PTSD. Again.

In mid November 2013, I stopped writing in this blog. I had another traumatizing experience during a medical procedure and was unable to function normally let alone write anything that touched upon emotions. Coming back to this blog was prompted by a need to learn how to use WordPress on my iPad for the Braille Institute class. Then Braille Institute decided to establish a name badge policy and outrage worked as an awesome motivator.

Now it is time to write about what happened. As you read my recollections, please keep in mind that trauma is often stored in our brains not as narrative memory but as snapshots leading to disjointed recall.

I woke up from a trachea stretch with a tube keeping me from speaking and unable to move properly. There was a lot of chaos around me with people saying thins like, “Jen, squeeze my hand.” Nobody said things like, “Jen, I’m <insert name> and I’m going to do this.” Nobody appeared to be focused on keeping me informed of events or trying to establish a line of communication.

The tube came out quickly. The inability to move properly resolved itself. The damage was already done in the moment when I came to consciousness and couldn’t move, speak or understand what was happening, isolated in a scene of chaos. More trauma came as I learned that the situation might have been avoidable if better choices had been made by some of the clinicians involved.

Upon arriving home, I knew I would have some sort of reaction to my experience, but I wasn’t quite sure what. It took about twenty-four hours before the first signs became obvious. I walked across my kitchen and set the toaster oven tray in the sink. Then I crumpled to the ground in a ball and sobbed. There was literally absolutely no immediate cause for the tears. They just happened.

The uncontrollable sobbing became my life with tears unpredictably surfacing one to three times a day. I could be reading a book or chatting on the phone or sitting in a meeting and tears happened sort of like a sneeze – there are things you know will cause it, ways to possibly delay it, but sooner or later, it bursts forth.

Eventually I learned those delaying tactics, making being out in public somewhat more possible. Sometimes I was even able to identify what caused the tears and what emotions I was feeling. Once in a while it was even related to immediate events and not past trauma.

There is something unique about re-traumatization – having experienced trauma, developed PTSD and been successfully treated only to endure a situation similar enough to be the equivalent. then you are coping with PTSD from the recent trauma along with PTSD from your history of similar trauma. In some ways it is like light reflected between a multitude of mirrors so that the intensity of light is greater than any component part. It’s wildly exponential math. It’s emotion magnified, refracted, blenderized and placed in a pressure cooker with a faulty valve.

My entire life ground to a screeching halt. I gave up any notion of doing anything more than going to therapy, walking the dog and making sure we both ate and slept. I did things requiring use of my hands – sewing, baking, knitting – to fill my mind with something because it left less space for trauma. I didn’t visit my family for the holidays. I only talked to people who didn’t make me more upset. I kept asking for topics of conversation to be dropped before I lost it. Again.

Time passed and I was able to control enough of what was happening to begin tentatively living. Then, I knew another trachea stretch was on the immediate horizon because that’s how my stenosis works.

Part of my PTSD symptomology is that I cave in front of anyone I see as an authority figure or more of an expert in a field. Talking to doctors was harder than… crossing an eight-lane highway without a cane, dog or even audible traffic signals. I did it badly. I somehow got through it.

This time, the procedure went smoothly. With a positive experience the most recent in my memory, my life has settled down. I have been able to resume my regularly scheduled existence, just with way more therapy and a conscious commitment to real down time.

Here’s the interesting part. I’m being put back together in better shape than I was before November 15, 2013. I’m not doing it consciously, but I see things happening inside myself that I know will lead to a stronger me. I’m still having trouble wrapping my head around that.

 

An Inconvenient Truth

  • Social isolation has been a blight plaguing me for a long time. Ten years ago, when I first began attempting to eradicate it, I acted as if I was the cause. Obviously, I was behaving in a socially abhorrent manner to the point that people actively avoided my company.

Informed by the feedback of others and anything pop psychology had to say, I began rehabilitating my personality and behaviors. “Maybe you talk too much.” “You should have a list of possible topics to discuss.” “Are you showing interest in other people?” “It is your job to put others at ease.” “You need to be understanding of other’s ignorance, educate them and then be patient.” “You need to try harder.” Everything I tried failed and I thought this meant I had failed.

