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Ryan O’Connell Dares You to Ignore Him

‘After I came out about my disability, I felt happy and free for the first time in my fucking life,’ says the creator and star of Netflix’s ‘Special’

As a twentysomething new to New York City, Ryan O’Connell rewrote his life story by allowing people to believe that his cerebral palsy was the result of getting hit by a car. The accident really did happen — he was in the hospital for a month and could only type with one finger for more than a year — but even as O’Connell grew more and more popular as a signature voice of Thought Catalog thanks to his candor about his sex life and family, he kept his disability a secret (both online and IRL). 

Eventually, though, he decided that it, too, was something he had to be completely honest about. And so, a few months before he published his memoir, I’m Special: And Other Lies We Tell Ourselves to Get Through Our Twenties, O’Connell disclosed his cerebral palsy in a Thought Catalog piece entitled “Coming Out of the Disabled Closet.” The confession quickly caught the attention of Jim Parsons, whose production company bought the TV rights to O’Connell’s book. The adaptation, Special, eventually found a home on Netflix, where O’Connell plays himself in the lead role, which unfortunately also necessitated him skipping out on writing for the Beverly Hills, 90210 reboot (he’d previously been a writer on Will & Grace and MTV’s Awkward). 

I recently caught up with O’Connell to discuss the power of believing that your own story has value, the Special scene in which the semi-fictionalized Ryan character hires a sex worker to take his virginity and the intense relationships between mothers and their gay sons. 

Prior to Special, you were obviously best known as a writer. Nor had you ever really acted before. What happened then for you to get the starring role in the show?
When we first went out with Special in 2015, everyone passed. It never occurred to me back then to pitch myself as the lead because I didn’t have any credits. But it was hard because the cable networks would always ask who I envisioned playing the lead, and it’s not like Hollywood is swelling with gay, disabled actors. And there was no version where I was gonna hire an able-bodied or straight person.

When, though, I began pitching the series to Stage 13, a digital branch of Warner Bros., they were mostly doing projects from people who are doing everything — writing, acting, producing. That really wasn’t me, but that’s sort of what I ended up signing up for. So the way I reached the understanding that I was going to act in the show was pretty anticlimactic. There was never a moment like, “You’re going to be in this, and your next phase has begun.” It was just understood. 

It was only right before we began shooting, I feel like Stage 13 had this moment where they realized, “We’ve never seen Ryan act before. This could be really bad.” They never flinched, though — to their credit or their insanity, depending on how you look at it. Netflix didn’t give a shit either.

Either way, I’ve really had to come to terms with the fact that I’ve always wanted to perform and act — like, I really have. For me, however, there was always a stigma attached to acting. I felt like so much of my identity was being a writer with a capital W. So it’s taken a long time to admit that this is what I’ve always wanted and to give myself permission to want it — and to do it. 

If anything, I wish I owned it earlier on.

Special and Hulu’s Shrill, based on Lindy West’s book by the same name, both tell stories about writers dealing with their own identity issues in confessional essays. Do you think blog-era stuff is going to continue to have its moment in TV and film?
It’s funny because blogging is dead. And the confessional essay boom is definitely dead. When I began writing these scripts, xoJane was still around. Who could you write a personal essay like that for now? I’d say Lenny, but that folded too. As a culture, we’ve moved away from these kinds of personal essays. I feel like the worlds of these shows reflect a simpler, pre-Trump time. It’s not, “Can you bare your soul for $50?” anymore. 

Once Trump got elected, the landscape of both the country and the internet changed. In particular, the dialogue online changed because writing about finding a bundle of tampons inside your vagina now seems like small potatoes considering what kind of moment we’re having as a country. 

But I do think that in these difficult times, we need humor more than ever before. I also think it will be a pendulum that swings. So don’t worry, we’ll be back to stories about finding a month-old tampon in vaginas in no time. 

