Adapting to Failure
Photo: Noah Falk
Failure hangs over me constantly. In the past seven years, it’s been a daily, if not hourly hurdle. Sometimes its the small things, like forgetting a word. Sometimes it’s the medium things, like walking into a tree. Sometimes, it is a series of slights or omissions that end up hurting or disappointing people I care about.
Some people might call this adulthood, or the human condition. For others like me, it’s the constant adaptation required of those with disabilities.
I’m 27 years old. I’m fairly young and healthy. Most people are surprised when I tell them that I had a stroke when I was 20. At the time, it was shocking to me too. Now, it’s the banal reality of every day.
There are no clues in my face as to the nature of my disability. In fact, you would probably not pinpoint me as disabled at all if I did not self-identify. You may think me clumsy, spaced out, easily distracted, or possibly slightly daft, in a nutty professor kind of way. That is, unless I keel over in front of you in an atonic seizure.
When I mess up or make embarrassing mistakes ‒ especially when I thought I was doing it right, and other people have to clean up after me ‒ I forget that these are not all personal failures or lapses in judgment.
As a writer, I’ve spent much of my life building up a robust vocabulary in order to best express myself, but I fight with my aphasia every day, searching for words as insignificant as “ambitious.” It’s not that I don’t have the knowledge in my brain, or even in my body, it is just inaccessible.
On better days, I can set these small failings aside. I can rationally understand that these mistakes are not a personality flaws and accept that they happen. On worse days, it is too easy to let small mistakes consume my concept of self. I come to a crisis: either adapt or accept it will happen again.
There are a few behavioural modifications I use to manage day-to-day living. When I lose a word, I sound out other words, or try out vowel sounds until I find the right one. In order to keep safe and avoid the embarrassment of walking into trees, I do my best to keep aware of my surroundings. To keep all of my appointments, I write down everything in my agenda. I meditate and maintain good mental health to keep a handle on seizures triggered by stress.
Sometimes my failures are a clear and direct result of my disability. Other times, it isn’t as clear. Last year I disappointed a trusted mentor by failing to adequately prepare for show we were working on. This mentor, who also has a disability, charged me with this:
Having a disability is not an excuse for mediocre work.
It is a reason to work harder.
This came six months after my epilepsy diagnosis. I was barely keeping it together. Suffocating under heavy depression, it was unclear for days or weeks at a time if it was my illness, depression, medication or myself holding me back. I was constantly drowsy and apathetic, and I couldn’t account for what I did with my time.
On a certain level, it didn’t even matter if it was a personal or bodily flaw. There was no backing out. The rest of my cast needed me, and no matter how much work I had to do, I had to be up there on stage with the rest of them. In the time of crisis, I had to show up and do my best, in front of a crowd of people. Just like with all of my small mistakes, I couldn’t fix what happened, and I had to face the consequences.
My response to failure is the serenity prayer:
Lord, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.
Our past failures or disabilities can handicap us in the present; I cannot express how frustrating this is. The benefit of a loving God is the ability to ask for serenity. Admitting that is the first step to achieving what is not inherent to me.
Hannah Foulger is a British Canadian writer of prose, poetry and drama. As a person with a disability, she writes in the tragicomic vein about everything that hurts and heals.
Adaptation can take place in a small step or a large leap, but we can only change if we admit our own deficiencies, even when we don’t have clear answers. As paradoxical as life can be, having deficiencies doesn’t make you a deficient person. If we look to Darwin, we understand that adaptation is key to survival. If we look to God, we can accept our need for mercy and love. When we look to ourselves, we can see that these are not mutually exclusive, but the axiom of being human with a fallible body in the world.