THE WOMAN WHO HELPED ME UNDERSTAND ADDICTION IS COMING TO MERRIMACK HALL

I haven’t written about addiction and recovery in a while but the subject is never far from my mind. When someone you love has the disease of addiction, you pay attention to the headlines. Over the years, I’ve read all the books. I’ve watched all the Ted Talks, been to all the seminars, attended all the support groups. Like anyone who has a loved one affected by addiction, I’ve tried it all…tried anything in a desperate attempt to gain a glimpse of understanding about this progressive and deadly disease.

In the bookshelves on my kindle and iBooks account, there are dozens of books by John Bradshaw, Johann Hari, David Sheff, Gabor Mate, Maia Szalavitz and so many others. “Beautiful Boy” by Sheff, and “Chasing the Scream” by Hari were pivotal to my comprehension of addiction. But no matter how much I read, I never believed the mantra I had been taught in those support groups: I didn’t cause this, I can’t control this and I can’t cure this. And I didn’t know what real recovery looked like until…

Sometime in March 2014, I stumbled across a blog post by a writer I didn’t know, entitled “We Don’t Start With Needles In Our Arms.” I read it twice. The next day, I pulled it up from my browsing history and read it a third time. The author’s name is Janelle Hanchett. I read her words over and over but wasn’t sure why. What was it about this version of “I was an addict and now I’ve recovered,” that was resonating so strongly with me?

Eventually, I made my way to her blog, Renegade Mothering, where I was surprised to find some of the most hilarious observations about motherhood, raising kids and being a woman that I’d ever read. Her keen social observations caused me to think about everything from keeping a tidy house or taking kids to eat in restaurants to our society’s rape culture. Janelle wrote about feminist topics that I hadn’t thought about since college, juxtaposed with side-splitting versions of Valentine’s Day Cards for married folks and tender stories about her adorable toddlers.

Maybe I was drawn in to Janelle’s writing because I had never heard a woman’s story of recovery. I must have heard the narrative, “I was a terrible alcoholic but once I saw that ultrasound, I never took another drink,” but I hadn’t thought about the mothers who suffer through recovery/relapse cycles. I must have had some arcane notion that mothers who are addicts must white-knuckle it until their kids are in college? I certainly had friends who drank too much and twice had to extricate myself and other friends from carpools where we suspected a mother might be drinking before she drove our kids but I had no frame of reference for a typical mother trying to fight for her life, and the life of her children, through the darkness of addiction.

I’d read Janelle’s posts like, “Hey, Hi. I Want Off Your Parenting Team” and then go back to “needles in our arms,” fascinated by Janelle’s recovery. I added “resilience” to the list of traits required to beat addiction because someone would have to be resilient to return from the depth of addiction into the wide open space of sobriety with the humor, joy and gratitude Janelle’s writing expressed.

After reading the post dozens of times, I started to feel something I hadn’t allowed myself to feel in a long time…I felt hopeful. Janelle gave me hope that recovery was possible, that some people actually do get better.

And then one night, as I despaired for the life of someone I love, I read “needles in our arms” again and for the first time, I found absolution.

It was this sentence that did it:

Most of us start out good and decent and wanting a real life with kids and a house and job, and we start out fooling around and maybe we’re a little overzealous but by the time we’re really, really in trouble, we’re dying, and we’re powerless, and the chances for recovery are really, really freaking slim.

And I finally understood what everyone had been telling me for so long. Addiction IS a disease. Those who have it ARE powerless over its relentless intention to destroy their lives. The Three C’s ARE true…no one chooses addiction, no one can control the progression of the disease and no one can cure it. The cure is found in working a program of spiritual recovery. Janelle’s blog post helped me think about addiction with compassion instead of anger, with understanding instead of judgement and with hope instead of despair.

I hope you’ll join us Thursday, October 25, 2018 at 6:30 at Merrimack Hall to meet Janelle, listen to her story and hear her read from her newly released memoir, “I’m Just Happy To Be Here: A Memoir of Renegade Mothering.” The book is an Amazon Top Seller and the reviews are fabulous. Here’s just one example:

“By turns painful and funny, [I’m Just Happy to Be Here] explores the pressures of modern motherhood while chronicling one woman’s journey toward acceptance of her own limitations and imperfections. A searingly candid memoir.” Kirkus Reviews

You can reserve your spot at her reading by visiting merrimackhall.com. If you choose, you can make a suggested $5.00 donation at the door. All proceeds will benefit Not One More Alabama, a non-profit organization dedicated to eliminating the stereotypes associated with addiction and to offer support to those affected by addiction and their families.

