Everything I need to know in life I learned in institutions.


(Warning: Facetiousness ahead.)

When told to do something, do it. Don’t ask questions. No matter who it is. No matter how much of a stranger they are. When told to do something three times, with rising amounts of annoyance, by staff, do it right away and then run off and hide.

It is perfectly reasonable for a stranger providing a service to say “I’m not going to argue with you,” when you’ve asked (not argued) why they haven’t provided the agreed-upon (and paid-for) service for the past three days. And then it is reasonable for said stranger to tell you what to do. And then to tell you how they’ve been becoming more reliable over the past three days, when in fact they have been becoming steadily less reliable.

The proper response to all of this is either to shut your brain off and accept everything they say as fact, and to do what they tell you, no matter how nonsensical, or to internally flog yourself repeatedly for having the forbidden thought that they are being patronizing and bossy.

Never, ever ask questions like, “Why should I do that?” “Can you explain the rules to me more clearly so I don’t screw up again?” “What did I do?” Etc. Just do what you’re told and it all becomes very simple. Even if you’re being chastised or yelled at for what would in anyone else be ordinary behavior. Even questions that are very deferent and assume that you’re the one doing something wrong, are out of line, because they’d require explaining things that nobody wants to explain.

Apologize. Constantly. Even if you don’t know what you did, or don’t think you did anything. If you’re lucky, you’ll get an approving, condescending smile and nod, and a compliment on your excellent social skills.

Don’t ever, ever talk about any of this once you get out, or compare any community services situation to an institutional one. Be grateful you’re not physically locked up. In fact, be cheerful all the time if you can manage it. Anything less is a clear sign that you’re in bad emotional health, and all comparisons of power dynamics out here to institutions can be explained by your own personal shortcomings rather than the fact that usually the comparisons are valid. Don’t ever show that you’re displeased with anything related to this, because then it will be assumed that you are perpetually unhappy.

All political activity is likewise pathological in some way. Trying to make sure others don’t experience what you’ve experienced is a sign that you’re not as “over” it as you should be rather than a sign of commitment to friends you left there or dedication to human rights. (People who were never institutionalized, on the other hand, can safely be praised for any work they do in this area.) The best sign of “adjustment” is complacent assimilation with as little reference to various periods of your life as possible.

And don’t ever mention, in public, that on a perfectly good day when everything else is going well, your mind can be tied in all kinds of knots by a simple interaction with staff, because this will surely be taken as proof that people like you are behind other people your age, can’t cope with the demands of the outside world, and are in general doing something wrong.

And, always remember, no matter how long you’ve been out, you’re just on probation.

About Mel Baggs

Hufflepuff. Came from the redwoods, which tell me who I am and where I belong in the world. I relate to objects as if they are alive, but as things with identities and properties all of their own, not as something human-like. Culturally I'm from a California Okie background. Crochet or otherwise create constantly, write poetry and paint when I can. Proud member of the developmental disability self-advocacy movement. I care a lot more about being a human being than I care about what categories I fit into.

7 responses »

  1. I have some fond memories of large mental hospital institutions: shelter, food, safety, company, belonging. Being in the community is very isolating for me.


  2. I usually have that sense of being on probation, especially with my family. This comes from being taught explicitly and implicitly that people like me did not really belong in “the community” (I internalised much of this when I supposedly had “very little real awareness”). Phrases like “integration into the community” carry the suggestion that “the community” belongs to a certain type of person only, and that anyone who doesn’t fit that model and has even a small level of freedom only has it due to charity and kindness. Everything is charitable and kind when applied to disabled people, it seems, even if it would be considered a basic right for non-disabled people.

    And it still amazes me to see how much of that list I have internalised, and how difficult the reactions and attitudes are to get rid of.

  3. Yeah. I’m less that way — far less that way, maybe unrecognizably less that way — than I was even five years ago. But it amazes me how it can crop up in weird ways. And it also amazes me how, when I’m actually reasonably happy and free and so forth, I can still have these reactions, and still lack a lot of basic knowledge that most people pick up by living outside those places.

    And exactly, on that stuff about “the community”. I still don’t feel like I’m part of it. I feel like I’m kind of visiting it while my “home” is institutions, even though I never want to return to that “home”. But I’m aware of that threat all the time, sometimes for things that non-disabled people wouldn’t get sent to those places for (but that I can be and have been sent to those places for).

    I’m also aware, in ways that I’m not sure a lot of people are, how close many people who have never been institutionalized are, to being that way. Many think it only happens to “other kinds of people,” like there’s a specific kind of person who ends up in institutions, but I can see that for instance a lot of auties are just one public meltdown or shutdown away from institutionalization. I suppose that’s similar to how a lot of people don’t realize how close they are to homelessness until they experience it.

    But I certainly often react to things as if I’m on probationary status. For example, the other day I was very overloaded, very frustrated, and my computer tried to lock me out of typing, in the middle of a sentence. (I have a program that stops me from typing periodically so I can do hand stretches, but it sometimes kicks in at really bad times.) I pushed the keyboard and mouse back so far they fell under the computer desk.

    That’s, maybe a bit over how most people would react, but not totally over the top.

    I reacted to it, at the time, by running off into the other room and screaming and freaking out, and then thinking because I was screaming I’d only be locked up faster, and then hiding under the kitchen counter.

    My neighbor said something later like “Pardon me for commenting this way, but that response is way off the deep end.” (We were discussing the bits of institutional warpage that still seem to be embedded in my head.)

    But at the time, I thought there was a serious chance that I would be tied down or put on report or forced into a group home for that, because things like that have happened to me for far less than that.

    Moreover, I’ve been conditioned to view things like that as “regression” rather than perfectly ordinary frustration.

    Not that I do view them that way, given enough time, but my initial reactions can still be very institution-bound.

  4. This blog is really a great read! I’ve already shared this latest entry and the URL with lots of folks. I only found you today after clicking around on Mary Johnson’s blogroll at The Ragged Edge.

    I also would like to put a link up to your entry titled “If I am killed…” up on our website. Would that be OK with you?


  5. Pingback: International Day of Mourning and Remembrance: Institutionalized Lives of People with Disabilities–Forgotten Lives and the Ones Who Fight Back « We Can Do

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