Tag Archives: pathologizing

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.

“I don’t know that person’s program.”

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That's a sentence I've heard a lot. And when they don't say exactly that, they say things that mean the same thing. Usually in the developmental disability system, for some reason, although I can easily imagine it in other contexts.

What it really means:

“DD people aren't like regular people. When people do things to them that would be horrible if they happened to other people, there's always a logical reason that justifies whatever is happening. Staff and case managers rarely if ever abuse power. All of their decisions have the best interests of clients at heart. So if something looks terrible, chances are that there's a reasonable explanation behind it. I just don't know what that explanation is. And I likely never will, so I'm not going to judge.”

They say this when staff scream at an old woman with an unsteady gait every time she falls, and refuse to help her get back up or allow her to hold onto things for balance.

They say this when staff publicly humiliate a man who clearly has trouble moving to avoid obstacles, when he accidentally bumps into someone.

They say this when staff do their best to keep a boyfriend and girlfriend apart. Or when staff are okay with boyfriend and girlfriend, but balk at the idea that two women with intellectual disabilities have fallen in love. As if it's even their job to decide who can love who.

They say this when parents simultaneously put on a big public show of wishing their son could move out on his own like he wants to, but sabotage his every attempt to do so. Because they had planned out a whole life for him in the group home they run, and can't handle the idea that he doesn't want to live under their control the rest of his life.

They say this when a staff person kisses a grown man's leg and says “I kiss you boo boo aww betta!” in baby talk.

They say this when, in the name of integration, staff prohibit disabled people from speaking or socializing with each other. I just saw an instance of that last one, which is why I finally remembered to write a post on the matter.

They say this when we get outright tortured. Tied down. Skin shocked. Slapped. Pinched. Made to smell ammonia.

I wish I could upload the scenes from real life that play out vividly in my head. But like as not, people likely to say these things wouldn't consider me a reliable observer. They never do, when you start pointing out the truth. When you see yourselves as people. With all that this means.

Suddenly you are either too severely disabled to understand what's happening, or you're not disabled enough to grasp why treating people like dirt is necessary. Or both at once. And they'd much rather you were highly submissive, maybe even the really cool type of client who helps staff out by giving them information about other clients.

All of this requires seeing DD people as less than. It just has to. There is no other way to justify these actions towards us.

And I know how people see us. As in, I know what we look like inside their minds. Sometimes we're human — almost, anyway. Not quite. There's something vitally important inside every real human. And to them, we either don't have it, or are missing large chunks of it. So we go around in human bodies but there's pieces missing in our minds and our souls. Even people who don't believe in souls in any religious sense, still perceive something inside us as only partial.

I know this because this is one of those viewpoints that isn't content to stay in the minds of others. It tries to force its way as deeply into us as it can manage. Until many of us look in the mirror and see only part of a person.

I can't describe the violence that involves. It's horrible. And a whole system of relating to us, forces its way into our lives. It tells us that we are taken care of, that we can relax, go to sleep, almost. And then it suffocates from inside. There's no words for it.

I suspect the drive to say this about people comes from several places at once.

If you work in the system, there's not wanting to see yourself or your coworkers or people who could be you, doing something horribly wrong. Much less on a regular basis.

I also suspect a strong desire to trust the society they live in, not to do horrible things to people. Or at least, not to do horrible things to certain kinds of people.

A member of my family once told me that it took him a long time to believe what happened to me in mental institutions. He said that in order to come to terms with the reality of the abuse, he had to destroy a strong desire to believe that the society he lived in was safe and just. Him telling me that was far more honest than a lot of people are.

That desire to trust society gets in the way of understanding every kind of injustice. I am amazed that people trust a society that does its best to shut out and destroy all but a handful of people. But they do.

And not seeing us as quite exactly people, is the one thing that you can't avoid if you think like this. Because if you see us as people, you have to see what happens to us as dreadful. And you don't immediately, upon being told of the latest awful thing, say any variant on “I don't know that person's program.”

