Diverse Books and Writing What You Don’t Know

rainbow book(revisiting this post from 2015)

Write what you know. It’s a trite piece of advice for writers struggling to find a subject to which to put their pen, and a dire warning to those embarking on literary excursions into the unknown.

Many feel this saying is a load of crap. After all, if we can only write what we know, then we have no business even writing a memoir: our view of ourselves and our experience is so myopic, and our blind spots so extensive, that we can’t claim to truly know even what’s going on in our own lives. However, when we plunge into writing about something we don’t know, it pays to be cautious. After all, when you’re an “outsider” with respect to your subject matter, those on the inside are going to know if you get it wrong.

I’ll start with this piece of advice: Write what you want. Writing is an art, and stifling that art with a bunch of rules and warnings isn’t going to help anyone. You have something to say, and so say it, with your whole heart and to the best of your ability. But I’ll add this caveat: if you’re going to write about a type of character or situation that exists in contemporary life and yet is outside your personal experience, I advise you give it deep thought. The agonizing, soul-searching variety of deep thought. Your characters, and your readers, deserve no less.

Most of us have heard of the We Need Diverse Books movement. It is a worthy cause. Stories, both fiction and nonfiction, are an integral part of social change. Books help connect readers with people and situations that they may never encounter in their day-to-day life, and can broaden understanding and acceptance in a way that no amount of preaching or direct social activism can do. Books are a safe way to explore situations that we’d be frightened to become involved in in real life, and can help to lessen our fear and misunderstanding of those situations. For instance, a person frightened of foreign travel might be more comfortable after reading a million guidebooks. The more different cultures, lifestyles, and ways of being people are exposed to in books, the more comfortable they’ll be with it in their real lives.

It is precisely for this reason that we need to be mindful of how we portray our diverse characters. I’m not saying that we should never let a diverse character be anything other than a shining beacon of perfection, so that we don’t give readers the impression that all people of that diverse group are “bad”. Quite the opposite. What I’m saying is, the character has to be realistic. We have to be comfortable in that character’s shoes. We have to know them like we know a human being, and relate to their struggle, before we write about them. Otherwise, we’ll get it wrong. We’ll portray them as an issue, instead of a character, and we’ll miss an opportunity to let readers identify with them on a human level. And yes, we can end up doing actual, measurable harm to real people by reinforcing stereotypes and misconceptions.

I love it when books have diverse characters, but when I hear editors or agents say, “If there’s no diversity in your books, don’t worry: it can be added,” I cringe. It is possible to deliberately add diversity in this way and still have a great book. But, if you’re adding diversity purely for diversity’s sake, be very cautious. After all, if you’re inserting a diverse character just to make the novel more marketable, then you are exploiting the group to which that diverse character belongs. If you’re changing the color of a character’s skin, giving her a limp, or modifying his religious practice, take a long moment to get to know that character again, because you have changed who they are. Make sure you don’t overlook, misunderstand, or gloss over the issues that the character might face in their daily life. Otherwise, you run the risk of your character being a blue-eyed guy with shoe polish on his face asking John Wayne to smoke-um peace pipe.

You’ll have readers that identify with your diverse characters, and if you tell their story incorrectly, you’re selling those readers short and hurting them on a personal level.

This concept also applies to characters who are members of groups which may not traditionally be viewed as “diverse”. If your character is dealing with issues of any kind that you haven’t dealt with personally, make sure you put thought into it. For instance, I’m a recovering heroin addict, an ex-con, and a victim of physical and sexual abuse. I have thrown books across the room and cursed authors’ very souls for, in my view, misrepresenting these issues. I’m really tired of reading about poor, battered women who suffer their completely evil, idiot husbands stolidly until the day they rise up with unblemished inner strength to assert themselves. I know it may sound counterintuitive to some of you, but I feel belittled by this narrative. Abuse is ugly; it changes you. It weakens you. And it can make you stoop to the level of the abuser, because you know no different, and because you’re so scarred and hurt that you can’t function in a healthy manner. I do recognize that not all survivors of abuse see it this way, but it doesn’t stop me from feeling that my story is being exploited and told incorrectly for profit, when I read a book that gets it “wrong”.

Additionally, I’m tired of seeing drug addicts portrayed as objects of pity or contempt; complete hot-mess wastrels; soulless beings with no hope, intelligence, or inner life. I especially hate this narrative when said addict ends up seeing the light, and becomes a pink-cheeked, happy and productive member of society within the course of 350 pages.

It’s also annoying just when people get details wrong: heroin addicts with dilated pupils (opiates contract the pupils), or about a character “melting” black tar heroin in a spoon (it doesn’t melt; you have to dissolve it in water). The details are easy to research, and the rest, well, all I can say is that drug addicts are people, too. Drugs can make people into a hot mess, it’s true; but that hot mess can be interesting to examine, and you’ll make your story better if your character is well-rounded.

And, as a psychotic person, when a book about a “psycho killer” comes out, I have a legitimate fear reaction. People like me are beaten, imprisoned, and killed because of wrongful stereotypes like this. The same for some other marginalized groups. Misportrayals can do real harm, and you don’t want that on your conscience. So, do your research if you’re writing about characters from different walks of life as you. And, the best research is not academic research, but experience*.

If you want to have marginalized characters in your books, but don’t share that marginalization, I say go for it…but put thought into it, and seriously consider having your diverse characters be side-characters, and not main characters. Also, don’t write characters with marginalizations that you’ve only read about. If you don’t have a diverse group of friends, then you might not be the right person to be repping diversity in literature. But, seriously, we all have diverse friends, right?

I have a lot of Mexican-American characters. I speak Spanish and have lived most of my life in areas with a huge Mexican-American population, so I’m comfortable writing about the culture—usually from an outside point of view, because I may not know the internal issues of being Mexican-American, but I can speak to my experience as an observer, and so my characters can as well. I also have Mexican-American beta readers, so if I mess up, as I always will, they can help me with it.

I also often write about characters with mental illness/neurodivergence. I am mentally ill, autistic, and have psychosis. However, when I was writing a book with a schizophrenic main character, I reached a point where I felt like I was getting it wrong. So, I went down to the local park and made friends with a young schizophrenic man I’d seen hanging around.

My friendship with Phoenix was never about writing a novel. I don’t hang out with him because of his mental illness, but because I enjoy his company. He’s an amazing, intelligent, and hilariously funny person.

Hanging out with him taught me a lot about myself as a neurodivergent person, and opened my eyes to the way ableism affects us all. We were kicked out of bars, restaurants, casinos and libraries because people were uncomfortable with his behavior (mine too, to be honest); I had to intervene with the cops and the courts when he was arrested for no crime other than being schizophrenic. I spent horrible, anguished days and nights, crying and worrying, when he was institutionalized, or in the hospital after someone misinterpreted something he said and beat him into a coma. Certain experiences with him have triggered my own episodes of psychosis, as well, which were of course frightening and draining.

My Other Place Series wouldn’t be what it is without Phoenix. I would have missed so much of the joy, the beauty, the horror, and the subtleties of the schizophrenic experience if I hadn’t spent time with him, because seeing psychosis from the outside, and really being part of someone else’s experience, is different than experiencing it myself. The more insight we have into life and people of all kinds, the better our writing will be.

Just like I don’t hang out with Phoenix because he’s mentally ill, I didn’t write my book about the schizophrenic character because he is schizophrenic. I wrote it because he’s an interesting character, with a really good story to tell. Readers will identify with characters, and want to spend time with them, if they’re interesting people, and not just a list of symptoms and diagnoses or character traits you gleaned from internet research.

Putting thought into it doesn’t make you exempt from criticism, however. Nothing will. If, someday, a reader gets angry at me for getting a Latinx character wrong, well, it will upset me, and I’ll listen, but I’ll have the consolation of being able to talk about it with my Latinx beta readers and friends and do better next time, so it won’t destroy my love of writing.

