Tag Archives: unexpected obstacles

Imperfections

I am one of those people who often cannot ask for help.

At times, I am so afraid of seeming weak, or whiny, or overly-sensitive, or dependent on other people that I tend to either ignore my own needs until I start flailing around at the last minute in order to not get overwhelmed, or minimize the possibility that some things could be going wrong. I am one of those people who needs to outwardly look like I know what I’m doing and that I have things totally under control — preferably at all times. (Intellectually, I know that this expectation is intensely unrealistic, and can be dangerous; even the most “put-together”-seeming person can be a total wreck in private.)

Part of this is a defense mechanism that I developed around the same time that I started getting made fun of in grade school for my mild cerebral palsy and the limp it caused. Somehow, I figured that if I could be perfect at something — my something being academics — and make it look effortless, other kids would stop making fun of me. This didn’t work out quite the way that I planned; regardless, I still tend to hold onto remnants of this habit.

Part of it is also my own internalization of the cultural ideals that tell people with disabilities that we must always “compensate” for the imperfect status(es) of our bodies or minds, a la the Good Cripple or Supercrip, as well as the cultural messages that tell many women that they must be “perfect” while making it look downright easy, in accordance with the current “ideal” feminine role. A great number of women are told, in ways subtle and not, that we must try to “have it all,” and do it without a drop of sweat showing. We must look good all of the time, we must wear clothes that are “flattering”, we must keep a figure that approximates whatever sort of beauty standards happen to be “in.” We must take care of others’ needs and feelings and make this our number one priority, and think about ourselves last (if at all). We must project an outward appearance of cheeriness, strength, or deference, no matter how we might actually feel. If we cannot do most or all of these things, we have failed. And when this loaded set of expectations intersects with the PWD-compensating-for-disability trope, look the hell out.

These are just a few examples, of course, and these expectations shift in various ways depending upon race, class, ability status, sexuality, gender identification, education, and a host of other factors that are often derided as being remnants of “identity politics.” Identity and its politics, however, still continue to matter.

Here’s where I am going with all of this: For the past few weeks, I have been dealing with newer and more unpleasant fibro symptoms that are starting to affect my day-to-day life. At first, I thought these symptoms were just the result of a bad day, and then a bad week, bad month, et cetera (you can probably guess as to where this leads). I wanted to believe that these symptoms were not a huge deal, and look like I knew how to deal with them until I made it back to “normal,” however tenuous that position is for me. Now that these new and interesting symptoms have become a bigger deal than I had anticipated, a lightbulb has also gone off in my head: I need to work on letting go of this all-or-nothing, but-I-should-always-have-it-together-even-when-I-don’t-and-do-not-need-help mindset.

Today, I finally made the decision to schedule a doctor’s appointment to get help with my new symptoms.

Acknowledging that I don’t have some things completely “together” and that I (gasp) need medical help with these symptoms may be a tiny first step toward changing the tape loop in my brain that tells me that I am on one side of a binary — that I am either a or b, all or nothing, need help with everything or do not ever. There is a middle ground. Until now, I haven’t been able to acknowledge that.

Reactions, part two: Social aspects

In my last post, I talked about the painful physical process of the near-fatal allergic reactions that I’ve been having since the age of 14. In this post, I want to address the aspect of these “attacks” that is, in some ways, crappier than the actual attacks: peoples’ reactions.

Often when I mention that I am allergic to certain foods — when I am, for example, meeting people for the first time in a situation where there is food, and where these issues may come up — I do not mention that my allergies are potentially life-threatening, as I’ve learned my lesson from some of the past responses of certain acquaintances:

“So you could die from eating peanuts? I’ve never heard of that.”

“I knew this kid who was allergic to [food], and he almost died.”

“Whoa, if I couldn’t have [food], I would, like, die/miss it soooooo much. Do you miss [food]?”

“Peanut allergies are so over-diagnosed! Parents these days are way too overprotective of their kids.” (Hilariously enough, this one gets trotted out in regards to some other disabilities/health conditions as well.)

“Are you sure you’re allergic? It could have just been a one-time thing.”

“How much of [food] could you eat before you’d have to go to the hospital?”

