Why finding out who you are is the most important – but hardest – thing you’ll ever do

I’ve always struggled to both find and promote my own identity, and because of this I have come to find reading about other’s processes of discovering their own identity fascinating. As a writer who writes about identity and all the ups and downs that come with accepting yourself (as, essentially, that’s what writing means to me), I’m doubly fascinated by such a process because it makes me wonder why the search for identity seems to lie at the core of every person and, indeed, every character. (Couple this with a search for voice, as I wrote about last week, and my mind is blown. It can also leave me a little heart broken – but in a good way.)

Maybe this is because an identity is something every person wants. However, this sense of identity that has pervaded popular culture appears fixable and, honestly, a bit too static for my taste. If you are a girly girl, for example, you should be flirty and constantly lovely and wear cute dresses that always look as if they were just bought that day. If you’re a guy’s guy, you should be strong and uber-masculine and always protect your woman and never show emotion.

These are extremes, obviously, but what about those of us (and, I expect, the majority of us) who lie somewhere in the middle?

Those are the kinds of stories I want to read about. They’re also the stories I want to write. But, I’ve been finding, writing those stories can be just as hard – and maybe even more so – as living them.

The ultimate “searching for identity” book I always seem to come back to – even though I only first read it last summer – is Lucy Grealy’s Autobiography of a Face. I was originally struck the first time I read it, and I continue to be struck, by how her lovely narrative can somehow seamlessly hold two disparate parts of herself up to such eloquent commentary: the first “part” as, essentially, who/what she thinks she should be and the second “part” as who she actually is. Without going into any more specific details about the book – because you should all seriously check it out or place it on hold at your local library – her narrative is roughly divided into a back-and-forth commentary between these two “parts” of herself. And what I find so amazing is that she is both refreshingly critical and heartbreakingly pragmatic about these two parts that are at odds with each other most of the time. But whether she essentially becomes or accepts these two somewhat contradictory parts of herself as being who she really is (or whether she is something else altogether), her struggle to answer that question definitively is a messy one that, at times, obliterates everything else in its path.

Which is the part of the book that I find myself the most drawn to. There’s this image I seem to have in my head of the person I want to be – the person, in some ways, I deeply yearn to be – and this other person I actually am. The person I am I can be disappointed with at times, but I can also be elated and surprised and utterly astounded by at others.

I have to learn – and I am, happily, slowly learning – not just to be moved by the utterly astounding person, though, but also by the one who disappoints me at times. Because in those two persons, and not just the one who does everything “right” all the time, is who I really am. And when those two persons come out on the same day, it doesn’t mean that I’m confused about who I really am.

It means I am comfortable with who I really am, and am comfortable with showing who I really am to others. Even though that can be hard. (Correction: is hard.)

Lucy Grealy taught me this in the words of her memoir. She was able to move me, as a person, towards an identity I might not like all sides of on my best days, and who I definitely don’t like all sides of on my bad ones.

But that shouldn’t change who I am, or who I want to be. And that realization is the hard part, but the good part. It’s also the part that makes me utterly, heartbreaking human.

I might be doomed to search for the words that will one day describe who I really am at my core – the ones we all search for as we either come closer to or further away from our identity.

Or I might never find the words.

But the search, I am just starting to tell myself, makes it all worthwhile. The search is the sweet part, the goal elusive and temporary.

And being ok with holding these two disparate parts in equal measure, rather than having one being in a state of perpetual competition with the other, might be the best lesson I will ever teach myself.

“Artists are people driven by the tension between the desire to communicate and the desire to hide.” -D.W. Winnicott

 

How I found my voice … and why I’m still trying to find it

I’ve been thinking a lot about voice lately: who has it, who doesn’t, and why it’s worth having in the first place.

I think it’s safe to say that for much of my life I’ve been searching for this voice – the one I can proudly proclaim to the world and say, yes, this is mine, this is me. I’ve already mentioned a few struggles as to why this voice has been harder for me to find and cultivate than it may have been for others. I think I’ve been scared, quite frankly, to put my voice out there because I’m afraid it will be shot down, or, worse, will be drowned out by other, louder voices.

