The Toxicity of “You Should Be Able To Get Over It”
By Derek Newman-Stille
Content Warning for discussions of abuse, family violence, stalking, and ableist violence
Like many disabled people, I get a lot of people (often random strangers, but sometimes friends and family) telling me “you should be able to overcome your disability”. I have people randomly come up to me on the street, knowing nothing about me who tell me that I should be able to overcome my disability and that I should be able to walk without my walker. No matter how much detail one shares with them, that narrative still persists because it has nothing to do with the reality of the situation. Especially since the same things are frequently said by family and friends who know better and have more background on what has occurred.
There is a reason for this. It is because all of our media about disability is media of people “overcoming” their disability and becoming “better people” i.e. more able-bodied. This type of media is called “inspiration porn”. It constructs disability as a narrative to inspire abled people using and abusing disabled experience. This narrative is so strong in our society that it has been taken on by disabled people ourselves and many people in our community talk about “I’m hoping I can overcome this and be like I was again”. This is toxic and dangerous to our community, especially where it concerns permanent disability. Abled people expect disabled people to overcome their disability, so they don’t feel the need to provide us with accommodations. They think of disability as something that can be defeated by hard work. As I said, complete strangers will come up to me and tell me that I should work harder to become abled and genuinely believe that if I give up my walker and my cane, I will miraculously be free of disability.
Now, I want to talk about a toxic encounter that I had today. For folks that don’t know me, the permanent damage to my spine occurred due to abuse from my biological father. He permanently damaged 5 vertebrae in my spine (along with damage to my eye, ear, head, and nose). My disability is firmly linked to the abuse I experienced. Along with my physical disability, I have chronic depression, anxiety, and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result of continual abuse throughout my childhood.
Opening up about abuse is tough, and it is more tough because people disregard and ignore it. Today I took a chance and opened up to a friend about it. He had just bought a black truck, and I mentioned that he would have to call before visiting and shouldn’t drive behind me or beep at me because this is triggering. I mentioned that it is triggering because by abuser (my biological father) used to drive a black truck and I knew when I saw it pull into the driveway that I was going to be beaten (he beat me whenever he got home). When my mother, my sister, and I finally escaped from my biological father, he continued to stalk us. He would slowly drive behind me when I walked to and from school. He would drive behind me when I walked to school, and he followed me to the home that we escaped to and beat my mom and I at that new location.
When I mentioned this to my friend, his response was that I should overcome being triggered and that if I worked hard enough, i could get over it. It’s something that I have heard far too often in my life and it is something that I expect I will continually hear. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t do damage. In fact, trying to tell people they will “get over it” often does further damage. Telling someone this brings that person right back to the moment of their abuse. It reminds that person that you don’t take their experiences seriously or that you are willing to listen and instead instantly judge. It also reinforces the idea that disability is something that we should “get over” and that we can just disregard and repress everything we are going through. Disabled people, and especially people with psychological disabilities like PTSD spend most of our time pretending we are “okay”. We do this because we live in an ableist society where we are regularly told that it is NOT OKAY to be disabled and that we are expected to hide our symptoms and experiences to make abled people feel better. We live in a world that disregards us.
Now, I want to talk about what “triggering” means because mainstream society makes fun of it and treats it as something not serious. Triggering is not a joke, isn’t not a “snowflake” response. It is serious. In my case, a triggered response is related to my PTSD. Because of constantly seeing his truck, my brain literally had to encode it as a threat. That is a survival mechanism. Our brains encode certain things as threats so we can survive. In the wild, this is done by threatening or dangerous animals. Once something is a threat for long enough, it is coded in the brain. It is written as a pattern so that we respond to it with anxiety, fear, and a fight or flight response. This is a biological experience. Our bodies are flooded with brain chemicals that are meant to let us get away from the threat. Our bodies are flooded with adrenaline. Our heart rates increase. Our breathing becomes shallow. Our senses become much more attuned to threats. This isn’t “just” an emotional reaction. Our entire body reacts to it and there is no way to stop this process.
My experience of being “triggered” is related to PTSD from an early life of constant violence. My brain is literally encoded to be constantly on edge and prepared for attack. This means that I have panic attacks regularly throughout the day and that I change certain behaviours like needing to sit with by back to a wall. It also means that I react to sounds with panic and certain sights with panic. When something “triggers” someone with PTSD, the experiences are physical and psychological.
