Her presentation moved me to write a letter to all of my readers, especially those of you who are young people with disabilities.
Dear ______ (insert your first name here)
No matter what anyone tells you, you matter. Your life has value and purpose.
If anyone tells you that you matter less because you have a disability, don’t listen to them. They are wrong.
If anyone tells you that you matter less because it takes you longer to do certain things, don’t listen to them. They are wrong.
If anyone tells you that you matter less because you struggle with things that come easier to most people, don’t listen to them. They are wrong.
If anyone tells you that you matter less because you get special accommodations in school, because you get pulled out of class to go to the Resource Room, because you take the short bus, because you’re on medication, because you see a counselor, because you have an aide, or because you’re on an IEP or a 504 plan; don’t listen to them. They are wrong.
If anyone tells you that you matter less because of the color of your skin or your ethnicity, don’t listen to them. They are wrong.
If anyone tells you that you matter less because of your religion or because of the God or gods you believe in or don’t believe in, don’t listen to them. They are wrong.
If anyone tells you that you matter less because of your sexual orientation or your gender identity, don’t listen to them. They are wrong.
If anyone tells you that you matter less because you’re not a typical “macho man” or a “girly girl,” don’t listen to them. They are wrong.
If anyone tells you that you matter less because you’re fatter, skinnier, shorter, or taller than the average person, don’t listen to them. They are wrong.
If anyone tells you that you matter less because you aren’t good in sports, don’t listen to them. They are wrong.
If anyone tells you that you matter less because you aren’t good in academics, don’t listen to them. They are wrong.
If anyone tells you that you matter less because of your income or wealth, don’t listen to them. They are wrong.
If anyone tells you that you matter less because of your family situation, don’t listen to them. They are wrong.
If anyone tells you that you matter less because you’re not conventionally attractive and you don’t look the way models in magazines look, don’t listen to them. They are wrong.
If anyone tells you that you matter less because you’re not popular, don’t listen to them. They are wrong.
If anyone tells you that your opinions, your feelings, your rights, and your need to be heard and respected matter less for any of the above reasons, don’t listen to them. They are wrong.
Those people are bigots, and bigots are always wrong.
You are a child of God and/or the Universe just as much as anyone else, and you matter just as much as anyone else.
You are a human being. You are not an object.
You were NOT placed on this earth so that other people could take advantage of you.
You were NOT placed on this earth so that other people could bully you.
You were NOT placed on this earth so that other people could pity you or be charitable to you as a way of feeling good about themselves.
You WERE placed on this earth with a specific mission and purpose that only you can fulfill.
You are worthy of being loved.
You are worthy of being heard.
You are worthy of being treated with respect and dignity.
You can be successful.
You have weaknesses, but you have strengths, too.
You are capable of achieving more than you ever dreamed of.
You have value.
Be proud of who you are, not despite your differences, but because of them.
Your life matters.
May is by far my favorite month. “Of course it is, Becky,” my family and friends say. “It’s when your birthday is!” Still, even if I were born in a different month, I would like May the best. The weather is perfect; it’s not too hot and it’s not too cold. The winter is behind us, and the entire summer is ahead of us. The days are long and they keep getting longer. So many of beautiful flowers are in bloom: colorful tulips, fragrant lilacs, dainty bleeding hearts, elegant roses, bell-like lilies-of-the-valley, and my favorite flowers: the azaleas.
If you’ve read my book “Distracted Girl,” you know that the front cover has a picture of me as a little girl standing in front of an azalea bush in bloom. I clearly remember the day that the picture was taken. I was in second grade, and it was just a couple of months after I had been diagnosed with ADHD and started therapy and medication. I even included a description of that day in “Distracted Girl,” which is as follows:
May 17, 1986
It’s a beautiful Saturday morning. The sun is shining, the sky is blue, and when I read the thermometer in the kitchen the way Mrs. Whitman taught my class earlier this year, I see that it was seventy degrees Fahrenheit.