How to solve “behavior problems” without having to learn self-control.

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Many years ago, meetings with my case manager tended to involve shouting and cussing. Mainly on my end. Today, our biggest problem during meetings is whether I'm physically and cognitively capable of holding a serious conversation at that time during the day. I would love to take credit for this by saying I learned a lot of self-control between then and now. But I suspect that even if I have, that's not what really changed things.

Like a lot of cognitively disabled people, I am not capable of keeping track of the dozens of things that have to happen for my basic needs to be met. And I really mean basic: Food, water, clothing, bills, hygiene, shopping, and medical care. Unlike a lot of states, the DD agency here only serves cognitively disabled people — you have to have an intellectual disability or autism, cerebral palsy doesn't count. So you would think they'd require case managers to be organized enough to meet those needs. You would think, but you would think wrong.

My case manager back then was a nice enough guy on a purely social level, but he was not an organized person. At all. So he was able to do a few things, but other than that he gave staff very little direction on how to consistently do what I needed. Meanwhile I was unable to even know most of what needed to happen. So stuff. Very necessary stuff. Lots of it. Wasn't getting done.

This meant that I pretty much lived from crisis to crisis, discovering a different gaping hole in my care each week. My case manager, having lots of power and being unwilling to face his role in these matters, kept telling me that these things were not his problem.

The more time went on, the worse things got, and the less he was willing to take responsibility for what was happening. So he blamed me. Nobody could possibly keep track of this many medical problems and appointments at once. I was unreasonable to expect basic care. There was no possible way to meet the needs of someone like me. I was the problem.

I kind of wanted to survive. So the more time went on, the more often I chewed him out for not doing his job. And the more frustrated I got, the more he treated me as if I was the one doing something wrong. Because hurting his feelings was worse than him forcing me to live in perpetual crisis mode. And it was perfectly reasonable to simply deny I had needs rather than work to meet them, right?

Towards the end, he began to get snippy and snarky. If I brought up anything he wasn't doing, he'd get this twisted smile in his voice and say, “Well maybe your new case manager will be able to do this.” Even I could pick up the implied meaning: that it was unreasonable and demanding of me to expect anyone to do these things, and I would soon find this out when I got a new case manager who would be just as incapable of keeping track of these things as he was. Then I would be forced to admit how impossible it was to meet my needs.

Except it didn't work out like that. At all.

My new case manager was a young woman. She was organized and efficient. And within a month or so, she completely turned my life around. I could finally rest, because I no longer had to keep a constant lookout for things going wrong.

And my reputation changed. Suddenly they considered me reasonable, polite, and civil. They acted as if I was the one who had changed. But I wasn't. What changed was my situation. It's hard to be nice — hell, literally fatal to be nice — when it's your life on the line, when there's a different crisis or three every week.

Yet that's exactly the position a lot of agencies force disabled people into. They don't provide adequate case management, and the outcome becomes our fault. We are forced to fight for basic necessities. When we do fight, they take that as evidence that we are capable of keeping track of our own needs without any extra assistance. We become not their problem.

From what I've seen, a lot of disabled people die this way. With help from friends, I've been able to catch situations like that. But not all the time, and not before the situation becomes dire. The amount of emergency room visits I used to have due to dehydration alone is astonishing compared to what I have today. It used to be routine for me to get fluids in an IV on a regular basis, because nobody was helping me drink water or Gatorade.

So the situation becomes this: If we don't speak up, they presume everything is okay, because if it weren't, someone would say something, right? If we do speak up, they presume everything is okay, because speaking up proves we are competent to track these things and direct support staff on our own. Plus,if we spoke up in one instance, then our failure (inability) to speak up in other instances means nothing's really wrong, because if it were, we'd say something. “You're such a good self-advocate,” they say, when they really mean “If there was another problem, you'd say it.” If we routinely end up in severe medical trouble, that's only to be expected given how many medical problems people like us have.

Needless to say, my being alive at the moment owes a lot to coincidence.

