Why Privacy Matters

… even when you are willing to disclose.

Tomorrow, Friday, April 26th, 2013 there is going to be a hearing about HIPAA. Well, that’s not exactly accurate- it is about HIPAA for those with psychiatric disabilities or seeking psychiatric care. But no, this isn’t an entirely accurate description either. It is about how some people truly believe that those of us who receive psychiatric care and have our HIPAA rights respected are somehow a threat to public safety.

They believe this even though our providers are mandated reporters, people who have an exemption for threats of violence to others or one’s self. They believe this even though we are more likely to be victims of violent crime than to commit it. They believe this even though when we report on the violence of others, our voices and experiences are discounted.

They believe us as such a huge threat, despite evidence to the contrary, so much that they won’t even be having any of us at the table as they talk about taking away our rights. That we aren’t able to be truthful, competent, or able to speak for ourselves to such an extent that Representative Murphey has gone on air with his belief that we would be incapable of testifying and that the most important conversation is one about parents and families’ experiences.

Those of you who follow this blog just for the Autism angle might recognize that sort of language. It’s the same sort of language that made our fight last November to get Autistics on the panel of another hearing so important, and that makes our objections to how we are portrayed in the media so necessary.

I’ve heard from some corners of the autism communities that the issue at these hearings isn’t about us, or that some of the efforts that autistics (and ASAN) are doing around this hearing are somehow conflating “mental Illness” and autism. Setting aside the fact that in some places autistics without ID are only able to access supports through the mental health system, and setting aside the fact that some of us have additional disabilities that happen to be in mental health, I still have to disagree. These are the same issues that we face, the same ways our voices are invalidated and our societal consent voided.

Even where we aren’t also people with psychiatric disabilities (and a number of us are, either by birth or because having society tell you you aren’t worthy tends to be traumatizing) , we should be giving our solidarity to the people who are fighting the same fights. And we are fighting the same fights against ableism, albeit from slightly different angles. We have a stake in this too- because ableism isn’t just actions. It is systemic. It impacts all of us, though often in different ways, regardless of our exact disability. There’s a reason we need a cross-disability movement, and the strength we have in supporting each other is just one (important) part of it. There is a song that goes, “None of us are free if one of us is chained,” and you know what? There is a certain amount of truth there.

There is also, of course, the fact that co morbid mental health disabilities or not, many Autistics will be served through the mental health system. The sort of policies this hearing may engender often don’t care if you are receiving services for mental health. They only care about what the services you are receiving are classified as.

I personally am multiply disabled. I have multiple reasons to care about this issue, and that is just reasons that have only to do with myself. There are even more when I think about the people around me.

I am someone who is all about disclosing. I’ve talked, in the past, about topics that are very personal and are too much information for some people. It’s ok if you aren’t comfortable with that, but I have done it for a reason: for every time I’ve had a comment or email expressing concern that I’ll disclose details of my life, particularly as it relates to medical care, I’ve received one if not multiple telling me thank you.  Because they? They don’t feel safe disclosing and it has left them feeling isolated.

And that’s the thing, isn’t it? That people don’t feel safe, or comfortable, and they feel that way for a reason. it is the same reason that disclosure is currently a political act: because the negative consequences can be so great. People regularly face discrimination when they disclose, particularly when their disclosure is about a highly stigmatized disabilities. There is a reason both psychiatric disabilities and autism are on the list of such disabilities that the Department of Labor’s ODEP put out- people unfortunately are still fired or even denied a hire on the basis of disability, even though it is against the law. Housing, too, can be riddled with discrimination, leaving affordable and safe housing harder and harder to come by.

Even disclosing in the medical community has negative consequences. This past month, we had a prominent, multiply disabled, autistic voice who had to fight medical discrimination to have a life saving procedure. So, too, do people with psychiatric disabilities find their medical needs and wishes challenged. I cannot begin to count the number of stories I’ve heard in which people I know, either personally or through my advocacy, whose medical conditions were ignored or even blamed on their having had a mental health diagnosis. Either way, they faced a denial of timely and appropriate medical treatment, not because of a lack of disclosure between professionals, but because the stigma is so great that when we disclose even medical professionals have their judgement clouded.

Just as other people with disabilities, people with psychiatric disabilities have our abuse and murders excused as treatment. Our families feel justified, or at least are told they are justified, in abusing or being complicit in the abuse of us. After all it isn’t just Autistics being shocked at the JRC- young people with psychiatric disabilities are also sent there. Indeed, there is a whole industry around sending young people with psychiatric disabilities away to isolating and sometimes dangerous camps.

I am someone who takes the risks that comes with disclosure, but no one should have the choice to take those risks taken away. It has far too dangerous a set of consequences to take consent to disclosure away from the people whose privacy it would expose. Far too dangerous to take away the right to privacy of a group that must rely on privacy in order to both get support and to avoid discrimination.

I would encourage all of you to sign the petition that ASAN has written calling out the chairman of the committee for excluding the voices of people with psychiatric disabilities in a hearing that could very well threaten their rights. If you are in DC and are reading this in time*, please try to attend the hearing, even if you just end up in overflow**.

