Copping Flak

Today I want to tell the story about when I copped flak for telling it like it is. For telling the truth of life with invisible illness. Sometimes that truth is painful and upsetting. Sometimes it is traumatic. I tell my stories because there are others who cannot tell theirs. I speak up. And sometimes I get knocked down for it.

use our voices

It has been a wrench for me, to spend less time on my blog this year. I’ve been doing a course run for people in the disability sector. It has kept me really busy, and my improving health has increased my ability to be out and about. But I have missed you. This blog is very very important to me.  I was going to say it was a piece of my heart, but the truth is that this blog IS my heart.  My heart for my family, my heart for people suffering with invisible or chronic illness, my heart for our world, my heart for myself. It’s my heart, spilled onto the page, shared with people so that people like me can feel less alone and so that I can, too. Shared because I know how important it is to share the realities of life with invisible illness. I know that, because you beautiful people have told me that.  People who are not sick themselves, and people who are.  People who care. You are an extraordinary bunch and I am glad you came to my corner of the internet.

Publishing out here on the world wide web is a broad platform. Anyone can read your words.  Everyone who does, will read them through their own lens and make of them what they will. Being misunderstood about my heart is a painful thing. But it is a part of blogging.  In that sense, it is no different to being out in society.  People react to you in varied ways.  Not everybody likes you. And just in the same way that invisible illness is overlooked and misunderstood by society at large, sharing my stories here doesn’t guarantee that my heart will be understood.

Last Sunday I awoke to an awful thing.  Someone I respected and had a connection with through my course, had posted about the types of stories disabled people should not tell. In itself, that is just his opinion. He’s entitled to it. But one of my posts was linked as an example of what not to do.  It’s a small thing in the grand scheme of things. But it was a very big thing for me, to have my heart skewered in the public forum that way, in a sector of society I am part of and care passionately about.

People who are disabled due to illness make up the largest portion of the disability community here in New Zealand.  Our stories of disability due to illness are valid expressions of our lived experience.  They are our own. We tell them in our own words and from our own hearts. It is traumatic to acquire disability.  That person called for people with invisible disabilities to harden up. The words ‘portraying ourselves publicly as traumatically wounded’ linked to a post I wrote about dealing with the question
‘how are you’.

Every person in the disability sector has their own unique way of ‘being’. That’s just part of humanity, we express ourselves with infinite variety because we are diverse, because self-expression is the stuff of art, of poetry, of what makes us people. Competing over who has the most valid disability voice is counterproductive to shaping a society where all people are valued equally.  Suggesting as they did, that our unique voices should only be used to tell ‘way to go’ stories, is ridiculous and dangerous. It is the opposite of raising awareness and a worrying call for self-censorship which does not serve the invisible population. We speak out because our voices can be heard when our disability can not be seen.

I was gutted about receiving this flak because it came from within my sub-group of society. I see now that people with disabilities acquired through illness are not necessarily considered part of that group by people who fit a more traditional definition of ‘disabled’.  But we are part of that group. How much stronger could our presence in society be felt if we worked with each other, rather than against?  It seems to me, that the disability sector has a lot of distance to traverse within it’s own community, if we are to ever hope for true understanding outside of it.  How can we expect understanding and acceptance from others, if we don’t practise it ourselves?  Why all the political bullshit?  Must we?  Why can’t we just be kind and move forward?

I thought about putting on a flak jacket and advancing into the fight. I don’t like injustice. I don’t like bullying. I don’t like influential people being mean and thinking that is all just part of a provocative debate. But I can’t build a kinder world by being mean myself.

Instead, I have written to that person and to the people in my course.  I have withdrawn from the programme because I can’t continue there with any joy. I don’t need that course to make a difference. I don’t need to graduate to know that I have something to offer.  I am me, that is enough. So I returned here to my blog.  I don’t write for the people who don’t see my heart in my words. I write for you. I write for me.  I write to shine a light on the things not seen.  I see you, out there. I hear you. And I hope if you are writing your stories too, that you won’t let a flak attack stop you from sharing the things that matter.  And if you are reading the stories of people beneath the radar, keep showing them your support.  We are always stronger, together.

