I’ve been afraid to write lately.
Being a “writer” has always been hard for me because there’s not a clearcut definition for it. By profession, I am a writer, but I was a writer long before I got paid to do it (which is still a miracle in my eyes.) Writing is the means by which I can express myself fully and wholeheartedly, and I would do it whether the world saw any of it or not. However, some time last year I decided I was going to tell my story publicly, without censorship, and be more true to myself because I think I have an important, or at least interesting story to share. It wasn’t a decision I made lightly, but it was one I committed to fully.
It was an inspiring idea. A thoughtful, purposeful idea. A brave idea, even. One that kind of all goes out the window when you get real, unapologetic, insulting criticism from a voice that matters and proves that at the end of the day you’re not as unflappable as you’d like to be.
Even though I’d set out to write honestly, I didn’t post very often, but when I did my articles generally received positive feedback.
A few months ago I wrote a seemingly harmless post about dating with a disability, and how accepting my partner is. It was somewhat sarcastic, but mostly vulnerable and shined a light on relationships that aren’t really seen in the public eye. It was shared by the disability community widely, and overall I received positive remarks and well wishes in my journey.
Until one night when I received a phone call.
It was my aunt. For a large part of my life, my aunt acted as a mother to me, so we’re pretty close. I haven’t written much about the dynamics of my family life yet because, to be completely honest, I was afraid of the backlash I’d receive. Ironically, it would happen without me ever writing about them.
We had a somewhat normal conversation about other family matters, and just as I was wrapping up the phone call, telling her I would talk to her soon, she abruptly cuts me off and asks—
“Did you tell your grandma about a website?”
“No… I told her that I work for a website?” Her tone confused me.
“Well, your uncle Googled you, and you should be ashamed of yourself.”
Time stood still for a minute, or a decade, I’m not sure which.
Whenever someone says that they’ve Googled you, it’s natural to fear that all of your deepest, darkest secrets have been leaked onto the Internet and can be found with a simple search. Has someone blackmailed me? Could they see the poems I wrote in middle school? Is an ex-friend from kindergarten a professional writer and wrote an in-depth dissertation about how awful I am? After my stomach dropped, though, the fear dissipated because my job is largely on the Internet and I Google myself all the time. Besides a few embarrassing photos from MySpace, there’s nothing too juicy.
What followed is much a blur.
She continued to tell me how she found my personal website, and how disgusting the things I wrote were; that I should be ashamed of myself. She told me how disgusting I am, that I have no class, I’m completely unsophisticated, and deplorable. At this point, she wasn’t just criticizing my writing, but my character as a whole.
After a dozen insults, I only heard white noise. At first I was just utterly confused, but the more she tore me down the more my ears got hot and I was on the defense.
“I don’t know what you’re reading, because there’s nothing disgusting about anything I’ve written. What are you talking about?”
“I don’t want to read about your boyfriend wiping your ass! Do you want people to see this? Would you want your employers to see this? You have no class!”
I’m pretty sure that’s why my website is my full name.
At this point, I was lost, and growing impatient. I defended myself harshly and tried to reason with her. I pointed out that the messages I send are all extremely positive, and that that one post in particular has inspired a lot of people. I told her she completely missed the message if that’s what she got from it. I couldn’t wrap my head around what was so disgusting about mentioning that my partner helps me use the bathroom (a reality in my life) or that I vaguely eluded to the fact that I’m sexually active. She was acting like I wrote an in-depth erotica novel and posted it for the world to see, (which I’ve been considering writing since this all conspired;) all I did was write a PG-rated blog post about dating that literally uses the word “ass” once. I was so incredibly lost, and in many ways still am.
What’s even better is that this all happened in the quiet hallway of a campus center at an engineering university. I was screaming my head off on the phone, while the nerds around me listened and tried not to make it more awkward. After I hung up, the hallway got quiet and I felt my world crashing down. I held it together pretty well until I walked back to where my partner was studying and said, “Can we leave?” I proceeded to go from completely fine to completely bawling in a nanosecond.
