Why I: Joined A Discernment Group

Ten years ago I was looking to make a fresh start after a near crash and burn of my academic career & a list of personal issues. (Side note: The fact that I started college more than a decade ago makes me feel kind of old.)

Here’s what’s awesome about going to a university with an active campus ministry:

There’s always something going on.

It’s almost kind of ridiculous how much stuff you can be involved in (or not).

At the time I wasn’t a practicing Catholic, in fact I was still in the recovery from Atheism phase of things, because that kind of journey practically requires a recovery period. I called myself a Christian but I wasn’t ready to “drink the Catholic k00l aid” just yet.

I steered clear of any organized group outside of the theatre department my freshman year and I was reconsidering that plan for sophomore year. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting different results, so I didn’t want to do the same thing.

There are always plenty of things to do in a theatre/drama department as well. There are always “other duties as assigned” (to put it one way) or a friend is working on some sort of project at all hours so if you want to see them it’s best to go to them (and then you end up helping on the same project, somehow). But I didn’t want to be a “drama kid,” at least not exclusively.

At some point during orientation, sometime after neighborhood orientation, I huddled into the campus ministry office with other new students to hear their “sales pitch”. This was some place I wanted to be involved. I knew that from visiting a friend earlier in the year. The how was the part that needed to be determined.

I’m not a try everything once type of girl but that’s pretty much what ended up happening. The first few weeks the only thing I had second thoughts on was solemn adoration; anything labeled solemn or somber means I’ll laugh uncontrollably. I needed to be better versed at adoration before the sound was turned off.

The first group I showed up for (I think) was women’s group. I loved that group. In fact many of the ladies I met thanks to that group I’m still friends with today (maybe I’ll tell you about that someday).

The next night discernment group would be meeting. I had no idea what “discernment” was but I figured it would be similar to women’s group so I showed up.

I probably should’ve looked up what discernment was before I decided to go to the group. But if I did I probably wouldn’t have gone.

Instead of sitting in the lounge area we met in the prayer room. And instead of one of the campus ministers facilitating there were two nuns, from The Little Sisters of the Poor (an order I knew nothing about, but have come to love dearly).

At some point during the hour I realized I was in a room full of ladies who were considering becoming nuns. I was in the wrong place, but I didn’t want to get up and leave (for fear of embarrassment only).

I may have countless sisters these days, but back then I had only known two, and the impression they left wasn’t one of full warm & fuzzy memories.

I left that night thinking I probably wouldn’t go back (because I wasn’t even in the same hemisphere of that life path) but when Thursday rolled around again I did. I’m still not sure why. The funny thing is I kept going. I think I only missed a few meetings during the year, when being a drama kid had to take a front seat.

I even went the night when we’d be saying the Rosary most of the time. When I grasped even less of it than I do now & I had to borrow a Rosary from the spares that someone always seemed to have on hand.

For me it wasn’t about discernment, at least not at first, it was about meeting people who just might be like minded. When that didn’t work out so well it was about having concrete examples of what I might aspire to. Not to mention meeting some religious sisters who were not only nice, but they went out of their way to invest in others.

I will never ever forget that Sister Mary David told me it was perfectly fine to fall asleep during adoration “because the Lord knows you need your rest.”

Never mind that I had agreed to sit up with the blessed sacrament only to fall asleep face down on a futon that was in our makeshift retreat chapel.

My original intent couldn’t have been any more off. However I think I got a lot more out of it than I realize (yes, even now). I made a mistake in judgment but it was one of the best mistakes I could’ve ever made (especially given my history with mistakes).

Even if I have come to have a love/hate relationship with the discernment process.

*A similar version of this post was written on September 4, 2013

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The Letters

Now that I’ve told you about Dr. Bowtie & his magic office I should probably give you a better experience to remember, because experiences like that are in the minority (or at least they should be).

When all was said & done I decided the best way to turn around my situation was to change it altogether. I had done much better in the spring semester, but starting fresh made the most sense. I think part of the reason why I did so well in the spring was I had a clear goal, get out as successfully as possible.

While preparing to turn my educational ship around I read something about the Disability Support Services (DSS) office. It was good they actually had information included in the welcome material. You didn’t have to request the basics, because it was already there for you. I also liked that they called themselves Disability Support. Here I would not be “special”. I would be normal. The “support” I hoped meant I would have some sort of say there.

I was still recovering from my face off with Dr. Bowtie but I picked up the phone and called DSS. If I was really starting fresh, I had to at least look into this. Over the summer I communicated occasionally with the head of DSS. She seemed understand & more than willing to work with me.

