Category Archives: Prejudice

There is ableism somewhere at the heart of your oppression, no matter what your oppression might be.

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If you are oppressed, then you face ableism. It’s that simple.

You’re probably not used to this concept at all, so I’ll explain(1).  Bear with me, because this is quite important whether you know it yet or not.

From my perspective, there’s two main ways that oppressions collide with each other. One is horizontal. One is what I’d call vertical or embedded. This post is about vertical or embedded oppression, which very few people discuss. Horizontal oppression, on the other hand, is very fashionable to dissect in detail at the moment, and I’ll leave that to the people who are much better at it than I am.

Horizontal oppression works more or less like this: Sexism and homophobia can go together because lesbians exist, who are both gay and female. Racism and transphobia go together because there are trans people of color. Etc. The connection is a side-to-side one.

Vertical oppression works more or less like this: Sexism and homophobia are connected vertically, because sexism is embedded within homophobia: You can’t have some of the core aspects of homophobia, without also having sexism. This applies not just to lesbians, but also to gay men. Because a large element of homophobia against gay men involves comparing them to women, and applying many of the same sexist attitudes towards gay men that would normally be attributed to women. That’s where you get the idea that there’s something wrong with gay men because gay men are sissies, effeminate, possess feminine attributes, etc. They’re first equated with women and then degraded in ways that have to do with women. You can’t have homophobia minus the sexism and have it take anything like a recognizable shape. It depends on sexism. That’s the big difference between horizontal and vertical oppression. Another big difference is that horizontal oppression is symmetrical (sexism + ableism = ableism + sexism) but vertical oppression is not (sexism is embedded in homophobia but homophobia is not embedded in sexism).

Every kind of oppression is connected to every other kind of oppression horizontally. But not every kind of oppression is connected to every other kind of oppression vertically. Some kinds of oppression are not embedded in any other kind of oppression at all. Other kinds of oppression are embedded in just one or two kinds of oppression. Other kinds of oppression are embedded in many forms of oppression.

Ableism is, to my knowledge, the only kind of oppression that is embedded in every other kind of oppression I have heard of. I have my theories as to why, but they’re not relevant here. When I say things like this, people think that I’m trying to make a case that ableism is the worst kind of oppression, or that I’m trying to get in some kind of pissing contest or another with regards to whose oppression is more uniquely terrible than anyone else’s. I’m not. This has nothing to do with that kind of comparison. It’s just that some kind of oppression had to be the one embedded in more kinds of oppression than any other, and ableism happened to fit the bill.

I’m not the only person to notice this. I think I’m the first person to coin the idea of horizontal versus vertical oppression, although I’m sure there are other people who have put similar ideas in different words. But disabled people have been talking about the pervasiveness of ableism in other forms of oppression for a really long time. We have tried to convince other oppressed people that our fight is, by necessity, their fight. Generally people don’t understand what we’re saying and find ways to ignore it, forget it, or even belittle it.

But people really should pay attention when we say this. Because when you have another form of oppression embedded within your own, you can’t possibly address your own oppression without addressing the other. Not because of a horizontal connection that only exists in certain circumstances. But because of a vertical connection that you can’t possibly get away from: Your oppression would not be the same kind of oppression without that other oppression stuck very close to the center. If you’re gay and you truly want to end homophobia forever, you can’t get away from having to deal with sexism. You can’t. You can pretend that you can, but you can’t actually do it.

So now I’m going to describe some specific examples of ableism in the forms it takes when it’s embedded in other forms of oppression. These are just examples. Later on, I’ll give you some guidelines for how to spot ableism quickly and easily, and where to look for ideas about fighting it. So here are some ways that ableism embeds itself in other forms of oppression:

  • When gay people are considered to have a psychiatric disease.
  • When men’s rights activists claim that the women’s Olympics are just the Special Olympics under another name.
  • When people of color are painted as inferior and deserving of unequal treatment because their IQs are supposedly lower than white people.
  • When women’s bodies are seen as a deviant and irregular version of men’s bodies, all medical testing is done on men first and women only as an afterthought, ordinary experiences of women are considered medical while ordinary experiences of men are not, etc.
  • When eugenics is applied to poor people and people of color in addition to disabled people. (Eugenics is fundamentally an ableist idea, all applications of eugenics are applications of ableism.)
  • When black men involved in riots are deliberately diagnosed with schizophrenia and brain studies are done on them in order to pathologize them and by extension their political stances.
  • When political dissidents of all kinds (including those involved in anti-oppression work for their own groups, whatever they may be) are locked up in mental hospitals.

These may seem like scattered examples of specific kinds of treatment, but they’re not. They all have certain core traits in common, and they all combine central characteristics of their own oppression with central characteristics of ableism. Such that it literally does not matter what kind of oppression you face, you’re guaranteed to face ableism as a component part of it. You can’t get away from ableism.

You can try, of course, and many people do try. The most common way other oppressed people deal with ableism is by not really dealing with it at all. Instead of addressing the ableism that forms the core of the problem they’re facing, they distance themselves as far as they can from disabled people.

What do I mean? Take the IQ situation. Nondisabled people of color who are classified as having lower IQs than white people, rarely look into how IQ has been used to oppress disabled people ever since it has existed, pretty much. They don’t look into what cognitive ableism is. They don’t look into the self-advocacy movement by people with intellectual and other developmental disabilities and the many ways they have criticized IQ testing and the way it is used against disabled people. Instead, they try to prove that people of color don’t really have lower IQs than white people.

Mind you, that’s an important thing to prove, if it’s true. But you can’t stop at proving that. Plus, if you really do end up having lower IQs, then you’re basically screwed. Stopping at “They’re wrong about our IQ score, we’re just as smart as anyone else” leaves you vulnerable in addition to inadvertently contributing to the oppression of disabled people. Looking into how the idea of being smart got equated with having a certain IQ score? Looking into how IQ has been used against people who score low on IQ tests (for all kinds of reasons) throughout history? Looking into the general shape of cognitive ableism in general and IQ-based cognitive ableism in particular? Understanding the basics of what ableism is and how it functions – by taking a certain kind of person and saying that we’re biologically inferior and this justifies seeing us as having less value, making fewer contributions to society, and being oppressed and discriminated against?

You have to do all of that. Proving that scientific racism is actually pseudoscience is important. But understanding the ableism that underlies scientific racism is just as important if not more so. Because if you take what happens when you have one of those things and not the other? Proving it’s pseudoscience leaves you forever vulnerable to the claim it’s actually real science. Dealing with ableism means that whether or not your IQ score is technically lower than someone else’s (and if you really look into ableism, you’ll see how meaningless that question can get, because it assumes that people actually have some kind of innate trait called IQ), the core oppression will not be there. And as a bonus you’ll have contributed to lessening oppression against actual disabled people as well, rather than inadvertently contributing to ableism itself.

This will all make a lot more sense when you understand what some of those core characteristics of ableism are. And understanding what some of those core characteristics of ableism are, will make it much easier to spot ableism within your own oppression. I pretty much guarantee that as soon as you understand the basics, you will start seeing it in places you’d never expected. So here are a few very simple aspects of ableism that you can spot within other kinds of oppression:

  • Any time one group of people is considered biologically or psychologically inferior to another group of people, and unequal treatment or oppression is justified on that basis, you’re dealing with ableism.
  • Any time you deal with eugenics, you’re dealing with ableism. Whether you’re dealing with “pure” eugenics aimed at disabled people in particular, or the more common situation where it’s intermingled with race, class, ethnicity, criminality, and other real and purported traits. You’re probably used to hearing of eugenics in terms of racism, classism, or anti-Semitism, but eugenics originated in ideas about disabled people and those ideas were then applied to all these other groups.
  • Any time you deal with medicalization (including psychiatric medicalization), you’re dealing with ableism.
  • Any time people are compared on the basis of what they can and cannot do, and that comparison is used as the basis for viewing or treating them differently, ,particularly in a bad way, you’re dealing with ableism.
  • Any time you’re dealing with “scientific” proof that a group of people is inferior to another, there’s a really good chance you’re dealing with ableism. If the “science” is couched explicitly in terms of medicine, biology, or psychology, it’s almost definitely ableism. So basically, if you hear that your oppression is justified on “scientific” grounds, perk your ears up for ableism, you’ll probably find it.
  • Pretty much any time you’re dealing with a situation where one sort of person is given access to part or all of a society, and another sort of person is barred from that access, and it’s justified on the grounds of ability in some manner, it’s ableism.
  • Any time your oppression is framed in terms of people like you being sick or having a medical problem for some kind, there’s ableism involved.

Keep in mind that for all of this, it doesn’t entirely matter whether the purported sickness or diminished ability level is real or not. The ableism is going to be there whether a person is actually possible to classify as disabled, or not. This is one reason that disfigurement is considered a disability in a lot of contexts. It’s also why laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act often contain a piece that says that it’s not just disabled people, but people who are mistaken for disabled people, who are protected. What matters to make something ableism is not whether or not the person qualifies as “biologically inferior,” whatever that means – it’s how people are treated based on that purported inferiority.

Once you start to see the basic patterns involved in ableism, you can see why it’s behind core aspects of every other kind of oppression:  Every form of oppression uses ableist ideas, actions, and concepts to further some of its most fundamental goals.  You’re going to always have your oppressed group being ranked in a hierarchy based on ability and found wanting.  You’re going to always have your oppressed group face some degree of medicalization.  You’re going to always have your oppressed group treated in ways that disabled people are treated, and the same sorts of reasons used to justify such treatment.  And unless you address these things, you can’t address the way your oppression plays out.  They happen in areas too central to how the oppression works — you can’t pretend the ableism doesn’t exist and get rid of the whole oppression at the same time.  Your form of oppression would be unrecognizable without ableism as a core feature.

You can learn a lot more about ableism by looking into what disabled people have already figured out about it. If all you can find is lists of “ableist words” with people telling you that stupid is a slur or something, you’re not usually going to find much depth there — whether or not you think stupid is a slur, that’s just not that fundamental to what ableism actually means. And frequently that sort of shallow take on things is what you’ll find if you just look up ableism. But if you look into the hard-core stuff within the zillion different branches of the disability rights movement, you’ll find a lot.

One of the best general introductions to modern disability-rights thinking about ableism in general, that I’ve found, is the book Pride Against Prejudice by Jenny Morris. There are tons of other entry points, that’s just one of the clearest, from my perspective.

You don’t have to agree with everything a disabled person says about ableism. Disabled people don’t all agree with each other.

Some disabled people seem to concentrate entirely on language and insist that it’s the most important thing because it changes people’s thoughts and changing people’s thoughts changes their actions and so forth. I think that’s a dangerous misconception, and I don’t honestly care so much what people think as much as how they treat me – if they think I’m inferior and treat me with respect anyway, then their thoughts are their business. I’d rather deal with someone who treats me with utter respect and calls me the worst ableist slurs I’ve ever encountered (IMHO, “retard” and “vegetable” and “empty shell” are all up there), than deal with someone who knows all the right words but treats me like shit. Other people have other ideas entirely about these things.

You get the idea: We don’t all agree . You don’t have to agree with all of us. You can’t possibly agree with all of us anyway. A lot of times people embroiled in identity politics get really wrapped up in the idea that the oppressed person is always right about their oppression. That’s bullshit. We can be as wrong as anyone. However, we have on average thought more deeply and for longer about our oppression than other people have, so you can benefit from our experience when dealing with the way your own oppression takes the same shape as ours.

And what specific situation you’re talking about will determine a lot about which disabled people you want to go to first. Want to deal with critiques of IQ testing? Go to people with intellectual and other developmental disabilities first. Don’t be fooled by stereotypes, we have a long-standing self-advocacy community who have been developing ideas about this stuff for decades.

And there are also always general ideas about disability that can be applied across the board, but in slightly different ways. The idea of accessibility was once focused entirely on wheelchair access. These days, there’s also a concept of cognitive access. Where interpreters in disability context used to concentrate entirely on translating between signed languages and spoken languages, there are now interpreters who assist people whose speech is hard to understand, and there are cognitive interpreters or English-to-English interpreters who interpret between the words and gestures of someone with a cognitive disability and the words and gestures of someone without a cognitive disability. The social model, like most aspects of mainstream disability theory, was once only for physically disabled people, and is now being applied to cognitively disabled people as well. Neurodiversity was once used in a context that was almost exclusively about autistic people, and now it’s about anyone with a neurocognitive disability.

Understand – I’m not endorsing any of these concepts. I hate some of these concepts. I think some of them are misguided or dangerous or simplistic or all kinds of other things. But I don’t want to decide that for you. I’m just giving you resources as a jumping-off point and you can make up your own mind. Hell, I’m not even that heavily into the idea of analyzing oppression in the way I’ve done in this post. I just think it’s important and useful for someone to be doing it somewhere so that people can see the underlying issue here – which is that you can’t address your own oppression adequately without addressing ableism, no matter what your oppression is, whether you’re also disabled or not.

So with all that in mind, I want to give you some keywords for common disability communities or disability-based ideas. Again, none of this is an endorsement of any of these communities or ideas or the views contained within them. They’re just places to start looking. I get frustrated when people say “Google things, it’s easy” and then won’t even tell you what to Google. Most people don’t even know enough about ableism to know that ableism is fundamentally about unequal treatment on the basis of real or purported biological and psychological characteristics. Most people who have heard of ableism have only heard of it in the contexts of word lists. There’s no way someone in that position is going to even know where to begin on Google, and it’s unfair to have that expectation of people. I’m perhaps more sensitive to that kind of thing specifically because of understanding cognitive ableism – and that’s precisely the sort of situation where an understanding of ableism can be useful throughout any oppressed group. I guarantee as you really learn what ableism is – really learn the depths of it – you will find concepts you can use in fighting your own oppression.

One more note about the keywords: All of these communities and ideologies and intellectual traditions, come from vastly different places. All of them accept some forms of ableism and reject others, that’s pretty much inevitable. Some of them are groups of people formed together mostly by life experiences, others are groups of people formed together mostly by shared diagnostic categories, others are a mixture of both. Some, like the concepts of developmental disabilities and psychiatric disabilities, are more accidents of history than categories that have an automatic, genuine meaning. Some, like psychiatric consumers versus psychiatric survivors, fall within the same broad category of people but differ based on how they interpret their own experiences, which aspects of the medical system they accept and which aspects they reject. But all of these are groups of people, and ideas formed by groups of people, who have formed significant ideas about the rights of disabled people within an ableist society. While the faction wars can be absolutely infuriating at times, the diversity among disabled people in terms of both life experiences and Ideas about those experiences, can be a great strength. You can find really important ideas within every single one of these groupings without ever having to believe everything they say wholesale.

