Mitch/Misha Grauberger, often seen zooming down the hall in a wheelchair, overcomes his daily physical and mental health struggles to advocate for homeless youth.
Mitch/Misha: About a year ago, my mobility started to get worse. I’m currently at an apartment where I have to carry my wheelchair up and down the stairs, and I’m moving to an accessible apartment.
Josh: I’ve seen you for a long time, but I’ve never asked about your disability. I’ve been afraid to ask. Can you help me understand? What is it? What’s causing it?
Mitch/Misha: We know I have some form of inflammatory arthritis that is predominantly affecting my knees. That is the biggest thing that impacts my mobility. It’s likely a type of arthritis where, basically, if you have psoriasis, it can impact joints as well. I also have Ehlers-Danlos syndrome (EDS). It’s a connective tissue disorder; I like to describe it by saying that the glue that holds my body together isn’t sticky enough. My collagen is built wrong. Prior to my mobility getting worse, I did physical therapy to re-learn how to walk, despite never having lost the ability. I moved like one of those inflatable guys in a used car lot. So, now that I know, I have to be extra conscious to not extend my joints too far.
I got my EDS diagnosis about 2 years ago. For the couple years before that, I’d started having more physical issues, to the point that I realized something was wrong. I knew that I was accident-prone, but I didn’t know, growing up, that it wasn’t normal to have aches and pains every day. My dad is likely dealing with it, and my aunt got a diagnosis after I did. My dad is on a waitlist to get a diagnosis, and my baby brother probably has it as well.
I also deal with something called Postural Orthostatic Tachycardic Syndrome (POTS), which means when I go from sitting to standing, my heart rate goes way up. To treat it, you have to do the opposite of what you do for high blood pressure – eat lots of salt. I have to be careful about how quickly I stand up. I do walk around a little bit, but the more I do, the more it causes arthritis flares.
Josh: And what is the prognosis for your conditions?
Mitch/Misha: I’m going to be dealing with chronic pain my whole life. I have extra stretchy skin, so if I lose weight, my skin is going to sag further than others might. One pro is that we often look younger, because we generally have very velvety-smooth skin. It’s actually one of the diagnostic symptoms! Our skin ages slower. Most of it deals with watching how I move for the rest of my life.
Josh: And will you always be wheelchair-bound?
Mitch/Misha: First of all, wheelchair-bound is not necessarily the way to phrase it.
Josh: Okay, please teach me why, so I can learn.
Mitch/Misha: “Wheelchair bound,” is confining. This [wheelchair] is a tool that helps me access the world. I’m not “wheelchair bound,” I’m a “wheelchair user.” I’d be “homebound” if I couldn’t leave the house because I didn’t have my chair. I will probably always have my chair with me, but there are times where I’ll push it and use it as a walker in case I need it.
Josh: Thank you, Mitch. Can you tell me, how do those who do not use a wheelchair, or understand your disabilities, or aren’t “in the know” react to seeing you in the wheelchair?
Mitch/Misha: Some people, if they see me scooting with my legs, which I do a lot, will make comments about “You’re too young to need that kind of thing.” But I got more comments when I was using my walker. People see a chair like this and they know I probably got it through insurance. You can’t get it without a doctor’s recommendation. A frequent comment I get is how quickly I move in my chair. And I’m like, it’s the power of inertia, baby! The faster I move, the less I have to work to keep moving. I’ve always had the stereotypical gay walk – I go fast!
Josh: Having seen you, I would have to agree!
I want to ask you about a different topic entirely, because I know it’s important to you. Would you tell me about your experiences with gender and sexual identity? You identify as trans, yes?
Mitch/Misha: I absolutely identify as a trans person; I use he/they pronouns. Genderqueer is my primary identity. For sexuality, I use “gay” as an umbrella, though “queer” is my main identifier. I’m also on the spectrum of asexuality and demi-romantic.
Growing up, life was chaotic. I originally grew up in the Cedar Rapids, Iowa area. When I was 13, I was moved to a foster home in that area. The official charge is “Denial of critical care in the area of shelter.” Basically, my parents are hoarders, and the house was so bad that it wasn’t safe for my one-year old brother. My relationship with my parents is complicated. They had a lot of things they didn’t deal with before having kids, but I still love them. I was in and out of foster homes and youth shelters from that point on. I spent a year in a residential treatment center when I was in high school because I was dealing with mental health issues the whole time as well. I didn’t have a sense of who I was as a person. I didn’t have time to figure out who “Michelle” [my dead name] was.
After I graduated high school, I went to Cottey College in Nevada, MO – a private women’s college. But due to mental health issues, I dropped out. After leaving, I slept on my grandma and aunt’s couch for a month, and I got connected with a youth transitional housing program. While I was there, I connected with a very queer group of online friends. I actually came out as asexual first, and eventually, I started to identify more as a trans man. I was out as a trans man for a few years. I’ve continued to move around a bunch, and my identity has continued to evolve. Today, I like to say that “I’m only a man if it’s convenient for the joke, thanks!”
My gender is, “Yes.”
Josh: You’ve previously told me about your experience doing HRT (Hormone Replacement Therapy) and top surgery [mastectomy]. I also know that you, like me, are in recovery for a stimulant use disorder, and that you suffer from Dissociative Identity Disorder. I keep thinking to myself, to be a bit blunt, “That’s so much.” How have your traumas impacted your life today? How do you move forward?
Mitch/Misha: I am on disability, so I can only work part time. Once I get situated with my new apartment, I’ll be able to work a little more. Currently, I’m doing some policy work with an organization called Youthprise. In Minnesota, you are considered a “youth” until you turn 24. Everyone in the fellowship has experience being homeless or otherwise in “the system” within that age range (I was 23 when I moved to the state and lived in a hotel for four months). We are working to develop and push for State policy that directly affects young people like us dealing with foster care or homelessness.
Getting to take all that I’ve dealt with and do awesome things with it is hugely important for me. There’s an organization called This Is My Brave, whose motto is “Storytelling saves lives,” and they’re all about destigmatizing mental illness in youth and adults – through the arts. They put on shows where people will perform original theater or music or poetry, read a speech, and more.
I’m actually hoping within the next couple of years to be a producer, and bring their first show to Minnesota.
I’ve always been open about so many of my issues, but there are things tucked inside that I’m starting to be more open about. And that’s awesome. It’s taken time. I’m glad I’m able to use all this crap I’ve dealt with – and am still actively dealing with – to help people dealing with similar things.
Josh Elmore (he/him), singer and member of our small ensemble OutLoud!, created Humans of TCGMC in 2018. He graduated from Carleton College with a B.A. in Linguistics and has since worked in sales, higher education, and, most recently, as a bilingual insurance agent (Spanish). Endlessly curious, he has dabbled in improv theater, stand-up comedy, sword fighting, the cello, and modeling for fantasy-themed photo shoots.