BADD 2017: The Complexities of I can’t

Today is the tenth annual Blogging Against Disablism Day. I’ve spent the past week thinking about potential topics. I thought about addressing the ableist task force that has been set up in NSW, Australia to address “terrorism”. I debated writing about med shaming dressed up as “feminism”. Neither of those topics were particularly appealing though. They’re topics that have been addressed before many times by many people.

Last night before going to sleep, I hastily scribbled down the complexities of can’t. Then, in a serendipitous turn of events, I woke up this morning to discover that Autistic Academic had written a post about can’t as well. That post was quite similar to what I initially planned to write, so I tried to think of a different topic and, you know what, I can’t. So, I’m going to write my post and it may turn out similar to Autistic Academic’s post. If so, I hope that my post adds to the conversation rather than repeating it.

Growing up, can’t was never accepted by my parents. Can’t was always translated into “can try”. For some reason, being unable to do something meant being unwilling to try.

This frustrating cycle led me to push myself harder because I believed that if I just tried hard enough, I would be able to do something that I couldn’t do. The problem with that internalised attitude is that it led to me experiencing low self-esteem. Not being able to do something was seen (by those around me and by me) as a character flaw. I spent a good portion of my life blaming myself for not being able to do certain things. It was my fault, see? Didn’t try hard enough. Too lazy. Not committed enough.

So I tried harder – and it worked (sort of) until about 12 years ago.

I had been working for the same company for five years (my longest employment term to date). Never giving up or admitting defeat, I had risen steadily through the ranks. Can’t wasn’t in my vocabulary. I would do the thing expected of me. If that meant working 14+ hours a day, then that’s what I did. If it meant dragging myself into work when my brain and body were protesting, that’s what I did. Outwardly, I had achieved all the standards of “success”. I held a management position (the youngest in the company at that time) with just over 20 staff to look after. I had just purchased a house of my own in a decent enough area and I was earning good money.

And then it happened. One morning, I woke up and the only thing I could think was “I can’t“. I wanted to. I wanted to try. But the reserves were completely empty. I couldn’t even find the energy to get out of bed. I phoned in sick – unusual for me – because I thought taking a day would fix the problem. But the problem wasn’t fixed in a day. The problem was that I had pushed myself too hard for too long and I was burnt out.

Three days later, I packed some of my essential items into my car and drove away from my life. I didn’t tell my employer that I wasn’t returning because I knew I would be required to work notice and I couldn’t do that. I couldn’t really do anything.

In a place with a lot trees, I took some time to heal.

That act destroyed me financially (obviously) and I have never fully recovered from that. But it was an act of self-preservation and I needed to accept that there are things I just can’t do. It’s not because I don’t want to or because I haven’t tried hard enough or I haven’t put in enough effort. It’s because I can’t.

Different people have different strengths and limitations. It should be ok for us to acknowledge the things that we can’t do without that acknowledgement being turned into something perceived a a negative. It’s not though.

Just recently, I said to someone “My brain just can’t do that. It doesn’t work that way.” Her response? “You shouldn’t be too hard on yourself.” I wasn’t thinking about my inability to do something as a negative thing. It was a simple acknowledgement that there are things I can’t do.

But that one comment threw me back into my cycle of thinking that maybe I was being too hard on myself. Maybe if I tried harder, I could do the thing I can’t do. I don’t even remember what the specific thing was because I applied that to every part of my life once again. It’s probably worthwhile mentioning that during that time, my son and I were homeless. There were many things that neither of us could do, but irrational internalised beliefs never really allow for changes in circumstances. Once again, I found myself believing that my lack of effort was to blame for my inability to do things. Luckily, I caught it quickly enough and was able to pull myself out before the self-doubt completely encased me.

I’m getting to the point where I am ok with admitting that I can’t. It’s taken a lot of time to unpack the internalised ableism that previously stopped me from acknowledging that.

But it seems that far too many people believe that trying harder, having a good attitude, being positive or doing yoga will somehow overcome our disabilities. Imagine if we all had exactly the same abilities – exactly the same profile of strengths and limitations. How hard would it be to get things done? As humans, we’re social creatures. We look to groups for protection and assistance. Perhaps we do that so that those who can do, and those who can’t do other things that are still beneficial to the group as a whole?