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Dear Entertainment Industry: Stop Promoting Damaging Stereotypes About Brain Damage

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Dear Entertainment Industry, from a “retarded person,”

Even reading the word stings. But why shouldn’t I call myself what others call people like me? In the most literal sense of the word, I am slow. I move slowly. Think slowly. I’m slow to catch on and, a lot of times, unable to keep up. Physically and mentally, I am slow. I have brain damage.

In high school, a car accident left me in a coma with a dozen shattered bones and a traumatic brain injury (TBI). Most people can’t tell anymore by looking at me that I have brain damage. It was 17 years ago, but some effects are permanent, at least so far.

People can’t tell by looking at me that the muscles on one side of my body had to be rebuilt. (Imagine when your foot is asleep. Sort of numb. Unable to move. On the whole right side of your body. Also, the dozen or so shattered bones are on your left. You can’t move.) They can’t tell that the muscles are still hard to control and spastic, causing near-constant pain. They can’t tell that for the first 17 years of my life I was right-handed, and then I learned to be a lefty because of the pain caused by my TBI. No one knows how truly devastating it was for me to be an aspiring artist who could suddenly no longer draw. They don’t know that I stayed up all night every night finishing work in college and in every job I’ve had since. The car accident took my best friend’s life, and brain damage took mine.

For something that affects so many people, disability is rarely shown on TV or in movies, and almost never accurately. Before it happened to me, I didn’t know brain damage could do this to a body. Not one as young as mine. I knew about strokes, and I knew about congenital disorders like cerebral palsy, but I had never heard of someone like me, and had certainly never seen it on TV. Lately, I have been binge-watching “Broad City” from beginning to end, and I have noticed quite a few characters with disabilities (kudos Abbi and Ilana).

After the last season ended for like the fifth time, Hulu decided I needed a change and automatically continued with what I guess was a random episode of a show it recommended. The screen said “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia: Sweet Dee Dates a Retarded Person.” My stomach dropped. Like a lot of others, I hate that word. It makes me cringe when I hear it. I have been called that. My friends have been called that. Since getting brain damage, I have thought about it a lot. I have seen “It’s Always Sunny” before and it made me laugh. “The Nightman Cometh” episode had me crying from laughing so hard. And I get their schtick, they’re terrible people. Bad people doing bad things. Got it. I decided to watch it and see if I would laugh.

I cringed every time they used the R-word — five times in the first minute, and continuously throughout the episode. I couldn’t see anything else as even remotely amusing, and the look of horror glued to my face gave me a headache as I watched the characters debate the “clues” as to whether Dee’s new boyfriend, Kevin, “rode the short bus.” They inspect photos of him to decide if he “looks retarded.” Later, while on a date with Kevin, Dee gawks at the posturing of his hand and his loud laughter disgustedly, then tells him that they need to break up.

I looked down at my own right hand, lying on my lap in a similarly clenched position. I thought about all the times I was self-conscious that people were staring. I thought about how the right side of my face twitches and my right eye closes when I laugh. I thought about how these things still bother me after 17 years. I thought back to all the times my ex winced and told me that my laughter was “piercing.” I remembered being ghosted every time I told a potential date that I have brain damage before meeting. I thought of every time the thought of people around me judging me was even more daunting than the task itself. Tasks like going through the check-out line if there are others waiting, or replying to a question I wasn’t prepared for. Every little thing can seem like a challenge some days.

My body doesn’t function the way it once did. When I woke up and found my right side useless, I learned to do everything I once knew in a new and different way. I think that’s amazing. So why do I constantly feel worthless? Besides the pain and daily struggles I face, why don’t I have the confidence to say what I have been through? I am resilient. I literally rebuilt myself after being crushed. I should be proud of that. I am proud of that.

But I know the stigma. I know it like the sting of hearing “Dude, do you have brain damage?” thrown around as an insult. I know what it’s like to be accused of lying. Wanting attention. That’s a funny one… who would want this attention? I would give anything if I didn’t have the attention I get unintentionally, especially if it meant I wouldn’t have the challenges I have.

