Once upon a time, I was a newly crowned master of journalism who used to roll out of bed mid-afternoon, brush my hair, and eat something before I settled in for my “day.” By “day” I mean I’d check in with Alicia Florrick, Pam Beesly, or Lorelai Gilmore. And by “check in” I mean I’d binge their shows all day—The Good Wife, The Office, and Gilmore Girls, respectively. I’d waste time on social media, eat dinner, sleep, and repeat. Except for the one day a month when I wrote a Netflix new releases rundown for a regional magazine website.
I have cerebral palsy (CP), which in my case means I had a stroke at birth and use a walker and wheelchair to get around. I’m not telling you that so you excuse my behavior. I’m telling you because my disability is part of the reason I lived vicariously through fake women for too long before I found the strength to begin writing my own career story.
See, Alicia and Pam and Lorelai’s lives kept me from thinking about the reasons I couldn’t work. Literally. In order to receive certain benefits from the government (that I had to enroll in to help pay for my education), I had to keep my income below a certain level for three years. I absolutely love TV and sleep. So I’d sit and stare and sleep all day no problem. Until that night in early November 2016 (you know the one) when I stayed up all night crying because I felt so afraid for the future and so alone and so hopeless that it finally clicked. I was letting my disability dictate the circumstances of my life and I wasn’t getting anywhere by watching fake women reach fake dreams.
I’m lucky that my own dreams have always been the same: to write for magazines. But I had to dig to find them again, buried beneath anxiety, and gain the confidence to start pursuing them for real. Here’s what I’ve learned about finding the strength to begin your career journey.
1. Accept That You Can’t Plan a Perfect Career Path
My disability has made me a decent planner. I have no choice. Concert tickets that take abled people just a few clicks to buy can take disabled people days depending on how many steps are involved. (It recently took me over 48 hours, multiple phone calls, and a whole lot of stress to get wheelchair accessible seats to a Sara Bareilles show.)
So planning exactly what I thought my career should look like made sense to me. Education provides you with a neat path if you’re lucky. Elementary school to middle school, middle school to high school, high school to college and beyond. The paths are clear and safe. Access and accommodations can’t be denied by law. But the real world is different. I quickly learned that the road is full of bumps and detours—both good and bad. This may be common knowledge for some people, but no one tells you that when you’re on the sidelines watching everyone else.
After college, I used a vocational service I qualified for, thinking they would help me begin a career. Instead, I ended up at a bookstore with a manager who was unwilling to help me succeed, working a retail job when I was hoping to get a little bit closer to the publishing world. Like I said, I’ve always wanted to write. But I was scared to pursue it because I convinced myself the field was too competitive.
Though I already had an undergraduate degree in publishing, more school felt like a start. After getting my master’s, I had plenty of time to dream while I waited out the period when my income was restricted. I wanted to become the editor-in-chief of my own magazine, write a teleplay, run my own show, land a staff writer position. But every goal seemed too big. Meanwhile, even entry-level jobs paid enough that I’d be risking my qualification in programs that were helping me.
Everywhere I turned, despite all my planning, all I could see and fixate on were roadblocks: my lack of a driver’s license, my wheelchair, my being “behind” compared to my peers. My thoughts kept spinning around and around. Eventually, my anxiety became so debilitating that I was able to admit to my therapist that I needed medication. The change didn’t happen overnight, but my anxiety slowly lifted and I started to feel hopeful about my future. I could finally break down my goals into manageable, actionable steps.
2. Take the Step Right in Front of You
Underneath all of my anxiety, I’d had this one idea: to pose for a photoshoot and write an essay about it in a project designed to increase my confidence. As a whole, it was a huge undertaking. But the new me was able to start small, ask for advice, and complete each step in turn.
The whole experience opened up doors for me that I didn’t even know existed. I’d ask someone for help and they’d lead me to a Facebook group where I would meet the next person who had the next answer I needed—even if I didn’t know I needed it. I ended up with a published essay I was proud of and a wealth of other ideas about what I wanted to write next. I still had a lot to learn about the freelancing process, but I had resources now, and my medication helped my ideas become manageable.
