Living with an Invisible Disability

Dec 31, 2015 | Autobiographical, General Advice

Published: The Good Men Project (December 31, 2015)

This is an article about invisible disabilities… metaphorical as well as literal.

As many of my readers already know, I was born with a hand-eye coordination disability that mystifies my neurologists to this day. Thanks to my parents’ diligence and the help of wonderful childhood physical therapists, I have sufficiently overcome it so that most people who meet me never even guess I have this problem. This was and remains a blessing – one that many others in my situation may not have been lucky enough to receive – and I am enormously grateful for it.

At the same time, the fact remains that my dysfunction of the vestibular cerebellum still negatively impacts my quality of life. By far the biggest downside is that it has made it impossible for me to learn how to drive a car; although I’ve received extensive lessons, three separate instructors have told me that I will never have the reflexes necessary to safely control an automobile on the road. Similarly, although much less seriously, my disability makes me terrible at video games. Considering the number of intelligent mind from my generation who suffer from video game addiction, I must admit that on some level I’m grateful to have never had the opportunity to succumb to this vice. At the same time, it has put me out of the loop in many social situations, albeit nowhere near to the extent that being unable to drive has done the same thing.

Yet despite these hinderances, my biggest challenge isn’t an inability to drive or win a game of Super Mario Smash Brothers. It’s the fact that many people, when hearing that I have a disability, choose not to believe me because they can’t see it. This brings me to what editors would call the “peg” of this piece – namely, the New Year’s Eve lessons that I draw from it.

1. Never be afraid to tell the truth, even if others aren’t willing to listen to it.

It may be annoying or even embarrassing when people question that my neurological disorder, but that doesn’t mean I intend to stop discussing it. For one thing, it’s going to exist whether I talk about it or not, so at the end of the day it’s just easier to be honest with myself and others than try to conceal my problem simply to avoid being judged. More importantly, though, my writing career has given me a large platform which I can use to draw attention to any issue that I want. With this kind of potential influence, I have a moral responsibility to help others who may be in situations similar to my own but don’t have a public voice.

2. Practice empathy.

Empathy, as defined by Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary, is “the feeling that you understand and share another person’s experiences and emotions.” It may seem unnecessary to define that here, but I’ve noticed an increasing number of people seem to view the term with derision. In our cultural consciousness these days, empathy is often associated with weakness – a tendency to let your heart bleed for sinners and weaklings instead of trying to understand the world from their perspective.

This assumption isn’t just factually incorrect, it’s downright foolish. After all, the only way any human being can acquire wisdom is to learn from the thoughts, feelings, and experiences of others. This means more than just absorbing the information which others present to you; it requires a willingness to challenge your own assumptions and imagine how the other guy feels.

3. Encourage openness as a general approach to life.

This involves more than simply being honest. Even when we aren’t necessarily lying to other people, human beings play a thousand little games in order to conceal parts of themselves that could and should be aired out. This isn’t always unjustified – there are only so many times one can get hurt by being too open before reflexively closing off – but it still should be discouraged. Unless you have sound reason to believe your completely open words or actions would hurt someone else, it is almost always better to find a direct and open way to communicating than to do otherwise. As the Indian guru Osho once put it, “the social reality is a fiction, a beautiful drama; you can participate in it, but then you don’t take it seriously. It is just a role to be played; play it as beautifully, as efficiently, as possible. But don’t take it seriously, it has nothing of the ultimate in it.”

Whenever we choose to not be open with ourselves and others, we implicitly subordinate our own individuality to our fear of social or other personal consequences. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t play the social game, but it’s important to remember that it is just that – a game. By being open about those aspects of your life that make the game more difficult for you, it becomes possible to take a step back, recognize life for what it is, and empower yourself to master it… lest it master you.

As I reflect back on the course of my life for these past thirty years, and eagerly anticipate the one to come, I must say that I’m a little grateful that I have an invisible disability to teach me these important lessons. For that matter, I’m grateful for all of the struggles that I’ve had throughout my life, from being diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome to nearly losing my life at the hands of anti-Semitic bullies as a child. Without these obstacles, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to grow into the man that I am today. What’s more, these struggles have forced me to appreciate just how lucky I am, and to develop compassion for the millions and millions of people out there who have it much, much worse.

These are my passing thoughts for New Year’s Eve. I hope every one of you has a wonderful 2016!