Our privacy, even if we chose ourselves not to keep it, is a right that no one should be taking from us. Talking about doing so, let alone having that discussion without us, is reprehensible.

_____

* I’m sorry I didn’t get this out earlier. I tried, but kept getting stuck on the endless examples that can be found of both how we face discrimination when we disclose, and how the language that is being used to justify the lack of People with Psych disabilities is used to justify other miscarriages of justice.

 

**I personally cannot make it- not only because it’s out of my budget to go to DC last minute, but also because tomorrow I have to go face the housing system to prove I deserve to keep the voucher that makes being not homeless affordable. So please, if you can, go; there are many of us who would like our voices or at least persons represented, but cannot make it ourselves.

I Do Believe This Is…

Content: Mentions of violence against people on the basis of ability, race, and so on; Mention of abuse.

Friday, March 1, is the 2013 Day of mourning for those PwD whose lives were lost to the hands of their caregivers. Last year, it was at the end of March, not the beginning, which means it’s not quite the anniversary of knowing one of my abusers/caregivers is dead. Last year, those two things fell on the same day. I felt shock and relief mixed into my grief. The shock predominated throughout most of that afternoon.

It’s been a year and a month since Stephon Watts was killed, by police who his family was told to contact for “help,” for the combination of being an Autistic young black male. 11 months since Daniel Corby’s murder. This fall it will have been 20 years since Tracy Latimer’s murder. A month and a half since Robert Saylor’s murder. Almost 80 years since the Nazi’s T4 program. I can post lists and timescales forever, it seems, and it still won’t have all the names it should.

Our dead are mixed in with the dead of others in places where our identities cross, these cross sections boosting statistical probabilities. Stephon’s murder was just as much (if not more so) a factor of racism as disability. T4 blended in to a larger propagandistic and genocidal engine.

There are sadly always many for which to mourn.

This year, we’ve seen violent events, events which have gotten the attention of major news outlets and the dwellings on of news cycles. In these ways, it is unlike our dead- though our dead are hidden in theirs. Instead of joining in mourning, the public uses these deaths as a means to fuel the same bigotries which lay behind the excusing of our deaths and pardoning of our murderers.

Recently, some noticed something terrible, something demonstrating the way in which a certain segment of the disabled population is viewed, when they googled “Autistics should”  and “Autistics are.” Google uses everyone’s searches to guess what your next words will be. Based on the searches in their database, google suggested things like “Die” and “dangerous” to complete the search.

A flashblog (see both “should” and “are“) appears to be bearing some results* in amending the computer side of this, but Google only has the ability to amend what their searches suggest. They can’t amend a code and instantly remove the biases that lead to those searches in the first place. (Though it does help.) Erasing bias a is longer, and more complicated, process than that. A process which is on all of us to work on.

A process that we all need to keep in mind. Bigotry that cannot be forgotten, as it blooms fresh again.

My words here are not as direct as I’d like. I see that my sentences are convoluted, but every time I fixate on them enough to begin translating them out from the word pictures in my head into plain language I feel those things that indicate I’m about to cry. It’s hard not to, when you allow yourself to really have the reality sink in. Terror, relief, grief, anger, sadness, and the sense of ever reaching, all inter-playing and weaving.

Yes, I do believe I’m mourning.

______________

This year’s vigils are being jointly backed by ASAN, Not Dead Yet, and the National Council on Independent Living. You can find the nearest vigil to you on the ASAN website, and I’m (as an ASAN person) managing the virtual vigil 3:30pm EST-Midnight-ish, with a good friend, That Crazy Crippled Chick, as my second.** This is a cross disability effort; Autistics are not the only PwD to be murdered by those who were supposed to protect us.

* The article in the link is titled in a way that suggests that this change is already in effect. This is inaccurate; as of this writing, Google has agreed to modify their algorithms to eliminate this issue. It has not been implemented  in a way that impacts the user end experience as of yet.

** Or number one, if I’m Picard and she’s my Riker.

It Goes All Ways

Content: ableism, internalized ableism, mention of hospitalization and depression, mention of denials of reproductive justice to people with disabilities. 

When I was 20, I did not love myself.

I was tired. I had been in and out of hospitals, been under the care of providers hopeful that a pill would fix my brain. I had been told repeatedly that there was something “wrong” with me. That there were somethings it wasn’t “right” for me to do.

I had moved back home, having had my stint trying to be what I thought an “adult” was fail. A lot of my plans had failed: I’d been so unsuccessful at maintaining a home that I became deathly ill; I hadn’t sought out the support I needed at college, and had to drop for lack of funds; and I couldn’t get a job. I saw myself as incapable enough that I wouldn’t be able to kill myself, and went to the hospital again. Case management was better this time than they had been in the past. They were involved, and we worked on a self care plan.

“What about having kids some day?”