From my heart to yours. x

Precious: One Ring to Bind Them All

Gollum and his Precious hung out with our family over the past week.  We’ve been listening to the BBC audiobook of the Hobbit, during car travel. It’s a brilliant way to stop sibling rivalry; school holiday road trips usually mean backseat disputes, but Tolkein’s storytelling mastery got us there and back without a single spat. I was enraptured and horrified all over again as Gollum keened for his precious ring; obsessively muttering to the object of his fascination, his precious, magical ring. He polished it so much, turned it over so often that it began to form a persona of it’s own. It became his companion, his torture, the cause of such a myopic world view that he stayed beneath the mountain, keeping to himself, convinced in his own circular thinking that the ring was his everything.

Image source_ freecodesource.com

And while the school holidays and The Hobbit have been occupying part of my brain, in the background I’ve been doing a lot of thinking. About accessibility, what it means.  And about disability and what that means.  My views on all of these things have changed over time, broadened, really.  I suspect I will continue to work on them as I grow up (!)

Before I got sick, six years ago, I was a typical able bodied person. I took for granted my abilities to get around and I experienced very little difficulty getting access to the goods and services I needed. By the end of last year, walking the length of a carpark was out of the question.  Standing for more than five minutes, impossible. So I made use of hire scooters when they were available, or avoided outings that were beyond my ability. And despite the fact I have had mobility parking privileges since my diagnosis, to most people, my disability was invisible.  Not ‘looking’ sick or fitting the ‘disabled’ stereotype meant a difficult shift in my experience of society. Every frustrating interaction with people about what was wrong with me was a grating abrasion of misunderstanding that would slowly scab over, only to be picked at again and exposed, over and over.  A kind of circular torment for my mind.

The programme I am currently involved in is all about leadership for social change.  So of course, I’ve been thinking about social change. It is very dear to my heart.  How much I would love to wave a wizard’s staff and make all of the world a kinder place!  In the absence of that (where’s Gandalf when you need him?) I’ve been cogitating over language, and how it can have a profound effect on understanding. But also about how a conversation between the society at large and people who are considered disabled seems a lofty kind of starting point.

Like any conversation without a common vernacular, misunderstandings occur.  In just one example, our classic Disability Symbol shows a person in a wheelchair on a blue background. It’s globally recognised. It is by nature simplistic, because it is a symbol, a representation.  Short-hand to describe a designated access point for people who have difficulty being mobile. But somehow, the symbol has pervaded our collective concept of what being ‘disabled’ actually means. A dis -ability to walk.  Maybe, the symbol was just born from a notion of disability that is steeped in stereotype. I don’t know if there is a better way to symbolise disability in a pictograph. It is what we have and it serves it’s purpose.  But does it also serve our thinking?  Can it help us to reignite a discussion and develop a shared understanding?

mobility

For a very long time, I struggled to accept that I too, was a legitimate member of the disability sector.  I felt I had to explain myself; should I get a bumper sticker to defend my use of my own mobility card? I felt this most keenly in the company of people who were disabled in the literal meaning of that symbol. People in wheelchairs and those who champion their rights.  As though my own limited mobility was in direct competition with their more evident disability. And so whilst I felt completely forgotten by the world of the able-bodied ‘well’, I felt unable to sit comfortably in my new designation. Invisibly disabled. A position that required my own elevator pitch of explanation, to anyone who cared (and even those who didn’t) that not all disability is visible.  It saddens me that some people within the disability sector find this hard to get to grips with.  How can we work together as a community if our diverse types of disability are not recognised by each other?

