Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Embodiment, interconnection and oppression: coming out as depressed and how Robin Williams death made me realize that mental illness is more than just a chemical imbalance.

Like many people, I am shocked and saddened by the suicide of Robin Williams. His suicide has fortunately or unfortunately been a catalyst for many conversations and articles about mental illness.  While I am glad that mental illness is being discussed in a mostly honest  and respectful way, I find most of the discussions to be somewhat lacking, despite the fact that they are also very  refreshing. Confused by my reactions, I am using this post to explore the thoughts behind  my feeling that the current discussion of mental illness is not enough.  I am not dismissing the necessity of addressing the stigma that surrounds mental illness and/or suicide I believe that  addressing this stigma can and will save lives.  However, I also believe that we must expand the current conversation on mental illness and suicide to include the topics of oppression, structural violence and discrimination. I believe that any other discussion on mental illness without addressing the impact of  these social forces on illnesses like depression, and access to treatment, may become  superficial and privileged. After all,  mental illness, like everything else in the world, does not exist within a vacuum.

 As always, I will use my own experience to exemplify and  further explore my claims. For example, I am a queer, white, physically disabled woman. My identity, as well as  my privilege  shape my  experience of mental illness every day. First, micro-aggressions, discrimination and internalized shame have fueled, at various times, feelings of  insecurity, hopelessness,  and depression. When I was 13, I was suicidal due mostly to how I processed   the shame that I internalized about my disablity. Even my very first encounter with the mental health system,  was rooted in both my early reactions to ableism, (My mother took me to a therapist as a child to help me accept my disability), and being the recipient of privilege that afforded me  access to therapeutic care.

 Furthermore, despite my privilege,  the marginalized parts of my identity can also  negatively affect my access to safe mental health treatment.   In the past, I have received therapy from some ableist, sexist, and/or homophobic men. From ages 13-16 I had a therapist who was openly homophobic and who encouraged me to come to the sessions wearing make up, so if I ran into  his male patients, I would look pretty. As I grew older, I was often confused about our therapy sessions and at times felt victimized. Then, at age 16, I came out as bisexual to a new therapist  He dismissed my sexuality by simply responding 'no you're not' and moving on. He was the first person that I came out to. Finally, I had a therapist in 2011  who was convinced that my episode of depression was caused exclusively by the fact that I was living with CP.  He refused to believe that my disability was no longer an issue of emotional distress for me and wouldn't address   any other areas of my life. I was left feeling resentful and silenced, and could not, at the time, get another therapist.   I believe that if I was a straight, able bodied, male, my experience in the mental health system  would  have been very different and even safer. Mental illness, therefore, must be discussed  in the same way that  we discuss gender, race, sexuality and class, as it is affected by all of  these factors, and like them, it is often an embodied and complex experience/ identity.

I urge people to think about mental illness on a level that is deeper than just talking about the diseases, or on a level that is deeper than how Robin Williams may have experienced it.  We have to ask ourselves why the dominant conversations around mental illness are led by the dominant group and how we as individuals are playing a part in this biased and privileged system. We have to even look at and discuss the way oppression affects how people with mental illness are treated in the disability community and also why many people  mental illness refuse to identify as  being disabled.  We have to wonder why there aren't mandatory trainings on undoing the isms in every mental health curriculum and  why it seems that most mental health treatment is designed specifically for white, upper class, able bodied, straight men. Why are we talking about mental illness without also talking about how  mental health is a  privilege?    Everything is interconnected. Let's use this awareness to start solving the problems in the mental health system. Everyone should at the very least get a chance to explore options other than suicide. I have depression, and I may always struggle with it, but it is more than just a chemical imbalance, in many ways,  it may be the way my brain reacts to  societal imbalances. Nothing exists in a vacuum.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Reclaiming my body: the relationship between soil and my crip identity.

Often, I feel like my body has never been my own. Since I was young, it has been treated like a collection of muscles that work the 'wrong way' and bones that may turn the 'wrong way' . To get through numerous medical appointments I perfected the art of being disconnected from my own body. Lost in my own nature.

