Learn to Laugh

Freud categorized certain common coping strategies as “defense mechanisms.”  Most people are familiar with at least a few of them – repression, denial, regression and rationalization. Later, scholars broke them down into hierarchical categorizations.

Believe it or not, humor, where an uncomfortable or unpleasant internal reaction is transformed into a more enjoyable emotion, is considered one of the “higher-order” defense mechanisms.

Since high school, I’ve known my tendency to seek the humor in the things that happen to me was a way of coping with the inherent discomfort.  A couple of weks ago, a line from a song reminded me of this:


It’s only funny ‘cause I learned to laugh.


How many of us, with what degree of frequency, teach ourselves to laugh instead of cry? Another musician’s words come to mind:


You have to laugh at yourself, because you’d cry your eyes out if you didn’t.


I worry about how people with disabilities handle the ongoing, daily discrimination and oppression they face. I’ve watched many people become increasingly bitter and then be rejected more because of that bitterness.  I’ve noticed others become comedians, poking fun at themsellves before another can do it.  (This is often hard to discern from those who use humor as a means to dispel others’ discomfort.)  Sometimes the humor turns dark, as if the bitter and the funny were shaken well, then poured.  As I think back, I know my own use of comedy has evolved, from protective to bitter to something cleansing.

No matter how we have each learned to cope, our coping sprang from a need to handle constant emotional assaults from the outside world.  Yet, our world praises the disabled comedian and shuns the bitter one.

I’m not going to suddenly give up my tendency to find the funny, but I am beginning to wonder if bitterness is, in fact, a more honest reaction.  How people with disabilities are treated is painful.  Transforming that hurt into humor is far more enjoyable for everyone involved, but is it as honest as bitter?


The following was posted as my contribution to  Blogging Against Disablism Day 2016 

Beyond What’s Comfortable

In all the promo emails of a band I like, they talk about giving to others beyond what is easy or comfortable. Reading between the lines, I think the idea is that giving to others when it is not much effort is a superficial gesture that while helpful to the person receiving your largess, does not come from the core of you. To connect with your core – to give in a way that moves beyond yourself to put the focus on another person,– is really what it is all about. Besides, giving to others shouldn’t involve you and your ego, instead it should be about the person and their needs.

Whenever I’ve read one of their brief references to this life philosophy, I’ve thought, “That. It’s about that.” Until five minutes ago, I hadn’t gone past that reaction to think about why the sentiment speaks to me on an instinctive level while not being a universal no-brainer to the rest of the population.

I think it’s about the nature of my life and the choices I make each day. Long ago, probably before I understood the concepts, my decisions about what to do and what not to do stopped relating to the ideas of easy and difficult. For someone with a physical disability, tasks can be harder than for the non-disabled people surrounding them. Quickly you realize that if you want to be a part of the world, you need to not let tough be a deciding factor. Rather, it needs to be about want, need, can and cannot. If I want to do it and I’m capable of it, then I do it. On the other hand, if I want to do it and no effort in the world will make it possible (i.e., a blind person becoming a neurosurgeon), then I need to rethink things.

My life is full of choices about desire and possibility not ease and comfort. It is no wonder that when it comes to giving to others, I instinctively don’t think in terms of effort and ease. I make decisions about aiding others based on their need, my ability, and my desire to help, largely based on how much I care about the person. And based on what these musicians are saying, this might be where I fall short.

Should helping be limited by how much you care? When I think about it with me as the helper, I see reasons to answer yes. Cast in the role of helpee, I have reasons to support the opposite perspective.

I like to think making helping decisions based on the amount I care is about allocating resources. I’m one person with limited energy and should probably distribute that resource with care. However, careful conservancy of energy is not dictated by caring. I’ve simply used that as an easy, convenient way to make choices. Possibly I need to move beyond using the easy benchmark of caring to other more selfless factors?