So here’s a list of keywords you might find useful:

  • Disability rights, disability rights movement
  • Disability culture
  • Crip culture, crip, gimp
  • Self-advocacy, developmental disability self-advocacy, intellectual disability self-advocacy, learning disability self-advocacy, self-advocates, I/DD self-advocacy
  • Cognitive disability, physical disability, psychiatric disability, intellectual disability, developmental disability, sensory disability
  • Autistic self-advocacy, autistic liberation, autistic rights, autistic community, autistic culture
  • Deaf community, d/Deaf community, Deaf culture
  • Psychiatric survivors, psychiatric consumers, psychiatric ex-patients, consumer/survivor/ex-patient, c/s/x, mad pride
  • Neurodiversity, neurodiverse, neurodivergent
  • Patient advocacy, patient’s rights
  • Disability theory, disability studies, social model of disability, radical model of disability
  • Cross-disability
  • Disability access, accessibility, universal design, visitability
  • [Insert disability, disability-type, or disability-tool name here] access, [Insert disability, disability-type, or disability-tool name here] accessibility – for instance, wheelchair access, wheelchair accessibility, blind access, blind accessibility, screenreader access, screenreader accessibility, cognitive access, cognitive accessibility, etc.
  • Cognitive interpreting, English-to-English interpreting, sign language interpreting, [insert specific sign language here] interpreting, speech-to-speech relay
  • Ableism, disablism, ablism, disableism, disphobia, handicapism
  • Cognitive ableism, psychiatric ableism, physical ableism

I know I’ve left plenty of people out, and this is obviously centered on English-speaking cultures. But that’s more than enough to start with. If you’re looking for specific ideas tailored to specific experiences, then learn what these terms mean so that you can look up those experiences when you need to. Different movements, and different parts of the same movement, will give you very different ideas about the same problems, and that can be incredibly useful.

So I hope by now I’ve convinced you that not only is ableism about more than whether or not it’s a slur to say the word ‘stupid’, but it’s a vital part of understanding any other form of oppression you might face. I also hope I’ve given you enough places to start, that you can make a good start on finding any resources that might be useful to you in beginning to understand ableism and the experiences of disabled people in the world. And again, I guarantee that if you begin to truly understand what ableism is, you will find the concept useful in contexts you never dreamed of.

If you’ve made it this far, thank you for listening.  I really appreciate it.  Getting this idea out there means a whole lot to me, even the parts of it I’m not so sure I agree with.  It’s stuff that someone needed to say, so I said it.


(1) I’m putting what would normally be an introduction, down as a footnote, just so it won’t distract from anything in the actual post. The post is far more important than the introduction. So here’s what I was going to write as an introduction: 

 

This was an extremely difficult article for me to write. I understand the underlying idea easily enough. But to put it into words has taken me a long time, and a lot of effort. This is more abstract and intellectual than my posts tend to run.

But I felt like while a lot of disabled people alluded to this idea, nobody was expanding it enough for nondisabled people with no connection to the disability community to understand it. When I tried to tell people in short form, they assumed I was saying something totally different than what I was saying. So I developed these ideas until I could articulate them, and then over the past six months or so I have worked very hard at writing them down.

I still barely finished in time for Blogging Against Disablism Day, I wasn’t actually sure I could finish in time for Blogging Against Disablism Day. I’m still shocked that it’s happened at all. This was the original post I intended to write for BADD 2016, one that dealt with ableism as a whole rather than one particular disability experience. 

I’m very relieved to have finished It, not least because I am always pigeonholed as an autism blogger, I don’t see myself as an autism blogger, and it’s frustrating to sometimes only be able to write posts that reference autism a lot. Autism is not my only disability. It’s not my central disability – I don’t exactly view myself as having one of those. It’s just a word that psychiatry coined for a bunch of people, tat’s become useful enough that I’ve felt compelled to use it in certain circumstances. But I find that even in disability contexts, hell even in contexts with other autistic people, the idea of autism begins to overshadow your personhood in a way that few other disability labels match in my experience. Nobody considers me a ‘myasthenia gravis blogger’ and writes about my entire life and all of my ideas as if they can be encapsulated by the idea of myasthenia gravis, but that’s exactly what people do with autism. I can write about things that have nothing whatsoever to do with autism and still get most of my responses back about autism. It’s kind of ridiculous but nobody questions it, not even most autistic people.

So this year I really wanted my post to be about something that could not be tied back to autism like that. I mean I’m sure somebody somewhere will try, but there’s nothing about this post that is even remotely autism-specific, unlike my other two contributions this year. There are lots of other posts I wish I could have made this year, but I’m going to rest happy knowing that I made this one post, at least. 

And I hope that it can serve as a resource for people who are just beginning to learn about how ableism affects oppressed people who are not themselves disabled. Because it does, and it does so in specific, predictable ways that are pretty consistent across every form of oppression. And that’s important. And someone had to say all of this.

A lot of my posts in general seem to fall under the category of “I couldn’t find anyone saying the thing I wanted to find someone saying so I said it instead.” And this definitely falls into that category. There’s a lot of ideas contained within the post that I don’t even necessarily agree with, but that are necessary to the way the post is written. So this is very much not a personal post, and very much a post about a general idea that I think is important to communicate, even the parts of it that I don’t wholly agree with. What other people take out of it is their business, but I hope each person can find something useful there.

Almost Alike: A Medical Cautionary Tale

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Blue medical bracelet with a medical symbol in white and the words "Adrenal Insufficency" on a metal plate.

Medical bracelet that says “Adrenal Insufficiency”.

I’ve been thinking about medical stuff a lot lately, so apologies if my posts tend towards the medical for a little while.  It’s what happens when you suddenly realize how lucky you are to be alive, and how close you came to death.  My father’s cancer has me thinking about life and death and medical care a lot, too.

In my dealings with doctors, I have found that they like the solutions to their problems to be neat and tidy.  In particular, they want there to be one diagnosis that explains all the symptoms they’re observing.  They want their patient to have that one diagnosis, and if their patient shows signs of more than one thing, it fouls up everything the doctor wants.

Case in point:  I had this neurologist at the headache clinic.  I told him that they strongly suspected my mother of having myasthenia gravis, or hereditary myasthenia.  Both are neuromuscular junction diseases that cause specific muscles to wear out quickly as you use them.  So for instance my eyes start out tracking the same object fairly well, but as time goes on, they drift outwards leaving me seeing double.  I had told my neurologist all about this, and about other muscular problems I’d been having.

I don’t remember why myasthenia came up, but I told him I was going to start on Mestinon, a medication that treats myasthenia.  His response was swift and a little annoyed:  “It’s not going to do anything.  I don’t think you have myasthenia.” 

“Why not?”

“Because people with myasthenia have trouble with specific muscle weakness. You have generalized weakness.  It’s not the same thing.”

He explained it as if I didn’t know this.  But he also explained it as if I hadn’t told him time and time again about the specific weakness, that was separate from the generalized weakness.  As if I hadn’t told him things were more complicated than he was expecting.

He offered to run an EMG but told me the results would be negative because “You just don’t have myasthenia gravis.”  I declined the testing.  I don’t like to be tested under circumstances where the doctor has already determined what the results are going to be.  Plus, I’d just been through an invasive procedure that left me in horrible pain for weeks, and I didn’t feel like being poked and prodded again.

But I did try the Mestinon, and it did make a difference.  It was subtle at first.  I could walk around my apartment without falling.  My eyes tracked things better, and for longer, before the double vision kicked in.  It was things like that.  The more Mestinon we added, the better those things got.  So it seemed my headache doctor was wrong, and there was something real about the effects of the Mestinon.

But in other areas, I was getting weaker.  In fact, as far as I could tell, I was dying.  I was hesitant to tell anyone this fact, because it felt like a fairly dramatic thing to announce.  But I’d known terminally ill people who had more energy than I had at times.  And I have instincts that tell me when something is going badly wrong.  Something was going badly wrong, and it went along with that more generalized muscle weakness.

I’ve already told the story of how I got diagnosed with severe secondary adrenal insufficiency.  And that’s what happened.  They found no measurable evidence of cortisol or ACTH in my blood.  When they flooded me with ACTH, I made cortisol, but not as much as expected.  Meaning my pituitary gland is not making enough ACTH to tell my adrenal glands to make cortisol.  And this was the reason for, among many, many other symptoms, my severe muscle weakness that affected my entire body.

I went into treatment for adrenal insufficiency and everything seemed to be looking up.  No longer bedridden.  No longer required to use a wheelchair for anything.  Not that I minded these things so much when they were happening, but it’s nice to be able to get up and walk up and down a flight of stairs when you want to.  It feels good to be able to exercise, after six years of bedrest.  Dexamethasone makes me feel alive again, instead of waiting for the next infection to kill me.   I feel strong, and sturdy, and robust, in a way I haven’t in years, and my friends sense the same thing about me.

The only problem?  Not everything went away.  I still had weakness in specific muscles.  I’d been referred to a new neurologist at the same time they were testing my cortisol.  This neurologist never pretended he had any answers.  He was simple and methodical in the way he worked.  He would come up with a list of every possibility, no matter how remote, and then he would run tests for every possibility.  This made me trust him in a way that I didn’t trust my migraine neurologist.  So I let him do any test he wanted to do.

Many of the tests, he came in and did them himself, which is unusual for a doctor.  Usually they delegate that stuff.  He did a regular EMG that turned up nothing, and I thought “See, my mother didn’t have an abnormal EMG either, so whatever we have isn’t going to show up on tests.”  Neither of us showed up as having the antibodies, either.  I began to think this was going to be one of those things that we never solved.

Then he called me in for something he called a single fiber EMG.  He was going to stick a wire into my forehead and measure something about the muscles.  I remember that on that day I had a lot of trouble even holding my head up on one side, and that I was seeing double.  He stuck the wires in, made me raise my eyebrows and move my eyes around.  There were a lot of electrical noises.

At the end of the test, he told me he wanted to see me as soon as possible because the result was abnormal.  The muscles were firing asynchronously. 

I didn’t know what that meant, but a week later I was in his office being told that I probably did have a neuromuscular junction disease after all.  Probably myasthenia gravis, possibly a much rarer hereditary form of myasthenia.

And to think that literally a couple weeks before I got the single-fiber EMG, my regular doctor and I had been discussing whether I really needed to be on Mestinon anymore.  We thought maybe my only real problem had been the adrenal insufficiency all along, and that my response to Mestinon might have been some kind of placebo effect (even though I don’t seem very prone to that effect even when I want to be).  Even I was starting to fall prey to that idea that a diagnosis is just one thing.

Right now, we don’t really know what exactly my diagnosis is.  We know for certain that I have secondary adrenal insufficiency.  And we are pretty certain that I have a neuromuscular junction disorder, and the most common one of those is myasthenia gravis.  (I’m just going to refer to it as myasthenia gravis for the rest of this.  Because it’s shorter than saying “the thing we think is myasthenia gravis maybe”.)

But the important thing — the thing a lot of doctors miss — is that there is not one diagnosis here.  There are at least two diagnoses, possibly more.  This is not the first time, and it won’t be the last time, that I’ve had doctors miss something fairly obvious because they thought that the simplest explanation is always a single diagnosis. 

I still remember back when I was dealing with three different diagnoses that affected movement in different ways:  Adrenal insufficiency, myasthenia gravis, and autistic catatonia.  And any time we’d try to bring up a symptom of one of them with a doctor, they’d bring up a “contradictory” symptom from a different one of them, and that would mean that… it couldn’t be myasthenia gravis, because sometimes I froze stiff instead of limp, because I also had autistic catatonia.   And it went on like that for years, where every condition I had was ‘contradicted’ by some other condition, so many of the doctors refused to see the complexity of the situation.

Sometimes that resulted in situations that were almost funny, but other times it could turn deadly.  There was a time I was hospitalized for aspiration pneumonia connected to gastroparesis, and my doctor refused to treat me for anything other than the pneumonia.  So I had collapsed in my bed after vomiting so much that all the muscles involved had gone limp and I was starting to have trouble breathing.  In retrospect we think it was the start of an adrenal or myasthenia crisis, and that I belonged in the ICU.  But at the time, the hospitalist simply refused to treat anything that wasn’t pneumonia.  So I had to lie there totally immobilized, delirious, and hallucinating, wondering whether I was going to survive, for days on end.  All because a doctor was only willing to think about one condition at a time.

Over the years, I’ve picked up an impressive collection of diagnoses.  Many of them are based on symptoms and my response to treatments.  But some of them are based on hard-core medical tests like high-resolution CT scans — things you can’t confuse for anything other than what they are.  I’m going to list the ones that  were diagnosed by those hard-core medical tests, and understand I’m listing them here for a reason:

  • Bronchiectasis (high-resolution CT scan)
  • Frequent bowel obstructions (x-ray)
  • Central sleep apnea (sleep study)
  • Obstructive sleep apnea (sleep study)
  • Early-onset gallbladder disease (ultrasound)
  • Exotropia (eye exam)
  • Gastroparesis (gastric emptying scan)
  • GERD – reflux (barium swallow)
  • Esophageal motility problems (barium swallow)
  • Dysphagia (barium swallow)
  • High cholesterol (blood test)
  • Hypermobility syndrome (Brighton criteria)
  • Myasthenia gravis or related condition (single fiber EMG)
  • Secondary adrenal insufficiency (cortisol test, ACTH test, ACTH stimulation test)
  • Urinary retention with spastic urethra (urodynamic testing)

So this is fifteen different conditions right here, that there is no possible way that I don’t have them.  They’ve been tested for, the tests are valid, there’s nothing unusual about the tests I was given, they exist.  I’m diagnosed with a lot of other conditions, but even if we pretended that those conditions turned out to be misdiagnosed because some of the diagnosis was subjective… I’m still left with fifteen conditions here that are very much real.  Some of them are more serious than others.  But many of them are difficult and complex both on their own and in combination with each other.  (Also, many of them went years misdiagnosed because doctors refused to even test me for them, believing that a person with a developmental disability or a psych history couldn’t possibly be telling the truth about their own symptoms.)

Now imagine you’re a doctor, and I’ve walked in your door, off the street, with no medical history.  And I’ve got the symptoms of all of these fifteen conditions.  Some of the symptoms are severe enough to be life-threatening.  And your very first instinct is to try to find one condition that accounts for all of these symptoms.  You’re going to be looking for a very long time, and you’re going to be lucky if I don’t die before you figure it out.

Of course, it’s still possible that there really is one condition that explains all this.  Or at least, a small handful of conditions.  There are many genetic conditions that can cause problems all over your body, and they can be notoriously difficult to pin down.  But for the moment, we’ve had to diagnose all of these things separately in order to get a handle on how to treat them. 

It may be there’s some genetic condition that causes neuropathy (my mother and I both have symptoms of autonomic and sensory neuropathy), which could in turn cause the gastroparesis and esophageal motility problems (and dysphagia, and other things that aren’t listed above), just as one example.  But right now we don’t have that information.  Right now we just know I have gastroparesis, and that it doesn’t play well with reflux and bronchiectasis, and that if I hadn’t gotten a feeding tube in time it probably would’ve killed me.  There could also be something behind the adrenal insufficiency, but that damn near did kill me a number of times before we even knew enough about it to put me on dexamethasone. 