Gardening is healing that disconnect.  Perhaps, my  learned conflict and unease with my own body is akin to the conflict and disconnect most people feel  with the earth, the soil and the food they consume. The more I garden, the more I learn how to breathe into my body and connect with it as a part of nature, and not a diagnosis. My body is part of an ecosystem and an atmosphere that sustains life on earth.I breathe in Oxygen and let out Carbon Monoxide, while  trees take in my CO2 and emit oxygen.  I am a functional part of nature, and no leg brace can change that.

However, have we all become consumerists in and of our own bodies? Are we as disconnected to our nature, as we are to the worker who constructs the material products we purchase? Has our sense of community and  self become so fractured that we have  willing turned our bodies into commodities bought  and sold by the medical industrial complex and the media?

I think every time I touch the soil I reclaim my body as my own. Every time I help build community, I reclaim my spirit as my own.  Perhaps,I am not a crip or a krip or any other label. Perhaps social labels, in general are just another way to turn identities into commodities; to divide and organize society. Isn't that how targeted advertisement works? Maybe, if I just strive to be a 'radical compassionalist',  to learn pride through practicing compassion and community, I will find the answers I seek.

How Martin Luther King saved my life

  I spent some time this past MLK day, reflecting on the healing powers of community and advocacy. The legacy of Martin Luther King has saved my life numerous times.  The first time I learned about Martin Luther King in elementary school, I saw a recording of his 'I have a Dream' speech and chills shot up my spine. As Dr. King spoke, I felt less like the "different" child that peers and teachers had to work to accept. His speech introduced me to three core  concepts that have been critical to my survival as a queer, disabled woman:

  •  I'm not responsible for the way society views and/or treats my body. Nothing is innately wrong with how I move, I am not ill; it is society's view of my body that is problematic.
  •   I am not the only person who is treated as 'different' or denied opportunities. 
  •  I am not as powerless as society would have me believe. I can create change. 

Of course, at 7 or 8 years old, the way I verbalized or understood the above concepts differed greatly from how I understand them today. However, my young age did not prevent a rudimentary awareness of oppression, community, and advocacy  to be  planted in my psyche. An awareness that would later support me in my internal struggles against learned and oppressive thoughts. Even as a young child,  I  accepted and internalized the various social "truths" told to me about my body on almost a daily basis. By 7 or 8 years old a hole began to grow in my soul, a hole that eventually grew so big, I no longer new myself separate from various forms of validation.  The social 'truths' I accepted had  effectively isolated me from my own body and community. One day, I asked my father if I spoke about the speech  when I came home from school that day. My father remembers that I told him           ' somebody understands me; I'm not alone'.  And that very true and transformative realization of community even in oppression, never left me.  And so the cycle of self - discovery and healing through justice  was able to  begin, even before I fully understood injustice .

 At sixteen years old, I decided that social justice wasmy purpose in life and if I helped future disabled or marginalized youth navigate life with happiness and pride along the way, I would be complete. However, I harbored hatred for my disabled body until my mid twenties. Throughout high school and periods of adulthood, I wouldn't even go out on dates when asked, because I was convinced people would eventually be embarrassed by me. It didn't matter what I knew intellectually about justice, I was still ruled by many learned and oppressive thoughts.Oppression (defined as the 'exercise of authority or power in a burdensome, cruel, or unjust manner'), when internalized can create such an isolating soul sickness.

Internalized oppression burned my soul and charred my bones, and as an advocate, I now, feel guilty that I still get wounded.  However even in my most shame full days,  Martin Luther King's legacy always  gave me hope  for change and justice. He taught me that I did not have to accept my marginalization in society, that I could speak truth to power, and  fight for a better life.  Friedrich Nietzsche said 'He who has a why to live can bear almost any how', and it was the ideology and advocacy of Martin Luther King gave me a 'why' to live.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Geography (part 1)

What is the geography of the voice in the body? What is the effect of the embodiment of silence?

Disability is  often viewed in society as something to overcome. Something to look past. Something to ignore and  something definitely not to stare at.   In a general sense, (and this can be exemplified through the geographical lay out of cities and buildings; how people with disabilities are represented in the media; government policy; lack of accessible sexuality and sexual health education; the education system; and how many individuals both able- bodied and minded and non able- bodied and minded perceive and relate to each other), disability is something to be silenced.