None of that would’ve happened if I hadn’t forced myself to literally stop. Stop planning and dreaming and spiraling. Sometimes, dreams and plans for the future don’t matter as much as meeting yourself exactly where you are in the moment. Then you can begin to see the opportunities or obstacles that exist right in front of you. When you overcome one, you take on the next one, and on and on until you begin to see tangible accomplishments. Trust me, it feels great.
3. Know When to Ask for Help
I had done a lot of work on myself before starting to freelance. But I was still interested in finding regular work with a company, and as the date approached that my financial restrictions would be lifted, I felt my anxiety resurfacing. When it came to finding long-term sustainable employment, I was lost. I needed help again.
I was lucky enough to have the resources to hire a career coach to help me create a job search plan with actionable steps that felt tailored for me. She helped me become even clearer on the type of work I wanted to do and the value I could bring to a company. Having someone there for support helped me create goals, held me accountable for taking action, and motivated me throughout the process.
Before working with her, for example, I had been afraid of networking because in my mind it involved loud in-person events with lots of people looking down at me—literally—and me looking up at them straining my neck. That’s exhausting.
My adviser told me that most people feel awkward networking, even though the reasons for our insecurities might be different. We created a plan that helped me find and reach out to the right people via social media. Networking online can make it easier for everyone, abled or disabled. The whole experience made me feel like a human instead of just a name for someone to cross off their list.
4. Embrace Your Value
Before career coaching, I would avoid any mention of my disability on application materials. I never wanted it to be the reason I got a job—or didn’t get a job. So I would have to plan when and how to disclose, which would increase my anxiety about applying. But my career coach helped me frame my disability as something positive, instead of something to hide, and gain the confidence I needed to compete in the job market.
It came down to the fact that, as a writer, having a unique voice and not being afraid to use it is your most important advantage. I know now that publications need marginalized voices on their teams, and they’d be lucky to have mine. While this is a risk that doesn’t always work for everyone, I choose to own that part of my identity right away and disclose.
I learned that experience doesn’t always have to be traditional. You just have to take the time to frame the kind you have in a way that proves you’re an asset to the company. “I’m an asset.” When I learned how to say that out loud with conviction, I knew I was ready to start my job search.
In the end, the actual process of applying for and finding a job that worked for me was faster than I expected, unless you include the three years of emotional work I put in beforehand. Either way, I’m not complaining. It helped me become a more confident person, and I don’t think anyone can take shortcuts to that.
5. And Then Keep Going
I’m proud of the entire journey I’ve been through, including the two years it took me to battle anxiety. And I’m proud of my disability. Both are annoying some days, but they also prove my ability to endure and persevere until I reach my goals, even if it takes me longer than most people. I don’t like all of the extra steps. They’ll never be fair or fun. I’m not inspiring because I complete them. No disabled person is. We’re just trying to live our lives on our terms the best we can. And I’m grateful that when I accomplish something, the length of my journey makes me appreciate success more than other people might.
Most mornings these days I wake up early (thanks to an alarm), get ready, eat breakfast, turn on my TV, and log on to my computer…to check in with my editor and get my assignments for the day. If I’m not writing about TV for Romper.com, I’m writing a freelance piece or sending pitches. Lorelai, Pam, and Alicia are nowhere to be found, though they could be if their shows produce revivals soon.
It’s a big step in my career journey—but only one. I still have a long way to go, and sometimes that’s hard to accept in our comparison- and social media-obsessed culture. This whole experience taught me, though, that I have the strength and talent to rediscover and pursue my goals. I’ll always love TV and I feel so lucky to be able to write about it for work. But my goals are so much more interesting than those of any woman I could watch on screen.
Photo of person sitting in a wheelchair and using a computer courtesy of Maskot/Getty Images.