Evil. Insane. Mentally Ill. Autistic.

Every time I read or hear about another violent multi-victim crime, I hold my breath, and I wait. How is this crime going to be described? Who are the victims? How are they painted? Do we hold up the most seemingly innocent first, as a way to make the crime seem that much more obscene in the eyes of those watching from afar?

And the perpetrator – what do we hear about him (because, for whatever reason, they are almost always men)?

Evil. Insane. Mentally ill. Autistic.

This. This is what I wait to hear every time. And almost every time, I hear some variation of the above. We are still, as a culture, feeding the stereotype of mentally ill people as being possessed (“evil”). It can’t possibly be a medical condition, or a result of decades of abuse, or something that can be socio-scientifically understood. It is a character flaw, and something that comes from not being strong enough to withstand the temptation of the devil. And people with mental illness are uncontrollably violent and dangerous.

And then there are the autistic people. They’re so unpredictable. They show no empathy, so you just know that they’re capable of something like a mass murder. They wouldn’t feel anything after such an event. They’re volatile, and heartless, and already pretty much psychopaths. Is it any wonder when they’re accused of horrible events?

I live with mental illness.

I am autistic.

One of my children lives with mental illness.

Both of them are autistic.

None of the three of us is going to suddenly snap and kill everyone in our wake. In fact, all three of us are at much higher risk of experiencing violence as victims than we are of committing acts of violence ourselves. Media and cultural focus on mental illness and/or autism as a significant risk factor for violent acts puts the three of us at even higher risk of experiencing violence at the hands of those trying to protect the rest of the world from us.

I have seen some in the autistic community speak out, separating autism from mental illness in relation to yesterday’s tragedy. This is a shortsighted move, and a dangerous one. Claiming that the shooter (whose name I will not share) was mentally ill and that autism had nothing to do with his actions indicates agreement with the idea that mental illness was the cause. Given that over 2/3 of autistic individuals will also experience a significant mental illness over the course of a lifetime, this lack of solidarity does none of us any favours.

How do we shift the discourse? I had a conversation with my 12-year-old last night about the incident. Here is his (autistic) feedback:

His first question upon hearing about the incident: “Where did he get the gun?”

Pretty practical question, no? Doesn’t delve into motivation, mental health, or what he may have eaten for breakfast. Killings were accomplished with a gun, so let’s trace the origin of the weapon. Sounds like a logical starting point.

I explained that the culture of guns in the United States is very different than that in Canada, mostly because of the Second Amendment.

His response? “Think about it this way. If the Second Amendment were never made then people would not need guns for self defence because nobody would have guns in the first place.”

Uh, yeah. The US has created its own internal arms race with the Second Amendment as its justification. Pretty astute observation.

When I told him that it was reported that the shooter was autistic, he got a confused look on his face: “Who says his doing it had anything to do with autism?”

He could not fathom how anyone would connect autism to mass murder. It just didn’t compute.

He ended the conversation with,”Walmart sells semi automatic guns?”

I am not arguing that some people aren’t more likely to commit acts of violence. I’m not even saying that it’s impossible that psychotic or schizophrenic people can’t be compelled to do these acts. I know it’s possible. I also know that the compelling voices aren’t an across-the-board symptom of either of those conditions. I know that one can only be compelled by one’s brain to do something if one has access to the tools to carry it out. I know that one’s risk factors increase if one does not have access to affordable and appropriate mental health services.

You want to put an end to this kind of violent crime? Don’t lay it at the feet of “the insane” or “the autistic.” Question your cultural values: is having ready access to guns made specifically to kill multiple people in a short period of time a legitimate interpretation of the Second Amendment? Is the “Gd-given right” to protect yourself from tyranny worth the lives of the people who were murdered yesterday? Is the philosophy of pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps more important than a country prioritizing funding for excellent accessible mental health services (and don’t think Canada is doing much better with mental health – especially for children)?

The cultural/media slant of yesterday’s incident has put my entire family and so many others at increased risk of stigma and physical violence. Change the conversation. Make all of us safer.