And that’s why it’s important that medical professionals not restrict themselves to a single diagnosis when they’re looking at what’s going wrong with someone.  If you see symptoms that look contradictory, then you ought to be wondering if you’re looking at more than one condition at once.

If there’s one thing I have noticed, having been in and out of hospitals for a long, long time… it’s that my roommates are usually people like me.  They’re people with multiple medical conditions all at once.  They’re not textbook illustrations of a single condition in all its pristine glory.  They’re a mess, just like me.  Like my roommate who had both Lesch-Nyhan and myasthenia gravis (and was a woman, which is rare for someone with Lesch-Nyhan in the first place).  They really treated her like crap, too — they wouldn’t believe a word she said about herself, unless they could verify it from some outside source, which they always did, but still never trusted her.  Sometimes I heard her crying after they left.  At any rate, I can’t remember a single hospital roommate who had only one condition, unless they were in there for a routine surgery.

Which tells me that those of us who end up in hospitals on a regular basis, at least, are people with complicated medical histories.  Not people who just have one simple thing that can be figured out.  Which means that no hospitalist should ever do what one of mine did and say “I’m only treating the pneumonia, nothing else matters, no matter how bad things get.”  I’m really passionate about this issue because I’ve seen how close to death I’ve come, how many times, just because everyone wanted my body to be simpler than it was.

Maybe the problem is that we train doctors too much on textbooks, and on the people who most resemble textbooks.  We don’t want to confuse them with too much, all at once.  So they grow to look for the one explanation that will explain it all, instead of the fifteen or more explanations that will explain it all.  And in the meantime, their patient could die while they’re waiting to get properly diagnosed.

And that’s the part that worries me.  I’m very lucky to be alive.  My doctors know I’m very lucky to be alive.  And I have a pretty amazing team of doctors.  I have a great GP, a great pulmonologist, a great neurologist, and a great endocrinologist.  These are doctors who are willing to listen to me when I know more than they do, but also willing to argue with me when they know more than I do, it’s the perfect combination. 

My GP has been here since I moved to Vermont, and he is known in the area as one of the best doctors around.  We have our disagreements, but he always explains his decisions to me, and I always explain my decisions to him.  We respect each other and that makes everything work.  He has done his best to stand up for me in situations where my social skills have caused problems with other doctors.

My pulmonologist is amazing.  She always anticipates situations where I’m going to face discrimination, and she’s always ready.  When she knew I was heading for a really bad pneumonia, she had my lungs CAT scanned to prove the pneumonia was there, because she knew nothing less than that would get me admitted to the hospital.  And even then it took all she and my GP could do to get me into the hospital and keep me there long enough to get me a feeding tube.

I’m new to my endocrinologist, but he’s clearly really good too.  He’s been helping me through the first stages of being diagnosed with adrenal insufficiency, including things as difficult as when to stress-dose and how much.  He’s given me the confidence to figure out on my own the amount of steroids I need to give myself in physically or emotionally stressful situations.  That’s a key skill you have to have to avoid adrenal crisis, and I think I’ve finally got the hang of it.

My neurologist is also new, but he’s clearly highly competent.  There’s nothing flashy about him or anything.  It’s not like he has some kind of flashy swagger like you see on TV shows.  He’s very quiet.  What he has is the ability to be mind-bogglingly thorough.  He listens to everything you have to say, he asks very careful questions, and he takes very careful notes.  Then he thinks up every possible condition that could result in the symptoms you have, no matter how rare or improbable it seems.  Then he figures out which ones are the most important to test for first.  And then he pretty much tests you for everything.  If there were two words for him, it would be methodical and thorough.  And it’s paid off — we now know I have something similar to myasthenia gravis, even though all the signs were pointing away from it for awhile.  Like my GP, he’s one of those doctors that other doctors hold in very high regard.  I can tell by the way they talk about him.

I wanted to make a point of talking about these doctors, because the point of this post is not to bash the medical profession.  These are people who have saved my life.  These are people I have built a relationship with over the years, or am in the course of building a relationship with now.  I’ve had plenty of truly awful doctors, but I’ve had a surprising number of truly great ones as well.  Most are somewhere in the middle.  But the great ones are the ones I owe my life to, many times over.  They have done things for me that, I am sure, they have never even told me about, and probably never will.

But all doctors, no matter how great, need a reminder that medical conditions don’t come in neat, orderly packages the way the textbooks make them sound.  Most disabled people and people with chronic illnesses have multiple conditions, not just one.  Often, these conditions have symptoms that can seem to contradict each other.  And even when there’s one overarching condition that causes all of them, there’s a good chance you’re going to need to find all the smaller conditions before you can put the puzzle together.  Many times, finding all the smaller conditions is a matter of life and death.  People simply can’t wait around to find the perfect most elegant answer when we’re going into adrenal crisis or myasthenia crisis on a regular basis.  Maybe there’s a reason I have adrenal insufficiency, and maybe one day they’ll find it, but for now I need to be on dexamethasone so I don’t die in the meantime.

Tube Love

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Drawing of a GJ feeding tube.

Drawing of a gastrojejunostomy feeding tube, GJ tube for short.

Tube Love

Its name in medical-ese is a gastrojejunostomy tube
Or a GJ tube for short
I just call it The Tube

Through nothing more than some tubes
And a syringe
And a feeding pump
I give myself water
I give myself food
I give myself meds
I give myself life
Bypassing my paralyzed stomach

I drain out the life-destroying bile
That would otherwise suffocate me
In pneumonia after pneumonia
Until I eventually got unlucky and died

There are no words for the feeling
Of giving myself a big syringe of cold water
On a hot day
And feeling every inch of it go
Cold
Into my intestines
No stomach to hold it back
No stomach to vomit it up

Maybe the word is love?
My tube is not an inhuman machine
It is a part of me

If love means that you take care of someone
If love means that you save someone’s life
Without thought for your own
If love means that day by day, you do the hard work
Without complaining or tiring
Even when you get clogged up and miserable
Then surely my tube loves me

And I love my tube
It has a personality
It’s grumpy on some days
And happy on others
I try to make it happy

I know more about making a feeding tube happy
Than any of those doctors and nurses
From Gastroenterology
From Interventional Radiology
From Pulmonology

They said I had the mind of a child
That I would pull my tube out trying to play with it
The way young babies do with their feeding tubes
They said I didn’t have the cognitive capacity
To take care of a feeding tube
They said I would fail
They said I would be better off dying
Than even trying the feeding tube
And above all, they said I wouldn’t know
How to take care of it
That it would be a huge burden
That maybe, I belonged in a nursing home
Where they knew how to take care of things like that
And people like me

I just got out of the hospital
The nurses were amazing people
But they nearly ruined my feeding tube
They didn’t know how to make it happy
I’ve been to Interventional Radiology enough
To know that they don’t know the slightest thing
About making a feeding tube happy
Not even the doctors who predicted my doom
Know how to make a feeding tube happy

But I know how to make a feeding tube happy
I have been learning for a year now
Every day, I learn more
Every day, I learn that
If you treat something as if it is alive
And you treat it with respect
Then it will be happier
And it will work better
And it will like you in return
Maybe even love you
And it will give you
Everything it has to give

I love my feeding tube
And my feeding tube loves me
My feeding tube takes care of me
It keeps me alive
It works hard all day long
To keep food and meds and water moving smoothly
And I work hard all day long
To make sure it has the resources to do it with

My feeding tube and me are friends
My feeding tube and me are a team
My feeding tube and me like each other
My feeding tube and me love each other

We have a relationship
My feeding tube and me
We are connected intimately
It is not just a piece of plastic
It is a life-saver
It brought me back from certain death
How can I fail to love it?
And how can I fail to interpret its efforts on my behalf
As its own kind of plastic cyborg love?

I love my feeding tube
I will always love my feeding tube
I don’t care how it sounds
I don’t care if anyone understands
You can’t go through some things with someone
Without finding love there
And with its fate intertwined with mine
Its plastic intertwined with my stomach and intestines
Love is what we’ve found,
Me and my feeding tube
And I will always find ways
To make it happy

Art and poem by Mel Baggs, art 2013, poem 2014.  This is my contribution to Gastroparesis Awareness Month.  To learn more about Gastroparesis and related forms of Digestive Tract Paralysis, go to the G-PACT Website.

I also wrote a longer and more serious post about my life with gastroparesis, which you can read here at Gastroparesis Awareness Month: A Day In The Life.

This is how I feel when I read a lot of posts about the Judge Rotenberg Center.

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Close the Judge Rotenberg Center.  For the love of everything holy, close the Judge Rotenberg Center.  Stomp it into the ground and dance on its fucking ashes.

But.

You won’t be done.

You’ll just have eliminated the most obvious of a huge number of places that torture and abuse their patients in the name of treatment.

Skin shock is showy and scary and it makes a good story and it makes it easy to see what is hurting people.

But people can be hurt just as bad or worse without it.

People can be hurt just as bad or worse by places that don’t brag about the torture they inflict on their patients.

People can be hurt just as bad or worse in the institutions everyone loves to love because they’re so beautiful, they have such wonderful grounds, they seem so loving.

You can’t understand, maybe, why this is true.

You think, maybe, that abuse, trauma, PTSD, CPTSD, can be measured in volts.

It can’t.

You think, maybe, that the destruction of lives is proportional to the visible destruction heaped on the body.

It isn’t.

It’s so much more complicated.

I have a friend who gets really upset every time some over-the-top institutional horror story makes the news.  So do I, for that matter.

One part of it is because, obviously, it’s horrible, and we’ve both lived through horrible things.  She’s been to both state and private institutions (and found private ones worse, by the way, so much for stereotypes).  I’ve been to private institutions and private residential treatment facilities and what I like to call ‘community institutionalization’… too hard o explain in such a short space.

I spent most of my teen years in the psych system (and to some degree was exposed before that) and sometimes in mixed psych/DD settings, and pretty much all of my adulthood in the DD system.  I have physical disabilities that could easily put me in a nursing home, and developmental disabilities that qualify me for admission to an ICF/MR.  Staying free takes up more of my energy than I’d like.

I’ve been abused and tortured and traumatized and almost-killed in all kinds of settings, inpatient and outpatient.

At one time in my life, with severe self-injury, I’d have made an ideal candidate for the Judge Rotenberg Center.  I am not somehow different from people who go there.  You’d be surprised at the people who go there and how not-different they are from many people you’d imagine would never go there.

(That’s true of all institutions.  The people who live inside them, and outside of them, are identical in every way.  The only difference is how the support takes place.  When it’s support at all and not just hell on earth.)

Anyway.

What I want to say is.

One reason that my friend and I get upset by these stories is because we’ve lived through some horror stories of our own.

Another reason that we get upset by these stories is this fear we have, that we don’t think is irrational at all.

We fear that when people focus on the outrageous, the flamboyantly awful, then they won’t see the way the outright ordinary, even the seemingly wonderful, can do the same degree of harm, or worse.

The worst harm in institutions is, by the testimony of many, many inmates, not just the physical torture that takes place in some places — sometimes above-board, sometimes secretly.   Often it’s things you can’t even name.  Those things are happening in the JRC too.  Those things hurt people there as much as the torture does.  Nobody is doing a huge campaign to shut down those things.

Many people, if the JRC is closed, will simply be sent to other institutions.

They will then be told that they are lucky and that those other institutions are better.

They may come to believe those other institutions are better.

Those other institutions may actually be better.  But they may not be.  It may just be that the badness has seeped down deep into some underground place where you can’t count it, can’t name it, can’t even describe it, and therefore it…. isn’t there.

And they will continue to get hurt by that.  They may not realize they’re getting hurt by that.  They may attribute the hurt to themselves, to their mental illness, to anything but the environment that is causing or contributing to it.

And that hurt may be harder to recover from than the JRC.

How do I know this?  Because while I was not in the JRC, I was in mental institutions that physically tortured me (not with skin-shock), and was then moved to a ‘better’ place that tortured me in harder-to-explain ways, and hurt me in deeper places, and I learned to say and believe how ‘better’ they were while living how worse they were deep down.  I still live with how worse they were.

And I know many other people who have the same story to tell.

And I know that unlike me, many people who live at the JRC won’t be able to escape the institutional system the way I was able to.  My situation was unique to me.  I didn’t get out because I was better off disability-wise than others, I got out because I was in a particular, unique set of circumstances.  The difference between people on the inside and people on the outside is not their disability.

But once you’re in a long-term institution, it’s harder to get out.  I was lucky, I was usually in a string of short-term institutions (even if I spent longer time periods in them than other people there), then when I was in a longer-term one, my residential facility closed and it became useful to them to decide I was recovered enough to leave, and to “transition” me to a “less restrictive environment”.  Which was still a hellish environment, mind you, but more chance of freedom, there, too.  And I had people around me savvy enough to advise me how to take the chances I had.

And most of the people in the JRC won’t be leaving to freedom, if it gets closed.  They’ll go to other institutions.  And however grateful they are to be out of the JRC, they will get hurt in those new places.  Because that’s what institutions do.  Invariably.  You don’t have to know you’re hurt to get hurt there.  You don’t have to understand how deep the hurt goes, to get hurt there.  You just have to be there.  And you’re often the last person to know how deep it goes, right down to the level of your self and identity and everything important to you.  You can get turned inside out without anyone laying a finger on you.

Nobody will ever be able to pinpoint the institution that inflicts the worst of this sort of damage on its inmates, because this sort of damage is, by its very nature, secretive, even from the person it’s being inflicted upon.  And because nobody will be able to pinpoint the worst of it, there will never be a massive, targeted, decades-long campaign to close the worst of these institutions.  Anonymous will never catch on and take part.  The world will not be outraged by the damage inflicted, no matter how devastating.

And if the people damaged by these institutions show that they are grievously psychologically injured by these institutions, people won’t connect it to the institutions.  They’ll connect it to the nebulous concept of ‘mental illness’, and quite possibly try to construct more of the exact same kind of institutions to deal with it.  Nobody will notice that the ‘increased mental illness’ is correlated with the institutions themselves.  Nobody ever does notice.

Nobody catalogues this kind of damage.  Few people study it.  Few people understand it.  Few people can see when and where it is happening.  Few people can understand the damage in the first place.  Most people who describe the damage won’t be believed.

Worse than merely not being believed:

When we describe the damage inflicted upon us, we are invariably described as ungrateful for the advantages that we had in not being in “a place like the Judge Rotenberg Center”, or not being in “a state institution”, or not being in a place that the world universally recognizes as horrible.  Because some of the worst damage is inflicted on us in places that other people see as wonderful.

