Ever since we moved into this apartment nine years ago there’s been a sort of splotch on the ceiling in my bedroom, next to the overhead light and the broken ceiling fan. We were told early on that the splotch was insignificant, because there was no mold or mildew or any water leaking in from the roof, so, just ignore it. And since the splotch never seemed to change color or get bigger, we ignored it.
But a week or so ago, I noticed big white flakes of something on my bedroom rug. We had just recently gotten rid of the old couch in the living room, the one that left tiny black flakes of fake leather everywhere, so I sort of thought I was being punked (by Cricket?). My other thought was that Mom was making a quilt with small pieces of white fabric and the leftovers were being tracked into my room by doggy feet. Up close, though, the flakes looked like pieces of eggshell, and then I was annoyed, because Mom has a habit of giving the dogs special treats while she’s making dinner, that they then drag into my room and spread on the floor (I can’t count the number of times I have tripped over carrots on my way to bed), but I couldn’t imagine she would have given them hard boiled eggs with the shells still on, so I called Mom in for her opinion of what the hell was scattered across my floor.
As soon as Mom saw the eggshell-like pieces on the floor she looked up, so I looked up too, and then it was obvious what the problem was: my ceiling was shedding flakes of white paint. The splotch on the ceiling was bigger, and pieces of white paint were missing and others were dangling from the splotch.
Mom made some phone calls and found out that my splotch was not the only one in the co-op – there were vents on the roofs of all of the buildings and when we had our recent heavy snowfall everyone who lived under one of these vents had the same leaks, and probably the same splotches. The advice Mom was given was that we sweep the excess paint off the ceiling and ignore it, because we’d have to wait until the weather warmed up before the roofers could get to the repairs.
And when Mom told me this, I said, oh, okay and I shrugged. The sky is falling. Oh well.
I’m not proud of myself for being like this, there are just certain areas of my life where my self advocacy skills, or my willingness to fight, are nil. I’m lucky that I have Mom, because she’s much better at making the phone calls to at least demand answers, but I won’t have Mom forever, and I don’t know how to teach myself to become more like her, or even feel empowered enough to believe I have the right to ask for what I need, let alone what I want. I’m much more likely to hide under my bed, or hold my breath and wait.
The need for self-advocacy has also come up – a lot – with my health, and it presses all of my buttons: my feelings of invalidation when people ignore me, my lack of self-worth because I feel like they’re right to ignore me, my anxiety about saying the wrong thing and getting in trouble. And the reality is that my attempts at self-advocacy have, historically, left me feeling depleted instead of empowered, because I couldn’t convince the doctor, teacher, publisher, etc., to take me seriously.
As a result, I’ve been doing a lot of research on the subject of self-advocacy, to try to build up to being better at this And so far, the advice has been overwhelming: reward yourself for every attempt at speaking up; decide what you want, and what you are willing to settle for; be clear and concise; be consistent; identify when the other person is being unfair; remember that you have the right to change your mind; make sure to ask for what you want; feel free to express your feelings; and to say no, and to make mistakes; and demand to be treated with respect. And that’s just the short list.
So it’s not surprising that I still wasn’t up to doing anything different when I went to my most recent doctors’ appointments, but I felt like a failure anyway, because I fell back on my usual coping behavior, which is to make jokes and smile, even when I feel crummy; and to remember the crazy things people say to me, but still smile and nod while they say them. That’s what has allowed me to survive a lot of bad doctor visits in the past, and a lot of everything else, so it’s been hard to give it up.
Even so, I’m still trying to push myself to fight harder for the things I want, especially to not take failure as an inevitable proof that I am undeserving. I believed, for a long time, that if I deserved good things they would just happen, and therefore when those good things didn’t happen, I must not deserve them. I’ve started to rethink those assumptions, but fighting for myself is hard. It means being willing to keep sending my writing out despite endless rejections, and it means trying to believe that my work is still good, even when ten, or fifty, or a hundred publications tell me that it’s not what they’re looking for right now.
I wish these lessons could be easier to learn, or at least simpler to understand, but as with everything else in life, it’s complicated. Sometimes taking no for an answer, either from my own body or from something or someone out in the world, is the best choice, so that I can conserve my energy for the next fight. And sometimes the fight itself, convincing myself that I deserve to be heard, is worth the effort, even if a good outcome is unlikely.
Looking back at the list of advice for how to become a better self-advocate, the one thing that sticks with me is the idea that I should reward myself for each attempt, no matter how unsuccessful. I’ve always done well with rewards as motivation. If I can watch a fun movie while I’m on the exercise bike, then I’m much more likely to make it through the full forty-five minutes, and look forward to getting back on the bike the next day. And if I know that the dogs will be at the door as soon as I come home, throwing themselves at me with relief, it’s much easier to go out in the first place.
So I’m going to start thinking of possible rewards to pair with speaking up when a doctor tries to blame my health problems on my weight, or to pair with sending out an essay to a new publication. At this point, though, I can’t think of any reward good enough to make me willing to allow a stranger into my room to fix the splotch on the ceiling, so that one will have to wait.
If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.
Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?