Forget Sorry: No is the Hardest Word

Saying no is hard. Luckily for those of us who hate to make waves, there are reams of advice out there about saying no on a date, at work, at holiday events, and in tough situations with family and friends.

Creating boundaries is uncomfortable, and enforcing them is worse. Nevertheless, I believe that many of us are getting better at doing both, despite people’s general inability to handle it gracefully.

The one area of my life where I feel that ‘just say no’ is punished more often than rewarded, even by those who profess to respect boundaries, is—you guessed it, clever reader—disability. I know in my heart that it’s better for my health, my safety, and my peace of mind if I say no to all kinds of things: unwanted help, condescending praise, unsolicited charity, events that worsen my chronic pain, exploitive volunteer opportunities, intrusive personal questions, etc. (I could go on for a long time. I’ll spare you.)

And yet in this, the year of our Lord 2019, it is still controversial, inflammatory even, for my disabled friends and me to say no to any of these things. When we do, we have to deal with a whole lot of anger, hurt, wounded pride, and bitterness, plenty of it from people who have power over us, and plenty more of it from fellow disabled people who enjoy sabotaging others’ autonomy almost as much as their own. Because of course.

Let me show you what I mean with a few comparisons. Comparisons are fun!

Saying no to unwanted touch on a rough first date? Scary, but empowering. Saying no to the person physically dragging you along because he thinks you really, really need help walking through that doorway? Ungrateful.

Saying no to the grandparents who want to load your kids with sugar? Awkward, but that’s just responsible parenting. Saying no to the relative who won’t stop feeding your service dog? That’s just a major overreaction.

Saying no to the free sample, the donation box, the religious pamphlet being offered by a stranger on the street corner? Totally your call. Saying no to the gifts, money, prayers, advice, weird coupons and assorted pity offerings from strangers on that same street corner? Totally uncalled for.

Saying no to the private company that wants your free labour in exchange for “exposure?” Gutsy; you deserve to get paid for your hard work. Saying no to the private company that wants your free labour because your identity provides the illusion of “diversity?” A disservice to the disability community; you should be grateful just to be noticed.

It didn’t take long for me to learn, as a multiply-disabled person, that like so many other marginalized groups, ‘no’ is not for disabled people. ‘No’ is not for people who want help in the future. ‘No’ is not for those who need to rely on people who hurt them. ‘No’ is not for the vulnerable. ‘No’ is not for those needing accommodations or assistance or a hand up. There is only ‘yes,’ and ‘thank you,’ and ‘thank you again!’ Anything else risks anger, risks strained relationships, risks exasperating conversations about ‘humouring’ people and ‘making them feel useful’ and not turning boundary violations into a ‘whole big thing.’

Do we routinely take these risks? Most of us do, yep. Is it exhausting, demoralizing and sometimes dangerous? You bet.

I’ve learned to live with almost every ‘no’ being met with questions like, “Why can’t you just keep the peace? Why can’t you just let them help? They’re just curious—why are you being so rude? Why can’t you suck it up? Why can’t you just be nice?”

Because, you know, being nice comes naturally when a stranger has his arm around my waist and is brazenly ignoring my ‘no, my ‘I’ve got this, thanks’, my ‘please let go, my ‘seriously—let go of me immediately.’ Niceness begets niceness, clearly.

So here are my questions, which will look familiar, no doubt:

  • Why can’t the person who is tugging on my arm be nice and keep their hands to themselves?
  • Why is a stranger asking me personal questions about how long I’ve been disabled, and what happened to me, and how on earth I manage? Why can’t they rein in their curiosity and stop being so rude?
  • Why can’t the person whose request for free work I just turned down stop making it into ‘a whole big thing?’
  • Why can’t the person petting, feeding, distracting my friend’s service dog suck it up and follow the rules?
  • Why can’t the person telling me I shouldn’t work, shouldn’t leave the house, shouldn’t participate in public space just keep the peace and leave me alone?
  • Why isn’t no enough?

If you ever find the answers, heaven knows my inbox is open. Until then, I’ll keep saying no, (often politely!), keep setting those boundaries, keep trying to change this toxic double standard we’ve all helped to create by being so doggedly nice, even when someone is harming us – especially when someone is harming us. I hope you’ll do the same.

