One of the most hurtful parts of living with a disability is that it comes to define the outward expression of personhood. It’s easier for others to perceive that I am awkward and moody than for them to understand the qualities that lie beneath, often masked and hindered. We become assumed to be so in need of help and understanding that we are able to contribute little to others in return.
I know who I am. But it rarely shows. I am, by nature, compassionate, industrious, creative, loyal and brave. When asked what I value most in life, I answer without hesitation: kindness and a sense of adventure. I dislike accepting help; my impulse is to give and care.
When I was younger, before I entered the stressful adult world and discovered how deeply my autism, social phobia, and mood swings impair my functioning, I had goals that others admired, and to which I still aspire, yet which I feel impotent to achieve. I had a long-term dream of serving in the Peace Corps and of teaching overseas. I wanted to travel and experience other cultures. I wanted to use my linguistic facilities to help others as a translator in the non-profit sector. I was active, for a time, with the anti-war movement, until depression and social phobia increasingly forced me out of public and leadership roles.
I’m not claiming to be any sort of creative genius, but I have so many ideas in my head that I lie awake at night rolling them around restlessly. For five years I’ve been working on a novel about which I feel passionate and committed, but many times the pages gather dust for six months before I pick it up to write another several thousand words in a manic weekend or a peaceful break. I’ve been praised for my ability to synthesize and interpret large amounts of data, particularly on literature and language, in innovative and incisive ways. As I previously mentioned, playing with words has been the most consistent drive in my life. And I strongly feel, though it’s a topic for another day, that words and language–intentionally or not– can shape who we are, socially and individually, and be a powerful force, however they are directed. To use words intentionally has been my dream.
One by one, I have had to admit that these goals are simply not realistic. We are encouraged in these days of positive psychology to believe that with enough willpower, we can achieve anything that is important enough to us; that we can choose who and what we are. But now, no one can convince me that this is generally true.
I did not choose my brain chemistry or the workings of my body. I work every day to moderate its effects, but the ugly truth is that the most I can achieve, most of the time, is to lead a halfway functional, simple, unstressful life. I maintain that bare minimum only by acknowledging my limitations. When I strive for higher, better, more productive things, whatever success I manage is followed by horrific crash-and-burn. I push myself, and I break.
Only by taking have I found any strength to give back. Excellent disability services have allowed me a modest measure of academic success. Kindness from family and friends has supported me in keeping my own home and being the best parent I can be. Recognizing my need for so much quiet, isolated recovery time between engagements and insisting on taking it lets me be a decent friend, and a support to a few acquaintances who struggle with their own mental health and don’t have anyone else to be there for them.
My point, then, is that when we are assumed to be takers, dependents, and resource drains, there’s some truth there. But what’s acknowledged far too rarely is that taking is our only chance to give. There is as much to us, good and bad, as there is to any more functional person, but it languishes unutilized and unappreciated. For you, for the world, to benefit from our unique gifts, we need its kindness. Your kindness.