things, tiny as they may be.

Yes, we need to take this situation seriously. That seriousness is saving lives. But sackcloth, ashes and self-denial aren’t helpful, truly.

Be Nicer Than Necessary

Look, 99% of us are doing our best out here, okay?

You’re scared, but so is the person you just snapped at for standing too close to you. You’re stressed, but so is the cashier you just yelled at because the store is out of toilet paper again. You’re tired, but so is the nurse who hasn’t slept in heaven knows how long. You’re frustrated, but so is the disabled person who needs help with groceries, or transportation, or access issues. You really need a break, but so does the communications professional, the call centre operator, the public official, the politician, the teacher, the employer whom you feel isn’t doing enough.

Be kind, because the smallest of gestures will stick more firmly than the criticism, the anger, the pointing fingers and blame games. Goodwill is thin on the ground these days. Be part of the solution.

Settle in for the Long Haul

This is not going to be over in two weeks. Like most significant crises, the impact will linger long after the life-or-death scenario has run its course. It took me years to be totally comfortable in my parents’ house after that break-in a decade ago, and it will take us months and even years to work out all the ways this pandemic has touched and altered us. Some of us may not make it through at all, and that harsh reality will not soften any time soon.

So, get as comfortable as you can, and assume that this is a marathon, not a sprint. Try to incorporate healthier habits into your lifestyle, so that you can take at least one positive thing away from these terrible circumstances. Prepare to support those around you as we brace for the longer-term effects of depleted social safety nets, overburdened health care systems, and economic instability. Think about who might need you, and what you can do for them. While you’re doing that, don’t forget to consider how this is likely to affect you, and accept the fact that you’ll need to get really good at reaching out for help.

Separator

We’re all in this together, as everyone knows. Acknowledge the gravity of this crisis. Make space for your terror. Eat some pizza. Carry on.

Thin and in Control

It seems odd to think about it now, given my rocky relationship with food over the past five years, but at one time, I was known for being particularly thin. People told me to eat more—when they weren’t praising my asceticism, of course. Women sighed bitterly whenever I ate anything more nourishing than a celery stick. Everyone around me seemed to vacillate between worrying about my health and telling me I looked amazing. My then-boyfriend ran his hand over my ribs, marvelling (worrying?) that he could count them without effort.
Throughout my time in university, as I grew steadily thinner, I fielded a befuddling mixture of genuine concern and envy-tinged adulation. And time after time, I was asked just how I did it. I wasn’t a faithful gym-goer, nor a diligent meal planner; and, as my family members lamented, my genetics weren’t favourable enough to make thinness a given. How on earth was I pulling this off, with my careless diet and nonexistent fitness regimen?
I met these questions with vague references to “being careful” and “trying to be disciplined.” I went no further, and nobody questioned me because, as research has shown us, thin people are assumed to be more competent and more disciplined than people of size. It didn’t add up, and there was nothing about my life to envy or emulate, but even those who knew me well perceived me as deserving of my slender shape. I didn’t work especially hard to disabuse them of that notion.
Meanwhile, my ‘secret’ to long-lasting slimness was a good deal less glamourous, and far less controlled, than you might imagine. The short version is this: I have chronic illness, severe stress, and disability-related isolation to thank for my thinness, and nothing more. One need not run marathons, nor fast for days, nor down diet pills to get skinny. One need only be too sick to eat, too stressed to care, and too isolated to ask for help.
Not magazine-worthy, I know. Harsh truths rarely are.
As I’m sure you’ll agree, it would have been painfully awkward to divulge the desperation behind the scale’s gratifying announcements that I was 125, 120, 115 pounds. It would have been unspeakably strange if I’d admitted that if you want to follow in my footsteps, it will involve a lot of migraines and exhaustion and terrible orientation and mobility skills that keep you from buying your own groceries. It would have been a real buzzkill if I’d said, point blank, “I stay thin because I throw up a lot from the horrible headaches I get three times a week, and I’m too depressed to eat anyway.” Weird, right? Not appropriate lecture hall chatter, and awfully distressing for the poor soul who just wanted to say something nice.
So, people figured I was very good at health management. I let them go on thinking that, even as I waited too many weeks between grocery runs because my blindness skills were atrocious and I couldn’t find the nearest store; even as the migraines got so bad I started having blackouts; even as I lost so much weight it stopped being sexy and started being worrisome.
The alarming thing is, even those who knew something of what was happening to me didn’t probe much, because thin people are in control. Thin people are healthy. Thin people have got this.
Depression had killed my appetite, and migraines had knocked it even further off balance. But my jeans fit like a glove, so all looked well.
As I write, I can say with confidence that I am the healthiest I’ve ever been, even though I’m carrying several more pounds than I did then. My migraines are much less frequent, and they no longer come bundled with stroke symptoms and paralyzing fear. I’m eating regularly and for the most part, nutritiously—no more living on crackers for a week and a half (yes, that’s literal). My mental health is reasonably well-managed, I’m strong enough to work out regularly, and I’m as functional as I’ve ever been.
These days, more or less, I am in control. I am healthy. I am disciplined. I’m not quite so thin anymore, but I’ve got this.
So next time you’re tempted to ask someone how they do it, spare a thought for what might lurk behind that pleasing body shape. It may be good genetics or solid habits, but it also might be a whole lot of misery they’re not ready to talk about.
And next time you’re tempted to work toward being smaller, taking up less space, ask yourself: Will I be healthier? Happier? Stronger? More in control?
In Sara Groves’ Finite, one of the best songs out there about human insecurity, she encapsulates the treadmill-like futility of fighting to stay “younger, thin and in control.” She wonders “where the peace went?”
From what little I’ve known of the journey toward a healthier life, that peace doesn’t come from your scale or tape measure or your friends’ envious validation.
Take it from someone who has been small, and lived small, too: Whatever your size, it comes from eating well, moving when you can, and never being too afraid to ask for help.
You are finite. You are exhaustible. And there’s a lot of peace in that.

