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Meditations on privilege

Naming pain

The first mental health carnival is just starting. The theme is diagnosis, which is good, because it is something I have been thinking about a lot as the days get shorter and my nights get so long.

I’ve been depressed for more than a decade. Which makes my heart hurt so badly every time I think it. But then there’s a little shrug and I think, “yeah, that sounds about right.” Starting when I was about twelve, the crushing sadness set in, with OCD, anxiety, self-harm, and suicide attempts. It’s hard for me to remember a lot of the past eleven years, and chronology is especially difficult.

Lately, it has been coming back, but it feels too like there is something else in my head. The feeling of inaccessible thoughts isn’t new, nor the discomforting sensation that there is absolutely nothing in my head (I can go hours without thinking a discrete thought, doing nothing more than repeating a line or two from a song that doesn’t hold any particular significance). But these same old feelings have never felt quite like this.

Lately, my body hurts, for no good reason. A burning pain in my joints, especially my fingers, my wrists, my elbows, my ankles. I wrap them because that makes them feel better and reminds me not to lift too much, but I never know what to say when people ask what is wrong. I don’t know what is wrong. I just know it hurts.

So I spend a lot of time now Googling. Is the fogginess how my newly testosterone-wired brain is dealing with a lack of testosterone and interpreting the first huge depression I’ve had in a few years? (Is this the first huge depression I’ve had in a few years? Each time, it feels new and worse.) Do I have post-concussion syndrome from a decade of beating my head against walls and with my fists when I start to panic– injuries that make my ears ring and my vision narrow and go dark? Is the pain being sad enough that every little thing happening in my body feels magnified, so the normal aches and pains become unbareable? Is it lupus? Fibro? RA? Am I imagining it all?

The problem with the urge to name is that the diagnosis becomes the only justification. It’s not enough for me to forget what you just said because my brain is foggy. Is it enough if it is foggy because of TBI? I couldn’t stop crying yesterday. Par for the course for someone in crisis mode, but I would have felt even more selfish for doing it if I couldn’t justify it with my depression. The problem with that is that it can bring us quickly into a sort of essentialism where the problem isn’t the problem, the diagnosis is the problem. Where it’s not enough to feel or experience

Filed under: Disability and Ability

That’s stupid: Saying what we mean

On Womanist Musings, Renee has a post up apologizing for her ableist language in the form of the word “crazy”. I am a former and occasional crazy person, by which I mean that throughout high school and some of college I had an alternate education plan to help to address my emotional problems and their presentation in the classroom. Near the end of my first year of college, I also checked myself into a hospital where I spent the first three days screaming off and on and keeping a tally of my panic attacks. And this past week I had a three-day-long, slow-burn freak out because my friend touched my side. So the word “crazy” as a generic insult should, perhaps, be close to my heart. But it’s not particularly. Renee’s post got me thinking about why that might be.

When I was in high school, I started hanging out with a girl who is developmentally delayed and became involved with Best Buddies (a group which pairs DD people and non-DD people). I began to realize how much of the common insult vernacular (for want of a better term) has to do with intelligence. When I, as president of the GSA, lead trainings, I’d often ask “what do you mean when you say ‘that’s so gay?'” Usually the response was “that’s stupid,” so I’d urge them to use that term instead. “When you say ‘gay’ where you mean ‘stupid,’ you’re saying gay people are stupid. Just say what you mean.”

It took me a long time to realize that terms like “stupid,” “idiot,” and “moron” speak directly to someone’s “intelligence.” In fact, I can’t say it really hit me for years, even after one lunch time when I played Trivial Pursuit with several of the people in my friend’s class. One of her teachers told me that they had noticed a card that used offensive language and asked me to take it out if I came across it. I asked what it was, so that I could look for it, and she got uncomfortable, unsure how to phrase it, and said “it involves the sort of people we teach in this room.” The card asked about the IQ of people with the diagnosis “moron.”

That was probably five years ago, and I am still working on trying to find better insults. I’ve been disabled by my brain’s misfirings  but I still use “crazy”. Words like these are so ingrained in our shared language that they are almost invisible unless aimed at you. This is, of course, the essence of privilege: failing to (have to) realize that the potential for these words to harm is not theoretical and that their pervasiveness doesn’t dull the tips of these invisible daggers.

For my part, I am making a point of using better words that more correctly label whatever problem I have identified. This requires me to actually think about what I dislike about someone or something and to articulate that.It means that my language is more effective and less prone to distract with unintended meaning.

Instead of saying someone is “stupid”, I say they are “not thinking”, or that they “don’t make sense”. Instead of calling a situation “crazy”, I can say it is “out of control”. Rather than “that’s lame” I can say “I don’t like that.”

What words do you use as a shorthand for things that seem out of place, unwanted, or wrong? What is the implication of those terms? What better replacements have you found?

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