It could be that some of these folks are just trying to make conversation (particularly in the second and very last examples), but most of these responses have left me either totally baffled or itching to make some sort of snappy comeback. Because I am a fairly polite person in my day-to-day life (no, really!), the times that I have made snarky comments in response have been relatively few. While the disability activist part of me firmly believes that I have zero imperative to politely respond to cluelessness about something that could kill me (and almost has), my own social programming tends to stop me from doing or saying anything rash. The thing I resent, though, is that sometimes I am treated like a human “learning experience” of sorts — some people, once they find out about this health condition of mine, become convinced that they can bounce their conspiracy theories about how all peanut allergies are caused by anxious parents off of me, or delight me with anecdotes about this kid they know who was allergic to, like, everything and was in the hospital for a month this one time. Or perhaps they get really bad hay fever in the springtime, and they are just so excited to find someone who knows how annoying and awful allergies can be!

Somewhat ironically, the most heinous unsolicited comment on my reactions that I ever got was from a friend of my mom’s, who had known my family for a very long time. This woman was of the ardently “spiritual” sort — this is not, in itself, a bad thing, but in her case, parts of it happened to translate into a long-standing belief in the universal applicability of “alternative” medicine and mind-body integrative healing. One afternoon, this person phoned my mom in an utter panic, convinced that she knew the reason for my scary and bewildering allergy attacks. She had a piece of proof that no medical science person could possibly have:

“Anna is faking her allergy attacks to manipulate and control you!”

This is not something that anyone, particularly an already-frightened 16 year-old who has no idea why she still gets these attacks spontaneously, should have to hear. My mom, to her credit, excused herself from the conversation with this person, and then told me about what had happened — adding that should this person call back, I did not have to speak to her if I did not want to. (Which I did not, for the record.)

In that interaction lies one of the most crucial issues regarding the way many people with disabilities are treated: Those of us with potentially life-threatening health conditions are never to be trusted. Those of us with chronic health conditions are never to be trusted. Those of us with disabilities must be faking it to get attention, to gain the upper hand in whatever way we can. We must be using our conditions as excuses to get pity from those close to us, or from anyone, really. We must be faking — things can’t really be that bad. That dire. That frightening to us and those who are close to us. Those of us without “objective” proof are constantly suspect, constantly under scrutiny from nondisabled people (at times, even from other people with disabilities); a similar process is at work even for those who do have “objective,” concrete proof of their disabilities or conditions. Are you sure you’re allergic? You could eat peanuts if you really wanted to, right? She’s just acting like that for attention. She’s just using it as a get-out-of-[whatever]-free card. Well, I’VE never heard of that! Are you sure it’s not just psychological? I knew this one guy. . .

That burden of proof has always been on those of us with disabilities and/or health conditions. And sometimes, it’s a burden that feels almost unbearably heavy. No matter how scary the condition you deal with can be, someone always has a question about it, or a theory, or wants to try a misguided attempt at solidarity. Well, you may be thinking, would you rather not have people react at all, since you’re complaining about it so much?

What I would rather have happen is for people who do not have my condition or similar health problems to recognize that, for once, they may not be the experts on something that they have never experienced, or that I do not have any sort of “ulterior motive” simply by having a health condition that just happened to come out of nowhere, or that I may have heard the “do you miss eating [food]?” question countless times. Or that I have a lived experience that is just that — my experience — and that it is different from theirs. For me, simply having that be okay — in other words, not subject to constant monitoring, anecdotes, questions, guessing at motives, trying to find “common ground” based on a pretty uncommon issue  — would be enough.

Quoted: Audre Lorde

The supposition that one [group] needs the other’s acquiescence in order to exist prevents both from moving together as self-defined persons toward a common goal. This kind of action is a prevalent error among oppressed peoples. It is based upon the false notion that there is only a limited and particular amount of freedom that must be divided up between us, with the largest and juiciest pieces of liberty going as spoils to the victor or the stronger. So instead of joining together to fight for more, we quarrel between ourselves for a larger slice of the one pie.

— “Scratching the Surface: Some Notes on Barriers to Women and Loving” (1978), in Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (The Crossing Press, 1984)

Stuck

Content note: This post is about a panic attack I recently had on a bridge and it is graphic in detail; graphic content starts after the cut.

It was a sunny Thursday morning, windows down and Lady Gaga on the stereo and I am buzzing along Highway One to Mendocino. I don’t go to Mendo very often these days and I am deeply enjoying the loud music and the moment and the freedom and the driving, sailing along the surface of the road instead of being bound to it.

“Road Work Ahead,” a bright orange sign warned, and I obediently slowed to something resembling the speed limit.

“One Lane Closed to Traffic,” read another, and my foot hovered over the brake while I looked in vain for signs of construction workers.

And then, I rounded the corner.

Continue reading Stuck