black and white image of a white man with white hair and black rimmed glasses. he has a friendly smile

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[vc_row color=”” message_box_style=”outline” style=”round” message_box_color=”info” icon_type=”fontawesome” icon_fontawesome=”fas fa-info-circle” icon_monosocial=”vc-mono vc-mono-fivehundredpx” icon_openiconic=”” icon_typicons=”” icon_entypo=”” icon_linecons=”” icon_pixelicons=””][vc_column][vc_message message_box_style=”outline” style=”round”]This is a continuation of Kari Turners “I Thought I Was Just Stupid” Series that pokes around internalized ableism.

For more of Kari’s work, visit her page on Unpacking Disability, and consider subscribing (below) so you never miss a post![/vc_message][vc_column_text][/vc_column_text][vc_empty_space][vc_message message_box_style=”solid-icon” style=”square” message_box_color=”violet” icon_fontawesome=”fas fa-star” css=”.vc_custom_1643306733593{border-radius: 3px !important;}”]Now, from Kari:


When I decided to interview my husband, John Turner, a former actor and musician who sustained a traumatic brain injury (TBI) in 2002, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Until now I hadn’t considered how ableist ideas might hit different when someone hasn’t been disabled all their life. What I got from John is an unflinching look at his own ableism, and an important conversation about the intersection of addiction and disability. 

J- John
K- Kari[/vc_message][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]K: Is there a way you can complete the phrase,’I thought I was just…’ for yourself?

J: Well, my first response was, “I thought I was invincible,” because I never really gave a lot of thought to the future, and I was never careful. I think I paid a big price for that. Part of that is because of my addiction, too. I thought I was invincible so I drank all the time, excessively, and was beaten almost to death by a guy I met in a bar because of it. But I’m not invincible. I’m not!

I’m not sure exactly how that ties into ableism.

K: I think the important part is how you tie it in. How does it inform your own experiences of or perceptions about ableism? But also–just like all people, disabled or not–for better or for worse, you’ve learned your limitations!

J: I guess I was being ableist to think I was invincible.

K: That’s extremely valid! On that note, what aspects of your disability frustrate you the most?

J: Definitely, you know, I remember specifically how easy it was to do certain things; something as simple as walking down the street just wasn’t anymore. Or things to do with the kids–stepping around one daughter while carrying the other to bed: I think my able-bodied self would have been able to do that, no problem. 

There are lots of things related to parenting that frustrate me because I can’t really do them well and there was a time when I would have been able to, very easily. For example, when I see our younger daughter crawling out of view, the able-bodied me would have hopped right up to get her, but it takes a lot more effort to do that now and I end up just yelling from the couch, which I know is not the most elegant thing to do. But it’s the best I can do in the given moment. 

I have vivid memories of so many things I used to be able to do–going for a jog–that are just not an option anymore. 

K: What’s one thing you always find yourself explaining to other people about your disability, that you really wish you didn’t have to?

J: That it’s incurable. There was a guy I knew when I used to live in Key West who said he had an idea for a cure and I just had to be like, “Well, there is none.” People just don’t understand that the symptoms are neurological. 

K: Are there ever any accommodations you are embarrassed to ask for?

J: I’ve thought about that, and I can’t really think of any. I think a big part of it is that I don’t get embarrassed easily. Maybe it’s my acting background, but if I need something I will just go for it: “Excuse me, I need help!” 

K: So has there ever been a time when you have been accommodated easily, painlessly, surprisingly well? Anything like that?

J: This ties in with my alcoholism, too, but when I was at the sober living place–just a client, before I had joined the staff–the Florida Keys Outreach Coalition [FKOC, which ran the facility], was having a group of sheriff’s officer trainees tour the facility. The director asked me to speak with them about understanding diversity. What I told them is that before people are disabled or non-disabled, before they’re gay or straight, male or female, before they’re anything else, they’re people. I stressed that different people have different needs, and it’s important to honor that.

I think the director chose me because he thought I could get through to a bunch of conservative, Florida-sheriff types. 

K: You’re an old white guy, but among old white guys, you’re an outlier.

J: Exactly.

K: I will say being a white person with a disability is an interesting experience, because it can give you some insight into diversity that you might otherwise not have. Also it can give you a point of connection with other marginalized people that you might otherwise not have. That’s another discussion, but I think it’s important to note as related to what you’re talking about.