Talking to (Disabled) Strangers: A Handy Demonstration

The driver who picked me up from work today was a stranger, so I prepared myself for the typical onslaught of questions, well-meant but awkward and unbearably personal:
Are you totally blind or only somewhat blind? What happened to you? Were you born that way? Do you live on your own? Is that safe? Do you have a job? That’s so nice that they hired you! Do you have a helper? Does the government pay for your groceries? By the way, where’s your dog?
He introduced himself as my driver—no grabbing, no assumptions about how to get me from point A to point B—and gave me full control over how he guided me. He explained that he’d had to park in a tricky spot, describing obstacles so well that I found my way into the vehicle with perfect efficiency. That was the last time disability was mentioned.
On the way home, he asked me scores of questions, just as I’d expected. There was a slight twist, however:
Do you work in that beautiful building? Is it that gorgeous inside as well? How’d you become a speechwriter—that’s really impressive! What kind of education do you need for that? Who’s the best speaker you’ve worked with? Did you study historical speeches? What do you think of Churchill?
To my immense delight, he interspersed these novel, engaging questions with amusing anecdotes. He described his attempts at improvised dinner theatre. He told me about the time he channeled his inner Basil Fawlty, to hilarious effect. He asked me what “extemporize” meant. He mused about turning his many exploits into a book.
“I’m a great storyteller, but I can’t write. My punctuation sucks.”
“Eh, that’s what editors are for. You bring the stories. We bring the punctuation.”
As he dropped me off, he casually assumed I’d know the best way to find my building’s entrance, seeing as I live there and all. Sounds inconsequential, I know, but most drivers argue, at least a little.
Accompanying me to my door, he told me it had been wonderful to meet me, slipped in one last excited comment about how cool it was to chat with a speechwriter (guys, I’m really not very important, for serious), and he was off.
It was only as I was unlocking my apartment door that I realized it: I had had an effortless conversation with a complete stranger, and it had happened without my usual redirections.
At this point, I’m very skilled at turning a conversation away from topics I find uncomfortable, but this perfect interaction had happened out in the wild, so to speak, where conversations with strangers tend to derail without my intervention. There was no contextual framework, like a business mixer or conference space, to set the tone and subject matter. I hadn’t been the one to initiate, and I had not once felt the need to steer. I was free to sit back and forget, for a few minutes at least, that this sort of thing doesn’t happen every day. I happened to meet a person with natural tact and a sociable, curious nature. For once, that had been enough, all by itself, to set the interaction on a course we could both enjoy. More extroverted disabled folks might find this process easier, but connecting in this way has always been a chore for me.
I let this sink in for a moment, surprised at the power of such a small mercy. We had talked about writing and theatre and editing and Sir Winston freakin’ Churchill, but we had not talked about my cane, or my broken eyes, or the weird bruising on my face left by dozens of severe migraines. We hadn’t even discussed my tragic lack of a service dog. Disability had only come up when it was relevant, and the things that made me interesting stole centre stage from the things that made me strange.
Lest you get the impression my social life is even more stunted than you first thought, let me assure you I have animated, fascinating conversations all the time. But they almost never take place when the slate is clean. With unknown quantities, I’m usually back at square one, digging for common ground while the other party focuses on whatever makes us different.
But not today. Today, I got to be Meagan the speechwriter; Meagan the dinner theatre enthusiast; Meagan the Fawlty Towers fan.
Tell me: if we’d stayed on the topic of what the stick is for and how I use computers and why I have those bruise things on my face, how would we ever have gotten to the fun stuff?
So that, friends, is how you talk to a disabled stranger—with the kind of curiosity that would rather ask, “What do you do?” than “What happened to you?”

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.

In Defence Of “Internet” Friendship

“So, where did you meet your friend?”

“We used to post to the same forum, and–”

“Oh…so not, like, a friend friend.”

“A friend friend?”

“You know, like a…real friend. Someone you actually know.”

Friendships forged through online interaction have gained considerable legitimacy since I was a wide-eyed teenager first experiencing the internet, but it’s dismaying how often online connections are still casually dismissed by people of all ages. Apparently, there was a top-secret, authoritative friendship conference that resulted in an unofficial friendship hierarchy, which influences the way friendship is viewed by everyone ranging from seniors to high schoolers.

According to this mystical hierarchy, you can’t measure a friendship in love, but in geography. If you only see your childhood friend once a year for a quick coffee and cursory catchup, that still ranks higher than an “internet” friend whom you haven’t met in person but with whom you communicate daily. Friends who live across the street usually carry more weight with people than a friend who lives across the world, regardless of intimacy, frequency of communication, and overall satisfaction derived from the friendship. (This also applies to romantic relationships, as I learned to my immense chagrin while dating men I’d met online.)