They will ignore the abundant testimonials by ex-patients who have experienced a wide variety of institutions.  There are tons and tons of people who have been to both state and private institutions and found the private ones immeasurably more damaging, because the extra funding means extra ability for staff to mess with the heads of the inmates.  There are tons and tons of people who have been to both state institutions and group homes and found the group homes immeasurably worse.  There are tons and tons of people who have been to both locked private traditional-institutions, and unlocked residential facilities and group homes, and found the residential facilities and group homes immeasurably worse.  There are tons and tons of people who have been physically tortured at one institution, moved to another institution where no apparent physical torture was present and found the second institution immeasurably worse.  There are people who have been moved from ‘bad’ institutions everyone loves to hate, to wonderful paradise-like ‘intentional communities’ where they had, in the eyes of others, everything they could possibly want, and described how much more horrible the intentional communities were, the ones formed with the best intentions of parents and staff.

People ignore this.

People ignore this completely.

No, worse.

People ignore this and they utterly disparage any current or former inmate who says these things.  They say we don’t understand what we’re talking about.  They say we have no vision.  They say we have no comprehension. They say we don’t understand how good we have it.

And it’s even worse for people who have only been to the ‘better’ (in the eyes of the public) institutions, and complain about how awful they are.  They’re told that they don’t understand how good they have it, only much worse.  And they are told they should be grateful for what they had, that they wouldn’t last a day in a ‘real institution’.

Hell, I’ve been told I haven’t been in a ‘real institution’ just because I was in locked, private, short-stay institutions a lot of the time.  (And one private long-stay institution that was on a ranch in the country so it didn’t count as an institution, somehow.)  Never mind that, at the time, I was referred to as institutionalized by everyone in the system, including people in these institutions… apparently it’s not an institution until it’s a big-campus state institution.

So people who’ve only been in much fancier, much ‘better’ institutions than I’ve ever set foot in, are told this only ten times worse than anything I’ve ever gotten for talking about my experiences.  Especially if they’ve been in the pseudo-utopian farm communities, or the ‘intentional communities’, or things like Camphill, which are all billed as not institutional somehow even though they totally are.  You can’t change an institution by changing the shape of the building and slapping on a new coat of paint.

Anyway.

People who have been through the worst kinds of hell that institutions can provide are not believed, because the worst kinds of hell that institutions can provide are not things that people outside of institutions can understand in any way.  People outside of institutions want the blood and gore and skin shocks to prove a place is horrible.  They don’t want to understand that there are things more horrible than any of that.  They don’t want to understand.  They just don’t want to understand.

And people in institutions often don’t want to understand either.  I didn’t want to understand what was happening to me.  I wanted to believe that now that I wasn’t being tied down and tortured on a daily basis, then I was free.  I wanted to believe that really badly.  You have a vested interest in believing you’re someplace better now, that things will get better.  Sometimes believing things are better is your only defense against how awful things are.

But once I really got out, and I had to deal with the intense emotional and psychological injury I’d been done by all of these places, the truth gradually began to dawn on me.  It’s easier to heal from physical wounds than it is from psychological and emotional wounds.  It’s easier to heal from the obvious horrors than the hidden horrors that lurk behind the scenes, turning you inside out and upside down, piece by piece, one bit at a time.  You can heal, but I can tell you that it’s not being tied down, not physical or sexual assault, not even the horrifying restraint practices I sometimes endured, not the physical pain, that continues to haunt me.  I mean, it does, to some degree.  Things like that always do.  But there are things that have damaged me deeper, in ways I can’t even articulate.

And my friends and I, when we see coverage like this, we’re so afraid.

We’re afraid of the ‘better’ institutions.

We’re afraid of the public’s idea of what a ‘really bad institution’ is.

We’re afraid of some of the disability community’s idea of what a ‘really bad institution’ is.

The JRC is a really bad institution.  It’s doing that horrible kind of damage at the same time that it’s doing the physical damage.  I can see that.  Because it’s got enough funding, it can really fuck with people’s heads.

But you could force the JRC to remove every piece of physical punishment it owns, even restraints.  And it would still be horrible.  It could even become worse.  Because when places can’t focus on hurting your body, they have more time to focus on hurting your mind.  And hurting your mind does the most lasting damage there is.

The JRC needs to be shut down, period.

But there are places just as bad that will never be shut down if we use the JRC as the model of what the worst kinds of institution look like.

And there are places even worse that will never be shut down either.

And the worst places in the world, generally, are the same ones that will get propped up by the shutting down of the places the public has the most visceral unpleasant reactions to.

There’s problems in the disability community, too, and until they’re exposed for what they are, there will be a lot of difficulty changing things.

There’s… a lot of disabled people out there who engage in the completely unproductive practice of competing to talk about who stayed in the worst institutions, who had the worst treatment.

Understand that when I’m talking about the worst institutions above, I’m not talking about the worst institutions in any kind of competitive sense.  I’m talking about, the worst in terms of the overall amount and kinds of damage done.

I’m not saying that there aren’t people who had worse experiences in state institutions than private ones, or that there aren’t people who had worse experiences in traditional institutions than in pseudo-utopian farm communities.  I’m not trying to negate any one person’s personal experience.  I’m just trying to explain… things are not what they seem, what everyone believes to be true is not necessarily the truth.

But I’ve seen disabled people who compete with each other about things like this.  They say that they, unlike so-and-so, had experience with real institutions.  Or they, unlike so-and-so, had real bad experiences.  Or they, unlike so-and-so, were really traumatized by what happened to them.  That because they stayed for months rather than days, or years rather than months, their experiences were automatically worse and more deserving of recognition.

And there’s… absolutely nothing productive that happens there.  That’s ego-driven bullshit.  It’s not activism, it’s not helping anyone at all.  It’s a competition in self-pity.

So understand, again… when I’m comparing things, I’m doing so not with the aim of undermining any given person’s experiences in their own life.  I’m doing so with the aim of showing people things they don’t want to see.  I’m saying that what most people say is best, in terms of institutions, is often the worst of all.  That often, the most damage is done where it can be seen the least.  People have to understand this if they’re going to have any hope of actually reducing damage.

So close the JRC, close it over and over and over again until it’s really damn closed.

But… don’t focus on it to the exclusion of places just as bad or worse that don’t necessarily look as bad on paper.

Understand that your visceral reaction to the idea of skin shocks doesn’t make it the worst possible punishment that can be devised.  It’s a pretty diabolical physical punishment.  But sometimes — no, more like often or usually — people are damaged worse by things that don’t touch them physically at all.

Your instincts here are not necessarily a good guide to what is truly awful.

And I worry so so much about what will happen to people after it closes.

And I worry so so much about people enduring unspeakable damage, sometimes far worse than skin shock would hurt the same people, in institutions considered progressive and even utopian.

(Trust me, behind just about every utopian institution lies a dystopia beyond imagining.  And I worry about the “He loved Big Brother” effect obscuring people’s views of what actually goes on in those places.)

My worst nightmare.  And when I say my worst nightmare, I mean, these are actually real actual dreams I have that are worse than any other nightmares I’ve ever had.  They vary in content, but they go something like this:

I’m living in a place with lots of other people with disabilities.  There are staff there.  The staff try to give us every freedom they possibly can, at least as visible from the outside.  In one of these nightmares, I’m climbing a tree, outdoors, and totally allowed to do so.  But there is someone following along behind me to make sure I don’t get hurt.  I feel like a child.

I feel like I’m suffocating.  I feel like I’m suffocating in cotton candy.  But I can’t point to anything particular that’s wrong.  There’s this fog that lurks over the entire place.  It’s white, maybe slightly yellow or pinkish white, but mostly white.  And it obscures the ability to see anything.  And it smells like sweetness.  And it feels like death, in the worst possible sense.   But you can’t tell where it’s coming from.  It’s everywhere and nowhere at once.  You can’t see it except in your head, and only out of the corner of your mind’s eye.

Staff are nice to us, in the same way that people are nice to young children.  They giggle at us as if we’re cute.  They hug us a lot.

They also make us do what they want us to do.  It’s not possible to know how they do it.  They don’t use physical torture or restraints.  They don’t even always use drugging or anything like that.  We just… somehow always end up moving in the direction that they want us to move in, so to speak.

When I wake up, I feel an intense longing for the place I just woke up from, just for a minute or two.  And then I realize what’s going on, and I want to vomit over and over and over again until the experience is gone from my head forever.

This isn’t the best description, because the problems of these places can’t be described.  I once spent six days in a place very much like that, though, and the sickly-sweet-death-fog clung to me for years before I could get it to dissipate.

Nobody will ever get the kind of backing to close a place like that, that they will to close a place like the JRC.  Even though a place like that could potentially do more damage than the JRC, after a person is moved from the JRC to a place like that.  And if we close the JRC, it’s quite possible idealistic people will be building places like that to take its place.

I can’t explain why it’s as bad as, ,or potentially even worse than the JRC or a place like it.

I can’t.

But it is.

Please trust me on that.

Please understand what I’m trying to say here, because it’s incredibly important, and not enough people are saying it.  (And no, it’s not “don’t close the JRC” or “the JRC is good”.  Somehow, people are really fond of reducing important, complex things I say to simplistic bullshit like that.)

I’m trying to say this, for the sake of all the people who won’t be helped if we focus only on closing the JRC.

Now I’m going to try to get some sleep again.  I hope I don’t have nightmares.

ETA:  Before anyone tells me, as they always tell me when I say this, that the Judge Rotenberg Center will call attention to the issue and everything will follow from there and the public will be interested in closing all the other institutions then, later, once we get to the JRC first, that’s not at all how I’ve ever seen it work, not with Willowbrook, not with anything.  (And a friend of mine worked in a “good institution” that killed a former Willowbrook client, mind you.  She got fired for trying to stop them from killing her.  So she survived Willowbrook only to get killed by staff in a ‘supported apartment’ group home setting.  So… that’s a very specific example for a very specific reason.)  The public doesn’t want to close all institutions when they hear of things like this.  They want to make good institutions and then forget about the matter.  And the good institutions can be worse than the old ones in many ways.

[This post was originally written on December 21, 2013.  I completely forgot I wrote it, but it is always a good time to resurrect a post of this sort.  Because people always need a reminder of certain realities about  institutions.  They’re all too happy to forget, that much never changes.]

Fat people and feeding tubes.

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This isn’t a post I like to write.  The idea to write it always comes after someone, who is not communicating with me in good faith, approaches me and makes snide remarks about how I can possibly need a feeding tube if I’m fat.  Except they usually go beyond calling me fat.  They usually make some reference to my weight that makes it sound like I’m unusually fat, just to make things worse.  In one case, a known repeat cyber-bully (he has made threatening phone calls to a friend of mine — if I’d recognized him on sight I’d have deleted his comment unread) even told me he’d lost some relatively minor amount of weight during the course of a disease I don’t even have, and that therefore since I was still fat, clearly I couldn’t have any of the diseases I do have.  It’s clear that most of the time, these people are not actually interested in hearing my answers to their questions.  They are here to take pot shots at my weight, and to imply that I’m not really sick.

But the thing is, even people who are not bullies have questions like this in their minds sometimes.  And many people who are fat themselves, can be slow in recognizing that they have a disease.  And so can the doctors of fat people, who have all the same assumptions about fat and weight loss that the rest of the world has.  So understand when I’m writing this… the bullies didn’t goad me into writing it.  I’m writing it because it’s an important topic to understand when it comes to healthcare for fat people.

And because fat people die every single day due to inadequate healthcare:

  • When we get sick it’s recognized less often.
  • We’re more likely to be told to go home and lose weight and forget about whatever symptoms brought us in.
  • If our disease causes unexplained weight loss, that will initially be seen as a good thing, even if the disease turns out to be cancer.  (Unexplained weight loss is always a serious medical symptom that needs checking out, no matter how much you weigh to begin with.)
  • If our disease causes weight gain, then we won’t be taken seriously either, we’ll just be blamed for the weight gain.  (This happens all the time with Type 2 Diabetes, which sometimes causes weight gain rather than just being caused by it.)
  • Due to bad experiences with doctors, many fat people won’t seek healthcare even if we are dying.

These are very serious problems, and any Internet bully who adds to these problems is contributing to a lot of suffering and death for fat people and our loved ones.  To the ones who bug me relentlessly — see how funny it seems when it’s your mother with the same diseases I have, and she dies before she can get adequate healthcare because her doctors aren’t as on-the-ball as mine were.

So here’s the thing:  I have gastroparesis.  That’s a partially paralyzed stomach.  It’s one of a number of conditions classified as motility disorders, which are disorders in the ability of your body to move food efficiently down your digestive system.  It’s not diagnosed by weight, it’s diagnosed by a test where you swallow radioactive eggs and they see how long it stays in your stomach.  Mine stayed in my stomach too long, therefore I have gastroparesis.  End of story, there’s no arguing with that.

Symptoms of gastroparesis are a weird thing.  With many diseases, the degree of symptoms is roughly the same as the degree of how severe the actual cause is.  Gastroparesis is different.  You can have severe symptoms with fairly mild slowing of the stomach.  You can have very mild symptoms in a stomach that’s almost stopped altogether.  Nobody knows why this is.

Symptoms of gastroparesis include nausea, vomiting, reflux, bloating, vomiting up undigested food from three days ago, loss of appetite, loss of desire to eat even if you technically have an appetite (you feel starving but can’t make yourself eat),  feeling full too easily, weight loss, blood sugar problems, and occasionally weight gain.  (More on that later.)

I have had most of the symptoms of gastroparesis for a very long time, and I also have symptoms of motility problems in my esophagus going back longer.  When things really came to a head for me, I had stopped being able to keep down any food except broth and occasional, tiny servings of grits.  Then I got aspiration pneumonia from the associated reflux.  Then I landed in the hospital and launched into what we now know was skating on the edge of an adrenal crisis, but back then we had no idea.

Being fat delayed my treatment.

People have this bizarre view that if a person loses weight, they just go from fat to skinny.  They also have this bizarre view that it takes eating a lot to stay fat, and that anyone who isn’t eating a lot instantly goes from fat to skinny.  So when I told them “I’ve been eating nothing but broth and grits for weeks, and my weight is dropping” they didn’t believe me.  They didn’t believe me, in fact, until I had been in the hospital under constant supervision, eating absolutely nothing, and the weight continued to drop off faster and faster.  Finally they got a weight on me, and freaked out at how low it was compared to my last weight in the doctor’s office.  They said that I was burning muscle and that you can die of that, especially if it starts affecting your heart.  It didn’t matter that at this point I was 200 pounds (I’d been 245 to begin with), which is still technically fat.  Everything the doctors told me, said that rapid weight loss from failure to be able to eat can kill you before you even become thin.  But it took seeing me failing to eat every day before that knowledge could break through their own biases.

So they embarked on a program to bring my weight up.  Yes, I said bring my weight up.  Because if you go from not eating, to eating a sensible amount of food, then that is what is going to happen, no matter what your weight is at the moment.  The fact that I weighed 200 pounds did not give me the magic ability to start eating a normal amount of food and keep losing weight.  That’s not how human physiology works.

They put me on every nausea medication they possibly could.  I ended up on a cocktail of Reglan, Zofran, Phenergan, Ativan, Benadryl, and Marinol.  Prior to the Marinol, even that combination wasn’t quite enough, and they were seriously considering putting in a feeding tube.  They had, at this point, done their preliminary diagnosis of gastroparesis, and they were sure a feeding tube was in my future.  But they were able to send me home on a diet of Ensure Plus and lots of nausea meds.  It worked for a few months.