So one of the questions I’m most interested in for you is, what aspect of living with your TBI was the most shocking or surprising to you at first, and why?

J: The physical limitations, of course. Going from being in pretty good shape and able to do most things easily, to struggling with the most basic of tasks. I was really depressed for about a year, because I didn’t know how I was going to live, really. I couldn’t act anymore. That was probably the most shocking thing. I couldn’t play the piano anymore. Those things were the hardest. To suddenly not be an actor and musician, knowing I never would be again–I mean, I probably still could be, but not in the way I had been.

The good thing is that everybody holds the door for you. Even automatic doors! I was pleasantly surprised at first by how helpful people were. I think now that that’s because I hadn’t really experienced non-disabled people’s “help.” After a while, people would offer help even when I didn’t want it. 

K: Yes, this is what I’ve heard people refer to as, and what I, too, like to call, “helpy-help.” People think they’re “supposed to” help you, because you’re disabled, so they end up giving gratuitous help, unhelpful help, or help that isn’t sincerely motivated.

J: Right. Why would somebody get angry just because I refused their help? Like, “I was just trying to help you, man, come on!” But I don’t fuckin’ need it. 

K: I think that’s actually a really useful question for you to pose, because disabled people get subjected to a lot of abuse by refusing such “help.” I mean I’ve been called names and stuff like that, too, but then when people go and do whatever it is, anyway…I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been touched inappropriately on the bus because I’ve said no to some help, but somebody just decided they were going to help me, anyway. Or, I get accused of some type of character flaw because I refuse the help. I’ve been accused of being proud when I was really just being self-sufficient.

J: What I try to do in those instances is realize that the problem is with that person. If they think I’m being “too proud” or whatever, screw ‘em! 

K: So as someone who has acquired their disability, how do you feel your experience or understanding of ableism might differ from that of someone who’s had their disability their whole life?

J: I’m trying to wrap my brain around all of what you’re talking about.

K: I’m doing this column because I’ve always had some underlying problem with my self-concept, related to my disability. “I thought I was just stupid,” because I couldn’t do math well and struggled with things like giving people directions to my house growing up. Nobody had any solutions for me and I didn’t know how to get accommodations for these types of things, so I was stuck feeling like, “Well, I guess this is just how it is, because I’m disabled.” I didn’t think that it might be more than just my own problem or a personal failing. My internalized ableism is because I had adopted these negative ideas about myself as a matter of course, not as a notion that was worth challenging or changing on my own behalf. 

It’s sort of the opposite of your own, “I thought I was invincible,” because you didn’t have the odds stacked against you from birth, the way another disabled person might. 

Given all of that: How have you grown in your awareness of ableism, or confronted any ableist ideas within yourself? 

J: When I was in college, I went to a mall, and there was no place to park except a “handicapped” parking space. I parked in it and right as I was getting out of the car a cop came by and started looking at me. So, I faked a limp–ironically not unlike the one I have now–to make him believe I should have parked there!

I think my alcoholism plays into this, too. In the years immediately following my injury, I didn’t really consider much except that I was happy to be alive. So what did I do because I was happy to be alive? I drank. Even though there were lots of things I used to be able to do that I suddenly couldn’t, I never really considered the ideas of ableism or anything like that.

Once I got sober, and once I met you, I started thinking a lot more about those things. There isn’t anything specific I believe now about it that I didn’t before, but the fact that I even have a framework for understanding what ableism is, is really important. Especially given the “karma” of my parking incident!

By now, if I know somebody’s being ableist, I have no problem calling them right the hell out. “Look, asshole, you need to stop doing what you’re doing.” I don’t know if that’s just because of my personality in general, but I’m sure it’s also because once upon a time, I was that ableist asshole. 

K: I think most of us [disabled people] would be able to spot instances of ableism out in the world, but then looking at our own life experiences and stuff it’s much harder to parse, because we all have our own baggage about what kind of person we are, what kind of feelings and thoughts we have. 

It’s like what I’ve heard you say before about being an addict, too: That you thought you were just a bad guy. You had to unlearn that part, just like you had to learn that you’re not, in fact, invincible. 

So do you consider your addiction part of your disability, or a disability in itself? 

J: It’s interesting. I don’t know. I have mixed feelings about this because to me alcoholism is a disease. Technically, the American Medical Association [AMA] classifies alcoholism as an illness, but still debates rage over whether or not it’s a disease like cancer. It has been proven that the brains of alcoholics operate differently than the brains of other people, but it’s not a fine line. There’s a lot of gray area to it. 

