Compartmentalization: A Skill for Adults with Disabilities Practicing Individuation

I once had a nightmare that my First Seeing Eye dog, Prada, was being swept down a river. I jumped in to rescue her, but found I could either swim strongly or keep our heads above water, not both. I had to choose between letting her go to save myself, and letting us both be swept downstream to an unknown but undoubtedly horrible fate.

Each time I had the dream I chose to leave her, forcing myself to let go and swim to shore knowing I’d lose her forever. I woke up in tears every time, but certain I had made the right choice. Every time February 4th rolls around I remember how I reflected on that dream as I made the decision to euthanize Prada, sparing her a few short months of painful decline due to blood cancer.

I thought of that dream when Greta and I nosed our way carefully down onto the rocky shore of the Smith River in Northern California a couple of weeks ago. We were about to get into kayaks and float through some of the most beautiful land in the United States. But though the dream was on my mind, it didn’t worry me at all.

We put on our life vests and listened to the guide talk about how low the river was, how easy the rapids would be, how he’d communicate with us and be available if we got stuck. Running aground amidstream was far more of a concern than drowning on this trip.

Then my loving, well-meaning parents pulled me aside and made sure I understood they wanted me to focus on getting myself down the rapids if greta fell or jumped out. She’d be fine, they said. She had a life vest and could swim. But it was more important that I come down safely anyway.

I listened, and silently planned to ignore them.

I have a great deal of respect for my parents. They are wise, intelligent, and experienced people. I seek counsel from them often on a wide variety of topics. But it’s been decades since they taught me to swim and handle a boat. I’ve grown, with their encouragement, into an adult who makes decisions differently than they do.

I did not intend to ignore them because of the dream. Though it was on my mind, it felt like a vaguely grim curiosity placed next to my current excitement and anticipation of the fun in store for me. I love rafting and kayaking and shooting rapids. I tend to be a lot more coordinated on and in the water than I am on dry land, and after hearing we only had a tiny chance of encountering anything so exciting as a class 2 rapid, I knew I had nothing to fear.

My parents’ tone and body language suggested their advice came from a place of concern. Maybe even worry. Having a plan for handling the worst case scenario if it arises isn’t a bad strategy, but it’s not one that has served me. Because of my own history of anxiety, I’ve learned I do best when I assume a best case scenario is always possible, no matter the presenting disaster.

I plan to succeed in spite of catastrophe, not in case of its absence.

Self-advocacy is sometimes silent.

I could have taken the time to explain to my parents then and there how I planned to handle the situation. I could have walked them through my problem-solving skills, knowledge of fluid dynamics and canine behavior, and how those two forces intersect. But that afternoon, on a vacation that felt like a continuous training exercise, I didn’t feel like justifying my own competence, let alone my competence to make decisions.

I know beyond the shadow of a doubt that my parents would have listened, agreed, and recognized the unpleasant connotation of that warning. I believe it had more to do with me being their daughter than me being blind, because if my sighted sister had brought a pet dog along she probably would’ve been given the same talk. But that morning I was ready to shake free of mental and social conflict and just float away.

Writers live by the maxim “show, don’t tell.” Sometimes we with the disabilities have no other choice but to tell others to respect us the way they would other adults. But sometimes we get to show off before offering explanations, and that is an incredibly liberating, and empowering, experience.

So I nodded, mm hmed, and ok’ed my parents. Then I got in my kayak, convinced greta to jump in with me, and shoved off.

And greta promptly jumped out of the kayak.

We were so close to shore that only a little frantic doggy paddling brought Greta’s paws onto the bottom. My husband caught her and heaved her back up into my kayak, dripping and disgruntled. For the uninitiated, doggy life vests are specifically designed with handles crossing the dog’s back to make hauling them back into boats more convenient. Dogs historically view boats as optional.

Greta, a chestnut-toned German shepherd dog, sits in a grey inflatable heavy-duty kayak, wearing a yellow life vest. Aft of her sits Anneliese, a blonde Caucasian woman in a dark-colored life vest. Greta does not look nearly as pleased about this scenario as Anneliese. The kayak is floating across dark, flat water with hints of grey bluffs behind and blue sky above.

Self-Advocacy Isn’t Always About Disability, Even When You Have One.

Navigating relationships with family can be a real challenge for adults with disabilities. On top of the usual Individuation struggles that parents and their adult children tend to have, there’re added layers of complexity when the parent sees a very practical reason for why their caregiving services are still required, and today’s culture pre-disposes people with disabiliites to assume disrespect until proven otherwise.

