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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It’s a Human Thing

Over dinner with a dear cousin of mine, I was waxing pathetic about how much it grieves me that I can never slice vegetables in a straight line. My cucumbers and carrots end up being very fat on one side while dwindling to a mere ghost of themselves on the other. I was going on and on about how I can never get the angle right, and that blindness really gets in the way. I told her that I imagined there was some kind of mystical trick to it, because there’s no way that everyone was messing up the way I was.
“Meagan, that’s not a blindness thing. That’s a human thing. I can’t cut straight either.”
“Oh…really?”
“Really.”
“You have no idea how much better I feel right now.”

Sometimes, blind people hold themselves to much higher standards than sighted people do. I think it’s because expectations are tragically low: a blind person is lucky if their sighted family and friends think they’ll be able to feed themselves and hold down a job. These low expectations can force some of us to aim very high—even higher than the average sighted person might.

There is this drive to be totally independent (never mind that no one is entirely independent). Even sighted educators and consultants have fallen into this trap. They expect a blind person to go the extra mile to be an excellent student, a fantastic cook, an immaculate housekeeper, a highly successful employee … and on and on. As Leo once said, few sighted people aspire to or manage these things, especially in this age of convenience.

Sighted people aren’t perfect by default. They aren’t even particularly successful by default. Sighted people make many of the mistakes that blind people attribute to their failings as a blind person. Revelation after revelation has led me to the point where I’m not nearly as ashamed of my own struggles, because I now realize they’re a result of being human, not of being blind.

Some sighted people don’t eat neatly, while I generally do, depending on what I’m eating. Sighted people spill things, knock things over, and drop stuff; I rarely make messes, because I’m very careful not to “seem too blind.” Many sighted people don’t know the bus system, while I berate myself for not being familiar with its every component. So many sighted people aren’t great cooks, so now I don’t hate myself for being a mediocre one.

I look around at the students I’ve gotten to know, and I find that even the older ones aren’t as capable as I thought I had to be at, say, sixteen. If they can pop a bowl of soup in the microwave, deal with their leaning tower of dishes, and occasionally vacuum, they’re doing okay. I was taught to see that lifestyle as the lowest point you can ever experience. I thought that, if I wasn’t perfect, then I was being a bad blind person. I was exemplifying all those lowered expectations, while simultaneously failing to meet the much higher standards others had imposed upon me.

While in junior high, I struggled to complete an art-based science project on my own. I’m very creative, but not when it comes to using my hands. My idea of arts and crafts is to put random beads onto a piece of string. Maybe I’ll glue a feather and some seashells onto construction paper and call it a collage. I wasn’t an art person in any sense, and being blind didn’t help, of course. While I was struggling with this exercise, my EA came over to show me a gorgeous science project some blind girl at another school had made. The assumption, I suppose, was that if she could do it, I should be able to do it, too. You’d never ever say to a sighted student, “Someone in a completely different school made this. What’s wrong with you? Why can’t you make this, too? Why can’t you go the extra mile?” Yet, when it came to me, my inability to equal her work was attributed to laziness. I must be an underachiever, right?

I’ve written about why it’s a mistake to compare blind people on more than a superficial level. Having different strengths and weaknesses than another student is not a blindness thing, but a human thing.

Once a blind person grasps this, they can start living a more relaxed and contented lifestyle. Once educators and other professionals who work with us realize this, too, everybody will be happier for it.

Another dear cousin (my cousins are awesome, what can I say?) once gave me this advice:

Ultimately, the only person you have to live with all your life is you. The only person who will always be there is you. Therefore, the only person you have to please, in the long run anyway, is yourself. Live up to your standards, and nobody else’s.

Whether she knew it or not, that advice altered my thought processes and, by extension, my self-concept. It has, in short, changed my life. I hope it changes yours, too.