At the event, you can purchase a book if you’d like (or bring your copy), have it signed and ask her anything. It’s my hope that we will fill the house. I hope that everyone will leave with a better understanding of addiction, more compassion for those who have the disease and their loved ones and an increased commitment to erase the stigma associated with addiction. And I hope that you will find the same comfort and understanding in Janelle’s words that I did.

 

People With Special Needs Are Just Like You

Look, I get it. If you don’t spend time around someone with an intellectual or physical disability, you might think they are special little snowflakes that have to be treated with kid gloves. Or you may think they are like little children, regardless of their age, who should be spoken to in the sing-song cooing voice we normally reserve for infants and toddlers. Or you might believe that they have nothing to contribute – to a conversation, to a classroom, to a club or to our community – and simply ignore them all together. Worse than even these, you may feel pity for them. So let me clue you into something important.

PEOPLE WITH SPECIAL NEEDS ARE JUST LIKE YOU.

They have thoughts and opinions, just like you.

They have nuanced and important relationships with other people, just like you.

They fall in love and get their hearts broken, just like you.

They want to feel a sense of purpose; they want to matter to others, just like you.

They are wickedly funny, just like you.

They like to go to church, or not, just like you. They are voters and activists, or not, just like you. They drink alcohol, or not, just like you.

They have dreams and aspirations, disappointments and achievements, friends and enemies, just like you.

Help me erase stereotypes and open doors by liking the Just Like You Hsv page on Facebook. My goal is for this page to reach 5000 likes. Click here to like – and please share – the page!

And if you have pictures of a friend or family member with special needs, share them on the page and tell us how they are just like everyone else. Let’s show the world that people with special needs are only limited by the labels we choose to give them!

Just Like You Huntsville can be found here: https://www.facebook.com/justlikeyouhsv/

 

We take computer courses at the Apple Store.

We work out.

We like to hang out with our friends.

We like to try new foods.

We host parties and invite our friends.

We go to prom with our favorite date.

We attend Space Camp.

 

Spread The Word To End The Word

Wednesday March 7, 2018 is “End The Word Day” so I thought I should share this post from 2014 for anyone who isn’t familiar with the “Spread the Word to End the Word” movement.  To learn more about the movement, visit their website here,

I hope you will join me in taking the pledge:

I pledge and support the elimination of the derogatory use of the r-word from everyday speech and promote the acceptance and inclusion of people with intellectual disabilities.

Anna G & Anna C

Anna G & Anna C

About two years ago, I made a frustrating mistake, nothing big but one that would create extra work for me. In the moment, I said something out loud, without thinking. Thankfully, there was only one person around to hear my shocking word choice.

“I can’t believe I just did that,” I said. “I’m such a retard.”

The expression on my team member’s face is what made me realize what I had said, as she looked at me with disgust and disappointment. And then, my mind went immediately to the precious faces of the people I love so much and their families. I was instantly ashamed. How could I, of all people, have used that word? And even though I didn’t say it with malice, how hurt would they all be if they knew I had used it?

I was born in 1960 and have lived in Alabama all my life. The “N” word wasn’t part of my family’s vocabulary but I heard it, all the time, all around me. The first time I remember understanding that the “N” word was horrible and hurtful was when I was nine and someone I knew used the word in front of an African-American woman who was a guest in our home. I will never forget the look on the woman’s face … the look of humiliation and silent outrage and hurt. Even though I was only a child and was being raised in the Deep South during the height of the Civil Rights Movement, I grasped the implications of that word because I saw the effect it had on the face of a woman I knew.

The “R” word is every bit as hateful and as hurtful as the “n” word, is every bit as derogatory and pejorative as any ethnic or racial slur people invoke. The definition of “retarded” is: less advanced in mental, physical or social development than is usual for one’s age. The “R” word used to be a medical diagnosis but today, the medical community uses “intellectual disability” and the “R” word has become a convenient slang, something people use to describe others or actions in a deprecatory way. This needs to stop … like yesterday.

When our mothers told us, “Sticks and stones can break your bones but words can never hurt you,” they were just trying to make us feel better. We all know that many times, words hurt even more than punches. You’re so gay; you’re such a Jew; how ghetto is that; you’re so retarded … sure, they’re just words but when used in that context, they are words meant to imply inferiority and insult, words that are used with the intent to throw a punch more powerful than a fist.

