I apologise for everything.
I don’t mean that I’m apologising for anything specifically right now. I mean that I spend an inordinate amount of time saying sorry for things I probably shouldn’t have to be saying sorry about.
I’m sorry if that wasn’t clear.
I’ve heard some people say that this is a British thing. That’s something I can understand. It does seem to be something of an inside joke in this country – the idea of apologising when someone else walks into you, and then the ensuing by a verbal fist-fight over who can be the most apologetic in a situation that was actually no one’s fault and did not actually cause anyone any harm.
We recognise this in ourselves. We laugh at this trait we seem to share. It is, as you might say, the quintessential British thing. As British as tea. As British as queueing. As British as violent colonialism, genocidal racism, devastating classism and the current brand of casually-pretending-disabled-people-aren’t-actually-people wafting down from governmental offices.
And that brings us, in an absolutely smooth and not at all bitter segway, to the type of apologising I want to address – the constant apologies I feel obliged to give for existing as a neurodiverse person in a neurotypical world.
Every small adjustment I ask for; every slight movement or action that makes people look at me with that funny little wiggle of their brow; it doesn’t matter how many times I roar into the night that I am proud, that I am not ashamed, that I deserve to be allowed to be my best self, I still find my speech peppered with apologies. It’s like bullets bursting through my lips. If I clench my teeth, they crash through in a wave of shattered bone. It hurts, and it’s wrong, but there’s no way I can hope to stop them.
Although I speak directly only for myself, I strongly suspect that many other neurodiverse or disabled people will share in my experience. Our very existence is a burden, and the caveat to any support we may receive is that we be dreadfully grateful and apologetic for causing such a fuss in the first place. I know, from personal experience and the testimony of others across the spectrum of disability, that any person who stands up and refuses to be humbly thankful for society’s pathetic definition of benevolence is cast out as a selfish drain on society: unworthy of support or humanity for daring to suggest we are deserving of support without apologising for our existence.
That’s why it is so hard to swallow back the apologetic bullets as they rumble in my throat.
And it’s also why it’s so important that I do.
When, just over a year ago, I gathered the courage to take my first flight alone, I made my case to the assistance desk with a blanket of sorry. Every thing I said, everything I asked, was cushioned by my apologies. I need someone to help guide me through security scans? Sorry about that. Having to explain again that I’m autistic because the lady at the next desk doesn’t believe I’ve been given permission to come through the assistance queue? Sorry about that. Getting confused and overwhelmed in the at the security scanners because the support I had asked for had not been provided? Sorry about that. Going into full meltdown in the busy departure lounge? Sorry about that.
Sorry about that. Sorry about that. Sorry. Sorry. Sorry.
And that little voice in my head, breaking softly through the anxiety and the shame – I shouldn’t have to be apologising for this.
And yet, here we are, a year later, and the sorry-song is still hanging expectantly from my lips.
The true inspiration for this piece (that makes it sound a lot more sophisticated than ‘rant’) is actually separate from any of these real world first-person scenarios. It came from a post on Not Always Right, a websites showcasing submitted stories of customer-service based horror. I am aware that some of these stories are straight up ableist and unsympathetic towards potentially neurodiverse and disabled customers, but during the many years of customer service based agony, it was one of the things that kept my head above water. This particular post concerned a partially-deaf employer and the rage of a customer when asked to repeat themselves. At the very end, the following interaction occurs between employee and manager:
Manager: “You probably should have apologized before asking him to face you.”
Me: “I’m not going to apologize for being almost deaf.”
– Not Always Right, 28th August 2017
To say that I was infuriated would be an understatement. Rage boiled up inside me, building behind that wall I’d built: all the times I’d had to apologise for my autism, all the times my stepmum was compelled to say sorry to the people who walked in front of her wheelchair, all the times we had to grovel and appease for the fact that we were alive, and different, and mildly inconvenient to their abled neurotypical selfish entitled bubble lives.
This is our space too. We have as much right to it as you.
So, I’ve come to a decision. I’m going to stop apologising.
Not altogether. If I have something to apologise for, I will damn well apologise. If I have a meltdown, or get close to that point, or if I run out of spoons, and get so lost in the fog of my overloaded brain chemistry that I lash out, snap or say something horrible, I will say sorry. I’m sorry I hurt them. I’m sorry I wasn’t fair to them. I’m sorry that my response was misguided and misdirected, and next time I will try to put strategies in place to better redirect those feelings.
But I’m not sorry that those feelings happened. I’m not sorry that sometimes everything becomes too much and can’t cope. I’m not sorry that my mind twists in wild and wonderful ways, because alongside the bad mist there is a gorgeous cacophony of goodness, creativity, and individuality.
I won’t apologise when asking for a tiny adjustment. I won’t apologise if I need a little bit of help. I won’t apologise for knowing myself well enough to live my best life.
So, sorry world. But I am done with being sorry.