Nobody likes to see themselves as a failure, so I searched for another explanation and began considering how chronic illness limited my outside activities. Without a job and active lifestyle, I was not encountering The Magic Number of People required to find close friends. Armed with this explanation, I got creative about using my energy and became more active in the world beyond my doorstep.

Guess what? Stepping outside did not launch me into a crowd of close friends. Because I kept hearing that doing what you loved would bring people like you into your sphere and be transformative, I modified my approach. Still wasn’t surrounded by a circle of intimates.

I went back to the hypothesis that chronic illness was simply too limiting and added to it. Perhaps blindness’s impact on social interactions, making eye contact, facial expression and nonverbal communication impossible, was severely limiting my ability to connect with others. Concluding the situation was beyond a mere mortal’s control, I gave up.

With nothing better to do, I began working on building my skill set by volunteering and joining a blind group. Now busier than ever, I still cannot find intimate connections, so maybe it isn’t my chronic illness’s limitations? Immersed in a community equally unable to engage in nonverbal communication, I did not suddenly sprout intimate connections, so maybe it isn’t blindness’s fault? Eighteen months of psychotherapy and the only consequence is a therapist who enjoys my company to the point that I had to ask him to enjoy me less and treat me more, so maybe I don’t have a huge personality flaw?

Here is the inconvenient truth that everyone on the planet seems to wish to avoid admitting: Disability makes non-disabled people uncomfortable and there is not a damned thing the person with the disability can do about it. Yes, as a society, we have made great strides in accepting physical difference, but we have not reached the point where having a disability is to simply possess another form of human variation. Eventually, we will arrive at the place I dream about, but not next month or next year. This type of fundamental change moves slower than glaciers and all I can do is my part to keep the process headed in a good direction.

You know what would really help? People not pretending we live in enlightened times where my disability isn’t leading to social isolation. The creative delusions that it is somehow my failing and thus my problem to fix is not only untrue but actively damaging to me and more importantly millions of others. I’m not asking anyone to become my new best friend, but could you at least stop believing this is about me? It’s about all of us.

 

This year I again proudly participate in Blogging Against Disablism Day 2014. For more information, please go to:

fhttp://tinyurl.com/BADday201Blogging Against Disablism Day 2014

Pride with a Side of Alienation

Last July, I attended a Pride rally which flooded me with a wonderful sense of community, while simultaneously left me feeling alienated. When it comes to things like rallies, I often experience this same mix. Attending to enjoy the sense of community and common purpose, I tried to soak up the vibe only to ingest a nice dose of “But You Don’t Count” along the way.

I know the event was a rally about LGBT pride, focusing on issues that impact the non-heterosexual population and meant to highlight our bonds of community and common purpose. If everyone had stuck to LGBT issues exclusively, I might have not felt like “other.” However, from issues of racial equality to immigration, border security to employment rights, many speakers addressed other “liberal” causes. Lists of marginalized groups who we should stand with in their fight for equality were mentioned. Not once did disability pass the lips of any speaker. Not once.

As I sat in the “ASL” seats – because apparently only Deaf people need accessible seating – I listened to one man talk about LGBT youth. He rattled off one statistic about how many LGBT young people report hearing negative messages about their identity from the mouths of public officials. Suddenly, it dawned upon me. We think of negative messages as damaging. How harmful, though, is that which is left out entirely?

When George Takei asked us all to stand, face the flag and recite The Pledge of Allegiance with him, I had no idea where to look. As Norma Chavez-Peterson of the American Civil Liberties Union asked for us to join in the fight to help all oppressed people, those with disabilities were left off her list. A universal message of love and social justice permeated each speech I heard, yet not one person managed to identify people with disabilities as one class of individuals needing support in their fight for equality.

What message does that absence send? To me, it says that I am not thought of when issues of social justice are considered. My marginalized group is not one deserving of the same help and solidarity. I don’t matter enough to be included.

