Fire Theory

Content/trigger warning: abuse mention

Hey, guess what, everyone? I escaped domestic abuse! Yay! I’m free! I’m safe! I signed up to lead a Disability Day of Mourning vigil!

…I still have to put the apartment together and clean it, and find a new job!

But I also finally came up with an alternative to spoon theory. As useful as spoon theory can be, it can be somewhat cognitively inaccessible if you don’t know the story behind it. (The story can be found here.) So I wanted to come up with an alternative that is more of an extended metaphor for disability, and after months of reenacting Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “come on brain, think of things” vine, I think I finally have an idea: fire theory.

Imagine you’re a fire in a cozy fireplace in a cottage in the woods. Okay, the cottage in the woods isn’t necessary, but imagine you’re a fire. You need oxygen and firewood–fuel–to keep burning. Everything you do that day consumes some of your fuel. If you’re abled, then when you wake up in the morning, you’re a giant, roaring fire, and everything you do takes only a little fuel, so by the end of the day, you’re smaller, but maybe not totally diminished. If you’re Disabled, then maybe you start out as a smaller fire, and everything you do on a given day doesn’t take much fuel, but you have less to work with at the outset. Or maybe you start out as a giant, roaring fire, but certain tasks you have to perform take a lot more fuel than it would an abled person. Your exact fire situation will depend on what conditions are disabling you.

So far, fuel sounds pretty similar to spoons, right? They’re both measures of wherewithal, and abled people have more of those measures or use them differently from Disabled people. But something I’m not huge on with regard to spoon theory is that according to spoon theory, when you’re out of spoons, you’re done. You can’t do anything else for the day. But I have run out of spoons while hauling groceries on foot, and I couldn’t very well just collapse on the sidewalk, so I pressed on in violent denial of the reality of my condition and collapsed/had a meltdown/cried/all three after I got home and stuffed the perishables into the fridge. So I kind of broke spoon theory there.

Spoon theory also doesn’t really allow for replenishment of spoons—in its original iteration, anyway—whereas fire theory does. The key to running on empty or replenishing wherewithal with fire theory is the idea of the ember. When a fire has burned itself out, there might still be embers continuing to glow. Instead of “running on no spoons”, I’ve come to think of it as “down to an ember”. Embers can also be encouraged to become blazes again with more fuel; in the case of fire theory, you can be down to an ember but get back up to fire status with medication, rest, food, hydration, or whatever it is that replenishes you.

So, fire theory is fairly straightforward: fire is a metaphor for you, fuel is a metaphorical measurement of wherewithal (or ability to do things without being in too much pain, or energy, or whatever it is that fits you), and Disabled people metaphorically use fuel faster than abled people and/or have less to work with at the outset. Additionally, it is possible to still keep going while miserable or in pain or nonverbal or what have you, in which case the metaphor for this is being down to an ember. It is also possible to go from an ember to a blaze again if more metaphorical fuel can be provided.

Clear as mud?

Here are some suggestions for how to apply fire theory, or rather, fire theory equivalents of spoon theory vocabulary:

I’m a spoonie = I’m a fire elemental (I was really tempted to somehow make a reference to A Series of Unfortunate Events and VFD, and have people say “I’m a volunteer”)
That’s going to use a lot of spoons = That’s going to use a lot of fuel
I’m out of spoons/I don’t have the spoons = The fire’s out/I’m down to ash
I’m out of spoons but somehow soldiering on = I’m down to an ember
I recouped some spoons = I’m back up to a fire/I chopped some more firewood/I recouped some fuel

Now I have a horrible cold and am going back to sleep.

Hermeneutical Injustice

Content/trigger warning: discussion of ableism, cursing (these are probably true for most entries…), mention of Autism $peaks, eugenics, ABA

Internalized ableism is sadly common. I see it all the time, from Disabled people who choose to use terms like “person with a disability” and “the disabled” to those who are pro-eugenics. I’m also queer, and I see internalized ableism far more often than I see internalized queermisia. I’m also female, and I see internalized ableism far more often than I see internalized misogyny (in general; if we’re talking specifically about white women, that’s another story). I’ve often wondered why so many Disabled people so staunchly advocate against their own rights and don’t understand that their lives have as much value as those of abled people. As much as I want to boost the voices of other Disabled people, when Disabled people are advocating against disability justice…well, I struggle with that. I can’t say their voices don’t matter, but when another Autistic person says “figuring out the genetic causes of autism is important so people like me can be eugenically eliminated”, I sure as shit don’t want abled people hearing that and thinking that Autistic people universally want to stop existing.

I thought about how difficult it was for me to find information from Disabled self-advocates and how long it was after my various diagnoses that I started learning about disability justice. I started to wonder if so many Disabled people have such terrifying internalized ableism because they don’t have access to information about disability justice. Not only do they not have information about disability justice, what they do have is an omnipresent avalanche of ableist bullshit. I mean, hell, when a newly diagnosed Autistic person googles “autism”, they’ll probably find fucking Autism $peaks. (I’ve discussed before why that organization is a hate group). They’ll probably also find information on conversion therapy based on the mistaken idea that autism is a behavioral disability, not a cognitive one, and aimed at making Autistic people more palatable to the allistic people in our lives at the cost of our mental health and autonomy. (This “therapy” is called applied behavior analysis, or ABA, and I’ll do another entry on why it’s harmful later.) Ableist disinformation is everyfuckingwhere because ableism is built into society, and I started thinking that the fact that Disabled people internalize that disinformation is a manifestation of ableism.

