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Shunning, Shaming, Renaming
Oct 17th, 2013 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg

For the past 11 years, I have been shunned.

Not socially rejected. Shunned. By what used to be my synagogue community. For falling in love with my partner. For my partner falling in love with me.

He was serving as the rabbi when we met. After we made our relationship known, people who had formerly welcomed me would not speak to me. I lost my closest friends in the community. Others reacted with hostility to me in public. They put their bodies between my partner and me, blocking our path to each other. They held meetings to vent about our relationship. They responded to my friendliness with walls of coldness and detachment.

My partner lost his job. We lost the spiritual home that we loved. We lost our sense of safety. We had to move away — not once, but twice, because the first move wasn’t far enough.

After 10 years of marriage, we’ve moved 3000 miles away to start again. I am 54 and he is 68.

Starting over one more time wasn’t in the plan. And yet here we are. Together.

——-

Shunning is a form of psychological violence. It brings out all the hidden shame you didn’t think you carried anymore.

Sexual shame. Body shame. There-is-something-wrong-with-me shame. I-don’t-really-deserve-anything shame. The shame you thought you’d dispelled when you faced your childhood. The shame you thought you’d healed when you found religion. The shame that lurks in a culture in which we are never all right just as we are – not really. The shame that is always beneath the surface when the body is always suspect.

It’s a shame that thrives on silence – that proliferates in silence, until you feel shame for even daring to push up against being shamed. Until you feel ashamed of your anger at your silencing. Until you feel ashamed of your resistance against what has been taken. Until you feel ashamed to speak the truth of your own experience. Until opening one door in your soul to let in the light causes three more doors to close because you don’t deserve to live in the light.

Until you feel as though you can’t even breathe.

——-

Shunning creates an absence that is difficult to describe because its hallmark is silence – a frightening, wearying silence. Because others refuse to speak, to acknowledge your presence, to treat you as though you matter, there is no way to respond. A response assumes a listener. How do you respond when no one is listening? Words do not matter. All that matters is the shaming – the unnamed, unnameable shaming.

Nearly seven years into the shunning, I was diagnosed with the disabilities I’d had all my life: Asperger’s syndrome, sensory processing disorder, auditory processing disorder, vestibular issues, dyspraxia. That’s when the language of shame began to break its awful silence and bind my soul with words. Now the shame had names: Deficit. Disorder. Brokenness.

My body was wrong. My body was broken. I would never be right. No matter how many ways I starved my body, how kosher I kept my kitchen, how clean I kept my house, how intensely my empathy flowed, how kind I was to strangers, and how much I loved my family – it didn’t matter. I’d never, ever be right.

The feelings of wrongness that the shunning engendered and the feelings of wrongness that the language of deficit engendered became intertwined. In the light of my disabilities, I began to look at the shunning, and I began to wonder: Had I become a target because my differences, though unnamed, were so obvious? Did people believe that I was somehow less-than? And in my worst moments, I secretly wondered Were they right?

Not only had I been shunned by my community, but I was also entering a whole new identity as an openly disabled person, with all of the social isolation and rejection that came along with it. With my disabilities becoming more apparent in mid-life, I began to realize what most disabled people already know: that the world marginalizes us because of the ways in which our bodies work. I had been able to pass as nondisabled for much of my life, but by the time I was 50, full-time passing was no longer an option. I no longer had the energy. I had to work with my body rather than against it. I had to assert my needs. I couldn’t pretend to be normal anymore. And that put me outside the world as I had known it.

In the face of this dual marginalization, I lived my life in a battle between anger and despair. When the anger rose, I was determined to turn the language of deficit and disorder and brokenness into the language of blessing. If the “experts” said that people like me were hyperfocused on our obsessions, I said that I was passionate about the things I loved. If they said that we had splinter skills, I said that I had talents. If they said that we had deficits, I spoke of brilliant adaptations.

I reclaimed, and renamed, and rejustified my existence.

And suddenly, I realized that it was all wrong. Because ultimately, this reclamation project wrote me out of its script altogether. I was no longer talking about myself. I was talking about the gifts of Asperger’s.

My analytical mind, my focus, my visual acuity, my way with words, my musical talent, my passion for justice, my honesty, my sensitivity, my gentleness: these had always been my gifts. Not the gifts of Asperger’s. My gifts. But they were no longer mine. All those precious moments of pride and work and love and family that had made up the fabric of my life had been stolen from me and made the fabric of a construct I had never named.

The gifts of Asperger’s. The gifts of an abstraction, of a word that a stranger had created.

And as my sense of myself diminished, the shame became such a constant presence that I couldn’t remember what it meant to live without it. I couldn’t taste my food without the shame sticking in my throat. I couldn’t go to sleep at night without it laying down beside me. I couldn’t speak without using words embedded in it. I spoke in the oppressor’s tongue. I thought in the oppressor’s words. I was always ready to flinch, to apologize, to justify.

——-

I sometimes think about the process of healing in terms of uprooting the shame, but I’m not sure whether uprooting is the right word. I’ve been uprooted enough, and I know that tearing out something by the roots tears up the rich fertile earth around it, too. I’m not sure what the right words are. I just know that the unshaming process cannot be done piecemeal. For me, there is no working through the shame, or coming to terms with the shame, or getting past the shame, to use the language to which I was once so attached.