The ways people with disabilities are divergent from other marginalized groups is often the reason given for why we are not included in the list of social justice causes. We need special things that cost money, we are unable to do stuff and you can point to some substantive difference engendering more negativity than skin color or gender preference. Our difference is not viewed as diversity, making us separate from other social justice causes. And, as we all know from school integration, separate is inherently unequal.

So, as I tried to connect with my LGBT community, I had to stop thinking about my identity as a person with a disability. I could either be a member of the group being celebrated or a member of a group not thought worthy of mentioning. Very healthy for my self-esteem.

At least there is an honesty in all this. Should someone have thought to include people with disabilities, it probably would have been in word but not deed. So, for the lack of hypocrisy, I am grateful.

What He Said

I could not have put this better myself if I tried for a week.

http://www.planet-of-the-blind.com/2014/03/the-able-bodied-blues.html

Who?

Pop quiz time everyone. Sharpen those pencils – or maybe in this day and age it’s create a new note on your phone – and get ready to answer a few simple questions.
1. If you needed a ride home from the emergency room, who would you call?
2. You need to move a piece of furniture that’s too heavy for you alone. Who can you ask?
3. It’s Thanksgiving and you aren’t cooking for anyone. Who will include you in their celebration?
4. You are sick with the MartianDeathFlu. Who will offer to come over and make you something to eat?
5. Who will go out of their way to come give you a hug on a bad day?
Now, on your list, please remove anyone in your family or that you are dating. Take off coworkers as well. Who does that leave you with?
One of the consistent problems plaguing my life is a lack of someone to help and support me. Whether the pragmatic or the more intangible of emotional support, I seem to routinely have no answers to the above questions.
For example, last time I needed to move my couch, I had to open the sofa bed up, pull out the mattress, put the frame back together, move the couch and then reassemble everything. Yes, it worked. No, it wasn’t any fun at all. I suspect the dog was plotting how to have me assessed for insanity.
Why, though, did I ask you to remove family, significant others and coworkers from your answers?
Many people with disabilities have complicated, difficult relationships with their families and are not close in the way necessary to receive ongoing support. While they might need the love and support relatives can give, the mere fact of dependency frames the entire situation in parent-child terms for that is the model we all know – the person needing care is the child and the person offering is the parent. Even when it comes to elderly family members, the relationship between those individuals and their children is often discussed in terms of the parent “becoming” the child. We don’t have a language or paradigm that allows for needing another family member in an ongoing, dependency based way that does not reflect an adult child relationship. and who wants to be a grown up having to accept the limitations of childhood in order to get their needs met?
People with disabilities are often more socially isolated than their TAB counterparts, find dating to be more challenging and more frequently are single as opposed to part of a romantic relationship. This means we are less likely to have significant others or spouses to lend a helping hand.
With the unemployment rate of people with disabilities at something between 60 and 75%, coworkers are often not a part of our personal landscape either.
This leaves us with our friends to turn to in times of need. In our twenties and early thirties, when many people live more care-free lives, reliance upon friends works great. They need you. You need them. Everyone gets their needs met. It’s not perfect, but things tend to work out most of the time.
Then TABs begin to pair off, acquire mortgages and kids and car payments and friends become the parents of your kid’s friends, people you share a meal or glass of wine with and those you keep tabs on via Facebook. Meanwhile people with disabilities have often not shifted to these life “milestones” and still need the friendships that sustained us in our twenties. We haven’t been able to replace those relationships with others and this creates a big void that often becomes evident logistically yet probably impacts the individual most on an emotional level. After all, you can go through an insane process to move your ridiculously heavy couch, but who will come give you that hug?

The Cost of Safety?

I signed up for a free class at my local Braille Institute (BI) and received a letter informing me of a new policy.  I will be required to wear a print name badge with colored lanyard – green for student, blue for staff and red for volunteer.  I loath and typically refuse to use name tags in any form because they grant sighted people a social advantage.  I was indignant that an organization serving blind and visually impaired individuals would require me to do this detestable thing.  Of course I marched into an administrative office and expressed my discontent which began what I hope is a dialogue leading to policy change.

BI has reasonable concerns about security heightened by the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School.  They want a means to identify who is allowed on campus versus who might be unauthorized in order to prevent tragedy.  Additionally, there are concerns about identifying people in a disaster situation.  By displaying name and status, they can know who should be present which will keep everyone safe.

