Departure

“Try not to associate bodily defect with mental, my good friend, except for a solid reason.”
— from David Copperfield, by Charles Dickens

Disclaimer: This is a real work in progress.  I can’t seem to fix it so it doesn’t come across as a lecture, and that’s not my intent.  Please keep in mind that the “you” here is the general “you,” and is not meant to refer to what you personally might have done or said or thought.  Please also feel free to tell me to get over myself in the comments.

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I’m bailing on today’s prompt – my very first kiss was entirely forgettable and nothing to write home about (but if you want to know about a first kiss, you can click here – this is one of my favorites, despite the ending).  Instead, I want to touch on something that’s come up in a few comments lately but is by no means a new “problem” for me.

My hearing loss doesn’t make me special, you guys.  Here’s what I mean:

Toward the end of my third year of law school, a classmate I only knew in passing randomly came up to me and told me earnestly that she was “so impressed” that I’d managed to get through three years of law school despite not being able to hear.  This was clearly meant to be taken as a compliment.  And this happens a fair amount; in fact, it happened just yesterday in the comments section.

The other way it comes up is, “That sure must have been hard, but look how strong it made you.”  I call that the Magic Cripple.  This also just happened, on someone else’s site.

Let me be clear: I know there’s no condescension intended in these statements, that the people who say these things mean well.  I get that, and I appreciate it.  But the only thing statements like that do is reinforce the idea that I shouldn’t have been able to come through a thing like losing my hearing overnight, that I shouldn’t have been able to succeed at law school (or anything else) because I can’t hear normally anymore.

Having a disability and being successful are not mutually exclusive, and to imply that they are (even if you don’t realize you’re doing it) is harmful.  It perpetuates the stereotype that people with disabilities are less than and can prevent them from even being offered the opportunity to show what they are capable of.  It happened to me.  When I was finally ready to try to find a new job after losing my hearing (and my old job), I sent out hundreds of resumes (which stated that I needed to be contacted via relay) and called so many places (via relay) and was offered . . . three interviews.  And even each of those three places more or less openly doubted that I could do the job once they learned of my hearing impairment, even after meeting me.

The way I see it, there’s no magic in “overcoming” a disability.  It doesn’t make you brave or inspirational or strong.  You were either already brave and inspirational and strong before (or, at least, had it in you to be) or you weren’t.  What I mean is, some people will succeed after, say, losing their hearing or the use of their legs, and some won’t.  What determines that is who you were before, not the fact that a terrible thing happened to you.  I’ve talked about this before:

Sometimes people say, “You’re so brave,” or “I don’t think I could have handled it as well as you have.” I rarely think of myself as courageous, and people only see me that way because they think what happened to me is unbelievable.  They ask, “How did you ever get through it?” I say, “You do what you have to do. You get up every day, even when it’s hard, and you take it hour by hour – minute by minute if you have to: Get out of bed now; go to the gym now; eat lunch now; read this book now. Then you go to bed and do it again tomorrow.” Eventually, it isn’t so hard to get out of bed, and one day you realize that life can still be good and that you want to be a part of it.

You can’t imagine it happening to you, and if you tried, you’d assume that you wouldn’t be able to survive, let alone succeed.  God knows that’s how I felt when it happened to me.  But the truth, for almost everyone, is that you would.

Please don’t misunderstand me: I appreciate where you’re coming from, and I know you mean well.  I’m just asking you to think about the way you see me, and other people like me.  All I’m saying is, what I’m capable of with a hearing impairment is generally not more remarkable than what I would be capable of with normal hearing.  I’m different, but I’m not special.

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8 thoughts on “Departure

  1. I’m really glad you shared this post, as it’s something I think about often, albeit for different reasons. Bear with me: My dad died of cancer when I was 10. I had a back brace & serious back surgery at 12. My ex-boyfriend committed suicide when I was 20. In other words, a lot of crappy things have happened in my life that were all out of my control, & people often tell me things like, “I don’t know if I could’ve handled it as well as you didm” or, “You’re so strong.” The truth is that I probably could’ve handled all of those things better & that there are days when I certainly didn’t feel strong – as well as days when I thinkm “Hell, yes, I’m strong, because this is a lot of shit.” But like you said, you live with what you have to live with, & you just DO it.