And, y’all, I get criticism about my own voices characters. Nothing makes you exempt. Criticism is part of being a writer. Even when we are writing from experience, we won’t know all facets of that experience. Every experience is valid, and incomplete. (Note: please don’t harass own voices writers because their experience doesn’t match yours. Truly.)

Even if they don’t resonate with everyone, I am comfortable with and proud of my books. I think they can add to people’s understanding, rather than detracting from it by creating false impressions.

This is what we should strive to do when we write, whether it’s from a diverse perspective or not, and whether our tale is a lighthearted romantic comedy or a dark “issues” novel.

Always treat your characters (and your readers) with the respect they deserve, and you will be able to bear any criticism with dignity.

*For the love of God, man, don’t apply this concept to writing about drug addicts and ex-cons. I’d rather your characters be trite and wooden than for you to go get thrown in the slammer for a PCP binge you embarked on for novel research.

Elizabeth Roderick is an author and freelance editor. You can find THE OTHER PLACE and her other books on Amazon.

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Piece of notebook paper with words written in pencil: What if I'm not a real person and it hurts now."

The Neurodivergent Experience: It’s Never About Us

[Content warning for just about everything you can think of. If you’re having a bad day and don’t wanna hear about the horrible things neurodivergent people have to put up with, have this picture of a puppy and go read a nicer article]Picture of smiling, panting, tricolor Australian shepherd puppy on the beach

These are particularly bad times for neurodivergent/mentally ill folks. They’re trying to cut our benefits and health care. They’re constantly trying to make it easier to have us involuntarily committed and sterilized. Every day, it seems they come up with some new way to torture us in the name of a “cure”. The headlines are full of stories of police killing us for no reason, and we all know that those stories are just a few of the many abuses which occur on a daily basis to people like us. And yet, they continue to blame the neurodivergent for every highly-publicized violent crime that happens, as well as for the dangerous and destructive behavior of our (very mentally-healthy) president.  Yes: they hurt US, and then gaslight everyone and try to say it’s OUR fault.

But when we speak up, we get comments like this one here on my last post. People tell us we don’t know what we’re talking about. They think we’re unreliable narrators, and can’t be trusted to manage our own lives or even know what our own lives are about:

“Police are just doing their jobs when they illegally detain, harm, imprison, or kill you—they have no way to know that you’re not really dangerous.”

So, we have to prove to the police that we’re NOT dangerous in order to not get shot? We have to prove we’re NOT committing a crime in order to not get harassed or arrested? If we’re not holding a gun; if all we’re doing is yelling, or pacing, or crying, they have no reason to think we ARE dangerous, and we’re not committing a crime by showing emotion.

Like I said in my previous post, statistics show we’re no more violent than sane people are, and that we’re a good deal more likely to be hurt BY neurotypical folks than we are to hurt them. Especially when it comes to police: they’re more likely to hurt us than the other way around. So yes, it does follow that, when neurotypical folks lock up neurodivergent folks, the dangerous people are locking up the less dangerous people. In fact, we’re often hurt in the act of being locked up (usually for no reason).

It does follow.

“We all have problems; ableism isn’t real, people are jerks to everyone.”

Nope. You can’t be locked up for committing no crime. You can’t be forcibly sterilized. People don’t give you bleach enemas in an attempt to cure you of being neurotypical.

People are jerks, yes. But people are bigger jerks to neurodivergent people. Don’t think you understand what it’s like. You don’t.

“I heard a third-hand story of someone who was very nearly hurt by a schizophrenic person once, and therefore it’s completely right to lock up neurodivergent people.”

I hear this sort of story a lot. The only time it’s first-hand is when it’s being told by someone who worked as an ER medic or some such—someone else with a skewed sample size, because they only saw the folks who were in crisis, and were being forcibly detained and put in a position of high stress and danger (and therefore were actually defending themselves and not inciting violence. Don’t @ me telling me “the medics were trying to help them, they weren’t defending themselves.” If a group of people grabbed you and tried to tie you to a gurney, and you didn’t want them to do that, you’d fight back, too. We’re human beings, you know).

You’re forgetting a little thing called lived experience, which trumps your third-hand anecdote every time. Do you know what else trumps it? The statistics that show neurotypical people are more likely to injure us than the other way around.

Yes, there are neurodivergent people who are violent. That doesn’t mean you get to lock all of us up…just like the fact that neurotypical people are more likely to be violent toward me doesn’t mean I get to lock up all neurotypical people.  (That however would be a course of action supported by statistics.)

There’s so much else going on in that comment (and in others that I get every day). The takeaway is this: A neurodivergent person can’t speak out without someone telling us we don’t know what we’re talking about—that they, a neurotypical person, know better than we do. Literally, if we say we had eggs for breakfast, a neurotypical person will rappel from the ceiling and ask us if we’re sure we aren’t hallucinating or confused, if maybe we had oatmeal instead. Our voices, experiences, and opinions are constantly silenced and passed over in favor of “experts” or our family members. These folks can be some of the most abusive toward us, and yet the narrative is always centered around what can be done to help them: what makes our caregivers, family, and friends more comfortable. Usually, that’s finding easier ways to lock us up, sterilize us, render us unconscioius or inert, “cure” us, or find a way to detect our neruodivergence in utero so that we’re never born in the first place. Do any of those things sound like civil rights to you? Would you like any of those things done to you?

Just because we’re different, doesn’t mean we don’t want what anyone else wants: quality of life. We’re don’t exist in this world just to make you comfortable. No one does. If your neurotypical neighbor stays up all night singing loudly along with the radio, you don’t try to have him sterilized so he doesn’t have similarly-loud children, or make sure he’s medicated into a stupor. And yet, because we’re neurodivergent, you think you have the right to do that to us.

Even when talking about the realities of our everyday life, the way everyone does, we’re told we’re “oversharing”; that we’re making others uncomfortable; that we’re “whining” and “complaining” and that we should be more positive; that we’re triggering others with our stories.

It’s always about others’ feelings.

Is it any wonder we lose it sometimes? And yet we’re not afforded the luxury of venting our feelings and frustrations, again by the nature of being neurodivergent. Our emotions are too strong and messy for neurotypicals to deal with. When we display them, we’re ostracized and chided at best. We lose friends, we lose jobs, we lose everything that makes us happy. At worst, y’all beat us, lock us up, or kill us, just for speaking our minds. I have personal anecdotes, if you need them—read my blog, or my memoir, or ask me.

People don’t listen to us and constantly speak over us. Is it any wonder we feel isolated? Is it any wonder we commit suicide, because it seems like no one cares?

But, there are people who do care, who do understand. Never forget that.

All you glorious crazy people out there, I want you to know I’m listening. I’m here for your joy and your pain. You are important, and your feelings are valid.

Elizabeth Roderick is an author and freelance editor who is crazy as fuck and wants to tell you all about it. You can find her on Amazon.

Review of TO SIRI WITH LOVE by Judith Newman

I’m an autistic author, and I urge you to read the critical reviews written by autistic people before you buy this book. Even if you do decide to buy it, it’s important that you know that autistic people have agency, feelings, intelligence and inner life…because Ms. Newman portrays us as thoughtless, helpless beings with no empathy.

I borrowed a copy of this book from a friend, so I could read it and opine on the controversy without financially supporting an author I’d heard was horrible to autistic people. However, Amazon is now not allowing reviews by people who don’t have a verified purchase through Amazon. I currently live on only a few hundred dollars per month (on most months), but I purchased a copy just so I could leave a review on Amazon. It is so important that autistic people endeavor to make themselves heard on the issues raised in this book.

Autistic voices are almost always overlooked, silenced, and dismissed. It’s a phenomenon embodied in this book, and in Amazon’s policing of its reviews in this case.

I first heard of this book when the author tangled with another autistic person—Amythest Shaber—on Twitter. Ms. Newman mentions Amythest in the book, in a really condescending light, and she further showed her contempt and disregard for autistic people in the way she spoke to Amythest online. I got a sick feeling. Autistic people are so often seen as not being worthy of consideration and respect, and I feared this book would be yet another example of that.

I wasn’t wrong.