At some point she suggested that I have letters of accommodation to give to each of my professors; the idea being that even though CP only affects the majority of my lower body something as simple as note taking fatigue shouldn’t be the thing that tanks my GPA. Having narrowly missed academic probation by failing a few classes & now that I would be receiving a scholarship contingent on my GPA the idea appealed to me.

My first week on campus I had a meeting with the assistant director of DSS, who I got along with from the go in spite of my previous experiences, about how my accommodations would work; I still wasn’t too sure about the whole thing but the fact that they were clear on the fact that I would come to them for help if I needed it helped.

Naturally I was most hesitant about the letters of accommodation. I was given 6 sets of letters, one for each professor & one for my records. I read over my copy & I couldn’t hold in my one question any longer. Did I have to give my professors these letters? The answer was no. It was up to my own judgment. But I was still skeptical.

“Look, just take them. That way you don’t have to come back if you change your mind.”

I should also tell you that it was though my good relationship with the DSS office that I agreed to psycho-educational testing. As a result, I was officially diagnosed with a learning disability, mild ADD & test anxiety, something I’d suspected for years & was relieved to make it official.

I could be as open about them as I wanted to be. I discovered that the best way things worked for me was to give the professor the letter (or not) at the beginning of the semester, usually at the end of the first class, and told them that if there were any questions from there end we could set up some kind of communication. For some I was the first student in their teaching career to request accommodations, no matter how long they’d been teaching, so it wasn’t fair to ask for an answer 5 seconds after handing them a letter.

But everyone handled the same situation differently. I had a class with another student that had similar accommodations; the only reason why I knew was from seeing him in the DSS office. He gave the professor his letter right off the bat & seeing me in the class took it upon himself to tell the professor I was “the same as him” & point in my direction.

“You are so lucky to have people take notes for you.”

I wasn’t lucky, in that moment, I was dying of embarrassment.

Obviously some professors take things like this better than others.

My math professor took it in stride & arranged for me to take tests in the math department, where the secretary gave everybody snacks. There was really no better stop gap for my test anxiety than a snack.

My New Testament professor was confused, and I’m not sure he could be bothered, so my arrangements were turned over to the section TA, who was more than accommodating.

My directing professor requested a one on one meeting in his office later in the week, which was actually a first for me. I agreed to the meeting out of curiosity, since one of my best friends always talked so highly of him. He wasn’t my adviser, and after this meeting I wish I could’ve changed that, but he took an interest in me as an individual. Yes he had a class, but it was made up of singular & different people. He asked me what my plans were. Did I want to be a director? And so on. I think I even said I was in the class just because it was required.

“I could create different assignments for you. What would you like to do?”

EXCUSE ME?

These letters could be my easy way out.

Did I want the easy way out?!?!

It was tempting. Really. Directing was the class I really didn’t want to take. I was equally fearful of movement class, but I felt more “game” for that than directing. However, I have to laugh because I loved directing class & dropped movement after 1 session.

I thanked him & told him I’d think about it. Of course the first thing I did was talk to my friend. She’d taken the same class the year before & gone abroad on a performance trip under his direction, she’s also one of my best friends. If anyone knew if I was really cut out for this it was her.

“It’s not nearly as difficult as you’re thinking. You can do what you want, but you have it in you to take this class, and get an A. You’ll enjoy each other.”

I saw it as a challenge. I could take the easy way out. For two years all I wanted to do was find a way to get out of this requirement. Now that I had it I had to think if I really wanted it.

I took the class with no accommodations. I learned a lot, enjoyed myself, and was in fact sad when the semester was over. I’m still glad I didn’t take my easy way out. The only one that would’ve suffered from it would have been myself.

Lesson: Just because help is available doesn’t mean you have to take it. More importantly when people are willing to bend over backwards for you really consider your motives.

*A similar version of this post first appeared on an old blog on March 14, 2012

Being Special

You should’ve told us you were here. We would’ve made this experience much different for you.”

I was sitting in the Special Student Services office having an apparently overdue meeting with the head of the department. I had asked my mom to attend the meeting with me, because I had no idea how this was going to go.

I wasn’t even a month into my college experience & I was barely making it. I had dropped a class, was already failing another, and was told I had a 25% chance of graduating on time, had to walk a minimum of 20 minutes to each class, was losing weight at a rapid pace, and lied to my cousin telling him going to the same school & living in the same dorm was pretty awesome.

All I could think was; I don’t want to be this kind of special.

I was DONE.

