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?

The Ring Theory

A while back, I came across a piece by Susan Silk and Barry Goldman that talks about how to behave in relation to another’s trauma. 

http://touch.latimes.com/#section/-1/article/p2p-75241622/

 

Think about personal trauma like this: You drop a rock into a lake and that stone is the ordeal landing on the head of the person experiencing it.  The ripples move outward, water closer to the impact point rippling more significantly than water a foot away. 

 

Now apply this to personal trauma.  The closer to ground zero, the more a person is affected by the trauma.  A significant other would be close to the center whereas a next door neighbor would be further away.  In this way, you can gauge the degree to which any given situation is impacting others and place yourself within that structure. 

 

The rule is to not complain or otherwise vent your feelings about the situation on anyone closer to the trauma than you.  Instead, dump your feelings about the situation on someone even less affected than you.  To those closer to the center, give love and comfort and support. 

 

And the person in the center whose trauma it is? They get to do and say and feel and be whatever they want.  That is the benefit of being at Ground zero – nobody complains to you, gives advice, judges your behavior or otherwise sends negativity inward toward you. 

 

Obviously there are limits to this, like how long the person experiencing trauma is at the focal point.  Life moves on, people adjust and eventually things shift.  If your beloved cat dies of old age, you probably aren’t at the center of things as long as you might be if your beloved cat was hit by a car at age five.  Degree of trauma matters in terms of duration of the complain/support rule. 

 

Having been at Ground zero more than once in the past few years, I can say with absolute certainty that people who respond to me with negativity or their own fears and reactions to my situation are not helpful.  In fact, it often causes me to shut down and relegate that individual to a more distant sphere of my life.  Make me cope with your feelings about my predicament? Go away.  Decide you know better about my situation than me? It’s time for a friendship vacation.

 

Silk and Goldman do not touch upon one aspect of the situational dynamics.  When those you would count on for support instead offer negativity and judgment, you are in a complicated place involving rocks and hard things.  If you push the person away, then you lose any hope of gaining support in the future.  If you tolerate the suboptimal behavior, then you open yourself to more of the same.  At a time when what you need is propping up with love and comfort, you are not only getting something far less helpful, but you must also figure out how to handle it.  Coping resources already stretched to the breaking point by the trauma have to now also withstand interpersonal drama. 

 

Ground zero needs to be about the trauma not drama.  Offer love, support, foot rubs and pot roast.  Refrain from offering up yet more for the person with the trauma to handle.  Make it your unspoken gift to them.

 

Perspective

At FabTherapists’s recommendation, I have joined group therapy. After two sessions, the jury is still out as to whether or not it will be beneficial. One goal is for me to intentionally work on how I interact with non-disabled people in an environment where I can get feedback. In other words, if another group member offered me help I didn’t need, I could actually question the person about the impact of my response and their initial motivation.

Last week, someone discussed how their job was making them unhappy and stressed. As they were leaving work ruminating on this, they walked past a vet who was a double amputee and “it put my stuff into perspective.”

I hate when people do this and had a rather intense response. It did not go well and the therapist said, “That pushed your buttons. Next week how about you come back and explain why.” I decided that a blog entry would be an excellent way to clarify my thinking.

My first objection is that life stressors should not be compared. Each of us is a unique individual possessing certain personality traits, backgrounds, coping abilities, resources and so forth. How we each deal with life stressors should be viewed separately in the context of who and what we are. Invalidating your own life stressors based on your perception of others’ circumstances being worse minimizes and invalidates what might be a truly distressing situation for you. It’s not fair to do that to yourself.

My second objection has to do with the way disability is being viewed. To make a comparison, an impression of what the disabled person’s life must be like has to be formed. What is that impression based upon?

All the societal beliefs about disability that we are taught come into play to create a picture of what that person’s life must be like. Often, such knowledge is based on inaccurate information, distorted images portrayed by the media, stereotypes and misconceptions. It eventually boils down to seeing the life of the person with a disability as being les happy, more burdened, less rewarding and more stressful. The person with a disability is suddenly relegated to a place of less, lacking and unhopeful.