To Siri With Love had a deep impact on me. I was able to identify, not with the supposedly heartwarming and hilarious struggles of a mother trying to come to terms with a son who doesn’t live up to her standards, but with the struggles of an autistic child who is ignored, harassed, abused, and condescended to by a mother who cannot see what a wonderful person he is.

Gus is now 16 years old, and his mother still hasn’t—will obviously never—come to terms with the fact he’s autistic. Instead, Ms. Newman seeks to make her son into something he’s not. No matter how hard she tries, however, she can’t force him to be normal. Oh, woe is her.

There are parts of this book that were almost heartwarming. The author, time and time again, seemed as if she were just about to realize the errors of her ways, and accept her son for the amazing individual that he is. Then she would ruin it by saying or doing something that made me want to curl up a cease to exist, because of how often I’ve had similar opinions and actions directed at me, and how badly they hurt.

It really sucks that a book that’s basically making fun of you—and everyone like you—for hundreds of pages can make it to a NYT Bestsellers’ List. And if I feel like that, I’d hate to know how Gus feels. Ms. Newman states she didn’t let Gus read the book, but I’m certain he understands her attitudes toward him more than she realizes.

I was born before autism was a diagnosis. I’m not certain when I first realized that I was different, though most of my childhood memories of interacting with others are marked by bullying, abuse and harassment. People constantly made fun of, tried to correct, or were angry at me for my behavior. Any change in my daily routine or plans would spark a meltdown—an uncontrollable episode of anger and fear—which earned me mockery and rage from my parents. My peers sneered at my suggestions we write a dictionary of a made-up language, or compile a catalogue the local plants. They ridiculed my age-inappropriate toys. They wanted to play boring games like house, or tag, but when I tried to join in, I’d get all the rules wrong, and end up rejected, curled in the grass in a fetal position, sobbing.

It was decades before I figured out what I was doing incorrectly: nothing. I was just being autistic, in an allistic (non-autistic) world.
Those who rejected me never learned that lesson. They still haven’t. Allistic people can’t see that there’s nothing wrong with being autistic, or with autistic behavior. I do understand that autistic people can be embarrassing or difficult to deal with, but 9 times out of 10, this would change if the allistic person would simply change their attitude and adherence to pointless ideals, and stop trying to get us to conform when our brains and bodies simply can’t.

To Siri With Love relates all these same experiences I had as a child, but not from the point of view of the child. Instead, it’s told from the standpoint of a mother who is fed up with her boring, weird, and difficult son.

Ms. Newman repeats over and over that she loves Gus. One gets the impression she’s trying to convince herself, or simply that she thinks stating it will make up for the fact that she doesn’t really love him that much (like those who prelude their racist statements and actions with “I’m not racist but…). Every time she states she loves her son, she follows it up with an anecdote that makes me want to weep, because of how clearly it demonstrates her contempt and dislike for Gus. Ms. Newman throws away her son’s toys—in which he obviously takes great comfort and joy—because she thinks a boy his age shouldn’t play with them anymore. She thinks the fact he enjoys Sesame Street is “alarming and frustrating”.
She steals and reads his phone when he’s texting with his friends because, in her words, “this is not a child who will ever have real friends,” and she’s just trying to protect him from people who are trying to use and hurt him (not seeing the irony, as she is the one who is hurting him, robbing him of real friends, while she makes fun of him behind his back or even to his face). Her idea of friendship, she says, is “people you go everywhere with”, “people who tease you” and “people you have healthy competitiveness with”. That makes sense, given the way she treats the son she supposedly loves: making fun of him and constantly comparing him to other mothers’ neurotypical sons.

She mocks and belittles Gus at every turn, even though she paints a picture of a son who is unerringly kind, genuinely likes people, is curious, and can discern when someone is being unkind…probably even when that person is his own mother. If I had to guess, I’d say it was Ms. Newman who lacks the social skills to tell when she is hurting her son.

Ms. Newman chuckles over her belief that Gus will never have a good career, or any sort of life at all, even though he already worked (as a child!) successfully as a doorman in their building—a job that was ultimately ended by ableism, not any fault of his own. Ms. Newman rolls her eyes repeatedly throughout the book and states outright that her son is “boring”, because he likes to talk about ambulances, escalators, and trains. I can understand that you might find a hour-long monologue about trains boring, Ms. Newman. Autistic people often feel the same way about small talk, or endless discussions of pop culture, sports, and the best recipes for vegetable chips (unless one of those is a special interest). Please accept that you are every bit as boring as we are, sometimes.

And then there’s the outright eugenicist bent of this book.

Ms. Newman hates her son’s autism so much that she’s stated she plans on getting medical power of attorney so that she can have him forcibly sterilized when he turns eighteen. Ms. Newman, here is the answer to the question you posed in the pages: you cannot even consider sterilizing your son without sounding like an eugenicist, without being one. Yes, many eugenicists are supposedly “well-meaning” people…just like you.
I want everyone reading this book to be very clear in their mind that this is what eugenics looks like. Ms. Newman and her supporters try to justify their eugenicist ideas by saying someone like Gus would never be a good father. This is demonstrably not true; please speak to the autistic community, and to ME personally. I’m a mother, and my former partner—a man so much like Gus I cried through parts of this book— was also a loving and amazing companion to my daughter. You and your supporters say, “wouldn’t sterilizing him be better than an unwanted pregnancy?” If so, all children should be sterilized, because allistic people have more unwanted pregnancies than autistics.

Eugenicists always have justifications for their behavior, and Ms. Newman is no different. Let’s call a duck a duck, please. There’s no excuse for eugenics.

In her mind, Ms. Newman is only trying to protect her son from hurt with her repressive, shaming, and controlling behavior. However, autistic people know from experience that parents like these can be the biggest source of hurt in a child’s life, and we know from experience that Ms. Newman is a horrible example of these. And example that, even more frighteningly, is being held up by mainstream society as a heartwarming and “refreshingly honest” paradigm.

As an autistic person, I’ve never understood why it is so important to allistic people that I act like them. If I want to play with my toys in public, or sing a song about my grocery list as I wheel my cart down the aisle, it is clearly not hurting them. In my mind, I’m expressing joy in being alive, or at the simple act of grocery shopping (as well as trying to remember my list, since I always forget something). However, I’ve been tailed by store personnel for this “suspicious” behavior.

I am a human being. I crave attention, love, and acceptance the same way anyone does. I have crushed so many of my loves, hopes, dreams and joys in an attempt to fit in.

After forty years, I can safely say it doesn’t work. I still don’t fit in.

So here is my advice to you, Ms. Newman: love the amazing son you have, not the allistic one you’ve spent 16 years mourning.

I’ll end this review with a couple quotes from the book:

>>Does he even understand that most people are not entranced by escalators? That he doesn’t see the world the way most others do? I’ve tried to approach the question a few times—“Do you know you are autistic?”—and he always acts like he doesn’t hear me. I want to understand what he’s thinking. Is he thinking? I keep trying.

Your son is thinking, Ms. Newman. He’s trying and trying to get through to you, to make you happy, to be good enough in your eyes. It’s tragic that he will obviously never succeed.

Do you know you are allistic, Ms. Newman? That not everyone is entranced by a tome vividly detailing emotional abuse? The autistic community is trying to tell you this, but you seem unwilling, or unable, to learn.

And another:
>>Through pain there is growth. I think about this all the time. Do I want my son to feel self-conscious and embarrassed? I do. Yes. Gus does not yet have self-awareness, and embarrassment is part of self-awareness. It is an acknowledgment that you live in a world where people may think differently than you do. Shame humbles and shame teaches.

Your son has self-awareness, Ms. Newman. I’m wondering if you do.

I don’t want you to feel self-conscious and embarrassed, because I don’t wish pain upon anyone. But I do want you to acknowledge that your son thinks differently than you…and that that’s okay. You don’t need to change that.