There is only a radical claim to my own body, to my own mind, to my own soul. There is only a radical claim to love my own being – a being to which no one else has the right to lay claim but me.

Perhaps others have the privilege of being able to rely on the names that others give. Perhaps others can readily find mirrors in which they see images that they recognize. But so many of us cannot. So many of us cannot rely upon a world of deficit and shame and apology to give us our names. The words of that world are not our words. They do not speak us.

So I find others who are learning how to speak their own names. I join with others who are unapologetic about how their bodies look, how their minds work, how they experience the world. I journey with others who are rejecting the language of shame and who are learning to open all the doors of the soul to let in the light.

I hope to meet you one day on this road.

I wrote this post in April of 2013 and it appeared on The Body is Not an Apology’s tumblr blog on May 1, 2013. It is reprinted here with permission.

© 2013 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg

Passing and Disability: Why Coming Out as Disabled Can Be So Difficult
Oct 12th, 2013 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg

Yesterday was National Coming Out Day. I officially came out as bisexual, and it was a celebration. No angst. No fear. No second thoughts. Just a celebration.

It was a such a contrast with coming out as disabled at the end of 2008, with all of the fear and dread that attended that decision. There have been many times since then that I’ve thought that coming out as disabled was the worst decision I’d ever made in my life. If I could have put the toothpaste back in the tube at those moments, I would have.

Of course, I’m a few years down the road now and feel much more comfortable, proud, and confident. But oh, what a process! And of course, the process never ends. I always have internalized shame, and hatred, and fear to root out of my head. And I still have to deal with a world of people who don’t understand the physical and social experience of disability. But in general, I navigate these waters much better than I did at the outset.

It’s very difficult to come out as disabled, I think, because we face the dual reality that most people a) hate our bodies absolutely unapologetically and b) consider that hatred entirely natural. It’s for this reason that they can use disability slurs constantly and think nothing of it. It’s for this reason that they can segregate and exclude us as though we’re substandard merchandise to return to the manufacturer. It is still considered natural to react with revulsion against us in a way that other groups have fought against more successfully — not entirely successfully, obviously, but more successfully.

Partly, we face this hatred because our culture worships control and denies the fragile and ever-changing life of the body. Partly, we face this hatred because the medical model has taken over as a metaphor for human life. People are no longer evil. People no longer make bad choices. People are no longer victimized by oppression. People no longer act out of ignorance, or selfishness, or greed. No. Now they’re sick, crazy, brain-dead, retarded, mentally ill, have low IQs, and on and on.

In the face of this hatred, it’s very, very difficult to convince people that you love your disabled body because it’s the one you live in. You say that you love your body, and people look at you as though you don’t quite understand your own reality.

My body hurts a lot these days. But I still love it. It’s the body I was born with. It enables me to experience life. Without it, I’d have no life at all. I might not love every sensation in my body, but I love my body, even on the hardest days, because it gives me life.

© 2013 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg

Peeling Back the Layers of Shame: Talking About My Mother
Oct 11th, 2013 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg

[Trigger warnings for sexual abuse, physical abuse, emotional abuse, shunning, shame.]

Shame is not something that most of us want to hear about. Many of us will listen to stories of any other kind of horror: sexual abuse, physical assault, hate crime, genocide. We consider it an act of courage when people talk about these things, and we give honor to the survivors by bearing witness.

But do we speak and bear witness to the debilitating and destructive nature of shame? Rarely. We fear rejection, judgment, social condemnation, isolation, shunning, so we don’t speak. And when we don’t speak, we can’t get a witness.

Truth be told, we often don’t want to hear about anyone else’s shame because it brings up all of our own. So if you’re still reading, thank you, with all of my heart. I know it isn’t easy to have come even this far.

I’m going to start by going straight into the heart of my deepest shame:

I DON’T LOVE MY MOTHER.

Lest you think my mother was a monster, she was not. I will not shame her in that way. Just to show you how very human she was, here is a picture of us, when I was about two years old. See how utterly ordinary we look? We were. We were just like anyone else. Human. Flawed. Fearful. Full of dreams. Trailed by demons. Capable of fucking things up royally.

But here is what I fear in this conversation: When I say that I don’t love my mother, I am afraid that you will think that I am a wholly unnatural and unloving being. That I am a freak. That I am missing some part of my soul.

Out of my fear and my shame, I will rush to tell you that I am, indeed, quite whole – capable of deep love.

Out of my fear and my shame, I will tell you that I still love my father (despite his many abuses) and that I miss him terribly.

Out of my fear and my shame, I will assure you that I love my husband as though he is the other half of my soul.

Out of my fear and my shame, I will protest that I love my kid with everything I am, and would willingly die to protect that kid against any evil that life can bring.

Out of my fear and my shame, I will let you know that I feed people on the street, and that I lie awake at night crying about the pain of the world, and that I am kind to small children.

And all of it is true. Absolutely, utterly true. But telling you that doesn’t push out the shame. It makes the shame worse, because now I’m justifying myself.