Shauna painting in The Connection

Shauna painting in The Connection

Last week, I asked one of the girls in Project UP a question. She looked at me with panic as she frantically searched her mind for the answer. I gave her a hint and when she remembered it, her face was flooded with relief. Because she is intellectually disabled, it is difficult for her to process information as quickly as I can. She has to work ten times harder than I do just to answer a question … or write her name … or say the alphabet. This doesn’t make her dumb or stupid or inferior; it actually makes her smarter than me because she has adapted to her disability by finding other ways to cope with a world that is difficult for her to navigate. She is every bit as valuable, her feelings every bit as important as yours and mine. She told me once that she knows she has, “Something called Down syndrome” and that, “It takes me longer to learn things” but what she doesn’t know is that people use her diagnosis as a way to disparage or insult other people. I hope she never learns that.

One of our social events at The Connection

One of our social events at The Connection

We’ve come a long way with the “N” word…we’re making headway on the negative use of “gay” and “fag” and “homo” … we still have a long way to go with all the other ethnic and racial slurs we hear every day. It’s easy to use a word in a negative way to cast aspersions on a group if we don’t know anyone who belongs to that group but when we put a face with that word, it becomes personal. Before I knew people with special needs, I didn’t think about what it meant to use the “R” word but now that I know so many, I see a face when I hear that word … a child, an adult, a teenager, a parent, a brother, a sister…the faces of the people who would be hurt by the use of the word. Which makes my thoughtless use of the “R” word even worse.

I pledge not to use that word again…please join me in this pledge!

Nathan at NRG Dance Convention in Atlanta

Nathan at NRG Dance Convention in Atlanta

Alabama Students and Jalen Hurts Rank #1

A few weeks ago, the performers with special needs at Merrimack Hall were invited to dance in Coleman Coliseum in Tuscaloosa for an event that featured the University’s dance team and sororities. When the invite came back in August, I was thrilled…our young adults, performing on the same stage as their typically developing peers! Merrimack Hall has never been included in an event on a college campus.

But on the day of the show, reality set in and I got nervous. I’ve never been nervous to place our dancers in any venue or at any event. They are always received with rousing standing ovations and cheers. This would be different, it suddenly dawned on me. This event would feature hundreds of sorority girls and the thousands who had come to root for them. No one signed up for an awareness raising event when they bought their tickets to this.

I imagined our dancers would be greeted with either crickets or condescension. Why did we think it was a good idea to crash this student tradition? What would I do if the crowd was indifferent or didn’t watch the dance our students had worked months perfecting? People with intellectual disabilities on a college campus, featured front and center at a large-scale, student sponsored event? There were a million ways this could go wrong.

My heart was pounding with dread as we made our way into the coliseum. My stomach turned a flip when I peeked out of the team tunnel where we entered and saw thousands of people – literally thousands. Biggest crowd our kids have ever performed for..intimidating as hell to me but not to our students.

As the announcer began our introduction, a smattering of applause turned into a greeting worthy of the Crimson Tide itself, eventually drowning out the Emcee until she just gave up. Because our students needed no introduction, apparently.

I looked into the crowd and saw signs that read, “Phi Mu Loves Merrimack Hall” and “Welcome To Our Friends From Merrimack.” I saw young women on their feet, cheering as if a touchdown had just been scored. I saw young men fist pumping, whistling their encouragement and smiling with acceptance. I couldn’t believe it. But then again, I went to Alabama, so I could believe it.

Don’t believe me? Watch this:

Incredible, right?

Thousands of college students gave that response to 19 kids with Down syndrome, autism spectrum disorders and other diagnoses. College students who were there to cheer on their favorite sorority saved their biggest applause for our young adults who worked…and worked…and worked…to prepare for this performance. There was nothing patronizing or polite in the reception the Bama students offered Merrimack Hall’s performers. The cheers they offered were full-throated and full-hearted. Nothing but love and acceptance from the students in the coliseum that day.

During the Mississippi State game, Alabama QB Jalen Hurts took off on another of his signature sneaks, resulting in a TD directly in front of a large group of soldiers and veterans. It wouldn’t have surprised me if he had spiked the ball or done a silly victory dance or if he had jumped onto a pile of his teammates for a celebratory hug (or whatever you call it when 11 large young men cram themselves in a knot and slap each other on the helmet).

