I’m not a side story

… But going by the stories out there, you’d never know it.

A few months ago, I had a dream. There was buddies and lovers and hijinx and fabulous clothes and lots of fun. Sounds like a pretty cool dream, right? Except when I woke up, I realized it was a nightmare.  For having seen all these fabulous things happening in my dream, when I woke up I came to the realization that it was not my narrative arc that the dream was following. I was a side character in it- a part so small I barely had a name in it, a character so minor that even in a romance novel series that pairs a couple up per book, my character wouldn’t have a book. I was the character who existed only in order to give reactions to the actions of the character the narrative followed, more object than person, more context than character. When I woke up, I sobbed silently into my pillow for more than an hour in the pre-dawn morning.

The framework this nightmare was built on didn’t blossom up from my mind alone. It grew out of a lifetime of the media we, as a society, consume seeding itself there. Very rarely are stories- particularly love stories- the stories of disabled folks living their lives. Too often when they are, they become pity fests, or the disabled love interest exists primarily to teach the non-disabled love interest a lesson about life. (And primarily these are still white, hetrosexual relationships.)

Living without seeing your reflection in media is hard. Trying to picture what it would be like to marry, or parent, when there’s so little media to help us think about those things realistically is hard. It’s soul crushing. And it permeates past your conscious efforts, right into what’s inside of you. Eventually, hopes that look pretty normal seem like fantasy. You stop being able to picture yourself doing the things that you hoped for, which makes working towards them that much harder.

And it’s not like it’s easy to begin with. Beyond just the difficulty of life in general, when you are a person with a disability there are additional factors.

There’s a moment in your life when you are disabled- or trans, or queer, or a PoC or…- when you realize that in most of the media you consume the people who do actually seem like you aren’t there to be fully realized characters. You are the comic relief, or an instrument of change. You are the reason that the “real” characters learn to grow up, or take their first stand against an enemy. You aren’t the protagonist yourself.

When the story is over, the characters like you go unremarked or are carefully wrapped up and put back where they “belong.” This goes for Rain Man as much as for the recent Bones episode “Heiress on the Hill”- while they deal with different disabilities and were made more than two decades apart, both end with the surprise brother going back to the “nice” private institution where it is said that they “belong.” That Bones decided to do this, more than two decades and the Olmsted decision since Rain Man, broke my heart. I stuck with the show, but now… I’m too disgusted to go back. There are less restrictive settings for people with that level of MH support needs. I would know- I’ve helped write policy about them. And even if there weren’t, we could have seen Bones and Booth put money towards FUNDING the development of less restrictive settings instead of how it went down. I feel betrayed. I started watching the show because there weren’t many women like Bones on TV, women with a lot of autistic traits who uses her special interest to understand the world, and now… I can’t.

I’m not the only person who has talked about this, about finding characters who are like you, who move like you, who live like you. Who have talked about the first time they met themselves in literature or film. It can be empowering, and it can also be harrowing- empowering because representation matters, harrowing because too often it’s sterotypes, because when we grow up and look back we realize our relief clouded things, because it’s so hard to find.

*When I read Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl, there was one thing that really suck with me about it, and that was the protagonist’s father. Too often, parents with mental health disabilities are displayed as incompetent at best, often pitiable and where not as villain. But here I felt like he was considered a good father by the protagonist- a man who might make some mistakes, yes, and one whose MHD impacts his life a lot, yes. But in the end he is a good father, and a good man. This was very powerful to me- when I was younger, I figured perhaps it would be best if I didn’t have children. I’d only seen bad things happen in the stories I saw or read about parents with MHDs, and assumed that it would be horrible for my kids. That the pattern I had at that time of going to the hospital every 2 years for a stay would stretch out forever, that my kids would end up bouncing in between me and my mother forever. I thought I should plan hard enough to not want kids, and tried to squash down any desire to.

