Parents

We are running up on the 2015 Disability Day of Mourning vigils (aka Day of Mourning 2015: Remembering People with Disabilities Murdered by Caregivers on March 1st) and it has me thinking about parents. Or more specifically, how parents react to the autistic and broader disability communities.

I kept asking people to consider hosting vigils, and too often there was push back that they were concerned that the parents in their community or the parents of their group members would fight it. Which I want to say puzzles me, but that isn’t quite right. I know what is happening here, it happens elsewhere too, but it still seems like nonsense.

First let us start off with this: Unless you’ve murdered or tried to murder your child, or actively fantasize about murdering your child, this isn’t about you. This event? Is not talking about all parents as some sort of blanket entity. It is acknowledging that while hopefully you, my reader, are not going to kill your kid or charge, there are people who do, and that that is wrong. I, and the disability community, want you to join us in saying “it is wrong to kill your kids. Period. Disability is no excuse, lack of services is no excuse. It is wrong.”

Saying that it isn’t okay to kill your kids isn’t about you, as a good parent. It isn’t, I promise! But it is important for you to join in on. You can’t tell, and we can’t tell, merely by looking that the parent next to you is also a good parent. The children who have survived can tell you that. The people who outlived a loved one who didn’t can too. So it is important to make sure that you are telling all parents, good and bad, this very simple thing- that disability status isn’t an excuse for murder. That murder is bad. It might feel too basic, but the cases we’ve heard of over the past several years show that when it comes to this issue it clearly isn’t. There’s still enough sympathy, enough rhetoric, that makes some people think it’s the better choice.

But the vigils for murder victims aren’t the only place I’m running into this issue. I do a lot of policy work. I have a deep love hate relationship with doing policy work, though part of the hate if I’m honest has to do with most of it currently requiring a minimum of a 5 hour drive each way. At some of these meetings parents come in and say some very reasonable things… but then are shocked when I add something that would put protections for their child from them. And every time, I have to tell them “I trust that you are a good parent. I trust that you have your child’s independence, safety, and access to community at heart. But not all parents are good. We have to make sure that their children are also protected.”

Some of them still will be upset. They really want, I think, to believe that if there was just the right services out there that all parents would think like them. I admit, that would be easier. But it’s not true. You can insert your token “and they say we don’t have theory of mind” joke here if you must. But there are parents who have done deeply horrific things to their disabled children, ending in their deaths.

But that’s just the more extreme horrors. I’ve also met people whose parents have told them, all the way up to age 40+, that they are not allowed to vote. In my state, that is not true- you can still vote in PA even if you are under guardianship. I’ve met people who have been told that if they move into a more independent situation, they will either be abused, or subject to more abuse. I know people who were abused before they went into a placement, and whose care givers hold that over their heads as something that will happen if they try again any time they ask for more independence. There are endless ways that a person can let their goodness fade away and reduce their loved one, to aim not for a better life but for one that is easier for the family or caregiver to manage.

And there’s contributing factors as to why these things happen. We have a lot of rhetoric that embraces the idea of people with disabilities being burdens. Sometimes there is explicit wording about our financial cost to our families, and sometimes it is more about all that time. When I was looking around for links on the Tutko case, I had to discard some of them because of how hard they framed things in that first week as being a case of the mother giving up family life to “care” for their kids. That was a deeply horrific case, one that later had that tone stripped as the neglect was extensive and the way that her rejection of help was tied to a history of child protective services was revealed. But it was still the default, and that is concerning. That is how deeply that burden rhetoric has permeated.

Again, I trust that you reading this are good people, good parents. Some might even say that’s too trusting, but I’m going to trust you anyhow. I’m going to trust that when you talk to your kids, you are letting them know it’s not okay for anyone to harm them or to kill them. That you fight for and with them, but listen to them in whatever way they communicate. That you let them know that they are loved, period, and that that love is about them, not about anything else.

And I’m going to ask you to not fight against us, to not be defensive, but instead to stand with us when we say, “no, it’s not okay.”

Impact

[Content: mentions of murder, attempted murder, and ableism; internalized ableism; suicidal ideation]

This is a difficult post to write. It’s always difficult, of course, to touch on the subjects of murder and ableism, and on how they are excused. It’s more difficult to talk about the impacts in personal ways, ways that are your own lived responses and realities, rather than as abstracts. There’s a distance to the abstracts that keep you feeling safe, even though you know you aren’t. And this doesn’t even account for the risks that writing about those impacts can have on you personally. It is, plainly, all around difficult.