I want you to have the self-awareness to acknowledge that you are hurting your son—and all autists—deeply with your attitudes, and this book.
Just because you don’t understand autistics, doesn’t mean we don’t think. Just because we bore you, doesn’t mean we’re not intelligent or interesting. Just because you imagine a Benny Hill soundtrack to our lovemaking, doesn’t mean others won’t want to make love to us.
Just because you don’t see our value doesn’t mean we deserve to be sterilized, or worse.

You don’t need to shame and humble us out of our autism. Just let us be.

To the world, from all autistic people: please, for the love of God, just let us be.

 


Elizabeth Roderick is an autistic author. You can find her on Amazon, and freely leave a review, whether you like her or not.

TO SIRI WITH LOVE: The Oppression of Neurodivergent and Marginalized Points of View

A book has just been published, entitled To Siri, With Love. The author is Judith Newman—a person we in the neurodivergent community call an “autism mommy”: that is, the non-autistic mother of an autistic child.To Siri

Ms. Newman is a great example of how neruodivergent points of view are commonly discounted, ignored, and subverted. Since neurodivergent people, by definition, think and see the world differently than the mainstream, we’re misunderstood. It’s like we’re speaking a different language, or like we come from a culture where all the gestures are different. Like, when I was in Nicaragua, and the “come hither” gesture looked to me like waving hello. Until I learned, every time someone told me to “come here”, I waved back…I wasn’t being nonsensical or thoughtless, I just had a different way of communicating.

This is how neurodivergent people feel, day in and day out. Since we don’t do or say the things people expect us to, they think we’re nonsensical, delusional, or thoughtless. This can lead our imprisonment, abuse, you name it. Because people don’t understand us, they think we’re dangerous, or unintelligent, or that our brains are “dead”. They think our lives aren’t worth living, and they treat us accordingly.

The author of To Siri, With Love is a perfect example of this mindset. Ms. Newman has stated that she doesn’t believe her son is capable of independent thought, or understanding others’ feelings. She publicly mocked his sexuality, telling the world what kind of porn he likes, and indicating she found the idea of him ever attempting sex to be silly and grotesque. This mother has stated outright, with impunity, that she doesn’t believe any girl[sic] will ever be interested in someone like him, and is planning to get a medical power of attorney so she can have him forcibly sterilized when he turns eighteen—because, in her words, “he can never be a real father.”

It probably comes as no surprise that the autism community is really scared, hurt and angry that this book has been published. It’s my understanding that the author has received death threats. I don’t agree with this, but that’s a view of how deeply the community is rattled. (If you want to see the quotes from the books and interviews, and community responses, check out the #BoycottToSiri hashtag on Twitter. Here is the thread of an activist who was included (and made fun of) in the book, without her permission, and here is my friend Kaelan Rhywol, live-tweeting her review of the book.

Full disclosure: I haven’t read this book yet. = I plan to, when I can get it at the library (I don’t want the author to have any of my money, or for her rankings to increase). [UPDATE: I’ve started reading it. Here’s my ongoing thread of tweets. I’ll be doing a full review when I’m done.] I feel the need to read it—even though chances are I’ll hate it—not only because her son sounds wonderful and I want to read about him, but because I want review the book, and I don’t review books I haven’t read. Rarely, I’ll review books I can’t finish, to be clear, but I never base a review on someone else’s opinion. They’ve already left that opinion, and if I can’t offer something new, there’s no point in saying anything.

However, in the case of this particular book, I wanted to review and speak out against its whole concept, and to things the author and her supporters have said and done, before I even deal with the particularities of the book. I think it’s important for me (and every other autistic person who can, and wants to) to make our voices heard on matters like these. Because allowing nothing about us without us is the only way neurodivergent people will ever gain their civil rights in this society. We need to show the world that we are thinking, feeling, intelligent individuals…because people literally think we aren’t, and that we shouldn’t have control over our own lives or narratives. Judith Newman is one of those people, and her viewpoint is popular enough that Harper Collins gave her a platform.

So, it’s time for me to dust of the old blogging fingers and write about one of my areas of expertise: points of view.

For those of you new to this blog, I’m a neurodivergent person. That means, my brain function is different than an average person’s. I am bipolar, autistic, and have PTSD. It’s caused me a lot of trouble and anguish in life, but it’s also pretty cool in other ways.

The first time I learned about point of view was when I had my first psychotic break, when I was about 14. I was wandering down the street screaming that I’d been poisoned and that I needed help. I wandered into a stranger’s house. They called the police.

Technically, I was breaking and entering (I didn’t actually break anything, I don’t believe, but still). Luckily, I wasn’t charged with it, because of the kindness of the police officer. But, from their point of view, I was a dangerous person.

I wasn’t dangerous. I was scared, and very upset.

Whose point of view was correct?

I can’t blame those people for being scared. They had no idea what was going on. However, if they’d been more knowledgeable about neurodivergence, they might not have been scared. They might have been able to offer me kindness and compassion, get me calmed down, and get me the help I needed. It would have been a less horrifying experience for all of us.

I still experience these divergence of points of view almost every day, even when I’m not in a psychotic break. For instance, I’ve been having a lot of problems with people shooting their guns on and near our property—hunting coyotes for the most part. This is a pretty heavily-populated area, all private property and it’s not legal to hunt here. The hunters’ bullets go astray, hit our outbuildings, scare the fuck out of my dog, my kid, and me. I went to my local Facebook group and posted a story of a woman in Wisconsin or somewhere who had been killed by just such an illegal hunter, and asked that people be more responsible with their guns.

Of course, cue a bunch of hunters to get pissed and tell me not to knock hunting.

When they said that, I freaked. The fuck. Out. They were basically saying it was okay to shoot at my house. I tried to reiterate the fact that it was illegal and wrong to hunt on my private property, or on other private property marked “NO HUNTING”, and have their bullets go astray and endanger my family and animals, but mostly I just called people idiots and pieces of shit.

I felt very threatened, is why.

I got banned, of course.

When I calmed down, I was able to see their point of view. They for the most part weren’t being directly threatening, they’d just—for no particular reason—thought I was bashing ALL hunters. And I had—wrongly, except for in the case of one commenter—felt like they were personally threatening me. Since I’m neurodivergent, (I have PTSD, and have had guns pulled on me, have been personally threatened with them), the way I felt and expressed my fear and anger was socially unacceptable. I’m working on it, but it’s difficult to control my reactions sometimes.

But, even if how I expressed myself was “wrong”, my fear and anger were understandable, right? All I wanted was for people not to shoot at my house, and for this, people called me “ignorant”. They said “People probably just don’t like you, libtard. That’s why they’re shooting at your house.”

Understandable or not, since I’m the neurodivergent one, I was immediately seen as the one being threatening. I was in the wrong, by mainstream standards.

The difference is, afterward, I can see where I went wrong. Those neurotypical people, in my experience, never will. I’m forced to live in their idea of mainstream reality, so I’m forced to constantly second-guess my point of view. They’re never forced to.

That’s neurotypical privilege: the privilege of living in mainstream reality, so to speak, and the ability to communicate one’s thoughts and feelings in mainstream ways.

The privilege of being, and feeling, “right”.

I see this type of divergence of point of view play out every day, in all aspects of life. Two completely different viewpoints, and each is completely unable to see the other’s. This happens between neurotypical folks, too, but it’s particularly bad for neurodivergent people, because—by nature—we think differently, and neurotypical people think our brains are wrong and defective.

Can you imagine what it would be like if people thought your brain was wrong and defective? If they immediately dismissed everything you said, always misinterpreted you, and misunderstood you to the point of becoming angry or even violent, when you had no idea what you were doing wrong? Can you imagine if your own mother was like that?

This is how Judith Newman treats her son Gus. It’s the treatment she describes in the book.

I believe it, because this is what it is like for neurodivergent people, every day.

That guy ranting on the street corner (or the girl wandering down the street, screaming about spirits and poison, or the woman freaking out and calling you an idiot on Facebook)—in our own mind, we make sense, just as much as you make sense to yourself. If you got to know us fully, we’d make sense even to you.

We are sentient beings, and have fully-formed minds, just like you.

