Tag Archives: Disability

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.

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.]

It’s strange to walk places.

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I walk to most places now.

It’s strange to not have to think about curb cuts, wheelchair-accessible bathrooms, and making sure that the nurse at my doctor’s office moves everything out of the way so I can back my powerchair into the room without bashing into things.

It’s strange to have to hunt around for chairs to sit down in.  Because just because I can walk, doesn’t mean I can stand indefinitely.  In fact, standing has always been harder than walking.  My cane helps signal to people that if I need to sit down, I need to sit down fast.

I am sure that the way I look to people has changed, but I have not yet been able to work out how.  In the past, I remember how people’s estimation of my cognitive abilities went up once I was in a powerchair full-time.  Because apparently I have some quality of my appearance that usually makes people underestimate me cognitively, but if I’m in a wheelchair, they can blame that quality on a physical impairment.  Now that I’m out of the chair, I wonder if I’ll be getting treated like a two-year-old more often again.  Or if enough has changed, that that won’t happen either.

I may be walking places, but my identity has not caught up with the idea of being a walking person.  I still imagine that I’m in a wheelchair.  Of course, I’m not fully out of the wheelchair, either.  I still use wheelchairs for distances I can’t manage yet.  But when I do walk, I still somehow imagine that I’m in a wheelchair, and I’m always surprised to find that I’m not.  Everything looks different when I walk, it’s all viewed from a different angle in more ways than one.  I’m still not used to it.

It’s not just a matter of identity, it’s a matter of perspective.  Literally the angles are different.  The places I can go are different.  The expectations I get from others are different, and not always what you’d expect.

And I feel like I haven’t quite caught up yet.

I also feel like very little about me has actually changed, and yet other people see a huge change because the categories of full time power chair user and person who walks with a cane and may sometimes use a manual wheelchair are so different in their minds. The equipment you use becomes how they see you, even other disabled people do this.

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

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

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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.

 

A bunch of stuff that needed saying

Standard

The following stuff is important stuff I wrote elsewhere on the net. If some of what I'm saying doesn't make sense, ignore it, it's just context that I'm not able to describe right now. The main thrust of what I'm saying should make sense without understanding the full context of what I wrote. And I can't rewrite it all right now for this blog. So the following is pretty much as I wrote it. Also sorry for all caps in places, it was because where I was writing it I couldn't use other forms of emphasis. And please don't assume that this is all about autism. Everyone always assumes that everything I say is all about autism. It isn't. Most of it isn't. Not even the stuff that talks about autism is all about autism. I am fed up with just about every such assumption because my world isn't made up of only or mainly autistic people and when I talk about things I always get replies saying “This applies to people without autism too” and I want to say “no shit Sherlock, that's what I meant in the firs

This turned into a long post, and it may not apply to the people I’m replying too, but this conversation just brought up a lot of things I’ve been thinking but having trouble saying.

Thank you for writing that. It’s really important.

Also another point I want to make. There are many autistic people whose best method of communication is nonverbal. By which I mean, not speech, not writing. Some of us this is true of, can communicate well by speech or typing also. Some of us can’t. But we usually have trouble with receptive language — either some of the time, all of the time, or especially, during the early formative years of our lives. I’m one such person.

Most people don’t know this because the current theories of autism all involve us being terrible at nonverbal communication. By which people mean, terrible at one specific kind of nonverbal communication that most nonautistic people are good at. Also, most autistic people who can talk about their experiences in words, are (or believe themselves to be) bad at nonverbal communication, and their experiences get seen as applying to all of us, when this is not true.

So for many of us — nonverbal communication, and the world of things outside of words, are our best way of communicating. Whether we can also use words or not. I wrote about one such group of autistic people in my contribution (“Untitled”) to the Loud Hands anthology. Because I want people to know we exist. Because I want other people like me to know they aren’t alone, in an autistic community made up mostly of people who experience themselves as terrible at nonverbal communication. Where people even say that autistic communities are communities where people can use text or other forms of language, rather than having to deal with nonverbal communication. Even though there’s plenty of us who do better in person, BECAUSE we communicate best nonverbally, because words, whether we can do them or not, whether we are or seem good at them or not, are so hard and so difficult and so painful to keep using.

