Unboxing It All

By Mark E. Smith

Between my pal, Drewy, and I, we hold the unofficial combined record for knowing the most messed up people with disabilities – or at least enough to keep the Dr. Phil Show booked with guests for a few years.

Now, when I note “messed-up people with disabilities,” I’m truly not being judgmental, but merely observational. We know more than one woman with a disability who’s a stripper, porn actress, or porn producer – and, let’s be blunt, that’s messed up. And, we know more than our share of men with disabilities who’ve done more drugs and lived a party life harder than Guns ‘n’ Roses did in the 1980s – which, again, is messed up.

What I must point out, though, is that it’s not that we seek out such individuals or befriend them – we most often truly just stumble upon them as part of the disabled community. For example, I was recently simply having dinner at a disability event, when a woman at another table of those using wheelchairs punched a gentleman at her table in the face, blood splattering everywhere, screaming at him for flirting with her wife, who was sitting at their table. Of course, I looked around like, Is this really happening? With my second thought being, Here we go again…. Therefore, in this observational way, there’s no shortage of messed up people with disabilities who we’ve encountered over the years.

However, where this conversation becomes of utmost consequence is in the all-important question surrounding “messed up” people with disabilities: Why are they messed up – or, as Dr. Phil puts it, dysfunctional?

There’s an undeniable undercurrent among both the mainstream and disabled community alike that people with disabilities are dysfunctional solely on the basis that – drum roll, please! – they have a disability. However, the rationalizations between the mainstream and disability community for how disability, in itself, fosters dysfunction are very different.

Interestingly, both the mainstream and the disability community see dysfunction among those with disabilities as a disability-related coping mechanism – or, a lack of coping, as it truly should be called. Yet, the rationales, again, are different. See, the mainstream gives dysfunctional people with disabilities a pass, generally thinking, Man, if I had a disability, I’d be messed up, too, implying that disability is so terrible that it’s a justification for any number of poor behaviors, as we see by how easy it is for those with disabilities to get free drinks offered to them by others at bars, to name one example.

On the other hand, the disability community looks at those with disabilities who are dysfunctional, and says, They can’t cope with disability, so that’s why they’re all messed up, implying shortcomings in individuals who seemingly lack a sort of fortitude toward living with disability.

In these ways, both the mainstream and disabled community make disability a scapegoat for dysfunctional behavior, blanketing it as the root cause of ills in one’s life.

Yet, how do any of us really know why any individual with a disability is dysfunctional? After all, many without disabilities are dysfunctional, and many with disabilities lead enormously healthy, successful lives – so who’s to assume that disability inherently causes one to be dysfunctional?

The unquestionable answer is, we simply can’t – and shouldn’t – assume that disability inherently causes one to be dysfunctional. What we know is that there are a lot of emotionally and mentally troubled people in the world, some of whom happen to have disabilities, but many who don’t. And, while some people with disabilities are troubled by disability, itself, to the point of dysfunction, many are unquestionably troubled by many other factors in their pasts and presents, where disability is the least of their innerturmoil. This is such an important realization because when we look at “messed up” people with disabilities and strictly attribute their dysfunctions to disability in itself, we’re discounting the entirety of individuals’ life experiences. Using one of my previous examples, can disability cause a young lady to question her identity, to the point of acting out in dysfunctional ways? Sure. However, there’s arguably a better chance that a dysfunctional childhood, other trauma, or mental health issues contributed to her destructive present paths, that even if she didn’t have a disability, she’d still be living a dysfunctional life of, say, pornography.

And, it’s along these lines that my friend, Drewy, asked me a brilliantly insightful question: How does a mental health professional distinguish between disability-related dysfunctions and other life-experience dysfunctions?

That’s a tough, tough question – and the answer is truly the key needed for those with disabilities who are dysfunctional to get on the road to recovery, so to speak. There has to be an inventory process that starts with the individual, where emotions are unboxed one by one, and causations are identified. Some causations may be disability-related, while others may not; but, they must all be individually identified and addressed.

I remember many years ago, when I was 21 or so, and I was emotionally unsettled when my girlfriend and I first moved in together – I felt oddly insecure about the life change. Was I feeling vulnerable because she was going to see my disability in full effect, or was I feeling vulnerable because I came from a very dysfunctional childhood, where the only adult relationships that I knew were nightmares? Or, were my feelings a bit of both experiences? And, so I went through my own “unboxing” process, figuring out that while questions toward how my disability might impact my relationship could be a valid issue for some, it truly wasn’t for me; but, my really impacting issues surrounded my fears toward how to build a healthy relationship when I’d never really seen one. My own dysfunction, then, wasn’t disability related, but childhood related – and once I recognized that, I was on my way toward doing what it took to learn how to form lasting, healthy relationships.

When we witness “messed up” people with disabilities, let’s not simply write off the dysfunction as a consequence of disability – such an assumption is discounting and flip. Rather, when we witness dysfunctional people with disabilities, let us remember that beyond disabilities, we’re all people first, where there aren’t easy answers to dysfunctional behaviors, but that there are often complex causes that need addressing – many that have nothing to do with disability at all.


Author: Mark E. Smith

The literary side of the WheelchairJunkie

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