I told her I didn’t think so. I feared. I feared that I’d be incapable as some people assume about people like me. I feared that I’d be stuck in a cycle of hospitalizations, and that having a kid would mean they would lose their mother every two years. I feared that I wouldn’t know how to get support— I certainly didn’t know then what my needs were well enough to articulate them. I didn’t even have a strong enough concept of disability to think of it in terms of supports. I just feared, and I hated myself, and I pushed both of those feelings away by ruling out the possibility. I told her no, and refused to engage in that discussion.

People like me aren’t just told these things. Some of us, like the poor and People of Color, are or were forcefully or coercively sterilized in procedures we didn’t want to consent to. Some of us were denied even the knowledge that we had something to consent to. Some of us are coerced with them, denied a valid choice. We are lied to about our health, about our ability. We have our lives reduced to a gene, to things not to want our kids to inherit. We are told that having or keeping our own kids is by definition abuse. We are even sometimes ordered to go directly against our choices, or threatened with those orders. Our attempts to speak back are often co-opted by groups we may or (as in my case) may not believe in. The idea that we might even be sexually active in a way that might lead to us being parents is even seen as remote.

To be clear: I know plenty of people who have chosen not to have kids.  They made a choice to be child free, of their own free will. It’s fine if they stick to it, and it’s fine if they don’t.

I don’t consider my choices when I was 20 about kids to have been of my own free will. My responses were societally coerced. I had so much self hate, self doubt, and fear that I had internalized that I didn’t feel like I even had a realistic choice. I thought that the choices open to me were to abort or put a child up for adoption. I had been told for so long that someone like me would by default be a bad parent, or an incapable one. So I felt like I had to reject the very idea of having kids when it was offered as a part of my future.

Around this time, I became more active in disability rights work. I’d been doing advocacy since I was very young, but hadn’t connected with the larger disability rights movement. I started writing and believing in disability rights, coming to identify as a person with disabilities rather than hiding them where possible. I even, at one point, had a friendship end because the other person kept arguing that people with intellectual and/or developmental disabilities who need supports shouldn’t be having kids. I believed that People with Disabilities had these rights.

I just didn’t believe in them for myself. I had spent too long in choices dictated by fear and internalized ableism, and uprooting that is a long process that never seems to be over.

About 5 years ago, my younger sister found out she was pregnant. She was 16, and it wasn’t intentional. She was presented with her options— I know, as I was one of the people who went over them with her— and she chose to carry and keep her child. I won’t go into too many details about her pregnancy other than to note that yes, the hormones that come with pregnancy interacted with her disability (she has Traumatic Brain Injury). But she made it through, and the actual birth was relatively easy. My niece was born, and was and is gorgeous.

My sister has had the support of our parents and other family members in the 4 years, almost 3 months since my niece was born. I watched (and helped be a part of) the supports that she needs to be a successful parent.  During this time, I became less and less afraid to ask for supports and accommodation, and slowly gaining the words to communicate and to define what my needs were. I also was becoming aware of the “wants” that I had been avoiding thinking about because they didn’t seem reasonable.

I realized that I would like, someday, to raise a child. I began to think about what I would need to have in place to be the sort of parent that I want to be.

There are some problems, though, that I’m more worried about than others. I have some reproductive health issues that sometimes, but not always, result in infertility. It is treated through a combination of medications that includes Hormonal Birth Control. The reason, in fact, that I’m not currently passed out in my shower or vomiting in pain due to this condition is because of those pills. It raises questions, both about how I’d be able to handle/treat my health conditions when trying to have a child, and if I’d be able to birth the child my self. I’d like to, but if I’m not there are other issues involved.

Fertility treatments can be harder to get when you are disabled.  While it is against the law for a healthcare provider to reject someone on the basis of disability, this type of provider can reject someone for personal reasons. The Office of Technology Assessment of Congress did a survey of artificial insemination providers, which is one of several options in infertility treatment. They found that a large percentage screen for psychological, developmental, and chronic health issues when doing tests to decide on treatment recommendations. For example, 79% screen against hypothetical patients with serious genetic disorders. Another study found high rates of doctors deciding against treatment for or rejecting hypothetical patients with various disabilities, including past suicide attempts (around 40% answered likely to turn this group away) and bipolar disorder (34%).  Adoption, too, is more difficult.

And this is just in the seeking to have children portion of things. Even if my health issues have not impacted my ability to have children, biases against parents with disabilities result in higher inappropriate removal rates, unfounded reports, and evaluations that are not built to accommodate the adaptations that a parent with disabilities may have established. The Family Law system is simply not designed in a way that accommodates people with disabilities. (Rocking the Cradle: Ensuring the Rights of Parents with Disabilities and Their Children from the NCD has several chapters on these issues.)

I continue to think about supports, as well as the sort of environment I’d want to raise children in. I know that I’d need a partner dedicated to the family we would build. I’m good with kids, even babies, but I do need times where I have breaks to restore my stress, anxiety, and frustration levels. An involved partner would help with this. I might need alarms and reminders, but these are things that are more an more on the market for any parent. I personally want to raise my child in a Jewish home, with a Jewish co-parent. And, of course, for our family to be one that is highly pro-disability rights.