There are entire groups of autistic people out there who communicate with each other using our own unique forms of body language that are different from nonautistic body language, different from other autistic people’s body language, specific to ourselves, specific to each other. Who communicate best reading each others writing, looking for the patterns that exist between the words, rather than inside the words themselves. Who communicate best by exchanging objects, by arranging objects and other things around ourselves in ways that each other can read easier than we can read any form of words. Who share the most intimate forms of communication, outside of words, outside of anything that can be described easily, in between everything, seeing each other to the core of our awareness. Who see layers upon layers of meaning outside of any form of words.

In “Untitled” I was writing about my favorite communication ever, my video chats with AnneC (and her cats, when they show up, which Shadow absolutely loves communicating with me over video and reminds her every Friday at the right time because he loves it so much). I don’t necessarily do the best at visual stuff the way most people think of it. But I can see the patterns of movement in other people, including cats, whether or not I see them well in the usual forms of visual perception. And those patterns of movement tell me more than any word ever could.

I can even read nonautistic people fairly well at times — just not in the ways nonautistic people read each other well. That’s one of the problems with nonautistic research into autistic people’s abilities to understand nonverbal communication. Most of it relies on the understanding and use of words at the same time as understanding the nonverbal communication. And most of it relies on the kinds of nonverbal communication that nonautistic people are most aware of. This frustrates me to no end — how can people research forms of understanding that they don’t themselves have and therefore they don’t themselves understand even exists? I’ve actually told researchers ways they can research autistic people’s understanding of nonverbal communication without having to resort to the faulty methods they usually use.

And one researcher told me, when I asked, that every parent of an autistic child she ever met said that their child picked up easily on things like stress in the household, but that SHE ACTUALLY DISREGARDED IT UNTIL I ASKED HER, BECAUSE SHE’D BEEN TAUGHT THAT AUTISTIC PEOPLE COULDN’T READ BODY LANGUAGE. I’m totally serious. If researchers are that biased themselves, how can they possibly hope to even notice that we can understand things they assume we don’t understand?! I taught that researcher a bunch of very simple ways to test that without relying on the painfully stupid research methods that guarantee researchers will find only what they expect to find — relying on us to use and understand words, relying on our understanding of actors and stage conventions rather than real people’s real nonverbal communication, relying on nonautistic people’s limited ability to read autistic body language, all sorts of other flaws that seem obvious but that researchers themselves seem never to notice. So hopefully she will set up some real experiments that show our real abilities.

Anyway. Back to what I was saying. There’s entire subgroups of autistic people out there _ not just my own — who rely on nonverbal means of understanding the world, and nonverbal means of communication. That’s one reason I usually put myself in my videos — because I know that certain other autistic people will be able to read me like a book, even if nonautistic people usually can’t. And that nonverbal communication is a crucial part of my videos. (See why the entire first half of “In My Language” has no words in it. I was trying to make a point about the best way I communicate, the best way many people communicate, autistic or not, verbal or not. Mostly lost on people, who think it’s a video about autism. It’s not. It’s a video about communication and understanding and personhood, that happens to be made by an autistic person. Big difference. I told CNN why I really made the video, and they left out that part of the interview in favor of putting their words in my mouth. I think my real intent was too political for them.)

Anyway. I may be a writer, but my real best form of communication has nothing to do with words. I use words because I have to. Because most people won’t understand me if I don’t. I don’t use them because I like them, or because I “can’t do nonverbal communication so text is best for me”, or any of the usual reasons most people assume. If I could never use language again, spoken or written, I would be really happy. But the world won’t let me do that, so I carry on using a means of communication that is outright painful for me.

I don’t know the people in the video, but I know that the way their bodies move makes intuitive sense to me and communicates things whether they intend it to be so or not. (The forms of nonverbal communication I understand best are unintentional, in fact. That’s one reason tests using actors don’t work on me. I know an autistic woman who failed a test of nonverbal communication because it used actors and she kept describing their real feelings instead of their acted ones. What this says about nonautistic people’s understanding of nonverbal communication is… interesting.) Whether they are able to use spoken language or not, the video would lose a lot if it only relied on showing them speaking or typing the words.