Another reason given involved promoting social interaction by allowing names to be known.  In fact, some students have been asking for name tags.  (An excellent example of how people with the same disability can have drastically different preferences.)

Indeed, name tags are a great social lubricant.  Aside from the pragmatic benefits to name recall, people can also address each other by name, granting an essence of friendliness and familiarity to conversations.  Not being able to read name tags denies someone all this social ease.

Blind people are already at a social disadvantage because of society’s eye contact and body language heavy communication patterns.  Heaping more disadvantage onto that is suboptimal and unnecessary.  Though we might not be able to make our culture suddenly cease utilizing visual communication, we can at least not bless sighted people with more social advantage while compounding the amount of social disadvantage blind people shoulder.

Furthermore, because a blind person is forced to repeatedly ask for names, their difference is emphasized in a way that highlights an inability.  It becomes yet one more thing I cannot do that I must broadcast each time I ask for a name. Even in a blind and visually impaired population, a division will still be demarcated between those who can see enough to read the name tags and those of us who cannot.  Advantage for some, disadvantage for others.

Some argue that even if I cannot read other’s name tags, their ability to read mine allows them to overcome communication barriers by giving them a name by which to gain my attention.  Unfortunately, when I have capitulated to the demand of labeling myself, I have noticed no increased social engagement.  And I use the word “label” specifically because putting on that piece of paper doesn’t just give my name, it makes my disability larger than it already looms.

This leads to my second objection – color coding people into the categories of staff, volunteer and student.  In and of itself, color coding can be highly useful as evidence by sports teams, hospital I.D. bracelets and summer camps the world over.  We do not, however, put all the kids in need of special reading help in red shirts, require anyone over age 55 to wear a silver armband or demand people with a specific disability wear a sign.

It is an unavoidable truth that in this situation denoting student status inevitably and accurately indicates disability status.  Because people with disabilities are a protected class known to experience discrimination and violence solely based upon that status, we should not be literally marked as such.

Furthermore, in terms of safety, anyone labeled blind by color or the word student becomes that much more vulnerable.  Who better to victimize than a person you know will have trouble seeing you?  Thus, marking me as a student clearly identifies me as the ideal target.

I understand and support the idea of having a means to know who should and should not be on BI’s premises.  I also recognize the unfortunate necessity for people to carry some sort of I.D. in case of medical emergency or body identification.  I believe there are means to address these concerns without utilizing problematic tools.  Insisting all students carry identification is a place to start.  Having badges with our pictures allows face and photo to be matched which is far less able to be forged than a  simple name.  An I.D. number would help in case of emergency.  A print name could be included if the student requests it.

As for color coding and other means of indicating student status?  There is no methodology that would allow for it because student equals person with a visual impairment.  Besides, what security goals are met by sorting people into the three groups?

Others have voiced additional concerns related to this policy.  Campus vulnerabilities exist that will not be addressed, including no means to detect dangerous items on someone’s person, lack of techniques to minimize congregation of students as they are loading and unloading busses and any means for a blind student to know who should and should not be on campus.  Even lanyards represent a safety risk because they can be caught or grabbed tightening around someone’s neck.

Before turning to safety procedures that create social barriers, highlight difference in a negative way and clearly mark a protected class of individuals, I urge BI’s decision makers to look outside the typical security toolbox to solutions that meet the needs of the unique population they serve.  I appreciate being kept safe, but please don’t force me to pay these avoidable costs for that security.

Nothing About Me Without Knowing Me

There’s a phrase – “Nothing about me without me” – that is used frequently in the disability rights movement. It is a means to combat the tendency in the “helping” professions to proclaim what is “best” for a person with a disability, while those making the choices are not disabled and have not found out the wishes of the disabled person. In other words, any decision about a person with a disability should, um, involve that person. It might seem very basic, but you would be surprised.