I want to have children. I want to raise children. Even though I’m frightened. Even though people will challenge if it’s a right I, and people like me, should have. Even if it’s not going to happen for a while. Even though it will mean needing different supports than I need right now. It doesn’t negate the fact that I’m pro-choice any more than it would for any other person wanting to become a parent. To me, it is about choice— about choosing the option that is right for me, myself, rather than having my choices about my body and my life made by someone else.

This is a choice that I’m wanting to make and someday follow through on— and finally, it’s of my own free will.

I Was One of the Scary Kids

Content note: ableism, stigmatization of Autistics and other PWDs, the Sandy Hook shooting

I didn’t want to write about the shootings at all. I knew a number of people (who I’ll link to throughout this post) and organizations would be posting and writing, working to counter the inevitable stigma fail that would happen. I even was keeping to commenting on the links of people I care about, people who I know and who I want to have these sorts of discussions with. Then, it happened. I’ll leave the critiques of the post gawker promoted to others, but I feel obligated to make a comment about some of the assumptions it is based on and promotes.

That comment starts with a declaration: I was one of those scary kids.

It’s not some great proud thing to say. It’s a truth, a truth that when I reveal it makes people behave differently. Admitting that you were a “scary kid” means that people heighten their bar of behavior for you even more than a simple disability disclosure does. It makes even normal responses to threatening situations take on a sinister light to others. Telling someone to back off goes from angry to a threat. Pushing away someone who feels entitled to your body becomes violence rather than defense from it.

It makes people suspicious. It makes people question your ability to accurately report crime, abuse, or health concerns. When you are a former scary kid and let people know, they don’t want to hire you in meaningful positions — or sometimes at all — they don’t want you living in their buildings, and they don’t want you learning at their schools. Your opportunities are curtailed. You are told all the things you will never do.

All of these are true of having certain disabilities to begin with, but when you add in a confession of having been one of those scary kids it is heightened.

I was a scary kid. It makes me sad, but only because I actually don’t like scaring people, though I often can’t tell.

Before the age of 14, I was the sort of child that service providers recommend parents to place in a residential setting — that is, juvenile mental health institutions. Parents were — and are sometimes still — encouraged to relinquish them to the state, who would willingly pay for this kind of care. My mother fought it, and demanded community based services and the training my providers needed to provide it. But she was pressured the entire time, and when I was reviewing her records last year I found boxes of pamphlets and packets that she was given to encourage my placement in those settings.

I also found her private journals about our lives at that time. These were journals she might only ever show excerpts from to a therapist, but were meant to be private accounts. It was scary for her. I cried when I read them, because it was horrible to realize that I had made my mother feel so horrible and hadn’t known. I had not realized that anyone would have interpreted my behavior in a truly scary way, that they wouldn’t see the same causes that I was reacting to.  But she was terrified in those pages — the ones she never meant for anyone but herself to read. Even in her advocacy work, she wouldn’t say that certain events were from my life, just that they had happened to “a young person” she knows. Even the things that she was terrified about.

In the pages of that private journal, she talks about the times I would charge at or by her. To me, I was desperately trying to escape a scary situation for me. To her, it was a charging at. I would throw things, and at the time didn’t have the impulse control to find soft things in a safe space. I never aimed at people, but to her I just had really bad aim. I screamed, and I said things that made little sense — I was scared and angry and frustrated that I couldn’t articulate it. These were seen as threats. When I was put in a scary situation, I would flail and push to try to get out of it — and these were seen as violence. When she left on trips, I was taken with her because she was worried what would happen if I was left with a babysitter.

Most of the episodes she chronicled for her private memory keeping were ones that she never saw the cause for. So many start with, “I came home from work, and Savannah…” It took me until into my twenties to be able to articulate what happened before — that her second husband had provoked responses and behaviors. How he would tell me I was fat, lazy, and that I would never be competent. How he would threaten me with sending me away.  How he did any one of a number of things that would set off my behaviors. There’s no coincidence that the behaviors dramatically decreased a year after he left- at 14, I even was off medication.

Not all the behaviors were triggered by him — some of them were reactions that I didn’t know how to handle internally. Some of them were because of how my internal state from incorrect prescriptions made things harder to deal with. Some of them were from being unable to handle fear, frustration, and change internally. Change was a big trigger for me, and set off the start of my fear responses. I just didn’t have the skills to handle those states. I would go on to develop them, but I didn’t have them yet.

For me, those times were scary because of the outside world, because of confusion at people’s responses, and because of people using my being a “scary kid” as a weapon. To her, I was scary and she didn’t know and couldn’t predict fully why. She understands it now — time, observation of me growing up and learning, my finally being able to properly articulate what was happening for me in those times.

My mother doesn’t regret keeping it private, between her and her private journal or her therapist. Today she was at  a consumer and family advisory for our behavioral health managed care organization (BHMCO). They read that gawker article, and my mother was appalled. She has scary stories about me, but the idea of sharing them in a way that associated them publicly with me was a horrifying violation of privacy and good sense to her. She was struck by the negativity of the piece, of the author. And she noticed how it relies on and perpetuates stigma, and jumps to conclusions.

