Donna Reeve Kills Off Non-Disabled Chris

In my experience, one of the disappointing things about life-altering, transcendent or revelatory moments is that they tend to happen in places where you have to appear as though nothing much is happening, in spite of the internal firework display going off in one’s brain…

On Wednesday January 18th 2017, I was sat in Francini Cafe de Colombia in Worcester leafing through some papers.  I’d just been for a therapy session in Birmingham and had headed to Worcester early, in order to get my head in some kind of working order for my evening class.  I’d spent that afternoon’s therapy session poking another hole in the social model and my therapist asked me if I’d ever read anything by Donna Reeve – I hadn’t – so she handed me a few pages she thought I may find interesting.  I’d found a comfortable corner seat that allowed my body to give in to poor posture and slouch more than is possible in a standard chair and was sitting reading with a cup of the heady Colombian home brew I love so much, quietly enjoying reading something that seemed to justify much of what I’d been coming to realise.  And then I read a statement that was so on the nose that the moment stays with me over a year later…

“However, a disabled person who is struggling to emulate the ableist norm, is manufacturing an identity as non-disabled; this takes emotional energy, it is forever at risk of fracture and exposure”

I froze.  Francini’s unobtrusive but nevertheless constant South American music went on silent and I slouched so far back on my seat I was practically sliding under the table.  It was as if I’d been hit in the face by my own personal hurricane.  So much that was new and frightening suddenly made a lot more sense.  And then I sat up and tried to appear normal.  I remember shuffling the papers as if to tidy them up, checking my phone for any messages from the classmate I was expecting to meet, and then staring into my coffee cup – fortunately nothing but the brown dregs and a slice of lemon looked back at me, rather than things that had changed due to what I’d just read.   I had to glance at the table nearest me to see if the people hadn’t heard my internal monologue – it had happened so loudly I couldn’t be sure some of the noise hadn’t slipped out.  I’d said nothing as I read, but was ready to shout from the rooftops: “OH MY GOOD GOD THIS IS EVERYTHING AND EXPLAINS SO MUCH OF WHAT I’VE BEEN DOING AND WHAT HAS BEEN DONE!  THIS TALLIES WITH MY MENTAL HEALTH BREAKS, MY SELF-LOATHING, MY INCESSANT PERFECTIONISM, WHY I FEEL SO FRAGILE AND WHY I FEEL SO UGLY NOW AND WHY I’VE SUDDENLY CHANGED HOW I FEEL ABOUT DISABILITY FROM WHERE I WAS!!! ARGHOMGOMGOMGOMGWTFWTFWTFWTF!!!!”  

I don’t know how I’d have phrased it all if I’d felt confident enough to shout it – that last phrase in particular is a difficult vocal translation.  But it was a genuinely arresting moment…

It was the moment when I truly realised that one of the things that was causing me to feel so many things about my disability that were uncomfortable – was that I was now seeing myself as disabled.  I was fractured and exposed.  I understood that I was different.  That’s not a happy thought, but denial of that had taken me as far as it could.  Now I’m not saying that I had never before acknowledged cerebral palsy.  I’d always been aware of it, known about it, but my parents never gave any sense of shame or discomfort with it.  As far as they and others were concerned, I was just Chris.  It wasn’t that to my nearest and dearest CP was unacknowledged, just that in the grand scheme of things – it wasn’t very important.  It wasn’t the crass “But I don’t see disability” – just simply that to them, they had much more of the whole picture.  The trouble is, that there are only a handful of people who are in any kind of position to see me that way.  It is not necessarily the fault of anyone else that they contribute to an overwhelmingly ableist culture, but we live in an age where the central craving is to appear ‘normal’.  Alas, disability does not fit in the category of ‘normal’.

The best way I can describe this kind of cognitive dissonance is by way of example.  In the summer of 2003 the school cricket team announced practices and the PE teacher responsible asked interested parties to sign up.  I was and still am, an absolute cricket nut and so I approached him later that day and said I was interested.  His response of “Ah yes, would you like to be our scorer?” burnt me then and it still burns now.  I had never expected to pull up any trees at practices, but I wanted to participate as anyone else would.  I wanted my normality, my sporting love, my enthusiasm, my enjoyment to be seen.  I didn’t expect to be good, much less selected – but the response of that teacher that essentially said “I don’t even consider your participation as a thing” will stay with me forever.  It was maybe the first puncture (quickly repressed) of my non-disabled identity.  As far as I was concerned, I was normal – and how dare he shut me out?