And I really dislike a lot of the self-advocacy movement for relying mostly on the self-advocacy that happens through words, written or spoken. This leaves out people who can’t do either but who are nonetheless quite capable of advocating for themselves through their actions and movements. If I hadn’t spent a lot of my life forcing myself to do words, I might be such a person, so I am always aware of this. Words are not natural to me the way they are to some autistic people. They’re difficult and my development could have gone either way. There are also people who, no matter how much effort they put in, could never have used or understood words, and they are also extremely important, and they are also capable of self-advocacy, and they are still capable of communication that is more full of meaning than the communication of many people who use words.

I wish there were videos using their communication — which by definition wouldn’t involve words. Both people who would have been able to use words had they put in a crapload of effort at critical times in their development, and people who would never be able to use them no matter what. Such people exist. I sometimes wonder if they are too inconvenient for some autistic people to remember. I hate when people tell parents, “If you just gave your child a communication device they would be able to type words (or use picture symbols) and everything would be solved.” You don’t know that. You just can’t possibly know that. I hear that a lot, this idea that autistic people would all be able to communicate in words if only they were given a means to type them instead of speak them. And it’s so not true that its utterly ridiculous. I hear it both from people whose main way of communicating is speech, and also from people who use typing, and people who use both. It’s wishful thinking and it’s not true. There are people whose understanding of the world is just like a typical “aspie” except they couldn’t speak for motor reasons, and they are the most likely of those who use typing, to believe this myth.

Reality is that there are lots of people who will either never be able to use words, never be able to understand words, or both. Or whose use or understanding is so limited that they will never be able to use words as their primary means of communication. But they do communicate, whether the communication is intentional or not. And they do matter. And they are capable of self-advocacy. And they should be included in self-advocacy movements if those movements ever expect to represent autistic people, developmentally disabled people, cognitively disabled people, disabled people in general, whatever group is trying to represent itself in that movement. And in order to include them, you have to show their movements and their sounds and all the things they do that aren’t words.

It’s true that many people who are thought not to be able to use or understand language, actually are. And it’s terrible that they are overlooked. But in their desire not to overlook such people, many people claim that all disabled people who can’t communicate through speech fall under this umbrella. And that’s simply not true. In order to communicate with people who will never use words, you have to learn their language. (And surprise, that’s one thing that “In My Language” was actually about. And it would be about that whether I used typing or speech to communicate — either one would be my “second language”, and as such I can easily, easily envision a situation where I never learned and never would learn to use speech or typing, both of which I used at different points in my life.) And each person has one. Sometimes several people have a language that is in common but is not words. Sometimes each one has a separate way of communicating that is not words. But either way, you have to learn how they communicate, not force them to either communicate how you best communicate, or else be considered “non-communicative” for the rest of their life. And yes it’s possible to get consent to use their communication, it’s just sometimes harder work than asking a yes or no question in words.

And a community that doesn’t include such people isn’t my community. The developmental disability community is far better at including such people than the autistic community is, even though not all of the DD community manages it either. One reason I’ve spent a lot of time communicating with people who can’t use words in any form is because I’ve been in the developmental disability system for pretty much my entire adult life and have spent a lot of time with a wide variety of people. And I’ve spent a lot of time communicating with people who can’t and may never use speech or typing or even picture boards. And that’s something that certain segments of the autistic community are sorely missing. Even parts of the autistic community that involve people who don’t use speech, are often made up of only those people who were able to learn typing, and often put forth the (false) idea that everyone could learn typing if only they tried hard enough or were exposed to the proper teaching methods.

The response someone made is true: Some of the people in the video use typing, so they could never be shown speaking the words in the video. But I’d like to go further than people who use speech and people who use typing, because unlike a lot of people, my social world is made up of a lot of people who can’t do either one. And also made up of a lot of people who, even if they can use speech, typing, or both, those are not their best means of communication, and it would be better to show us using our best means of communication rather than merely the form of using words. Not everyone has words but everyone has a voice and a means of communicating. And not everyone who uses words sees words as their primary voice or their primary means of understanding things, and that needs to be respected. And I’m sick to death of spending time in communities where most people seem to miss these facts, and automatically see having a voice as the same as using speech or at least using language.