Besides the fact that I find this arbitrary standard inflexible and anachronistic, I also feel it comes down heavily on disabled people, who seem to have an especially large number of online friends. Anyone experiencing loneliness, isolation, and/or a lack of conventional social opportunities can benefit from online social networks. Reducing internet interactions to something pale and second-rate targets a population that is already marginalized. While many disabled people can and do seek social opportunities within their geographical sphere, the internet is an enticingly level playing field where the experience is smoother and the supportive communities are numerous.

My isolated childhood remains a living advertisement for the value of online friends. I was an introspective soul who struggled to make friends in traditionally-accepted ways, so internet social circles were far easier for me to embrace. Online, I didn’t have to be the awkward, introverted blind girl. I could talk to people who were older and wiser than me, share resources with fellow blind peers, and enjoy a sense of social freedom that wasn’t present in my small-town ecosystem. I treasured the offline friends I did make, but rural life didn’t offer the diversity and sense of belonging I found online.

Now, as my life becomes busier and my chronic pain limits my social activities, I appreciate my supportive online network of disabled and non disabled friends more than ever. The love, encouragement, assistance, and companionship they offer are as real and meaningful as anything provided by my equally-adored offline friends. As my heart breaks with the death of an online friend’s husband, and soars with joy at another online friend’s success at work, I do not doubt the gravity and significance of friendships conducted and sustained via the internet.

My internet friends are indeed “real” friends. When they are troubled or grieving or frightened, I comfort them. When I need a friendly ear in the middle of the night, there is always someone to call. My online friends send the best care packages, letters, and virtual (but no less heartfelt) affection. We pay astronomical amounts to visit each other, and make memories we cherish for years. We assist each other financially, emotionally, and spiritually. My online friends may not be able to drive me to an appointment or hold my hand when I’m ill, but they can provide love, advice, compassion, empathy, and laughter.

Never let anyone disparage your online friendships. The internet is a fickle medium, and you may certainly find dangerous, duplicitous people there–people whom you will befriend and later delete from every social network, wondering why you were ever naive enough to trust them. More often than not, you’ll find people who are excellent friendship material–people who will fuse your happiness with theirs and do everything in their power to enrich your life. Whatever people say, however much they scoff, appreciate and cherish the friends you make online, and always measure your relationships in love and respect, not geography and popularity.