As a child and teen, I mainly just shrugged off these representations as I heard them. They may not have been as prevalent in the media I consumed, but they were, as they are today, “normal” things to hear. But just because something is de rigor doesn’t mean they are truly forgotten at all, even when they hold no special importance in the moment. Those words and memories are still in there, waiting for another train of thought to hook into them and pull them to the surface. It might be later that day or a decade away, but when you fish for something to carry you out of distress, sometimes you hook a poisonous fish instead.

A couple of months ago, I had a melt down that morphed quickly into a break down. I had spent the day cleaning and babysitting. I did have my mother around to help, which is why I was able to overcome my initiation problems, but this is still a major energy expenditure. By the time we got to the laundromat, my spoons were spent with several hours still left to go.  So when my niece put laundry in the wrong machine I snapped out “What are you doing” instead of a “That’s the wrong dryer honey.” She cried, and my mother responded with a “She’s still 4, you can’t expect her to know what to do.” And at that point the last spoons that I use to guard my thoughts was gone. I couldn’t stop crying, or saying horrible things about myself.

Instead of falling on the ground in a ball, as I sometimes do when I have a meltdown from spoon loss, I tried to latch on to something mentally to restrain myself from melting into a quivering mass on the floor in public. I needed to finish there instead of going home to melt in private, both because it’s less private there on cleaning days and because I didn’t have any more clean clothes. That was not a good situation, and pushed beyond the point that I could handle all I could reach were the “poisonous fish” in my attempts to keep afloat.

Aloud, I said things and used words about myself that I would never say in a normal state. I’ve reformatted my language so I don’t use the R-word, yet here I was calling myself one aloud in public. There was no filter left through which to moderate my speech, let alone my thoughts. As things escalated, the thoughts got worse even when the words got less specific. In that state, with nothing left to hold off the combination of anxiety and traumatic memory, my thoughts started regurgitating things I’ve heard in Tetris like reconfigurations.

Why didn’t they kill me when I was a kid and they could have some sympathy for it? Why would they keep such and expensive burden?  Why am I still alive?*

It’s a horrible set of thoughts to have. It isn’t about the sort of person my mother is- my mother is wonderful and doesn’t really understand how someone could intentionally kill their child with or without disabilities, and doesn’t even get why anyone was okay with the “I am Adam Lanza’s Mother” post. As much as much of my sense of worthlessness when I’m at a bad spot are an effect of the first two men she married, where my thoughts ended up going weren’t, as far as I can recall, a direct reference to my past.

It is, however, an internalization of the messages, responses, and dehumanization within our media. It’s every time a parent acts like having homicidal fantasies, masked in “mercy” language or not, about their disabled kid is “normal” or “natural,” every time telling them it isn’t is met with “you don’t know what it’s like.” It’s certain groups of people deciding it’s okay to lay blame at the hands of autistic adults for not giving up everything to put themselves between an autistic child and their would be/actual murderer- even when we’ve provided resources for those who are willing to listen. It’s every time the media calls reporting sympathy for the murder of the disabled making things “fair and balanced.”

These things are pervasive. And when something is culturally pervasive, it does become internalized. Even when you are someone that actively fights for cultural change, someone who can, if only in text, tell you exactly why and how oppressive structures damage people in our society. Even when you are someone who knows that the diversity of disability is evidence of humanity’s strength as a species.

If you think that these murders, or the way that our media talks about them, makes sense then I’m sorry- you are, as Beth said in her recent post, already at rock bottom. All I’m asking is that you don’t drag me and other people with disabilities down with you.

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* Please don’t worry. I have support networks in place, I’m not actually in danger of attempting anything. I shouldn’t have to say this, but trust me I have family that will help me if I actually am at the point of needing to decide if the hospital is the right choice. And no, right now it is not. Thank you. 

I started this back in September(the “A Couple of months ago” was initially “a couple of days ago”), but it took me until today to feel like I had finished it. Originally I was going to link to writings on how media portrayals of this type of violence impacts how other people treat us, but was unable to work through it. Feel free to share links on the subject below.