But my gastroparesis symptoms only got worse.  They were getting worse in two areas.  One, I was refluxing stomach fluid into my lungs and getting aspiration pneumonia a lot.  The aspirations were happening several times a week, and I think I got pneumonia something like 7 times that year.  With bronchiectasis to make things even worse, the pneumonia was going to kill me.  Secondly, I was losing weight again.  I had brought my weight up to 223 pounds at my best, but then it went down to 193 at a point when I could only keep down one Ensure a day.  It went down that fast within a couple of weeks.

So they agreed I needed a feeding tube if I were to survive.  They didn’t agree that I should want to survive, but that’s another story I’ve told before.  They did agree that I needed a feeding tube in order to survive.  And eventually I got that feeding tube.

The thing about feeding tubes, for any skeptics out there?  Is that they don’t give them out to people who don’t need them.  Yes, everyone has heard of rich women who diet by using nasogastric tubes.  But this isn’t a nasogastric tube, it’s a GJ tube.  And I’m not rich, I’m on disabled adult child benefits, Medicare. and Medicaid.  Literally the only way to get a feeding tube on Medicare and Medicaid, is to desperately need one.  Literally the only way to get this particular hospital to place a feeding tube of this nature, is to desperately need one.  Anyone who can see that I have a feeding tube and still questions whether I need one, all I can say is they have no business advising anyone on the practice of medicine because that ain’t how it works.

GJ feeding tube

The above feeding tube?  Only way to get it is because it’s medically necessary.

So why is a feeding tube medically necessary in a fat person?

Because feeding tubes are given for a very wide range of problems.  In my case, there’s two big problems that are simultaneously solved, or at least made much better, by the same feeding tube.

1.  I can’t eat sufficient food to maintain my weight, or even to drop weight slowly enough to be healthy.  My stomach doesn’t work, so I have to bypass it by putting food directly into my intestines.

2.  I aspirate stomach fluid, which can be drained out of one half of my feeding tube.  Continued aspirations would result in repeated infections until eventual death.

It’s the first one people don’t seem to grasp.

I’ll make it very simple:  You can die from complications of rapid weight loss, before you ever become thin.  You can put a strain on your heart, you can dehydrate, there are a million ways to die from malnutrition or dehydration before you become thin.  And it’s not best medical practice to sit around watching a person waste away, waiting until they become below a certain weight before you become concerned that they’re doing things like burning heart muscle.

Even if you manage to become thin without dying, your body is wrecked at that point, and it’s going to be harder to heal you and keep you alive than if the tube feedings started while you were still fat.  My body had a lot of problems and I never even made it to thin.

I’ve consulted with nutritionists on the matter, and they’ve repeatedly told me that my goal should not be weight loss.  My goal should not be weight gain either.  My goal should be to stabilize at whatever weight my body seems to want to stabilize at, and then stay there.  Any rapid, unintended weight gain or weight loss is a problem that needs to be dealt with by adjusting the way my tube feedings are done.

For what it’s worth, right now I weigh 178 pounds.  That is 67 pounds lighter than I weighed when all of this started.  Most people would call losing 67 pounds without intending to, to be symptom of a major medical problem.  That is how every medical professional in my life has treated the matter.

The only people who goad me about how fat I supposedly am (and they always add at least 100-200 pounds to their estimate of my weight) are people online who only see me in pictures.  Offline, people are constantly asking me about having lost weight.  It’s not subtle.  It’s not even close to subtle.  My clothes hang off of me.  My pants and skirts fall down if I don’t use belts or suspenders.  My entire facial shape has changed.  Everyone who hasn’t seen me in awhile tells me I look like I’ve lost weight.  Medical professionals express extreme worry about the amount of weight I’ve lost.  I’ve had random nurses come up to me in the emergency room and say “Oh my god, are you okay, it’s the gastroparesis and malabsorption making you lose all that weight, isn’t it?” and things of the like.

Only on the Internet can you lose 70 pounds so rapidly that it scares your doctors, and then be told how fat you are for not instantly losing 70 more.

I may gain some of this weight back now that I’m on steroids for the adrenal insufficiency, which is another condition that can cause weight loss.

But back to weight and gastroparesis.

Not only is it not true that only thin people get gastroparesis.  Not only is it not true that very fat minus a lot of weight can still equal fat, if you were fat enough to start with.  But gastroparesis can actually cause weight gain.

It works like this:

Gastroparesis causes the amount of calories that you get, to be restricted.

Your body at first loses weight.

Then your body goes into starvation mode.  It notices that there are fewer calories.  So it begins trying to hang onto every single calorie for dear life.

At which point your body gains weight again.

That’s common for a lot of diseases that cause restriction in calories, and can be especially common in diseases where the symptoms vary day to day, so the amount that you can eat varies as well.

So “How can you have gastroparesis?  You’re fat!”  Doesn’t work on so many levels.

But this kind of thinking kills fat people who have diseases like this one.  It kills fat people who have anorexia, who can’t get treatment because their body weight isn’t low enough.  It kills fat people in general.  The idea that you can’t remain fat while having a disease that affects eating in some way, is extremely common and extremely deadly to any fat person who ends up with such a disease.  And the idea that we only deserve treatment if we’ve become so starved that we are skinny (at which point it may be too late to save us), kills us as well.  Every.  Single.  Day.

I find it ridiculous when people talk to me about how much I’m supposedly eating, anyway.  The only food I take in is a nutritional supplement called Osmolite.  It’s pre-mixed to be a certain number of calories a day.  I take even fewer calories a day than are in that mixture, because I don’t feel like I need the full 1500.  There is no other source of food for me.  Any food I don’t eat by the end of the day is poured down the drain.  Literally everything comes through the feeding tube.  So don’t give me shit about ‘overeating’, you clearly don’t know what you’re talking about.  For whatever reason, my body wants to be about 180 pounds, and has done ever since I had a period of starvation in my early twenties.  And it’s honestly none of your business.

So if you ever hear someone running around talking about any fat person in terms of, “She can’t really have a condition affecting food intake, or she wouldn’t be fat,” then point them at this post.   If you ever hear anyone saying that only thin people need feeding tubes, point them at this post.

Because the need for a feeding tube comes most often when someone can’t eat.  When a fat person can’t eat, that is as dangerous as when a thin person can’t eat.  You don’t wait for all the weight to drop off before you decide that this whole not eating thing is a medical emergency.  And this is why plenty of fat people have feeding tubes.

We may have feeding tubes because we can’t swallow.  We may have feeding tubes because we choke on our food.  We may have feeding tubes to bypass a stomach that doesn’t work.  We may have feeding tubes to drain stomach fluids that would otherwise fill up our lungs and kill us.  We may have feeding tubes because our esophagus doesn’t work.  We may have feeding tubes for every reason that anyone else needs a feeding tube, and none of those things are changed by the fact that a person is fat.  All of these things are just as serious problems in a fat person as in a thin person.

I honestly think that some of the nonsense I hear about fat people and feeding tubes is because in the online world, feeding tubes have become a symbol of anorexia, a condition that is (erroneously) associated in most people’s minds with only super-thin people.  Feeding tubes are what happens when someone with anorexia can’t eat enough on their own to maintain an even vaguely healthy weight.  You see pictures of people with feeding tubes all over anorexia websites, and chances are that if you see pictures of people with feeding tubes, you’re seeing pictures of extremely thin people.

But being severely underweight (for whatever reason) is only one among dozens of reasons a person might need a feeding tube.  And most of those dozens of reasons do not have a weight limit.  So please don’t bully and harass fat people for having feeding tubes.  And if you see someone you know doing the bullying and harassing, set the record straight.  Honestly, the fact that I have a feeding tube at all shows I need one, because they don’t implant GJ tubes without a damn good reason.  And the same is true for anyone else with a G tube, J tube, or GJ tube.  These are serious surgical procedures that are never undertaken lightly.

As for the bullies, I hope I never have to live in a world where they run my medical care.  I can just see them “You lost 70 pounds rapidly without trying?  Come back when you’ve lost 70 more and maybe then we’ll help you, if you don’t die first!”  It’s ludicrous.  And deadly.  All of these attitudes contribute to the deaths of fat people with genuine health problems.  And that’s why, instead of blowing it off like usual, I decided to make an entire post on the topic of fat, feeding tubes, and gastroparesis.

A warning: I won’t be accepting comments that are nasty towards fat people or that support the idea that our health problems aren’t as serious.  Nor am I going to be accepting comments to the effect of “go on a diet, it will solve everything”.  Nor will I accept comments from bullies.  This is about discrimination against fat people both in the healthcare industry and in broader society, and this is all this is about.  Anything else will be deleted.  Even when it comes under a cloak of “But I’m only so concernnnned about your healllllllth…”  This isn’t the time or the place for that crap, please respect that.  This is a post about why these bullies’ attitudes are potentially deadly to fat people, and I won’t have it pulled off course into a million unrelated debates.

P.S. Bullying fat people about medical stuff like this, and deliberately spreading misinformation about the medical needs of fat people, kills fat people.  Every one of you who targets me in this way has to know that in your heart.  Have that on your conscience, if you have enough of one to bleed through all your cruelty.  When it’s your turn to face yourself for who you are, you’ll have to answer for things like that.  I hope you can manage.

 

Love, Fear, Death, and Disability

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People fear and even hate disabled people because we remind them that they are both fragile and mortal. They don’t want to remember those things about themselves. And they find ways to physically shut us away, and mentally shut us out of their awareness. And they delude themselves that they are different. That something they do will prevent them from ever becoming one of us. And prevent them from ever dying.

I have lived a long time as what I’d call precariously ill. A person who’s precariously ill isn’t terminally ill. There’s no saying for sure that we’ll die of our illness. But death is a constant possibility.

In my case, my gastroparesis led me to frequently inhale large amounts of stomach fluid at once. I have bronchiectasis, which makes it easy to get infections and hard to clear them. And untreated, severe adrenal insufficiency, which can turn an ordinary infection into an adrenal crisis. That combination made my health, and my life, very precarious indeed.

I have a strong belief that if people were more open about death, people would be less terrified of their own mortality. And thus less terrified of things that remind them of their mortality. Like, say, disabled people and sick people.

I’ve never had what they call a “Near Death Experience” ™ where you come very close to death and have this fairly uniform experience of a light at the end of a tunnel and all that kind of thing. But I’ve had encounters where I’ve gotten too close to death for comfort. Usually I had an infection that wasn’t playing well with my untreated adrenal problems. I would become extremely weak, so tired that it felt like just keeping my heart running and my basic bodily functions going, was too much. and I was losing the ability to do those background things your body is supposed to do effortlessly. And then I’d see death hanging around, it’s the only way I know how to put it. Sometimes other people around me would see it too.

A light would fill the room. It wasn’t a visible light. It was something I’d see on the inside of my head. It seemed to be coming from everywhere. There was a sense of being more profoundly at home than I had ever been in my life. As if there was this one tiny piece of the universe where I fundamentally belonged, and I had finally found it. There was an overwhelming sense of benevolence and peace.

And there was the sense that if I wanted to, all I had to do was relax and stop fighting. All I had to do was rest. And I could be in that intense, profound place of love forever. But if I fought, and won, it would still be waiting for me when my time had come. It did not entirely urge me either way. It was patient. It had all the time in the world.

But while it didn’t actively urge me to die, death did have a gravitational field. That’s what I called it during my first conscious encounter with it. I was ashamed, at first, to tell my friends what it had felt like. I was afraid they’d think I was weak, or cowardly, or that I had a death wish. So with some disquiet, I told my friend what it had felt like the first time I encountered death in this manner.

It felt, at first, like I couldn’t fight. More than that, I didn’t want to. I couldn’t even conceive of fighting. I had a strong urge just to rest. To allow my heart to stop and my breathing to slow and to surrender myself completely to death. The closer I was to death, the stronger this feeling was. So I started referring to it as a gravitational pull. It was only when I gained a lot of strength back due to medical treatment that I even had the will to resist, let alone the power.

My friend gave me an explanation that made me feel much better about my reactions. It was not that I was weak-willed or wanted to die. It was entropy at work.

Entropy involves a system trying to go to the lowest energy state. In order to survive, living things are constantly fighting entropy. We do this by feeding off of other living things and converting it into fuel to give us the continued energy to survive. If we simply allowed ourselves to go to the lowest energy state without a fight, we’d be dropping dead right and left. Most of the time, we are good enough at temporarily cheating entropy that we don’t feel its pull on us.

But when we are severely ill enough that death is a possibility, then we begin to feel it. We feel how strenuous it is to stay alive. And if we are sick enough, and exhausted enough, we begin to feel an overwhelming desire to allow ourselves to go to that ultimate rest. To allow our bodies to wind down forever. And that is the gravitational pull we have to escape if we are to live.

Much like a black hole has a point of no return, death has an event horizon too. I’ve obviously never been past it. But I’ve seen people and animals who have. And I saw (in my head, not with my eyes) that same intense light around them, that seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere at once. I felt that same profound, unconditional love.

This is how I know that death is nothing to be feared. In fact, even though the separation between us and our loved ones can cause tremendous pain and grief, death itself can be a beautiful process for the person who is dying. It can be for those around them, too, if everyone lets it be what it is.

I want to emphasize something though. Yes, I believe that death can be benevolent, friendly, necessary, and even beautiful. But I also believe all those things about life. And given that we only get one shot at this lifetime (even if reincarnation exists, which I don’t pretend to know) then it’s very important to resist death until it’s actually our time to die.

Our life is something we owe not only ourselves, but the people and society around us. Whether or not we understand our contributions, we each have one, and the world loses something without each of us in it. Disabled people in particular get a lot of messages saying that we are burdens on society, that we do not contribute, and that it’s best if we’re dead. And that’s completely wrong. In fact it’s despicable, unforgivable, to do anything to convince someone that these things are true of them.

So I am not saying “Death is beautiful, surrender to it the first chance you get.”

I am saying “Life is beautiful and you are an important part of the world, whether you can see it or not. You have obligations to the living world, to stay here as long as you possibly can. But when your time truly comes, don’t be afraid. Death is a necessary part of life. And it can be friendly, benevolent, and beautiful in its own right. When your time comes, it’s possible to die with love, without fear.  And if you have ever existed, then some place in time, you always exist.”

One thing that facing death can do, is force you to reexamine your priorities in life. And that can be scary. It can be especially scary if there’s something in your life that you’ve been running from, hard, for a long time. As you near death, you won’t be able to keep up the fences in your mind that allow you to deny things like that. If you learn to face these things long before you get close to death, then death is less scary. And if there’s something you’ve done wrong that’s been a burden on your mind, it can be important to remove that burden before you die. That’s why some religions practice confession before death, but it doesn’t have to be in a religious context if you’re not religious. But the sooner you deal with things like this, the less they’ll hang around and make your death unpleasant.

