I can’t count on anybody to understand. (Blogging Against Disablism Day 2010)

(Cross-posted at three rivers fog. See more BADD 2010 at Goldfish’s blog.)

I’m pretty open about my health issues. To be honest, I don’t know any other way to be. I know how to strategically hide my disabilities from strangers in passing interactions, but from the people with whom I interact on a daily basis? Given my appearance — tall, slim, young white girl, pretty enough, clean and conventionally dressed, perfectly middle-class — you’d think it would be easy to keep from communicating variant health, while in reality it is highly tasking. It takes energy to mask my medication-taking, body-resting, trigger-avoiding, activity-budgeting ways from the people around me, and I’m already running an energy deficit just to be around them in the first place.

So fuck it. I don’t hide it when I have to down a pill. If pain, fatigue, or cognitive issues are preventing me from doing something — a task requiring me to stand up or walk somewhere when my back pain is flaring up; speaking with anyone by telephone when my head is throbbing and my brain is not processing full sentences — I say so. I’ve stopped bothering to tuck in my TENS wires to make them completely invisible. When people ask me about the Penguins game last night, the response they hear begins with a mention of my 8:30 bedtime.

There are drawbacks to this. Sharing or not sharing information about one’s health is an extremely fraught decision; some people consider this information rude and gross (even when the actual content is totally innocuous), it can invite unwanted questions and speculation, and there are people who will use your undisguised behavior or the information you have volunteered against you in the future. It amounts to a choice between a life of concealment, which can quickly drain a person’s spirit and often aggravate their actual condition — and a life of vulnerability, never knowing what will be held against you, or by whom.

***

The office I work at is lit by fluorescent lamps, which can trigger migraines for me, but the light level was reasonable enough that it wasn’t a problem up until that point. Last time the maintenance guy came through to replace the select few old-and-broken lights, I asked him to twist the bulbs above my desk so that they would dim or turn off, and he did so, and I was extremely happy. The lights were ok when they were on, but the new lights were already making my head hurt just having been replaced a couple dozen feet away. Now, my desk was a safe and comfortable space and I could work without that particular disruption.

Around Christmas, the safety coordinator in my office — who seems to dislike me, demonstrated well before this incident, and repeatedly since — took up a new pet project: replacing the lights. The safety coordinator decided that every single tube in the office needed to be replaced with brand new tubes at double the former intensity. And not only that: previously there had been two tubes per light; now, she wanted to fill all four tubes, in every single light, with that brand new double-intensity fluorescent lamp.

I arrived at work the day after the lights were put in, and I lasted five minutes at my desk before I had to stumble away. I was having an asthma attack (and I cannot use inhalers); my stomach was churning violently; my eyes were throbbing, and I actually lost vision altogether for a couple minutes — and my field of vision was covered in multi-colored spots for hours afterward, and my eyes were blurry and out of focus — I could not make my eyes focus, anywhere, not to read the screen in front of me or the clock on the opposite wall.

Five minutes. The time it took to boot my computer and email my supply person asking if my lights could be changed.

The answer was no, which marked the start of a months-long ordeal with Human Resources (which consists of three people, one of whom is the safety coordinator whose pet project this was in the first place). They told me that if I wanted it resolved quickly I shouldn’t file an ADA accommodation request, and then stonewalled me and eventually told me the only way to resolve it was to file an ADA. They told me it would be useless to make any change because “what if she moves somewhere else” (um, I work a specific program, do not have the job title to work anything else, and this program has never been anywhere other than this area of the building). Eventually I found out that at the safety meeting that preceded this decision, my supply person (who is an assistant back in the administration/HR area) raised her hand and specifically said, “Amanda would prefer to have her lights turned off, because it aggravates her migraines” — remembering when I had requested this of the maintenance man — and one of the union stewards, who knows I am disabled with a chronic pain condition, replied, “No, we can’t do that, we have to treat everybody exactly the same. No one can be treated differently.”

I had taken the initiative to move myself to the one desk where the lights were burning out almost immediately — checking messages on my phone every ten minutes and continuing to do the same work I had done before. On the day I left for two hours for a doctor’s appointment, HR chose that time to hold a meeting with my supervisor to relay the order that I return to my normal desk, as it was, no change to the lighting situation — and I was advised that refusing a direct order was a fireable offense.

I was “allowed” to wear sunglasses in the office, which merely delayed the onset of my migraine by a couple hours (primarily the eye strain from trying to read and operate a computer screen with sunglasses on, secondarily the light itself); I was leaving work early more often than not. The safety coordinator at one point came over to sit down at my desk and ask me — gesturing with her hands held over her brow, parallel to the ground — “Can’t you wear one of those — what are they called? –” Sigh. “Visors?” “Yes, that!” No, it wouldn’t, because the light was glaring off my desk, the windows, the file cabinets, the walls — blocking one direction of light in that situation would be like trying to take a shower with an eyedropper. She was unsatisfied with this answer and walked away. (Of course, if I had tried to use “one of those” before she came up with that bright idea, she probably would have called another meeting to order me to stop violating the dress code.)