But hardly anyone wants to get to know “people like that”—people like me, or like Gus—because they think we’re dangerous, or at the very least, pathetic and annoying.

The woman who wrote To Siri, With Love, states throughout the book how annoying and nonsensical her son is—she’s being lauded by neurotypical culture for her “honesty”.

The autistic community, however, isn’t. We’re crying out to her that her son isn’t thoughtless or unlovable; that we’re like him; that often our mothers also thought we were incapable of love or thought, but here we are: thinking, functioning, feeling human beings, some of us with careers and families, all of us with loves and interests and inner lives.

But the author and her supporters are incapable of seeing that point of view. The author sees the outcry in the autistic community as bullying. She can only see her own hurt feelings, and can’t see that she has hurt the feelings of thousands of others…including her own son (whom she states in the book did not give his permission to be used in this way, or have his private life mocked and outed. The mother states that she didn’t think he was capable of consent).

Everyone who is reading this: I hope you will recognize that her point of view is wrong, even though it is currently the mainstream one.

It is time to change your way of thinking about neurodivergent people. It is time for our point of view to come into its own.

Elizabeth Roderick is an author and freelance editor. She thinks trains are pretty cool, and wouldn’t mind if one played percussion in her band. You can find her on Amazon, and on TalesFromPurgatory.com

Don’t Assume You Understand Neurodiversity. You Don’t.

I’m going to write another bitchy blog post, because I’m organizing my thoughts. I invite all people to read, and comment if you want, but this is really a conversation that needs to happen within the neurodiverse community, without paying a lot of attention outside input.

I love the term neurodiversity (or neurodivergence). When I first heard it,  a light came on in my mind. I finally had a word for something I’d felt my whole life: that “mentally ill” isn’t the right word for who I am, because I’m not ill. This is just my personality, and you can’t (nor should you want to) cure me of it. (Yes, I want/need some symptoms treated, but that’s a different discussion.)

The problem is, the term “neurodivergent” is a catch-all term for A LOT of different sorts of people. This is one of those obvious statements, but I think we need to meditate on it. I hear a lot of people say “I’m neurodiverse, too,” (or, worse yet, “my aunt is neurodiverse”) as a precursor to statements indicating they think they understand what life is like for ALL neurodiverse people.

Ugh. Amirite?

I don’t want to stop using the term neruodivergent. I lurves it, and don’t want to complicate the language by having more and more terms, or just labeling ourselves with our diagnoses.  Neurodivergent expresses an idea about all of us, that we’re not ill and are okay the way we are, and thus is a good catch-all term.

But we all need to check ourselves when we start thinking we understand what it’s like for all people under the umbrella of neurodivergence. Some of us struggle daily with the problems our neurodiversity causes us. It’s affects everything we do, and every conversation we have with others. Other people’s neurodivergence has a more subtle effect on their lives.

If you have depression, for instance, you’re neurodivergent in my opinion (unless you choose to not identify that way, of course). Depression is something I experience, and is super shitty. It can make you miss work, sabotage relationships, hurt yourself. But, in the case of periodic depression, most people won’t know you have it unless you tell them, and you can go months or even years with no symptoms.

mentalOn the other end of the spectrum is my partner, Phoenix. He has schizophrenia and can’t even walk silently into a room without people reacting to his neurodivergence: his strangeness radiates from him like a glow—a beautiful glow, in my opinion, but not in the opinions of most others. He’s one of the very best, coolest, smartest, kindest people I’ve ever met, but most folks will never know that because their reactions to him are almost uniformly negative. They avoid him, or have a (misguided) “protective” anger reaction (for instance, they call the cops on him for yelling and pacing in his yard. They beat the shit out of him for talking to himself, because they think he’s “talking shit” about them). At best, they pity him and don’t take anything he says seriously.

You can imagine the effect this sort of marginalization could have on a person. Phoenix is positive and confident, but he’s told me on various occasions that before I came along, he thought he’d be alone for his whole life.

I, for the sake of you knowing my viewpoint, fall somewhere in between that. I struggle daily with my bipolar and PTSD on an internal level, and it’s been a defining force of my entire life path. It’s destroyed more than one relationship, and caused me to seek out abusive and toxic ones. It’s landed me in prison. It’s made it extremely hard for me to maintain employment, and has cost me many promotions because of latent bias (and no, I’m not being paranoid. I have direct evidence). The list goes on. But in my daily interactions, at least at times I’m not in crisis, people generally just think I’m a little bit eccentric or “off”. It certainly colors their reactions toward me, but they might not even guess at first blush that I’m neurodivergent because I’m good at masking. Plus, I have the advantage of not being one of those people that comes off as creepy. At least it doesn’t seem like it, usually, based on how I’m treated (I mean, I’m not creepy, right? Tell me if I am). So my neurodivergence doesn’t isolate me completely in that way (though it will cause me to self-isolate at times).

So, what I’m saying is, someone with minor depression can’t know what it’s like for people like me, or people like Phoenix. And I can’t know what it’s like for someone with schizoaffective disorder, or Down Syndrome, etc. But I can probably identify with what other neurodivergent people go through better than most neurotypical people can, and I will endeavor to listen and be accepting—to be a “safe space” for other neurodivergent people to express their feelings and experiences. I will never say neurodivergent people are “doing it for attention”, that they’re “using their neurodivergence as a weapon/shield” or any of those other horrible, marginalizing things neurotypical (or self-hating neurodivergent) people say.

The reason we label ourselves as neurodivergent is to try to seek out people who understand what it’s like for us, and will listen and accept us for who we are. Thus, it’s very, very important to be careful of behaviors in the community that can cause us to marginalize and isolate our peers even more. We need to be there for one another. Let us remember to listen and be good allies, as well as good peers.

 

A Stark Look at Neurodivergence and What it Takes to Be an Ally

It’s been a long time since I ranted at y’all. I can’t say I’ve been saving up things to rant about, because I’ve trained myself to let stuff go so that it doesn’t dissolve my brain in caustic acid. But this rant needs to happen.

This is going to be the most brutal window into what it’s like for me to live with mental illness that I’ve ever given you. I’ve decided that my entire recovery depends on me being emotionally honest with myself and others, and on not playing the martyr by putting up with other people’s shit. My feelings are important, and it shouldn’t be okay to hurt me just because I act “crazy” sometimes.

If your life is too pretty, you might want to stop reading, because you probably won’t understand any of this.

Neurodivergent people put up with discrimination, both subtle and otherwise, constantly. So much, in fact, that a lot of us don’t even realize it’s happening, and we end up being the ones to apologize when we’re the ones suffering from prejudice.

Neurodivergence comes in a lot of forms, from nearly constant, full-blown psychosis to mild, periodic depression. There is really only one all-encompassing way to describe all forms of neurodiversity: it’s an inability, at some level, to correctly play society’s game.

I know most neurotypical people feel this applies to them, but they’re fundamentally misunderstanding what I mean. “Not being able to play society’s game” doesn’t mean you’re sometimes weird or awkward or say the wrong thing…as far as I can tell, that stuff is a big part of society’s game. Neurodiversity means that you act in ways that make you fundamentally incompatible with social norms, in ways that affect your ability to get along with others and be “functional”. This isn’t voluntary; it’s just the way we are.

I’ll clarify here that, while it can affect your ability to get along with people, neurodiversity is not a synonym for “asshole”. Yes, some neurodiverse people are assholes, or they act like assholes sometimes (like everyone else), but not all assholes are mentally ill. I’m really damn tired of people saying Trump is mentally ill, for instance. That’s an insult to mentally- ill people. Trump is just a self-involved, inconsiderate, manipulative, thoughtless fuckhead. NOT. THE SAME. THING. It seems like assholes do pretty damn well in society a lot of the time. By getting elected president of the U.S., for example.

Hardly anyone would say that they hate neurodiverse people. It’s just like hardly anyone would say they’re racist, but it doesn’t stop them from doing/saying racist things. When people see neurodivergence they don’t really understand what it is, so they end up punishing and demeaning us – on a personal & institutional level – for behavior we can’t easily control, or can’t control at all. They’re discriminating against us for being who we are.