I often find myself automatically embodying that silence, it is full of voids that somehow get lost in my body.

One effect is that I struggle

 with the thought or self - induced pressure of having to be the skinniest and sexiest female with a disability. I think that because I walk differently, I have to be extra skinny or extra sexy to compensate for what society views as a damaged body.  The thought that I have to compensate for the body that I was born into is akin to me thinking that I owe someone, somewhere,an apology for my body and/or mind. This pattern of thinking can be disabling.

In my womb, lives a diagnosis, a fetus with ductape covering her mouth and eyes. My uterus is  home to leg braces, old walkers, broken wheel chairs, anti - anxiety medications, written food plans, and business cards with appointment reminders scribbled on them. I am swollen, sometimes nauseated. I am not  depressed or self pitying.  I am the redefining of a diagnosis. I am the first draft of new, empowered narratives. I am  a female crip aborting the silence I was impregnated with. I am a voice developing.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Sexual empowerment and the practice of pride (1)

I.My practice of pride begins in my stomach
a red ball of energy kept warm within my womb.

I'm growing. My arms span wider, my legs stand straighter, my thighs are stronger. The shackles of shame loosened, my body is better able to breathe under its weight. Once constricted, twisted, and contorted by the medical labels of 'cerebral palsy' and 'disability'; my limbs, muscles, and bones are now untangling through the power in crip and community.

II. Pride, a red ball of energy kept warm within my womb
drops like an egg, and travels down my inner thighs

I'm growing. Lost shame has left spaces in my flesh, craters in my bones and dents in my muscles. Wounds so deep, that I feel a cool emptiness enter my body where the shame exists. Wounds so deep, that sometimes I wonder if it is possible to ever be whole without shame.

III. Pride, a red ball of energy kept warm within my womb,
drops and traces the curves of my hips with her two gentle fingers.
I feel her pressure on my bones.
Her warmth makes my stomach tingle
I see her red, five fingered hand prints on my skin.

Can you?


Sunday, November 28, 2010

"And as we let our own light shine, we unconciously give other people permission to do the same." - Nelson Mandela

Pride as a practice. Pride as a process. Pride as progress, not perfection.

I am thirteen years old. My walk is the best it has ever been. A girl on the school bus, just asked me if I sprained my ankle. I replied "No. I have Cerebral Palsy". She didn't believe me. She thought I was too "normal".

I am thirteen years old, hiding in a closet, crying. My body is curled. My back is bent from the weight of pain. I want to die. Hot, hate - filled tears flood my bright red cheeks. My forehead hurts from the pressure of raging sadness. I am crazed by the fact that I will walk differently for the rest of my life, I will be crippled for the rest of my life, I will always be viewed as less than for the rest of my life. My soul feels trapped. It's not fair.

I am sixteen years old. I am sitting at my desk looking at a magazine ad that reads do something powerful. I begin to think about how disabled people are portrayed in the media. I get angry. I begin to realize that the problem in my life, isn't my body, rather, the problem is how society views and defines my body. I vow then and there to work for disability rights; I vow then and there, to never again let myself be silenced by a lie.

I am eighteen years old. I am reading a speech on social justice and disability at my high school. It is the annual Martin Luther King celebration. I am terrified, but I speak,. A couple months later, I will go onto win a diversity award for that speech; a couple months later , I will go onto win a scholarship for that speech. Most importantly, however, a couple of weeks later, I will overhear a classmate saying how much he hated my speech. "No one would care about her disability, if she didn't talk about it." His words would shake me to the core: was I wrong to speak out about social justice? Is discrimination my fault? His words would make me realize that my feelings about my own disability had little to nothing to do with the need for justice in the world. My feelings and fear surrounding advocacy, would not disappear, but they would lose significance.