You’ve seen movies and read stories about people faking disabilities — what about a movie about no one believing when it’s real? How common is that? I’d guess pretty common. My own doctors have told me my medical history was impossible, even with access to my medical records. I know the feeling of shame when a friend or stranger points out that I’m slow, or have no rhythm, or that I look perfectly fine and have no right to use a riding cart in the store when my spasms are too bad to walk. And I know how people often treat people with brain damage. Like they’re “stupid.” From pre-k, I befriended kids with disabilities at school and realized early that the ones the other kids called the R-word were actually just regular kids with extra challenges. Literally slowed down by obstacles. Now I have obstacles, but I didn’t share them for over 10 years.

After I healed enough, I hid it. For over 10 years I tried to hide the effects of my brain damage. Over 10 years I pretended to be fine. Pretended to be “normal.” Pretended I wasn’t in pain and pretended I didn’t have brain damage. I tried to hide my physical challenges and pain from losing muscle strength and control on one half of my body. I tried to hide that I spent years rebuilding myself and that it wasn’t totally successful. I hid it even from my closest friends. I laughed it off when people said they never noticed I was a lefty, instead of explaining that I taught myself after 17 years of being right-handed. I said I just hated to run, not that I physically can’t anymore. I said that working out is gross, not that I can’t keep up.

I’ve been a spy in the abled world for over a decade. I wanted to help kids like me, and in college I started working with kids and young adults with brain damage. I saw how most people in public and even some of my clients’ families treated them and talked to them, or talked about them like they weren’t even there. None of them knew I had brain damage too.

I am at the point in my life where I can write this. It took 17 years. It took meeting my husband, who adores my loud laughter and unreasonably tight hugs. My husband has Tourette’s, and is very familiar with gross misunderstanding, oversimplification, and exaggeration when it comes to challenges people think they know about. He became acquainted around the time in middle school when an ignorant teacher pointed out his “weird behavior” to the class and a classmate called out “Ew he’s jerking off!” (he wasn’t), earning my sweet husband the label of That Kid That Masturbated in Class That One Time for the remainder of school.

Sounds like a scene out of a movie, right? Yeah. That’s a problem. This isn’t comedy. This is real life, and this one event is what he recalls the most about school — that, and the relentless bullying that followed him until he moved out of state for college.* And there are still TV shows like this, which are offensive and damaging to literally millions of people. It’s the reason I can’t be upfront about having brain damage. At the end of “It’s Always Sunny,” Kevin got the last laugh — because he was a rich and successful rapper. In the end, they decide he’s “probably not retarded.” Again, I realize they’re supposed to be awful people. But they are also representative of a majority of people who don’t know about disabilities or care to learn.

Unfortunately, I am not rich. I am not famous or even successful, due in large part to the challenges I have faced. And for that reason, I do not have the platform TV writers have to undo the damage done by things like this. I decided to use my energy to help others. And I have helped a lot of others. But if I had known what a physical toll it would be and in how much pain (and debt) I would end up, I might have focused on writing for TV. Then maybe I wouldn’t have to see my worst nightmare-turned-reality made into a joke for the world to laugh at.

I get it, intentionally offending is a thing. But they picked the wrong ones. Do not make my struggle a joke. Be funny without degrading millions of people with struggles you can’t even imagine. Please, someone, anyone with the means to fix this, do it. Entertainment industry, do better! Write better. Hell, someone hire me and I’ll do it. I’m hilarious when I’m not pissed off.

And for the record, I don’t use the R-word, and neither should you. I’m just a regular gal with some extra obstacles.

*My hubby is cool with me sharing his experience, and I quote: “Yeah babe, tell everyone. Nothing can be more humiliating than living it. I hope it helps someone.” ️ Same.

Getty image by Paseven.

Originally published: September 28, 2020
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