Far clearer are the variables when I am cast into role of helpee. Of course total strangers should help me if they can. Time, effort, convenience and caring shouldn’t limit others. I need help (damnit), so help me. And, yes, on some level I’m that ridiculous. I suspect anyone would be if they were standing on a street corner, confronting crossing a highway off-ramp, and pretty certain of becoming road pizza if they step off the curb.

The challenge in modern society is to find a way to navigate seeing many people in need while working with limited resources.  Our decisions should be less about ourselves and more about the one we would aid.  From what I can tell, many are challenged by having to look beyond their own ease and discomfort.  Once you move past those factors, others — like allocation of resources and decisions about who — are the new hurdle.  It isn’t like once you stop thinking about comfort and ease the situation is magically clear.  It just becomes about other factors that equally call upon us to dig deep and walk a path that requires us to care about those we don’t even know.

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.


Eye Contact

You walk into a coffee shop planning to be a total hermit behind your book while you enjoy a beverage. You see a blind friend hanging out with someone else. In such circumstances with a sighted person, you would probably make eye contact, smile and move on. However, that’s not possible in this situation. What do you do?

I can tell you what to NOT do under any circumstances. Say nothing at the time and then later tell the blind person you saw them. It’s creepy. And somehow demeaning. Oh, yeah, and it seemingly feels worse when you are female.

The better move is this: Walk past the table – not over, but past – and say, “Hey, it’s <name>. I’m just passing through.” Done. The reason, by the way, for the “walking past” part is that it provides the element of casual eye contact as opposed to a desire to engage in extensive social interaction.

People seem hesitant to offer a verbal greeting for fear that they will get sucked into a conversation. While that risk does exist along with the possibility of awkwardness, those should not be obstacles to doing the right thing. By approach, you can minimize the risk.

And, did I mention, it is otherwise creepy and somehow demeaning?


…It’s good for the soul, right?

Recently every time I turned around, there seemed to be a person with a cognitive disability. Whether passing on a sidewalk, riding on the same bus or the person helping me in the store, there they were. Everywhere. Over and over.

I am noticeably uncomfortable around people with cognitive disabilities. I never know what to say, do or think. Though not my finest trait, is my own discomfort a parallel experience able to teach me something about TABs?

A useful distinction can be made between my feelings and actions. My unease comes from a complete inability to figure out the person in question. I have absolutely no way of knowing the nature of their disability let alone their functional limitations. This means I don’t know if I should use simple language, speak slowly, ask questions to confirm understanding, repeat myself, or….. You get the idea. I don’t know how to relate and that feeling leads to my get-me-out-of-here impulse.

And, okay, I also have internalized a belief about people with cognitive disabilities behaving unpredictably. It’s not that I would be hurt out of malice or intent. Rather, they might do something that would be fine if I could see but disastrous since I cannot. That increases my unease.

And my actions? I take a deep breath, set my feelings aside and treat the person LIKE what they are — A PERSON. My only unusual behaviors involve word choice and meaningful eye contact. (Believe it or not, you can do meaningful eye contact without working eyes. I can’t explain how, but I’ve recently realized I can instinctively do it.) While I probably don’t manage to entirely hide my feelings, I do my best to minimize them.

Why? I know my reactions are based on stereotypes, misconceptions and ignorance. That is really the only thing distinguishing me from a non-disabled person who behaves sub-optimally around me. I recognize my feelings are not fair, reasonable or appropriate and take steps to remove them from my decision-making about behavior.

I think my point bears repeating in a slightly different way. How you feel does not need to be how you act.

My own vast experience around issues of disability makes it possible for me to understand my own internal reactions. Because most non-disabled people lack such a background, they don’t have a framework to guide them. Can they be given one?

While the bottom line about changing non-disabled people’s attitudes and actions around disability comes down to education and exposure, perhaps the message needs to be different. If my primary motivation starts with a desire to treat the person before me like a person, then maybe non-disabled people need to first be made to recognize our shared humanity. That lesson must simultaneously come with the message that they probably possess little to no accurate information about disability.

Unfortunately, when people feel ignorant, they tend to avoid the situation. I’m not sure how to convey shared humanity, ignorance and a necessity to not run away all at once.