But the biggest thing I have found, any time I’ve even faced the possibility of death. Even if I haven’t come close enough to feel that gravitational pull. Is that it’s forced me to examine what is really important in life, and what is trivial. And it’s actually pretty simple:

Love is all that’s important. The experience of love, the expression of love, living love and compassion as your highest and only principles in life. Living for what you can do for others, not what you can do for yourself alone. Everything else fades into the background.

I can remember an ambulance ride after aspirating stomach fluid. When that happens, you don’t know how long you’ll survive. You could get an infection and get over it, or it could do you in within a week. You don’t know if you’ll get lucky, at that point. And everything narrows down.

At that point, I always find myself faced with one question: “Have I loved enough, and have I expressed that love enough throughout my life?” Everything else falls away. That’s the only thing my conscience cares about in the end. Have you lived your life as a strong enough expression of compassion and love? The best way to have few regrets when you die is to get started living that love right now. Easier said than done, but worth the struggle.

This doesn’t mean becoming touchy feely and hugging everyone you meet. It doesn’t mean being serene and peaceful all the time, or never getting mad. (In fact anger is sometimes — sometimes — an expression of love at a particular moment. Not habitual anger problems, but anger as a reaction in a particular situation when everything fits together in a way that requires it.) Love is an active thing that requires constant evaluation and action. It’s not holding hands and singing kumbaya. It’s not feeling soft and fuzzy all the time. Expressing real love can be fierce and intense, difficult and demanding, even scary sometimes.

But if you want to have as few regrets as possible at the time of your death, it’s best not to wait: Get started living a loving life right now. And start facing things you’re trying to run from. And unburden your conscience from anything that’s been weighing on it. Because you don’t want to die terrified, fighting against yourself, feeling the pressure of unrelenting guilt or shame. It’s best to live your life now in a way that will leave you with no regrets when you die.

But that’s a hard thing to do. I’m aware of this stuff, but I can’t claim to be living the perfectly loving life that I want to be living. I know there are things I could be doing for others, right now, that I desperately want to do for others, that somehow never get done. Despite that, I know deep down in my bones that love is the only way to live a good life or die a good death.

It’s hard for even disabled people to talk about what a good death looks like, because we are under so much pressure from society to accept that death is better than disability, that death is an acceptable alternative to the unbearable suffering that we are supposedly enduring, that we will be happier dead than alive. The media is full of stories where nondisabled people kill us and we’re said to be better off, our deaths are said to be understandable. And stories where we become suicidal and instead of trying to prevent our suicides, our societies rally behind us to give us a ‘right’ to an easy death. That stuff is everywhere, and it makes it very hard for us to look at what a good death would actually be.

It’s especially hard to talk about accepting death, because people are always pressuring us to accept our deaths long before we are ready to die. I would quite possibly be dead already if I hadn’t had a lot of the online disability community fighting for me last year, when doctors tried to persuade me not to get a feeding tube. (They couldn’t deny it outright, because they knew I needed one. So they came into my hospital room every day while I was sick and weak and exhausted from pneumonia, and tried to persuade me that life with a feeding tube was so awful that ‘the alternative’ would be preferable.) I clearly disagreed with their assessment of when is the right time to die, and I disagree with anyone who tries to make it sound as if living with a feeding tube, on a ventilator, or with other ‘artificial’ means of living, is somehow the point at which disabled people should give up and die.

But there is a point when giving in isn’t a bad thing. And it’s not a matter of how many machines you’re on to keep you alive. It’s not a thing that can be quantified. It’s that nebulous time “when your time has really come”. At that point, there’s no shame in giving up the fight, because fighting when you’re truly beyond death’s event horizon just makes death more unpleasant, it doesn’t keep you alive. But I’m afraid to even say this, because I know someone, somewhere, will twist it around and use it to persuade disabled people to give up and die before our time is really up. It happens all the time, and disabled people have every right to be extremely wary of talk of ‘giving in’ as a good thing.

But regardless of that, death still has an event horizon. And once you know, for sure, that you’re beyond that point of no return, then there is nothing wrong with simply surrendering to love, surrendering to the light, surrendering to whatever gods you do or don’t worship, whatever you want to call it, however you see it. And you will become part of the rest of the world, and that is right, and true, and beautiful. And heartbreaking for those you leave behind.

Between my experiences lately, and serious medical experiences my parents have been having, I’ve been thinking a lot about death.

Normally, I write about the ableism involved in pushing disabled people towards our deaths. The ableism in thinking that disabled is just half-dead and that dying is good if you’re disabled. The ableism in thinking things like “They keep people alive too long these days, it’d be better if people just died without a long drawn-out time where they’re disabled before they die.”

But now, I’m writing about a different aspect of ableism and death: The way ableism against disabled people is tied to nondisabled people’s fear of sickness and death and physical imperfection, fear of their own mortality. And dismantling fear of death dismantles that aspect of ableism. Nothing I say here should be taken as supporting ableist ideas about how disabled people should just accept our deaths and go quietly. Instead, I’m talking about a more universal acceptance of death, one that should happen when our time has truly come and not before.

And I’m talking about love, because I deeply believe, more deeply than ever, that love is the only thing that can make things right in the world. Love that comes from the depths of what it is to be a person, love that comes from everything good in the world, love that demands a lot of us and changes us and is intense and powerful and fierce and real and sometimes demanding and scary. Love that leads to compassion that leads to actions people undertake for each other, not for ourselves.

And most of my sense of this love comes from my encounters with death. I don’t know why it works like that, but it does. I’ve talked to others who have had similar experiences. Sometimes facing your own mortality can make you scared and twisted up and angry and bitter. But sometimes it can open you up to new depths of love and caring about others, that you didn’t know were possible. And even if you start out scared or angry or bitter, it’s possible to change bit by bit, more and more towards enacting that love in the real world.

I firmly believe that if people were more willing to face our collective fragility, vulnerability, mortality, and death, then we would be less ableist. All of us, disabled and nondisabled.

I’m going to end with a video taken shortly before the death of Eva Markvoort, a young woman who had cystic fibrosis, got a lung transplant, and ultimately died of chronic rejection. I’m posting the video because she so clearly allowed her impending death to open her up to all of the love that the world has to offer. This wasn’t easy for her, it didn’t just magically happen, and it’s not meant to be an inspirational cripple story, which I’m sure she’d have hated — one of those things where we exist only to teach a lesson to the nondisabled world, when we are so much more than a lesson. Yet I hope that we can all face our deaths as well as she did in the end. At least, I hope that I can. When I look at her in this video, I see in my head that invisible solid light that I see whenever I or someone else is sufficiently close to death — it’s all around her, it’s coming through her, and it’s allowing amazing, beautiful things to happen to her and those around her in her last hours.

This was her farewell video to the world, don’t watch it without something to wipe your eyes:

 

She once wrote a love letter that read, in part:

When I sit outside on the ferry is when I most believe in love. I don’t know why. Something about the wind makes me feel alive…the seagulls and the sky…whether its sunny and bright or cloudy and grey or nighttime and I’m surrounded by vast darkness…I just feel…FULL. Full of love and energy….almost as though I’m porous and the wind soars through tiny holes in my body and I’m part of it all…the earth and the people and the relation of everything with everything…as though I don’t matter…but its not scary…its wonderful….i feel so free.

It’s the only time I’m not afraid to die. Cuz I can feel the wind and I know that I’ll always be a part of life…and the love and energy that are contained in my skin will be let loose into the wind and the world will just know how much I care and love and I will live forever. I believe that love is what defines us as human. I believe that my love for you will never die. My heart breaks to think of how lucky I am. How happy and hopeful and full I am. I love you so solidly. I am real and you are real and I hope we will always be real. I am in awe of you. My interest in who you are is infinite. Drop a stone in the well of my desire for you and you’ll never hear it hit the bottom. You amaze me. Your love makes me invincible…no not invincible…immortal. Because when I die I believe my love for you will surround you till your soul joins mine in the wind.

I hope that the world can learn to overcome the terror they associate with fragility, imperfection, vulnerability, and mortality, the terror that currently makes so many people fear and hate disabled people (and, in turn, drive us closer to an untimely death).

I hope that the world can stop fearing death, and stop fearing the disability and sickness that reminds them of death.

I hope that people will understand my meaning here, and not use it to justify the deaths of disabled and chronically ill people who need all the help we can get to survive already.

I hope that the world can learn to love — in the active, difficult, demanding way that deep love entails — and that this can further all of the above. Because active love and compassion, caring about each other on every level possible, is the only thing that digs deep enough to create lasting change.  And love is the only thing that can end fear or hatred.

Blogging Against Disablism Day, May 1st 2014

After this, I am never again putting up with bullies telling me that my medical conditions are imaginary.

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After my diagnosis of adrenal insufficiency, then the last foothold that bullies had made into my mind, it fell away like sand.

It wasn’t just that the diagnosis was so obvious, so grounded in specific laboratory tests that nobody with any knowledge could argue with.  It wasn’t that, so much, at all.

It was what I felt in my body.

It was the way I felt life returning to my body.

It was the way I felt sturdy rather than fragile.

It was doing forty jumping jacks in a row, fast.

It was going up seven flights of steps to use a treadmill for ten minutes, then go all the way downstairs, and then back up to my apartment.

It was doing things, large and small, that my body couldn’t do before.  Couldn’t.  Not even a little.

It was feeling that fall away from me again, temporarily, when my body first adjusted to the dexamethasone dose I was on, and having it come back again when we raised the dose.

I realized that the reason the bullies got to me so badly was because deep down I thought maybe they were right.   I’d experienced a severe but undiagnosed chronic illness for years, and it had gotten much worse six years ago.  I painstakingly hid as many aspects of it as I could, let people believe there were other reasons that I could do less online, because every time I described an illness, I’d get bullied for it.  I’d get told I was making stuff up for attention.  When I was hospitalized last year, I sought help online with obtaining access to a life-saving treatment, and some bullies even had the nerve to capitalize on a life-and-death medical situation to give them a platform to denounce me again.  Then when I described the situation, one of them had the extra nerve to come here and tell me that because I was fat, I couldn’t possibly have enough eating problems to need a feeding tube.  (I’ve lost nearly 70 pounds involuntarily.  When it was only 40 pounds in 2 months, a doctor told me I was burning muscle and that it was going to affect my heart.  Do I have to be dead of starvation before I’m thin enough for my gastroparesis to be real?)

And on some level I accepted this.

And I accepted it because I thought that maybe I really was imagining things.  After all, I had no firm diagnosis for this mystery illness that was causing me so much trouble.  Maybe I didn’t want to get better.  Maybe if I just wanted to enough, I could jump and run and walk up stairs.  Maybe I didn’t have to be in bed all day.  Maybe the vomiting and burning hot and freezing cold and total limpness were something I could make go away, with everything else, if I wanted to enough.  Maybe I was somehow making it up, and then fooling myself into thinking I wasn’t making it up.

And I can tell you that nearly everyone I talk to with a hard-to-diagnose condition has thought this way.  But those of us who have been bullied or harassed, and had rumors spread about us that we’re faking everything?  We think this way more.  We may hide it well, but most of us think this way, at least on bad days.  And it’s a terrible way to think.  It winds around your head and makes it hard to take any action at all in life.  It makes you doubt the deepest things about yourself.  It can make you passive, it can make you lash out, but either way it makes you less effective at anything you’re trying to do.  It’s hard to get anything done when you’re divided against yourself, doing the bullies’ work for them.

Anyway, this has all changed.

I don’t think like this anymore.

The test results tell me that everything I felt wrong with my body all these years, has a measurable, physical cause that’s very simple:  I don’t make enough cortisol, because I don’t make enough ACTH.  Years of depletion has led to chronic and even life-threatening illness.  And this is clearly adrenal insufficiency (a medical diagnosis), not ‘adrenal fatigue’ (a vague catch-all that requires no actual proof of an adrenal problem at all).

But it’s not the test results.

It’s what I feel in my body now that I’ve gone on dexamethasone.

It’s being able to run and jump and climb stairs and go for long walks.

It’s feeling sturdy for the first time in years.  It’s feeling the fire of life course through me for the first time in years.

It’s realizing I could live to old age, and starting to wonder what it will be like to have grey hair and wrinkles.

No bully can take those realizations away from me.

And the change that has happened in me makes me realize how disgusting this form of bullying is, and what a low form of humanity anyone is who deliberately participates in it.  And I’m angry.  It’s an intense, focused anger.  Focused on everyone who has ever tried to make me doubt who I am and what I am experiencing.

Because I have a better fucking track record than most people with chronic illnesses, when it comes to having things show up on actual test results like this.  And yet every time, every time I have to prove myself.  Sometimes the proof comes at the last minute.  One day the proof may come too late to save me, and you’ll have that on your conscience, if you even have a conscience.

But seriously:

Problems urinating, dismissed out of hand as psychological in 2000, diagnosed around 2006 as spasticity of the urethra, treated with an implant that helps my muscles relax.  But not before I had infection after infection after infection.

A variety of really nasty symptoms, dismissed out of hand as being ‘fat and lazy’ and other things of the like, for years.  By the time, around 2003, that they found the problem, my gallbladder had not only produced two large gallstones, it had failed completely and was sitting in there dead by the time they pulled it out.  The surgeon was visibly angry at everyone who had delayed diagnosis and treatment.

Breathing symptoms.  Got me thrown out of emergency rooms more than once because treatments for asthma didn’t help — cyberbullies then proceeded to use those stories to convince people that “even ER doctors think she’s manipulative, see?”  They never thought to check if it was something other than asthma.  Eventually they found an infection and atelectasis in part of my lung.  Even after that was fixed, I was getting told that my continued breathing problems weren’t a big deal, were all in my head, all that kind of thing.  Until I got assigned a new pulmonologist, who did a CT scan and found “mild bilateral lower lobe bronchiectasis and scattered peripheral tree-in-bud opacities consistent with small airways disease”.  When treated for bronchiectasis, the problems got significantly better.  Imagine that?

I had ongoing joint pain that I knew wasn’t arthritis, so I avoided telling doctors about it because I didn’t want to tell them about one more thing wrong with me that didn’t fit in the usual box.  Finally a doctor badgered me into admitting that I had joint pain, then had me perform a series of movements.  He diagnosed me with benign joint hypermobility syndrome on the spot — a condition that’s characterized by overly flexible joints combined with widespread joint pain.  The test is really simple.  Bullies claimed I was faking this even though I posted pictures of my thumb flat against my wrist, which is impossible to do without a hypermobile wrist joint.  (I can also stick my foot behind my head and other fun party tricks that I really shouldn’t, medically, do.  But I do do it sometimes because it’s the fastest way to prove to a doctor that I’m not kidding around about being hypermobile.)

I had ongoing problems with nausea and food that stayed in my stomach for way too long, sometimes I’d throw up things I’d eaten days before.  This was eventually diagnosed as gastroparesis, using a test where you eat radioactive eggs and they test how slowly it goes through your stomach.