    We all think we couldn’t handle [insert whatever thing here], but what other options do we have? Walking into traffic? Yeah, no. So we live life, & we try to do it well, & it is what it is: just our lives, you know? I don’t know my life any other way than the way it’s been. And while I certainly don’t look back on it & think, “Oh, I’m so glad those things happened,” I also have no idea who I would be if they HADN’T happened because… that’s just my life, yo. I do it because I have to do it, & I might as well like doing it while I’m at it.

    This is all, as I said, quite unrelated on the surface to your being deaf (or hard of hearing – I’m not sure which you are because I don’t know you [yet]). But your words reminded me of how I’ve felt sometimes when people have said things to me that seem absurd & rude & couched in weird “compliments,” & while you’re of course free to feel however you feel & likely warranted in doing so, maybe it’s helpful, in some way, to hear similar feelings from someone with a wholly different story but similar feelings. I think that when people say things like, “You’re so inspirational!” what they mean is, “I have no idea how I would deal with what you’ve dealt with,” be it disability or an otherwise crappy deck of life cards, & because your life looks so very different from theirs, you seem like an inspiration, a braver person than they can see themselves being. But I try to remind myself that there are probably things in their lives that I can’t imagine being strong through, either! But circumstances, man. Life. (And then, I remind myself not to say dumb things aloud so that people don’t have to feel about my stupid statements like I do about theirs.)

    This was a novel. Super-sorry. But again, thanks for sharing.

  2. Thank you. Thank you, thank you, thank you. I can’t tell you how much it means to me that you took the time to leave such a thoughtful comment. And I did not at all take it like “Let’s see who has it worse.” (And let me say, I’m very sorry for your losses; that is a side of the coin I just cannot imagine.) I totally understand your point, and this:

    I think that when people say things like, “You’re so inspirational!” what they mean is, “I have no idea how I would deal with what you’ve dealt with,” be it disability or an otherwise crappy deck of life cards, & because your life looks so very different from theirs, you seem like an inspiration, a braver person than they can see themselves being.

    That’s exactly what I was trying to convey in all my bumbling around toward the end. I understand why they say that; I’m sure I felt that way before (and, to be honest, I probably still have felt that way about other people since, so . . . .heal thyself and all that). And so, again, I don’t take it personally (or at least I try not to); my point was not to lecture or make people feel bad for expressing their feelings, it was just to try and explain what it looks like from my side of the fence.

    As far as not knowing what kind of person you’d be if all of the bad stuff hadn’t happened, because this is just your life, I get that too. I do wonder, for instance, if I’d have really ever gotten off my lazy ass and quit my job to go to law school if this had never happened to me. And the truth is, I couldn’t *help* but succeed in law school – I had a captionist who came to class with me and typed everything that everyone said and then sent me a transcript later. I mean, it’s entirely possible that I would have done *worse* in school if I hadn’t attended as a hearing impaired student (which is how I think of myself, to answer your question). But this is the life I have now and, like you say, I might as well just be the best at it.

    So yes. Yes to everything. Thank you again for sharing all of this.

  3. I commented on your post with ‘What an inspirational letter’, or something to that effect, two days ago. And the sad thing is, I deleted some other comment before posting that one that said something else, and I was worried it WOULD be offensive or hurtful to you, because I’m new at this and didn’t know what to say or what to not say. And I messed up anyway.

    Basically, I’m sorry. I was thoughtless, and you laid the whole thing out here in a way that makes me see exactly why and how I was thoughtless. I definitely do not think you are less than ANYTHING, cognitively, but my words implied otherwise. And thanks for taking the time to write this post, so people like me know how we’re messing up.

    • Kristen, I really was not offended or hurt, at all. I just wanted to talk about it after getting three comments in the same vein in a very short period of time. It’s something that I think about from time to time and even struggle with myself with regard to other people with disabilities or tragedies in their lives. I thought it might be useful to share my perspective, and it seems like, by and large, it was, so I’m grateful. Thanks for taking the time to comment.

  4. I agree, we are what we are because of what we’ve experienced, but we bring to each experience what we already were. And I know that I am a different person because of the tragedy in my life, but I also know I am not that different from anyone else. I think most everyone will rise to the challenge of their own life. And when we say that we don’t know if we could handle something that someone else has handled gracefully, well, most often we are really saying we hope we never have to.

    • You know what? That’s an excellent way to put it, Dawn: “when we say that we don’t know if we could handle something that someone else has handled gracefully, well, most often we are really saying we hope we never have to.” Thank you for helping me put it in perspective.

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