They also take signs of desperation as just happening, with no context attached. So our justified terror and anger become behavior problems, or psychiatric disorders. Or it's just part of who we are to be demanding or nasty. I'm still not certain my agency perceives the change in my behavior as a response to a change in context. They probably think I mysteriously learned self-control, or finally matured past being demanding.

No. My needs got met. That's a huge difference between that, and some kind of change on my part. If they went back to screwing me over and blaming me for the consequences, I'd probably go back to yelling at them.

Identical behavior, contrasting responses

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This post has been forming itself in my head ever since I went to both a DD self-advocacy conference and MIT within the same week last May. I’ve just for whatever reason not had the chance to actually write it.

I really enjoyed spending time at MIT. People there accepted me more or less as I was, and accepted a lot of other disabled people as well. In fact, their entire Human 2.0 symposium, that happened while I was there, dealt with the fact that disabled people get a lot of technology before other people do, and was about how technology that could enhance everyone’s lives was being developed specifically for disabled people all the time.

At some point there, I had a bad migraine and needed to lie down. They allowed me to lie down backstage under a table. I expressed fear over this. They were shocked and said that people lie down on the floor all the time at the Media Lab, that it was just part of how the place worked, and that they couldn’t imagine why I was afraid to lie down in public. I didn’t know where to begin with the sort of cascade of connections that went through my head more than ever at that point, but a steady stream of which had been falling through my head the entire time I was there.

In May, I went from a self-advocacy conference for people with developmental disabilities, to MIT. This involved an extreme contrast in what the lives of many of the people there were like, in terms of what sort of person they were classified as by society in general. In other ways, there was no contrast at all.

When I was younger, I went from assorted programs for students classified by the educational system as “gifted”, to assorted programs for people that the educational and medical systems had written off with a whole variety of labels. There was a great contrast between the way people were treated. There was, yet again, less innate contrast between the people involved than most people imagine.

If I were to describe being places where people routinely ate non-food items; had a variety of unusual tics; appeared to believe things that most people would call delusional; found it impossible to learn in regular classrooms; looked at first glance (and had been thought to be by others) what most people call “crazy” or “retarded”; were frequently under the care of neurologists, psychiatrists, and other such professionals; had unusual mannerisms and postures and behavior that in most places would be considered bizarre; and frequently had pretty extreme delays in areas like self-care; which one of these places do you think I’d be talking about?

If you thought special ed… the answer is yes.

If you thought mental institutions… the answer is yes.

If you thought gifted programs… the answer is yes.

I made the transition between these situations more abruptly than most, so I was able to see the similarities and the contrasts very starkly. Most people who have been in only one or the other situation, or whose transition between one and the other situation is gradual, or whose perceptions of other human beings come pre-filtered and pre-packaged to the extent that they see great differences merely based on what classifications the people belonged to… these people would not necessarily observe these things. I did observe them.

Lying on the floor is one of the things that starkly cuts through all of these situations in my memory.

I remember me, and a lot of other people, lying on the floor at places like nerd camp and other gifted programs. We were seldom, if ever, chastised for it.

I remember a tall boy in a mental institution who tried to lie on the floor in the hallway. I remember staff converging on him and saying they would have to do something about it. He wasn’t hurting anyone. He wasn’t even blocking anyone’s entrance to anywhere. Another inmate tried to say so. The staff told her that he needed to learn to do as he was told and needed to learn to look appropriate. They called for reinforcements, since he was a really big guy, and then grabbed him and carried him off to the isolation room while he fought them. His fighting them was seen as a symptom of a violent nature, rather than the natural reaction of someone who has been grabbed by several people to be carried off to a small, locked room, for doing something he considered totally normal.