When I have questioned those who view my life as “hard,” I hear about how it must be awful not to be able to see x, y and z, how I can’t enjoy a, b, or c, and how I won’t ever be able to do j, k or l. I *never* hear about how my life must be hard because I live in a world that sees me as less, has distorted ideas about blindness, treats me as a child and refuses to perceive my value. Which do you think is actually what I would label the “hard” part of my life?

And that’s the reason why what my fellow group member said bothered me to such a degree. They just diminished the double amputee vet to a “hard” life based on physical limits. He wasn’t a father, brother, or lover. He was someone whose life must be so stressful that it makes one grateful for the paltry stress they have. Personhood was stripped away. Value was ignored.

It isn’t that much of a leap to go from “They just reduced that man to nothing” to “Do they see me as nothing?” I struggle every day to find ways to be valued for who I am, to be connected by love and affection to other people and to live my life authentically. The last thing I want is for my life to be reduced to someone’s means to feel better about their own existence. *I* just got lost in that equation and used in the process.

To answer my group therapist’s inevitable question, “How does that make you feel?”

Devalued. Invisible. Used. Angry. Frustrated. Resigned. Tired. Hopeless. Sad.

Worthless. Scared.

Responsibility Teflon

I know we’ve all met that person – the one who can somehow avoid responsibility for *anything.* It is as if they’ve been sheathed in teflon and nothing will adhere to it. Ever.

The most drastic cases involve those who frame their lives in terms of things “done to them” that have resulted in bad outcomes. (Ever notice victim mentality is only present when it comes to bad outcomes?) More insidious cases exist in which individuals effortlessly float through life with nothing ever being their fault. They’re just “following their hearts” or “honoring their feelings” or “not engaging in negative self-doubt” or “practicing self-compassion.” In and of themselves, each isn’t a bad thing when done in moderation. Some, however, have raised their use to an art form. In the process, they acquire Responsibility Teflon.

I believe that perceiving me as amazing allows non-disabled people to don this same Responsibility Teflon. I’ve previously mentioned three ways non-disabled people conclude I am amazing – expecting less of me because of my disability, misunderstanding what it would be like if they walked in my shoes and lauding me for overcoming obstacles. Each is predicated on the idea that the “problem” is contained within me. She doesn’t have functional eyes, so I should expect less. If I didn’t have functional eyes like her, then I couldn’t do that. She doesn’t have functional eyes which would make that activity harder. It’s all about my biological difference.

The interesting part is that by making it all about my difference, non-disabled people have framed the situation in terms of my body, my abilities, my interactions, my defects. When it is all about me, Responsibility Teflon morphs into existence.

A crucial factor, how our society functions, is being left out of the equation. My difference only becomes a problem when my world doesn’t take it into account. Imagine if I lived in a world where my difference was accommodated by all information being conveyed visually, auditorially and tactilely. Would I be so amazing in that environment? Not really. I’d be simply another person going about her business.

I’m certain someone is now thinking, “Yeah, and you would also not be amazing if you could just see.” Following that line of argument, if all people were the same color, racism would disappear. If all people were of the same gender, sexism would vanish — along with our species’ ability to exist. Disability is a fact of human variation. Only when our society places meaning on human variation do we have things like sexism, racism and disability as individual defect.

When a non-disabled person observes me crossing a street, they could think I’m amazing for being able to do that. They could also think that they participate in a world that doesn’t take my need for auditory street signals into account. In the former, while they feel all warm and fuzzy for praising me, they are putting on Responsibility Teflon. In the latter, they are skating perilously close to assuming some accountability for the world they inhabit. You know, the same one I have to function in?

Magic Words

About a year ago, I hit a wall known as My social Life Sucks. Nothing I tried – and I tried everything short of a personality transplant — seemed to increase my social connections or generate more emotional intimacy in my life.

