31 March, 2009

I Don't Know What to Call This

The singer Martha Wainwright has a song entitled "Bleeding All Over You" that begins with the following set of lyrics:

There are days
when the cage doesn't
seem to open very wide at all

I know it sounds negative, but some days, I can definitely relate. Maybe it's the fact that I pass fairly regularly as able-bodied--at least in public spaces--or maybe it's my failure at passing on my worst days that makes me relate. As much as I hate to rely upon the old trope of the person-with-disability as trapped by her own unruly body, it, like many tropes, has a sliver of truth to it.

When I am in public, I often fear that other people--more able-bodied people--can "spot" my disability. On a purely surface level, this makes no sense. Part of what makes passing such an interesting topic is the fact that, on some level, the individual who passes can hide something and look as if she or he is a part of another group, despite some (invisible) evidence that would suggest otherwise. I realize also that not everyone has the ability to pass--that passing, in itself, is a privilege. The ability to appear to be something that one is not (often as a member of a more privileged group) is not something that absolutely everyone has.

Today, I sat in a restaurant and ate a light lunch very, very slowly because my right hand was unable to hold the fork without considerable muscle pain in my tendons and wrist. This sort of thing happens rarely, but when it does, I get nervous. I become nervous because I think that my fellow diners, or students, or whomever, can pick up on my not-immediately-obvious physical difference(s) from something that is only slightly "off." Even using a term like "off" is problematic; it implies that there is something wrong, that the person who needs to take time to do some of the things that others may take for granted needs to be fixed, somehow; that, or she needs to "fix" herself (by minimizing/masking her pain or ability or dis-ability) so that she may fit in and continue to pass.

So, are my restrained grimaces due to pain--when I am in public spaces, that is-- restrained because I, deep down, want to continue passing? Is it because I would be embarrassed to show my pain around strangers? Is it out of rather ridiculous consideration(s) of the "comfort" level of strangers (ie: the social assumption that one should never make people uncomfortable, even if one is in pain)? Does a "stiff upper lip," so to speak, actually do anyone a favor? I'd argue that the whole "keep your pain to yourself" thing might arise from a very deep fear of individuals with disabilities, but that's probably best saved for another post.


vesta44 said...

I decided a few years ago, when I had to start using the electric carts for shopping (Wal-Mart, large grocery stores) that I wasn't going to mask my pain on the days that it was bad (I'm also fat, so there's that stigma to using the electric carts, it's because I'm fatandlazy according to some comments I've overheard). I have days when I can walk fairly easily from my minivan (in the handicapped space) into the store but I can't walk for the whole time I'll be shopping. There are other days when it's all I can do to walk from my minivan to the store, and it's not easy to sit down on the electric cart, let alone get up off it when my shopping is done. When I'm in that much pain and have to do things anyway, I don't care if seeing my pain makes people uncomfortable. I have enough to do with just handling the pain, let alone trying to mask it or hide it so people don't have to feel uncomfortable. Of course, at my age, I'm finding out that I don't much care what strangers think of me, since most of them will never see me again.

amandaw said...

i am fortunate to, lately, be doing well enough that generally, i don't have to worry about performing one way or t'other in public. whether trying to hide my pain, or overacting it because it *deflects* attention whereas acting naturally (when my pain doesn't manifest visibly) would increase attention on me.

i don't know what it is. part of it is, i think, really, we've internalized the "faker" bullshit. society has convinced us that everyone around us who hasn't proven otherwise really does see us as fakers. and so we try to hide. to prove them wrong, or at least to keep from triggering those thoughts in the first place.

this is all incomplete thoughts, but there you go.