I Can, but I Can't
Every word I type is painful. None of it is good enough. I will never prove myself as an academic, as a writer, a thinker. Cross out the last sentence. Cross out all of it. Back space back space, hold down the key. Erase it all. I never thought these things. If anyone sees my thoughts, undressed, as it were, on the page, what on earth would they think? Would they look at me and shake their heads, think look at all that wasted potential, think what is she doing here?, think is she serious? I can never be fully serious when I commit words to paper. They start going down when I have just enough time left on the clock to finish before the time limit is up. Paper is due on Friday. No specific time stated. Sent at 11:58 PM, Friday night. Need to catch the Blue Bus to class at 2:20 PM; paper printed at 2:14. I never leave enough time to revise. I never leave enough time to let my eyes look back over the words—I simply have to let them go, even if they aren’t perfect, lest I keep holding them back. Good, I almost have a paragraph that hasn’t been erased yet. This is an improvement. Too bad it’s a useless paragraph. Wait, wait, stop. You are not allowed to backspace this.
Disability. At first, I felt little connection with this topic. Then, too much. Now, I am sitting here trying to write a paper relating it to gender and sexuality and feeling completely stuck. I have so many questions rattling around in my head, yet I cannot put them into words. I am self-conscious about posting this online. I haven’t been able to force my brain to focus on my assignments because it’s too busy thinking thinking thinking about other things. And also because my brain operates on doubt. Why? Why do I constantly doubt my ability to do anything well enough? Why do I go through the same painful cycle whenever writing a paper? Great, this paragraph is not about disability at all. Is it? Okay, let’s try a little bit harder.
Moment #1: in the car with my mother. I am in 6th grade. I hate how I look, feel insecure about my body, doubt anyone will like me. Cannot get myself to be comfortable with who I am. Don’t worry, my mother tells me, you will reinvent yourself. Reinvent myself? How could I reinvent myself? One day, it’ll hit you. You’ll like some boy and want to impress him, and that will motivate you to change.
My mother based her entire life around the expectation that she would get married and be treated like a princess. That is what her mother told her to aim for. That is what she told me to aim for. I grew up watching her spend hours putting on makeup, changing her outfits, fretting over her hair and her nose and whether people were looking at her. I never knew whether she wanted the answer to be yes or no. I don’t think she knew, either.
I learned how to feel inadequate long before this moment. I knew well how to look in the mirror and scrutinize my pudginess, how to judge and know that it wasn’t good enough. I knew from my mother that not going out was an acceptable response to feeling bad about how you looked. I worried that I wouldn’t be valued for anything aside from my appearance, or at the very least, that it would have a pretty big effect on whoever is judging me. I didn’t want to be female; it was too hard. My mother herself said that men had it easier. They didn’t have to worry about looking good. They didn’t spend hours primping in front of a mirror. They didn’t have to worry about menstruating.
What does this have to do with disability? Anything? No, stop, don’t backspace.
Moment #2: She’s crying. She’s crying because she hates herself. She says she’s too fat, she is too ugly, she’s not good enough, she’ll never be anything, she can’t do anything. Can’t can’t can’t. The same can’t voice that sticks in my head whenever I can’t do a paper, whenever I can’t handle a situation. Can’t. Can’t. She can’t move. My fingers know all the letters but can’t string them together into something coherent. Eyes will read the words. The words are who I am. The text is my makeup.
Moment #3: We’re in the kitchen of our apartment, sitting on the floor. I shouldn’t be hearing this. I shouldn’t be hearing that she had an abortion before she got pregnant with me. I shouldn’t be hearing this. I shouldn’t know that I could have had an older sibling. I shouldn’t know that it was her family, my family, who convinced her not to go through with having the baby. By this time, I am learning to consider myself a feminist. I am definitely pro-choice. But is that really a choice? Why didn’t she have a choice? Why didn’t she make the choice for herself?
Could she? Was she able to make the choice? Was she able to act?
Am I writing on-topic yet?
She was born female in 1954. She grew up in the middle of the women’s movement, didn’t she? How I wish she had stories of coming into a feminist consciousness, of realizing she could live the way she wanted, of finding her voice and becoming her true self, of pursuing her dreams, of becoming sexually liberated, of learning to love her body.
Instead, I got stories about how men used her. About how she was always the victim. About how they made her feel awful about herself. About how she thought she had to look perfect just to be loved. Love, to her, was contingent on her ability to fulfill some ideal of beauty that she was unable to fulfill. But the ideal is not real. The ideal is unattainable. The ideal was an ideal in her head, planted there by… who? By her mother, by the men in her life, by the women in her life, by being put down and hurt and told she wasn’t good enough? By who?