Recently, I posted on my blog’s Facebook page about the new working party that has been set up to provide more comprehensive and comprehensible data on the disabled community.  It’s a move I welcome. I have often tried to research local data related to people with disability.  There is not enough. The right questions are not being asked. We represent 24% of the population, and yet so little is known of who is in this sector.   What I can tell you, is that:
“The most common cause of disability for adults was disease or illness (42 percent)”.
You can find more general information in the statistical summary, here.
It’s interesting, that statistic.  I suspected, when I began to research for this piece that most people, when asked their definition of disability, may not even include sick people. Tell me, do you think that illness and disability are distinct from one another? There are hotly debated positions about what it all means. But does the definition matter as much as we think it does?

Or are we just a little bit precious about it?

As my friend Carly put it : “disability has different meanings to people with disability and without. For people without, it means impaired, lesser, poor them, other, pitiful, a loss of life, inspiration porn. But for people with disabilities, there’s a sense of pride, community, achievement, normalcy”.  Carly is an appearance diversity activist. Her work spans all manner of societal attitudes toward people with a variety of disabilities. Her blog is well worth a look.  Her comment got me thinking about our views of disability.  And all the rhetoric within the sector. I thought that when it all comes down to it, I just want to find the bridge that connects the diverse worlds within the disability sector to the world of  non-disabled people, to increase understanding and connection.

And because words are my go-to method for making sense of life, for me it begins here. Within the language.

I looked up definitions of disability. There were many, very wordy, carefully considered descriptions. I thought about how bogged down we get in all that verbosity.  And then I thought I should ask children; I canvassed the mums in my wider networks on facebook.  The mainstreaming of education for children with special needs has had a profound impact on the curriculum and the views of the present generation of school aged children. Where most of the pre-school children I asked had a narrower definition, like Ben; “their foots don’t work” or Asha “they ride little cars”.  School aged children generally talked about the ability factor: “not being able to do things as easily as we can” (Carter), and “(disabled people) have got a little problem that makes them a bit different” (Xavier)… and this, from Natasha, “it’s not something wrong with you, it’s like you have a gift to see things differently, and you may look different but really you’re not”.

And I wonder if I’ve been tying myself up in knots over all the layers of meaning, the symbology, the realities of an incredibly diverse society. We are not the only group skirting the statistical soup of New Zealand society. We represent, together, a good number of New Zealanders, but we are as diverse within our own sector as they are without. I suspect, social change that moves us away from the ‘othering’ begins when we stop considering ourselves as so different. When our own obsessions about our sector, our precious, carefully built ring fences break open for a new view. So, 24% of New Zealanders are disabled in some way. Not the same way, but in some way.  New and better statistical data might help us to meet the needs within our sector better.  It might inform more discussion, debate and dilemma.  It may help us better define our strongest identifying characteristics.

But it occurs to me, that social change can only happen when all of us can see that diversity itself is what have in common.  All of us, abled, disabled, invisibly or visibly, othered or outered, mainstream or fringe.

Diversity really is the one ring that binds us all.

 

Meet My Peeps

Hello!

In the last six years I have met some incredible people.  Connecting online with others who have chronic illness has been one of the greatest supports and encouragements of my journey.

For the whole of 2015 I will be deeply immersed in the Be.Leadership Programme.  And that means, a bit less time for blogging.  I have homework!  And readings! And deep thoughts to “thunk” (!)  I will still be here, doing what I do.  I just might not be doing it quite as frequently.  According to the calculator, I’ve been averaging four posts a week since I started blogging in May last year. That is a tough rate to match now that I am a bit busier.  But also, I feel like it’s a great opportunity to broaden the scope of the Chronic-ills of Rach.