Instead, he stopped in his tracks and offered a salute to the soldiers and vets. A female soldier even saluted him back.

As an Alabama native, there have been so many times over the course of my life when I have been embarrassed of our state. The buffoon currently running for US Senate is an excellent example of how we sometimes shoot ourselves in the foot by presenting caricatures, nut jobs who make our state look ridiculous. Also, the Luv Guv. The ick factor in our state capital must rank #1.

But then I look at the young people in our state – big-time athletes, college students, the high school kids who volunteer with our program – and see that they exhibit respect on a regular basis. And acceptance. And sportsmanship. Thank you to those students at Coleman Coliseum and to Jalen Hurts, for showing our state in a better light. It’s not just on the football field that the University of Alabama deserves to be ranked #1.

Roll Tide!

 

 

 

 

Insure Your Success In Business By Learning From My Mistakes

Ten years ago this week, Alan and I opened our non-profit organization, Merrimack Hall Performing Arts Center, to the public. Spending 10 years as a full-time “philanthropist” has been exhilarating, exhausting and enlightening.  I’ve learned more in the past 10 years than I did in the 46 preceding years so it must be true that you can teach an old gal new tricks. Unfortunately, my newfound knowledge was gained only by making mistakes. Massive, heinous, costly and unnecessary mistakes are my forté.  Maybe I can save you some trouble by sharing My 6 Biggest Mistakes:

  1. Never launch a new venture – a business, a non-profit, a project, not even a party – without a solid business plan. Estimates and pro-formas scribbled on a yellow legal pad at your kitchen island at 1:00 a.m. when you are drunk on inspiration…and Jack and Coke’s…do not count as a solid business plan. We asked all sorts of people for their input and advice: attorneys, bankers, wealth managers, architects, contractors and accountants. Since all of them advised us to ditch our idea to overhaul a 100-year-old building into a non-profit theatre, we chose to ignore them. If everyone you trust tells you not to do something, perhaps you should listen. BUT…if we had listened to them, there wouldn’t be a Merrimack Hall and this post would be completely unnecessary.
    Building 2006

    Merrimack Hall Pre-Renovation, May 2006

     

  2. Never start a new endeavor without a clear mission. When we started planning our organization in 2006, we went with the “if you build it, they will come” mantra and our stated mission was simply to offer a new venue for the arts in Huntsville. What to do with that venue we had no idea. BUT…if we had settled on a mission to begin with, we wouldn’t have stumbled on the idea of offering arts education to people with special needs.

    Popovich pets

    For 7 years, we presented a full season of touring productions.

  3. Never start a new business without consulting with people who are already in the same line of work and always heed their advice. I asked lots of people for advice on how to conduct an arts education program for people with special needs. They all told me that I was unqualified and unprepared. I dismissed their concerns, telling myself it couldn’t possibly be that hard. Maybe I should have listened. It never occurred to me that we would meet children who are medically fragile, that we would work with children and adults who are non-verbal or who have seizure disorders or chronic heart conditions or who risk serious injury just attempting a pilé. It certainly never occurred to me that four children we knew and loved would pass away. BUT…if I had listened to the naysayers, that first little dance class would never have happened.
First Panoply performance

First Panoply Performance, 2009

4.  Create job descriptions based on the actual tasks required and hire people with a skill set that matches that job description. I did it backwards, creating jobs predicated on the skill set of the person I hired. Every business person I know – and my professors at Columbia Business School – warned me not to do this. I tried doing it the “right” way for 7 or 8 years, resulting in multiple failed attempts at hiring the perfect team. Almost three years ago, I finally assembled the “Dream Team.” If I had listened to the pros, I could have saved myself lots of strife. BUT…if I had written a job description for a qualified visual art instructor, I would never have found a woman who had a BA in studio art, had spent several years working as the training manager for a large non-profit and was a “genius” at the Apple Store. I combined her artistic and technical skills into a position that fills our IT, marketing, graphic design, volunteer recruitment and training, and visual art needs. It might have taken longer but doing it my way has resulted in a team with a diverse skill set and a deep and abiding love for the population we serve.

The Dream Team

The full-time Dream Team is assisted by part-time staff members Suzanne Bradley, Antony Sharpe, Patti Huebner, Angie Davis and Hayley Henderson, who volunteers her time as our Artistic Director.