Parents of an adult with Down’s Syndrome speak with social service types about their child’s future, setting up such arrangements as what group home that adult will live in. Nobody asks the adult if they want to live with only members of the same gender or what neighborhood they might prefer. Legislators are writing new laws about how at-home assistance will work for people with disabilities, but there is not one disabled person involved in the process. My local public transit authority is making some drastic changes to routes, and while people with disabilities will be impacted by the alterations, they haven’t as of yet actually sought or even been open to the input of blind people.

The good news is that “Nothing about me without me” has made a lot of progress over the years.

With all this in mind, I was thinking about how people make judgments about me and my life without actually knowing me. They see blind person and think things like “Her life must be hard,” “She must not be able to enjoy TV,” or “She can’t possibly do X.” This, as you all know, drives me nuts.

When, through another’s words or actions, I encounter this directly, I can address the misconception the person has created. It would be even better if I could derail the process before it comes to that point.

Can the phrase “Nothing about me without knowing me” become popular? I want to know if just hearing that phrase makes sense to people.

What’s the Opposite of Pity?

I’ve been reading about race relations in 1962 Atlanta, Georgia, and repeatedly hatred has been the focus.  In fact, when it comes to issues of diversity based on race, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, ethnicity and religion, hatred is one of the dominant emotions.  (When the prejudice manifests itself in an act, we call it a “hate crime.”)  The way bigotry toward these marginalized groups is combated involves fostering states opposite to hatred, such as kindness, compassion and understanding.

On the other hand, hatred is not an emotion I associate with the prejudice I experience as a person with a disability.  Pity is the primary culprit and unlike hatred, it does not have opposites that come to mind which can be promoted within the hearts of people without disabilities.

To make sure we are all on the same page, let’s open a dictionary.  Pity is defined as “sympathetic or kindly sorrow evoked by the suffering, distress, or misfortune of another, often leading one to give relief or aid or to show mercy.”  Among its synonyms are words like compassion and commiseration.  While perhaps not a pleasant emotional state, pity is not, unlike hatred, given the stamp of social sanction.  An act springing from pity is considered an act of mercy, making it very hard to quash.

Looking at the antonyms of pity, we discover three broad categories.  There are the good words, the bad words and the neutral ones.  Opposites to pity with a negative bent are cruelty, harshness, hatred, meanness, mercilessness, disfavor, malevolence, unkindness, and disdain.  Slightly more palatable are disinterest and detachment.  The positives are cheer, happiness, joy, advantage, blessing, and good fortune.

Think about this for a moment: To combat racism and sexism, we encourage states opposite to hatred.  In the case of disablism, to promote the opposite of pity would either involve fostering something like cruelty or hatred, working toward indifference, or trying to somehow convince people that disability is good fortune.  That is a lousy, impossible set of options.

It’s far clearer to say, “Don’t hate someone.  Feel compassion, kindness and love,” than to say, “Don’t pity someone.  Feel…”  What?  Indifference? Cruelty?  I suppose “joy” isn’t a bad idea, except I can’t conceive of how you get a nondisabled person to go from viewing disability as negative to not simply tolerable but joyful?!

Dissecting all these linguistics has given me some new insight into why disablism is so intractable.  In a world where pity is a virtue, how do you eliminate it?  When its opposites range from the good to the bad, what ultimately becomes your goal?  When even the positive states are going to be impossible to sell, in the end what do you have left?

Someone suggested to me that the opposite of pity is confidence.  “I don’t pity you.  I believe in you.”  Faith in my ability as a person with a disability to do what needs to be done is definitely more of a place to start than I had before the suggestion was made.  I’m still not certain, though,  how you get people from the condoned “You poor thing” to the place where they view disability as something other than tragedy.

I Quit

I’ve decided to stop being bisexual. I am neither relinquishing my attraction to more than one gender nor am I going to cease mentioning that I am bi when it is relevant. I’m merely done trying to be a member of the bisexual community.

The reason is simple: I won’t be the kind of disabled person necessary for inclusion. I am no longer willing to follow these rules:

A. Do not talk about my disability.

B. Do not discuss my disability-related needs.

C. Smile and be grateful for any bit of attention “lavished” upon me.

D. Embrace or tolerate the “Let me help you, poor thing” attitude that comes with any aid.

E. Allocate my disability-related needs to the realm of wants subject to the “whims” of people’s “kind” hearts.

F. Let prejudice behavior and policies exist without naming them as such.

So, today as the bisexual community comes together to celebrate and raise its visibility, I am taking a giant step away from that community until I can be both disabled and bisexual at the same time.