“That means it’s warm enough for you to wear shorts!” Mommy says to me and Lisa.
“Yay! Summer’s here!” I say. I put on a red t-shirt, red and white striped shorts, and red jelly shoes. I go outside, and feel the warm sunshine on my arms and legs. It feels so refreshing after so many months of cold weather and being stuffed into heavy layers of bulky clothing. The bright pink azaleas are in bloom, and I stop by the bush to admire them before going into the backyard. I run around on the emerald green grass, as if I were letting go of everything that has been cramped up inside of me all winter long.
This spring brings not only a new season of warm weather and the rebirth of the plants and the earth, but also the dawning of a new phase in my own life. Ever since I’ve been taking Ritalin and meeting with Vance, I haven’t been getting in trouble anymore and I’m doing better in school.
The Ritalin doesn’t magically make me feel different or anything like that, but I have noticed that I don’t feel an urge to get up and walk around in the middle of class, and that I’m able to sit still and control myself. I keep remembering what Vance said about how some behaviors that are appropriate in some situations aren’t appropriate in others. Before I do or say something, I try to stop and think about whether what I’m about to do is appropriate or not.
It’s also easier for me to pay attention in school. I no longer make as many careless mistakes on my tests and I am getting A’s in spelling and math like I did at the beginning of the year.
After Lisa and I have spent a few hours playing on the swing set and climbing trees, Mommy calls us inside for lunch.
I have always remembered the joy I felt back in ’86 when I stood in front of the azalea bush, and every May when the azalea bushes bloom; I am filled with joy again in anticipation of summer and all the wonderful times the season has to offer.
To me, the azalea has always symbolized hope. No matter how cold, snowy, and treacherous the winter is (and believe me, it was extremely treacherous this past winter in Massachusetts), the snow will eventually melt, spring will come again, and the azaleas will once again bloom.
I like to think of it as a metaphor for the difficult times we go through in our life. Though we experience pain, depression, and loss; nothing lasts forever, and someday, we will experience happiness and rejoice, just as I rejoiced in the warm sunshine and the beautiful azaleas blooming in May of 1986.
Excerpt from Distracted Girl by Rebecca Rizoli, copyright 2014 ©
Those of you who have read Distracted Girl in its entirety (spoiler alert ahead) know that I included the complete text of a short story called “The Creative Spirit Is Alive,” which I wrote in 1999 for a class I took in college. It was a fantasy story that took place in a dystopian society (such as the ones described in Brave New World or The Giver), and the heroine was a young woman much like me. Her escape and journey to another land, the characters she encountered, and the lessons she learned paralleled my own journey and life lessons.
My professor and the other students in the class were very impressed, and told me that I should try to get the story published. A few years later, I attempted to expand the story to a full-length novel. I was very excited, as I thought this would be the first step towards fulfilling my dream of becoming a fantasy/sci-fi writer; just like Madeleine L’Engle, who was my favorite author as a teenager.
As time went on, I started working a traditional office job at the Federation for Children with Special Needs, and I began dating the man who is now my husband. While I was grateful and happy for these changes in my life; it also meant that I had less time to write, and I never finished my fantasy novel.
Sometime later, the director of the Federation suggested that I write down my life story as a memoir to let other young people with ADHD and similar disabilities learn from me. I took him up on this suggestion, and eight years later, Distracted Girl was published. I had finally achieved my dream of being a published author.
Today, I work as the Youth Disabilities Coordinator at the Federation. Part of my job includes giving presentations on self-determination and self-advocacy to adolescents with disabilities and their families. I feel truly honored and blessed to be in a position where I can use all my strengths and gifts to do work that brings purpose to my life and that enriches others as well. It may not be exactly what I had envisioned in my youth, when I dreamed of being the next Madeleine L’Engle, but I am confident that I am exactly where I am meant to be and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Recently, I was having a conversation with a young friend named Kirsti. She is a 20-year-old woman with Asperger’s. She loves to read and write, and is especially fond of the fantasy/sci-fi genre. In many ways, she reminds me of a young Becky Rizoli. She has many of the same characteristics that I had at her age: her creativity, her gift of writing, her passion for the things and people she cares about, her unlimited capacity to dream, her uncertainty about the future, and her struggle to accept herself and her disability.