That being said, my experience with it is that I was in a bar blackout drunk when I met the guy who beat me up. That’s why I have a brain injury. Would that have happened had I not been an alcoholic? Probably not, but then you can’t exactly say, did it happen specifically because of that? They kind of go hand in hand. One big result of my alcoholism is my brain injury. I believe that. 

I also believe, though, that one reason I’ve been so successful in recovery is because of my brain injury. It took some years, but even once I finally realized that I’d almost died because of my drinking and still didn’t stop–When I at last did internalize that, I was like, Whoa, I’ve got some changes to make! I think that’s why I’ve taken so well to my program.

K: Do you feel like your understanding of your physical disability–the TBI–has shifted as a result of your being in recovery? Has your recovery given you any insights into dealing with your physical disability specifically?

J: I think what it’s given me is more acceptance: Of how life is, “life on life’s terms.” I’m better able to accept the fact that [for example] I can’t go jogging. It doesn’t make me nearly as angry as it used to. And it used to be that the only way I would deal with that anger was to get loaded. 

When I got sober, I learned to be realistic about my limitations. I finally realized that it was okay that I wasn’t invincible.

K: Where do you see more opportunity or necessity for addiction to be included in discussions of disability or mental health issues?

J: There’s a quote from [comedian] Mitch Hedberg that comes to mind: ‘Alcoholism is a disease, but it’s the only one you get yelled at for having. ‘Otto, dammit, you’re an alcoholic!’ ‘Otto, dammit, you have lupus!’ One of those doesn’t sound right.”

It’s all because of my experiences in recovery that I’ve realized that even though there’s a lot of debate about whether alcoholism is technically a disease, major medical organizations like the Mayo Clinic, the AMA, the CDC all classify or recognize excessive alcohol use as a disease. The AMA does list it under both physical and psychological issues. My program literature describes it as an allergy of the body, a disease of the mind, and a “spiritual malady.” Alcoholism is unique in that way. It manifests itself physically, mentally, spiritually, morally. There’s a lot of aspects to it, and I think if more people understood that, it would be helpful. 

K: Right, you’re not a bad guy; you have a bad problem. Maybe if we changed the Mitch Hedberg quote to “Dammit, Otto, you have schizophrenia!” it wouldn’t be so easy to forget that people stigmatize folks with those mental health issues, too, by assuming that there must be something inherently wrong with a person’s character just because they have hallucinations or delusions or whatever else might affect their attitude or actions. I really appreciate people or organizations–whether it’s a medical body or a recovery program–making distinctions between someone’s “malady” and their character flaws. 

In fact I’ve learned that while some people may use their disabilities as excuses for their character flaws, truly never the twain shall meet. A person does themselves a great service by being able to distinguish well between the two. That way they won’t have to go around blaming themselves for their disability, any more than I’d have to go around feeling stupid just because my disability makes it impossible for me to do some things, or you’d ever have to think you were invincible, or a bad guy at all.

 [/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_message message_box_style=”solid-icon” style=”square” message_box_color=”violet” icon_fontawesome=”fas fa-star” css=”.vc_custom_1643309627621{border-radius: 3px !important;}”]John Turner is a Mississippi native, and graduated from Southern Miss in 1997 with degrees in Acting and Music. John moved to the Central New York area in 1999 to work for an educational theatre company–but in 2002, John was mugged and assaulted and sustained a traumatic brain injury in the attack. After that incident he no longer had the physical capability to perform, so John established a career as an author and journalist. John has worked as a features reporter for newspapers, published three nonfiction books, and has had his work published in numerous magazines, blogs, and websites. 

John currently resides in Southern California with his wife, Kari, and their daughters, Hannah and Veronica. Learn more about John by visiting his Web site (linked here) or his Facebook author page (linked here).[/vc_message][vc_empty_space][vc_message message_box_style=”solid” style=”square” css=”.vc_custom_1641516221053{background-color: #a3dde2 !important;background-position: center !important;background-repeat: no-repeat !important;background-size: cover !important;}”]For more of Kari’s work, visit her page on Unpacking Disability, and consider subscribing (below) so you never miss a post![/vc_message][vc_empty_space][vc_column_text][/vc_column_text][vc_empty_space][vc_separator color=”turquoise” style=”shadow” border_width=”6″ el_width=”60″][vc_empty_space][vc_column_text]

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