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.