Growing up, my favorite show was Buffy the Vampire Slayer. For those of you that have never seen the show, let me tell you. She is Bad. Ass. I liked her because she was funny and really good at beating people up (and maybe I was a bit jealous about that). As I got older and kept watching it, I noticed that a certain theme was prevalent throughout the whole series. Buffy had a great group of friends. Her friends kept her grounded. Her friends saved her life. And without a doubt, her friends made her a better person. For some reason, I hated that. I really hated that Buffy couldn’t be strong on her own. I think the reason that I felt this way was completely selfish. I didn’t have a lot of friends, and people weren’t drawn to me the way they were drawn to Buffy. I mean, she was played by one of the most beautiful actresses in the world and she had a personality to boot. Of course people wanted to be her friend. But throughout a lot of my childhood and adolescence, people didn’t seem to want to be mine.
I had a few close friends, but not as many as I wanted. The friends I had were mostly wonderful to me, but the feeling of isolation persisted for years, and continues to persist even now. I still don’t have a ton of friends and I very carefully avoid friendships that I think won’t last. But my social isolation is not all by choice. Ever since I was little, I was separated from others in class pictures, I often had a separate entrance than others into buildings, and anytime I’ve wanted to attend a ticketed event (a game, a concert, a play, even a movie) I could only have one friend seated next to me, if that.
I remember going on class field trips in middle school and being separated from my classmates for the majority of the time. I would have to take the elevator while everyone else walked up the stairs (and as most anyone who has ever used an elevator can attest to, they’re usually in two separate areas of the building). I was usually only able to sit next to my school aide instead of my friends inside most places. Even on the school bus, I was strapped down in my wheelchair farther away from my peers than they were to each other. I missed inside jokes and conversations. And I was always under the watchful eyes of an older aide. That did not make me someone who people wanted to talk to. And that’s not even touching on the difficulty of going to people’s houses.
So school was a very lonely experience. In adulthood, I’m sad to say the trend continued. With maturity, I handled things a little better and learned to advocate for myself. Luckily, my parents were steadfast in advocating for my unencumbered social development when I ran into obstacles early on. I am very grateful that they taught me the importance of advocating for myself when I got old enough. But they could only do so much, and I still get discouraged too easily, at least in hindsight. I think I just get too tired to fight, especially in social situations. I take things too personally and I don’t like pushing my way into groups that I don’t think really want me. In fact, I remember that back in high school, I wrote an essay about the book Invisible Man, in which I lamented that when one is marginalized like the unnamed narrator of the book and like me, it becomes prohibitively difficult to be in social situations. I explained how exhausting it can be to insist your way into a society that abuses you. I got the highest grade in my English class. I guess that was like the silver lining of the cloud of loneliness that followed me since I started school.
It’s pretty well-documented that loneliness is a growing issue for most people in America. Social media and technology — things that for all intents and purposes were designed to connect people with each other — have mostly done the opposite, at least according to common belief. We sit in front of our screens, content to scroll through Facebook and fool ourselves into thinking that we’re socializing because we’re “caught up” with people’s lives. But we’re not. We are sitting in front of a computer or device and somewhere deep in our minds we know it. But what if that’s all someone can do physically? For people with disabilities, socializing online has been a very valuable avenue but it only allows for as much meaningful connection as it does for anybody else (not much). So what can we do to alleviate our deficit of social activity?
First, as a disabled person, I feel compelled to maintain that something has to be done, even when it’s difficult. Lack of social activity can cause someone to deteriorate physically and mentally and when you already have fewer abilities than others, it’s important to keep what you have. It’s really easy to get to the point where self-isolating feels safer and than going out on a limb, but it’s crucial to get out and do things with others if and when you can. That doesn’t mean to sign yourself up for humiliation. I, for example, would not show up at an event that takes place inside a restaurant that I am absolutely sure is not wheelchair accessible. There is no possible way that that could turn out well. What I might do instead is ask the organizer of the event if there is any way that the event could take place somewhere else, even just an area in the restaurant that is accessible (if there is one). That can be humiliating, especially if you’re not used to doing it, but it’s an important undertaking. It teaches the people involved that your attendance is just as important as anyone else’s and that accommodations are possible without segregating you from everyone. By planting that seed in a person’s mind, you’ll be saving yourself some emotional labor in the long run.
Another commonly experienced issue (at least in my life) is that people don’t seem to feel comfortable approaching me or speaking directly to me. I’m not talking about the well-documented experiences people with disabilities have had with wait staff, although that is a good example of what I mean. I’m talking about the very noticeable disinclination that able-bodied people have to make friends with, or socially acknowledge, people with disabilities. In the UK, 50% of able-bodied people say they have nothing in common with people with disabilities and 25% say that they’ve avoided having a conversation with a disabled person (Source). Those are huge numbers. Unfortunately, the only way I have found to effectively combat this is to demonstrate that I am able to hold a conversation about something the other person likes. I ask people a lot of questions about their lives and likes and dislikes because I know that everyone warms up when talking about themselves. Sometimes I have to step out of my comfort zone and put myself out there socially when I’m not 100% comfortable. I do this because I know the alternative, and that’s not having friends.
The hardest part about all of this in my opinion is that it seems to never end. Sometimes being “on” and social feels like one step forward and two steps back. I know that for everyone on Earth, it’s much easier to lose friends than it is to gain them. I’m not an outgoing person by nature, so sometimes I need time to recharge and talk myself up if I’m feeling particularly asocial. And that’s okay. Very few people can be 100% social 100% of the day, and sometimes I struggle with 50%. But I challenge myself keep to that 50%. Then the next day I try for 51%. On bad days, I try for 25%, or sometimes even 10%. But I still try. And that’s important.
Looking back at my life (I know that makes me sound old, I’m only 27), I think I like myself a little more when I have friends. And that’s what friends are supposed to do. Friends are supposed to lift you up when you’re feeling down and like you on days when you may not like yourself. As an adult, I re-watched Buffy and realized that that was the purpose of her friends. Even when they got in the way, they were people who helped Buffy carry her load. I know sometimes my load can get very heavy, and I’m really grateful for the people throughout my life who have helped to carry mine. We all deserve that.
3 thoughts on “Mental Health Part Two – The Importance of Being Social”
Sweet Gabriella, This article is so touching, your words so powerful and honest. You my sweet girl, are always in my heart.
Thank you so much, Dawn!
You write beautifully. As a parent of a child with a disability I identify with a lot of what you have to say. I look forward to reading more from you!