Trigger warning: the following post contains hate speech
I needed a break. The transition to homeschooling my kids led me beyond tired into exhaustion. I needed a few days to recharge. So last week, while my husband had business in Austin, I decided to come along. I had some trepidation about a trip with other people, but I knew they would be in conference sessions all day, and besides these were guys I knew. This was a safe place.
Except, there really is no such thing as a “safe space”, and words hurt.
The words that hurt the most are the ones that go by without comment.
On the drive down, I try to relax. I need to relax. I let go of the parental hyper vigilance and breath deeply, and just as I begin to feel peace I hear one of my back seat passengers use the R word. I gulp. My blood runs cold. I scan the rear view mirror nervously. I wait for my spouse to say something. Anything. Maybe he didn’t hear, or maybe he just didn’t think about it. After all, it’s Just A Word, right? I know the man who said this is a nice guy. He would not purposely be hurtful. But that doesn’t make it hurt less. Using it as an adjective doesn’t make it hurt less either because that adjective applies an undeniable negative connotation to a word that has been assigned to many, myself included.
I hear that word, and I’m a child again…
If a=b, and a=c, then b=c.
If retarded is bad, and I am retarded, then I am bad.
I learned this simple equation early on. That word was always used in hushed tones as if to soften the horror of it all. It elicited swift, angry reactions in adults around me. I remember being pulled by an adult’s tight grip on my arm out of places so fast my legs would tangle in a vain attempt to keep up with whatever grown up was running away from that word. I remember desperately wanting to know what I did wrong so I would never, ever do it again, but being told I didn’t do anything wrong. And yet, they were all clearly upset with me. By the time I was seven or eight, I understood it wasn’t any one action I could change. I was different and wrong to a degree I couldn’t change no matter how hard I tried. This is how broken that word was forty years ago.
By the third time I hear the word in less than a three hour span, any hope of relaxing is gone. Also gone is any illusion that my spouse simply didn’t hear. I remind myself that this sort of talk is still acceptable parlance even amongst social service professionals. I’m the one who doesn’t fit. I am the other. I begin a frantic mental recalibration of the next three days. Gone is any hope of respite. Now I see three days in which I need to cobble together the best facsimile of someone I can never be. Three days which will be infinitely more exhausting than if I’d stayed home buried in laundry and grammar lessons.
By the second night, I couldn’t fake it any more. I was exhausted, stressed and had lost speech entirely. The next day at lunch, I dropped the rest of our party off at a restaurant while my husband and I searched for parking. While driving around in circles, I became increasingly upset, more than a little UT lunchtime parking warranted. I was angry and sick of feeling like a lesser human. When I asked my husband if the place we parked was safe from towing, I snapped some comment along the line of how would I know, I’m just a retard. He admitted while he was vigilant about it previously, he had been lazy about calling his staff out on the r word in his current position. All my anger and hurt spilled out as I explained to him what I thought he already knew. The word retard is just as hateful a word as nigger or faggot, yet we would never use those words in such a cavalier manner. Unless you’ve been on the receiving end of those words (generally preceded by the expletive fucking and followed by an explanation of why you don’t deserve to live) you should count yourself privileged and take the word of someone who has. I was upset with the situation and upset with him, but I was done being upset with myself for being who I am. I deserve better, and that starts with me.
Should I have spoken up? If I could have, sure, but the point of this all is that I am autistic. Verbal output is a Herculean effort for me involving a Rolodex of carefully planned out phrases tailored to fit a given situation. Think of it as auditory predictive text. It often sounds natural because of the amount of time and effort I spend thinking about all possible questions I may need to answer, and formulating set responses ahead of time. However, I am not adept at initiating conversations or interjecting myself into other people’s conversations. Verbally speaking up was outside my skill set. This post is my way of speaking up. While I understand the person I wanted to speak to may never see this, I hope someone else just like him might.