Guest Post from Lisa: Invisible Ableism
Lisa Harney is a single lesbian with ADHD, three cats, and a penchant for writing about social justice and transphobia. She blogs regularly at Questioning Transphobia.
So one of the most frustrating experiences of coming to terms with my disability is realizing just how much ableism has impacted my life without my realization. I mean, I knew that this stuff was not really fair or reasonable, but I didn’t really know why.
When I was in the first grade, my teacher told my mother she thought I had a learning disability. My mother’s goal was to prove that I had no disabilities at all, so she had my intelligence tested and I was categorized as “gifted.” It was also determined that I was nearsighted, which required me to wear glasses. Somehow, unfortunately, neither of these solutions actually helped with my problems: I had trouble retaining what the teacher said to me, and I had trouble doing all of my schoolwork.
In retrospect, being marked as gifted was mostly negative. It meant I had more pressure to perform well, that I should be a straight A student, but I never managed this. My report cards are littered with “doesn’t pay attention” and “doesn’t apply herself” and other negative assessments that read to my parents as “Lisa doesn’t fulfill her true potential.” Now, of course I wanted to, but to me grades felt almost like an arbitrary lottery. I never got grades commensurate with the effort I put into class, and no matter how much effort I did put in, I’d get in trouble when my report card had too many Cs and Ds. There was a reason I could make it to the spelling bee state finals and do calculations in my head, and yet still couldn’t maintain any kind of consistent quality of work.
This had repercussions at home. I learned from my father that I was stupid, lazy, inconsiderate, and selfish. I learned these lessons really well. I internalized them. Somehow I was convinced that I was really sabotaging my own school work. His conviction in my potential wrongdoing was such that he would grill me about what I did at school every day once I got home, and the right answer was always “I didn’t do my schoolwork.” If I said I did, I’d be punished for lying. So I learned to lie to him because the lie was the only acceptable answer. And he convinced me I was an inveterate liar, so it was interesting to realize once I got out on my own that I was total rubbish at it.
So yes, from most of my teachers as well as my father, I learned that I was pretty worthless; that I was stupid and lazy. That my problem was that I refused to apply myself and spent too much time daydreaming, or reading novels, or playing games (role playing games, mostly). That everything I enjoyed was a personal flaw, and that everything I failed at defined me. And this has stuck with me for a long time.
This carried through into my first long-term relationship – which was also abusive. But my partner liked to especially pick on my inattention, my tendency to zone out in the middle of a conversation, my forgetfulness, and insisted on treating me as if I was a child to be controlled instead of her girlfriend. She went beyond this, but this itself is apparently a common pattern in relationships with ADHDers – that a parent-child dynamic develops. This is often framed in articles and literature and by non-ADHD spouses and partners as something the ADHDer is totally responsible for, and relationship problems are often blamed entirely on ADHD, but the non-ADHD partner’s ableism is practically never discussed. And being treated like a child, having every mistake scrutinized and berated and everything you do ignored and forgotten takes a huge toll on you. It’s abusive. My partner was abusive in many ways beyond this, so I don’t want to make it sound like her ableism fueled all of the strife, but it definitely had an impact.
Every attempt I made to enter college hit a wall. I would do really well (and learned I was not in fact lazy or stupid) until I couldn’t anymore. I don’t really know how to describe it. I wanted to get my degree, but once I hit that point, college went from doable to extremely difficult. It may have been changes in routine, greater difficulty in classes, overall stress from spending that much energy to excel constantly without a break. I don’t really know. I just know that I would hit a point beyond which it was very difficult for me to continue. And that I didn’t even know how to find support or assistance, that I don’t feel resources for this were really clearly explained to me if they existed at all. And besides, maybe I was lazy and stupid, right?
Most of my jobs went the same way – I’d do a job well until I couldn’t keep it up any longer, and I’d often have to quit because simply going in was difficult. Again, this is hard to describe, how this works. It is not that I wanted to lose my jobs or that I did not enjoy them, but that I’d end up being unable to continue, or that I’d find it difficult to meet basic requirements like punctuality. And I’d be left wondering how I could have sabotaged this amazing job, and how lazy and stupid I must be and how much I must hate myself to make these choices.
And this really was a spiral of self-hatred and recrimination that continued until the past few months. That I was holding myself to standards I had no idea I couldn’t attain without help, medication, accommodations. That my knowledge of ADHD, the background cultural knowledge was so lacking in information that I really had no idea how to start looking into this, or even that there was anything to look into. I spent more time wishing I had done everything better, that I hadn’t made so many mistakes, that I hadn’t lost two promising careers, that I hadn’t apparently done everything in my power to block my own success. That I had no idea I was not only limited because of my neuroatypicality, but because there simply wasn’t any easily accessible information that would have helped me realize what was happening to my life. Even when I saw doctors about my GAD and panic disorder in 2003, the possibility of ADHD never came up.
Since I wrote my two posts about ADHD on Questioning Transphobia, I’ve had several people tell me in comments, e-mails, or chat that they related strongly to the symptoms I described, that by making my experiences with ADHD accessible, people who have been undiagnosed so far – who might themselves have ADHD – know about the possibility and can respond to that information. According to at least one researcher – Dr. Russell Barkley – it is possible that only 10% of ADHDers who have gone undiagnosed into adulthood are diagnosed as adults.
I am not saying that experiencing ableism without even realizing you have a disability – let alone what ableism is – is worse than experiencing ableism when your disability is known. Just that it was a dark moment for me to realize how much of my life has been defined by ableism, and how much I had no defense mechanisms at all to cope with that and how much I had to realign my own understanding of decades of my own life. The end result is good, in that I was able to resolve a lot of my own self-hatred, but the realization itself was a bit shocking.
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