This nerd in a bowtie was telling me how I should’ve begun my college career. He never yelled but was constantly condescending. I’m not sure how I actually ended up in that office but within 5 seconds of being there I knew I was in the wrong place. The whole situation was wrong. I had gone to SSS wanting to turn things around. Now all I wanted to do was turn around & pretend I had never been there.

What Dr. Bowtie never listened to, although he heard it because he was told repeatedly, was that I never intended to need help here. The reason why I chose this school was because I wouldn’t need help; that is until they tore up the whole campus to the point where they stopped shuttle service for the year & didn’t bother to notify anybody.

I had done what every other self-respecting prospective freshman had done the year before, right down to the student led campus tour. The only exception was that my mother was the one in the tour group with the obnoxious notepad, which I’m pretty sure she filled at least half of. This was the 1st school I was visiting out of the 6 I was applying to. It was going to be a long experience.

Only to be rewarded with this kind of treatment.

I don’t remember much of the meeting these days. But I could barely remember it a week later as well. I was so angry with how things were going I think my brain just shut down & went into self-preservation mode.

I know he made a plan which involved me moving into another dorm as soon as another room became available. He didn’t even ask me if I wanted to move, he just assumed I would. My room was far from the nicest thing on campus & the location did suck, but I actually got along with my roommate so I didn’t want to mess that up. Once I was told the possibility of both of us moving wasn’t an option I wasn’t moving.

Another point to the plan was to move all of my classes, into one building if at all possible. I later found out this wasn’t because my classes would mostly be in the arts building which was already full to the gills with 3 departments (we occasionally had department meeting in the lobby spilling into the hallway) so naturally putting Freshman Composition in there too totally makes sense.

I really wasn’t the biggest fan of this idea either. I had had a doctor write a letter to the housing department with my admission paperwork asking that my classes and room be on lower floors in the event of an emergency. Everything was. Case closed. Also my classes were scheduled with at least an hour to spare but two or three between classes was more common, by sheer luck. If my classes were all in the same building was I supposed to just sit in the building all day? Can we all say dull?

Should I even bother to point out how much of a disturbance that would create for just one student? I had a feeling that they would try to keep this as quiet as possible. But I also knew word would get out, or people would just put it all together, and figure out I was the cause of all the upheaval. It wasn’t going to make my time at college better; it would blow it all to hell. I made it to October. I could make it to December and reevaluate for January.

This hardly seemed like the reasonable accommodations the Americans With Disabilities Act was aiming for. I had made it 18 years with very little help. There was no way I was going to let it all go now, and certainly not like this.

Besides who goes into something knowing they’ll need a lot of extra help. Isn’t the idea to blend in? If you need a lot of extra help isn’t that a sign that this situation may not be the best for you? I don’t get up in the morning and consider how much the world owes me just to be able to do what I want. Life doesn’t work that way, but for some reason I think Dr. Bowtie had other ideas. I just couldn’t figure out if it was coming from his head or through interacting with so many other students though his career.

Wherever all of this was rooted in wasn’t for me.
If I was going to turn this whole thing around I had to do it myself.

What I’ve learned from this experience is that just because it’s labeled as help doesn’t mean it actually is.

I never went back to that office.
Never returned a phone call from them.
I ignored they were there.

But I wasn’t done after all.

And so help me God I wasn’t going to be their kind of special.

*A similar version of this post first appeared on an old blog on March 13, 2012

Years In The Making

10 days ago 2 dear friends professed their perpetual vows.

I knew it was a big day but it took a few days before the enormity of it set in, to the tune of,

“I have friends married to God, Whoa!”

Then I cried for a long time.

I remember the phone call telling me that it would be the last phone call because day to day life in a convent doesn’t involve regular cross-country hour long phone calls about anything.

I remember the 1st letter filling me in about what it’s like to enter religious life with the hand written “PS” at the bottom that I read over and over again.

I remember my first retreat and saying “my best friend is a Sister” to anyone who asked me what brought me to the retreat, and hoping I’d get to see her. I remember how shocking (and equally amazing) it was to see her in her habit.

I remember leaving that retreat with more one friend who happens to be a Sister and nurturing those friendships.

I remember trekking to visiting day, when every obstacle you could imagine (and some you couldn’t) was telling me it wasn’t worth the effort. And it was SO worth it on so many levels.

I remember witnessing their profession of 1st vows in the sweltering heat thinking that there’s no place I’d rather be that day.

I’ll always remember the day they professed their perpetual vows, and wishing I could change things and keep things the same at the exact same time.