People don’t always realize this simple fact: Lots of people do the same things for the same reasons, regardless of how they have been classified by the medical profession. Once the people doing these things are in an environment where their every move is watched and pathologized, they can get in trouble for it, or get put on an extensive behavior program for it. My ex-boyfriend ate paper and most people saw it as an eccentricity, because he was labeled gifted. There were a lot of people who ate paper in other settings, probably for the same reasons my ex did, whatever those reasons were (I never asked). People put them on behavior programs for it, because they were considered to be doing it “because they didn’t know any better” (and whatever anyone said in public, it was obvious they thought of a lot of us as “crazy” or “stupid” or both, and thought those to be the reasons we did anything they didn’t like).

I used to be unafraid of doing things like lying on the floor, even sleeping on the floor. Psychiatry made me afraid and called that an improvement. I walked into MIT afraid, and they were astounded at my fear, and disgusted at the sources of it.

I went through gifted programs terrified of when someone would discover that I understood less than they thought I did (in sociological terms I was aware, as few others were, that I was discreditable, but only partially discredited). But because of the privileged life I’d led in terms of that classification, while I legitimately feared being put in mental institutions and labeled, I never dreamed that I would become afraid of as innocuous actions as lying on the floor, running around squealing in happiness, or a number of actions that were deemed totally normal in the environments I lived in. But I did become afraid of those things.

For three days, twenty-nine staff members at Elgin State Hospital in Illinois were confined to a ward of their own, a mental ward in which they performed the role of “patient.” Twenty-two regular staff played their usual roles while trained observers and video gameras recorded what transpired. “It was really fantastic the things that happened in there,” reported research director Norma Jean Orlando. In a short time the mock patients began acting in ways that were indistinguishable from those of real patients: six tried to escape, two withdrew into themselves, two wept uncontrollably, one came close to having a nervous breakdown. Most experienced a general increase in tension, anxiety, frustration, and despair. The vast majority of staff-patients (more than 75 percent) reported feeling each of the following: “incarcerated,” without an identity, as if their feelings were not important, as if nobody were listening to them, not being treated as a person, nobody caring about them, forgetting it was an experiment, and really feeling like a patient. One staff-member-turned-patient who suffered during his weekend ordeal gained enough insight to declare: “I used to look at the patients as if they were a bunch of animals; I never knew what they were going through before.”

from The Lucifer Effect by Philip Zimbardo

And that’s what happens during what people know as an experiment. Imagine being put in such a situation because something about you was deemed pathological, by people who viewed you as such.

I enjoyed my week at MIT. But every moment I was there, I was conscious of what an autism “expert” had told me, which was that I didn’t belong at a university at all (if I ever get an MIT business card, she will receive one in the mail). I was conscious of being a privileged member of what was otherwise considered an outsider-caste to that whole system, conscious of this in a way that even with my fears I had not been conscious of prior to experiencing being shoved into the typical environments of that caste once others discovered my place in it. I was conscious of a society that tolerates and even celebrates certain behavior among those it considers highly intelligent, while condemning others to torture for the exact same behavior because they are considered either not intelligent enough, or too crazy, or otherwise deviant, or some combination of the above.

And I came home to my own apartment, where last week a staff person felt he had the right and even the obligation to report to my case manager that I was grumpy in the morning before breakfast (edited to add: in fact, he never made me breakfast, or lunch either). How many of you out there who share this morning grumpiness trait with me have it reported to a case manager and put in logs that would normally go into your permanent record, and even treated as signs of your overall personality?

(I should note that even many of those considered “highly intelligent” do, have, various, labels, and things like racism and classism can greatly influence what label a person gets. If I were anything other than white or middle-class, I might have had very different sets of labels much earlier.)

It’s because of experiencing the extremes of this so rapidly and close to each other, sometimes in such combination with each other (because my life can’t just be sliced up into two categories without any complexity to them), that simply having my normal behavior accepted at MIT for a week isn’t good enough for me. I won’t be satisfied in this regard until everyone else with a psychiatric or developmental label (or who would get such a label in certain situations) can enjoy the same freedom to be themselves in completely harmless ways, and the same level of inclusion in society and decision-making that affects us, that those of us considered “highly intelligent” often enjoy, and until nobody gets written notes in their official record for being a grumbly grouch before their morning breakfast or coffee.