A Disabled Person Refused Your Help? Keep Calm And Carry On

Here’s an uncomfortable truth: one of the inescapable pitfalls of blindness is a lack of precision. Even with the help of a guide dog, no blind person is as precise in their every movement as most sighted people. In familiar surroundings, we can dazzle with our ability to navigate with grace, but take us outside our elements and we can flounder. It will take us a little more time to find door handles; locate a cup someone has just placed in front of us; connect with someone else for a handshake; retrieve a dropped object. There may be fumbling. There may be moments of awkwardness in which our questing hands are a quarter of an inch away from what we’re seeking—just enough to drive sighted people crazy—though we’ll always figure it out eventually, either on our own or by asking for specific assistance.
And you know what? That’s okay.
The nondisabled person’s obsession with precision can be taxing. If it takes me a second longer to find an object than a sighted person deems reasonable, I can expect to have frantic instructions lobbed at me. I can also expect an exasperated sigh, or a pitying tongue-cluck. Often, sighted passers-by say something like “I hate watching you looking for stuff! It just kills me. It’s right there!”
The situation will usually escalate, and I’ll get grabbed, even and especially by people I don’t know. Crazed as they are by the idea of someone taking seconds longer than is typical to accomplish everyday tasks, many nondisabled people are filled with an insatiable need to speed things up.
You may accuse me of hyperbole, and if you’ve never seen this phenomenon in action, I wouldn’t blame you. Trust me when I assure you that this happens, and it happens all the time.
A few weeks ago, I was entering a crowded room. My plan was to emerge slowly, and search methodically for the empty seat I knew had been saved for me. Before I had time to take one step forward, someone detached herself from the crowd, galloped toward me, grabbed my arm in a disconcertingly tight grip, and proceeded to escort me to my seat as though I were in danger of being trampled by invisible elephants.
“I’m sorry,” she gasped, not sounding particularly sorry at all, “I know you can find it yourself, I just…it’s the mom in me, you know? Can’t help it!”
(What I did not say: “Yeah, but you’re not *my* mom, and when my mom pulls stuff like this, she hears about it. Ask her. She’ll tell you.”)
Soon after that incident, I was approaching a freshly-mopped patch of floor. A woman warned me of the wet-floor sign, which I appreciated, but she was not satisfied with my cautious pace. As I prepared to walk past her, she rushed to my side—herself in danger of slipping on the floor about which she was so concerned—wrapped her arm securely around me, and led me across the wet patch with such delicacy, you’d think we were crossing a frozen lake while ice shifted ominously beneath us. I felt like someone’s frail grandmother, (please don’t do this to your grandmothers), and since I was in something of a hurry, I was especially displeased.
People have decided, without any input from me, that I cannot be trusted to climb stairs, walk down hallways, find doorways, eat, pull out chairs, cross streets, use escalators, walk down ramps, and get into vehicles safely. (This is not an exhaustive list.) For so many people, I am either seconds away from grievous injury at all times, irritatingly clumsy, or both. There is something in some nondisabled people’s minds that can’t handle the idea of taking your time, making mistakes you can learn from, doing things your own way. The insistence on everything being as precise and efficient as possible dismisses any alternative way of doing a thing if it’s even a beat slower. Each time someone says “Oh forget it! I’ll just do it! It’s faster!” I get a tiny ache in my gut.
The crux of this isn’t so much that I object to people being helpful or overly concerned with my safety. I’m grateful that anyone takes enough notice of me to care whether I break my neck on a wet floor or get trampled by elephants. It’s the irritation that causes me the most pain. The idea that someone’s blood pressure would spike just by watching me put an empty fork in my mouth or backtrack to find a landmark I miss cuts deeply. Am I truly that painful to witness? Is this the root of all that unwanted, unwarranted pity?
Yes, sometimes a sighted person’s methods are quicker. It often happens that I’m happy to surrender a menial task to someone with working eyes because they’ll get it done at least as quickly as I can, and may do it more efficiently, too. I’ve never been the most competent blind person in any room, so I freely acknowledge and accept that in matters of mobility, especially, I’m a little slower than most. My spatial awareness isn’t all that reliable—not a blindness thing, just a Meagan thing—so I’m content to concede that sighted people get around with accuracy that’s beyond me, especially because I don’t have a dog’s eyes to help me.
Despite how nondisabled people feel about it, I’m quite comfortable with this reality–probably too comfortable with it, by some standards. I’m accustomed to being a bit slower, a bit more hesitant, a bit less exact, and after about two decades of it, it’s not a concern for me. I am quick and clever and efficient in the ways that matter to me. I can type like the wind. I can research well and write quickly. I can edit with a thoroughness that is at odds with my turn-around time, which has been praised for being unusually swift. My public speaking and facilitation skills are rapidly becoming my strongest assets. In these ways—the ways that pay my bills and make me useful to society—blindness interferes very little, if at all.
All things considered, why should I despair when it takes me ten seconds to find a door handle? Is it worth being upset because I walked past the staircase I was looking for and had to double back? Will anyone’s quality of life suffer because I tried and failed to give them a high five?
Nope.
So, nondisabled people, as much as I understand and appreciate your wish to help, please keep calm, and carry on if your help is not required. Please keep your hands off strangers, and even off friends and family members unless they have given permission. Remind yourself, when you feel that urge to “fix” a situation, that precision isn’t everything. Efficiency isn’t everything. Perfection isn’t everything.
Independence, autonomy, consent, respect—these are everything.