PTSD is NOT something that one “overcomes” or “gets over”. Psychiatrists, neurologists, and other medical professionals have spent many many years studying the effects of PTSD and there is no way to “get over it”. There is no cure. There is no magic eraser that undoes it. It is there forever. We only learn to find ways of still living our lives with it. One of those ways is to be aware of our triggers and try to manage them.
So, what happens when I encounter my triggers? For many of us with PTSD, we experience flashbacks of the traumatic experience. Now, this isn’t the same as remembering or as memory. It involves reliving the traumatic even as if it were happening again. That means we are right back there at the moment of being attacked, being beaten, fighting for our survival. When triggered, I am brought right back to the moments of being beaten, of having my spine damaged, of having my eye damaged, of having my nose damaged, of being strangled. I experience a narrowing of the world around me. I become hypersensitive to sounds. I react as though I am about to be attacked. I have trouble breathing. My heart pounds and hurts. I am right back to where I was when being beaten, feeling no escape, and feeling like my life will be defined by being beaten daily. Like most people with PTSD, I have worked for years to hide the reaction that I have. I no longer curl up in a ball. I still will stumble and have to fight to stay upright. I have learned to look off in the distance so people can’t see the panic in my face. I have learned to hide the reaction to sound by pretending to stumble rather than let people see that I jump at every sound.
Now, I want to illustrate that this is not something that one can “get over” or “overcome”. Trauma literally changes the physical makeup of the brain – yes, that’s right the PHYSICAL make up. It’s not “just emotional”. It’s a physiological change. There are permanent changes to the amygdala, hippocampus, and prefrontal cortex. Our bodies also become accustomed to constant influxes of cortisol and norepinephrine, which has impacts for our overall hormone structures and impacts for the heart. Parts of the brain LITERALLY change shape because of trauma.
And yet, people tell us to “overcome” and “get over” it. Not only is this built into the way that disability is perceived by society. It is also built into the way that we as a society have constructed mental health. We praise “resiliency” and pretend that people can bounce back from things. We tell people that they are great at “moving on”. We all participate in pretending that everything is something we can “recover” from.
The friend who told me to get over it today told me that I should be able to recover from it and didn’t understand that this was a toxic response or the damage that it does. It brought me right back to dealing with my abuser, but also brought me back to all of the experiences of trying to tell people what I went through and trying to get help while I was being abused. We have a society that uses “get over it” as a way not to deal with anything and we pretend that it is effective, when it actually means that people like me just become more silent about it. He told me “you have the power to change the way you react” and “if you learned it, unlearn it”. These are not unique statements. They are statements that are often used to disregard people’s experiences. They are ways of perpetuating violence. When I pointed out the science behind trauma, I was told “I am sorry if I offended you”… which we refer to in the social justice community as “the non-apology” and is colloquially called the “sorry not sorry”. But it also reduces our experiences of trauma and pain to being “offended”. We aren’t OFFENDED, we are genuinely hurt. The reaction we have is not anger. It’s trauma. It’s damage. People will ignore the science and reality of the situation to reduce it and pretend that it is nothing. And they do this because our society conditions people to ignore everything to believe that “things get better” and “you can overcome anything” and “you can beat this”. These statements are toxic. They are part of toxic positivity and disregard what people actually go through. They are attempts to undermine and silence people who are talking about their experiences and they are a reminder that people would rather not listen to us or our experiences.
What can you do instead of saying “You should get over it”?
1.Listen compassionately and openly to the person about their experiences.
2.Acknowledge what they have gone through
3.Realize that they are the expert in their experiences and know more about them than you do.
4.Work to try to get rid of triggers when possible.
5.If it isn’t possible to get rid of triggers, find out ways of making them less triggering. Remember that the person with PTSD is a good resource on how to manage their triggers, so listen to them.
6.Make sure that if a person is going through a PTSD flashback that you help to get them to somewhere safe and help to make the environment around you safe for them.
7.Don’t make it about you. You don’t know their experience. You aren’t them and you don’t know what they have gone through. This is about them.
8.Acknowledge the vulnerability and work that it took for them to share this with you. Recognise that they have done so to be closer to you and to be more open with you. If you disregard this, it could damage your friendship/relationship with them.