I suppose I must have loved my mother once, before everything happened. In fact, I remember very clearly, at some point in my twenties, feeling a momentary rush of love for her, and it nearly knocked me backwards. For a split second, my heart opened toward her, and then it shut right damned down. Loving her was dangerous. Loving her was foolishness. Loving her was an act of self-destruction. Being vulnerable in any way to my mother was dangerous to my ability to feel worthy of life. My openness to her sent me into spirals of self-hatred that terrified me.

I could do a recitation of all the horrors. The beatings by my father that happened only at the provocation of my mother. The hours that she would torture me by telling me what he’d do to me when he got home. The manufactured wrongs. The drama. The ways I tried to bribe her from my piggy bank to please, please, please, mommy, don’t tell. The sexual abuse she countenanced and then denied. The times I shouted for her and she never came. The years that I learned not to shout for her because it was futile. The ongoing mantra in our household that she was always, always, always right, and that everyone else was always, always, always wrong.

I could talk about my 20s and early 30s — about my rage, my despair, my spirals into suicidal thinking after every phone call. I could talk about the night my mother harassed me by telephone for three solid hours – the night my husband took me driving in Tilden Park while I screamed and raged and kicked the dashboard and then went into full-scale denial that anything bad had ever happened and that everything, everything, everything, EVERYTHING was all my fault. The night that my husband looked at me and said, “Sorry, but you’re screaming and raging and kicking the dashboard, and that’s not normal for you, so I’d say something pretty fucking bad happened.” The night that I still love him for, over 10 years after our divorce.

But that recitation is only more self-justification. Look how bad it was! How could I love this woman? It’s not my fault! It doesn’t really get to the heart of the matter.

In this recitation, I’ve left out one thing, and it has little to do with what my mother did and everything to do with what she felt: The woman hated me. I don’t use that word lightly. It wasn’t just dislike, or normal mother-daughter conflict, or not seeing eye to eye. She hated me. She hated who I was. She gave me praise when I erased myself. Otherwise, she treated me with rage, with contempt, with condemnation, with criticism, and with disappointment.

I don’t know why she hated me. I imagine that there was something in her that she needed me to complete and I just didn’t have what it took. (Should I be ashamed of that? No. But I am.)

The hatred in her went very deep. After I told her that I was going to break contact with her for awhile while I did some healing, and that she was not to harass me again without fear of legal repercussions, she took the whole family with her. No one in my family would speak to me again. Not my brother, not my uncles, not my cousins. No one.

She took away my family. An extreme act of hatred. An extreme act of shaming. When I tried to tell my uncle what happened, he shared with me the family message: You had no right to do that to your mother.

Daughters don’t get to tell their mothers to stop. They don’t get to take space to heal. They don’t get to tell them that they will find someone to protect them. They don’t get to be anything other than loving and self-sacrificing.

The loss of my family is so hard to talk about. It feels so shameful. I lost my family. They didn’t want me. Something must be wrong with me.

I began to hate my birthdays. I began to hate myself for being born of my mother. I began to hate myself for trying to survive. And beneath the hatred, there was shame, shame, shame without end.

After 13 years of estrangement had passed, my mother died in June of 2004. I found out in late May of 2005. One day, at my husband’s urging, I went to the computer, scanned the Social Security Death Index, and found that she had died eleven months earlier. That was it.

Did I cry? No. All I felt was relief. For the first time in my life, I felt safe. She couldn’t hurt me anymore. She wasn’t going to pop up when I least expected and tell me that I was unworthy of her love, unworthy of anyone’s love, unworthy of life itself. It was over.

How could I feel that kind of relief? Daughters aren’t supposed to feel relief when their mothers die. They are supposed to wail and keen and miss their mothers and talk with their friends about how hard it is and how nothing will ever be the same.

But I couldn’t do that and I felt ashamed of that. What was wrong with me?

I carry a giant absence inside myself where my mother and her love ought to be. And inside that absence, the shame spills endlessly. How could there be that absence? Why didn’t my mother love me? Why did she take my family away from me? What was wrong with me?

I’m not sure what to do with this shame and this absence. I’m not sure at all. In my rational mind, I know that all of this shame is a crock of shit. I know that my mother’s lack of love was not my fault. I know that she unleashed her demons on me and didn’t care. I know that other people get to fuck up royally every goddamned day of the year, and they’re not punished with condemnation and abuse and the withdrawal of love. I know that I should be allowed to be one of those people, too.

But the shame remains.

Maybe I’m not the only one. Maybe someone is there who, in the silence of their heart says, Yes. This is what I feel too. Maybe this shame will peel off me one day, and I will just be a human being who doesn’t need to protest what a good person I am. Maybe one day, after I’ve written enough and cried enough and spent enough sleepless nights wondering what the hell happened, I will just be a human being who says, I know who I am, and I know that I’m flawed, and I still deserve to be loved and held, no matter what.

This burden of shame is too heavy. I don’t want to carry it anymore.

© 2013 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg

The Stories We Tell: Coming to Terms with PTSD
Oct 5th, 2013 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg

One of the ways in which I navigate the cacaphony of competing discourses about disability, mental health, and just about everything else is to remind myself that we humans are always storytelling and that these discourses are just a series of stories. Along with eating, sleeping, and breathing, storytelling is what we do. Certainly, some things — like the sheer physicality of our bodies — aren’t just stories, and yet, we interpret even these things with stories about them.

