I take on the above in the full acknowledgement that I’ve been guilty of it myself, and also knowing that the underlying sentiments are probably a bit too widespread and complex to address in a single blog post, despite my best intentions. We’ll see how we go.
For me, personally, the best example lies in physical challenges.
On the one hand, I can run. I’m profoundly hypermobile, with all the attendant biomechanical difficulties, limited proprioception, extremely shithouse balance and a tendency to inflamed joints. I’m also (finally) staring properly down the barrel of a Crohn’s diagnosis, which brings with it more joint inflammation, gut pain when running (which alters blood flow to that area), and various extremes of personal fatigue and chronic pain.
I should not be able to run, but I can. I can run because I decided it was important to me, so I put a lot of work into it. I did a lot of research. I talked to a sports physiotherapist, and then a sports podiatrist. I did everything they told me to do. It took me five years to be able to run 5K.
It takes most people nine weeks.
But I can do it.
So if I am tempted to say “If I can do it, anyone can!” in spite of the uselessness of it, I actually do cut myself a little slack. I shouldn’t say it – because it’s not true, and it’s harmful – but I have done so. What I can say is that some overwhelming challenges can be overcome with commitment and work, but maybe that’s not a high priority for someone else, or maybe those physical challenges actually can’t be overcome. There are some physical limitations that are unassailable. I can use my victory as a motivating factor for other people who have difficulty, to prove that it can be done when it’s hard, but I need to be careful not to shame people who (a) really just don’t want to do this thing (and might be making excuses to save face, because sometimes admitting you don’t want to do something is hard and opens you up to bullshit judgement), (b) actually can’t do this thing or (c) could do this thing if they put in an enormous amount of effort but that’s not in the cards or a priority for them, now or ever.
Here’s the flip side, and how I learned that I hate this sentiment.
I can ride a bike reasonably well. In fact, I used this as my primary mode of transportation when I lived in the inner city. These were mostly flat rides, slight hills and trying not to get taken out by careless drivers (good times, good times). I can, however, only ride while seated. I can’t stand up in the pedals to get that extra force that people use to get up hills. I used the gears instead.
If I stand up, I can maybe pedal three or four times before my hips start to hurt. Literal agony. It doesn’t matter how activated my muscles are, how otherwise prepared I might be, they simply can’t tolerate this movement. It’s gotten worse as I’ve grown older.
I tried a Spin class. They… do this movement a lot. I came out of the class limping, and declared that I would never do that again.
I’ve had multiple people with their own physical challenges tell me that if they can do it, surely I – a reasonably fit thirty-something who works out almost all the freaking time – can do it.
No. My physical challenges might be invisible (you can’t spot hypermobility or gut inflammation by eye, as it turns out), but they’re very real. This is something I physically cannot do. I might be able to withstand that level if pain if I was being chased by fucking zombies, but otherwise? No.
It sucks that I had to learn it this way, rather than figuring it out on my own, but “If I can do it, anyone can” is profoundly ableist. I feel uncomfortable applying ableism as a concept to my own problems – since I am, to most intents and purposes, really able-bodied – and yet, it’s true.
It gets even more tricky when it comes to problems of neurodivergence.
I am, as it turns out, a bit spectrummy. For the most part, learning this has been an enormous relief, since now I can work around some of my difficulties rather than just beating my head against them like a brick wall wondering why I am not a grown-up yet. It has been a downer in some ways. My social anxiety issues are never going to get better – I just need to work around them. My task-switching is never going to get better. My innate scheduling is never going to get better. Hyperfocus will always be an intense mixture of blessing and curse (I can get so much done but if you interrupt so help me fucking god I will end you).
I’m aware that when you are late for an appointment, or when you forget about it, people think you don’t care. They think it’s disrespectful, and you haven’t prioritised it. They think you haven’t tried.
I’m thirty-five years old. I have been trying my whole life. I exist in a world of calendars, lists, timers and alarms – my phone functions as my personal assistant, and I am profoundly glad that I live in the current era. I love my paper diary. The physical act of writing down an appointment helps me remember it, and writing it in my beloved diary even moreso.
I try to time things perfectly. I back-calculate from the time of the appointment, trying to account for traffic, weather, other people’s behaviour, and possible road works. I set a timer that says “stop what you’re doing and go and put your shoes on, you git”. I feel like I’ve covered everything – and it gets more and more elaborate as I get older.
And I’m still fucking late. I can’t stop myself getting distracted. I think I’m going to add a second alarm that just says “No, really, move now.” Sometimes I get so frustrated that I want to cry, because I have tried so hard and I still can’t manage this basic thing. It’s now turned into an issue, where even when situations are entirely out of my control, I worry that I’m going to be thought irresponsible, flaky, unreliable, self-absorbed, and so on. I worry that friends think I won’t care, because I forgot we were catching up, when the reality is that I love them and really wanted to see them but I got distracted. Again.
This is why my jobs (I currently have five*) are perfect for me. I have near-complete independence of operation. If I get in late, no-one cares. I’ll get my work done and stay late if I can to make it up. I obviously never charge for hours that I don’t work. And I might be a disaster for appointments (by the way, I occasionally do show up fifteen minutes early), but I am excellent at working to deadlines. This is one of the blessings of hyperfocus. If necessary, I’m capable of dropping everything and just falling into the project until it’s done. If I have a meeting in the same building, I can manage that just fine (most of my lateness involves difficulty with travel schedules).
I do have one job that requires me to stick to a timetable, and the only way I’ve managed it is by honestly deciding that everything needs to be done half an hour earlier. This tactic actually doesn’t work for everything (I’ve tried it. It only seems to “stick” for some things).
If someone turns to me and says “If I can do it, anyone can” with regard to scheduling, I have a strong urge to smack them upside the head with a copy of Neurotribes.
This isn’t an excuse. It doesn’t let me off the hook. I will keep trying, because I think it matters, especially when it comes to making sure friends know I care and do actually prioritise them highly. I will probably keep coming up with more and more elaborate schemes to try and make time work for me. They probably won’t work very well, but that’s not really the point.
So here’s my tip: don’t say that thing. If you want to help someone who thinks they can’t do something, and you’ve worked your arse off to be able to do that thing, sure, by all means, share your experience – but recognise that your experience and theirs will be profoundly different. They might be excited, and think “Hey, if you can do it, maybe I can too!” and that will be amazing. But don’t push. Don’t ever push. There’s always more going on than you think.
(*Three of these are nearly-finished projects, and one of those three will continue to pop-up randomly throughout the year. Another one is winding up the first half, and the second half begins in May. And the final job is only on weekends, and only occasionally. Fortunately, I have another two jobs – one for only 2.5 weeks in April, and another one that starts when around May. So it’s a good thing I have all these systems to allow me to schedule tasks.)