My specific accommodation request — to simply twist the bulbs so that the lights above my desk were off — was eventually denied because nonharmful lighting would be a danger to the workers around me (all five of them hated those lights and had complained to HR about them as well!) — the difference between the old and new lights was like the difference between a sunny summer’s day and the surface of the sun; it’s already very brightly lit. They decided to order a cheap full-spectrum filter — and tsk to me that they would have to see if it was in their budget — that specifically advertised that it only reduced the light’s brightness by some trivial amount. I protested to them repeatedly that it was the brightness that was the problem, not the color of the light, but they would not allow any change to the brightness. Safety concern. Turned out I was still getting migraines, so they gave in to my tired request to order the gradient sleeve filters that were listed immediately under the original filters they had bought. And that worked. By… reducing the lights much as if they had been twisted off. As I requested in the first place. Which would have cost precisely nothing.

Well, it’s worked well enough since then. And since, ahem, the ballast was broken on a couple sides trying to install four sleeves on two sets — the lights are connected such that if one light goes out, its companion on the opposite side does too. So that took care of four lights for me. Of the four remaining, the gradient sleeve is turned to provide an amount of light I am happy with. And all is well.

At least, it remains well when my desk is of any use to me. But when my motherboard blows a couple capacitors and my computer is out for the count during one of the busiest weeks in our program, and I’m already marked as a Troublemaker by HR and thus do not want to go around swapping computers by myself, all of a sudden I’m right back in the same situation I started. Now a few of the new bulbs have dimmed with time, but it’s all shaking my stable footing in terms of pain.

My coworker offers me her desk, because she is spending most of her time upstairs. It is the desk next to mine, across the aisle. The desk in the corner of the building, with twice as many windows, and fluorescent lights that have not dimmed a bit, remaining significantly brighter than any in this quarter of the building.

I take it for the first afternoon, when my computer has just died, because it’s the only space available. And I pay for it. Because I’m seeing spots again by the end of the workday. My stomach is doing acrobatics and I’m afraid I’m going to vomit all night. It’s hard to breath, hard to think, hard to focus my eyes. Sensory overload, feel like I’m going to explode.

This was early in the week. I spend the next couple days parked at someone else’s desk, until that person comes back to work and I am deskless again. My coworker offers me her desk again, and I decline, saying “I can’t sit there because of the lights.” Oh, okay, she says.

Until the next day, Friday, the busiest day, when I am rushing around coordinating things for a dozen different people and being yelled at by clients all the way — using the maddeningly slow and unresponsive computer connected to the printer/scanner/fax equipment in the station next to my home desk. Seeing my frustration with this instability, my coworker again offers her desk. And again I decline. And this time, she throws in: “Well, if you change your mind, you can have it!” In her sweet, quiet voice, and she heads upstairs again.

Because this pain is really ultimately a personal decision.

This is the person who, sitting at that station computer scanning, asked me sweetly if I could turn my desk fan so it would cover her too (the building’s climate is very poorly controlled) — and I agree, because the air will still hit me and it is, seriously, really hot in here — but finishes her request with a laugh, “since I can’t have any light here.”

Sweet and quiet.

Sometimes, the people who are going to hurt you are easy to identify. Like my safety coordinator, who has tattled over the most trivial and frankly inaccurate things to my supervisor (who knows she is full of shit).

Sometimes, they aren’t.

***

I can never trust anyone to understand.

This knowledge always hangs in the back of my mind. It is disturbing, in the sense of creating unrest, destroying stability.

On the other hand, truly accepting it could free me — no more time spend artificially dividing people into categories of “Volatile, Will Probably Hurt Me” (focus all energies on protecting self from these!) and “Safe, Would Not Hurt Me” (so tired from the first category, no energy to protect self on any measure around them) — now I can spend that time and energy centering myself and my needs, thinking about what I really need to protect (from anybody), what I’m ok with people knowing — and even focusing that energy on becoming ok with those facts of my lives, myself…

But the eternal vulnerability can wear on me. Disclosing something one time means being vulnerable forever — the moment of sharing, the interaction may pass, but the knowledge can be used against me at any time. It can come up at any point in the future. Once I make the decision (not that there’s always a choice) to disclose something, I let it go forever — the knowledge is free in the hands of the people around me, and I can never take it back.

I could go on a decade-long effort to refocus on invisibility, on passing, on keeping secret — I could purge my social circle, present myself as totally normal and hide anything that might indicate otherwise — and all it takes is one person, saying one thing, to crumble that carefully-built structure in an instant.

The first time anybody knew I was sick — oh hell, people knew before I even got diagnosed at 12 years old! — that shell was cracked, and I never know if, when, it’s going to shatter, burst wide open. In fact, I can probably count on it happening, at some point in my life. Probably the least opportune point when it will cause the most damage, right?

No matter how careful I am, I occupy a precarious position.