How did you get your start in the personal-essay-writing business?
I was struggling after graduating from college in 2010. I’d been out of college six months and just finished an internship at Interview. I was flailing, and someone recommended I read a book called Self-Help by Lorrie Moore. It’s written in the second person, which inspired me. And so, one day after having brunch with my ex-boyfriend, I came home and wrote a piece called “How You Speak to Your Ex-Boyfriend Versus How You Want to Speak to Your Ex-Boyfriend.” It was about how you spend brunch talking about things that you don’t care about, and what you really want to talk about is your relationship and what you really want to do is fuck him after brunch. But you don’t end up doing those things; instead, you end up talking about plans for summer. Then you kind of just want to die. 

I published it on Thought Catalog, and it did really well. So I kept writing “how-to”-style pieces. It was a simpler time. I mean, it might sound dorky, but when I did “How to Be a 20-Something” in 2010, nobody was talking about millennials yet. The whole concept of Millennial Meredith was new. Tiny Furniture was out, but Girls wasn’t. It sounds so tired now, but back then, it was like truly groundbreaking, which is lol.

Thought Catalog created all this weird writing that wasn’t academic or polished. You could be like a total random living in Lake Timbuktu, but if your essay was good — or even if it wasn’t, tbh — it would still get posted. We were publishing everybody! I mean, that’s what I liked about it. It was very democratic. There was something really nice about giving everyone an equal voice.

What was your first Thought Catalog piece to go viral?
“How to Be a 20-Something” got huge right right away. That was the first piece I wrote that changed my life in a lot of ways. 

By the way, I haven’t read those pieces in years. It’s more interesting for me to go back and read my LiveJournal, because that was the precursor to my Thought Catalog stories in a lot of ways. My LiveJournal name was “Indie Adolescent.” I’d post Polaroids of me and my friends wearing cute little cardigans and being hipster trash in 2004. Then I’d write a post that was just a Cat Power lyric from You Are Free

I treated it like it was my psychotic art project, and I was so proud of it. I was curating my identity in a weird way, similar to what everyone is doing on Instagram now. I remember certain people were really famous on LiveJournal, like rich kids in L.A. would have a couple of thousand followers because they had a really, really well-curated, beautiful LiveJournal. It really was like Instagram, but on a much, much smaller scale. 

People were basically lying about their lives, but since they were teenagers, there was also a lot of emo stuff. I love when people are going through a breakup or some sort of trauma and they aren’t afraid to get real about their pain online. When they’re putting it all out there, it’s a nice reminder that we all go through horrible shit. Especially when so often, people are cherry-picking the nicest, brightest moments of their life and only showing those. There’s something freeing about someone becoming a little unhinged online. 

In Special, Ryan and his mother both experience a series of firsts. He gets his first apartment; she has an empty nest for the first time. He gets his first internship; she gets her first boyfriend — at least her first at this phase in her life. I feel like it’s more common to see mother-daughter and father-son relationships explored on TV, so this mother-son relationship really stood out to me.
A gay son, too. Moms and their gay sons have their own journey. A lot of the time, our moms are our first supporters — the first people to really understand us and see us the way we want to be seen. Every gay guy I know has such an interesting, intense relationship with their mom. I feel like gay sons and their dads get a lot of mileage, as though that relationship is inherently complicated, but to me, it’s more about the mommy stuff. 

The show also illustrates how mothers who devote themselves so generously to their children don’t always know what to do when those children grow up and become more independent. In Special, for example, the mother has a hard time believing she’s not needed in Ryan’s day-to-day life because of his cerebral palsy.
It was interesting for me to tell a story of codependence by necessity, not by choice. My mother didn’t have a choice about whether or not she was going to be extremely hands-on in my life. Having experienced cerebral palsy from birth, I can tell you that the first 10 years are super-intense. You’re growing and developing, and the doctors aren’t sure how severe your case is or how severe it’s going to become. A ton is TBD. There are also a ton of surgeries and physical therapy. My mom had to be there with me in a very real way, which made it harder for me to be independent and to individuate myself because the tone had already been set — and the tone was the two of us building huge codependent towers in the skies. 

Did calling upon so many of your personal experiences while writing the book and the show differ from farming your experiences for content on Thought Catalog?
At Thought Catalog, I was hungry and desperate. I was looking at my life wondering what about it had the potential to go viral. This changed the layout of my brain. Every social interaction or new experience became a potential story, like, “How can this be transformed into a listicle?” My brain was being re-routed, and it wasn’t great. I was 24 and 25 and didn’t feel a lot of personal agency; I was more at the mercy of my career.

