Why our disabilities hurt you, too

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.

Words, interrupted

Lately I’ve been emphatically posting only about rhetoric and criticism, not about personal or autobiographical topics, because I don’t really think the internet needs any more maudlin self-indulgence.

But circumstances have caused me lately to resume my sporadic creative writing efforts, and I feel the need to briefly share my frustration and indecision.

I confess that despite any other ambitions have arisen in my life, the earliest and most consistent drive I’ve had is to play with words.  At all times I can’t help but notice their beauty and power, whether it’s in an Old English text, a 20th-century confessional poet, or daily conversation.  Some part of me always returns to the idea that I could say fuck it to prosaic ambitions and dedicate myself to wordplay as a way of life, as grandiose as that sounds.  I like to think of this part as akin to Bilbo Baggins’ “Tookish” tendencies.

But the greater part of me, which seems to grow in influence with every year of aging– the cynical part, or the realist part, depending on your perspective– says that only a rare handful of people ever feed and house their children on the fruits of their creative endeavors.

I’m lucky enough to have a father who sets a worthy example, as a children’s author of some renown.  I suppose that example is part of what fostered my early fixation– from the time I learned to read and write at three years old– on creative writing.  But I compare myself to him, and the way that he climbed his way into the small circle of respectable artists, not through manic inspiration, but through daily labor.  Even when he was working day jobs and helping to take care of me and my two brothers, he wrote and submitted until he succeeded.

I take as another example role models like Ludwig Wittgenstein, logical positivist philosopher, who at eight years old would suddenly stop, dumbfounded, in a doorway while contemplating questions about the workings of the universe– and never lost that insatiable drive to understand and explain.

I can’t believe that I am like either of those examples.  Once or twice a year, I seize on a rabid bout of creative obsession, and scrawl out poems and songs and fiction that, by others’ accounts (though I don’t really accept it) are pretty all right and have some artistic merit.  Then my mood swings and I tear up half of what I wrote and go back to accepting that I’m a destitute bum who contributes nothing of value to the world.

My drive isn’t enough, you see.  I don’t have the stability and dedication to sit down and write like a job every day– like Terry Pratchett, who early in his career, while still working day jobs, would force himself to write eight hundred words on his old manual typewriter every single evening, whether he felt like it or not.  (If he finished a book and was under his daily word limit, he promptly started another book, according to Neil Gaiman.)  And I’m not the kind of genius that Wittgenstein was, obsessed enough with a single mission that all other aspects of life can fall by the wayside while I pursue it single-mindedly.

My creativity can’t help but be all tangled up in my moods, my tumultuous relationships, and my own oddities and failings.  That’s the curse of manic depression.  Making superhuman starts, and then trashing or abandoning them.  That’s why my six-word biography is:  “Many projects started, none finished yet.”  It sounds amusing, and it really is– I can chuckle at it plenty.  But it’s also a fucking disaster.

My petulant inner demon also points out to me, usually at 3 AM, that I’ve had plenty of rejection in my life on all fronts, and I don’t really need to hear from an editor that my style “isn’t what their looking for,” or some other inane, patronizing let-down.  Because I tell myself that all the time already.

So there’s my pity-party, my tiny violin and my pathetic song, my bog-wallowing for today.  Have a good one, and I wish you more gumption and stick-to-it-iveness that I can muster up.

NB:  I do realize that ridiculing myself for self-pity doesn’t actually make it any less self-indulgent.  It’s basically my way of saying, “I know what I’m doing and I’m embarrassed about it but I’m doing it anyhow.”

Why I let my kid swear

As he’s become more engaged with the people and conversations around him, my four year old son (or four and three quarters, as he will very vocally insist) has begun to pick up many of the “bad” words in which I have a tendency to indulge.  I’m aware that most people who know us are fairly appalled by this, as evidenced by tensed jaws and searching looks at me that ask, “Aren’t you going to tell him not to say that?”

In short:  No, I’m not.  And it’s not just because I don’t give a fuck (irony intended.)  As with most issues in my life, I insist on making this decision deliberately and with open eyes.  And as with any controversial choice, a lack of action is an action in itself.  A child’s development is a trajectory of intense momentum, reflecting every aspect of its surrounding chaos, and what we don’t do is just as determinant as how we intervene.

For one thing, I’d feel like a hypocrite telling him not to use words reserved for “grown-ups.”  An incident from my childhood that I now find rather hilarious, but that I confess at the time was rather confusing, was when I told my cat to sit and for some reason it came out sounding like “Shit!”  (I must have been about 3.)  My mom was standing by, and immediately chastised me, concluding, “I’m sick of you kids’ god damn swearing!”*  Why, I wondered, was this word (which I hadn’t even said!) so offensive to her?  Why was it okay for her to say “god damn” but not for me to say “shit”?  And if it was, phonetically, so close to an innocuous word like “sit” that the two could be confused, what made one word bad and the other okay?  Nevertheless, I learned my lesson and did not say “shit” for many years; but the questions remained.  I never found any sensible answers, which is why to this day I have no problem swearing.  And since I have no problem with it from myself or the adults around me, I don’t see any reason to have a problem with it from my son.

