I have just read Leonard Kriegel’s essay “Falling into Life” [September 1991], and I can relate strongly to his story. In order to make the transition from being a practicing alcoholic to a recovering one, I, too, had to learn to fall.
Going to that first AA meeting, I felt the same way Kriegel did stepping onto the mat in preparation for a fall. I knew I had reached a turning point in my life, but I wasn’t really sure I was ready to take the leap. I felt as though I stood on a precipice: behind me lay the wrecked landscape of my life up to that moment; before me stretched a vast gulf of unknowing, beyond which I could glimpse a shimmering horizon of hope. Hearing that I needed to turn my life over to the care of God as I understood him felt like, as Kriegel put it, “being asked to surrender myself to the emptiness of space, to let go and crash to the mats below, to feel myself suspended in air with nothing between me and the vacuum of the world.” I, too, felt ashamed of my fear to take the plunge, to step off the cliff, to head out on a new path in life.
Eventually, I grew tired of struggling, sick to death of making the same mistakes, taking the same wrong turns. When the day finally came that I took the fall, it wasn’t because I’d felt a sudden surge of courage; rather, “I had simply been worn down into letting go.”
In retrospect, it seems like such a small step: one night at a meeting, I dropped my pretenses and said, “Hi, I’m Chris, and I am an alcoholic.” I had expected to feel humiliation and shame when I uttered those words; to my surprise, I felt humbled and uplifted. For the first time, I knew just where I stood.
After reading Leonard Kriegel’s “Falling Into Life,” I was moved to reflect upon the profound generational differences that exist within the community of people with disabilities.
Born with cerebral palsy about eighteen years after Kriegel, I, too, wore leg braces from an early age and experienced countless exercise routines and practice falls on gym mats for the first twenty years of my life. During the 1950s and early 1960s, my therapists, my father (a World War II veteran), my mother, and nearly all the other adults around me urged me to “fight like a good soldier” through the often painful and difficult physical therapy and to “tough out” the prejudice around me like a true leatherneck. Through persistence and perseverance, I made some progress and learned a stoicism that served me well in difficult circumstances.
But that persistence and perseverance was carried out over an inner rage. I began to realize that, while holding my breath, gritting my teeth against the pain, and pushing myself forward with violent determination, I was also fighting myself like hell. It was questionable whether all those exercises did much good when every outward movement was accompanied by a violent mental and emotional struggle within. All this “soldiering” was getting to be a bit much, and I began to question whose “war” this was anyway — mine or the adults?
By the time I reached my midteens, the Vietnam War was raging, and the peace movement was rapidly growing. At fifteen, in my braces, I picketed the local draft-board office with a small crowd of other protesters. People carried signs that read, MAKE LOVE, NOT WAR. The battles were being replaced by efforts to embrace.
I didn’t discover a community of likeminded people with disabilities until my midtwenties, and when I did, it was a revelation. All of us had experienced discrimination, segregation, and struggle. But we had learned from the women’s movement that “the personal is political” and had come to see that the individual barriers we had experienced were part of a larger picture, and that political action was called for. In the intervening years, the disability-rights movement has achieved considerable success. How did we do it?
The critical first step lay in accepting who we were. We didn’t fight our limitations; we embraced them. We acknowledged that, if we used wheelchairs, then buildings would have to be built with ramps and elevators. If we were deaf, then sign-language interpreters would have to be provided. If we were blind, then our guide dogs could not be excluded from the public places we visited. It wasn’t a question of fighting to walk, see, or hear better; it was a question of accepting each others’ differences and basic needs.
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