Having been one of those scary kids is scary.

It’s not scary in and of itself. What made it scary to have been one is what people assume based on it — and what they assume when you don’t disclose.

I’ve had people try to justify things from the JRC’s electric shocks to denying someone an integrated learning environment, to defend seclusion/restraint to “therapy” induced injuries and even deaths using my fellow former scary kids as their reasons. The kids with “significant disabilities.” The ways that other people saw my behaviors — things I didn’t know at the time- are the same things I hear from people trying to justify violence and isolation towards kids and adults with disabilities.

They also project forward to futures that are inaccurate, contributing to the problems that us scary kids face when we grow up. They say we will become criminals, or will commit violent crime, that we will be a danger to society. That we are “sleeper agents” of mass murder. They say that of course people who have had such and such a diagnosis, especially when you are also a scary kid, will do certain things or will never do other things. That we couldn’t successfully ever live on our own, that we’ll never graduate, never hold a job for long, will never have successful, healthy relationships. That we are doomed. And while not all scary kids have mental health disabilities (and not all kids with MHDs are scary kids), those who have developmental disorders with the right behaviors are lumped in.

When I- and others who are autistic, have Mental Health Disabilities, or both — talk back with truth, we are denied. When we talk about how having xyz diagnosis doesn’t mean we will do stuff, when we point out that we aren’t mass murderers, we are shut down. When we talk about how yes, mental health reform is important but that it shouldn’t come out of stigma, coercion  and false equivalence, we are told that we are calling other scary kids lost causes. When we point out that we don’t have enough information, we are dismissed. When we disclose, we are called too close to the issue. Even when our mothers join us.

In reality, only 5% — or 1 in 20 — of those in jail for violent offenses entered jail with a diagnosable condition. The other 95% did not present as diagnosable on entry. Most of those with diagnosable conditions are there on non-violent and drug offenses, including a number of which are a symptom of a lack of supports rather than their conditions themselves. Some estimates place the rate of Mental Illness at 50% of the inmate population, and yet only a very small percentage are there for violent crimes.

In reality, these impressions of us make us targets of crimes. People with “Serious Mental Illnesses” are more than twice as likely to be a victim of a violent crime. We are targeted for sexual assault, particularly if we are or are seen as women. We are likely to feel stuck in abusive relationships, or to have people use our diagnostic status as justification for abuse. And that is just the violent crimes  — we are astronomically more likely to be victims of personal theft, and 4 times more likely to be victims of property theft.

In reality, the stigma and stereotypes that people are promoting mean discrimination in employment, in housing, even in healthcare and courts. It means having people turning their backs on friendships and relationships when they find out, even if you are relatively stable now, even if you have the supports that make it irrelevant. It means people leaving if you have a setback that they would stand by someone without your diagnostic history for.

It is facing stigma, or hiding from it, sometimes at great cost. I certainly made a lot of poor choices based on trying to hide having been a scary kid, even when I wasn’t hiding having Mental Health Disabilities.

Being a Scary Kid isn’t certain doom.

They told my mother and I that I would never graduate high school and I’d never get into college. Some speculated I’d need to live in a group home or a more intense, and that I’d never live on my own. Some thought I’d get sucked into crime based on my psych history alone. Some said I’d off myself before I turned 18, 21, or 25.

I graduated high school — my siblings, the non-scary kids, dropped out and either have or are working on their GEDs. I even aced a number of classes, and other than my last semester (which was sucked up in depression) was pretty much tops. I’ve had some unsuccessful attempts to live on my own in the past, but those had to do with daily living skills more than being scary. Right now I’m living relatively successfully on my own, even if it did follow a period of homelessness. I did get into college easily, even if I had to drop out for a mix of financial and ADL deficit reasons. I’ve never been in jail.

I celebrated my 25th birthday in August. I am alive, and though my health isn’t the best I am surviving and working towards my own personal wellness.

I have little in common with the things they assumed. My scary is now just the normal stigma that any of us, autistic, with mental health disabilities, or both, face. I do struggle, but not in the ways that were assumed when I was a scary kid.

Being a scary kid is just that — having behaviors that scare people when you are a kid. It doesn’t mean you have a particular diagnosis or neurotype. It isn’t predictive of being a mass murderer or anything else- heck, a lot of the people who are mass murderers, diagnosed with something or not, didn’t reach the heights of being “scary kids” when they were younger. Not scary the way I was, or others were.

When I point out to try not to link scary kids to criminal violence, particularly of the mass murder sort, I’m not saying that services and supports aren’t needed. I’m saying that they would be even if we never had a massive violent event. I’m saying none of us are doomed, if only we combat stigma and prejudice at every chance, be it ableism, racism, or classism that we are talking about.

When I tell you no, I mean that none of us are lost causes.