And now I’ve had this baffling array of symptoms, for years, and the blood cortisol test, ACTH test, and ACTH stimulation test confirmed that it’s a severe secondary adrenal insufficiency.  My response to treatment, according to my endocrinologist, more than confirms it.

How many people with chronic illness can say they have a track record this good?  Of saying they had a medical problem, and having it actually show up on a test in such a clear fashion?  I mean, the problems I have tested as having have not by any means all been the problems I was expecting to have.  But they all eventually showed up as something.  And that’s more than a lot of people can say.

So why the extensive bullying about being fake, when I have more proof of my authenticity as a sick person than most sick people will ever have?

It’s not because there’s any actual evidence that I’m faking anything.  It’s because bullies will be bullies, and they sensed this as a vulnerable point for any person with a chronic illness.  It’s because, I’m sure, a few of them have actually convinced themselves that they are on a righteous crusade against evil, and I am evil.  It’s because I have some people who, for reasons unknown to me, really hate me, and they thought this would be fun.

But it’s also because there’s a cultural norm that says that disabled people are all potential fakers until proven otherwise.

It’s because everyone is always looking for whether the wheelchair user can wiggle her toes, whether the blind man picks up a book and reads it with his eyes, whether the nonverbal person can say a few words here and there when xe’s under sufficient pressure and all the stars align just right.  It’s because people believe that we are all getting away with something.  That disability is about getting something for nothing.  That being sick means getting special privileges.  That everyone would fake illness to ‘play hooky’ from life, if there wasn’t constant vigilance against the possibility.

Governments love to spur on this kind of hatred and suspicion.  Disabled people in the UK right now are afraid to leave their houses because hate crimes have risen.  And the hate crimes have risen as a result of a media campaign saying that disabled people are exaggerating or faking their conditions in order to get benefits that they don’t deserve.  People are afraid of getting beaten up in public, because they’re being scapegoated by the government for the financial crisis that’s plaguing the world today.  And disabled people are always among the first to get scapegoated for such things.  We’re too expensive.  We need too many special privileges.  This always happens, and horrors follow.

According to Paul Longmore in Why I Burned My Book, the idea that you need to watch to make sure disabled people aren’t cheating on our benefits goes back to the English Poor Laws.  I wish I had my copy of his book on hand so that I could tell you everything he knows about the subject.  But basically it made it clear that there were poor people who deserved help, and poor people who didn’t deserve help.  And that we needed to always be careful only to be helping the right people.  And that the wrong sort of people would always be trying to take advantage of our charity and goodwill, so we must always be on guard.

And that attitude is what’s behind the suspicion of any disabled person who isn’t 100% stereotypical.

Speaking of which — you want to find a disabled person who is faking?  Find someone who has absolutely consistent abilities that never waver in any way, who is always able to do the same things, always unable to do the same other things, and those things never shift around.  She’ll be very much like the stereotype of whatever condition she claims to have, and won’t deviate in the slightest.  She will be everything you expect of a disabled person.  And that is why you will never find her so you might as well give up looking.

The people you pick on relentlessly as fakers are the ones who are generally actually more typical of disabled people, but less stereotypical.  We don’t have just one condition, we have two or three or four at minimum.  Our abilities are a moving target that we can’t always predict, let alone anyone else.  We seem to be able to do one thing but unable to do something else that we “should” be able to do if we could do the first thing.  We don’t obey any of the rules people have in their heads of how disabled people are supposed to be like.  And because of this we are vulnerable and because of this we are targets for relentless bullying, harassment, and defamation.

So a lot of us hide things that aren’t stereotypical.  Or we hide how bad things are.  Or we hide how bad things have gotten.  Or we try to play the role of a more stereotypical disabled person, hoping it will free us from bullying.  But then if we are exposed as having hidden anything, ever, or pretended anything, ever, then bullies have ammunition to accuse us of faking, and it all gets worse.  So we’re trapped in a double bind:  There is no way to be ourselves and escape ableist bullying.

I realize how much I have come to accept that I am an acceptable target, when I think of a good friend of mine and what would’ve happened (and it almost did, but for a twist of fate) if she’d met up with the same bullies I met up with at a certain point in my life.  It makes me shake with rage.  It makes me cry.  The very idea of her having to go through this makes me furious.  And I realize that I need to be just as furious that I’ve been forced to go through this, often with very little support and backup, for so long.  Because I matter just as much as she does, and I’m just as real as she is.

I have to say, though, that I have met people who were faking or exaggerating disability in order to manipulate people.  Very few, but I have met them.  And I understand that when done in certain ways, such actions can be devastating to everyone forced to be around them.  It can destroy trust.  It can destroy the cohesion of communities that are important for disabled people.  It can become an almost vampiric scenario where someone is draining time, energy, and money from people who can’t spare any of those things.  That isn’t what happens the majority of times that people fake things (the majority of the time, it hurts few to no people, actually), but it can happen, and I understand why people are changed by it, why they have trouble trusting after something like that happens.  I’ve been through it myself and it left my head upside-down for a long time afterwards.

But I’ve seen much more damage done to disabled people and our communities, by people who are overly suspicious of everyone for faking, than by people who are actually faking things.

In fact, I’ve seen irreparable damage done to disabled people simply at the idea that someone might think they were faking.  It’s an insidious thought that gets into people’s heads and won’t let them go.  It’s torturous.  I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy.  And I’ve seen it all but destroy a lot of very good people who’d done nothing wrong.  And these aren’t even people who were directly targeted for ableist bullying the way I have been.  All they had to do was see that the bullying happened, and that was enough to instill fear and self-doubt.  Many people with disabilities and chronic illnesses are dealing with so much self-doubt already, that bullying and witch-hunts simply pour gasoline on the fire.  I would not be surprised if some people who were already feeling they had no hope of being understood, had been driven to attempt suicide this way before.

My self-doubt is gone.

It was like a fog that kept me always looking in the wrong direction.  It made me unable to see myself.

I can see myself better now.  I am strong.  I am as real and genuine as everyone else.  I have done nothing that deserves being singled out and attacked.  I have far more proof of the reality of my medical problems than most people who are not being targeted have of theirs, and that tells me that I’m not being attacked because of anything I’ve done.  But I can see, clearly, that I am stronger than anyone who has ever tried to attack me.  Because I’ve now survived relentless attacks on my character, death threats, emotional manipulation, and head games.  Things they probably wouldn’t have weathered anywhere near as well as I have.

I don’t have any hope that they will stop what they are doing.  Because I can see now that what they are doing has nothing to do with reality.  No amount of proof is enough.  In fact they probably want me scurrying around trying to prove myself.  They enjoy that.  Because what they want is control over my life.  They want me to be scared and running around frantically trying to please them.  I’ll probably be dealing with this until they get bored or something, if that ever happens.

But there are things we can do to minimize the impact of people like this.

We can make it a community norm that it’s intolerable for people to bully each other about their disability status.

We can support people who are being bullied about their disability status.

We can support people who are not directly being bullied, but who express fears about whether their illness is imaginary, whether they are just somehow making things up without knowing it, that kind of thing.

We can make things safe for people to admit to feelings like that, without condemning them as guilty just because they’ve doubted themselves.

We can work against community norms that say it’s really important to catch disabled people “cheating” at being disabled.

We can make sure bullies know we aren’t listening to them, and we can make sure that their victims (both direct and indirect) know that we are on their side (because there’s nothing bullies love more than to make their victims feel as if we are alone and everyone is against us).

We can work for love and compassion and against one-upmanship, bullying-as-funny-entertainment, and ego.

There’s all kinds of things we can do.

And inside of ourselves, we can dismantle this self-doubt.  Because self-doubt of this kind, it’s what this kind of bully wants.  They don’t just want to make other people doubt us.  The real fun comes from watching us squirm, watching us doubt ourselves, watching us tear ourselves apart.

I for one will never tear myself apart over this again.   Because I know now, know in my bones, that this has all been real, all along.  I feel it every time I walk up and down four flights of stairs without my legs giving out or even getting out of breath.  I feel it every time I exercise without vomiting.  I feel it every time I do jumping jacks, run, skip, and do all these things I couldn’t do before.  I feel it in the fact that I never anymore get so exhausted that I need a bipap to breathe.  I feel it in every single change my body has made since starting dexamethasone.  This is what reality is.  Anyone who thinks otherwise can screw themselves, but you won’t get a voice on my blog, not to tear me apart, and not to tear anyone else apart either.  It’s what Dave Hingsburger taught me years ago:  I’m okay, you’re mean.  That’s all I need to know.

Blogging Against Disablism Day, May 1st 2014

I am not your fairy tale miracle cure story.

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But more on that in a minute.

In the past couple years, I’ve been quietly preparing to die.  I hadn’t told anyone the full extent of what was going wrong with my body, because it was inexplicable.  Whenever I aspirated and got an infection, I became much weaker than the infection should have made me.  Sometimes I became severely weakened by stress alone.  I knew that there was something going on above and beyond the medical conditions we were aware of.  But I also knew that my symptoms could come from so many different things, it was unlikely we’d ever find it, or that it would be something treatable.

In parts of the chronic illness community, people use a term called ‘spoons’ to describe how much energy you have to do basic things.  I have mixed feelings about the idea, and the Spoon Theory story that originated the practice.  But sometimes it’s a useful thing.  What happened when I got sick was that my spoons would go negative.

When I say negative spoons, I’m not just saying I really didn’t have much energy.  I don’t mean that I felt sick and tired in any way that even the average chronically ill person feels sick and tired.  I mean that I felt like my level of energy was spiraling downwards in a dangerous way.  Where the less energy I had, the less energy I had to replenish it.  At my worst, I would be lying in a hospital bed, going in and out of delirium, and in lucid moments I would notice that it took too much energy just to keep my heart going.  I’d wish that I could stop and rest.  And then I’d realize what that meant.

When I was not acutely ill, I had a constant, subtle sense of fragility.  It felt like one good illness could put me in the hospital or kill me.  And often it did.  I had four hospitalizations between late 2012 and early 2013.  More recently, I was having periods of time when for no reason at all, I’d become unable to move or stay conscious for long.  I knew something was badly wrong.  And apparently so did my doctor, because he started sending me to more specialists and running tests.

This was the result:

Results of cortisol tests, showing cortisol too low to measure, ACTH too low to measure, and cortisol rising up to 8 and 9 when my system was artificially flooded with ACTH.

Results of cortisol tests, showing cortisol too low to measure, ACTH too low to measure, and cortisol rising up to 8 and 9 when my system was artificially flooded with ACTH.

What does this mean?  When they measured the level of cortisol in my blood, it was consistently too low to be measured.   ACTH is a hormone secreted by the pituitary gland that tells the adrenal glands to make cortisol.  My ACTH was too low to be measured as well.  When they flooded my system with ACTH, I made some cortisol, but not as much as they might have expected.

And what does that mean?  It means that my pituitary gland isn’t making enough ACTH, and hasn’t been for a long time.  And that my adrenal glands have therefore not been making enough cortisol.  I have something called severe secondary adrenal insufficiency.  We don’t know the cause yet.  But the upshot is that it’s extremely treatable.  I’m on a steroid called dexamethasone, that replaces the cortisol my body can’t make.

That health crash I had six years ago?  The one I worked hard to conceal until after the worst was over, because I was afraid of being bullied for having too many medical conditions?  Where every single health condition I had took a nosedive, I ended up bedridden, and needing a power chair, and all kinds of changes took place?  We now think that was the time that the adrenal insufficiency became serious.  It may have been around for quite some time after that.  And if we hadn’t treated it, my expectation that I wouldn’t live to see forty, may well have been accurate.

On dexamethasone, I improved rapidly.

Prior to dexamethasone, I could not jump even when holding onto a grab rail.  On dexamethasone, I could do jumping jacks.  First five, then ten, then twenty, then forty.  Before, I couldn’t walk up one flight of stairs.  Now I can walk up and down eleven.  I’m walking everywhere with a cane now, and barely even needing to use the manual wheelchair I bought (thinking that it was more realistic that I’d need a manual wheelchair than that I’d start walking everywhere — I still do need it sometimes, but not that often). I can do 400 meters on a treadmill, I am starting to be able to run (my legs wouldn’t even move that way before) and skip and balance on one foot, and all kinds of other things I thought I’d lost forever.  I’m going on walks in my neighborhood.

Perhaps most amazing is the way I feel after exercising.  In my entire adult life, I have never felt this way:  When I exercise, I feel invigorated afterwards.  I feel more energetic after exercising than before.  This is entirely different than before, when even minor exercise made me throw up, collapse, or both, and could leave me sick and with my body temperature running high and low for weeks.

And this is amazing and magical and wonderful.

But every time I try to talk about this with a nondisabled person, or even with many disabled people, I run into a very ableist way of thinking about this:  The miracle cure story.

It runs sort of like this:  A disabled person has been hanging in the balance between cure and death (because what other possibilities are there for a disabled life?).  Hope means finding a cure, despair means not finding a cure.  They do find a cure and everyone rejoices and everything goes back to how it should’ve been (with them not disabled, of course) and things are great from there on out.

So I run into a lot of people suggesting to me that I’ve “found hope” (I haven’t).  Or that I’m “cured” (I’m not).

Here’s the reality:

I will be on steroids for the rest of my life, according to my doctors.  If I don’t take them, everything goes back to how it was and I would eventually die.

I have to keep injectable steroids around, because it’s that important that I get them every single day, even if I have a stomach bug or a clogged feeding tube.  I don’t have any other meds where it’s so important that the doctor has insisted on injectables.  Even meds that are dangerous to go off quickly.

A bottle of injectable hydrocortisone, Solu-Cortef.

Any time that I become stressed out or sick, my symptoms come back and I have to take more steroids.  This puts me at higher risk when sick, hospitalized, injured, or severely stressed out.  To give an example, when I found out my mom had been in the ICU, I went from feeling great, to too weak to breathe easily, in a matter of seconds.  And when I run down my stress hormones like that, I don’t make new ones, so I have to put them back artificially, it’s called ‘stress dosing’.

I have to be constantly aware of my body and of my stress levels and other factors that affect how much steroids to take.  And I have to largely play it by ear.  There is no blood test to tell you if you’re on enough steroids or not.  You have to learn that yourself.

I’m still autistic.  I still have a variety of other conditions, although some of them are much less severe now that I’m on steroids.  I still need a feeding tube.  I still need to communicate by typing.  I still need a wheelchair sometimes.  I still have stamina problems, just not as severe as before.   I still have severe chronic pain, which is getting worse as I try to train my body to move around instead of lying propped up in bed all the time.  I still have autonomic dysfunction.  I still have hypermobility syndrome.  I still have gastroparesis and bronchiectasis and the hellish interactions between them.

And even though it’s under control, I still have severe adrenal insufficiency.  Having something controlled by medication is great, but it’s not a cure.  A cure would mean I wouldn’t need to take medication, wouldn’t need to watch my stress levels and illnesses very carefully, wouldn’t need to be constantly alert to changes in my body.