This past year I’ve read a lot of marginalized voices. This was both for my Masters studies and for I course I T.A.’ed at the University of Winnipeg called Representations of Disability in Literary and Cultural Texts. It was the first time the course – or anything remotely like it – was offered, and it was such a thrill to see undergraduate students engaging with characters and narrators that they wouldn’t normally have interacted with in your typical English course. Discussions of such characters opened up lively conversations about different body forms, expression, notions of compensation of what a body can do and what it can’t, and various other topics. I’m not saying that these topics might be ignored in other classes, but it did make me think a lot about why topics like the ones mentioned aren’t talked about on a regular basis.

And what I’ve come up with is that it depends on what kind of character brings them up, or evokes such conversation. Usually it’s a character that might have been ignored or deemed abnormal (for whatever reason), and so those characters are the ones less likely to appear in literature and other cultural texts (media, film, etc.).

Ok, so I’ve gone off on a tangent. What does this have to do with voice, you might ask?

Well, if that character (appearing in either fiction or non-fiction) has been relatively ignored in literature, then their voice has also been ignored. And because of that unfortunate circumstance, whenever that voice happens to appear, it’s still treated as an anomaly.

And so the merry-go-round takes a spin once again.

I’ve been trying to figure out a way for years to make a voice like mine be able to stand up on its own. And it’s been hard, I’ll admit. There’s a lot of diversity in this world, and rather than competing with those rich and diverse voices that tend to talk over one another at times, we should be able to work together to make our voices stronger.

I say should, because I don’t think that’s happened yet – there have been attempts, yes, but not to the extent that I think it could potentially happen. And I think this is possible, it just might be down the road a bit.

So, in the meantime, I’m going to put my voice out there and just let it go. I hope that not only disabled people can see truth in it, but anyone who has run up against this somewhat impenetrable mentality of “oh, sorry, you have to act/look like/embody such-and-such in order for us to listen to you, so go back and try again.”

And all I can do is hope for the best.

And for all those people out there trying to find their voice, whether in print or just in life, here’s my advice: don’t stop trying till you find it. Because when you do, and when you know how to use it, it’s pretty dang special.

“You have a freak flag. You’re just not flying it.” – The Family Stone

Why inaccessible buildings are a form of discrimination

As I live in a relatively “old” city with relatively “old” neighbourhoods that come with old architecture (although, to be sure, I have it better than other North American cities, let alone European history-at-my-doorstep cities), I’ve come up against places I’ve wanted to go that, for all intents and purposes, I just can’t get into.

That’s always left me frustrated, I have to admit. And I’ve had to learn to live with that frustration, unfortunately.

Don’t get me wrong: I know there are many, many reasons a building remains inaccessible. I know the costs to make a building – especially an old building – accessible are astronomical, which doesn’t encourage proprietors to take the steps needed to make their building accessible by any means, also unfortunately.

But, let me just put this out there, as derisive an issue as it might be: how is saying I can’t enter a building (or have to enter through a different, “accessible” entrance separate from the “main” entrance) any different than saying that women, people who are gay, or people of different racial or ethnic minorities (or majorities, as the case may be) cannot enter a building?

Because, when I can’t enter a building, oftentimes it feels like that is somehow my fault – that I’ve done something wrong, that my kind aren’t the reason or the audience the building/establishment was made for or meant to provide services to.

And that’s, frankly, upsetting on a number of different levels.

*

I do have more “choices” of mobility than other people might. I can transfer into a manual chair, which can literally open up doors to places I can get into. And people reading this (and people I’ve come across) have said things, when finding out some places aren’t accessible, like, “Well why don’t you just use your manual chair to make sure you can get in?”

This has been a go-to option that I’m fortunate I can exercise when the time arises. But, unfortunately, it doesn’t really solve the problem. Being so used to being in an electric chair, I totally take my mobility for granted (but, then again, who doesn’t take their mobility for granted), but the times I really notice not having my electric wheelchair is when, lo and behold, I’m not using it. And although the portability of a manual chair is great, I literally feel like another person in my manual chair – a person who can’t push themselves around, so one who is literally “stuck” when no one is around to push them. (Also, interestingly but not surprisingly, my confidence level differs from chair to chair, too.)

So, getting “into” somewhere in my manual chair doesn’t actually dictate a “successful” excursion to that establishment – certainly not when I have less confidence in myself as a person and when I am literally dependent on someone else taking me from point A to point B (even when those points are just across a room).