I’ve been thinking a lot about stories lately — about the stories I tell about myself, about the stories I tell about other people, about the stories people have told about me, about the stories the media tells about everyone. I don’t fault people for telling stories. It’s what we do in order to makes sense out of our existence. As Arthur Frank writes, we are beings who, in order to make life habitable, must tell stories from the narrative resources available to us:

“To say that humans live in a storied world means not only that we incessantly tell stories. Stories are presences that surround us, call for our attention, offer themselves for our adaptation, and have a symbiotic existence with us. Stories need humans in order to be told, and humans need stories in order to represent experiences that remain inchoate until they can be given narrative form… We humans are able to express ourselves only because so many stories already exist for us to adapt, and these stories shape whatever sense we have of ourselves… ” (Frank 2012, 36)

One of the things that comforts me in this life, especially when I feel barricaded in by the absurdities of the things that people say, is to remember that we can rewrite these stories. If we are all inveterate storytellers — incorporating pieces of different narratives and creating new narratives from what exists — then we can always reinterpret and rewrite our stories. We are always free to engage that process. The problem is that stories often masquerade as fact, and we feel cut off from rewriting them at all.

To say that a story isn’t fact doesn’t mean that it’s entirely fiction. The stories that people tell always have truths in them somewhere. But they are not necessarily truths about the purported subjects of the story. A story about me might contain no truths about me at all. It might contain truths about the storyteller’s fears. It might contain truths about the storyteller’s trauma. It might contain truths about the storyteller’s desire for power.

There are two sets of stories that plague me. One set consists of the negative stories that people have told about me or about people like me. These stories tend to be pathologizing. Sometimes, they are so ubiquitous that it is difficult to have the strength to analyze, reinterpret, rewrite, and rethink them. But I’m coming to see that it’s the stories that I tell myself about myself that are the most troubling. Some of these stories incorporate the larger narratives, sometimes by design and sometimes unintentionally. Others are a rebellion against the larger narratives. It would be impossible to avoid responding to these narratives in some way.

These days, there is one story of mine whose validity I’ve been calling into serious question. It has to do with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

I’ve been dealing with PTSD for nearly my whole life. It began over 50 years ago, when I was four years old. I wasn’t diagnosed until I was in my thirties, and that diagnosis was like the heavens opening up and the angels singing. I know that it sounds like a strange thing to say about a PTSD diagnosis, but how else can I describe the way in which the PTSD markers — the core narrative elements of the PTSD story — mirrored my own story so well? Suddenly, someone was narrating my story in a way that I recognized.

Over time, I learned to navigate and handle PTSD triggers. I learned to distinguish between a trigger and actual danger. I learned how to detach and breathe and not react when the catastrophic thinking started. I got very good at it.

And it worked for a long time — until a whole new level of protracted trauma came along, triggered the old trauma, and gave me a whole new set of things to heal from. It took me a long time to recognize the new trauma as trauma, even though it went on for 11 years. My husband and I moved to California this year, just to get away from it.

In order to cope all these years, I’ve told myself a story about how well my old adaptive patterns were working. And so, in true PTSD fashion, I went back to the story that had served my survival as a child — the story in which I was always the person who has it together, who figures it out, who doesn’t show weakness, who helps other people, who never asks for help, who is always on top of things, and who is somehow beyond regular, garden-variety human needs. In other words, I have spent the past decade or more dealing with PTSD by telling myself a story that am not traumatized. Not really. Maybe I used to be. But surely, not anymore.

Right.

These days, that story is showing itself to be largely fiction. It began a few days ago, when my husband left for a visit to the east coast. I felt tremendous sadness. I looked at the sadness and thought, “What is that doing there?” I started to ask the sadness what it was trying to show me. And within three days, I got the message: my body is absolutely racked by trauma. For the first time in my life, I am fully inside my body and it is incredibly painful. The level of stress, of sheer physical tension, of never feeling at ease, of never feeling safe is constant. I look at some of the things I do, and I see how hypervigilant I am.

For instance, there is the way I sit on the sofa and use the computer. Here is a picture of my sofa:

[The photo shows a picture of a futon with a blue spread in a mandala design. There are four white pillows along the back and some beige carpeting is visible in front. A small wooden end table is visible to the right.]

It’s a futon that doubles as a guest bed. It looks very beautiful and comfortable, doesn’t it? But do I sit on this futon comfortably, leaning against the pillows, relaxing? No, I don’t. I sit on the edge, next to the table, with one foot on the ground, looking like I’m ready to fight an intruder who is about to mercilessly fuck with me.

You can see why my story about not being traumatized isn’t exactly working.

One of the things I have noticed recently about my attempt to fend off PTSD is that I have bifurcated the telling of my stories into public and private. In my public writing, I will talk about disability quite openly. But privately, I rarely talk about it at all. For instance, I wrote to my regular doctor today about whether she could help with a letter of medical necessity for a service dog for PTSD, and her response was along the lines of “We’ve never talked about your PTSD. We really should.”

It’s true. We never have. I wrote her back and basically said, “We’ve never talked about most of my disabilities. We really should.”