On Childish Things I

[Content Warnings: Abuse, ableism, spiritual violence/abuse, misapplication of biblical concepts as justification, denigration of “childish” behaviors”, mention of disordered eating]

The things which the child loves remain in the domain of the heart until old age. The most beautiful thing in life is that our souls remaining over the places where we once enjoyed ourselves.” – Kahlil Gibran

When I was a kid- and I mean between the ages of 8 and 13- I was desperate to get away from anything I liked that were “childish things.” Cartoons? Muppets? Books with pictures in them? All became objects of shame. For me, though, this was not triggered by an internal dislike. Here, I cannot speak to the lives of other Autistics. I know a number of my friends and collegues who never faced this particular pressure, even if they faced the same taunts. The same use of “childish” as a dirty word.

My mother’s second husband, Rick, was a big man, and a bully. Speed, attention, interests- all were made into critical faults in me. Even hunger after school was pointed to and mocked when my mother wasn’t around, fostering an unhealthy relationship with food I still haven’t been able to shake. His treatment of me was often explained away by two interconnecting concepts. The idea that as a child with disablities, I both needed treatment and couldn’t accept it as “right” was a big one, but the other was the concept of “The Willful Child.”

“When I was a child, I used to speak like a child, think like a child, reason like a child; when I grew up, I put away childish things.”- 1 Corinthians 13:11

Today, I may be Jewish. I’ve even taken on my ethnically Jewish stepfather (my mother’s 3rd husband)’s last name, Breakstone. But at that point in my life, my immediate family all practiced some variation of Christianity. I could talk about specific denominatons or sub-faiths- from Dutch Reform to Jehovah’s Wittness- but in truth, what was held in our home had less to do with a denominational affliation and more to do with Rick’s idea of using biblical teachings to his conveniance.

One of his favorites when it came to me was the concept that some of you may be familiar with of “The Willful Child.” James Dobson’s books on this idea- The Strong-Willed Child- may be fairly known now, and maybe they were at the time as well. What I do know about how they were used at this time was how they were used at my house- the same way the bible itself was used, at least when my mother wasn’t home. The principles were twisted to Rick’s convenience. (My mother and I personally found that “The Explosive Child” by Ross Greene worked a lot better for me in the end.)

While at the same time encouraging services and at home abuse as “needed treatment,” Rick also labled my behaviors as that of the willful, sinful child. I was told that I was everything that a good “Christian” child was not, be they actually backed up by biblical text or not. Resistance to abuse was also framed as childish, and as willfulness. Both typical behavioral censure and spiritual censure were used against me for things as simple as wanting to continue playing with something or not cleaning up fast enough. (In retrospect, it is no wonder it took me so long to admit that even as a child- and I hope not to offend my Christian friends and readers- I found the concept of a risen Christ improbable at best.)

Perhaps most devestating in the long run was how this censure was used to divide me from my siblings. Today, I have a supportive relationship with my sister. But at the time- and to this day with my brother- this was not true. My behaviors, my failure to live up to Rick’s idea of an obediant young woman, were held up to them as a model of everything they ought to strive against being.

I think my Catholic friends might be familiar with what my behaviors were labled under different names. Lazy (Sloth) was a big one because of my lack of speed and efficiency. Angry or even violent (Wrath) when I was reduced to lashing out as resistance. Fat, chubster, and so forth (Gluttony) for hunger and later hoarding behaviors. While I avoided the traditional concept of vanity being played against me until my eating disorder had excelerated, elements of it cropped up in accusations of selfishness (Greed) and willfulness whenever I attempted to establish boundries about my self, my privacy, or my belongings. Indeed, my distress when several things I had charished as perhaps only an Autistic can were lost in our move to Pennsylvania were added to my greed and willfulness. The only “Cardinal Sin” I was not accused of in some way was lust, though I’m not sure if it was through the non-consensual labling of PWD as asexual (as opposed to labeling one’s own orientation as such) or if it was my age.

I could- and perhaps someday I will- write a full length book about the things that happened when my mother was not at home. I want to reaffirm right now that other than her obliviousness to what was happening my mother did right by me in every way that she could. I believe that in part the spiritual abuse she was facing- an abusive form of complementarianism combined with a religious bigotry against divorced individuals- combined with her own ADHD that allowed things to be missed. Additionally, Rick’s articulate dissmissals over my barely articulated- if you could even call it that- complaints of “unfairness” would be hard to dismiss in our society even without the abuse she was facing.

When I started this post, I didn’t realize how much spiritual abuse played into this, nor how much “willfulness” and “childishness” had been conflated. In any case, they were conflated and tied together. Indeed, any sign of so called willfulness were pointed out as evidence of why Rick’s claims that I would never grow up, that I would be perpetually incompetant to make my own choices just as a child would be. I became desperate to prove somehow that I wasn’t childish- that I wouldn’t stay a child forever.

