Monday, March 7, 2016

On Bernie Sanders' Mental Health Comment at the Democratic Debate

An ugly statement, contextualized by his reliance on blaming mental illness for mass shootings, sprang forth from Bernie Sanders’ mouth at the Democratic Debate on Sunday in Flint, MI – the same place where he also decided to use people with disabilities as props for the Flint water crisis. While he said the following ugly words, I was on stage at a queer open mic yelling into the microphone a poem what it’s like to be autistic and trans and disabled and watch community members die.

"We are, if [I'm] elected president, going to invest a lot of money into mental health," Sanders said. "And when you watch these Republican debates, you know why we need to invest in mental health."

Ow. It was meant as a casual joke. But this is the kind of rhetoric that routinely perpetuates itself into systemic oppression against people with mental illness like myself. It says, “people with mental illness are responsible for oppressive violence. People with mental illness are responsible for racism, xenophobia, classism, homophobia, transphobia, and ableism.” We can certainly be all of the above things because above all we are people, but mental illness alone is not responsible for these things. For Bernie Sanders, who professes to be anti-bigotry and progressive, it is a low blow to ascribe these things to mental illness. It’s a cop-out.

And above all we are people. I raised my voice into the microphone to conclude the poem,

and the sun sinks through the trees while you’re holding
candles and mourning the dead into the morning and beyond into all throughout the year
writing statements and riding waves of emotion that threaten to choke you as surely as
all the murdered disabled and trans people were
and sometimes they’re both and you can’t
draw lines in yourself so you’re drawing lines in the sand and saying “no more”
it’s not knowing where the dread begins and ends in you
it’s not knowing where the dead begin and end in your heart

People with disabilities and mental illness die by a variety of methods every year, many of them murder and suicide. You would rather laugh at jokes made our expense than reform an ableist healthcare system (among other things) and society. No one is saying there’s not a need for better health care, especially for mental health care – but that doesn’t just involve making sure people can adequately access it, but that the healthcare itself isn’t going to compound the issue by treating the person as a problem to be dealt with and being ableist.

And when you talk about mental illness like it’s what’s wrong with the “moral decay” of America… and like it’s what’s wrong with the GOP… you sound like a eugenicist. You sound like the people who, decades and decades ago, held strength and power and influenced state legislation to sterilize us – disabled, mentally ill people (along with people of color and low-income people) – and you sound like the people who committed people with mental illness like me to first “madhouses,” and then later called them “asylums” and then “institutions” and “mental hospitals,” along with people with other disabilities to protect society from us.

You make us out responsible for the nation’s shortcomings, when in reality you have failed to initiate the proper funding and organization of community integration programs for us. You call deinstitutionalization a disaster, and refuse to spend money on community care. You are the reason people think we are horrifyingly dangerous and are more than willing to introduce legislation to strip our rights.

You call us responsible for the things wrong with society and sound like eugenicists.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

life lessons from a "difficult child"

In preschool, I ran circles around my classmates.

Here's the stack of novels she's read today.” The teachers would indicate a large stack of books in kindergarten in first grade to my mother. “Here's the amount of classwork she's done.” A stack of uncompleted worksheets.

I thought the psychiatrist's questions were rather pointless. His condescending manner struck me even as a young child. I couldn't express it in words, so I bit and threw anything I could at him. By the first grade he had given me diagnoses of Oppositional Defiant Disorder, ADHD, and anxiety.

Age 14: I am diagnosed as autistic alongside those.

Age 16: depression.

Throughout: Social skills work. Therapy. Psychiatrists. Medications.

My life has been a cocktail of medications prescribed as diagnoses tacked on each other. My body and brain rejected many of them. Some altered my mood dramatically; others made me fall asleep in class even when I didn't want to. A combination of them gave me seizures in college. I tried to bail from them cold turkey and wound up with withdrawal symptoms for six months. I have no idea what the current ones – a much nicer combination than the last combination – have done to my brain chemistry; I can't function without one of them at this point.

I was gone up the tree when someone stops looking. I was screaming at people who touched me. I was shredding paper and trashing my room and causing a ruckus. I had broken another electronic item; this time, it's by accident, but last time, I threw it.

I never had access to enough language to express my feelings, my past trauma that I didn't know had happened yet, my pent up rage at the turmoil my life constantly seemed to be in. I tried to put words to feelings that I didn't know about, to use words to explain, but it failed. The same words that were my refuge on paper, working on novels and typing out poetry and stories, failed me with trying to express my deepest feelings.

Everything is a pathology, something that needs prescribing for, because we are “too difficult” otherwise. We are to be behaviorally-modified and we are to be silenced one way or another. My life has been through this framework. People wondered how to “fix” me. I was “that kid,” the weird one who moved funny and talked funny and could only talk about cats and gerbils and books, who seemed either lost in their head or too loud and frenetic for this world, who ran off to investigate things without a moment's care of whether I lost track of who I was with.

And yet I was never “from hell.” No one with a disability is from hell, Alison M. Thompson, author of the Boy From Hell: Life With a Child with ADHD. You've gotten that book republished. Congrats, I guess, on implying that we are from an otherworldly dimension of fire and punishment. This is how people see us: punishments, burdens, deadweights.

What about us?

We read your stories and hear your words, no matter how lost in our heads we seem. We are not your experiments in how quiet and orderly you can make us. We live and experience trauma from the way people treat us – we should have your support of all people's to back us up against a world that thinks us a waste of space, not contributing to the pain and trauma. We live your words and your punishments, reared to feel defective and that we'll be only considered almost people if we pass by your standards.

I never learned to shut up and be still. I never learned how to limit the amount of space I take up. I never learned to modulate and self regulate for others' discomfort with my disabilities. I never will. It breaks my heart that people live with the exhaustion of self-regulating into silence or compliance. It breaks my heart that people are learning the ways they supposedly don't matter from the world and all the ways they move and communicate are supposedly wrong.

I work for a world where it is at least mostly safe to be disabled, visibly or not, anywhere, anytime, and no matter who you're with. It is exhausting and painful and sometimes triggering, and sometimes rewarding. I would do it without any of the rewards. It is important enough to me that I lose sleep on how to best benefit the disability community.

Because we are not disposable, or punishments, or wrong for existing. 


Note: I used she pronouns as a child