I’ve been seeing this doctor since May. She knows about my auditory processing disorder. She knows about the problem with my hip. But she does not know about my Asperger’s diagnosis. She does not know about my recent diagnosis of mixed receptive-expressive speech disorder. She does not know about my dypraxia. She does not know about my severe vestibular issues. She does not know about my sensory processing disorder. She only learned about my PTSD today, and I’ve been dealing with that since I was four.

Why hadn’t I talked to her? Partly, it’s that I’m so wounded by many of the assumptions that people make about my disabilities that I almost can’t bear it anymore. I have had so many bad experiences. And of course, the PTSD gets in the mix there, because the PTSD says, “Right. Don’t talk about it. Don’t show any vulnerability. Act like you’re fine.”

I told her why I hadn’t raised the issue. And her response was, “I understand your hesitation.”

So it looks like we’ll be having that conversation after all. I will also be seeing someone for EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) therapy. And I’m making tracks about getting a service dog. I can’t continue to talk about disability publicly and pretend privately like everything is fine.

I sometimes wonder whether passing as nondisabled isn’t sometimes an expression of PTSD. I mean, who wants to deal with all of the crap that gets thrown at us around disability if they can help it? Over the past couple of years, I’ve done everything I can to avoid as much of it as possible. But now I’m tired and my body hurts. It’s time to start telling the people I know in my daily life, not just in my writing.

Perhaps it’s safer to talk with all of you about it. If you’re reading this piece, it’s because you have some connection to the world of disability. But most people do not. And they’re the ones I have to start addressing, even when I feel like one more refusal, one more ignorant response, one more uncaring word is going to break my heart.

References

Frank, Arthur. W. “Practicing Dialogical Narrative Analysis.” In Varieties of Narrative Analysis, edited by James A. Holstein and Jaber F. Gubrium, 33-52. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2012.

© 2013 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg

I Wonder What They Were Thinking
Sep 17th, 2013 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg

Last week, I was coming home from a housecleaning job in Live Oak. I’d been working at that job once a week for the past few months, but the people were moving, and they needed me to come and do a final cleanup for them. So I went over there several times, helping them get organized and cleaning up the apartment.

Ordinarily, I’d take the bus to the job and walk the four miles home. I love walking and it’s a nice way to relax after working during the afternoon. But on Friday, I was incredibly tired and I decided to take the bus back.

When I picked up the bus at 4:45, it was crowded and all of the accessible seats were taken. Some of the people using them were clearly disabled; others did not appear disabled, but might have been. My general policy is this: Unless I see someone who is very clearly nondisabled sitting in an accessible seat — such as a young man with a skateboard — I won’t ask the person to get up. I won’t make assumptions. For all I know, a young person who doesn’t give up an accessible seat might have an invisible disability, and I’m not going to question anyone. I pretty much depend on other people’s sense of decency around this issue; if a person doesn’t need the seat, I depend on that person to get up. Often, that works out well for me. Occasionally, it doesn’t. But it’s worth it to me to not question a person as to whether they’re really disabled or not. I’ve had that happen to me too many times to want to run the risk of doing it to someone else.

So I went to the back of the bus, where the aisle is narrower. I had a pull cart with me that had a few very light things in it. The bus driver told me that I couldn’t have the cart blocking the aisle, and that I had to put it in the luggage area at the front of the bus. So I traipsed down the aisle with my cane in one hand and the handle of the cart in the other. I put the cane down, picked up the cart, put it in the luggage rack, picked the cane back up, and went back to my seat.

As I was doing this, I was wondering whether I was confounding people’s expectations of a person using a cane. Were they surprised that I could stand on my feet long enough to pick up a cart and put it in a compartment three feet off the floor? Did they think I was faking disability? I’m not sure. But I was very interested in the contrast with how I used to feel walking through the world with only invisible disabilities. Before I used a cane, I generally had people assuming I was nondisabled and perfectly capable of doing everything in a “normal” way, and I was aware that they were rather shocked to discover that I’m disabled. Now, I generally have people assuming that I am disabled, and I’m always aware that they may be shocked when they see me doing things in a “normal” way.

No one said anything. I didn’t sense anyone giving me the evil eye. But I wonder about it. There is a self-consciousness I feel now that wasn’t there before — a sense that other people might be expecting me to live down to expectations. It’s very odd. Living down to expectations has never been my style. So it gives me a sense of power to just do what I need to do, whether it confounds people or not.

© 2013 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg

What It Means To Be A Help Object
Sep 3rd, 2013 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg

I’ve been having a conversation with my friend Julie Rose. Julie has just been diagnosed with Lupus and has become visibly disabled. In response to my piece about disabled people as help objects, she wrote to me and said that she really couldn’t wrap her mind around what being a help object meant until she began to navigate the world with a visible disability. Now she understands it excruciatingly well.

What Julie has to say is so right and so clear that, with her permission, I am sharing it here. She writes:

Before the last few days, I was confused by the term “help object.” It took me less than 48 hours of being a “public cripple” to know what it means.

So far:

1. It means that if you offer me help and I don’t accept it, I’m an ungrateful, ungracious asshole. It doesn’t matter if what you are offering me is useful or not. It doesn’t even matter if what you are offering might be life threatening to me. I must say, “thank you” and accept it with total aplomb.

2. I can’t have a sense of humor. If I do, you will be confused and think I’m fine and feel duped by my asking for help. Therefore, I’m a scam artist, not a cripple.