Kirsti’s parents bought her a copy of Distracted Girl so that she would know that she was not alone. While Kirsti admires my courage at writing my book and telling my story, she suggested that my book would have been more interesting if I had written it in an “abstract” form, where I invented fictional characters and placed it in a fantasy, otherworldly setting where my characters learn the same lessons I had learned.
I asked Kirsti if she had reached my college years yet, and she said no. Then I told her about “The Creative Spirit Is Alive” and how I had intended to turn it into a novel (or “flesh it out” as my writing coach, Nerissa Nields, often says). Kirsti wanted to know why I abandoned the novel to write a memoir, and I told her that I deliberately wanted to write my true story so that others could know that they weren’t alone and that someone else had similar struggles to them. I also told her that since I included my short story verbatim in Distracted Girl, it now is published as a story-within-a-story.
While Kirsti understood my reasons for writing the memoir, she told me that she prefers fantasy/sci-fi stories, as they allow her to escape to another world that is more exciting and fascinating to her than the real world. So then I gave Kirsti my blessing to skip ahead to the pages in my book where I tell “The Creative Spirit Is Alive,” if she felt that the fantasy/sci-fi genre spoke more personally to her.
Kirsti agreed, and then she said, “Imagine if you had completed and published the fantasy novel. Today, you would be rich and famous and would be a guest on national TV shows!” I told Kirsti that while I was flattered that she thought my writing was good enough to bring me fame and fortune as a fantasy novelist; I am completely happy with the choices that I have made and that I feel that I am right where I’m meant to be in terms of my career.
Later on, I kept thinking about my conversation with Kirsti. There had been a blizzard that day, which prompted the governor of my state to tell everyone to stay off the roads. This gave me a chance to catch up on some of the movies I had recorded on my DVR. One of these movies was “Yes Man,” starring Jim Carrey (another inspirational ADHD success story!) as a man who attends a life-changing seminar and makes the decision to say yes to everything, particularly to opportunities that he had said no to in the past.
After I watched the movie, I sat down and gazed at the fire burning in my fireplace and contemplated what would have happened if I, like Carrey’s character, had said yes to my dream of being a fantasy novelist. I thought about what Kirsti had told me, and realized that it was very similar to the advice I had given to a friend who, in high school, had dreamed of being a comedian or an actor, but is now an accountant. He is just as funny as he was as a teenager, and I have told him several times that he could be the next Stephen Colbert (and I happen to be a HUGE fan of Colbert, so coming from me, it’s quite the compliment). He says he is content as an accountant and he is very successful at his work, yet I feel it’s a shame that his comedic talents are being restricted to witty Facebook status updates. I’ve told him, “It’s not too late. I’m not necessarily saying you should close your business, sell everything you own, move to New York, and try your luck at the comedy clubs; but perhaps you could pursue it as a hobby. Maybe start a blog or post some videos to YouTube and see where it leads you.” He said that he’d think about it and put it on the back burner.
Then, I realized that it’s not too late for me, either. I still could write that fantasy/sci-fi novel and live out my dreams of being the next Madeleine L’Engle. Why not start today? I stopped and thought about how I would begin such a book. For one thing, it would be very different than “The Creative Spirit Is Alive,” as I am a very different person than I was in 1999. In fact, I’m not even sure that writing fantasy/sci-fi is my dream anymore. Today, my favorite authors are Joyce Carol Oates and Margaret Atwood. While Atwood has written sci-fi and Oates occasionally uses supernatural elements in her novels; both women primarily write realistic fiction that takes place in our world in the present day. They appeal to me because their use of language makes the ordinary become extraordinary. Their heroines do not have superpowers; nor do they fight demons, zombies, or vampires. Instead, they are ordinary women who struggle with issues such as eating disorders, racism and antisemitism, sexual assault, abusive relationships, or the loss of a loved one. The strength that these heroines gain as a result of triumphing over their adversity inspire me more than reading about witches, fairies, or other magic creatures.