5.  Do not rely on the investment of your own money to make your venture sustainable…bring in partners and investors to insure fiscal success. Obviously! You shouldn’t pour all of your resources into a money pit! BUT…because we’ve donated over $7 million of our own dollars during the past 10 years, we have a proprietary and passionate interest in the outcome of everything done at Merrimack Hall. Thousands of individuals, hundreds of businesses and dozens of granting organizations have joined in our mission due in no small part to our willingness to put our own money into the organization. You’ve got to spend money to make money and sometimes, you have to donate your own to inspire others to donate theirs.

Humanitarian Award

We were humbled to receive the Humanitarian Award in 2012.

6.  Do not lead with your heart…lead with your head. Alan and I were full of passion and full of ourselves, determined to leave a legacy on our community instead of being full of knowledge, experience and preparation. And I don’t care about this big mistake I made. Because when you choose to invest your time and money into any endeavor, you’ll never be successful without an endless supply of heart.

PUP West

We even have an affiliate program in Ashland, Oregon!

Now that I think about it, I wouldn’t change a thing. Because of our blissful ignorance and full-hearted desire to make life better for someone else, we surged ahead without considering the downside. Good ideas have a way of shutting down detractors and our enthusiasm helped recruit hundreds of students, volunteers and extended families to buy into our idea. Had we hesitated…or shown our fear of the unknown…at any point during these past 10 years, the community that our families and volunteers have built through the novel approach to inclusion that is at the heart of everything we do at Merrimack Hall would not exist.

Peyton and Vivian

The arts bringing together folks who otherwise wouldn’t have met…that’s inclusion to me!

The only remaining hurdle is to insure the fiscal solvency of Merrimack Hall. Because of my mistakes, we uncovered a growing and critical need, one that outpaces our ability to fund it alone. We’ve come too far to turn back now…the vibrant community of lives that intersect at Merrimack Hall is counting on us.

Group bow

First summer camp for teens, June 2010

So, I’m moving forward into Merrimack Hall’s second decade determined to increase donations and lower costs. I’m determined to expand the ever-growing circle of Merrimack Hall’s impact. I’m determined to learn from my mistakes. I won’t make these again…I’ll just make new ones. Stay tuned….

Hayley XMas pic

First holiday production, December 2011

If you’d like to join us in our effort to serve people with special needs, click the link below to donate or contact volunteer@merrimackhall.com to get involved! Any amount – of your money or of your time – will help to improve the quality of life for people with special needs and their families.

http://www.merrimackhall.com/donate/

Chloe angel pic

This little nugget is a teenager now…and a terrific tap dancer!

Ten Ways I Survived A Personal Crisis

This time last year, I was in the final throes of a personal crisis, one that broke my spirit and my heart. My personal crisis had been brewing for quite some time, leaving me mentally and physically exhausted. I worried I might never mend. It wasn’t a tragic event, like the loss of a loved one, but rather was the culmination of years of defeats that knocked the wind out of my sails. As the defeats and setbacks accumulated, making a comeback seemed impossible.

During the past year, there were many mornings when I had to force myself out of bed and just as many when I got up but never left the house. There were days when I engaged in non-stop, frenetic activity but more often I closed the door to my bedroom and shut out the world.

The things that had always sustained me…family, friends, music, dance, etc…seemed pointless so I spent a lot of time this year watching bad TV and eating drive-thru fast food alone. Over the past few months, I’ve gradually come back to life. I credit a support group, a great counselor, my husband and my students with special needs for the renewal of my spirit.

I kept a list of the things that have helped me during this rough year…thought it might come in handy if the dark cloud over my heart ever lifted. Since I’m through the worst of it, I decided to share my list of Ten Ways To Get Over A Personal Crisis:

