An internalized sense of wrong

by Kat

Before our session ended, I left my therapist a copy of “She did it anyway” because I wanted her to understand how it felt to fall apart in front of a friend. Maybe I wanted her to see how hard grad school had been for me lately — the weariness and isolation that comes from pushing yourself to do tasks you remain unsure you’re capable of accomplishing. I’d forgotten how often I referred to shame in that poem, until she brought up the topic during my next session.

Let’s talk about shame, she said. Because although you were actively shamed by a professor who didn’t understand how your disability impacts your schoolwork, this is not the first time you’ve felt this way. You and shame have a history together. For some people, an internalized sense of wrong becomes part of their identity. Maybe that’s where your autistic traits and the experience of shame overlap.

I feel like I’m constantly developing workarounds to mitigate the tasks I cannot do the typical way. To avoid the notice and unnecessary questions of others, I’ve learned to hide this process. It seems that visible disability and quirkiness are merely different perceptions of the same experience. I am struggling, but how others interpret this behavior seems to depend on my value to the person. Do they notice my strengths amongst disability? Do they ask how they can help, rather than imply I’m not trying hard enough?

Back to shame I suppose. It’s a topic I avoid thinking about much, even as I live with the experience of it. I remember when Brene Brown’s TED talks were often mentioned in the department. Okay, I acknowledge that I experience shame; now what?

For me, internalized ableism — the sense that I should be able to do things I struggle with, and if I can’t, then I don’t belong — is a source of shame. It’s hard for me to ask for help because doing so requires me to acknowledge my confusion and seeming inability to meet the requirements of my role.

If I can’t develop a timeline for finishing tasks, maybe I shouldn’t be in grad school. Why can’t I consistently meet deadlines? What is wrong with me? That’s what I’m really asking, regardless of how I phrase it.

I’m learning to ask for help. A few weeks ago I found myself crying in a friend’s cubicle, realizing I didn’t have to explain the extent to which I was struggling because my body was showing her. I tried writing down why I was so upset, and she waited out the tears until I could explain what I needed.  She listened and helped me make a task list. I emailed the task list to my PhD advisor to keep me accountable. She continues to remind me of my competencies as a grad student in the midst of my struggles.

And so we learn to speak truth to shame. This is what I know — and even when I don’t, this is where shame cannot speak to my experience. Because shame is wrong about me. So I keep writing and doing, even when the act of trying feels like pretending.