*And then my niece was born, and I realized that I really do want to be a parent some day. Because of physical health issues there’s a chance I’ll need extra help to become a parent, but it is something I want. And it’s funny- I haven’t been in the hospital for MH stuff since before then, and she’s 5, and will be 6 in the fall. Along the way I had begun uprooting the ableism that was embedded in me, and continue to do so. So finally seeing a positive yet realistic depiction of someone with an MHD (aka Serious Mental Illness or SMI) being a loved parent- even if he’s one that needs help sometimes- was very affirmative for me.

*There’s still that his story was a side story, yes, and it wasn’t exactly a life full of romantic relationships for him. Which is why I want to talk about The Fault in Our Stars super quickly. (I know some people hate the author, but I don’t so I ask that you keep author critiques on your own pages thanks!) It’s a book that treats people whose lives are often seen as tragic and cut too short as being full people. That their lives are or are likely to be short doesn’t make their lives less meaningful or valuable or worth living. It doesn’t prevent them from having complex thoughts and feelings about their lives. And it doesn’t prevent them from falling in love and *gasp* having romantic relationships that include being sexual. That was really powerful for me, as it was for a lot of other people.

Atop a pile of boxed up books is a red sign with blue-ish text reading, "We need diverse books because without them, I have trouble being the protagonist of my own dreams." With sheep turning into "Zs" around it are a cane, a Fluttershy plushie, and a Dora doll

This week, there’s an effort called #WeNeedDiverseBooks going on. May 1st, they are putting out submitted pictures (mine is above) talking about why it’s important that marginalized people are represented in literature, especially in children’s and young adult books. May 2nd, there will be a twitter chat at 2pm under the hashtag #WeNeedDiverseBooks- though the tag has been active since at least April 28th so feel free to join any time. (I’m @nicocoer.) On May 3rd, there’s going to be an effort to have folks buy, request, and share books about marginalized people and by marginalized authors. (You can find more details in this post.) I encourage you to check it out and to submit to the efforts as well.

It was this effort that helped me finally finish this post after months of working on it. I’m sure I could write more on this. I’m sure I could write more on how impactful it can be. But there’s too much to do that and ever really feel like I’m finished. And it goes, obviously, beyond disability- as many of the others involved in #WeNeedDiverseBooks can and are testifying, there’s too few representations of PoC, of people who don’t fall in the peak of the size bell curve, of people whose faith is not Christian (in the USA at least), or of a wide range of other folks. And what representations there are too often suffer from the same, similar, or analogous issues to those described above.

And none of us- none of us, period- should see ourselves as sidekicks of our own stories.

______

It’s also, coincidentally, Blogging Against Disablism Day on May 1st. Please go forth and check out the other posts being entered.

*Edited in. Forgot I hadn’t written it yet, oops. ~Bad Brains Princess at work~!

 

Messy

I don’t think it is a uniquely Autistic trait to desire things be cut and dry, for the lines and sides to be clearly defined, for things to be clearly explained. Perhaps the intensity with which we cling to it can be, and thus the frustration and bewilderment some of us have when it turns out not to be the case being so heightened. I disagree with calling it black and white thinking, because I think that negates the fact that complex mechanisms can be clearly defined if you know well enough what you are talking about.

I think instead it is one of the human things to various degrees. Obviously, not all humans feel this pull the same amount. But it is safe. While there are some people who engage in risk-seeking behavior, for many that I’ve communicated with deliberate risk seeking is about facing or even fighting off the fear that safety makes feel inevitable. When you retreat entirely into safety, everything outside of it can become frightening, unpredictable, a risk. Sometimes I do have to ask, though, if it’s truly risk-seeking, or if it is a form of fear-avoidance.

I went through a phase the year I graduated High School where I wanted to be something I wasn’t. While others might not gauge the risks I took to be the same as “risk-seeking”, it was the same mental process. But it was on the scale of who I am and how small a safety zone I have inside me. It was terrifying and running on adrenaline and “proving” that it was something I could do. It was mildly self destructive, and I had my first major agoraphobic episode the following year. I spent 6 months only able to leave the lot the little house I lived in with direct supervision, to places I knew were both known and safe– my mother’s and doctor offices. And my mother’s was once a month and only because my then Roommate/boy friend had to return to our home town for National Guard drills.