I have called on ‘My People’ to see if anyone would like to share their story in this space.  I’m calling it the ‘Meet my Peeps Guest Series’.  And I am so chuffed that you will get to read the stories of some of the people so dear to my heart.  Each time I post from them, I will introduce them, tell you how we met and then you’ll hear their stories.  There is a diverse range of guests, some, like me, have a form of Dysautonomia, but we’ll be hearing from people with other chronic conditions too.  People with Invisible Illness, invisible disabilities and also people with conditions that are not invisible. They’ll be sharing with you their perspectives about getting through, getting on, and getting over the challenges they face. Welcome to the series, I can’t wait to see your responses to their heartfelt words.

Meet My Peeps

Big love to you from me, remember, I’m still here!  In between times, I’m just getting a little help from my friends. 🙂

Calling out My Name

So many exciting things have been happening in my life lately.  Thanks to my friend Sheryn, I made a connection with an organisation called Be.Accessible who are passionate about creating social change in New Zealand. Their vision is for our country to be wholly accessible, so that anyone of us can just, be.  It’s a vision that has a great deal of synergy with my own. My own efforts towards building awareness and understanding in our community here in New Zealand (and with people online everywhere) are all about that.  About promoting understanding and acceptance.

Sharon Davies   Be.Leadership Alumni

I feel very strongly about helping people with ‘invisible’ illness and or disabilities, chronic illness and rare conditions that people find hard to comprehend. I write not just for me, not just for people with Dysautonomia, but for anyone who suffers the torment of not being understood, of finding judgement where they should find kindness.  I use my words so that others might find something they can share with their loved ones. A way to explain what they haven’t been able to explain.  Sometimes it is hard to find the words.

Doing that.  Using my words, has brought me to a surprising place in my life.  My health continues to deteriorate, but my heart and mind are filled with bigger and better thoughts than ever before. I saw my Granny today and she asked “Are you well?” and I could honestly reply to her “All is well with my soul!” I have a purpose and a direction that I never even knew was in my future.  I thought everything was so lost to me. I thought all of those things were out the window. Gone. But here I am, about to embark on something new.  The joy bubbles up from inside, how surprising and wonderful life can be!

Last night I attended an event here in Auckland, down on the waterfront.  It was the graduation for this years participants in the Be.Leadership programme.  The programme aims to mentor people into positions of greater social leadership by providing a year long programme of discussions and learning with some of New Zealand’s great leaders.  Among other great initiatives!  The program cost is $17,000 and this is fully funded for selected participants.  I have applied (squee!) and I am waiting to hear what happens next… so watch this space!

Sharon Davies   Be.Leadership Alumni(1)

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Last month I began writing for the parenting column of a popular Dysautonomia Newsletter in the States. And I met my editor, Ellen, online.  Sometimes when you meet someone, just as it is in person, you just click right away. It was like that with Ellen. She understands me and we have had lots of wonderful email conversations, back and forth from one part of the world to another. She is a wonderful encouragement to me. Recently she sent me this song. It stopped me in my tracks. What a voice. What lyrics!  Thanks Ellen, this song is my new anthem, it so perfectly expresses why I continue to find things that I CAN do.  Life is calling out my name.
Here is Beth Hart singing “Life is Calling”

 

…and, the lyrics…
Sunday morning, the world’s still sleeping
And the rain keeps falling like angels weeping
And I, I feel the tears on my skin
They’re trying to tell me something
I listen

Blues and yellows tap on my window
And I let the night go with all my shadows
And I, I feel the sun on my skin
It’s trying to tell me something
I listen

Life is calling, life is calling
Life is calling out my name
Make it matter, say it louder
Stay alive another day
Life is calling out my name

Perfect houses with good intentions
Where the happy families hide their broken dishes
And I, I hear the scars on my skin
They’re trying to tell me something so
I listen

Life is calling, life is calling
Life is calling out my name
Make it matter say it louder
Stay alive another day
Life is calling out my name

It’s the wind over the ocean
It’s the secrets in the sand
It’s all trying to tell me something
So I’m listening

Life is calling, life is calling
Life is calling out my name
Make it matter just say it louder
Stay alive another day
Life is calling, life is calling
Life is calling out my name