Also, there seems to be this myth that paying to make a place accessible won’t actually make a difference to who will/will not use said establishment. Not only do I find this myth frustrating, but I also sense an untruth lies at the centre of it. For, if an establishment opens up their space to a growing portion of the population who uses non-portable wheelchairs, walkers, and other mobility devices, of course their clientele will change. And all disabled people, despite what the media say, are not below the poverty line. Many of them are, to be sure, but not everyone. A great number of the disabled people I know, in fact, are middle-class persons like me who are just as susceptible to going out and blowing our money on the next must-have item.

Case in point: there’s an indie used movie/music store in my neighbourhood that used to be perfectly accessible until about a year ago when they changed locations just a block away. I used to go there almost every day in the summer (even when I didn’t live in the neighbourhood) to rent DVDs (this was pre-Netflix, but even still they have an amazing selection of independent/lesser known movies) and browse their blow-out DVD selection. I most likely spent a couple hundred dollars there every year, easily, until they moved locations. Now, they have a ramp up to their store but it isn’t out every day.

I’ve only gone in there once since they moved, and that one time was with a friend, and I didn’t purchase anything.

So, please do me a favour and erase that myth that disabled people will not bring business in to an establishment or service provider, because I can guarantee you that if that establishment is popular enough to attract the majority of mainstream society, that will include disabled persons – it shouldn’t exclude us.

“Prejudice is a burden that confuses the past, threatens the future and renders the present inaccessible.”- Maya Angelou

What my twenty-eighth year taught me

Exactly a year ago tomorrow, on my twenty-eighth birthday, I was on my bus to work when big, fat, hot tears started rolling down my cheeks for no apparent reason.

Well, yes, there was a reason: I had never been so depressed in my life, but I hadn’t yet admitted that to myself. But that day, as I was on the bus, was the first time I knew that something was essentially, totally, horribly wrong. It was as if a neon marque board had gone on in my head and all it read was, simply, “I can’t go to work. I can’t. I just can’t do it.”

So I got off the bus.

Thankfully, there was a community garden on the bus route and I just sat in the garden and cried – hard – for a good twenty minutes. What made it even harder was that I was feeling this way on my birthday – a day you are supposed to be ridiculously happy – and I was not, suffice it to say, ridiculously happy. I was, in fact, not happy at all.

I hadn’t had a good night’s rest in a couple of months. I’m a person who needs at least a good eight hours’ sleep in order to function at a satisfactory level, and I wasn’t functioning near that at all. My brain felt like it was constantly filled with cotton balls; I had to remember simple steps to accomplish tasks I had been doing for the past two years at work. It felt like I was a shell of a person. When someone would come into my office to talk, even if it was to say a friendly hello, I’d physically flinch, scared at what they might want from me – even if it was just small chitchat.

I could not deal with being around people, and knowing this about myself made me feel even worse. (I’m not a social butterfly at the best of times, but there are only so many times you can hide in your office at lunch to avoid entering the lunchroom.)

I got on another bus to my parents’ house, trying to calm myself down enough so people wouldn’t feel the need to ask me what was wrong.

The day started out questionable, to say the least, but ended rather lovely. During the day I slept (or tried to) on my parents’ couch, sun streaming in through the bay windows, while my mom went out to get me a new pair of shoes because my old pair kept falling off my feet, causing me inordinate amounts of stress at a time when the smallest circumstance could send my self-esteem through the floor. We went out for my birthday supper to a patio, and then came home to eat ice cream Drumsticks and drink red wine in the gazebo.

It turned out being a lovely day, really, but I wasn’t feeling it. I knew I was supposed to feel happy, but it was as if I couldn’t even muster up enough energy to make myself feel anything even remotely resembling joy.

And that made me sadder than anything else has since.

*

I told the wonderful HR person at my work that I needed a break. I was officially leaving the position at the end of August, but she told me to take as much time as I needed and they would pick up the slack until my replacement started. I went in once to tie up a few loose ends, and then for about six hours spread over two days to train my replacement.

I was eternally grateful that I was so supported in that decision, by both my employer and my parents. I still am.

But the hardest part wasn’t over yet. My doctor doubled my anti-anxiety medication (which I had been on for a couple of years already), but that backfired and I still wasn’t sleeping. The dosage was lowered again – but still higher than what it had been originally – and, with the help of a sizable amount of sleeping aids, I was beginning to get some much-needed rest. I read a lot. Which was wonderful.