Unable to eliminate my “childish, willful” behaviors despite my own best efforts and Rick’s “treatment,” I searched for other ways to escape this censure. The only thing left to me was to eliminated the outward trappings of childhood as much as possible. Things that I enjoyed became things to avoid at all costs. Cartoons were an especial target, even if they weren’t designed exclusively for children. We didn’t have TV- we couldn’t afford cable, and there were no channels that we recieved reception for- but we did have VHS tapes.

No longer could I enjoy, for example, the animated Hobbit and Return of the King. I forced myself to bury my distress at having lost my Disney movies (they were among the things that were lost in the move), and struggled when my brother’s interest in Beauty and the Beast and The Nightmare Before Christmas flourished as we entered our teens. Even my enjoyment as a child of puppet based television such as the Muppets or Fraggle Rock were to be eliminated.

Toys, too, became objects of dirision, even ones that were educational or even deemed “age-appropriate.” I had never really played with my toys the way some children would- I stacked my dolls or created displays of them unless another child was present to direct play. But now even creation of toy based dioramas was taboo. My drawings became focused on more mature subjects and styles. I began to draw, for example, scenes of the slave trade instead of costumes when my interest in history shifted to the Civil War era.

Indeed, I struggled even with my special interest in history. While it can be a mature and sober pursuit, it had initiated via a children’s book on dolls from the Victorian period. My readings turned from child appropriate texts to thick novels and non-fiction accounts. I think I would have turned to them even without this pressure, but I don’t think I would have been so strident in avoiding books written for children my age. Perhaps I wouldn’t have mocked them as harshly.

My own sense of aesthetics was also to be challenged anytime it might co-inside with “childish things.”

One thing I couldn’t rout out, though, was my interest in fantasy and magic. I did try to limit it to “classics” of the genre though- instead of contemporary young adult fantasy I read T H White, CS Lewis, J R R Tolkien, and similar almost exclusively. The exception was in the school library, where I read every vampire novel I could get my hands on. Even there, though, I tried to form a preference for classic, genre development specific stories such as Carmilla. I don’t regret this, as it did eventually develop into my sub-interest in Gothic Victorian Romantacism which I indulge in to this day. I did take joy in it, but I trained myself to limit my expressions of that joy.

Fairly early on, before things became more obviously abusive, my expressions of joy and comfort were limited. If seen on a timeline, this was the “first” target, though it is one that regretfully many parents of Autistics target. Flapping was eliminated. Bouncing was frowned upon. Toe walking was framed as inappropriately timed and poorly executed “ballet” play. (I was interested in dance when I was very young, but by this point I was not.) Wiggling my fingers was wrong. Even those “allistic stims” of leg jiggling or finger tapping were a basis for censure, pointed to as proof that I was unthankful, impatient, and willful. The only acceptable forms of joy were smiling and sometimes- and only when deemed appropriate- laughter. Seeing as how smiling wasn’t an automatic thing for me, especially when feeling simply happy, this didn’t become terribly common.

Children need models rather than critics.
– Joseph Joubert

This post has gone much deeper and longer than I ever thought it would. It has been harder to write than I truely expected, even after thinking about it and predrafting it in my head for a month. I’ve decided to save the second half for another post, which you should expect tomorrow. It covers the working through and reclaimation of joy, among other things. EDIT: The second post, On Childish Things II, has been posted.

This post is dedicated to my mother. Without her, I would have been forced into institutional settings and would never have been able to move beyond this to reclaim joy.

Inside and Outside Safety

[Content warning: Mentions of violence towards PwD, both external and internal. Passing mention of the R-word and of a cat dying.]

“If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.”

 -Zora Neale Hurston

I think sometimes when we talk about “passing” versus visibility we forget what that really means, what it is really about. We forget that it means a choice between being safe in the out there instead of being safe in the in here.

It’s a process of making a difficult choice for some of us. Which will destroy us sooner- the violence that others do to us or the violence we do to ourselves? How long do we defend ourselves from the violence that other people send us before we end up destroying who we are inside? Can we live in a world where we can be safe in our own heads without endangering ourselves from the violence of others?

A number of people have written about what it is to internalize oppression- ableism in particular. There’s one phrase I’ve seen that always strikes me- “outposts in our heads.” The place I remember coming across it was at Amanda Bagg’s blog, when it was used- along with the Sally Kempton quote- as the title of a post. Outposts in Our Heads was a big deal for me when I first read it back in 2008. It helped me form into language the things I was noticing about my own experiences, my own terrors, my own damages.

When we internalize the messages that tell us we are unreliable narrators of our own stories, that we are “bad” and “wrong” when we exist as ourselves, it creates violence inside of us. It’s not the physical kind of course- though sometimes people do hurt themselves as a result of this “inside” violence. But that makes it no less violence, no less an attack on our beings.

The more I reflect on my own behavior and the writings of others the more I feel as though a lot of our passing comes from this violence that has been pressed inside of us. Our passing is  an expression, in part, of the thousand little insidious things we were taught.  To remind ourselves that we are wrong, that we are “slow.” To remind ourselves that we don’t count as humans unless we take these “lessons” to heart.