3. Since I’m home bound, I must have nothing to do and no schedule, so you can barge in on me any time and you can also not show up or call when you have made a commitment to do so. After all, I’ll always be here, in bed, while you are busy with whatever a real life has to offer. I shouldn’t complain. Again, I’d be a whiner or an ungrateful asshole or both.

4. If you don’t follow through with what you promised you’d do, I must still be gracious and say “thank you.” I can’t say it put me out because in your eyes I have no life.

I don’t think I’ve read anything that has made the privilege of Ability quite so clear to me. This level of privilege is stunning. Privilege, in and of itself, isn’t something that one can escape, but it’s something that one can use well or badly. In the kinds of situations that Julie talks about, it’s being used badly.

To use it badly means to treat ill or disabled people as though we belong in some whole other category in which the rules of basic decency do not apply.

Do want to give help? Then ask what help is needed. Do you want to visit? Then ask what a good time might be and show up. Are you wondering how someone can have a sense of humor and be ill at the same time? Stop wondering and start believing.

I fundamentally do not understand why these are such difficult concepts. Do people suddenly lose their rights to be treated like human beings because our bodies change? No. We don’t. Why is this truth so hard to grasp?

© 2013 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg

Does My Presence Offend Your White Able-Bodied Male Privilege?
Jul 11th, 2013 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg

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I had several errands to run today. I went to CVS to buy some things for the school supplies drive at the bank. Then, I went to the bank to donate the supplies and deposit a couple of checks. And then I had to mail some paperwork at the post office.

All of my errands went smoothly, everyone I spoke with was very friendly, and I was feeling pretty damned wonderful. And then I got hit with a faceful of entitlement on my way out the post office door.

I was about to walk out the door went I saw a man coming directly toward me. He was white, around the same age as I am, and judging from the determination and speed at which he was walking, physically able-bodied. He was also a big man — over six feet tall and strong. From the way he was walking toward me, it was clear that he assumed that I was just going to get out of his way.

Please bear in mind he was looking at a woman who is 5’1″ and uses a bright red cane. The only way he could have missed either of these things is if he were walking toward me backwards. Which he wasn’t.

Because I am a courteous person, and because I tend to take the long way around people with a lot of attitude, and because it used to be possible for me to make sudden quick movements without risking injury, it’s been my habit to move aside for people like him. But in this case, I instinctively knew that if I tried to get out of his way as quickly as I needed to, I was either going to stumble or I was going to twist myself the wrong way and injure my hip again.

So I just stopped for a moment, made clear my intention to keep going along the same trajectory, and said, “Excuse me.” I figured that he wouldn’t be such a total jerk as to run right into me. And he didn’t. Instead, he audibly sighed, stared me down with a look of utter disgust on his face, shook his head as though I had just committed some sort of unthinkable breach of social ethics, and went around me.

I turned around to look at him, and as he walked away, he was still shaking his head as if to say, “What is the world coming to when an able-bodied white man can’t expect people to get out of his way?”

I was just shocked. I find that I lose my ability to speak in these moments — not because I have nothing to say, but because I am an inveterate problem solver and I know straightaway when problem solving is out of the question. This was one of those moments. The level of privilege that came at me was extreme. He really assumed that the space I was standing in was his, and he didn’t stop for a moment to think, “Wow, that lady is using a cane. Perhaps she might have difficulty moving out of the way. Perhaps she is in pain. I will be gracious and go around her.” Oh, no. God forbid.

As I stood there feeling a combination of powerlessness, shock, anger, and sadness, I realized that I had to say something. Anything. It almost didn’t matter what it was. I was hoping to say something that felt powerful, but all I could do was to shout after him:

WHATEVER.

Oh, God. So not good enough. I mean, it’s okay in a pinch, but I’d like to figure out some brief and effective way to say, “Excuse me, white able-bodied dude. I know you’re not accustomed to the idea that other people have the same right to space as you do, but on most planets THIS BRIGHT RED CANE is a signal that YOU SHOULD BE THE ONE TO MOVE.”

I’m open to suggestions.

© 2013 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg

A Rant to My Fellow Activists Who Do Anti-Oppression Work and Ignore Disability
Jun 25th, 2013 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg

Dear Activists Who Wax Eloquently About The Importance Of Intersectionality In Anti-Oppression Work:

I need to make a request. I’ll try to keep it brief and I’ll do my best to be clear about exactly what I mean.

PLEASE STOP FUCKING IGNORING DISABILITY.

I’ve noticed that many of you complain loudly and vehemently that feminism doesn’t do intersectionality right because it leaves out race, class, LGBT issues, genderqueer issues, religion, ethnicity, and body size. I agree. I completely agree. It’s why I left feminism in disgust some time ago. So imagine my utter fucking surprise when I notice that, oh hell, there is no room for me to agree at all because, as a disabled woman, I haven’t even been invited into the discussion.

I mean, really. It’s provoking to watch you call out feminists for not doing intersectionality right while you leave disabled people out of it altogether. While you keep chanting “race, class, gender” over and over, congratulating yourselves on how inclusive you’re being, you’re leaving out one-fifth of the population.