What, you may wonder, has caused this change? Is it because the cold, harsh reality of the real world has made me stop dreaming of magical, hidden other worlds? Not at all. On the contrary, I have come to discover that our world is more strange and wonderful and mysterious than the fantasy worlds we can only dream about. We’ve all heard the old adage, “Truth is stranger than fiction.” A quick Google search revealed that it is attributed to Mark Twain, and the quote in its entirety is, “Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.”
When I look back at my life and consider the many twists and turns that my journey has taken, I marvel at how it has all led up to this point. I can’t help but think that it was all meant to be. When I look at my friends and consider the many struggles they have overcome, I am inspired by their strength. Life has a way of surprising us. I no longer need to retreat to other planets or fantasy worlds; now that I have discovered so much of the joy, adventure, and fascination that this world holds.
I still read fantasy and sci-fi occasionally. Perhaps someday I will write that fantasy novel. Or maybe I won’t. I have already started writing a novel, but it’s realistic fiction, not fantasy. I have every intention of finishing it and getting it published. But no matter what happens, I know this much: I am exactly where I’m meant to be and I have no regrets. I’m not going to waste time wondering what might have been had I taken a different path. It took me a long time to arrive at this point, and I’m proud of what I have accomplished.
I hope that someday, Kirsti and others like her can say the same.
In light of the recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, I find it necessary to address the fact that there is a character named “Darren Wilson” in my book, Distracted Girl. I assure all of my readers that this character’s name is purely coincidental. Distracted Girl was published in October 2013, long before Officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown and subsequently became a name in the national news. Prior to Michael Brown’s death, I had never heard of either the town of Ferguson or of Officer Wilson.
The character I named “Darren Wilson” is based on a real individual with whom I graduated college. His real name is not Darren Wilson. As I stated in the introduction to Distracted Girl, I used fictitious names for all of the characters with the exception of me and my immediate family. I chose the name “Darren” when a newspaper article about an actor named Darren caught my eye, and I chose the last name “Wilson” because I thought it sounded good with Darren.
At the present time, it may not be possible for me to change the name of the character for copyright reasons. Even if I legally can do so, the name “Darren Wilson” will still remain in copies of the book that have already been published. I deeply regret any discomfort that may occur as a result of my use of the name “Darren Wilson.”
Please know that I stand in solidarity with all victims of violence
My previous article referenced the song “Defying Gravity” and the lines “I’m through accepting limits, ‘cause someone said they’re so. Some things I cannot change, but till I try, I’ll never know.” This song can be a powerful anthem to anyone living with a disability determined to make the most of their situation and prove to the world that they are so much more than a diagnosis. In the first of this two-part series, I gave several examples of times in my own life when I overcame obstacles and proved that I am capable of succeeding despite my differences.
This article previously appeared in Perspectives: the blog of the Federation for Children With Special Needs.
One of my favorite songs is “Defying Gravity” from the musical Wicked. It contains the lyrics, “I’m through accepting limits, ‘cause someone said they’re so. Some things I cannot change, but till I try, I’ll never know.” To me, this song, performed by Idina Menzel, expresses the determination that I have always had to strive for success despite my ADHD, and my desire to challenge myself in new ways rather than defining myself by a label or a disability. I was fortunate to have parents and mentors who emphasized the importance of focusing on what I can do rather than what I can’t. I carried that philosophy with me throughout my life, and I am proud to say that it has led me to success.
Hello friends and followers!
I haven’t written anything on my blog in a very long time, because, well, I’ve been writing something else…..
That’s right! My book, DISTRACTED GIRL, is now complete and available for purchase! Order your copy today at Amazon!