“You Got a Permit for Those Feelings, Ma’am?”

When we think about gaslighting, we tend to focus on calculated, premeditated abuse, carried out over time for some nefarious purpose. We rarely think of it as something unconscious and unintentional — something we do to ourselves and each other, in some cases with disturbing frequency. Gaslighters are vindictive, manipulative bullies. Gaslighters aren’t decent, well-intentioned folks in widespread, shared denial. And gaslighters certainly aren’t members of marginalized communities who have learned to second-guess their perspectives. Perish the thought!

I’ve generally thought of gaslighting as something that rarely happens to me, something other people deal with, until a recent moment of public humiliation at the hands of well-intentioned strangers brought me up short.

Two recruiters for some sort of club approached my sighted friend and me, diving straight into their pitch without preamble. My friend grabbed a pamphlet, but I was totally in the dark about what was going on and who these people were. They spent the next few minutes talking about me as though I were an engaging art installation.

“Can she speak?”

“She can speak, right?”

“Our club is for, you know, all individuals.”

“Even she could participate in this, I think!”

“She’s okay, right? She can…”

“I know you’re guiding her today, but we could work something out…”

“And she really can speak?”

During this onslaught, I struggled to get my bearings while one of the strangers held some food item, a bag of chips as it turned out, right under my nose without explanation. I kept interjecting, trying to redirect their attention, to demonstrate my ability to have this conversation for myself, but nothing I said got through to them. Meanwhile, my poor friend stood there, horrified but unable to extricate us from the situation.

Finally, my attack of politeness paralysis lifted: “Excuse me but we really need to go.”

As we power-walked away, my friend swung between apologizing and expressing shock.

“Did that just happen? I am so so sorry! I didn’t know what to do. Did that seriously just happen?”

I assured her there was nothing she could have done differently and thanked her for acknowledging my own shock and embarrassment. We parted ways, and I was preparing to shove this incident into my trusty ‘shit happens’ folder when I realized something at once forgettable and bizarre: I had thanked her for being upset about this. The first articulate thing I’d thought after it happened was, thank God I had a sighted person with me. I was hugely grateful to someone for whom this sort of treatment was an anomaly, not an inevitability, the way it is for me. I was relieved that she’d been there, with her working eyes, to assess my feelings and find them valid.

Why?

This realization crystalized further as I sent a message to a blind friend I knew would understand.

“The sighted friend I was with was more upset than I’ve ever seen her. That gave me permission to be, I guess. I dunno. I’m still shaking.”

There it was, in plain language. Somewhere along the line, I’d become so distrustful of my own perceptions of reality that I needed validation, sighted validation in particular, before I’d let myself react. What was this self-diminishing nonsense, and when had it started?

If I’m being truthful, this subtler form of gaslighting began early, and it came from just about everywhere. Remember those decent folks I mentioned earlier? The ones in widespread denial? I believe I learned this pattern, however unwittingly, from kindly people who couldn’t bear the idea that they could do real damage without even knowing it, who clung stubbornly to the belief that intentions trump results, always.

How many times had I been encouraged to be extra patient, unfailingly gracious? People just don’t know what to do with me. How to talk to me. How to work with me. How to live alongside me

How often had I been reminded, by sighted and blind people alike, not to be too hard on people because they didn’t know any better? They’d never met someone like me before. Not everyone has read my blog. They didn’t mean it. I read the situation wrongly. They meant well. I must have misunderstood.

And how many comments have I heard and read, online and off, asking for sighted validation? Was anyone sighted with you? Did anyone see what happened? Maybe you misheard? Maybe it would help if you could see their faces? Most communication is nonverbal — maybe you’re just not good with social cues? Maybe there was something going on you couldn’t see?

Then there is the gaslighting I have done to myself. Even a sighted person couldn’t have done this, known this, understood this, accomplished this, noticed this, fixed this. I had a sighted person check so I know it’s okay. I need a sighted opinion on this please. I wish I had a pair of eyes to verify this.

Sure, sometimes I misunderstand things, miss out on context, because my eyes don’t work. Sometimes I need someone’s vision: Did this document print okay? Is this picture what I think it is? What’s on my screen right now? Did she look upset or was she smiling when she said that?

But when I get to a place where either a sighted person was there to witness it or it didn’t happen—either a sighted person thinks what happened to me is discrimination or it doesn’t count—something is very, very wrong. And I doubt I’m the only one doing this self-defeating dance.

I should be leaning on all my friends, sighted and blind, for everyday validation, the kind many of us crave when we’ve been through something difficult. I am comforted when people join me in my anger and acknowledge my shame. What my sighted friend did for me that day, standing beside me, getting offended right along with me, was good and kind and helpful.

