Content Warning: Mentions of functioning labels, abuse, and trauma.
Have you been newly diagnosed with a disability?
You have rights!
Do you know what these rights are?
The road that led to these rights was long and grueling and there is still much to be done. Sure, people with disabilities have rights, but that doesn’t mean those rights are going to be upheld in the many interactions that occur throughout a person’s life time. Learning that you have a disability is only one step in a very long and potentially very difficult journey towards finding self-acceptance, learning self-advocacy, and developing self-determination.
I was born with an invisible disability. This invisible disability was not determined until I was 36 years old. Up until that point, I knew I was different. I felt broken. I didn’t understand why I struggled like I did, why I couldn’t be the way others wanted me to be, why the world was such a confusing place. I learned early in my life how to mask. This was one of many survival strategies that I would develop as a way to cope. My adaptive skills were all about surviving and I got really good at it. I often receive confusing looks from people when I tell them I am autistic.
I can see what is going through their minds by their facial expressions and body language. How can that be? I am a teacher, a mother, a drive a car, I live independently, I was married, and I have completed 12 years of higher education. How can that be?
Because it is.
But I must be high functioning? Right??
The psychologist that diagnosed me told me that I can function, but I am highly impaired. What does this mean? It means that Autism exists on a spectrum. It means that this spectrum is not a straight line, but rather a kaleidoscope of colors on a color wheel.
Rebecca Burgess describes the spectrum as,
Each person with autism will have a set of traits all in different areas of the spectrum. The areas where they don’t have a trait will function no differently to a neurotypical brain, but may be affected by circumstances. In example, I am good at making conversation (language). But I get sensory overload in loud and crowded spaces, which then makes conversation very hard for me.
I may appear functional in certain situations, but not in others. I thrive in the world of academics, but I struggle with various aspects within academics. I have social anxiety and generalized anxiety disorder in addition to be being autistic. I also have Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome that has resulted in my muscles having to hold my body together, because my bones essentially float. I have very unstable joints and experience chronic pain. I am both a sensory seeker and a sensory avoider depending on the situation. I am developmentally delayed. I am a highly verbal person, but I struggle with communicating effectively with people who don’t understand how I communicate. I am a very literal thinker. I have dyscalculia (math learning disability); yet understanding science concepts is easy for me. I am a highly educated, highly trained person, but have continued to struggle with underemployment. I have been experiencing severe burnout for decades. I also struggle with Complex-PTSD from growing up in an environment that was damaging to me as well as being in an abusive marriage. I married what I knew, because I know how to survive in that environment.
The key word here is “survive”. I am really good at surviving, but I am only now learning at the age of 45 how to live. I have only recently understood the nature of the deep attachment wound that I have had since I was a child. Those strong adaptive skills that I have been utilizing all my life to survive are not useful when you are trying to live.
I don’t want to become a burden, so I fight every day to hold on to my independence and the appearance that I can function in this world that is not designed for me. I internalized the message over the years that I am a burden, that I am no good. I have been regularly misread and misunderstood. Toxic shame became a regular part of my life.
I am afraid to let myself be vulnerable and rely on other people, because I have been consistently denied needed emotional support by those closest to me. I struggle accepting help, because I have trust issues and don’t want to feel like a burden.
In order to live, in order to maintain healthy relationships, I have to deprogram myself and learn adaptive skills that focus on living, not just surviving. I grew up in a home where everyone was surviving. I was not recognized for who I am as a person, but rather what I was expected to provide for others. I was conditioned to be a codependent. I continued to survive under these conditions in my marriage which only added to my trauma. I am in a better place now, but my journey is not complete. I still have a long way to go toward healing and self-acceptance.
I made the conscious decision years ago that I was going to be the parent I needed, but never had. I became determined to do what I could to make the world better for children and my students. My counselor has had the considerable task of reminding me that I need to think about myself a well. I need to make the world better for myself and it is not selfish to think in those terms.
Logically, I know that I am not a burden. Logically, I know that I am capable and highly skilled. Emotionally, I am a no good burden not worth anything. This is where the disconnect lies.
I presume competence with all my students. I can support my children and others in healing and believing in themselves. Unfortunately, I cannot do the same for myself. At first I thought there was some sort of barrier that I needed to find a way to get around, under, over, or through just like how I have faced all the other barriers in my life. The truth of the matter is that there is no barrier. There is nothing there, just a void with nowhere for me to go. I am unable to reach my injured core self, because of how deep my attachment wound really is. I am stuck and have been stuck for a very, very long time in this unending cycle of grief on the edge of this void unable to cross in order to comfort and heal my core self.
So, what do I do now?
That is the challenge that my counselor and I am currently facing. What type of resource figure can I create to help bridge the void between my adult self and the injured core self?
This blog was a starting point to see if I could write to someone who was newly diagnosed and explain what disability rights are to me as well as describing the struggles of feeling like a burden and the fear of vulnerability. Unfortunately, I don’t feel I have achieved what I had set out to do.
My logical part of myself and my emotional part of myself are still at odds with each other. I began this blog by stating people with disabilities have rights. Great! Yet, we don’t live in a perfect world and those rights are routinely violated. To have to keep fighting for your own existence is exhausting, hence the decades of severe burnout that I have experienced.
To those who are newly diagnosed, your journey will be your own and it is not going to be easy. There has been progress made, but exclusionary practices are still being utilized. Intersectionality is not being considered as it needs to be. Disability Justice is not the same Disability Rights. There are individuals, groups, and organizations that have taken up the challenge of addressing Disability Justice.
Disability Justice was built because the Disability Rights Movement and Disability Studies do not inherently centralize the needs and experiences of folks experiencing intersectional oppression, such as “disabled people of color, immigrants with disabilities, queers with disabilities, trans and gender non-conforming people with disabilities, people with disabilities who are houseless, people with disabilities who are incarcerated, people with disabilities who have had their ancestral lands stolen, amongst others.”
Initially a group of queer disabled women of color, Patty Berne, Mia Mingus, and Stacy Milbern, who eventually united with Leroy Moore, Eli Clare, and Sebastian Margaret, these activists formed the Disability Justice movement to strive for collective liberation. Visit the source of this summary, “Disability Justice, A Working Draft” by Patty Berne to read about the ten principles of the movement.
I am on a journey of healing with the goal of finding self-acceptance. I still have a long way to go, but I recognize the long distance I have travelled. I wrote the following in April 2020 in a blog entitled Midnight Thoughts,
Along the way, a person might encounter moments where they feel stuck or moments where they feel they have lost traction. Some might even feel trapped in their circumstances. Panic might arise. Anger and frustration as well. Acknowledge these feelings. Sit with these feelings without judgement. This is not an easy task. It takes practice and guidance from a trained professional. There is no shame in asking for help.
Find a healthy way to center yourself and try again by taking one step at a time and dealing with one thing at a time. Keep moving forward.
I am feeling stuck now, but this is only one moment in time. I have been a runner for 27 years. I feel confident in my running and it helps me feeling grounded. I know where my feet are when I run. Here I am getting in my running stance. I am determined to find a way to bridge the void so that I can keep moving forward. As a newly diagnosed person, I hope you do the same.