Not without reason do people with disabilities frequently present with symptoms of cultural trauma. Those who grew up isolated or less connected with their peer demographic often find themselves learning about the historical and contemporary barriers to their adult independence at the same time as they are trying, like other young adults, to discover and define who they are outside of family.

This can produce a lot of righteous outrage and legitimate fear around a disability where there wasn none before. The once mild-mannered, heartwarmingly positive blind child suddenly seems angry and easily offended all the time.

But sometimes it’s not about the disability; it’s about maturity.

Compartmentalization Saves Lives and Relationships

Compartmentalization helped me a lot on that trip. Several times I recall being aware of the nightmare in my memory while fending off a rock with a paddle in one hand and holding a German shepherd still with the other. And throughout this I could feel the direction and energy of the river’s current and eddies through my whole body, instinctively knowing just how much control I really needed over my craft, and how much I could trust to the river itself.

And at no time did all those thoughts, decisions, sounds, emotions, or tasks feel overwhelming, or under-served.

It was an exhilarating challenge, convincing greta to stay in the boat, which she deemed unsuitable for travel, and choosing channels that wouldn’t sweep us under low-hanging brush or ground us on shallow river rocks. A complex set of factors running through mind and body all colliding in instinctive reactions to produce repeated successful runs downriver proved to all present I was more than capable; I was proficient.

Compartmentalizing how I feel about my parents’ unwanted advice was more of a challenge. I had to parse our entire family history, their history with just me, the difference between our recent history with me as an adult and the more distant history with me as a child, their overall record of behavior and attitude about my disability, their individual comfort level with the activity we were about to engage in, and a dozen other factors  that threaten to make this run-on sentence a true grammatical catastrophe. I had to assess the pathos, logos, and ethos of their argument before I could determine if my frustration at the time was warranted.

In the end, i concluded their unwanted advice came from over-parenting, not ableism. But it took me almost three weeks to come to that conclusion, and self-reflection is literally part of my job. If it took me this long to differentiate, how much more of a challenge is it for those with long histories of hurt in their lineage?

Compartmentalization is a necessary life skill. It’s the ability to recognize the difference between fact and feeling, then choose to act on one and contemplate the other later when a more timely opportunity presents itself. But if the feeling is so voluminous it wraps itself around the fact and seems to consume it, then compartmentalization may not seem possible.

Michael P. Nichols, author of The Lost Art of Listening, wrote that one of the greatest barriers to a person’s attempt to listen to another is the experience of strong emotion. He described it as being like having the volume turned way up while wearing headphones. Your ears are full of noise the person speaking to you can’t hear, and you’re unable to truly take in what they’re saying.

What were my parents truly saying when they gave me their little survival lecture? To be honest, I’m not sure. I could read all kinds of things into it. Maybe they themselves didn’t know what they were saying, only that they felt the need to say “something” to let off some internal emotional pressure. That pressure clearly kept them from compartmentalizing what they knew of my skills and mental acumen from what they were feeling at the time. But since I’m not a mind reader, it doesn’t serve me to speculate beyond the immediate result.

Despite ear-splitting internal volume, it is possible to learn how to compartmentalize when dealing with painful family relationships. This requires space and time away from the hurt to heal, learning practical skills for identifying and soothing pain from past and present, and practicing these skills with safer people where the dial isn’t turned up so high.

Dr.s Cloud and Townsend call this “Re-mothering,” because ideally these are all skills we learn from and practice with our parents. Tragically, parents aren’t always safe people, and so we need others to fill our unmet childhood needs. But for those who desire reconciliation and growth with their families, this is the path to take.

Afterseveral failed lunges to escape the shaky watercraft in rough water, Greta finally succeeded in escaping on the safest part of the trip, and immediately regretted her decision.

On a flat, calm section of river greta leaned over the gunnel to take a drink, and fell into the water head-first! She paddled with great vigor, going nowhere. I shipped my paddle and hauled her back aboard again.

I doubt I’ll take greta boating again. though she and I can clearly handle it, I don’t need a dog guide on the water and I think the experience aged her a little. Dogs are tools, and not every tool suits every situation (see(This post). But me? I can’t wait until my next opportunity to get on the water again!

Today your favorite blindfluencer asks you to identify one emotion that might ring a little too loudly to permit clear thinking and good listening. How can you use this insight to improve your relationships?

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