Enter my fabulous therapist – a fifty-year-old man who somehow gets it. He’s made it clear from day one that he knows nothing about disability, yet I felt more understood in my first session than I have with the majority of my friends. When I tell him I think I get ignored in groups because I’m disabled, he not only believes me but understands why it happens. That’s valuable in a way words cannot express.

We have hit an impasse related to my social interactions with non-disabled people. FabTherapist believes there are a string of words I can say that possess sufficient potency to get people to notice who I am. A carefully crafted handful of sentences have the power to shift perception from “Blind, incapable, weird looking person” to “Smart, funny, intelligent woman.” His argument is that people meet someone like me and suddenly don’t know their role. For a stranger, the situation is full of unknowns, fears and a general sense of uncertainty. Giving them some context and a function in the social dynamic will allow them to feel comfortable with me, freeing them to notice who I am.

I believe words have power. They don’t have that much power. Non-disabled people need time and exposure to move past their initial impression. The problem is that most don’t take that time and in fact, their subconscious writes me off often without consulting the conscious mind. There are no magic words to subjugate this process.

Okay, there is something that has the power to derail things – shock. It’s why some women with disabilities dress provocatively — to shock potential dates out of the “not sexual” mindset.

What would I need to do in order to shock people? Would that be in line with my personality?

“Yes, I’m blind. Be careful. You don’t want that to cause you to underestimate me. That would be a bad idea.” The last sentence would be delivered with a slow smile. Not even sure I’m capable of a slow smile on purpose let alone uttering those words.

If I could conjure up the MagicWords, I still get stuck on the idea that I should have to say them. It’s not my job nor should I take on the task of easing non-disabled people past their prejudice. Disability is not exclusively the responsibility of the disabled. As a society we have created this state of affairs and as a society we should deal with it.

Besides, if I noticeably aid people in coping with their discomfort, I’ve set a precedent. “You made me comfortable, Jen. Now, when it comes to your disability, I expect you to do all the rest of the work too.” Do I want to establish such a pattern?

Yet, inaction will not change anything. Principles are great, but they don’t make you feel loved and valued.

Besides, women have needs. And hormones. and needs that go beyond hormones.

Jen’s Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

Thing One

 

The first incident wasn’t all that bad – almost routine in fact. I was at a meetup type gathering and most of the attendees were strangers. About forty-five minutes into the conversation, I suddenly realized a segment of the group didn’t realize I’m blind. (My guide dog, Camille, was out of harness at my feet.) “Um, you know I’m blind, right?”

“Oh, no we had no idea.” I could have scripted the next part. “You don’t seem blind.” There I go again not living down to low expectations of my behavior.

 

Thing Two

 

The next was far more ominous. On a “no destination” walk with my dog, I crossed a street and a man asked where I was going. I knew the street dead-ended somewhere, so I asked if I could keep going or not. His answer was not, so I asked if the street we were on met up with another street. “No, you have to go back a couple of blocks.” Great.

I got my foot caught up in a plastic bag that was in the gutter and had some trouble untangling myself, then I took off. About a block along my route, the man calls from behind me, “Turn there.” or something. He had *followed* me. Followed.

 

Thing Three

 

I next ventured to the Transgender Day of Empowerment ceremony at the local LGBT center because a friend was receiving an award. Upon arriving in a very crowded auditorium, I was trying to convince my guide dog to find a seat, but she was as overwhelmed as I. A woman approached, introduced herself as Tracy and offered help, which I accepted.

She took my arm in the hold you are taught for drunk people so they can’t escape. I was dragged to a chair, but I let it go. Later I realized there was someone’s jacket on the chair, meaning I’d taken someone’s seat. I let that go too.

The woman who had helped me was the M.C and immediately prior to concluding the ceremony, she said something like, “There’s this young woman who I see in Hillcrest all the time.” She kept going and it finally dawned on me that she was referring to me. I put my head down and began shaking it no rather emphatically. It didn’t help.