Let’s Get This Over With: A Love Story

One year ago today, I met a new friend for a casual evening of food and conversation. We had exchanged several text messages and met a couple of times, but we didn’t know each other very well at all. I assumed him to be a stand-up guy—we had a few mutual friends who vouched for him—but that’s all I knew. When asked by friends and family whether this outing was a date, I protested that I was still grieving over the devastating dissolution of a 4.5-year relationship (absolutely true) and was in no state to be dating anyone, much less a mere acquaintance. As the evening progressed, however, and an innocuous meal turned into an entirely too romantic walk along the river valley (the sun was setting, the atmosphere was intoxicating, we didn’t really have a choice in the matter), I realized, quite abruptly, that this was, indeed, a date.
Uh-oh.
Faced with the prospect of opening myself to a new person so soon after being mistreated by someone else, I began to panic. I couldn’t possibly be ready for this! I had so many problems! My mental health was at one of its lowest points, and that’s saying something. I was perpetually exhausted, (I had new-job syndrome), and was nursing emotional wounds that are still healing. My moods were unpredictable. My emotional landscape felt jagged and chaotic. Most days, it seemed as though I was being held together by threads so frayed and fragile they’d snap at the slightest provocation. I was an undeniable mess—not an appealing or interesting mess, the way a million colours scribbled on a page can be beautiful in their own nonsensical way. No, I was more like the mess you shove hastily into your closet when company comes knocking—the kind you pretend doesn’t exist and continually refuse to sort out because it’s too daunting. If you opened that closet door, you know everything would come tumbling out.
That, dear reader, was the version of me trying to decide whether I was prepared to pursue a new relationship.
Certain that I had stumbled into a misunderstanding and determined to set the record straight, I did what any sensible gal would do on a first date: I sat down on this near-stranger’s couch—and an attractive stranger he was, too—and told him everything that made me undatable.
Yes, that was my first-date strategy: reveal every conceivable shortcoming, cover every awkward topic, explore every taboo, and excavate any past mistakes that would disqualify me as a suitable girlfriend. Lay it all out, get the unpleasantness out of the way, and he’ll balk, right? Surely telling him all about my multiple disabilities, my mental illness, my dubious track record with romantic relationships, my spectacularly poor choices, my insecurities, my unwillingness to ever have children, my overwhelming fear of failure—all of these would definitely scare him off, yes? In the name of honesty, I dredged up everything I could think of that would make him retract his interest so I wouldn’t have to deal with big, scary decisions.
In short, I handed him every reason he’d ever need to call it quits before we’d even begun … as one does.
Those of you who don’t know me very well may think you know where this is going. He was caught off guard, improvised some polite and sympathetic response, and led me gently to his door. When a woman implies, without an ounce of subtlety, that she is a disaster on legs, just thank the universe she’s not wasting more of your time.
Those of you who do know me realize that’s not quite how it happened. Instead, he sat quietly and listened while I gave him my spiel. He asked a few respectful questions, provided the odd empathetic comment here and there, and waited patiently until I was finished.
“So…okay…I’m sorry I dumped all this on you, but I really need to know. I need to know if you can handle all my … stuff. Otherwise, there’s just no point. Anyone I’m with has to be okay with my disabled, chronically ill, foolish self.” (For those of you fuming at my excessively self-deprecating portrayal of disability and chronic illness…just hang on. I’m getting to that.)
“Yeah. Of course. I think it’s great that you told me all this now. It’s brave to tell me, and it’s good information to know.”
As it turns out, not only did this remarkable creature have a disability of his own (moderate and mostly invisible), he was happy to explore romance with someone who had a handful of fairly serious problems, as long as I was willing to be honest about them. Exposing everything in one go, on day one, had the opposite effect you might imagine. Far from deterring him, it encouraged him to trust me and seemed to make me even more attractive to him. With everything on the table from the get-go—and yes, for those wondering, he did reciprocate by telling me many of his own struggles that night—we went into our tenuous relationship knowing there would be few surprises and no unnecessary anxiety about whether we were putting on a good face for each other.
Naturally, there were some who were horrified by what I’d chosen to do.
“You talked about all that stuff on the first date? Were you actually trying to scare him away?”
“Well…yes.”
On the other hand, many others were pleased to hear that my impulsive strategy had worked, and a few even confessed they’d like to try it for themselves, perhaps more gracefully than I had, but with the same unflinching sincerity.
“It would be kind of nice,” some said, “not to have to worry about them ‘finding things out.’” The slow reveal, especially with invisible disabilities and mental illness, can be even scarier than spilling it all out at once.
There was another latent benefit to depositing my life story into the lap of someone loving and respectful: I was reminded, once again, that my disabilities, illness, and various other attributes don’t make me undatable. They may present significant challenges, but they are not objects of shame, ridicule, or guilt. Choosing to date me even with full knowledge of my broad range of atypical challenges was an act of faith, perhaps, but never of charity. My partner wasn’t doing me a favour by agreeing to “handle” these things. I wasn’t “undatable,” and never have been.
Today, as I celebrate my first anniversary with a partner I have come to respect and adore, I appreciate the many ways in which our story could have veered into much darker territory. He could have been repulsed by what I’d disclosed. He could have promised he would handle it and realized that wasn’t a promise he could keep. He could have used the sensitive information I gave him to do me harm. Any number of catastrophes could have resulted from the way I handled our first date. Reeling from exhaustion and pain, I wasn’t in the most stable state of mind, and I fully acknowledge that if I’d been in a better place emotionally, I may have dealt with this differently.
All this has taught me that the recipe for a healthy relationship requires trust and forthrightness from the very beginning. Even if you don’t present your prospective partners with bulleted lists of all your issues—and I don’t generally recommend that you do—it’s essential that you feel comfortable around a person you’re planning to date. Romantic relationships place us in vulnerable positions, and if you don’t think your partner could handle how ill you get during migraines, or how much help you need when trying to identify objects you can’t see, you should keep looking. In the meantime, remember that while there may be many people out there who aren’t right for you, you deserve to find someone who is.