Disruption, Script-Flipping, and the Art of Carrying on

While riding the elevator this morning, a stranger paid me the kind of compliment that normally sets off alarm bells.

“You seem so independent,” he chirped, pushing the elevator button for me as he did so. (The irony, my God the irony.)

“Well, I’m used to being blind, so it’s no big.”

“But you seem like someone who doesn’t blame the world for your problems, you know?”

“I mean … I just sort of get on and do, right? That’s all you can do.”

“Exactly! See, not everyone gets on and does. You’re choosing to do it. I’m telling you, you’re a ray of sunshine.”

I did my usual smile and nod thing, internally preparing myself for the usual inspiration porn doom spiral. The script, well-rehearsed by now, goes something like this:

I’m not inspiring. There’s nothing praiseworthy about living my little life. People think I’m impressive but I’m not. I am reduced to their daily hit of inspiration. They’ll never really see me. I’ll never get past this. Bring me my saddest violin. Life’s but a walking shadow. Et cetera et cetera.

This time, for reasons I don’t yet understand, a different script presented itself: What if he was right?

Not precisely in the way he intended, of course. In the immortal words of so many of my visually impaired friends, ‘blindness is whatever.’ (We’re an eloquent bunch.) But could I, just this once, flip the script? Could I worry less about feeling guilty because I don’t educate every single person I meet? Could I be praiseworthy for “getting on and doing” for reasons other than my most prominent disability?

A mere hour before this interaction, I was talking myself out of bed. My tension pain was flaring up. My recently-healed back injury had left a grumpy ghost behind, always most irritating in the mornings. My depression was pressing down more heavily than usual, insisting that my very happy life was actually not happy at all. I was dealing with a longstanding accessibility issue at work, and I didn’t want to confront it today.

And I ignored all those reasons to stay down. Not such a grandiose achievement, nothing cinematic, but still: I carried on and did what needed done, independently, because that’s what I do.

Maybe my resolve, my tired but determined air, was visible to this kind stranger, even if he attributed it to the wrong struggles.

So, was I allowed to interpret his compliment in a way that made more sense to me? Is flipping the script, disrupting those nasty doom spirals, a legitimate way to deal with those moments where education just doesn’t fit? Do I ask myself way too many questions?

I’m gonna say yes. For the sake of my sanity, my energy, and my need to take a break sometimes: Yes!

Here’s to the noble art of letting the little things go.

Here’s to living as the person you are, not the one you think you ought to be.

Here’s to life being so much more than an endless parade of teachable moments, not all of which you can possibly be expected to seize.

Here’s to chilling out and, every now and then, taking that problematic compliment—because guess what?

You’re tired. I’m tired. You’re doing cool things despite the obstacles, and so am I.

So, by all means flip the script when you can. It’s good for the soul.

Staying Sane In A Culture Of Outrage

Unless you’ve been living off the grid for the past year or so (and if you have, congratulations, you’re not really missing much), you’ve been inundated with rage-fuel from just about every imaginable quarter, at least on the internet. The tumultuous American election, the unrest in Europe, the conflicts in the Middle East—these have all snowballed to create feelings of despair and near-constant outrage. Sustaining these feelings for any length of time is mentally taxing, and I’ve seen this struggle in the disability community and, of course, in myself.
Shouldering my personal mental health issues has spurred me to devise strategies for staying sane in these troubled times. While everyone on and offline will have, I hope, found their own effective coping mechanisms, I thought it might be prudent to share some of my own. My goal is to help others, including those without disabilities, safeguard their sanity while continuing to be present online. It’s all very well to fight on the front lines, but we must remember to look after our well-being, no matter how guilty it makes us feel to do so. We’re no good to anyone or anything unless we care for ourselves, first and foremost.