“I’m coming toward you, dear. What’s your name?”

I answered.

“Now I want someone to volunteer to help this nice young woman get some cake.” She didn’t stop until someone volunteered.

 

Thing Four

 

I fled the room, hid out in the bathroom and then took my dog outside to relieve herself. I was headed back inside, reaching for the right door handle, when someone came out the left door. Fast. I was hit in the head. Camille let out two yelps.

Commotion ensued with ice bags and emergency room nurses coming to check us out and people and more people and orders not to take the bus home and….. I handled part of it badly. Eventually, someone I knew gave me a ride home. Camille wound up at the vet, needed X-rays and was restricted to light duty until the bruise she sustained healed.

 

Thing Five

 

By this point in my week, I needed some fun. With enthusiasm, I went to my first in-the-theatre described movie. We got my headset from Guest Services — my specific request for “the one for blind people.” It didn’t provide descriptions and my companion finally left the movie and went back to Guest Services where she acquired the proper headset. (I’d been given the one for Hard of Hearing folks.)

 

Thing Six

 

Finally, and most amusingly, dinner. I ordered a salad with peaches and caramelized onions. About two thirds of the way through my meal, I asked my friend, “Where are the peaches?”

“There aren’t any,” she said, baffled.

“Maybe these shriveled up things?”

“Those are cranberries.”

I tasted one. They were.

We asked our server and he came back saying I’d gotten the right salad just without peaches and he brought me a bowl of them.

I said to him, “This is one of those things that happens to blind people. I just assumed the peaches were somewhere on the plate but I hadn’t found them yet.”

I thought that was funny, and my friend was certainly amused. The server -– poor man –didn’t get it.

Running With Scissors

When I throw my yoga bag over my shoulder, my guide dog, Camille, runs over and assumes harness position. Knowing we are headed to a place of endless pets and belly rubs, her tail wags with greater than average enthusiasm. We call this a learned behavior, concluding Camille is smart for predicting what will happen.

A child carefully walks across their kindergarten classroom carrying a pair of scissors in the prescribed way. They have learned – probably because numerous adults have repeatedly scolded, coached and cajoled – that it is unsafe to run with scissors or to hold them the wrong way. We also consider this admirable behavior.

I walk into my local grocery store betting myself how long it will take to find someone to assist me. Through experience, I have learned that help will not materialize quickly or easily.

When a child learns safety procedures or a dog begins to accurately predict a routine, we call that good. When I anticipate an activity usually difficult will probably again be hard, I am making assumptions, thinking negatively and not giving people a chance.

Is there truly a difference between the three things?

When adult humans take the totality of their experience and apply it to a new similar event to forecast what will happen, we call it optimism if the predictions are good, and carrying around baggage when they are negative. If the prophecies are routinely downbeat, we are further labeled pessimists. Because we are creatures capable of reason, we try to overcome our negativity – to set down the baggage or remember that a familiar situation might turn out differently. In other words, set aside the statistically significant in favor of believing things will be better this time around. (This more positive attitude has been proven over and over to be healthier for us on a multitude of psychological and physical levels.)

At Rolling Around In My Head, Dave Hingsburger wrote an entry about <a href=”http://davehingsburger.blogspot.com/2013/03/were-off-to-see-wizard-heart-brain.html”>his own personal baggage.</a> He articulates the fine line between the benefit of predicting based on past events and the ways baggage can interfere with our experience of a situation. To summarize, just because 95% of the time a situation unfolds in a specific way it does not mean you aren’t currently in the 5% of the time version. Behaving like it is the 95% of the time event when it is the 5% occurrence is suboptimal.

I began thinking about how the copious amounts of baggage people with disabilities carry is often used against us becoming a tool to minimize, silence and dismiss.