I am twenty five years old. I decide to go visit an old physical therapist. As per usual, she wants to watch me walk. She remarks on how well I am doing. She inquires about whether or not I will get a surgery that will correct my walk. For the first time in my life, I realize that I am not obsessed with erasing my limp; for the first time in my life, I realize that I am perfectly fine with walking imperfectly for the rest of my life; for the first time in my life, I don't view my body as a mistake that needs to be fixed. It's just my body, and it's damn beautiful and it deserves a space/place in society. For the first time in my life, I feel a huge weight lift off my soldiers. I cry tears of happiness and gratitude. My intellectual philosophy of pride and advocacy has finally been integrated into my body. I am no longer a diagnosis. I am a part of a diverse culture and community of people. I am human. I am crip. I am Ava.

It is thanksgiving 2010. I am watching old home videos with my family. I watch eight year old Ava walk across the screen, then I watch thirteen year old Ava walk across the screen. Something deep down inside of my body winces. I can't help but think that my walk looks so ugly on screen. I begin to doubt my desirability. I begin to wonder if my new crush will ever reciprocate the developing feelings I have for him. "How can he, when I walk like that?" I have forgotten about my past romantic relationships and all of the people who have had crushes on me. I shrink once again to nothing more than a limping diagnosis.

Can the practice of pride shrink or stretch with age, just like the skin on my body? Or if shame is wrinkles of my skin, can forgiveness be the syringe, which holds pride, the chemical that erases the wrinkles?

As semi - illustrated by the 'snapshots' above, I have been thinking about pride, the process by which one gains pride, and if the concept of forgiveness as a catalyst for for pride. My thoughts on these topics have been largely inspired by the following Nelson Mandela quote:
If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner. "

Thus, from this quote I began to think that the ability to forgive can lead to the ability to achieve a radical freedom (or pride). For the purposes of this blog, then, one can conceptualize the word "enemy" as ( any combination or form of), oppression, discrimination, erasure of identity, and internalized oppression. If we substitute a form of oppression for the word "enemy" in Mandela's quote, it is not a far stretch to conclude that the practice of pride, then, can become as much about forgiving others (and oneself) for oppression as it can be about radically redefining the narrative surrounding one's self concept.

Thus, we are led to question whether or not, one can sustain an active and stable practice (or sense) of pride that has nothing to do with forgiveness? Can the traditional ingredients of protest prove to be too reactionary at times? If so, how can the concept of forgiveness help stabilize the concept of pride?

I am not suggesting that applying forgiveness in this way would be easy, rational, or even the right way to deal with oppression, I am merely discussing it as an option to help cultivate pride. I think it could look something like this:

A friend tells me that she thinks bisexuality doesn't exist, I am just closeted.
I acknowledge the harmful narrative, hold it, and place it somewhere on my body (figuratively of course) to symbolize acceptance and partnership with all things in my environment. Placing the h narrative on my body, could be seen as akin to accepting and forgiving the harmful effects of nature. For example, I can get a pretty bad sun burn in the summer, but I don't get angry at the sun. I just accept the effects of its strong UV rays on my fair skim, and learn to put on sun screen. I am not saying that wearing sunscreen will stop the sun from ever burning my skin, the sun will still exist and be harmful at times. However, My application of sunscreen doesn't have as much to do with my relationship with the sun, as it does with my relationship with myself. Similarly, my learning how to forgive oppression has to do primarily with my relationship with myself, and my concept of identity, and not with the oppression itself. If my body is big enough, if it is strong enough to hold many of the false narratives I have grown up with, then my body is big enough and strong enough to hold forgiveness for these narratives also.

Please, don't misunderstand, this is not a post about insecurities or self - esteem. This is a post about the cultivation of a continuous sense of pride in the face of various types of oppression. Furthermore, let me reiterate, I am not saying that forgiving oppression is the only way to achieve a lasting sense of pride, I am merely posing the question of the relationship of the practice of pride to the practice of forgiveness. Should forgiveness and pride be practiced together?

I am thirteen years old. My walk is the best it has ever been. A girl on the school bus, just asked me if I sprained my ankle. I replied "No. I have Cerebral Palsy". She didn't believe me. She thought I was too "normal". I went home and looked in the mirror, I examined the beginning of curves in my chest and hips. Then, I looked at the curves in my foot. I take the narrative she shared, and I forgive it, and in forgiving it, I also forgive my classmate. I forgive it by visualizing the narrative, split in two, and place one half on each hip. It adds curve to my figure; it's beautiful; it's beautiful because of the freedom it produces, I do not have to hold the reponsibility of rebelling agaisnt the narrative nor do I run the risk of internalizing it. It becomes like a freckle; I coexist with it, and in doing so, I continue my journey towards pride.