The wrongness lay in my intense relief that her sight, more than any of my own senses, gave me permission to feel my feelings; that I worried about confiding in too many other friends for fear they’d poke holes and imply I shouldn’t be upset; that some internet commentator would materialize to tell me I don’t get to be offended; that any of this would influence me so easily.

The fact remains that I was there. It happened to me, not a friend or coworker or random internet troll. I should be able to own my reaction and sit with it a while without guilt or undue doubt. I should be able to confide in some friends, take in their support, ignore any advice I didn’t ask for, and move the hell on with my life.

The good news is that I believe I’ve learned my lesson. This incident should have been an annoying blip, not a miniature crisis of faith in my judgment. Speaking of faith, it’s time I placed more of it in my perception, less of it in hidden, well-intentioned gaslighting, and mastered the art of sitting still with what hurts me without picking apart that hurt or trying to explain it all away.

In case my faith crisis is also your faith crisis, here are some thoughts. People will behave in ways that hurt you. Sometimes you will have witnesses; mostly, you won’t. You will have feelings about the things that harm you, like shame and embarrassment and even rage. Some people will disagree with you about those feelings and whether you should experience them at all.

Here’s the wild, subversive, beautiful bit: You don’t have to change, suppress, or deny your feelings. You get to sit with them, express them without questioning their fairness, their reasonableness, their right to exist. Then you get to let them go, and carry on living a kind and gracious life, whatever that looks like for you.

If you want to educate those who hurt you, if you want to cut them some slack or analyze their reasoning or question your reading of the situation, there will be plenty of time for that later. But the immediate aftermath of a painful thing is not for educating or reasoning or arguing on Facebook with your cousin’s hairdresser about whether it was really as bad as you claim. No, immediate aftermaths are for your anger, and your shame, and your frustration with this silly old world.

Put out your gaslight, friend. You won’t be needing it anymore.

Beautiful Things Are Happening

I remember the first time I worried I might not ever be okay.
I was fourteenish, embroiled in a toxic not-quite-relationship with an older boy who’d discovered the exquisite pleasure of exploiting my insecurities. I had burgeoning confidence in my potential; I could picture a successful, if difficult, road ahead. But secure, relatively intelligent young girls who are quite sure they’re doing all right aren’t any fun to manipulate, so he began to poke holes in my bright future.
“You really need to be more independent,” was the regular refrain, delivered with tender cruelty I was meant to mistake for tough love.
“It’s a hard world out there, dear,” and “you’ll struggle for sure,” and “good thing I’m here to help.”
I got miffed, all the time. I even pushed back some, when courage was close at hand. On some level, I understood these criticisms were as rich as turtle cheesecake coming from a person who had accomplished less in his 18 years than I had in the four years that separated us. I had a lot to learn, in the blindness skills department most of all, but I was competing at music festivals, getting excellent grades, and managing not one but two chronic conditions without much medical support. I was about as on track as any teenager I knew.
He, on the other hand, was perpetually angry, hopelessly off track, with an uncertain future and a penchant for blaming his disabilities for abusive outbursts and bouts of frightening possessiveness. If anything, I should have been the one clucking with concern, but much as I sensed the wrongness of it all, I let his doubt poison my faith. Faith is there when the odds aren’t favourable, and to be disabled in a harsh world is to live with unfavourable odds. And faith, more than skills and talents and support, has always been the engine of my success for that very reason. I’m convinced he knew that.
In my senior year of high school, that engine had all but stalled. I’d broken all contact with that toxic friend long before, and he had since died suddenly. He could no longer mail me packages I didn’t want, or threaten suicide if I didn’t play nicer, or use social media to stalk me, or email sanctimonious lectures about my tragic inability to take care of myself. But the damage was done. He had triggered a landslide of second-guessing that, helped along by myriad forces in my life, had buried me to the point where all I could do was dread everything – dread university, dread my first job, dread new cities and exciting adventures and fresh mistakes to run with. I still had so much to learn, and I was paralyzed, rather than energized, by all of it.
Depressing, amiright?
Fortunately for us all, this is a new-year-new-decade reflection post, and those have to have a happy ending and a hopeful outlook. Them’s the rules.
The past decade has presented a lot of pain and self-doubt, brought on in many cases by the doubt of others. The pressure to make something of myself—to ‘transcend’ blindness, chronic pain, mental illness, limited educational opportunities, the whole bit—sat smugly atop the self-defeating prophecy that I’d never do or be enough. What was the point in trying?
But it has also blessed me with plenty of people who had so much faith that they couldn’t conceive of me being anything other than enough, maybe more than enough. I’d make mistakes, sure, and fall flat on my face a few times given that stubborn streak running through me. Ultimately, though, I’d pick myself up and keep charging ahead, because that’s just who I am.
“Listen,” one friend said bracingly during one of my late-night fall-apart sessions, “you are going to screw things up sometimes, in the blindness department and in the general life department. You’ll put reds in with your whites and burn hell out of your dinner and at some point you’re going to get really lost in a new place, and all of that will suck.”
“Exactly!” I wailed, missing the point spectacularly.
“It’ll suck, but you’ll wake up the next day and realize that life keeps going. And you’ll discover after a while that trying stuff is messy and scary and you can’t be good at everything you touch. I was embarrassingly far into living on my own before I felt comfortable with my life skills. I survived. You’ll survive too, and then you’ll understand that when someone says ‘you’ll never make it,’ that’s not helping you. That’s not motivation. That’s not love.”
This come-to-Jesus moment came on the heels of another friend getting so sick of my constant self-flagellation that he nearly cried with sheer frustration.
“I swore to myself I wouldn’t sit here and watch you do this to yourself anymore. Seeing you beat the shit out of yourself all the time hurts me, and it’s not my idea of a good time. Cut it out.”
(Some of my friends sure knew how to bring the constructive tough love, wowsers.)
As many of you know, I did end up going to university and getting jobs and doing fine on my own. I learned most of the skills I’d need to do well in the world as a disabled person, as a writer, as a professional, as an aunt and mentor and wife. And at one of my lowest moments, total strangers would remind me that I’m not alone in my doubt and my despair, that if you’re running low on faith you can always borrow someone else’s.
This journey hasn’t been romantic, and I’m still learning to have faith in myself and ask for help when I need it. I’m still suppressing the reflex to put myself down, just so I don’t have to deal with fear and failure head on.
But here is the wonderful, indispensable lesson of the decade: now that I’ve allowed people to believe in me, now that I’ve let their faith rekindle mine, brave and beautiful things are happening.
I’m wide open to another ten years of failures, and to many more beautiful things.

