3 Ways I'm Untangling My Internalized Ableism
Today I saw a post about an “old couple party” that some friends from college were involved in, and it reminded me of those that my parents went to years back, in their 30s and 40s, when I was young. It was meant to be fun and funny to imagine themselves as elderly folk. And I remember thinking it funny back then, to see my parents and their friends dressed up in grey wigs, with pillows stuffed into too large pants and bras to make them larger, using wheelchairs, canes, and walkers, and with thick glasses or packages of Depends or Tena to denote their incontinence and bad eyesight being carried along or worn.
But today that image of relatively young and well people being dressed up in similar fashion hit me in a stark and upsetting way. It showed me something that I hadn’t been fully aware of, but was recently considering and opened my eyes to the ways I was taught to hate my disabled, aging self. It was a huge revelation. And I wanted to share it with you in case it is one that helps you to see things clearly and shift your perspective like it has mine.
I didn’t realize then, but my parents were unknowingly, and perhaps very unintentionally, teaching me that being old and being disabled were bad, undesirable, and worthy of being mocked. I held on to that lesson, and I applied it to myself when life sent me these challenges early and often. My hair started to grey when I was very young — by age 24 I was putting highlights over the top to disguise it, and within two more years I was coloring all my hair to cover up the huge amount of silver hair I had gained. I didn’t stop covering that silver until my mid-40s, when I finally realized that my salt and pepper hair was not evil or terrible, but simply hair. It did not make me undesirable or unattractive to have white hair. And while I now use my unique blend of black and white to make fun and funky adaptations of blue and black or purple and black, or purple and black and silver, I don’t have shame about my hair now. I did for over 20 years. I was ashamed of my hair changing in ways that made me “old.”
It wasn’t just my hair that caused me shame. At age 37 I needed a hysterectomy, and the loss of my fertility was something that kept coming up as a source of shame as well. People would often say things like, “You’re still young, you can still start a family,” when discussing my love life. And I would feel either obligated to correct them or embarrassed that I couldn’t find the confidence to correct them, because I knew that I should not be ashamed that I had required the surgical removal of my uterus. But I also knew that I felt like people didn’t view me in the same light now that I could not bear more children. Dating became a whole mess of ugliness when men would say they didn’t want children online and then in person would change that statement to “I want biological kids” and reject me and my barren body. And while I should have recognized this as men being dishonest to get a date, I instead felt like it was me being somehow deficient.
Around the same time, I was also dealing with significant fatigue and increasing pain. I eventually was diagnosed with fibromyalgia, osteoarthritis, inflammatory arthritis, chronic fatigue, C-PTSD, apnea, and interstitial cystitis. While these diagnoses were helpful in many ways and allowed me to move forward with treatments that are beneficial, the overall result is still that I am disabled. I have had several surgeries over the past eight years, I use a walker or a cane some of the time, and on long treks a wheelchair can be needed. I deal with incontinence issues due to both the symptoms of cystitis and emotional triggers from PTSD. I’ve gained significant weight over the last several years because movement has become a challenge, and disordered eating from my younger years makes dieting problematic.
In many ways I have become that caricature that my parents thought so entertaining when I was young. The grey, fat, walker-dependent, incontinent woman that they used to poke fun of is the woman that I am before I even turn 50. And I hated her. I was taught that this was the thing to mock. This was the elderly end of life person that I was meant to avoid. And I knew that I was to avoid it because we made fun of it. You do not mock what you wish to be. You mock what you despise.
So, as I turned into this image (or so I believed), I began to despise myself. And I didn’t fully understand why until today, when I saw these people dressed up as a version of me that they were making fun of. And it is not truly me that they are mocking, of course. But there are enough similarities that I understand they are seeing me as undesirable in some way. This knowledge made things “click.” My friend was recently a guest on a podcast, and he was talking about how when you become disabled how you see disabled people before that happens is how you will see yourself. This was a difficult statement for me to wrap my head around. I never would have believed that I was ableist before becoming disabled, but I didn’t like myself and I didn’t consider myself in good ways once I lost function, had to stop working and was unable to complete goals I once had for myself. I hated being disabled. I only saw lack and I couldn’t find the good in myself. I saw the damage and the loss, and I considered myself as less than before. It was a very dark time.
Thankfully, I have so many people who see the good in me, and who inspire me with their own ability to rise and do amazing things, and I am shifting the way that I see myself. I’m able to love myself and trust myself in ways that I could not for many years. I no longer see damage and loss but see possibility and potential. I know that I can do all sorts of amazing things, and that some of those things I have not even imagined yet but will in the future — because my view of myself and my ability to conquer my circumstance continues to grow ever greater.
But I realized today that I was ableist. I was taught, no matter how accidentally or unintentionally, that having grey hair and using a wheelchair and being incontinent and being large were things to be mocked, which meant that they were things to be avoided, which meant that they were undesirable, which meant that they were less than. When I became these things, I considered myself less than. I am not less than anything or anyone. You are not less than. No matter what your upbringing may have taught you, no matter how accidentally or unintentionally, using a wheelchair or being large or not having a uterus or being blind or having chronic illness or whatever might be a challenge in your life does not make you less than anything or anyone else. You are valuable and capable. You are good and strong and loved and worthy.
Do not let how you erroneously viewed people in the past be how you continue to view them or yourself today. Stop looking at people through these terrible ableist parties and start looking at them as equal, because that is what they are. Equal. Nobody is the punchline to your joke, or the group you mock when you dress up at your party. That behavior is damaging. And we need to start treating all people with the equal respect they are due. And if you, like me, started hating yourself as a result of this false belief that one way of being was less than another, you can make a change.
I have found that these three things help me shift my view.
1. Change your statements about yourself and your ability.
Don’t make blanket “I can’t” statements about things unless you know that they are absolutely true and focus instead on “I can” statements. Think about what you are capable of and put your focus there. What you put your attention on grows stronger, so putting your focus on your ability makes that a priority and you will start to see all the good things that you can do.
2. Don’t be afraid to fail.
I’ve just graduated with a lesser degree from graduate school, because I could not accomplish my PhD. I’ve been consistently making terrible “loaves” that are more like lumps of sourdough bread for the last month. I have a business that I have been trying to start since August that is not yet off the ground. None of these things is upsetting me at this time. I’m still trying to accomplish the bread, as it is improving steadily! The business may yet succeed, but I don’t know. And the degree of PhD will likely never happen, but I tried, and that is what matters. I now know that I am not capable of completing, but I did get the lesser degree and I learned a ton and I met great people along the way, so none of that was wasted time or energy or money. It was all a great part of my journey. Do not be afraid of trying a thing that fails, because you don’t know what great things might be along the path.
3.Take really good care of yourself.
This can mean physical care, like rest and medication and exercise and nourishing food, but it can also mean emotional and spiritual care like getting some therapy or journaling or meditation or attending religious service/ritual, and self-care like getting that manicure or having a massage or going for a swim.
One thing I like to do is stop a few times a day and ask myself, “What is the most loving thing that I can do for myself right now?” and then do that! Starting to do what is loving for yourself makes it hard to hate yourself. Tell yourself as often as you need to that you are not less than. You are valuable and capable, good, strong, loved, and worthy. Shift that belief and start to see yourself and others through the lens of equality and inclusion. Don’t let a negative history determine how you see yourself today.
Getty image by Olga Strelnikova