I also went to Folk Fest for all five days in mid-July, taking a bus to and from Birds Hill Park (about an hour ride each way) every day of the festival. I soaked up the sun, listened to amazing music, bought way too many overpriced iced chais, and slowly began to feel like myself again amidst a crowd of people who effused love and joy in their unabashed hippiedom. I was emotionally and physically exhausted by the end of those five days, but I was happier than I had been in the past four months.

And I hung out with my mom at the cabin. We read a lot. We drank wine. We laughed. We ate good food.

And then my niece was born. My younger brother’s wife – a couple I admire to no end and who I look up to in many ways even though I’m older and “wiser” (apparently) – gave birth to their first baby, a six-pound long-legged bundle that kicked her mother’s womb virtually non-stop in my sister-in-law’s third trimester. I visited her in the hospital when she was barely eight hours old, and I was the first family member to hold her other than her parents. I could barely contain myself; I couldn’t take my eyes off her.

I was and would forever remain Auntie Kate, and no one could take that away from me.

I was alive again.

*

And now, a year later,  life is still hard – it will always be hard – but within the past year I have tried my best to trust people with my vulnerability, and also to trust that the people I know best and who know me the best will not let me down.

I have tried to increase my faith in others.

And that also extends to you, dear readers. You are my birthday gift.

So thank you.

Though chocolate will not be turned away.

 

Why disabled beauty is not an oxymoron

There was a summer afternoon a few years ago that I’ll never forget. My best friend  – who also uses a wheelchair – and I were in a coffee shop when a woman came up to us and nonchalantly gave us what she most likely thought was the compliment of our lives (it wasn’t). What she said was this: “You girls are so pretty. It’s a shame you’re disabled.”

Even as I write those words, something deep in my gut clenches. It’s not just that I know she was trying to be nice, but ended up unwittingly insulting both my friend and I despite her good intentions. It’s not even that she said what she did, and then went on her merry way, not even engaging either of us in conversation – she just said what she said, and that was it.

It’s that she had an image of a disabled person in her mind, and neither my friend nor I happened to fit that image. So instead of challenging that image, she commented on how she “thought we should look” as disabled persons instead.

And, apparently, disabled people aren’t supposed to look pretty.

*

I’ve struggled to feel beautiful all my life. Intrinsically, I know I am a beautiful person – it’s taken me a long time to realize this, but I know I am, even though it’s still hard for me to come out and say it often. However, it’s still hard for me to appreciate – and trust – when others think I’m beautiful.

Society says that beautiful women are, essentially, whole people. It’s hard to be looked at as whole when you’re sitting down all the time. It’s hard to be graceful when you rely on a motor to get you from one place to the other.

And then there’s the attractiveness factor, which, believes me, complicates things to no end. Not to paint a bad brush over the guys out there, but when they’re intrinsically “taught” from a young age what’s beautiful and what’s not, a woman in a wheelchair who doesn’t hit all those factors has a hard time living up to our peers.

After all, we’re not supposed to be pretty. So it’s little wonder that we’re not at the top of the list for men to call us out as being attractive when we’re not supposed to be.

And maybe it wouldn’t matter if there wasn’t such an emphasis on coupling in society, but unfortunately there is. And all that pressure to be in a couple? Disabled people aren’t immune to that. But it’s hard when the onus lands on us to “make our case” for why we should be considered attractive.

I haven’t done a very good job of that, I have to admit. Inevitably, I’ve felt like that’s been my fault at times. I’m slowly beginning to realize it’s not, and I’m also just beginning to realize it’s ok to talk about this kind of stuff. It’s not my fault that this stuff is uncomfortable to bring up. And I shouldn’t feel like I have to apologize for it, even though I still sometimes feel like I have to.

I know that it’s people like that stranger in the coffee shop who are to blame for my insecurity, not myself.

And part of that’s a victory. The other part of that victory is when I finally do find that guy – and I know he and his friends are out there – that isn’t afraid to stand up and say that my disabled peers and I are attractive, and he isn’t afraid to admit it.

Not because I need to hear it, but just because it’d be nice to hear it.

“She wins who calls herself beautiful and challenges the world to change to truly see her.” ― Naomi Wolf