Originally published in Spinal Network Extra, Winter 1991
Living with a disability can bring rage in many forms: anger at being infantalized on telethons, at being looked upon as asexual or incompetent, at being tied to Welfare in order to receive medical care. Some of us are akin to political prisoners, robbed of our rights, locked away in institutions. The list goes on and on. So how do we deal with this anger?
Certainly the first step is to let ourselves feel it. We have a right to feel pissed off that we have to depend on an attendant or family member, or that God isn’t sending us the right soul mate or providing us a decent lifestyle above the poverty level. As an oppressed minority, it is important not to block the anger or sadness we fear may overwhelm us. But it’s important to know what you’re angry about, what you’re sad about, what you’re panicked about, what you feel desperate about. It’s important for two reasons.
The first one is that if we block unpleasant feelings, we will displace them. They’ll come up by yelling at your boyfriend when you’re really mad at your attendant. In our unrecognized anger we might unconsciously procrastinate when we know someone is depending on us, or make someone struggle unnecessarily because deep down we are pissed off and we don’t know why. Other destructive behaviors can include addictive eating, drinking, or drug-taking, all as a way to “stuff” the anger we are too afraid to face.
The other need to feel our anger is that often we can do something about it. Just as fear is constructive when it alerts us to real danger, anger is a valuable guide. It lets us know if we are being taken advantage of or if we are being mistreated. Armed with knowledge, we can pull ourselves together, bite the bullet and positively but firmly tell whoever is oppressing us to kindly knock it off. Sometimes there are emotions we can’t fix; we have to ask for that “12-step” serenity to accept things we cannot change. But many times we can right a wrong situation by accepting our anger, letting it guide us to peaceful solutions to our differences.
We need anger. It shows us where changes should be made, whether personally or politically. But sitting in a fearful state with our teeth chattering long after the danger has passed is foolish, and so it goes for anger. We need to face our negative emotions; just as important, though, once you’ve acknowledged them, let them go.
Nancy Becker Kennedy has lived a life full of channeling her anger in productive ways, as an actress, comedian, and activist. She is currently in the thick of the battle for disability rights in the state of California, where there is no shortage of battles to wage, especially in this state that seems perpetually enmired in budget crises and cutting services to seniors and those with disabilities. Nancy is an indefatigable advocate and watchdog for the disability community, having taken her own advice to “feel our anger” because “often we can do something about it.”