Beginning my first semester of college, I attended a small scripture study group my friends held nightly a few doors down from my dorm. This group grew and changed and moved around several times over the course of my time at school, and for a long time we met at my apartment. During that time, my roommate pointed out that I had someone to represent just about every High School stereotype she could think of in the group. I realized there was a solid cross-section there: we had a preppy type, a few computer geeks, a goth or two, a couple of populars, and some who were simply happy to be weird, with a few kind of normal ones mixed in. I also knew from my conversations with them, though she might not have, that I also had many of the most well-known disabilities represented: Asperger’s, bipolar, depression, anxiety disorder, and reactive attachment, to name a few.
To me, those labels didn’t matter, and maybe that’s part of why everyone felt so comfortable coming. To me, diagnoses were – and are – for helping individuals and families understand what they are up against and how to cope with, process, and/or improve their lives based on that understanding. High school stereotypes look at what a person likes to wear or do. Diagnoses look at how a person’s body and mind react to the stimulation we call life. As I interacted with all of these people, I realized that there are more important criteria for grouping people.
If we all have problems, which we do, then the real measure of a person is their attitude toward those problems. Those who treated their problems as excuses for not doing what their problems made it hard to do, failed. Several of them even failed out of school. Those who treated their problems as mountains to climb and conquer, learned and grew from their struggles and succeeded. Maybe they didn’t get straight A’s, but they walked tall with the stature of those who’d done their best. Their success was never determined by the severity or nature of the problem, but whether they defined themselves by their challenges, or proactively decided how to conquer them so they could be who they wanted to be. This was inspiring, and helped me remember to adopt the same policy in my own life.
As my attitude towards disability began to change and mature, so did the way I interacted with Crystal, my sister with Asperger's Syndrome.
While I was adjusting to being away from home for the first time ever, my family was adjusting to having someone away from home for the first time ever. I was grateful for their Sunday phone calls, when everyone at home would take a few minutes to talk to me. I didn’t dislike talking to Crystal, in fact I often used her turn to talk as an opportunity to grab a bite to eat, check my email or, I’m sorry to say, do some homework. Talking to her required no active engagement of the mind, because as she told me everything that was happening in her life, she almost never so much as pause to listen for a response from me. It was easy, and I thought maybe a little silly. Sometimes I would interrupt, usually because what she was saying seemed false or she was bragging about something she’d said or done that wasn’t actually praiseworthy, and getting her to stop so I could speak wasn’t unlike putting the brakes on a steam engine:
“…and I thought it was so funny! [“Crystal”] So I laughed and then I was like, [“Crystal”] ‘How did you do that?’ [“Cryyyyyss”] Andhesaidhewouldn’ttellme [“talllllllll”] becauseitwasasecret. (deep inhale) What?”
“ Did you tell Mom about this already?”
And she would begin again, engaged in halting conversation only as long as I insisted on it, until at last I allowed her to get her train of thought chugging along again so she could eventually make it to the end of the tracks.
At first, I thought of talking to Crystal on the phone as a service I was providing her. She wanted to talk to me and I allowed her to. The less I interrupted or expressed any kind of dislike or annoyance towards what she told me, the better the service was to her. The benefit I received from listening was mainly that I knew it made her happy and that God would bless me for trying to be a good sister.
Somewhere inside me I always knew I could do better than that. She was a person, after all, and people don’t tell stories so they can be ignored. Besides, she was my sister, and family should always treat family better than they would want to be treated. Just because being mostly ignored didn’t bother her as much as it would bother me, was no excuse for me to treat Crystal that way.
As I grew, I decided to be a more actively engaged listener. As such, I would interject with more positive sentiments, such as, “Fun!” and, “Good job!” and “She sounds like a good friend!” She could hear these quick things over the sound of her wheels on the rails, and they seemed to improve the experience for both of us. Sometimes she even responded to what I said.
Turns out she was growing too. One day she really surprised me:
“I’m sorry. I’ve been talking for all this time and haven’t let you say anything. How are you doing?”
I had to take a moment to catch my breath before I could respond. It was a happy day for both of us.
I guess the attitude people have toward their negative tendencies really does make a difference, even when one of those people is me.