Two nights ago I had a long conversation with a friend.
She was in bed because she’s got a pressure sore forming on her butt. I was lying on a mat on the floor because I couldn’t hold my body upright and think at the same time.
We were talking about the stuff that normally gets called disability, or impairment, or whatever the current term is. The differences in our bodies, that are medicalized, and defined as horrible fates worse than death and so forth.
We were talking about our total lack of fear in the idea of acquiring any particular currently-pathologized condition.
She talked about how “chronic, intractable pain” is an everyday reality for her, and it’s only going to get worse with time. I talked about going twenty years without a diagnosis of chronic pain that resembles central pain in its nature and intensity. I talked about how people who’ve been in much less pain for much shorter periods of time have tried to tell me I don’t understand pain.
I started laughing, because that seems like an absurd idea to me. My friend said, sarcastically, “Oh, but you’re laughing. If you’re laughing, you can’t be in any pain.”
Then we got into migraines. I’ve had one for a few years straight now. My friend said, “It’s documented that people sometimes kill themselves over migraines, so that’s got to be considered one of the nastier forms of pain.”
My friend recently had a knee injury and was unable to get out of her wheelchair at all (normally she can stand for brief periods) without extensive assistance. She talked about how that isn’t a particularly awful thing in and of itself. She also once went through extreme spinal surgery and only got a day’s worth of pain drugs afterwards.
I freeze in place on a regular basis, sometimes to the point where even my eyes are not under my control, right down to pupils staying at a fixed, large size and my eyes not moving at all. I know very well what it’s like to have zero voluntary movement, and total awareness of surroundings, and I’m not afraid of it.
I also know what it’s like to not comprehend anything going on around me, to be unable to form what most people consider thought (although I think their definition is far, far too narrow to encompass all thought), to “lose” extended amounts of time because things were not encoding into memory, to understand things only on a perceptual level with no abstraction or what non-autistic people would call “comprehension” or “cogitation”, to understand things only in the moment and not have a continuous memory going on, to understand bits and pieces of things on bits and pieces of different levels, and so forth. I know what it’s like not to even be able to put together the intent to “understand” things in a relatively typical way, because the knowledge of that intent simply isn’t there, all that “makes sense” is sensation.
I even know what it’s like to have seizures every few seconds. And from the effects of various supposedly “anti”-psychotic drugs, I know what it’s like to hallucinate and lose touch with reality. I know what it’s like to vomit several times a day, or continuously for several hours in a day. I know pain so intense that I can’t move, and can’t think of anything other than pain.
These are things I know. I know them short-term, I know them long-term. I know them as states that I am able to partially exit for certain periods of time, and I know them as states that I am mandated by my body to stay in until they’re over, if ever. I know the extreme fluctuations in all of these areas that I go through daily, and the gradual moving from one area to another that takes place over time. These things are or have been significant parts of my life. My friend and I talked about all these things from my life, and all these things from her life. Between the two of us, we have internal-body experiences that cover a pretty wide range physically and cognitively. Neither of us are afraid of physical or cognitive disability, of pain, of confusion, of immobility, or of illness. We’re not particularly afraid of even the things considered the most devastating.
There are things we both fear, though. And they have nothing to do with the internal experience of any of these things.
I fear being put in an institution, of any kind, whether a large institution, a group home, a nursing home, or a psychiatric ward. I fear boredom because people might assume I’m not there and park me next to a blank wall for years. I fear people not bothering to prevent or treat things like infections and pressure sores. I fear people who claim to love me deciding to kill me to spare me the unendurable suffering they imagine I am experiencing. I fear bad staff. I fear being assumed dead or unconscious when I freeze (this has happened). I fear not being given a workable communication system when one is available. I fear being treated as a non-person.
The trouble a lot of people seem to have, is they can’t distance these legitimate fears, from fears of the state of being itself. They act like the above are a natural consequence of being configured in a certain way, and that the best way to avoid that is to prevent at all costs that configuration, instead of preventing at all costs those things from being able to happen to people.
My friend and I are not afraid to acquire various conditions that are currently pathologized. We’re aware we’re likely to acquire at least some of them within our lifetimes, even if only in old age. We’re afraid of discrimination, including deadly forms of discrimination. The solution here is not to fix our fear or “acknowledge our feelings”, but to fix the problems that cause legitimate fear.
The trouble I have in talking about these things, is that for people who do not adequately separate out how a person is from how they are being treated, this sort of thing often results in responses like “Oh how horrible, I or my child or someone else is in all this danger, this is a horrible horrible fear, how can we fix me or my child or whoever until they won’t be in all this danger?” Wrong answer. Work to fix the danger, or you will have solved nothing at all except temporarily your own emotional state.
The trouble is, people make decisions, including policy decisions, based on these nebulous fears of being disabled, rather than the real and concrete situation that disabled people are treated like crap. People actually believe that their feelings on this are neutral in nature, and of course, since they are feelings, impossible for anyone to validly question. But these feelings come from somewhere, and without looking at disability as a political thing rather than an issue of personal individual suffering and uselessness and whatnot divorced from any context, we will continue to have awful things happening to us all the time, and people will continue to fear becoming like us.
What started the conversation was a person we know offline who has acquired a new condition over the course of the time we have known her. She has always been extreme in both her ableism and her refusal to even contemplate thinking politically about disability, more extreme than most people. Her entire identity has been tied up in the work (paid and unpaid) that she can’t do anymore. And she’s currently mired in some of the worst kinds of self-hatred because she appears to have transferred her bigotry towards disabled people (which she never acknowledged as such, and would probably be insulted by that description, but it’s true) to herself, and is busy thinking of herself as the useless burden on her family that she thinks of disabled people as in general. And she does not even have the solace of understanding disability in a broader sense than her own feelings (that she believes come out of nowhere and are therefore not things she can change), because while she is capable of thinking politically in that way, she fears it and refuses, believing it would make her miserable. There’s nothing I or anyone else can do about this, but I hope one day she’ll realize that the kind of thinking she fears would actually both be closer to reality and make her less miserable and fearful over the long run.