It hit me so hard because I knew without a sliver of a doubt how she felt about me.
It hit me hard because it was honest.
It hit me hard because it was a long time coming.
This wasn’t about my writing. My website and the words I wrote were the tool she used to finally tell me how she really felt. She didn’t criticize my writing at all, really. She started with that, but it quickly became about me as a person. Since our family doesn’t often talk about our feelings, I felt a little proud that she actually faced her emotions. What sucks is that most of her feelings about me are ableist.
I had always gotten a bad taste in my mouth about how my aunt, and many others talked to me when I was growing up. I’ve always been well aware of my disability and saw how it made others treat me differently, whether it be at school or in the neighborhood, walking down the street. However, I couldn’t understand why I felt uncomfortable around my own family, who knew me and lead me to believe that my disability wasn’t ever an issue. I never thought it was an issue, but it didn’t change the way they addressed me, and the feelings that came with it were confusing. When I was younger, I didn’t have a word for it, but it gave me a strange feeling in my gut and made me uncomfortable. It was usually patronizing, and often undermined my intelligence or ability, no matter how subtle. There was a lot of, “Oh, you can’t do that!” And, “Really? You can do that [insert mundane thing that has nothing to do with physical strength]?” Most of the time it was paired with a patronizing tone, and there were endless subtle comments that belittled me. For a long time, I pushed it all under the rug. As I grew older, these tones, attitudes, and actions became more frustrating because I could no longer write off the way they treated me as them not taking me seriously because I was young. It was something different.
I never had a word to describe these attitudes and actions, and no one understood why I was uncomfortable. When I got older and started speaking up about my nonplussed feelings, I was instantly met with, “It didn’t mean anything.” Or, “They meant well.”
The truth is, sometimes they did mean well. Sometimes they still do. More often than not, my family does. That doesn’t change the fact that the way they act toward me is ignorant and stems from a bigger concern, and choosing to stay ignorant is a concept I will never be able to wrap my head around—especially when it comes to issues that affect those closest to you.
In the same breath, “meaning well” doesn’t really mean much. If you pull a trigger pointed at someone, even though you wholeheartedly believe they’d be better off dead, the person still dies. My concern is that belief. If you believe someone with a disability is less than you, and you make undermining comments unknowingly, you still view them as someone who is less human than you, no matter how slight it may be. To me, this is the root of all ableism, or any “ism”.
To be viewed as a “less than” human, especially in the eyes of those closest to me, is a hard truth that I don’t think I’ve fully comprehended, or fully understand quite yet. At its core it is a pain that is unbeknown to most, and is a reality that, when fully felt, I wouldn’t wish upon anyone. There are varying degrees, obviously, but I think any ‘ism’ at its extreme is hate, and it’s difficult to hate someone who is on the same level as you—you have to put them below you.
I’m not saying anyone hates me (that I’m aware of.) I know my family doesn’t, and I know most of the people who have treated me wrongly often don’t hate me either. I’m not here to condemn anyone. What I am saying is that viewing anyone as anything but an equal can be problematic, and even these shreds of “isms” can lead to much greater damage. It concerns me how angry my aunt became when I talked about perfectly normal adult activities, and expressed myself publicly in a positive way. It concerns me how angry a lot of former friends became when I finally stood up for myself, however slight. If nothing else, it concerns me how anyone who has been viewed as “less than” has come to see themselves in the world, because I know these issues have caused me more pain than I let on. It concerns me what that pain can do to a person.
So, now what? I don’t know. I don’t have the answers. What I do believe is that empathy is the path to all love. I believe that it’s hard to hate someone, or view them as anything but an equal if you can put yourself on the same level as them. I think we are more alike than we are unlike, and I think focusing on that could do us a lot of good. I think we should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry.
I think I’ll write more.