The Blind Girl Who Sings

In her memoir, Hourglass, Dani Shapiro writes about a “third thing” that all married couples should have in order to live happily together long-term. The first thing is you, the second thing is your spouse, and the third thing is the external glue that unites you. It could be a common taste in music, or the process of raising your children, or a mutual love of the outdoors. Whatever it might be, you need a third thing to give your relationship shape. And, as I read about this concept, I realized that music is the “third thing” in my relationship with myself. There’s me (first thing), disability (second thing), and music (that essential third thing).

I’m a complete nobody, but while I was growing up, I had a modest musical reputation. Rural surroundings made it easier to stand out, and my family’s love of music was all the encouragement I needed. One of my earliest memories is picking out “Mary had a Little Lamb” on my grandmother’s piano, refusing offers of help with growing stubbornness. At five, I was singing publicly. By the time I left home for university at seventeen, I had sung competitively for eleven years, and was a common figure at local fundraisers, funerals, weddings, and other community events. I’d never be Idol material, perhaps, but I was dependable and versatile, occasionally bringing crowds to their feet. Sometimes, I’d even win competitions. It was enough.

Once I began studying communications and preparing for a career centred more on writing than music, I let much of my talent go dormant. I still sang to myself constantly—to the dismay of my roommates, I’m sure—and found the time to sing with friends and perform at the occasional family funeral or wedding. I had shifted gears dramatically, releasing my careful posture and letting my exceptional lung capacity deteriorate. Music seemed to have no fixed place in my new reality, and city living meant that if I’d wanted to claw my way back up to where I’d been, I’d have to fight for it. Stressed as I was by academic pressure, chronic pain, and mental health struggles, I didn’t have that fight in me. I focused on writing, sang exclusively for fun, and made noises about joining a choir someday. Two years have passed since my graduation, and serious musical pursuits are still at the bottom of my to-do list.

Though I’m occupied with other things, I miss being a singer every day. I miss it for the obvious reasons: the rush of performing for an enthusiastic crowd; the joy of learning new and challenging pieces; the grind of endless rehearsals that somehow turn into effortless beauty when you’re looking the other way. I miss dressing up and connecting with strangers and congratulating fellow musicians. It could be gruelling, but I miss it dearly.