It’s hard to accept that there is always going to be a wall there when I make personal connections with the currently nondisabled. Their knowledge can only go so far. They can be friendly and supportive, but they come from a fundamentally different place. And that means that at some point, they will do something potentially hurtful. Not understanding that it is potentially hurtful. Because they can only go on their own experience.

So even with people who might be friends — or at least friendly acquaintances — I have to have that wall. That knowledge of potential hurt. With all the weight it carries.

It’s a price I accept — rather than the price I try to deny, and end up experiencing anyway.

12 thoughts on “I can’t count on anybody to understand. (Blogging Against Disablism Day 2010)

  1. This is really powerful. Thank you for writing it.

    (And seriously, fluorescent lights suck.)

  2. That just….ow. I still remember the first time my husband came home with a migraine–he looked like death warmed over. I can’t imagine insisting that someone suffer like that, especially if the problem is easy to fix.

  3. I’m sorry that you have to deal with such assholes, and I’m sorry that you have to protect yourself from people whether they turn out to be assholes or not. Thank you for expending the effort to write posts like this.

  4. I have rarely felt such pure volcanic rage as reading those workplace responses to your pain, amandaw. I have made a great effort to purge from my psyche those urges to wish violence upon the intransigently arsehattish, but wouldn’t it be wonderful if a true all-sense virtual reality system worked that could actually make them experience exactly what you do, so that they could actually feel at a gut level what they are asking of you and what they are dismissing so lightly?

  5. I used to work in an office much like that. I have been a lot happier since I lost my job – I’m broke, yes, but at least I don’t feel like people have to power of life and death over me, seemingly making a positive effort to turn every minor thing into a major source of stress and unhappiness. In my case they weren’t even doing it out of spite – it’s just a spiteful, hateful environment.

    It seems to me that your safety coordinator is engaged in pretty obvious mobbing.

  6. Great description of your passive agressive non-understanding workmate….’if you want it…’ of course, because migraines are just about will power? And the line from the union “No, we can’t do that, we have to treat everybody exactly the same. No one can be treated differently.” – I have a feeling that changes when it comes to bathrooms…when it comes to wheelchairs, when it comes to a LOT of exceptions. The life of a chronic condition is to be at the mercy of those who choose not to care, like the manager who changed the light bulbs. If she hit you with a baseball bat it is assault. If it showed that she changed your light bulbs without knowing or caring about your migraines…..and then defended and entrenched her actions – the result is the same (pain in your head), but the social outcomes are different. I wish they were not.

  7. Elizabeth – I think some people are so passive-aggressive and argh “well, if you must” ::sigh:: when it comes to reasonable requests like oh, not having a horrible migraine triggers right there.

    it’s like they want us to leave or shut up.

    Some places make accommodations so hard – or they make it sound that way – to get, that you just give up. Fine, I’ll suffer, I wouldn’t want you to be inconvenienced.

  8. Kaitlyn, you’ve pretty much nailed the ethos of this office.

    Keep in mind, I am employed with the state. With an agency that is particularly “rigid” compared to others (heard that on a job interview with a different agency). They’re very into structure and hierarchy. You have to be able to navigate a labyrinthine system. If you can’t, well, not their problem, now you’re off their desk and they can move on to futzing about with placement of staples on applications or whatever they get into their little heads.

    ETA: They treat the clients the same way, so of course I don’t expect them to treat me any better. Either you can navigate the fucked-up system and get the runaround, or you can’t and get turned away. You can try your luck if you have time and energy to waste, or you can give up. They count on making it as difficult as possible so more people will just give up than keep pursuing.

  9. That is a horrific experience – I wish you didn’t have to deal with that, that people would be freaking adaptable and not make it YOUR problem.

    That said, it can be those little unexpected daggers in the back, from the people you think are on your side, that wind up hurting the most. (at least to me). The part about opening up once and being vulnerable forever? Really struck a chord for me.

  10. The part about opening up once and being vulnerable forever? Really struck a chord for me.

    Yes yes yes. One of my conditions is (treatable, but) incurable cancer. People are really, really afraid of the “C” word. In some ways, it’s probably easier than disclosing any of the gazillion other invisible illnesses that folks tend to say you are making up/exaggerating/whatever, but in others — well, even if I have to talk about the symptoms (mostly neurological) that make me consider it a disability, I try not to tell people the actual cancer part. It makes my symptoms legitimate in their eyes, but it also makes them treat me like a particularly delicate child, and my prognosis is not anyone’s business. (They always ask.)

    Despite my best intentions on keeping this on the downlow, some of the neurological symptoms — mixed with the weirdness of pain meds — means that it slips. Sometimes I tell people flippantly and forgot that I’ve mentioned it until they get angry and say something awesome about how I deserve to die. (Not that this happens often, but it has happened at least once. :P)

    When people know, everything I do is questioned. It’s nice that I have a SO to recognize when I’m “not myself” and keep me from doing really silly things that I may regret when my brain is functioning better, but even the most casual of acquaintances think they get to do this once they know.

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