With those lessons is one that gets pointed to as the “reason” for them, why it is so “needful” for us to find indistinguishable. Why the parent I will sit next to in a meeting next week will tell me that they just want their kid to have a shot at pretending to be normal. The outside world is violent towards us when we don’t accept these things, sometimes in more obvious ways.

I don’t think we have to go far to “prove” them their theory on how unsafe it is for us. Neli Latson‘s arrest- Young, black, and Autistic Neli- is proof in an of itself, however much it is also tangled up in racism. The bullying of kids who rock and flap are constantly held up against the bullying of queer youth by some parents, the violence that both populations face sometimes used to outline how bad it is not to pass. Sometimes I even hear the statistics about how 70% of women with developmental disabilities experience rape and that is used as an example of why we shouldn’t be obviously disabled. (Sometimes I even hear this from people who would fiercely remind you that how a person dresses or what they drink doesn’t make them responsible for the violence done to them.)

These things are brought out time and again, these dangers of the world. And too often- particularly when it is our families rather than disabled people ourselves- the solution offered is to teach us to pass. To not behave or exist as we are. To make eye contact and don’t flap or rock in public or don’t jump at loud sounds.

The solutions offered to individuals too often aren’t to make it so police know what to expect from Autistics (as well as unknowing the stereotypes of race), to end bullying through truly inclusive practice, to teach people not to rape and sexually assault people.

We are told that in order to save ourselves from the violence out there we must do everything we can to look normal out there.

And when we do look normal out there, they pretend that no violence is being done to us. Too often, they forget the violence that they did or dismissed to make us this way. Too often, they will always dismiss that it left us with violence in our heads.

As time goes on I try to unlearn the violence that was taught to me. I try to uproot the strongholds that tell me how wrong and bad it is of me, how selfish, to want to be okay with myself. This process isn’t helped by living in a society that reaffirms that all the bad things are because I’m wrong, I’m deviant, I’m disabled and I dare to try not to hide from it.

In June, I attended the Allied Media Conference as a Co-track Coordinator of the Disability Justice Track with A’ishah of ResistDance. Admittedly there were huge chunks of things that were issues in the physical world- for example, some people not getting what “scent free” meant, or staff members forgetting that sharpies can be toxic for some folk, or how incredibly echoy and not sensory friendly having closing ceremony in McGregor was. But the biggest thing for me had nothing to do with my external environment.

It had everything to do with my internal one. I was working so hard at uprooting the ableism inside of me, and yet while I was there surrounded by movers and shakers and hopeful justice makers I found more. I spent a couple of hours one afternoon sitting in a corner, crying and rocking and holding my arms tight. My outside was safe enough- someone even gave me a tissue as they passed. But on my insides the violence I had worked so hard to uproot from my mind was taking over.

I was alone and unworthy and bad girl. Of course you are having a hard time, I thought, you are wrong at the most basic level.  Remembered directives of Stop Crying and This is for Attention isn’t it? and You are selfish for wanting to be safe and everyone knows that retards can’t lead.

I eventually got settled enough to move, to look for my mum in the Healing Justice Practice Space. When I got there, though, it was obvious in ways I couldn’t know that there was a violence happening inside of me to some of the healers. I had some tea, and Mariposa had me do medicine on my self by way of chalking protection at my wrists. It is protection from the elements of the outside that give power to the violence inside, she told me.

And I did come back to me, to knowing that I am worthy and human and deserving of existance. To knowing where those thoughts were pressed into me from. To knowing that it is a violence taught to me.

I won’t discount that the violence outside of me is painful. I can’t pretend that I wasn’t devastated when the neighbor shot my cat Tribble knowing that he was in training to be my therapy cat. I will never deny that there’s still a spot on my back that when pressed makes me panic, to think that my mother’s second (ex)husband is going to put me in prone restraint again. But I think that the most devestating is the ways that violence is pressed inside of me.

I’m tired of doing violence to myself inside of me to avoid the violence that could happen outside of me. I’m tired of having no safe place inside of me because someone might believe that the demonstrations of my disabled person-ness gives them license to grant violence to the external face of me. I don’t think it’s right to give in to demands that I pretend that passing doesn’t hurt me.

This afternoon, I’ll go shopping. At checkout, while I’ll smile at the register and answer questions from the check out person, chances are I won’t make eye contact. Chances are I’ll startle when someone shouts or drops something. Chances are I’ll flap in line, wander in a way someone else’s parent would characterize as aimless and pathological, cover my face or eyes or ears when things are “too much,” flinch when someone touches me in passing unexpectedly. I’ll stare and not be able to process a shelf display or two, and forget how much I need to get some bottled water because it looks like there’s so much stuff in the cart already.

And I will  be safe.

_________

This Post was inspired in part by “Dear ‘Autism Parents’” by Julia Bascom, as well as other writings of her’s at Just Stimming. I highly recommend going over there and reading more of her stuff. I also want to direct people to the writings of Amanda Forest Vivian at A Deeper Country whose writings have been helping to “percolate” these thoughts all summer.

This has been reprinted at Shift Journal.

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