There’s another dimension to my longing: music was my conduit to a life less defined by disability. People often thought of me as “that blind girl who sings,” it’s true, and many of them waffled on about my vocal gift being divine compensation for my undesirable eyes. Even so, while I was singing, I wasn’t thinking about cane technique or traffic patterns. When people flocked to me after a performance to tell me my voice had meant something to them, no one was dwelling excessively on my broken eyes. If someone reached out to touch me as I passed, it was out of a desire to express something more positive than “You’re going the wrong way! I must save you!” Adjudicators were mostly impartial, occasionally referencing my lack of eye contact with audiences but otherwise more interested in what I sounded like than what I looked like on stage. With a few exceptions, I was judged for my talent, hard work, and emotional expression. Nobody who watched me earn a standing ovation with “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina” was likely to label me incompetent, graceless, or pitiable. Music, especially in the minor leagues, was as close to meritocracy as I was ever going to experience, and I had no idea how valuable it was until I had to live without it.

The musically-talented blind person is a narrative with which society is comfortable and familiar. Few people questioned my right to inhabit that world. My “We’re not in Kansas anymore!” moment came in a rhetoric class, a couple of years in to my communications degree. I was unpacking my laptop, lost in thought, when a student I’d never spoken to before approached me.

“Why are you here?”

The question came with no bark on it. It wasn’t hostile, but there was a straightforwardness to it that made it shocking. Immediately, other students began to gather around, wondering how this would unfold.

“I’m in this course, so…”

“Right,” he continued, “but why are you here? In university?”

“I’m taking the Bachelor of Communication Studies program, and this class is one of the option courses.”

“I know, but blind people can’t be writers.”

It dawned on me that I didn’t have to participate in this bizarre conversation. I was being baited, or insulted, or something. Being a dedicated glutton for punishment, I responded.

“Of course we can be writers.”

“But how?”

By now, he was starting to sound genuinely curious. Receptive, even?

“Well, I use a computer, like everyone else…”

A few other students pressed closer, making disapproving noises. The student continued, sounding defensive.

“Well, I’m not up on all the technology…”

Clearly not.

Class began at that moment, interrupting one of the most unsettling conversations I’d ever had. As the instructor introduced the course outline, I realized, all at once, that I was back at square one, back to proving myself, back to basics in the worst way. Blind communications professionals made less sense to people than blind musicians, it seemed, and I had never felt more disabled. The student and I eventually became friendly, and I’ve since learned that the blunt approach I found so off-putting is simply part of his communication style, but he reminded me, whether intentionally or not, that I must always be ready, at a moment’s notice, to explain my place in the world.

The oft-repeated observation about minorities needing to work harder, shine brighter, climb higher than everyone else just to be regarded half as talented still holds true. Being disabled is a little less demoralizing when you have some talent or skill that helps you stand out for something other than your disability. If your reputation as a singer or designer or writer or chef becomes more powerful than your reputation as the weird girl with the stick, or the weird guy with the wheelchair, you’re winning. The trick is to train people to see your brilliance before they see your supposed deficiencies. Distract them with your finer points, and maybe they’ll forget about all the ways you don’t fit in.

There’s plenty of bitterness buried in this truth, but I’ve found a way to put a more encouraging spin on it. Instead of looking upon music as the only part of my life that made much sense, I choose to view it as a valuable skillset that set me up for greater success in other facets of my life. All those public performances have cured me of paralyzing stage fright. Public speaking doesn’t scare me, and thriving under pressure comes more naturally than working in slow-paced, gentle environments. Musicianship expanded my social circle, increased my confidence, and helped me shape my identity outside of the box marked “blind.” I may have been the “blind girl who sang” to most of my community, but that’s still better than simply being “the blind girl.” Now, I can be “the blind girl who writes,” or “the blind girl who edits,” or, you know, “another disabled human trying to live her life.” I’m happy enough in all of those boxes.

I hope every disabled child has the opportunity to find their third thing. Maybe, like me, they’ll discover fourth and fifth and sixth things, just to keep life interesting. These days, writing and editing have become almost as essential to my identity as music.

Discover that third thing. Give your relationship with yourself shape and definition. Allow others to see past the cane, or dog, or walker, or their own perceptions. Do it for yourself, primarily, and watch as other people begin to notice you in ways far more pleasant than “Hey! There’s that disabled person I always see at the bus stop!” Perhaps you’ll master that third thing to the point of renown, or perhaps you’ll choose to embrace it quietly. You do you.

Wherever your journey takes you, find your third thing, and be seen.