I have not made this decision lightly or in haste for it is only after years of working as a leader in my local bisexual community that I have come to this crossroad. The last three months, as I’ve taken time from that leadership to focus on health issues, I have watched as any acknowledgment of disability vanishes from the activities of the local bisexual community

Then, too, there is the behavior of the bisexual community on the larger national scene. My comments on accessible practices have been snubbed. Requests that people think about accessible formats are not acted upon. Disability might as well be a planet in another galaxy given the amount of attention it receives.

Finally, there are the individuals that compose the bisexual community. I am the eight-year-old child at an all grownup party that never conceived of a child being present. While this is not substantively different from how I am treated in heterosexual social situations, I would have expected more from a collection of people who routinely experience social isolation and discrimination.

Today, more than nineteen years since I left my closet, I am not exactly returning to that enclosed space. I’m leaving the bisexual building and only going back for brief visits when my bi friends invite me. Maybe the whole “Be polite to guests” principle will apply.

[If you are left thinking, “Wow, she’s angry,” then go read the previous entry for my perspective on anger.]

Beyond Anger’s Reputation

Anger has a bad reputation. It is associated with such negative emotions as hate, jealousy, ridicule and disgust. It has been linked to outbursts of shouting, abuse, violence, rape and destruction. Anger is associated with ulcers, high blood pressure, and heart attack. It has no redemptive value whatsoever.

I’ve been struggling with this assumption of anger as a negative emotion. While it can lead to less healthy and helpful feelings, is getting angry entirely bad? Anger might sometimes lead to bad behavior, but is that always the case?

When TABs do something ridiculous, I feel angry. Talking about the event later, even when I use humor, my anger is apparent to many. Based on anger’s bad reputation, my response to suboptimal TAB behavior has been called into question. “Jen, you are so angry. Why is that? It can’t be good.”

Oh, really? Can’t it?

I live in a world where my value is underestimated and who I am as a person completely misconstrued on a routine basis. I am subjected to a lot of actions I dislike. Furthermore, my life is shaped by these attitudes and assumptions. (If nobody sees me as datable, then bottom line is lack of sex. I’m pissed about that.)

There is an awesome quote by Krishnamurti: “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.” In other words, getting angry at a world that sees disability as ours does is not a bad thing. Getting angry at sexism, racism or homophobia is not a negative state. It is healthy to perceive societal sickness and have a negative response to it.

What is not alright is to be eaten up by the anger so that you become an angry person. It is equally undesirable for the anger to lead to health problems. Finally, if anger fuels bad behavior, it is not a good outcome. The question then becomes whether or not the anger is healthful or harmful.

My anger about society’s attitudes and behavior surrounding disability feels like a clear, cleansing presence. A person does something ignorant and on my good days, I become filled with a bright light. It burns away all the potential negative beliefs I’d otherwise internalize.

To me, the “bad” response to TAB ignorance is to think the world is right. That leaves me feeling worthless, small and useless. It feeds depression, low self-esteem and a sense of pointlessness because if they are right that I am less, what is the point of life? Sucking up resources when you give nothing positive back in return seems wrong to me.

Anger, though, clears out the emotional dark. Moreover, it fuels my desire to change the world. Anger is what makes me educate those I encounter with suboptimal beliefs. Anger keeps me trying even when it’s the fourth time in twenty-four hours that I’ve been treated like I’m three. Anger keeps me writing and talking and explaining and trying to change the world.

My passion –the thing I want to achieve above all other things in my life – is altering how society views disability. Anger keeps me trying to do this. It is motivation and feeds my hope that change will come. It doesn’t weigh me down. It lifts me up.

I can understand viewing anger negatively when the impact on the individual is harmful. How, though, is my anger doing me or the world around me harm?

A fire can burn. A fire can be a warm, comforting presence. Who is to say anger isn’t the same?