I’ll remember the end of the day when we all gathered for a picture. Only a small portion of our group of friends from college we able to attend but we were one of the biggest groups there, I think.

The children helped our smallish group practically double in size; there were SEVEN of them after all. I kept having flashbacks from my days in early childhood education, but then I realized I didn’t have to be “Miss Sarah” I could be “mom and dad’s cool friend.”

It’s been almost 10 years since I graduated from college (Lord, I feel old). We used to talk about what we all wanted to do after college and while I’m not sure all of us are exactly where they thought they’d be at this point in life (I know I’m not); we are all where we’re meant to be.

The Matter Of Disclosure

What if you can’t keep your disability a secret (or what if you don’t feel comfortable doing so)? When should you disclose that you have a disability and how?

It can be challenging, but not impossible.

I’m no disclosure expert but I do have thoughts on the subject. Thanks to a few personal experiences, both positive and negative.

I feel compelled to reiterate that these are my personal thoughts and I do not claim to represent anyone other than myself.

There are two questions you should ask yourself when it comes to disclosure. The first is: should I disclose my disability?

If you can answer “no” then you can stop reading and go on with your day. Just think about what the consequences of that “no” could entail. Question 1.2: Are you comfortable with the potential consequences? If your answer is still “no” then, have a nice day.

If your answer to the first question is “yes” then proceed to the next question which is: when (or how) should I disclose?

School: I’ve done both so obviously I’ve seen the positives and negatives of both sides fist hand. The most important thing to know is there are rules/laws out there that can help or hurt you at every stage. Know them before hand, even if using them isn’t part of your plan, because they may have to become part of the plan.

Speaking strictly about college (because I completed basic education in the dark ages) the important thing to remember is services are available but it’s up to you to ask for them (and then make the effort to get them). No one is going to come to you and ask you if you need additional assistance or resources. You’re considered to be an adult so they’re going to treat you like one. One of the biggest benefits to college is that you can have more control over who you disclose to. You can disclose as much or as little as you want as well. But again, make sure you’ve thought about the consequences to not disclosing as much as disclosing.

My suggestion is that you disclose to the disability services office and develop a relationship with them. They can be in your corner regardless of whether or not you disclose to individual professors (which I have both done and not done as well).

Work: Do as much research as you can before you accept a position. You need to be confident that you’re the best person for the job before you can expect others to see you in the same light. I’ve not disclosed my disability more than I’ve disclosed it in the workplace but it’s pretty obvious that I have limitations. You’d have to be blind to not pick up on it. In the workplace I think it’s more important how and when you disclose rather than the actual disclosure. If you bring it up in the interview process be cleaver and casual about it.

Point out what you bring to the table more than the potential barriers; which is basically the same advice you’d give an able-bodied person (I love when life works out like that).

Dating/Relationships: Admittedly this isn’t my most favorite subject but it’s a common occurrence in everyday life so I’ll bite the bullet.

My advice for disclosing while dating or looking to date is similar to my workplace advice. It’s more a matter of how and when you disclose rather than if you should or shouldn’t.

If you’re looking to meet someone online then keep things close to the vest for a while. If you blast it all over your profile then you’ll probably turn people off, or worse attract nothing but creepers and devotees. My only exception to this rule is when it comes to profile pictures; if you feel comfortable showing off your wheelchair or other assistive device in a picture than go for it. In fact it can, for lack of a better term, take some of the disclosure pressure off of you; if they have questions than you can answer them without worrying about whether you’ll scare them off or not.

If you’re planning on meeting in person and you haven’t disclosed then it would be a good idea to say something before meeting, especially if you can’t really hide your disability. You don’t want to seem shady for keeping secrets (from the other person’s prospective). One you’ve met face to face you can disclose as much or as little as you want, just be open to their questions.

If you’re meeting in real life as opposed to online then trust your instincts, as you would at the beginning of any other relationship.

As for disclosing to friends, very few of my friends knew of my textbook diagnosis until I became more involved in the disability community and advocacy, which is a pretty recent development given the length of some friendships. It wasn’t really something I was hiding. The fact that I’m not the same as they are physically is pretty obvious so I can’t exactly hide it, even if I wanted to; if they asked me what my disability was or if it was somehow relevant to group conversation than I said it.

The most important thing to remember about disclosure is that there is no one size fits all answer. Ask for advice because there’s always going to be someone who’s been there before you, but when it comes down to it you just need to listen to your gut. And if someone’s not going to like you (or whatever else) based on your disability then turn around and walk right out the door. You’re better off without people like that in your life no matter the circumstance.

*A similar version of this post was published previously on June 6, 2014