This is wonderful, but an inspirational fairytale ending it ain’t.

Blogging Against Disablism Day, May 1st 2014

When we died, we found each other.

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I was there
I was there and I felt
Your hands around my neck
Hands on my chest pushing me underwater
Tying me into the car and starting the gas
The hot poker
The bullet
The knife
I was there and I felt
Where is the air
Why isn’t my body working
Why can’t I get air
That overwhelming hunger for air
And then…
And then…

But I was there and I felt

The one person I was supposed to trust more than anyone in the world
And she abandoned me and spat my love back in my face

And I was there and I felt

The one person I never trusted
Even though everyone else said she was a saint

And she was a saint because of me
She was a saint for putting up with me
She was a saint…

…because the only person who would spend any time around me
the only kind of person who would ever want to
the only kind of person who could care for a person as
broken
difficult
damaged
destroyed
nonexistent
unfeeling
uncaring
noncommunicative
as me
would be a saint
wouldn’t they?

And since only a saint would take care of me
Then it could only be expected
It could only be expected
That a normal person
Could never handle
The burden
Of a person like me
(and therefore)
That it’s understandable
It’s understandable if
If someone would
Just want
Me to die.

My suffering was over, they said at my funeral
(When I even got a funeral, which was not always)
My mother was sentenced to
Five years
Fourteen years
Twenty years
Of living with me
(Even when she didn’t live with me at all)
She did not need any further prison sentence
For my murder

When I died, I stopped being separate
When I died, we found each other
We found each other
All the murdered disabled children
Cast out of life by those we should have been able to trust
And we held each other
And we became each other
Now we speak with one voice

Understand this first and foremost
No matter what you have heard about us
We loved
We could love
That we could love means
That we felt what you did
We felt it then
We feel it now
We know what evil means
Because we know love

Now understand this:

We were there
We saw
We knew
We understood what you never thought we could

And now we look you in the eye
And in the name of love
In the name of everything holy
In the name of the union we have found
(Which is nothing, nothing, nothing less than the deep universal love that They said we could never feel)

We say
Not
Ever
Again

Blogging Against Disablism Day, May 1st 2014

Feeding tubes and weird ideas

Standard

My favorie BADD post: Tube-ageddon.

I haven't had much time to write anything here about the hell I went through getting my GJ tube. I had every indication for a GJ tube. I had gastroparesis so bad it was starting to affect my breathing, in a way that doctors said was likely to result in infection after infection until I died. From the emergency room onward, doctors were saying my best hope was to get a feeding tube.

Yet the pressure I got from doctors, while in the hospital for one of those infections, was to just keep getting infections, go home, wait to die. Most of them wouldn't say that outright. But some of them did. Some of them we confronted and they absolutely agreed that the only alternative to the tube was death — which could have happened to me by now, without the tube. But they still insisted on telling me not to get the tube, basically that I was better off dead than with a tube. We had to rally a bunch of people on the Internet to call the hospital before they suddenly changed their tune. My pulmonologist told me she could tell exactly when I started getting people calling the hospital, because the tone in my charts changed instantly to “let's get her the tube after all”.

Most people think of all feeding tubes as the same, all reasons for getting them as the same, and so they believe in false generalizations about their capacity to prevent lung infections, or indeed cause them. But they aren't all the same. They're all different, and the reasons for getting them are all different.

I have gastroparesis. That means my stomach is partially paralyzed. In my case it became severe before it was diagnosed last year and confirmed with testing this year. It's probably due to neuromuscular problems inherited from my mother, who has autonomic neuropathy among other things, a common cause of gastroparesis. My symptoms are similar to hers so doctors are assuming whatever we have is related. Anyway, it makes food remain in the stomach a long time. After awhile, this means that you can't eat very much and you drop a lot of weight. (I may still be fat, but they tell me by the end I was burning muscle.) by the end I was having trouble keeping down two small cartons of Boost a day, which isn't enough calories to live on. I was already on a liquid diet so there was no less food I could keep eating.

It also meant that the stuff staying in my stomach was riding up my esophagus again on gas bubbles formed by food sitting in my stomach for ages. I could feel it happening several times a day. I'd belch and food or bile would ride up with it. If this happened overnight, my bipap machine would shove the stomach contents down into my lungs from my esophagus. This began happening several times a week, and from January until March I had about five lung infections requiring antibiotics. I never stopped taking antibiotics, by the time one course was over I'd be on the next. Which is dangerous in its own right.

So when I showed up in the ER a few days after a CT scan showing what they called a “ground glass appearance”, they had no problem admitting me into the hospital, and even in the emergency room they were telling me if I wanted to live I needed a GJ tube. This wasn't news to me. They had been talking about a feeding tube since last fall, when one more nausea med added to the five they'd started me on, made me able to go home without one instead. I'd been discussing with my friends what kind of feeding tube served my needs best as a person with gastroparesis. And the GJ tube had always seemed like the best option.

A GJ tube is like a combination of a G tube and a J tube. Half of it goes into the stomach, which is a G tube. The other part goes into the first part of the small intestines, which is the J tube. The G tube gives you the ability to drain your stomach contents out into a cup, and dump them down the toilet. This means that if you do it often enough, you won't have anything building up in there and going up into your lungs. Right now, even bile and stomach acid can build up to dangerous amounts because of my stomach not emptying often enough, so I take acid reducers and I drain my G tube several times a day.

The J tube portion is the part that stuff comes in through. I eat through it. I drink through it. I get all of my medications through it. This means that nothing has to come in through my stomach. Which means we are bypassing the worst part of my digestive system. Not that the rest of my digestive system is wonderful. My esophagus is slow, my stomach is slow, and my bowels have been producing blockages since I was a teenager. But with liquid food going into my small intestine at a fairly slow rate (one feeding in roughly twenty four hours, I wasn't able to handle the twelve hour version without getting very sick) I seem to be able to handle things much better than when it was going in my stomach. I love it. It's so much easier than feeling horribly sick all the time.

I still take nausea meds, but half of them have been changed to PRN instead of daily. So daily I take Phenergan, Reglan (which speeds up my digestive system), and Marinol. And I can also take Benadryl. Lorazepam, and Zofran as needed. I used to have to take all six of those things every day, so this has really cut back on the amount of medication I need, which is good because every single one of these meds is severely sedating and it was badly affecting my ability to think straight. If I were still trying to eat, I would be taking every single one of those nausea meds at the maximum dose, and still wouldn't be able to eat enough to maintain my weight.

[Photo of me holding my tube. The J tube section is visible, the G tube is hidden behind my hand, and there's a little cloth thing from Trendie Tubies around the base, with owls on it.]

But I had to fight for this tube. Even though it was the only way to save my life. I had to fight against people who were certain I was better off dead. And I needed the help of a lot of people on the Internet, to do it. When I did get the tube, it was done without a working anesthetic. And even though the local anesthesia didn't work on me, even though I was yelling and screaming, they didn't stop to give me more, they just kept telling me that the Versed meant I wouldn't remember it later. Yeah right. It seemed like the entire process of getting the tube was one giant clusterfuck after another, and like people were making it as hard for me as they possibly could. (Later, when I had to get the tube replaced, we discovered that Propofol is the med, in combination with others, that really does the trick to keep me unaware of what's happening.) They treated me like a child, repeatedly expressing the fear that I would pull the tube out like young children often do, and blaming me when part of the tube got lodged inside me, probably as a result of over zealous physical therapy early on that was a clusterfuck in its own right.

But I got the tube and I couldn't be happier with it. I feel happier and healthier. After aspirating reflux several times a week for months, I haven't aspirated a single time in the month or so I've had the tube. My nausea is well controlled. My brain and body work better. Despite a couple complications since then, it's still the best thing medically that's happened to me in the past year. And I'm still alive, which even by now I might not have been if I kept getting infection after infection.

[The x ray showing the tube inside my body.]

Why did I have to fight so hard for it? I see two major reasons. One is that I'm perceived by medical professionals as someone whose life doesn't matter much, doesn't have much quality of life. I'm autistic, they read me as severely cognitively impaired, I am in bed all the time, they don't see that I enjoy living as much as anyone else does, and they make that decision somewhere in their heads without even noticing.

The other reason is the way medical professionals see feeding tubes. I've been trying to read the writing of nurses and doctors to find out their views on these things. Not just the horrible ones. The ones who snark at patients on their blogs. But the ones who think they're compassionate and sympathetic and good at their jobs. But in one area that makes no difference:

They all think of feeding tubes as the beginning of the end. They see getting a feeding tube as the first sign that your life as over. Possibly that you belong in a nursing home, as if anyone does. When I made out my living will, the first question of “Where do you draw the line where you want to stop living?” was whether I wanted to live if it meant I needed a feeding tube. They see people with feeding tubes as the first stop on the route to a living death. Other things they see that way are using a ventilator, having a trach, needing any sort of similar mechanical assistance to survive.

My friends see it a different way. They see me as some cool kind of cyborg, with the oxygen, the feeding tube, and the Interstim implant that prevents spasticity in my urethra, allowing me to urinate. They say the sounds my oxygen concentrator makes sound almost steampunk. But then all my friends are disabled, they see adaptive equipment as cool, and as a means to living, not a sign you're dying.

Medical professionals have been shown time and time again, to rate disabled people's quality of life lower than we rate our own quality of life. And yet time and time again, they see themselves as the experts on what our real quality of life is. One reason I try to keep my lungs and my guts in good condition is that as a person who is autistic and physically disabled, I know that if I ever got bad enough to need a transplant, I'd probably die. Because they would take one look at how I sound on paper, and they would decide my life wasn't as worth living as that of a twenty year old who wasn't disabled except for the effects of their lung problems or digestive problems. (Lung transplant is the end of the line for severe bronchiectasis. My bronchiectasis is mild, I'm working hard at keeping it that way. Transplant is also the end of the line for very severe gastroparesis combined with other gut problems. I'm hoping I don't get to that point despite severe gastroparesis. Given how hard it was just to get a feeding tube, which is the standard treatment when you start aspirating this much and being unable to eat even a liquid diet, I don't know that I stand a chance at making the transplant list should I need one.)

I also had trouble getting home. People were asking me if I belonged in a nursing home, or at least in twenty four hour care. I'm not sure why. It's not like it's hard to care for a GJ tube. It's unusual, but it's certainly easier than my old med regimen, which was truly difficult and time consuming. Now we just mix them up, put them in a syringe, and stick them straight into the tube. Easy. Eating is easier too, no more worrying I will throw up, and you only need to set up the food once a day and press a button on a feeding pump. But everyone has this illusion that it's incredibly difficult, and the VNA loves to take people with tubes and stick us in nursing homes claiming they can no longer care for us on the outside.

[The feeding pump on an IV pole with the food (Osmolite, low fat, high protein, no fiber) hanging above it.]

I still don't understand what the big deal is supposed to be. By the time you get a feeding tube, eating is really hard. Either you're having swallowing problems, or something is wrong with your stomach. In my case, my stomach was emptying so slowly that I was constantly severely nauseated no matter how little I ate, I was dropping weight way too fast, and I was aspirating reflux caused by all the food sitting around for ages. I was quite possibly going to die from repeated infections. How the hell is a feeding tube supposed to be worse than that?

I can't even begin to comprehend the fear of these things. I mean I literally can't do it. It makes no sense. It's all based in prejudice. It has nothing to do with the reality of a feeding tube.

I thought the worst part would be not being able to eat. The most I can do is drink a tiny bit of ginger ale, and I have to be very careful even with that. But I don't miss food. The feeding tube ensures that I am never hungry, and always have the nutrients I need. The only times I have ever started craving food, were two separate days where I spent all day at the emergency room unable to use my tube. Each time I came home and wanted to eat or drink something I didn't normally want to eat or drink. But when I'm getting food regularly, it's not a problem. I barely miss eating at all. I never even think about it. Even the vivid dreams I'd been having about all different kinds of food, all those months on Ensure, have gone away. My body seems perfectly satisfied with what it's getting, and it doesn't crave things unless I can't use the tube.

And it makes everything easier. Food is easier. Medication is easier. Absolutely nothing is any harder than normal. It's more like dealing with something easy and mechanical, than dealing with anything hard. We did learn the hard way to flush it with coke after every medication, because by the time there was a clog, you couldn't get enough coke in to dissolve it. So we are dissolving the clogs before they can even form, by leaving coke in for awhile after every single time we use meds. I've also discovered it's possible to reduce the pressure inside me — which can prevent the meds and water from flowing into me as easily — by relaxing my body, especially my rectum, and then everything usually flows in pretty easily. So there are a few tricks, but it has overall been much easier than my life was before I got the tube.

So what is so scary? I don't know. I can't find anything at all scary about this. It doesn't mean anything horrible. It means I'm alive. Being alive is a good thing. I don't fear death, but I only get one chance at life, and I don't want to die just because someone else has decided my life isn't worth enough to them. And so I'm very much interested in anything that will keep me alive longer, whether it's a feeding tube or any other “scary” device used for keeping disabled people around longer than used to be possible.

A lot of people I know have those devices, the ones that medical professionals think your life is over. Feeding tubes. Trachs. Ventilators. Catheters. Ostomies. Central lines. All those things that seem to scare people to death, even though there's nothing scary about them. They prolong life, not end it. And I'm furious at every single doctor who urged me to go home and die rather than get this feeding tube and get a chance to live longer. That is simply not their decision to make, and they were bound and determined to make it for me until I got enough people on my side to convince them that the entire world was watching the crap they were trying to pull.

I am going to work as hard as I can, to change hospital policy so that nobody gets pressured in the way I did. It's incredibly difficult to deal with pressure to die, when you're already sick and exhausted and have no energy to fight back. And they do it in sneaky ways, so that if I had been delirious or something, which I often am in the hospital, I might not have recognized what they were trying to do. My experiences are far from unusual, many disabled people have been encouraged to die rather than get a feeding tube, or a vent, or something else that would allow us to live. My mother, who has many of the same conditions I do, is going through a mess where doctor after doctor refuses to treat her or perform surgery on her, and she keeps having to go back to the Mayo clinic because they're the only ones who seem to be committed to making sure she can live as long as possible. And as a disabled senior citizen way below the poverty line, she gets the “your life isn't worth it to us” thing from at least three different angles. This stuff isn't unique to my life, the pressure to die is everywhere.

But most disabled people, like most people in general, prefer to be alive. Being disabled rarely changes that fact, not on its own. And the fact that anyone thinks we ought not to, that their pity goes so far as to be a death wish aimed at another person, is so disgusting I don't even have words for it. But they are the ones who are disgusted at my advance directive, which tells them to keep me alive no matter what. I can hear it in the sound of their voice when they ask me about advance directives. Advance directives are supposed to be about making your own choices, but the choice to live is the least respected among them. They would rather I not be here by now, rather I got my sixth, seventh, eighth infection until my lungs finally gave out. I refuse to give them the satisfaction. I love being alive and a tube doesn't change that one bit, in fact it makes my life better.