Learn to Sit Down

If you’ve spoken about any issue on the internet, you’ve probably been told to “sit the f**k down” a time or two. It can be discouraging when people demand your silence, particularly if they claim to speak for and represent you, but they have a point.
One of the first things I had to accept when I worried for my mental health was that sometimes, I had to put down my torch and acknowledge that not every battle is mine to fight. I cannot possibly join every crusade, champion every cause, or address every issue, in the disability community and elsewhere. I’ve found that sticking to the conflicts that affect me most directly is the best way to ensure that my voice is heard and my views are based on accurate information and experience. There is no point getting involved in a dispute I know nothing about, and once I recognized this, my life got a whole lot calmer.
In addition to preserving my sanity, this tactic meant I didn’t inadvertently misrepresent or harm anyone else, whose opinions are much more valid than my own. What right have I to speak on behalf of those with autism? Wheelchair users? Those who are deaf and hard of hearing? None whatsoever, I’d say. I’m free to discuss their general rights as disabled human beings, but my personal experience is totally irrelevant in most cases. I’d be annoyed if someone with little or no experience with visual impairment presumed to override my needs, and I imagine others in the community feel the same way.
So, learn to sit down once in a while. It’s worth it, I promise.

Know your limits

The next thing I learned was that my capacity for absorbing rage-fuel is finite. You may have discovered the same. While some of us grow numb to it all, developing armour and forging ahead, others of us need mental health breaks. Stepping away from social media can be therapeutic in the extreme. More than once over the past year, I’ve had to unplug temporarily, just so I could function normally and live my offline life.
Here are some signs to watch for if you think you might need some time away:
• Your heart races at the very thought of reading yet another inflammatory article or Facebook post, but you can’t seem to stop clicking on them.
• You find yourself jumping into strangers’ conversations at the smallest offence, determined to set them straight.
• You pick fights with friends who disagree with you, despite the fact that it achieves little and only ends in resentment or awkwardness.
• You find yourself under constant stress, especially when surfing the web.
• You’re losing sleep over the opinions of strangers, even when those strangers are ill-informed and unworthy of your time or energy.
• You’re unable to concentrate on your job, your relationships, and other infinitely more important parts of your life.
If you’re encountering any of these issues, back away, at least for a few days. Your energy is precious, and if you’re anything like me, you can’t afford to waste spoons on fruitless anger. I can just about guarantee you’ll return to the fray feeling more tranquil, and the energy you do expend on the things you care about will yield better results. Try it.

Be Open to Changing Your Mind

Personal growth is underrated in this polarized landscape. If you’re on the left, you’re expected to stay there under all circumstances. If you’re on the right, the same is expected of you. No matter where you fall on the spectrum, people demand that you pick a side and remain there. Nuance is so often abandoned in favour of toeing the party line, and this can be enormously stressful.
Remember that your principles, while they’re admirable, are allowed to evolve over time. If you receive new information that proves you’re wrong about something, be at peace with changing your perspective and your position. You may consider some beliefs to be inviolate, I know I do, but flexibility is its own reward. Keeping your mind open—but not too open, you don’t want to be swayed by every breeze—is vital to your growth and development. My own views have shifted over the years, which is reflected in my blog, but I’m not ashamed of it. All it means is that I’m capable of adapting to what life teaches me.
If communities as a whole, and individuals in particular, are totally closed to change, they won’t survive for long.
Don’t let anyone accuse you of betrayal or flip-flopping. Adjusting your beliefs and values according to new information you gather is normal and healthy. Don’t let anyone convince you otherwise.

You Owe Nothing to Anyone

Finally, keep this close to your heart: you do not owe anyone anything. You are not duty-bound to educate. No one should try to force you to act on any given cause. Respecting your limits and beliefs should be your highest priority. It’s worthwhile to advocate, and I prefer that people choose the path to education if they insist that nondisabled people behave properly around them, but you should never feel as though you have to treat every situation as a teachable moment. If you try, you’ll find yourself exhausted and frustrated. You might even snap one day and bite some innocent person’s head off. This has happened to me, and I recognized it as a signal that I could not be a perfect educator at all times. On days when I just don’t have it in me, I need to go about my business and forget about perceived duties to my community.
Furthermore, you don’t owe anyone a debate or an explanation. If someone seeks an argument with you, by all means engage them, but end the conversation once you’ve had enough. There are many resources out there. Point them toward those and withdraw before you become unduly upset. Let no one tell you what you owe them.


I hope these tips will help you. If you can, please pass them along to anyone you know who might be staggering under the weight of all they are reading and sharing. Tempting as it may be to steep ourselves in this culture of outrage, we must learn to practice self-care and cultivate self-awareness. Only then can we find balance.
Good luck in all your noble endeavours. Do me one favour though, and rest now and again.