  1.  Give yourself permission to wallow. Literally. In your bed, under the covers, maybe with your pet or an infant. Preferably not your own infant, because if its yours, you’ll have to take care of it. Borrow one from a friend or high-jack your grandchild. Keep the infant just long enough to snuggle that sweet bundle and smell his/her head…the most comforting smell on earth. Wallow as long as you need.  It make take a while. Do not feel guilty about this wallowing (see #4 below). I frequently borrow this precious nugget! On this day, the only reason I left my house was to see him.
  2. Only do those things which are critical to your job or your life. Prioritize! Answer emails that need immediate attention and leave the rest alone. You’d be surprised how many things can lose their urgency…or be solved by someone else…if you just ignore them for a while. Pay your bills, make sure you have clean underwear – you get my drift – but if it’s not hot-potato urgent, ignore it.
  3. Delegate anything and everything possible to anyone you can – to your kids, your spouse, your co-workers. If you tell folks you’re having a hard time and need their help, I’ve found people are more than willing to oblige.
  4. Forgive yourself for needing a break. I’ve struggled with feeling guilty for all the things I’ve neglected but I shouldn’t. There is absolutely nothing wrong with stepping off the merry-go-round occasionally. In fact, if I had taken breaks from the merry-go-round before the crisis came to a head, I might have been better able to deal with it.
  5. Lose the mindset that “busy” is an acceptable lifestyle. We glorify being busy. “How does she do it?” we ask ourselves. “He’s involved in everything so I must be a loser,” we tell ourselves. But busy just means we’re overloaded, over-obligated and spread too thin. Busy is what we are when we forget that life isn’t supposed to be about crossing things off a to-do list, enrolling our children in every possible activity or throwing elaborate parties. I know some people who are chronically “busy” and from the outside, they may seem happy, involved and engaged. Before last year, I was one of those folks myself. My experience is that when we are too busy it’s not because we have a fulfilling life but rather because we’ve bitten off more than we can chew or chronic procrastination has caught up with us.
  6. Vow to say “no” to everything that doesn’t lift your spirits. And I mean everything. Whether its a wedding, an informal get together, a committee, extra work projects – just say “no.” This may be hard for if you suffer from what my young friends tell me is a condition known as FOMO – Fear Of Missing Out. Sure, you may miss something but if you’re having a hard time coping with everyday life, going to a party or taking on a big project won’t do anything but make you feel worse. “No,” is a complete sentence.
  7. Stay off social media! I’ve been working my way through feelings of failure – as a wife, mother, friend, professional woman. The last thing I needed was to see heinous political posts or pictures of a fabulous vacation someone took while I was wallowing. When your heart is broken, you’re susceptible to buying into the notion that everyone else has their life “together,” as evidenced by what they curate onto their pages. Or susceptible to being irritated by those obnoxious people who have “started a business” (code for, “I’m selling tacky clothes or sheets or skincare products or strange kitchen implements you will never use”) they want to tell you about by adding you to groups or sending you unsolicited messages. When you’re ready to dip your toe back into the social media vortex, delete from your newsfeed anything that doesn’t make you smile.
  8. Avoid making big changes during your transition from broken to mended. Like, don’t cut your hair off or dye it a crazy color or redecorate the living room. Now is not the time to be adventurous.
  9. Do not go shopping. For anything. Not even online. Especially not online. You will only end up buying things you don’t need or worse, that don’t fit, which will exponentially increase the guilt you are feeling for wallowing and eating bad food instead of exercising and dieting.
  10. Never compare your healing process to anyone else. Its easy to say, “Look at her…she has a tougher burden than I do and she’s doing fine.”  What is soul-crushing to me might be a walk in the park to you. There’s no such thing as a “normal” reaction to life-altering events. Besides, what difference does it make if someone else gets over a crisis faster than you do? You’re the only one who will know when it’s time for you to hop back on the merry-go-round.

By sharing this post, I guess I’m hopping back on the merry-go-round. This time, I’ll try to take the lessons I’ve learned on the ride with me! 

 

 

How a 17-Minute Phone Call With Temple Grandin Changed Me

temple_grandinTemple Grandin will speak at the Von Braun Center Concert Hall on Tuesday, March 7, 2017, at 7:00 p.m. Tickets are $35.00 and can be purchased here. The evening will begin with a book signing at 5:30 – buy one of her books on site or bring your own copy. Her speech will begin at 7, followed by a Q&A with representatives from five organizations who are working to expand opportunities for people with autism spectrum disorders and other diagnoses into our workplaces and our community. If you haven’t seen it before, watch Temple’s Ted Talk here.

When my phone rang, I was unloading groceries from my car. I didn’t know the number and normally would have let the call go to voice mail until I could finish what I was doing. But for some reason, I shifted the groceries sacks and said, “Hello?”

I knew who it was after she uttered about four words.

Temple Grandin was on the other end of the phone line.

I panicked. I was scared, intimidated and slightly star-struck. I’ve been watching endless hours of Temple’s speeches, read her books on autism and am breathlessly awaiting her visit to Huntsville next week. And here she was, on the other end of the phone, asking me what Huntsville is like and what we hope to accomplish after her talk.