Our stories and feelings are all messy, complex. And as much as I believe complex things can be explained, broken down into the tiny moving parts like clockwork bits, there are things which defy it. I want desperately to believe in a unifying theory, much like Einstein to whom the quote “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” is commonly attributed. But some things aren’t predictable, are running on quantum mechanics, are inherently uncertain. Sometimes there are factors other than not understanding something (communication disorders included!) that make the totality of our circumstances and world more than what some people can explain simply. Perhaps another person could, but when it comes to the experiences rather than the facts? Things are incredibly messy, and the end of our narratives uncertain.

Einstein tried to find the Unified Field Theory until his death, becoming more and more isolated from contemporary physics work. It remains one of the unsolved physics problems. There is a lot of hope to someday reach that, and one of the reasons why people seem so excited about the Higgs-Boson particle is that if it is more than to be expected perhaps someday it could lead there. I have hope that someday I’ll have the words to tell my own stories in simple terms, and that each attempt will lead to more than to be expected.

I have a post in my drafts about Physical Therapy, about body awareness, and about changing over time and what that has meant. I couldn’t continue writing it, though, because it became messy. I started out going straight forward about the things that I’ve perceived differently but generally beneficially about my body in space. But then I was hit with a flare in my joint pain– and the only different thing that had been added was that I had started a Tai Chi class modified for people with issues similar to mine. I had done this to work further on body awareness and my sense of self and movement in space. I ended up spending the next day in bed, and the next several days in a lot of pain.

It is an inherently messy thing, this shift in both knowledge and perception. It came from something that seemed to have a lesser risk than other things I’ve done, and it was unknowable until it happened. Indeed, until afterwards when my body had settled down from the endorphins enough to be aware of the consequences. It’s a reminder of the uncertainty of everything, that we cannot predict everything, as much as even Einstein wanted us to.

When I wanted to be someone else, and even before that, my feelings around disability were messy and striving. While I embraced that I am “crazy”, a person with significant mental health issues, I avoided desperately the other parts of my being that were disabled. I clung to intellect, avoided and denied many of the conversations about my possibly having a developmental disability, swore that I no longer struggled with the same issues that delayed my ability to read by years, avoided the discussion of my experiences of selective mutism. I tried desperately to be “just” crazy, just a manic pixie girl (I never fit the dream part), to suit a limited sphere of what I thought was safe to be.

There are things that I said and sometimes even believed then that I hate myself for today. Eugenics, something I am now fiercely, passionately against seemed somehow a differentiation then, something to prove I wasn’t a “them” with. I used the R word profusely, partially out of habit and partially to distance myself from the times I had been called that as a child. I clung to academic achievements not only because it was something in an environment that I could achieve in, but that I hoped it would contradict the times I had been told my worthlessness. Towards the end of that period of my life I started to see the things I had talent in as simply talents, but before that it was the way to prove myself, to tell people I was not what they wanted to predict of me.

My past is hideously messy. The things I did well, the skills I learned, are overshadowed in my mind by this– how much I didn’t want to be me, and how much I was guided by a desire to deny half the things that form my experiences. It’s horrible, and messy, and confronting that is hard. I know that much of it was ableism, internalized and let to fester, but I still hate that that is a part of my past. That I could have been that person, and to be the person I am now. To desire the ambition and impetuous while despising the things that surrounded and directed it.

It is messy, and it is uncomfortable. It is also true.

_____

I am a layperson when it comes to physics. I’m sure I’ve over simplified or mis-connected some physics bits. But they are the simplifications and mis-connections that best analogize the emotions I have right now about this topic. If you want actual physics awesomeness, I do rec that you check out Minute Physics on Youtube. (Note: I don’t think they are captioned, though I do believe that their production team would be open to use captions that people produce, as time and budget are the big barriers.)