Disability winds through every other form of oppression. There are disabled people of color, disabled working class people, disabled poor people (lots), disabled LGBT people, disabled genderqueer people, disabled fat people, disabled religious people, disabled people of every ethnicity, and disabled people who experience every form of oppression that human beings can perpetrate. I know the thought that you could become one of us in a millisecond scares the absolute living fuck out of you, but seriously, deal with your fears already because they are not helping us. Start grokking the fact that disabled people are being assaulted, killed, institutionalized, and otherwise having their civil rights violated every goddamned day.

Because in case you haven’t gotten the memo, disability is a civil rights issue.

When people have their children taken away because they’re disabled, it’s a civil rights issue. When people are refused entrance into a restaurant or a theatre or a public park, it’s a civil rights issue. When people are counseled to die rather than live, it’s a civil rights issue. When people are consigned to poverty because of the ways their bodies look and function, it’s a civil rights issue. When people are assaulted, spit on, and killed because they’re disabled, it’s a civil rights issue. When people live in isolation even within communities that talk about oppression and social justice, it’s a civil rights issue.

Every time you fail to acknowledge our presence, it only increase our invisibility. So really, how the hell are we disabled people supposed to join you in doing anti-oppression work if you keep treating us like the embarrassing relative no one talks about?

Allies have one another’s backs. No way in hell am I saying, “I’m your ally, but when it comes time for you to fight for me, I’m on my own.”

Fair is fair.

Reciprocity forever.

In solidarity,
Rachel

© 2013 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg

My Body is Not Public Property: The Disability Version
Jun 25th, 2013 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg

Just a few days ago, I wrote a post about what a blessed relief it is have my cane as a visible marker of disability. After living my whole life with invisible disabilities, I am enjoying the fact that my subjective experience and my outward appearance are in greater harmony. As a highly visual person in a highly visual culture, I’ve found it wearying to navigate the ambiguity of being disabled but not looking disabled. The burden that has been lifted by using a cane has been immense.

One of the benefits of the visible marker is that my disability is right up front. People can either welcome me in or treat me as Other, but I know right away which one it will be. In the past, because I’ve tended to present as “normal” at first meeting, the pattern has been that people had an expectation of my normalcy, then they’d get to know me, then they’d see how atypical I really am, then they’d feel somehow defrauded (I knew you were different, but I didn’t know you were that different!), and then they’d walk away. I can’t tell you how many people over the years have gotten pissed off to my face because I didn’t fulfill their projected image of normalcy. It’s good to have a break from that.

But today, I had an experience of the other side of visible disability: the part where well-meaning people ask about your disability and try to help you not be disabled anymore. I had an interaction this morning that woke me up to how subtly it can happen and how quickly I have to be able to meet it and deflect it.

It’s foggy and cool outside today, and I love walking in this kind of weather, so I got up and out of the apartment early. After I’d run a couple of errands, I saw a guy about my age on the street asking for money. I stopped a minute to give him a couple of dollars. He had grey dredlocks and called himself “an old yogi.” He was very gentle in his manner.

I am always very cognizant of the dynamics of helping people on the street: the class difference, the fact that people are in an extremely vulnerable position, and the fear that they carry of not knowing how someone is going to react to them. So I come from a place of wanting to give respect in equal measure with food or money or clothing, because I figure that respect is in as short a supply as cash. But of course, the class and power divisions are still there, and today, they came back at me through my disability.

As soon as I stopped to give the old yogi money, he began to question me about my cane. The opening salvo was to ask whether I was using it as a temporary measure. The implied question was whether or not I am permanently disabled. I didn’t know how to answer that question, because I don’t know whether the problem with my hip will get better. So I told him that something was going on with my hip and that I wasn’t sure what it was.

All of you with visible disabilities are likely cringing at this point, because you know exactly what’s coming and can see very clearly where I stepped into the big bear trap: a perfect stranger was asking about my body, and I gave him information. I’m not exactly sure why I did. Part of it was that he seemed to be expressing concern and I felt appreciation for it; part of it was that it simply took me by surprise; part of it was that I have this impulse toward truth and accuracy and sometimes don’t keep my truth and accuracy to myself. In this case, in order to protect the boundaries around my own body and psyche, I should have simply said, “I’m not available to talk about my disability.”

But I didn’t. I just didn’t see what was coming until he said, “I was on a cane for awhile.” That’s when I thought, “Uh oh. Here comes the testimonial.” He proceeded to tell me how he did yoga and got off the cane, how the cane was a crutch that keeps your body from getting better, how a cane can become addictive, and how I should spend some money on some yoga classes and see whether I could clear up the problem myself. In other words, using a cane was a Bad Thing, and having a problem with my hip was a Bad Thing, and of course, I wanted advice on how to evade the Bad Thing.

I was really shaken by this interaction. On the one hand, I understand where the guy was coming from. The class division was there and it was complicated by gender: a man was asking for money from a woman. There was a power struggle of sorts, a struggle in which my disability became my point of vulnerability, despite — or perhaps because of — my class privilege. And there was also an emotional struggle, in which the old yogi wanted to feel the dignity of giving back, as a man and as someone in poverty. He didn’t just want to take. He wanted to help me, too. I saw all of that happen, and it’s difficult to feel angry about it, because at the end of the day, he’s still sitting on the street asking for money and I’m in my apartment with plenty of food and safety.