I was intimidated to talk with her, not because she has autism but because she is one of the most accomplished women in the world. Time Magazine listed her among the 100 Most Influential People of 2010 thanks to her achievements as a scientist and advocate for people on the autism spectrum. A biopic about her life, Temple Grandin, won multiple Emmy© Awards. She’s written dozens of books and is recognized the world over for her brilliant design innovations used extensively by cattlemen and ranchers around the globe. I’ve talked to a few celebrities in my work at Merrimack Hall but none have left me as tongue-tied and awe struck as Temple Grandin.

I’m one of those “social yackity-yacks” that she references in her speeches. I immediately began trying to moderate my speech…the tempo, the volume, the tone. I thought of all my friends with autism who have given me feedback, sometimes verbal and sometimes nonverbal; feedback that tells me my delivery can be hard for them to take. They tell me, “Slow down.” “Be still while you’re talking to me.” “Keep your hands to yourself.” I tried to temper myself so that I could communicate effectively in a manner that I assumed she would prefer.

“Different, not less,” is what Temple says. I’ve always assumed she was referencing people with autism and other intellectual disabilities, that it was them who are different but never less. But in the first few minutes of that phone call, I realized it is me who’s different, not Temple.

I use 20 words when five would suffice. I muddle my message with excessive body language, intense eye contact, rapid speech and frequent, unexpected changes in topic. I dilute the effectiveness of my communication by going off on tangential rants, mixing emotion with facts when trying to persuade others or win them over.

temple-quote

Halfway through our 17 minute phone call (yes, I checked the phone log to be sure how long I had actually been able to talk with her), I started to relax. She asked me lots of questions about our community and the purpose of our event. When I told her that we hope to motivate and inspire our community of thought innovators to find new ways to integrate people with autism spectrum disorders into our workplaces, she was enthusiastic and excited. She told me, “Good job!” when I described the panel of local scientists, advocates and employers who will be asking her questions after her speech. She said, “I look forward to meeting you,” when the call was coming to an end. When we hung up, I was elated…I did it! I managed to carry on a conversation with someone I revere and won her over despite my communication disorder.

Because yes, I’m the one with the communication disorder, not Temple. She has learned, after years of diligent practice and observation, to tailor her preferred communication style to match what we call “normal.” She has mastered the art of listening and uses language in a measured, appropriate and careful way that allows her to connect without nuance or hidden agendas or emotional baggage that should have no place in our communication with each other. She says what she means and she means what she says.

I can’t say that about myself all the time, as my communication is too heavily influenced by ego. I’m too busy preparing my response to someone to truly listen to what they are saying in the moment. I have trouble zoning in on the most important point of whatever I’m saying because random thoughts and subtle manipulations are constantly zigzagging through my brain, bursting through my filters and muddying the water of my point. I rely on emotion, not facts, too often. I tell myself that I’m an effective speaker because I am exceedingly verbal but 17 minutes with Temple Grandin left me with the stark realization that it’s not Temple who’s different…it’s me.

Temple says, “Different…not less.” I always applied that sentence to the people with special needs I work with, never to myself. But the call with her showed me that deciding who and what is “different” is malleable and depends on your perspective. To me, people with autism are “different” but to them, I’m the one with deficiencies. When you boil it down to its most elemental message, “Different…not less,” applies to all of us. Each of us is different from the other and none of us is less.

For 10 years now, I’ve said that we are all more alike than we are different and that we all have special needs. Thanks to one conversation with Temple, I realize that there’s so much more to it than that. We are ALL different in subtle and obvious ways. Each of us is born with our own unique set of challenges and dysfunctions that are further ingrained through our social interactions. Each of us has a particular slant through which we see each other, the world and our places in it. It will be a better world when we all learn that Temple isn’t different, nor is anyone with a physical or intellectual disability.

WE ARE ALL DIFFERENT. AND NONE OF US IS LESS.

What problems could we solve if we approached everything with that mindset? What new friends could we make? What new ways of doing things or what new insights could we uncover if we all just accepted the reality that no two of us are the same and none of us is perfect. No one is right and no one else is wrong in their approach or thought process or communication style because we are all unique, born exactly the way we were supposed to be.

 

I am different. And so are you. But I am not less and neither are you. If I learned this much about myself from 17 minutes with Temple, I can’t wait to learn even more powerful insights from her next week.

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