I can understand why that is, though. Sometimes, neurodiverse behavior isn’t pretty. Neurotypical behavior isn’t pretty sometimes, either, but the neurodiverse have the disadvantage of having more overblown reactions to “triggers” (and I shouldn’t put quotes around this word, because it’s the correct use of a word that is used incorrectly so often) than neurotypical people do, and also of not usually being able to wait until we’re behind closed doors to have those reactions. So, we’re often the ones that get called the asshole for having an episode, when others either don’t know the context (didn’t see what led up to us acting that way), or don’t even understand what set us off.

Unfortunately, in the case of those who know us well, these triggers become a really good way to intentionally or subliminally manipulate and abuse us. They say or do something they know will set us off, and then point to us and say, “See? She’s the bad one.”

Neurodivergent people can be hard for others to love. We get rejected and isolated, some of us on a daily basis, sometimes in just about every interaction. This contributes to our anxiety/depression/paranoia/you name it, and becomes sort of a feedback loop. What neurotypical people don’t realize is that y’all are just the same as us. We’re no more threatening, toxic, or hard to deal with than you are, on average, though there are jerkwipes on both sides of the line. We’re just different. We express our emotions differently, because our emotions can take us over more powerfully than they do neurotypical people, but that doesn’t mean we’re dangerous. It just means y’all have to give us a minute, and we’ll be back with you shortly.

And, when we come back, it will probably with an apology—though we rarely get one in return from you guys, because you rarely see what it was you did that was insulting/abusive/discriminatory, while we’re trained from birth to think that we’re in the wrong, because we don’t fit social norms.

In order to be a true ally of the neurodivergent community, you have to understand the above, and accept it, instead of chiding us or being derisive about our behavior. Accepting us goes far beyond language policing or treating us like children who need coddled and taken care of, and then ignored when we’re having a fit. We’re adults— valid, wonderful human beings just like you guys—and should be treated as such. Doesn’t mean you have to like what we do, but it’d be nice if you’d understand and forgive us, and take a look at yourself, as well.

I’m going to give an example of what subtle discrimination looks like, and then an example of what pure acceptance looks like.

I’m not doing this to call anyone out. This is a true attempt to educate, because educating people about this sort of stuff is part and parcel of my survival in this society—I don’t have a chance in hell of ever being “normal”, so my only hope is to try to get people to accept me (and hopefully others) on our own terms. Besides, in the following examples, I’m calling myself out more than anyone, because I was also in the wrong.

Even though my shrink tells me my PTSD is more symptomatic lately (I was recently assaulted), I don’t always realize that I’m freaking out. Believe me, I’m working on it. I’m the only one who can control my behavior. I have a harder time with it than neurotypical people do, but I will get stable again, because I’m a pretty tough lady.

The only way I’m going to get better is by being emotionally honest with myself. Similarly, the only way neurotypical people are going to be good allies of the ND community is to be honest with themselves, and aware of their own behavior toward us.

So, my PTSD is from abuse. As a young teenager, I was physically/emotionally/sexually abused for a long period of time. This abuse has colored the progression of my entire life. It was a huge cause of the end of my last marriage, because when my husband said something insulting, I would have an overblown reaction, which would cause him to become more insulting, and so on.

I’m in a fairly unstable state now, so whenever someone says something that I perceive to be abusive or insulting, I freak out. Maybe not as much as when I’m unmedicated, but still.

There was a large amount of wank on my personal Facebook page, and a local group page, a couple of days ago because of a couple dogs that killed some of my chickens. I won’t go into the whole story; if you want it, I didn’t delete or alter the thread. It’s on my FB feed.

Long story short, this one dude ended up telling me I’m naïve, and that the dogs should have killed my chickens because they had as much right to eat as I did. Garden variety asshole, right? Except I actually need those eggs to eat since I’m living on a tight budget since my divorce, not to mention the chickens were my pets. The guy knew that. So this statement felt a lot like things my ex used to say to me about me being immature and worthless. I got really agitated, and I reacted without really thinking. I told him, “If you think you have every bit a right to eat as a dog does, kill yourself and make yourself into dog food for rescue dogs.”

This was a horrible word choice, but in my mind at the time, I was turning the tables and re-stating what he’d just said to me. I realized later that it was a poor word choice, but at least it got the guy to shut the fuck up, so I thought it was no big deal. Except it’s the internet, where everything is a big deal.

Another lady came back days later, and read only my statement. She admitted she didn’t read the context, or anything he’d said. All she saw was me freaking out. So, I was the one that got all the blame. “I know you care about people with mental illness, so I just wanted you to be aware that what you said is wrong.”

I apologized for what I’d said, but I also pointed out the irony to her. She didn’t call the other guy out for being abusive and demeaning. Be aware, I said, that my reaction is what mental illness—a PTSD trigger—looks like. That’s what true “awareness” of mental illness is.

She never responded. This is typical. We get rejected as not worth listening to, as hysterical, as an asshole. Rejection is another trigger for me, like it is for a lot of us. Instead of going off on that lady, I figured it would be healthier to go off on a blog piece, in the faint hope of educating someone.

Now, let me call myself out even more by showing you what true acceptance of mental illness looks like. I’ll give a trigger warning: this is a pretty graphic description of physical violence and verbal…I won’t call it abuse in this case. But in another context it would be.

If you are my mom/dad, I suggest you stop reading now.

A certain friend of mine and I were having ourselves a fun white trash evening recently. Long story short, he was goofing around and called me a “dirty whore”.

I knew he was goofing around, but this brought me to a standstill. “Don’t call me that.”

He, though, didn’t see what the big deal was: he was just joking, and I knew it. So, he called me a dirty whore again.

I reacted before I knew what was happening. It was like watching myself from the outside. I punched him. Not hard, but in the exact same place he’d been punched another time, which had broken his tooth and ultimately put him in a coma for three days.

So, he (who is ND, also) had the same reaction. He punched me in the eye. Again, not hard, but it was enough to bring me to my senses.

We were both blasted off into PTSD land. He was alternating between threatening to call the cops if I didn’t give him money, and gently examining my eye and saying, “Oh, my God Liz, are you okay?” Then yelling at me for making him hit a girl. I for my part, was sobbing and apologizing my ass off and begging him to not leave or call the cops. See? Good ol’ white trash fun all around.

We calmed down eventually and talked. “Someone called you a dirty whore before, right?” he said, and I nodded. “I’m sorry, I didn’t know,” he said.

“I’m sorry I punched you, especially right where that other guy did.”

And we spoke no more of it. Neither of us needed an explanation. Neither of us judged or even pitied the other. We understood one another. To us, it wasn’t that big a deal. Just a couple people overreacting like the freaks we are. Neither of us had so much as a bruise, to be clear.

That’s what it takes to accept people like us. Most of you won’t be able to do that, because our behavior is so easy to point at and say, “wrong”. Most of you, having read this, will be horrified, and will unfriend me/never talk to me again, because you don’t want to be associated with toxic people like me. But your behavior is just as wrong sometimes, it just takes longer to explain why because the abuse is emotional, and/or you do it behind closed doors so it’s harder to call you out on it.

So, if you want to be our allies, be patient with us, listen, and try to understand. It will require putting up with some bullshit, yes. But it will be worth it. We’re wonderful people, and you’ll also find a lot of us more willing to put up with YOUR bullshit than most, because we know what it’s like to do things we’re not proud of, and be rejected.

Renovating and Building my Tiny House

When I first opened up the door to my old cabin, it was even worse than I’d anticipated. The grime-encrusted detritus of my old life was strewn everywhere. Mouse shit piled in tall drifts on the shelves, where I’d abandoned full bags of cornmeal and raisins. I had no recollection why I’d left underwear dangling from the rafters or felt the need to keep a quart jar full of dried rose petals and Christmas lights. In the cabinets, though, the photo albums and letters were remarkably well preserved; painful reminders of my abusive and long-dead first husband, and my beloved grandmother who had died only months before.