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Loss, grief, survival, resistance

It seems to be obvious to everyone else, but I’ve been struggling with understanding why my mental health has felt so strained this year. I suppose it makes sense that I’d be feeling overwhelmed. So much has happened in a relatively short period of time, and most of what has happened in my life represents some kind of loss.

I started this year having to accept that I was too sick to work. My body rebelled against me, and has left no concrete signs as to what’s wrong or how to fix it. I worry every day when I wake up that I’m not going to be able to get out bed again, that I won’t be able to pick up the kids from school, that I won’t be able to go to school myself.

I lost my job. I knew it was a probability that my contract would not be extended, but it still caught me off-guard. My income disappeared, and with it my hope for financial security when I planned to return to school in the fall.

I lost my grandmother. I knew it was coming, probably soon, but she’s still gone and I didn’t really have a chance to say good bye to her.

I gave up any outstanding fantasy of being with someone with whom sharing my fertility would be a welcome and wanted thing when I chose to have my tubes tied. I grieved the fact that there had never been that moment of shared joy in a partnership during the years when going through another pregnancy would be a healthy choice for me. I made the right decision in choosing the surgery – I have no regrets at all. But the permanence of it left me wishing things could have been different.

I moved. I started school. I also started two part-time jobs, and transitioned the kids back into school. Nothing really to grieve there, but admittedly a lot of change and a lot of stress all at once for one little me.

Somewhere in the middle of that (and it doesn’t matter where), I was also sexually assaulted. It is what it is, I didn’t and won’t go to the police, it’s a work in progress to get okay again, and I’m not mentioning it for any other reason than, “Holy shit, that’s a lot of crap in one short period of time.” ‘Cause really? If I weren’t me, and I were talking to someone who’s 2011 looked like mine, I’d be a little worried about how they were doing.

So how am I doing? I’m grieving more than I have time for. I’m surviving (and sometimes that means nothing more than putting one foot in front of the other, making sure we have clean clothes and fresh food, and getting our bodies where they need to be occupying space). I’ve pulled away from some friends, and am trying to reconnect, because I know that isolating myself when I need support the most is dangerous for me. At times, I try to never stop moving, because I don’t want to have time to think, to feel, to process. I’ve really turned inward, to keep myself from falling out all over the place. My trust in my own judgment and in people I’ve known forever is up and down, and I often miss the obvious when people close to me are struggling with their own stuff. Eating and sleeping are inconsistent again.

I thought it would be a good idea to do a bit of a “check the oil, kick the tires” kind of psych appointment, to make sure I was more or less on the right track in terms of how to keep myself reasonably healthy. After being asked if I ever do “weird sex things” and whether my experiences of sexual assault were “true rape,” I haven’t really been that motivated to return. So I survive.

In the midst of all of this, I have pain. Pain so bad some days I don’t know what to do with myself. My body actively betrays me. My heart is stapled together after shattering so completely. And my mind? Well. Good days, bad days.

I fell off the wagon the other day. No. I didn’t fall. I stepped off. I made a choice. My entire world was chaos, and I could not find order. So I did the simplest thing I could think of to line it all up in way that I could deal with, that would restore some order, even for just long enough to take a single deep breath. I cut myself to stop the world, because it was something I knew would work. And I can’t even tell you how much shame I felt after doing it, after disclosing to someone close that I had done it, after dealing with that person’s reaction to it.

Too much has happened and continues to happen to my body without my consent.This contentious, “diseased” act, this choosing to make small cuts in my flesh – that was me. Something I chose to do, and chose to stop doing when I didn’t need it anymore. Would I have felt this shame had I gone and gotten a new tattoo? Re-pierced my nose? Aren’t they the same thing, if they satisfy that need to assert dominance over a body forced too much to submit?

I don’t have any answers. I don’t plan to make a habit out of it. It’s not something I enjoy doing. It is, however, a tool that came in handy when I needed to resist the feelings of loss, of grief, of body betrayal. I’m committed to using as many other tools of resistance as I can access.

‘Cause survival is the journey as much as it is the destination.