People with disabilities acquire their baggage by living. One morning, I did not impetuously decide knitting in public would elicit excessive praise. Instead, it happened repeatedly, creating my voluminous luggage over time as I interacted with the world. Based on that, I might leave the knitting at home to avoid unwanted attention. Suddenly, I’m judged to be carrying unreasonable and unnecessary baggage, impacting my decisions negatively. (To be clear, even I think leaving the knitting at home is absurd, but not because of the reasons given. I think letting other’s ignorance limit my actions is just that…. limiting.)

This baggage can in fact provide a benefit in the form of lessons about how to approach a situation. Last time I asked a bus driver to drop me off at a particular stop and didn’t pay close attention, problems developed. That part of my baggage helps me remember to remind drivers, even if I might be perceived as annoying. The label “nice” is not worth it if I end up in an unsafe situation.

Sharing this acquired knowledge with others often backfires. I’m not seen as learning through experience and being prudent; I am perceived as holding one person responsible for another’s actions. “How do you know this driver will forget about your stop?” In fact, I don’t know. I just know that if they do forget, it will suck to be me.

I do agree with Dave that determining if you are in the 95% situation or the 5% one and not treating one like the other is key. Therefore, if a driver is announcing each and every stop, I don’t offer any reminders of my request.

The thing that bothers me the most, and the thing I cannot prove through logic or reason, is the fact that my same actions done by a non-disabled person would be perceived differently. I have baggage. They’re being smart.

Leveling such value judgments at the same behavior done by different people is the first step in employing social control. It isn’t far from “Why are you behaving in such a negative manner?” to “Nobody likes a negative person,” to “Your bad attitude is why nobody will be friends with you.”

Do I sometimes behave badly? Of course. Is it sometimes because I used my experience as a person with a disability (baggage) and judge things badly? Definitely. How does this make me any different from a person without a disability who uses their experience gained over time? It doesn’t. Why, then, is mine baggage and theirs learning? I’m just running with scissors, cutting myself and using more care the next time around.

Reason’s Vanquisher

In excruciating detail, I can create a voluminous list of all the ways it is communicated to me that I am of less value because I am disabled.  I can then offer explanations and arguments to counteract each item.  My skills are sufficient to convince you that I have worth.

 

Now if it would only work on myself.  Reason is a wonderful tool that is not adequate to the challenge of conquering the emotions of irrelevance and devaluation that currently rule my insides.  My reason lacks the tensile strength to overcome the indomitable force these negative thoughts and emotions wield.

 

The depression I’m experiencing because of current life stress and mental health issues definitely saps reason’s strength.  It does not, however, generate the need for reason to be so powerful.  the might reason would need to surmount the negativity is defined by the power of that negativity.

 

What is responsible for negativity’s capacity to overpower reason?  Society in general and the individuals that act out its beliefs in particular.

 

The thoughts and feelings an individual has about disability informs their actions and those actions transmit those beliefs to people with disabilities.  Complimenting a mundane task demonstrates the lower expectations used to judge the person with a disability.  Refusal to accept a “No thanks” to an offer of help illustrates devaluation of the disabled person’s judgment.  Even running up from behind to hold a door for a person with a disability conveys the assumption that the person was unable to do it themselves.

 

Whether it is meant or not, whether it is intentional or not and whether the intricacies are understood or not, behavior communicates beliefs and those beliefs have power.  A lot of power.  Counteracting them takes a significant and constant force of will.  It is a battle people with disabilities engage in each and every day.  It is a war without an end in sight where victory is never possible because the “enemy” has an endless supply of assets.

 

There are a lot of battles I’m currently fighting and they are consuming vast resources.  I have nothing left to wage war against the societal devaluation that comes at me without end.

 

Words and deeds matter.  Take care that you are not unintentionally contributing to the strength of the negativity people with disabilities must beat back each and every day.  And, if you need self-interest as motivation, remember that non-disabled people become disabled each and every day.  The negativity you put out there might turn on you down the road.  Do you want to battle it?