So while I didn’t identify especially strongly with my disability – and in many ways still don’t, others see it as the first thing I present as.  And even if I didn’t realise why, that was something I picked up on.  I desperately wanted to fit in.  I wanted a non-disabled identity, if nothing else because it makes life a hell of a lot easier.  I became non-disabled Chris.  In high school I put up with what I now realise were high levels of emotional bullying, in order to stay part of the acceptable group, my wheelchair was free to use for anyone that didn’t abuse it, and indeed there was precious little I could do about anyone who did take things too far.  I was the butt of many jokes, appearance, sexuality and the fact I had extra help in school were all mocked at one time or another.  The thing is that when things are so normal, you don’t realise they happen to you.  I remember at the end of the first term at university, coming back home and going for a drink with some school friends, one turned to me, and in a moment that will stay with me forever, looked at me as if seeing me for the first time and said: “Coombs – you put up with a lot of shit!”.  I doubt he remembers the conversation, but if he does and is reading this – thank you for your candour, it was one of the few times in my teens that I’d been allowed that experience as it was, rather than laughed off.  Nevertheless, that was a brief moment that threatened my non-disabled identity.  I made steps to strengthen it.  At uni I was always out, involved, drinking, clubbing and the rest.  Here was a place I felt I might be me.  Looking back, it was just another environment where I was trying to be non-disabled, after all as students were relentlessly told at the time, freshers were all in the same boat.  This was where you made real friends for life.  A place where I could be non-disabled, be accepted, be normal.  But people didn’t see me that way.  The fact I earned the moniker ‘Wheels’ while there is extremely telling.  The fact I may have given it to myself (and I genuinely can’t remember if I did or not), speaks much to the internalised ableism that I had taken on.  The only way to deal with people’s perception of disability was to make a joke of it.  I still do this.  I often tell people that the quickest way to get a stranger past a disability is to drink, smoke or swear.  Those are ‘normal’ things, but I suspect one of the reasons this works, is because it’s unexpected nature is humorous – disabled people aren’t expected to do that…

As I sat in that coffee shop in Worcester, I realised that even though I’d left academia a long time ago, non-disabled Chris had come with me.  He knew he had CP, but that wasn’t a problem and it was not an excuse.  He detested being seen as different because he knew he wasn’t.  He would overcome the barriers and would prove doubters wrong.  He’d stick two fingers up to things or people that said he couldn’t.  Non-disabled Chris has had a very lonely existence.  He doesn’t see CP as an issue, but almost everyone else does.  So non-disabled Chris doesn’t look at disability.  It’s part of him and something he’s always had, so how can he feel anything wrong with it?  It is permanent after all…non-disabled Chris failed to realise that his entire identity was built out of a fragile house of cards – and Donna Reeve had just pulled out one from the bottom layer.  He had in Reeve’s words, struggled to emulate the ableist norm – indeed he had failed.  He’d fractured, and now lay exposed.  Many of his ideas and aims were laudable, but it was too big a thing to maintain.  Non-disabled Chris died, after a long illness, sometime in 2016…

I realised in that coffee shop in Worcester, that non-disabled Chris was no longer something I could tolerate or even be.  For various reasons and experiences, he had fractured and the break was so severe that he can no longer be fully reconstructed.

So much of what I’m working on now is – who or what is left in his place.


3 thoughts on “Donna Reeve Kills Off Non-Disabled Chris

  1. PE teachers are the PITS. I never got picked for games teams (scared of flying balls after my hockey accident, and never had any ball skills anyway, which is why I got put in goal without a mouth guard in the first place) and when a group of us started absconding to the local playground in PE lesson times, she was only too pleased. PE teachers are supposed to foster everyone’s fitness and team enjoyment, but they are the least inclusive of teachers. Apart, that is, from the gay art teacher with her coterie of like-minded arty girls who gathered in her room at lunchtime (how I longed to join them! And how wrong I was- I’d never have felt accepted in a hundred years by that group).

    You will learn to live more comfortably with yourself when nobody can say of you, “You put up with a lot of shit”. It’s not your fault, or anyone else’s, that you have CP, but you just do, and it’s NOT FAIR, and nobody has the right to make you feel bad or excluded because of it, so don’t put up with shit, EXPLODE! (Perhaps a controlled explosion?!) Bad things happen to most people in their lives, so please know that there is empathy out there and that you are not alone, even though you have to put up with so much pain. I’ve learned to try and see bad things like a car accident- mechanical failure, ice on the road, a cat somebody tried to avoid, maybe somebody should have been more careful, but in the end there was a death or injury and we are stuck with it and we might as well try and get on with life, because sooner or later good things happen to balance out the bad, at least a little bit.

    We all live on a fragile house of cards- our loved ones get cancer, our house gets burgled, even our children can die before we do, and losing one’s job or marriage (both have happened to me) makes you feel worthless, guilty, ashamed and depressed because maybe it WAS one’s own fault, in a way CP couldn’t possibly be yours.

    This is so very hard for you right now, and I am sending you my warmest thought waves, and I am sure others are too. NEVER feel you are alone: if nothing else, your blogs will reach out, challenge and touch people, as they do me, and help to make your social environment a better one.


  2. Powerful stuff and very enlightening for myself as I start to learn to cope with the new and different me that now has a disability.
    I do get that sense of an unexpected revelatory moment myself ,as I’ve just sat straight up in my chair with the thought, ” Lemon?? In coffee??!!”.

    Liked by 1 person

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