Rocking (and Flapping) at a 1000 Revolutions a Minute

[Content warning: Mentions of Ableism; Censored use of the r-word; Abusive Treatment]

I made it down to an occupy site!

I am in the DC area this week for a variety of things. So Tuesday afternoon I went down to the site at McPherson Square for a couple of hours. It was significant for me in part because although I’ve been really active with work groups at Occupy Pittsburgh, and been doing a lot of Occupy disability work, I’ve yet to make it down to any physical site. (Mainly it is an intersection of disablity and transport issues.) So it was exciting.

I stayed for a while, but I ended up leaving 10-15 minutes earlier than I had intended. Turns out the people in the tent behind the sidewalk where I had plopped down were Ron Paul supporters, and they got their supplies out and what not. I decided I’d rather not have my disabled self be used to create support for someone whose policy platforms tend to be counter to the needs of people with disabilities.

I made a youtube video of a portion of my time on site. (And yes, it is captioned, thanks to Universal Subtitles.)

The reason this is getting its’ own post and not getting lumped in comes from a comment on this I got from Urocyon on Google plus. She commented about how even thought stimming makes her feel like she’s releasing tension from trying not to, it is uncomfortable for her as an adult to stim in public.

I responded with-

 I think that those feelings is what makes rocking or flapping in public so… well, revolutionary and powerful. Because we’ve had those thoughts that it’s bad or wrong or something to hide ground into us to the point where we doubt ourselves and our right to exist as we are in public spaces…

Rocking and flapping and spinning and humming and pacing and racing and- well, and stimming some how becomes a challenge to those things we’ve internalized about our rights to live as we are. It is somehow this reclaiming of some part of us that we love but that we were told is wrong.

We have been told that these basic steps of self care- and that often is what it ends up being in a way- are wrong. Quiet Hands and You look like /are acting like a R[-word] and people will think you are crazy and countless other stories, these are the things we were told from a young age about how we are bad and wrong. We are trained fiercely to assimilate into a world that doesn’t want us, but other people in the warm bodies we inhabit and strangers they can love to move in behind our faces.

The week before I sat in the park and rocked, feeling my defiance, I spent several nights wishing I didn’t exist. I knew all the things I talk about here intellectually, but that base part of me is still filled with the remembered abuse of my past. The most prevalent are those that were excused at the time as treatment while speaking words describing me as a burden and my being as a barrier.

So, in the face of stress, the only answer that came to me is that I should not exist. I sat rocking and blubbering the late nights away while my sister was sleeping fighting those things from my past that still live in my head. This time I won, but today I saw a friend who was saying of herself the same things- I should not exist. This is a friend who is passionate about her rights as a person with disabilities (among other things), and still the thought- I should not exist.

When the things that make up a part of who we are is so suppressed, how can it not be revolutionary to rock in public? How could I not include this part of myself when protesting a system that treats people without economic means as worthless? Why shouldn’t I stim in the face of a world- one both outside and inside- that tells me that I, too, am worthless? (If you are new, I am indeed fond of rhetorical questions.)

I am stimming 1000 revolutions a minute when I go out and stim at a protest. I’m being Autistic, fat, disabled, queer, poor, covering, and many other things in public when I am in public, and being visible here is bringing all of those things out and into a space where revolution can happen. I am speeding our revolutions while joining their revolutions, even if it is only that tiny amount that visibility brings.

But revolution can happen in places that aren’t big protest sites too. Protest can happen even when you are alone, the only person to see it yourself and the only mind it will change is that part of you that believes what we’ve been taught. That is revolution at the most basic element- being able to change our own minds to make a more equitable world.

So yes, I rock (and flap, and…) 1000 revolutions a minute. We all do, when we dare to be who we are without apology, and dare to confront that which tells us we shouldn’t exist or aren’t worthy. We do when we dare to exist freely as people with disabilities, as Autistics, as all of the things we are.

We are a 1000 revolutions a minute.

Republished at Persephone Magazine November 28th 2011.