I was happily Facebooking today and was in a conversation with a friend about my talk with Tim Sharp and Professor Temple Grandin later this year and she said something that I do seem to be told rather a lot these days – I was an ‘inspiration’ to her. This always makes me feel uncomfortable. I can’t imagine what a 120 kg, 41 year old, ex-prisoner with a mental illness can inspire in anyone. Then reality hits me – along with the past fifteen years of my life where I have been virtuous and kind (most of the time). All those achievements and accomplishments and awards sit there begging me to pay attention to my positive qualities and why I probably do inspire people and I give my Facebook friend’s comments a bit more space in my mind.
Inspiration is a rather fraught little concept though, particularly in the disability and mental health context. Not that any of my friends are guilty of this, but the media often is. We are sen as ‘brave’, ‘inspiring’ and similar things. Anything someone with a disability does that others would do effortlessly is apparently ‘inspiring.’ There is also this phenomenon where the focus is on people with disability who do extraordinary things that most people would be unable to do. A friend of mine who is an amputee was talking about this the other day. The only amputees that anyone sees in the media tend to be sportspeople, Paralympians usually. The ‘inspirationising’ of people with disability doesn’t do much to help the person with disability who is just living their life and basically that is most of us. Unfortunately I suspect I fit into that category of extraordinary achievers in my own unique way (and I suspect most inspirational types haven’t been in prison but it’s all part of the metaphorical lumpy package wrapped in slightly ripped gold sparkly paper which is me).
I get confused by all these things. I don’t find myself at all inspiring. In fact I don’t find a lot of people inspiring. I’m too busy living my life. And while I imagine that some people might look at me and think I have some kind of absurdly amazing life, the truth is that my life is pretty everyday like other people’s. I go to work, I spend time with friends, I love my family and my cat, I ride the bus to work and occasionally have a holiday. The things I do which people see as achievements – public speaking, television appearances, writing books and so forth are just other activities I like to do and I feel are worthwhile. I find it amazing that people can raise happy and well-adjusted children. I could honestly not do that. I take my hat off to parents who can do that. For me standing up in front of 1000 people an talking about Autism is far less challenging than baby-sitting my nieces and nephew for an hour. (To their credit, my family have never expected that from me.)
And while I don’t find my life particularly extraordinary, I often find it very difficult. My mental health is in a constant state of flux. I am grateful for everything I do as the potential for me to be really unwell and unable to do much is a constant possibility. I’m sure some people might think that facing that particular challenge and doing all the things I do is inspirational, but its more necessary than inspiring to me. The accomplishments, conferences, books and things give me a strong incentive to stay well and make sure my health is adequately maintained. And as a tip, maintaining your mental health is like looking after a car. It needs constant attention and fine-tuning to ensure it keeps going. My mental health is like one of these cars in Cuba that have been there since before the revolution I think – a bit busted up and threatening to collapse at any time, but expertly tended with unconventional but effective mechanical methods.
So what do I find inspiring? I see inspiration in the small things, the mostly uncelebrated achievements of people with no public profile or fame – Autistic parents empowering their son to communicate, someone who cares for a spouse, relative or freind with Alzheimers or a degenerative illness, the theatre company directors who work with prisoners and have had their house robbed many, many times by theatre participants and keep on regardless, the person who adopts a 13 year old cat and loves him in his kitty twilight years, people who stand up against prejudice with little concern for their own wellbeing. These are some things which flick my inspiration switch. And of course the actual inspiring people in my life are my family. Being me going through all the hell that I did as a teen and twenty something was much easier for me than it was for my family I think. I was in the middle of it and I always had some control. My family had less control and a broader view of where I was heading, which most of the time looked like the grave. My parents now are delighted with where I have ended up but it was not always that way. They stood by me all the time regardless of how rude and desperate I was, how much I expressed anger and hate, all the poor choices I made. I am not inspired by my own life. From my viewpoint, since February 2000 it hasall pretty much done what I wanted it to do, but I am inspired by those who stood by me when I was incapable of managing my own life.
That’s an inspiring quote I guess