Worse even than the memories was the extensive black mold in the drywall. If I’d hoped for a quick, cheap, and easy renovation, I’d hoped in vain.

At that point, I was really unstable. I’d attempted suicide before I left California, and I landed more than once in the mental health crisis center after reaching Washington. I needed a place where I felt safe and that I could call my own. I needed a home that was inexpensive enough so I could devote all my time to building my writing and editing career. More than that, I needed something to be proud of, something to raise my self-esteem and make me feel like a whole, capable person: when I’d told my husband I was moving back into my tiny house, he said it was a shithole and that I’d never be able to fix it up on my own. He said that, if I’d had an ounce of respect for my daughter and myself, I’d get a real job and a real apartment.

So, no matter how completely disgusting and unmanageable the job looked, I was determined to fix up my tiny house with my own hands, and I’d make it comfortable and beautiful. I’d make it my home.

I squared my shoulders and got to work.

img_1454I didn’t take any “before” pictures: I was afraid that I’d never be able to sleep there if I had a reminder of how absolutely horrifying it was. I regret it now, because it would be nice to look back and see how much I’ve accomplished. The “before” pictures I do have were taken after I’d already filled a gigantic trash hopper with garbage and debris, ripped out all the drywall and insulation (which was even harder than it should have been, because I couldn’t see with my face mask steaming up my goggles), swept it clean, and scrubbed it several times with bleach. But I guess you can get an idea.img_1455

After I gutted it I put up new insulation, my mom helped me reroof it, put up new drywall and replace one of the windows (the original window had been stolen since I’d last lived there—don’t ask). I had to do dig out and repair the water line, do some minor plumbing on the indoor sink and replace the faucet.

img_2081When the house was done, my mom helped me build a little bathroom next to it, using reclaimed wood she’d kept after doing some demo on the property. I set it up with a composting toilet, and a shower with a propane-fueled, in-line heating unit. I created a rudimentary greywater system for the indoor sink and the shower; they currently drain into the flower garden in front of my house. I have plans to expand or improve that system in the future.img_2080

My mom really loves to do home-improvement stuff, and I loved working with her. It was kind of one of those “bonding” experiences people always talk about. Plus, it made me feel like she wasn’t just tolerating me, but actually liked me being there. Plus, I felt like she loved my tiny house almost as much as I did. She didn’t seem to think I was living in “a van down by the river” because I was too immature and lazy to get a real job and an apartment. She knew that I was choosing to live this way, and she seemed to understand why I would. And that felt good.

img_2083All told, the renovation and construction only cost about $1,500.00, including the toilet and shower…most of that money, in fact, went toward the toilet. I was able to do the job pretty cheaply, and to pay for it all out of savings.img_2086

So, I moved into my tiny house and started my new life.

 

Next episode, I’ll talk about how I’ve set up my space, and how I think it might be better utilized. If you have questions about my experience with tiny house living, or if you have an issue you’d like me to address in my blog, I’d love to hear from you.

Mental Illness is Not Weakness

A few days ago while addressing a group of veterans, Donald Trump said that strong people can handle trauma without getting PTSD. In effect, he was stating that only the weak are susceptible to mental health issues after they experience trauma.

I myself suffer* from PTSD. My case arises not from wartime trauma, but from physical, mental, and sexual abuse. The idea that people with PTSD—and really, people with any mental health issue—are somehow too weak to deal with the fact that life sucks sometimes, and that we need to buck up, get over ourselves, and move on, is prevalent in society. In my case, it’s a belief that hinders my recovery.

I was diagnosed with PTSD about a decade back. At the time, I didn’t really know what the diagnosis meant. I thought PTSD was something ONLY combat veterans had, and thus I thought my doctor was joking. I’d never had to experience the horrors of dodging bombs and watching my buddies get blown apart. What kind of whiny bitch did my doctor think I was, that I would be as traumatized by my own experiences as a combat veteran would be by theirs?

I dismissed the diagnosis and refused treatment of any kind. I didn’t even investigate what PTSD was, or how it might affect my actions. I even went so far as to have that—and my other diagnosis of bipolar—removed from my medical records. I didn’t want to suffer the stigma. I didn’t want people to think I was weak or attention-seeking.

Then, a few years ago, I went through a period of very high stress in my life. The stress coincided with, or perhaps triggered, a severe manic episode, and I started writing obsessively and behaving a little oddly. My husband at the time became pretty snide about it. His behavior triggered something in me that sent me over the edge, I guess because it in some ways mirrored the behavior of a person from my past. He started to smell like this person, and sound like him. Whenever he would say something unkind to me, my emotions became uncontrollable: I’d get really, really angry, or hurt, or hysterical. I began avoiding him, disappearing for weeks on road trips.

The situation became a sort of feedback loop: the more emotional and erratic I became, the more critical my husband became of me. He told me I was an immature loser and that he was done with me, and kicked me out of the house on a couple occasions. For my part, I was drinking heavily and, eventually, cheating on him.

I wanted to either act “right”, or leave, but I literally couldn’t bring myself to do either. I was terrified to be alone, yet incapable of pulling myself together the way my husband wanted me to. I would watch myself do incredibly self-destructive things and be absolutely powerless to stop.

It’s hard for me to say that: absolutely powerless to stop. After all, lack of self-control is the ultimate weakness. I told myself, day in and day out, that my marriage and my life were in shambles because I was too weak to fix them. If I’d had any control over my emotions and behavior, I would have been able to make my husband love me again.

I was already in a severe depressive episode when my husband finally served me with divorce papers, on the day after Valentine’s Day. I had a suicide attempt (a fairly halfhearted one, since the means at hand were poor), and finally ended up in a mental health crisis center where they said, no really, you have PTSD and bipolar disorder, and we’re going to help you with them.

I’d never been able to stay on medication before. I thought the whole point of pills was to dull your brain and render you inert, so you wouldn’t cause problems for yourself or those around you. I thought they’d kill my creativity and prevent me from going manic; that I’d never have fun or feel any real feelings anymore. After all, pills couldn’t fix what was wrong with me, because they couldn’t cure weakness or repair personality flaws.

But I stuck with treatment this time, because I was tired of my life being unstable, and I had a kid to stay alive for. I didn’t know what else to do. I had to try something.

After trying a lot of different horrible meds, I was finally put on a combination that didn’t make me feel like a disjointed, sleepy puppet from the dream dimensions. It actually made me feel better.

The first time I realized they were working correctly was when I got into a very stressful situation. I’d been in the same situation before, when I was unmedicated, and I’d reacted very badly. My anxiety, self-loathing, and other distress had swelled up in me until I couldn’t see; the only thing left in me were those feelings, and so they were all I had that could inform my actions. When you feel like that, you can’t behave in healthy ways. You want to destroy yourself so that you don’t feel like that anymore. However, with the medication, I was in control, and not my emotions. I was still upset, yes, but my feelings didn’t send me skidding into the walls off-kilter.

That’s when I realized I’d never actually lacked self-control. My brain just worked differently than most people’s, and pretty much anyone would have acted the same way if they’d felt like I had when I’d done those self-destructive things. This was probably the most amazing self-realization of my life.

Some people might still think I’m weak—Donald Trump maybe thinks he’d be able to go through what I’ve gone through, and still be his pompous, egotistical self. And maybe I am more susceptible to PTSD than others, because of my bipolar, or for some other reason. I don’t know.

I was in the supermarket once and saw a young woman with no arms, using her bare feet to grab cups of yogurt from the cooler and put them in her cart. I tried not to stare, but it was pretty amazing to me. I’m sure it wasn’t amazing to her, though: it was just what she had to do, because she had no arms. No one with any scrap of insight would call that woman weak. I would even make the claim that nothing was wrong with her whatsoever. If she broke her ankle, it would probably affect her life more than it would someone who had arms, but that still doesn’t mean she’s weak. She’d just have to cope in different ways.