Letting Go Of Normal

Don’t talk about disability. Don’t write about your blindness. Don’t mention anything that makes you different. Feel ashamed of your cane. Never disclose. Blend in. Hide.
Not so long ago, I lived by these rules, and most troublingly, they were of my own making. I’d endured my fair share of awkward stares and been asked to conceal my cane in photographs, but on the whole, I was not discouraged when it came to simply being me. I was blessed with a relatively accepting community that understood blindness was a part of me (but not the only part), and never required me to pretend otherwise.
Yet, I felt an overwhelming desire to “be like everyone else.” I suppose most young people seek a sense of belonging, but this ran much more deeply than a youthful herd mentality. I was always a bit of a loner, so wasn’t as influenced by popularity contests as my peers.
Instead, I pursued a much less attainable goal: I wanted total erasure of my disability. Seeming “too blind” was a mark of failure. I’m not entirely sure where it came from, but a persistent sense of shame dogged me everywhere, and while I tried to combat it at different points and never resorted to refusing to use a cane, I fought my essential differentness just as fiercely. It didn’t show much, because on some level I knew it was foolish, but I carried a lot of internalized guilt and unhappiness, and the voices in my head told me to erase any traces of perceived inadequacy, which included blindness.
The way I saw it, disability was nothing but a stumbling block. If I was sighted, my life would be ever so much more fulfilling. (I’ve grown a whole lot in the last five years. It’s really rather astonishing.) I fervently believed that disability stood in the way of everything I lacked: a job, a boyfriend, general acceptance, and the right to be “normal.” Blindness certainly interfered with these goals, but assigning sole blame to my broken eyes was far more disabling than acknowledging there might be other factors at play.
When I was introduced to other disabled people who were content with themselves, the problem worsened. I was resistant at first. Why is everyone yelling about disability? Shouldn’t we be stressing how normal we are? Why aren’t we working harder to blend in?
My refusal to be identified with my disability began to permeate my writing, my self-image, even my relationships. I resented it when I needed help, and avoided writing about disability, even when encouraged to do so. I went on and on about how I wasn’t “like other blind people.” No no, I was much more committed to assimilation, and far more aware of my place in the sighted world. All these people placing disability at the forefront of their lives had it all wrong. The key to a better life for us all is to be more like able people! Why don’t they realize this? Why?!
I eventually had to come face to face with an uncomfortable truth: disability is not the only or most important part of my identity, but it matters, and it deserves to be acknowledged. Further, I was forced to admit that pretending my disability didn’t exist, and only referring to it in a self-deprecating, apologetic way wasn’t helping anyone, least of all fellow disabled people. The path to equality did not lie in erasure, but in acceptance. How could others accept us if we did not accept ourselves? How could others understand us if we didn’t open up? Why did it feel so wrong to express myself in the context of a disability I live with each day?
Of course, I still feel squirmy when my blindness is brought up in unrelated discussions. I dislike talking about it in job interviews, at the doctor’s office, in cabs, on the bus, on a street corner. I grow weary of proving that I’m more than my blindness, and that my disability doesn’t hamper other forms of self-expression.
On the other hand, I now feel at ease with bristling when someone suggests I put my cane out of sight. I make blind jokes with joyful humour rather than with shame disguised as mirth. Asking for help is still difficult, but I take it in stride rather than cringing with embarrassment. I speak up. I stand up. I don’t hide anymore.
No, blindness will never be the chief focus of my life, even though I consider myself a disability advocate. I’ll always frame my identity in a much more complex way than as “blind girl.” I am a blind girl, yes, but I’m also a writer, and a communications specialist, and a friend, and a lover, and a daughter, and a sister, and a musician, and a bookworm, and, as my Twitter bio reveals, a fierce defender of the Oxford comma.
All this being said, I hope I will never again believe that the best way forward involves concealment and shame and the quest to disappear completely. I’ve found that, in my own life at least, asserting my humanity is best accomplished by embracing my differences rather than shunning them. The world is far more diverse than many would think, and I’m merely a part of that glorious tapestry of diversity. I don’t have to be proud of my disability, or view it as a superpower, or “embrace” it. No one has to do anything in particular; isn’t that the whole point of our advocacy, in the end? Aren’t we all just focused on giving everyone equal choice and license to express themselves however they wish?
So, talk about disability, as often and as loudly as you want (or don’t, that’s okay, too). Write about your disability. Mention anything that seems relevant, even and especially if it makes you different. Never feel ashamed of your cane or service dog or wheelchair, or any other symbol of your disability. Disclose, if you think it’s wise. Don’t blend in unless you really want to. Most of all, never hide. Whether you live in the spotlight or in the most ordinary of circumstances, never hide.