It always seems impossible, until its done.
- Nelson Mandela

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Let's have a brain storming session about internalized oppression

An idea is like a virus. Once implanted in a person's mind it is extremely hard to kill.

Internalized oppression. Say it out loud 3x.
(There is nothing to be afraid of, I promise no witch will appear.)
Notice the sounds inherent in the words.
Do you notice how "internalized oppression" even sounds like a small cage?
Notice how your tongue feels when repeating these words.
Does a heaviness enter your mouth? Does your tongue become a memory foam where " internalized oppression's" indentations obscure your taste buds?

I am beginning to realize that internalized oppression is like the boulder I keep pushing up the mountain, and I am Sisyphus. That is, the longer I try to pretend it doesn't exist, the longer it persists. Up until recently, I was under the delusion that because I identify as a disability rights activist and am becoming acquainted with an attitude of almost radical pride, that my experiences of shame, fear, or insecurity due to my disability would cease to exist.
I was wrong. I experienced all of those emotions about an hour ago, which is why I decided to quickly jot them down in this blog.
The situation happened as follows.
I was getting my oil changed in my car. When the attendant told me to pump my gas pedal three times, I accidentally pumped my brake. I giggled and apologized. However, almost simultaneously my mind was flooded with thoughts like:
" Oh no! He is going to think I am slow now"
" He is going to wonder how the hell I got a license"

Now, it's important to realize two things. First, the above thoughts are only significant to this discussion when analyzed within the context of internalized oppression. Meaning, that those thoughts were sparked by a thought process of internalized oppression which I will detail in the next paragraph. Secondly, at no point in my oil change was the attendant even aware of my disability. I only say this to specify that my thoughts were not a reaction to the attendant's actions, I was reacting to my own perception of the situation.

I would like to take a moment to exemplify ( through detailing the experience of having my oil changed), what I mean when I write the 'thought process of internalized oppression'. Through out my life, I have had the repeated experience of having my intelligence and integrity questioned due to the way I walk. This experience can be called a pattern of oppression. My reaction to this pattern , has beento prove my intelligence. The byproduct of this then, is an internalization of the experience that I am not allowed to make mistakes and must always be percieved as extremely intelligent, or I automatically will be discounted as slow. This thought process becomes a feature of internalized oppression, when the patten of oppression happens so often that my that I internalize all its implications and proving my intelligence becomes associated with proving my personal worth. Thus, when I made the mistake of pumping my brake pedal instead of my gas pedal, I instantly became afraid that the attendant would see this as a reason why, he should treat me like a person who is slower.

When I have an experience of internalized oppression, I become ashamed and want to keep it to myself. I feel like I should "know better", then to react in that manner. I am hesitant to share it with people because I don't want them to pity me for my experience and / or question my sincerity or loyalty to various rights causes I am a part of. Thus, the shame that comes with some experiences of internalized oppression, becomes exacerbated(sp?), by the belief that one should not be "giving in" to internalized oppression. I really wish I could walk around like an iron fortress of pride, which society's discrimination's and prejudices can never penetrate, but that idea is absurd. It becomes exactly like the Myth of Sisyphus, in that it lets me believe that I can actually deny my own imperfect humanity.

I do not believe the experience of internalized oppression is not specific to people with disabilities. Internalized oppression affects all minority groups, whether individuals are aware of it or not. I believe it is the reason why social hierarchies even exist within various civil rights movements. (The establishment of a hierarchy within a rights movement, even if it may be subconscious, works only to reinforce the system of power and oppression within the context of that movement. The only difference is that the people who hold the power and who are recreating the power, are also oppressed by society.)

So how can we fight internalized oppression? How can I maintain my belief in diversity, pride, and crip - ness, without denying my internalized oppression? Do they have to be mutually exclusive? Doesn't the socially acceptable way of dealing with internalized oppression (which from what I have observed is silence), just add fuel to the fire?