The thing about the book is that I wrote it after being in the closet about my disability for eight years. It’s not like I came out about having cerebral palsy while writing it either; I just came out to my publisher. I went to Simon & Schuster one day and told them about my disability. Before, I’d blocked out and repressed so many of my childhood memories related to being disabled. I was uncovering them while writing the book, but I still didn’t fully have the emotional intelligence needed to process everything. I wasn’t just closeted about my disability — I was closeted about all the damage it caused me, too. 

So writing the TV show was much more fulfilling because some time had passed since I wrote the book. There was some distance. I’ve been in therapy for the last couple years dealing with this stuff, so turning these stories into a show now felt more freeing than turning them into a book did.

Was coming out about your disability a trickle-down process after telling Simon & Schuster? Like, did you start telling friends next, etc.?
I lived with my best friend from childhood at the time, so she knew about it. I already had the book deal with Simon & Schuster, but one day I told her I was going to go in tell them about my cerebral palsy. It was one of the first times I remember us speaking about it. But once I brought it up, she was able to recall a bunch of experiences related to CP that I’d shared with her in the past but had repressed. She was like, “Remember when you were 19 in Berkeley and someone called you retarded to your face and asked if you needed help or guidance.” 

I was like, “Oh my God, that did happen, but I completely forgot about it.” 

Apparently, I felt safe with her and had disclosed more than I’d thought. She remembered things I forgot I’d ever mentioned, which ended up being really useful while writing the book. But nobody else in New York knew about my CP, so I still couldn’t talk openly about it with anyone else. It wasn’t until five months before the book came out, when I published “Coming Out of the Disabled Closet,” that I came out to my world at large.

You came out about your cerebral palsy when you were 28 in New York, whereas you came out as gay more than 10 years before in California. Were those two experiences similar at all?
They were so different, and yet, they were basically the same. Coming out as gay was no big deal for me because I grew up around gay people. My sister is bisexual, my uncle is gay, etc. I wasn’t over the moon about coming out as gay, but I did so in high school because there was a boy I wanted to date and I knew I needed to be out in order to date him. That’s literally the only reason I came out at that time. I actually wonder how much longer I would’ve been in the closet if I hadn’t had a crush on him. But anyway, that was a really joyous coming-out experience. I came out to everybody, and it was supportive, loving and great. 

The disability thing was a long time coming. When I finally did, I felt like a huge weight had been lifted off my shoulders overnight. I never experienced anything like that before in my life, where something happened that clearly divides your life into two parts — basically, after I came out about my disability I felt happy and free for the first time in my fucking life. 

And nobody cared at all. That’s how it happens in the show, too. Like, “Whatever, you have CP. What’s for lunch?” 

Since it was such a huge relief, there was a part of me that was like, “I’ve wasted a decade my life over something that no one cared about. What the fuck’s wrong with me?” 

But mostly, I was just really happy. I got really confident, like an overnight confidence. It was funny because I’d been celibate for so long and never dated boys or hooked up, but as soon as I became more confident, I was attracting men. I didn’t have anxiety about meeting new people and them seeing me limp, because in my head I was like, “Google it, bitch! I have CP, who cares?” 

So while coming out as gay definitely changed my life and made it better, coming out as disabled was much bigger and its effects were much brighter. 

Do you think there’s a difference between being forthcoming about your life and feeling comfortable being vulnerable?
I don’t know. When I think about my sharing, it’s mainly rooted in the fact that when you’re a marginalized person who is taught by society that your voice doesn’t have value, that sharing is almost a punk-rock move. You’re like, “Fuck you, I dare you to ignore me. I dare you to not look at me.” Thinking your story has value, when you’ve been taught from a very young age that it doesn’t, is fucking chic and empowering.

