the disabled contours of friendship
2 February, 2019
Trying to pick apart what of yourself is moulded by your apparent little-passive-disabled appearance from what isn't, and trying to work out how people in your life, your friends relate to you is affected by this belying exterior, are both blatantly fruitless exercises, not to mention impossible to achieve. They are just ways of getting your mind tangled in loops that quickly become knots in your abdomen. Yet because these things feel very much like an all-encompassing riddle that my social experience continues to be wonderfully, sometimes uncomfortably, riddled with, I often find myself ardently trying to solve it, almost like a game.
The ways we relate to each other, and to ourselves, are so tightly woven with our individual identities, lived experiences and our general sense of social security. So discriminatory social responses have undoubtedly influenced the ways I carry myself through situations, and distinctive pathways and trajectories in my life and identity have been created out of necessity by social uncertainty and assumptions. I catch myself, perhaps too readily, doubting my own judgements and capability to do things, and mistrusting my own reality. One of my fave thinkers, Eve Sedgwick talks about paranoia as a doubling of presence, about how when you are othered in any way, you not only feel yourself as yourself, but you also can sense how others perceive you. I feel this all the time, but I work hard to divest myself from the social perception of my appearance. This is why I often feel my friends see me more clearly, since they don't have this double vision.
Still, with strangers, I act in passive ways that don't align with my sense of who I am or even part of my general way of relating, staying silent when I look people in the eye and withstanding the condescension, because it's just less effortful. However if that was how I innately was, I don’t think I’d have the staying power to create the life and connections I have. Mine is a life, which is not anything spectacular, but it has been established on my own terms, even if those terms are not understood by anyone else. Even so, the subtle dismissals and general disregard for my voice/feelings has altered my comfort levels and confidence.
So to trace the causes of every slightly paternalistic expression of love and care that people in my life show me, and the pronounced responsibility for my wellbeing they readily take on, would be very challenging for me to swallow. It would be kind of like if I ate a very toasted slice of bread, the whole process would result in a lump in my throat, an ache in my chest, and then would cause me to cough for a bit and then it would gradually ease. And even though I would try to reassure everyone that I’m still alive and breathing, the tears in my eyes would possibly remain visible.
I love my friends dearly, they are beautiful creatures who support me in every way possible, but I even overanalyse the ways they treat me sometimes (because I am that self-centred), despite knowing they thoroughly value my general capability and respect my judgement and opinions (at least at a conscious level). Sometimes I wonder if there is a glimmer of unnecessary doubt or condescension in my friends' voices. Or If I wasn't disabled, would my friends constantly ask me if I had eaten, often check whether I have my house keys or remind me to take a jumper? Would they sometimes explain how to do inane things that I have done hundreds of times before? Or second-guess the decisions I make? These things are lovely, done out of care and I appreciate them, although at nearly 30, I am more than capable of dealing with the shortfalls of my forgetfulness, clumsiness and just carelessness.
I am vulnerable in all sorts of ways and ableism is rife in us all, so it's logical that my friends feel protective and take on more responsibility. Like the way even though I’ve been doing it all my life without her, my housemate is vigilant of my movements every time we cross the road. She says if I got hit and died, Judge A.A. Ableism would convict her. As I have said before, I actually think my disability and communication enables deeper connections. I have spoken about my body as being like a precious petulant and stubborn child, which my friends help me take care of and we bond over. So in this light, in this shared understanding of my body, it makes sense that goodbye hugs often involve a reflexive kiss on my head, that a hand on my knee can linger for a long time, that people grab my hand without a moment's hesitation or they pat me on the head with absolute affection. All these things are just how we relate and how I let my body be interacted with, it's an ordinary intimacy that I cherish, and I understand these things are not done in a way that is undermining or belittling me.
Don't get me wrong, I know all these things aren't too uncommon for friends to do, because I do them myself, but it still makes me wonder, and even sometimes feel strange, because of my social conditioning. I guess this is that paranoia, which has unavoidably been ingrained in me, from a life-time of navigating demeaning comments, condescending smiles and polite kindness that distorts the truth of situations. The truth is something I naturally seek out to protect myself, noticing a brief look of uncertainty or panic in people's eyes, or that pronounced enthusiasm that shows interacting with me is feeding their ego. In any and all interactions, I can be put on edge. Recently a good friend, who obviously doesn't mince her words, said that she has learnt how to interact with me, and doesn't talk to me any different to the way she does with others. This made me question if other people needed to go through a similar process, to see my humanity. Probably, but I doubt many people would admit it.