On the other hand: boundaries. In this case, there are two sets of boundaries that got broken. One set consists of the boundaries that ought to keep a man from asking about a woman’s body without knowing her well enough to make the asking appropriate. The other set consists of the boundaries that ought to keep a nondisabled person from asking about a disabled person’s body and offering advice. Leaving aside the gender issue, the message that I got was that the questions and advice about my disability were welcome.

That’s the part that really got me. There was absolutely no consciousness in the interaction that I might love my cane and that its being a crutch is a Good Thing. There is nothing wrong with a crutch if your leg feels unstable and you’d like to go for long walks anyway. There is nothing wrong with a crutch if it keeps you from falling down. There is nothing wrong with a crutch if it communicates that your body works differently from other bodies and that’s okay.

And of course, the questions were all about disability as a purely medical condition. There was no place in the interaction for disability as a social identity, as a source of pride, as something to make visible because it’s part of who you are. I was caught in the same place in which I’ve always been caught as a woman: If you don’t want the attention, why carry yourself with so much pride in your body? Why be so visible? Why ask for it?

And the answer is exactly the same: Being visible is not an invitation to intrusion. A woman who walks down the street in a bikini isn’t asking for leering commentary any more than a disabled person with a cane is asking for help and advice from a stranger. My body is not public property, not an opportunity for personal conversation, not a canvas upon which other people can paint their fears and power needs and good intentions.

Despite today’s interaction, I am not going to hide. In fact, I just purchased a bright red cane to go with my bright red sneakers. For the first time in my life, I want to stand out. For the first time in my life, I know that standing out doesn’t mean I’m asking for intrusion. It just means that I’m taking up my place on the earth just like everyone else.

So please remember: When I stand out, it doesn’t mean I’m asking for your opinion, your commentary, or your help. It means that I’m asking for your respect.

© 2013 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg

Making the Invisible Visible: It’s All Right to Stare
Jun 22nd, 2013 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg

In the past few weeks, I’ve been walking with a cane. After about three weeks of painful back spasms in April, everything has calmed down except for my right hip. I’m not in any pain, but my hip aches on and off, and there are times that my right leg feels very unstable. So, instead of walking around gingerly and being fearful of falling, I use a shiny black cane for extra support. The impact on my confidence, my energy level, and my ability to navigate has been immeasurable. I’m taking long walks again, I walk much more energetically, and I come home far less tired than before.

And there is an added bonus: I am relieved beyond words to have a visible marker of disability. There is something that feels seamless about my life now. For my invisible disabilities, I have a series of invisible canes; strategies, adaptations, and self-talk that I use to give myself extra support and confidence in a world that is not made for my body. But no one sees them. Now the cane is on the outside, and I have a visible indicator of what I’ve been doing all my life. Despite the aches and the fact that walking is harder work these days, the visible indicator is a blessed relief.

In the light of all this, I’ve been watching the ways in which I’m interacting with people, and there are some interesting differences. In the past, I’d see a person using a wheelchair and I’d want to somehow communicate that I’m disabled as well, but really, what am I supposed to say? Hi, I’m Rachel and I’m disabled? People just want to get on with their shopping, you know? But now, I notice that I can sink into those interactions in way I couldn’t before. There is a marker that says we share something in common. Not everything. But something. No words are needed. For a moment, there is a glance of recognition, and if you have invisible disabilities, that recognition is a significant experience.

And then there are the stares from nondisabled folk. Oddly enough, I’m getting past my natural shyness. Today I was out walking by the ocean, and a little girl, about ten years old, came by on the back of a tandem bike with her dad. As they passed me on the sidewalk, she turned all the way around to stare — first at me, then at my cane, then at me again, with a look of perplexity verging almost on alarm, as though my cane were a bit scary. I generally don’t like people staring at me; in the past, my response has almost always been defensiveness.

Today, I watched that defensiveness come over me for a moment and then I thought, “No. This is a opportunity to break down this barrier.” So I smiled and waved.

The effect was immediate. Her face completely relaxed and she waved back. And then even after she’d turned around, she kept her arm out to the side and kept on waving at me.

It was a lovely moment to step into.

And then, I was walking back to our apartment, thinking about this interaction, when I saw another little girl of about ten. As the girl and her family were walking down the street, a woman using a wheelchair came toward them and then turned right to go down the sidewalk to Walgreen’s. The little girl craned her neck to watch the woman and her wheelchair roll down the sidewalk. I thought to myself, “How odd! Another little girl staring.” What I didn’t notice until I got closer that the little girl’s legs were bowed and she was walking with a great deal of effort. So what at first glance had looked like a stare of an able-bodied child was the stare of a disabled child watching a disabled adult just go about her life and get things done. There was something lovely about that, too.

For me, at least as far as children are concerned, it’s all right to stare. I’m not sure how I’d feel if I saw adults staring at me, but kids have a natural curiosity and it doesn’t offend me. Of course, I’m new to all of this, and in six months, I might feel differently. But at this point, I’m looking for a bright red cane to go with my bright red Converse High-Tops. I might even find myself a red beret or put red highlights in my hair.

Because I want to make visible what has been invisible all my life. And for now, if people stare, it’s worth it.

© 2013 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg

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