You talk a lot about your love of fashion and clothes. What kind of impact, though, has the fashion industry had on your sense of self-worth?
I do love fashion. Growing up in L.A., I badly wanted to look like people on [the photoblog] The Cobrasnake and wear Brian Lichtenberg tank tops and Alice + Olivia jewelry and Marc Jacobs and Alexander Wang everything.

But here’s the deal: Those clothes were always meant for anorexic, able-bodied gay guys, and I wasn’t that. I feel sad that I was trying to dress in a way that didn’t work. It was like trying to fit a square peg through a round hole or something. Those little tank tops just didn’t work on me. 

It took me a long time to realize what my actual personal taste is. Now I view fashion as this fun thing and don’t have any hangups about it. I dress how I want, and that can change every few weeks. Sometimes I want to dress like a boy in prep school; other times I want to dress like Bernie from Weekend at Bernie’s.

That said, it’s so powerful to see a disabled body looking amazing in clothes. I’m obsessed with this model Aaron Philip who has cerebral palsy. My queen! She’s on the runway in her wheelchair looking amazing. To see an end to that total erasure is amazing. The conversation about seeing plus-sized people on runways has been happening for a while now, but until recently, there was no talk about seeing disabled people working in fashion. So it’s amazing to see disabled people looking fashionable and sexy, which is something I was never exposed to growing up. 

I’ve actually done a little bit of modeling myself and want to do more of it. Once again, I’m giving myself permission to do something I genuinely love doing. It might sound embarrassing to admit, but I’m in this place where I’m trying to admit that I want things and not feel bad about it. Plus, I just love clothes. I love being a CP princess in a Dries [Van Noten] sweater, especially because I don’t think designers usually have some gay guy with CP in mind as the person whose rocking their shit. But guess what? I am.

More generally, it seems to me that for people who society has desexualized — or allotted very little sexual space for — being objectified can sometimes feel like the biggest fucking aspiration. A lot of people are still widely ignorant as to how unfuckable they make others feel with their internalized beauty standards and expectations.
Everyone desires — regardless of their size, ability or whatever. And so, when you’re a person who has been denied that, or who hasn’t been given permission to feel desirable, it can be powerful to give that permission to yourself. If not, you begin to believe what you’ve been told and experience a lot of damage.

I was so excited to film the sex scene in Special because I got to make sure people were looking at me. Of course, I was also terrified of filming a sex scene, but there was such a sense of power in giving myself space to do so. For people with certain bodies, your whole existence is hypervisible but also completely erased. People notice your body and stare at you, and those experiences can arrest you. But at the same time, you and your sexuality are erased. 

With the sex scene in Special, I felt a sense of “You don’t get to do that anymore. I’m going to show you my body, and I’m going to love my body. I’m not signing the contract anymore. I’m done hating my body; I’m ripping up that contract. Now you have to look at me and meet me for who I am.” I also love that in the scene, I’m not commenting about the fact that I don’t have abs or anything like that. Nobody’s talking about bodies in that way while they’re fucking, unless they’re giving you a compliment. So I didn’t want to include any insecure comments like that. That’s not real.

What’s the response to Special been like for you — especially hearing from gay men who don’t feel like they fit into a certain mold in some way?
It’s been amazing. I mean, I was really nervous about it. When you’re among the first to get a platform to speak for a certain underrepresented, marginalized population of people, you do feel like you’re under scrutiny. You feel the burden of representation. I was nervous because Special is a disabled story, but it’s very much my disabled story. I was worried that some people would feel like, “This doesn’t represent us.” But I have to say, everyone has been so loving and supportive. 

The biggest gift from this show is that it’s helped me come to terms with my disability and meet people that I ordinarily wouldn’t have. When you’re disabled, people sometimes want you to meet other disabled people just because you’re both disabled. It’s like that with gay guys sometimes too, where people will want you to hang out, but once you’re at the table, you realize the only thing you both like is dick. Except when I didn’t get along that well with disabled people in these situations, I’d always just blame my internalized ableism. Now I’ve met so many disabled people who I actually share interests with, and they’re amazing.

I also used to feel a type of survivor’s guilt because my case [of CP] isn’t that bad. I’ve learned to let that go, though. No one cares. So why am I saddling myself with guilt? That doesn’t get me anywhere.