Those of us with neurodiversity and mental illness are not weak. We just have to learn to cope differently than other people. I actually think that my experiences have given me more self-knowledge, depth of character, compassion, and insight into the human condition than someone like Donald Trump will ever have. And that isn’t a disability: it’s a beautiful thing.

*I use the word “suffer” intentionally here. I would not use this word with any other sort of neurodiversity (and whether PTSD is truly a neurodiversity, I will leave others to argue, because I think each individual can choose for themselves how they want to identify). However, PTSD is unlike bipolar, ASD, schizophrenia, and other diagnoses that are an organic part of the brain. PTSD is caused by trauma, is preventable and, unlike those other diagnoses, has no component to it that I would call desirable (and yes, I think that neurodiversity can be a good thing, though there are some struggles that definitely go along with it).

Elizabeth Roderick is an author. Many of her books deal with neurodiversity and abuse issues.

Surviving, and Writing About, Abuse

I wanted to give my thoughts on a subject that’s close to my heart: how people in our society view, and write about, domestic violence and other types of abuse.

I’ve participated in a lot of discussions, both online and in the real world, about what makes people stay in abusive relationships. The answers people often give are along the lines of, “They’re insecure.” Or, “They just don’t know anything different.” And, “They don’t see any way out.”

I have been in abusive relationships, and I’ll tell you what I hear when people give the answers above: “It’s your fault. You stayed with your abusers because you’re defective: weak, ignorant, and stupid.”

I’m not saying there isn’t a grain of truth in the fact that people living in abuse are insecure, sometimes lacking in objectivity with regard to their situation, and that they might have a hard time taking whatever steps they need to in order to leave their home and family. Do you know who else fits that description? Pretty much everyone else on the fucking planet.

Unfortunately, more than a few fiction authors portray abused women (the abused character is usually a woman, though that isn’t always the case in real life) as creatures we should both pity and cheer on as they inevitably overcome all their difficulties and reinvent themselves as strong, confident individuals.

Conversely, some readers of my novel The Hustle have expressed frustration with the main character, Liria, who goes through a string of ill-advised and abusive relationships throughout the course of the story (will she do better in The Other Place? I’m not telling 🙂 ). “I just don’t understand why Liria keeps getting involved with people who treat her so badly,” some people say. “It’s like she doesn’t want a better life.”

That’s another way of saying it’s the abused person’s fault for being abused. And yes, I know it is upon each and every one of us to take control of our lives and try to be the best we can be. However, suffering people’s ignorant judgment doesn’t help us to feel empowered. Nor does pity, because pity doesn’t really equal understanding…though it’s definitely better than sneering judgment.

When I was a teenager, I was in a relationship that was physically, emotionally, and sexually abusive. After that, I was in a couple relationships that maybe weren’t exactly healthy, but were marred to a greater extent by addiction than abuse. Then, I met my current (ish) husband.

My husband is a Ph.D. professor of biophysics; a hard-working, incredibly intelligent guy who comes off in company as perhaps a little odd, but sweet and quiet and nerdy. I, on the other hand, have only an undergraduate degree and a history of incarceration and heroin addiction (that stuff is far in the past, but still). I felt sort of like I’d hit the jackpot when I landed my husband; not just because of his education and the fact he didn’t do needle drugs, but because he was unfailingly kind to me, never so much as looked at another woman, and was always reliable and safe. He had his frustrating weirdnesses, sure, but doesn’t everyone?

About three years ago we moved to California for his job. The dynamic of our relationship shifted, and his frustrating weirdnesses turned against me. I’d quit my job and started (compulsively) writing when we moved—we didn’t need a second income, and we’d discussed my being a stay-at-home mom when he got a tenure track job. But, for reasons I won’t go into again here, my husband ended up not liking this situation. He accused me of lying around all day and writing silly stories. He called me selfish, lazy, and immature. He said I was using him for money, and didn’t have the guts to leave him only because I didn’t want to get a job to support myself and my kid. Pretty mean stuff, right? But think about it: if you were lucky enough to get to stay home and write all day (and, you know, clean the house and cook and garden and all that), you might feel a little guilty about it, right? That’s pretty normal among others I’ve spoken to who are stay-at-home. So, when my husband said that stuff, I didn’t really think it was abuse: I thought he had a point, because he’d hit the bull’s-eye of my guilt.I mean, his words pissed me off and hurt me, sure, but this was a man I loved and had been married to awhile. I respected his feelings and opinions. Plus, he had never been so critical of me before, so I thought he’d get over it. I even tried to get a job to make him happy, because sometimes doing stuff to make your spouse happy is part of marriage. But we’d moved to the worst economy in the known universe so I didn’t get a single call back.

Some friends I cried to about this stuff told me he was being abusive. But I’d suffered real abuse, I thought, and it hadn’t really been the same. Other people thought I was overreacting. After all, my husband was the big fancy doctor with a sweet nature, and I was just some weird, emotional chick with a sordid past who thought she was a writer. This argument hit home with me, as well. All you writers out there probably know what it’s like to feel like a fraud and like you suck, especially when those rejections are rolling in.

Anyway, my husband moved on to saying he had lost all respect for me and was done with me. He told me he wasn’t interested in having sex with me ever again, and told me to get the fuck out of the house on various occasions.

Now, you think, any self-respecting woman would have packed up and got the fuck out of the house for sure at that point. And I actually did, many times. But I would always come back. I loved him, and I was worried about him. His behavior seemed erratic, and I was concerned for his mental health. I told him to go to a psychiatrist, which he did. We also went to marriage counseling. I still had hopes things would get better. And besides, I was a little selfish and immature: I just wanted to stay home and write, and I wouldn’t get to do much of that if I left to be a single mom. Plus, destroying a household and uprooting your kid never seems fun, under any circumstances.

My husband didn’t get better, though. He got worse, and I “dealt” with it by getting smashed-ass drunk several times a week and hanging out with another man. I can forgive myself for this a little bit now, because I was truly miserable and going off the deep end, but at the time I felt horrendously guilty and weak for not being able to change my behavior. I knew I had some mental health issues of my own, as well, and that I wasn’t really taking care of myself, which exacerbated all these problems. So when my husband yelled at me and berated me for all of this stuff too, it again didn’t feel like abuse: it hit home. I felt like it was mostly my fault our relationship had gotten so bad, and that I could fix things by being a better person.

It was true I needed to change in some ways, and I did, eventually: I cut down on drinking, etc. And, eventually, I took my kid and left. I went home to my parents’, where I renovated and built onto a cabin on their property. Now I lie around here all day writing, editing, gardening, playing with my kid, building cabinets and making homemade wine. I don’t know how long this situation will last, but I wanted to still live my life on my own terms for as long as I could. I didn’t want my husband to win, and force me into a miserable life that I don’t want.

Now, a lot of you who are still reading this (if anyone) might say that I stayed in my abusive relationships because I was insecure, because I didn’t know any better (having been in abusive relationships before), and that I didn’t see a way out (at least that allowed me to live the way I want). You’d be right, in a way. But what you might be wrong about is the fact that you would never act that way in my situation. Whenever I hear someone say they’ll never be with anyone who doesn’t treat them like a princess/prince, I usually roll my eyes inwardly. Because there’s nothing wrong with me. I’m just a human being who has made decisions that made sense at the time. I’ve done the best I can do with what I’m given. I don’t always do the right thing, but if you think you always do the right thing there might be something wrong with you.

Anyone who has been lucky enough not to experience abuse is just that: lucky. They weren’t subjected to it at a young and impressionable age, and they didn’t get sucked into it slowly and insidiously like I did later, or any of the other things that can lead people into abusive relationships. Because I didn’t stay with my husband because I’m weak or dumb or ignorant: I stayed with him because I loved him, and I didn’t want to give up our life together: the same reasons people stay in healthier relationships.

What we need to do, both in life and in fiction, is see abused people as human beings—intelligent human beings with rich inner lives, just like anyone else—not as objects of pity and contempt.

Find The Hustle, my book that deals with abuse, here.