Moment #4: She wants to die. She does not feel as though her life is worth living. She cares about my brother and me, but she can’t get past herself. She will never be who she wants to be. What has held her back? Was it having kids? Was it that unobtainable ideal in her head? Was it the depression that had settled into her bones by the time she was a teenager? She can’t get a job or keep a job. She just wants to stay inside, looking at herself in the mirror. Looking, looking, trying to look better in case others look upon her. In case they look and see a look that they don’t like. In case they look and see her. She hides. She hides behind makeup, behind closed doors, behind excuses and cries of being victimized. Was she victimized? Here I am, wishing upon her the strength to know that she was worth more than that, to know that she is worth more than her hair and her supposedly-too-big-nose and her body. Wishing upon her the knowledge that being a woman doesn’t mean that she has to be a certain kind of woman to live. Wishing that she had taught me things she had never learned herself. Wishing that she wanted to live.
Living. Ability. Livability?
No backspacing. No stopping.
Is it a disability to be born female?
Is it a disability to be raised a woman?
Is it a disability to be gendered at all?
She has mental disabilities that can be described in clinical terms: depression, bipolar disorder, social anxiety disorder. But underneath it all, she was never taught to own herself, to take care of herself, to have a sense of inner strength. Her life was built around the expectation that she would be a wife, that she would live to please others. She was so focused on becoming who she was expected to be, that she couldn’t change to fit the new expectations of the 90’s, of a world that expected something that she hadn’t been taught to expect.
After being raised with expectations that to us now seem antiquated, she was forced to take on a different role: that of a single mother who needed to get a job and provide for her own family. She couldn’t do it. Was it because of the aforementioned clinical terms that could be stamped on her brain, or because she had never learned to believe that she could be anyone else? In any case, is it her fault at all that she ended up as she did? Can I blame her?
Maybe I can’t. She didn’t choose this life. Regardless of where they come from, she can’t stop the thoughts that probably pass through her head before she even realizes they’re there.
I criticize every thought that passes through my mind. There is no such thing as a simple answer. I need to prove that I can do it, that there is more than one way to be a woman. That being a woman does not mean being a victim. That being a woman does not mean living to impress anyone else. That I am not her. But why is it my own mind that tells me I can’t? Can’t can’t can’t. Can’t write this paper, can’t go to the party, can’t be the person I want to be, can’t do it. Is it my mind, or is it the voice I have been taught to think is my mind, but which is really some intangible societal force, making me believe that there is such a thing as a binary, as a yes or no, as a right or wrong? Do I have a mind at all, or are each of us just made up of pieces of interactions and social roles that are imprinted upon our bodies, upon our brains? Do the expectations trap us, box us in, keep us from achieving something we could achieve, perhaps without us even realizing that we’re in the box at all?
I refuse to let my body disable my mind. I refuse to let my mind keep me from moving on. When the thoughts start forcing themselves upon me, the can’t can’t can’t, the you’re a failure, the you’ll be just like her, the you’re ugly, I have to find a way to make them stop. I have to do. I have to go. Sometimes, I feel like I understand her. I can understand the rut that her brain must have fallen into, the inability to see the world any way other than how it is mapped out in her mind. I have spent many hours in bed crying, wondering whether there is any point to it all. I have been there, and now I am trying to keep myself far far away.
Reinvent yourself. She probably imagined I would lose 20 pounds, start wearing makeup, and spend more time styling my hair. Reinvent yourself. She never stopped dieting. Reinvent yourself. I’ve never learned not to feel insecure about my body. Reinvent yourself. I don’t know if I can. But I did.
Moment #5: Am I a real woman? That’s the closest option to what I am, right? I’ve got this book figured out already: I’m not the right audience. You want me to choose this option just so I can work through the book and figure out that I am, in actuality, not all that perfectly gendered. But I figured that out a long time ago, Kate. I appreciate your insight, but this isn’t a new concept. I do find it amusing that I scored as “weird” on your “am I perfectly gendered?” test, so thanks for the laugh.
Kate Bornstein suggests that it is possible to live without a gender, that doing so will give us more freedom. I started asking myself, as I read My Gender Workbook, why I am so attached to my gender. Why am I so attached to being a woman, when that category is in some ways so limited? Disabling?
I wonder… what is the difference between choosing to live without a gender, and thus without the limits imposed by being a man or woman… and choosing to identify as a woman, but living with the goal of expanding people’s views of who and what a woman can possibly be? Is the label disabling if you choose not to let it be disabling? Can we choose at all?
I don’t know if this paper was actually about disability. But I can’t start over. I can’t rewrite it. I can’t. I wanted this to be something different, but it’s not. Maybe next time. At least I got words down on the page. Sometimes all you can do is put something down in order to move forward.