“But”, the counterargument runs, “other people are offended by it.  He’ll get in trouble with teachers and with friends’ parents.  Don’t you want to protect him from that?”  Of course I don’t want him to run into unnecessary antagonisms.  But the answer to that danger, for me, is to speak frankly and openly about the issue with him.  Just as I warn him to tactfully avoid telling his preschool classmates that Santa Claus doesn’t exist, even though I make sure that he knows this, I also remind him that even though words can never be bad, some people don’t like certain words and so he shouldn’t use them everywhere.  He seems to understand this, since I have received no complaints from teachers or other parents.

The idea that words can not be inherently wrong is something that is very important to me as well.  Words are arbitrary signs created by humans to suit our communicative needs.  Field research indicates that no language should be considered “primitive,” i.e. less functional, than any other because they all adapt to the needs of the culture and location in which they are used.  Like any other word, swear words have arisen as a means of expressing what speakers feel is important; which function they serve– whether it’s to communicate strong feelings, as a marker for social divisions or contexts, or what have you– is by far less important than that they do serve any function.

This is my beef with the argument that our language is poorer for including swear words, because they limit the vocabulary of those who habitually employ them.  I am a strong proponent of broad vocabularies, but you can not realistically expand something by means of limiting it.  Censoring swear words is no less harmful than the removal of any other word set, in that it limits speakers’ overall range of self-expression.

That is, were it even possible for such censorship to ultimately succeed.  Where there is a need for language, language will exist, and its meaning derives, again, from its function, not its form.  Somehow eliminate the use of “fuck,” “shit,” “bitch,” etc., but unless you also eliminate the reasons why people use those words, new forms will quickly and inevitably arise or shift to take their place.  It’s called pejoration, and it’s an attested and ubiquitous sociolinguistic phenomenon, and it’s how today’s swear words came to be offensive in the first place, most of them having originally been completely commonplace.  (Which is a whole ‘nother complaint of mine– that the daily language of a conquered people becomes pejorated, while the language of the ruling class of invaders is considered polite.  What’s polite about invasion and subjugation?)

And that, I believe, is the root of most censorship proponents’ real issue with swearing.  Not the words themselves, or even their “crude” or “blasphemous” etymological origins, but the function they serve.  It is offensive to society’s mores that individuals should express such intense anger, frustration and loathing.  It is offensive that people should think or speak about sexual relations or bodily functions in terms that are not either blindingly euphemistic or coldly scientific.  It is offensive that people should openly express the ugly nature they perceive in others.

If it is offensive that adults should express these ideas, it is all the more so that children, to whom we insist on attributing lily-white innocence of thought, should do the same.  This is probably also why female children seem to be more harshly reprimanded for swearing than are boys:  everyone knows that boys like to think about sex and poop and get mad instead of sad and be mean to each other.  Girls are, per Victorian ideals, meant to be moral paragons who don’t want to get their dresses or their mouths dirty.

It is for the same reasons, then, that I wholeheartedly oppose such censorship.  The answer to negative sentiments is not to smother them by excising their means of expression.  It’s to deal with them as they come.  If my son stubs his toe and yells “Shit! Fuck!” just the same as I would, I am not concerned that he said the wrong words, but that his toe hurts.  If he throws his toy and yells “God damn it!” I’m concerned that he is having trouble problem solving and coping with frustration, not that he used the “wrong” words to talk about it.  And when he gets older, if he hears ideas he thinks are dumb and says “Fuck that!” I will listen to his objections and encourage him to follow up, rather than replace, the emotional interjection with rational discussion.

There are a hell of a lot of things I hate to hear out of my kid’s mouth more than swear words.  Among them are: “I’m going to kill you!”  “I’m dropping a bomb on them, boom!” and “That’s for girls!”

In fact, there are a lot of other parenting issues that concern me more than whether or not my son swears.  The world is fraught with dangers to his conscience, safety and self-image.  I’d rather spend my time teaching him how to navigate in that world than policing his language.  And if he hears offensive comments like the examples above and, rather than parrot them, responds, “Fuck that shit!”– all he’ll get from me is a sigh of relief, a high five, and wholehearted agreement.


*NB:  Since initially writing this, I’ve been informed by my dad that while he remembers this happening, he’s certain that my mom was making a joke, which I at my tender age couldn’t recognize.  Sorry, Mom.