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Bye-Bye Closet!

I had an interesting experience in the Facebook universe yesterday. In the middle of the afternoon, a page I follow (Gay Family Values) posted this:
Gay Family Values
It struck me as something I wanted to share – for all of the obvious reasons, but also because of a deeper meaning I couldn’t quite articulate in the moment. Within my core self, I experienced a strong sense of identification with the quote. Something inside of me stood up and said, “Damn right it is!” I acknowledged that feeling – acknowledged it as being a bit different than I expected, and moved on with my afternoon believing that further clarity would come if I needed it. … I was right about that!

As the day progressed I kept returning to the quote in my mind. “Courage is being yourself everyday in a world that tells you to be someone else.” I was returning too to the feeling of defiance and resistance to shame that had arisen within me when I first read it. Then it clicked: the closet.

While expressing authentically in every other aspect of my experience, I have been living in the disability closet my entire life. For years, I have been slowly squeezing my way out, gradually revealing

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my vulnerabilities and honouring the weaknesses I live with in a new way. But it’s difficult in this society. Difficult, especially, when the disability one lives with is invisible, when its so easy, or more convenient, to “pass” as fully abled for an afternoon of fun and acceptance with friends or for the security of a job. Difficult too when vulnerability and weakness is met with such profound disdain as our culture offers.

Since childhood I have been told that the way I experience the world is just not good enough. Not only was I told that my needs weren’t going to be met, in many cases I was told they didn’t exist. I was lying, being manipulative, being overly-sensitive. I needed to toughen up, adjust my attitude, adapt to expectations – perform to the level that everyone else could achieve. I was told I was failing to live up to my potential, making problems where there weren’t any, and that I needed to stop complaining and get with the program.

Those are specific messages spoken by individuals who didn’t know better. Individuals who lacked the capacity for compassion in the face of my incapacity for certain activities. They were simply mirroring the attitudes and values of our culture. Those attitudes are mirrored everywhere.

We live in a culture that values top performance and high functioning, shaming anything that might look like weakness. Shaming anything that doesn’t conform to expectation.

And so I wore the mask of functionality, attempted to carry the mantle of top performance. And it has done nothing but bring chaos and suffering.

Because of living in the disability closet I have:

  • Experienced homelessness, employment insecurity, and financial bankruptcy
  • Repeatedly subjected myself and others to painful and destructive relationship patterns
  • Lived with a “crippled” sense of self-worth
  • Failed to command, create, and ensure that I receive the necessary supports for my health
  • Failed to learn what my rights and responsibilities are as a person living with a disability
  • Stayed in situations that were shaming and hostile – well beyond any reasonable expectation of supportive change
  • Compulsively, relentlessly, painfully searched for the “magic bullet” solution that would fix me and make me the kind of person society told me was successful and acceptable
  • Compulsively, relentlessly, painfully forced myself to push and conform, coach myself through the pain, and make my attitude (my consciousness) stronger than the physiological reality I have lived with since I was five years old

As I said, I have been working towards acceptance for years. I have been learning about the full extent of the disability I live with, what it means, how it impacts my functionality. I have been, little by little, squeezing out of the disability closet. When I read this posting from Gay Family Values yesterday I realized that I was readier than I thought.

Ready not just to squeeze out of the disability closet, but to blow the door off its hinges!

But this wasn’t my whole Facebook experience yesterday. The day had begun with reading a different quote – one that set me up very well for the afternoons revelation.

Helen Valleau is a speaker, author, coach who studies and works at the Centre for Spiritual Living in Toronto. She offers a “10 Minutes of Inspiration for 40 Days” program. I don’t know Helen well enough to call us personal friends, but we are in each others Facebook sphere.

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I consider her a peer and an active member of a community I really dig. She is someone I respect and like – and I look forward to a time when we might get to know each other better, becoming more than “Facebook friends”.

A mutual friend posted yesterday’s entry from Helen’s 40 day program.

“Stop Arguing for Your Limitations
Rather than arguing for your limitations, fix your mind on your goals, your desires, what brings you the feeling of joy, peace, authenticity, and integrity in your life. Remember you are ONE with a Universe, which always corresponds for you that which you correspond for yourself.

What do you think you can or cannot do with your life today? Think again and know that either way you are right?”

So this is how my Facebook adventure began yesterday. Let me begin by saying I do know Helen well enough to know – with absolute certainty, that there is nothing but love, encouragement, and support being offered by her in this posting.

Let me also acknowledge that I felt no negatively charged emotions, no triggers, no judgment upon reading it.

What I did feel was a simple and straightforward acknowledgment of yet another example of the high performance bias this culture is soaked in.

I acknowledged that words meant to support a higher, more active, and positive self image can also undercut important insights into self care and damage self worth.

This is exactly the kind of inspiration I used over the years to reinforce the locks on my disability closet door. I have taught (yea, I mean professionally) the skilled and consistent use of this kind of technique. There are whole sections of my book that would line right up with this posting and feel perfectly at home.

As a person newly freed from the disability closet, let me now say this:

I don’t think I have ever genuinely “argued for my limitations.” However, I do experience them and talking about them honestly doesn’t mean I am defining myself nor my life according to them.
There is great power and wisdom in saying, “I can’t”.
There is healing, support, and peace in those words. There is a chance to learn how to do things differently, to be seen, to find freedom. They are authentic and real. In hearing them we are offered an opportunity accept another and extend compassion. Within these words there is the possibility for human connection and understanding.

Was Helen saying otherwise with her inspirational post yesterday? No, of course not. But woven into her words (into the words I have spoken to myself and to others in the past) is the subtext of cultural bias. A bias that affirms productivity over self care, values a can-do attitude over a compassionate perspective, equates the highest level of functionality with the highest expression of potential. It is a bias that says health and vitality looks, acts, and achieves a certain way. That joy is only ever bold and that an extraordinary life is based on more, not less – big, not small – the infinite, not the limited. It stimulates a haunting need to transform life instead of nurturing a deep acceptance of it. It confuses (sometimes substitutes) personal empowerment for lasting peace.

I simply do not have the same scope of activity available to me that Helen has – or that the mutual friend who shared her post has, or that many of the people I know have. And honestly, as strong as my unhealthy attachment has been to it, I have never really cared.

It is peace I have truly craved all these years. It is freedom from the compulsive can-do attitude. The acceptance needed to say “I can’t” knowing that doesn’t mean “I’m not”. The support that comes from acknowledging ones limitations, knowing that’s not the same thing as arguing for them – even when others don’t understand that there’s a difference.

Because while my capacity for action has always been limited, my capacity for kindness never should have been. What defines extraordinary for me is Love. What defines my oneness with a creative universe is peace.

In other words: bye, bye closet!

P.S. You may have noticed that I haven’t named the disability I live with. This wasn’t a conscious choice at first, but became one as I went on. I wanted to keep this reflection focused on the theme of living with a disability as opposed to the specific challenges I experience.

But, for anyone who is interested: I live with a physiological condition that renders me extremely sensitive to stress and pain, involves a complex spectrum of symptoms, and demands a great deal of rest. My tolerance for activity (or functional capacity) is consistently low, dropping to very low if I push.

Western medicine calls it Myalgic Encephalomyelitis or Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Traditional Chinese Medicine diagnoses it as extreme spleen Chi deficiency with aspects of heart and liver Chi complications. Shamans would describe it differently. I have sought to understand it from many different perspectives and have found that Loving-kindness is the only perspective that truly matters.

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