As it turns out, I might be onto something. A philosopher named Miranda Fricker defined the term “hermeneutical injustice” as follows:

“In cases of hermeneutical injustice, we harm people by obscuring aspects of their own experience. Our dominant schemas–our assumptions, what we take as common ground–about a particular group can make it difficult for members of that group to understand or articulate their own experiences qua members of that group.”

That’s in academic-ese, so let me try to translate. Hermeneutical injustice is when society keeps important information about group X from the people in group X and instead feeds them bullshit, making it difficult or impossible for members of group X to understand or talk about being X. Doesn’t that sound like what I was talking about a few paragraphs ago?

So when I see Disabled people with deeply ingrained internalized ableism, I try to remember that they probably haven’t had the access to the resources I do, and I try to share my resources. I’m still working out how to discuss hermeneutical injustice with the people it affects. Nobody wants to be told “Your ideas are wrong because you’ve been fed bullshit”, even though that is frequently a logical response to statements like “I can’t be ableist; I have a disability!”.

How do we address hermeneutical injustice, then? I try to make disability justice resources more available, and I write this blog, but hermeneutical injustice comes from societal oppression. The best way to confront hermeneutical injustice is to dismantle the oppressive structures that perpetuate abled supremacy (and white supremacy, patriarchy, etc.; they’re all interrelated. Intersectionality may be an entry for another day…or multiple entries. Hmm. I’ll get back to you on that). Yeah, yeah, I know. Tall order. But the alternative is for Disabled people to continue believing our lives don’t matter. And that’s unacceptable.

What the Hell is a Microaggression?

Content/trigger warning: saneist slurs (censored)

It feels like an appropriate day to discuss a particular way in which saneism rears its ugly head. Let’s talk about microaggressions and how to deal with them.

What the hell is a microaggression? Simply put, a microaggression is the casual degradation of any socially maligned group. It’s a fairly new term, coined in 1970 by a psychiatrist and Harvard professor named Chester M. Pierce. “Microaggression” originally meant the crappy things that Pierce witnessed happening to Black Americans at the hands of non-Black Americans. The aforementioned crappy things were comparatively mild; not hate crimes, but obviously motivated by racism (intentional or unintentional). “Microaggression” has since been adopted as a term for small, casual acts that harm any oppressed group. While microaggressions can take several forms, in this post, I will be discussing one particular common microaggression against mentally ill people: saneist language.

I used to have an even stronger reaction to saneist language than I do now, believe it or not. I’m Autistic as hell, so for the longest time, I had no sense of when it was appropriate to tell someone they had committed a microaggression or how extremely to react. (Black-and-white thinking. It makes life interesting.) This became awkward for me quickly, because microaggressions against mentally ill people are everywhere. I have songs in my iTunes with “ps*cho” in their titles. I constantly hear people describe viewpoints to which they do not ascribe as “cr*zy”. I check my Twitter and see people calling a certain immoral orange Cheeto politician a “l*natic”. I used to see this and, well, fly off the handle. I wouldn’t just call people out; I’d get furious. 

Not that there’s anything wrong with anger. I think I have every right to be pissed off at language that reminds me that my brain is used as a slight. And as much as certain factions crow that being angry will never solve anything when attempting to affect social change (even on a small scale), anger can be a powerful motivator. And if some NT isn’t going to listen to me because I’m upset at being reminded that I’m perceived as a subhuman insult, that’s their problem. What was my problem, you ask? It was that I would be too angry and I would let that anger cause me to insult the people I was trying to correct. That is never, ever okay. So key point one of reacting to microaggressions: don’t sink to the other person’s level and use insults. Yes, even if they’re being a saneist ass on purpose. It’s wrong.

Key point two: Like I said, it’s okay to get mad—anger can be a powerful motivator—but it’s not always effective to show as much anger as you feel, especially if you’re as much of a towering crankypants as I am. (Well, towering in the metaphorical sense only; I’m actually shorter than Carrie Fisher was. I used to laugh at how she would sit on chairs oddly because otherwise her feet would dangle, since I also sit funny to avoid foot-dangling. Gods I miss her. What were we talking about?) Recently, I have begun correcting saneist language in a small, tight voice that contains plenty of restrained anger. People tend to be intimidated by the fact that I’m upset, but also relieved I didn’t actually explode. Restrained anger tends to be the way to go in certain social situations, especially if the conversation is already quiet and low-key. And if my Autistic ass can figure that out, it must be really true, right?

Key point three: try to be brave. Even I, someone who is so motivated by rage that bravery doesn’t really come into the equation, know that pointing out when someone has hurt you can be absolutely terrifying. It can be especially terrifying if you feel like you have to reveal that you’re mentally ill in order to bolster your point that saneist language is unacceptable. You may be concerned about how they will react; it could be worse than the original microaggression. (Note: being brave doesn’t mean putting yourself in unsafe situations. If you can’t call someone out because it is dangerous to you, please, stay safe.) It can also be terrifying to ask a person acting saneist to stop if the person is someone you care about. You might fear losing them. You might fear them caring less about you. But consider this: if you ask someone saying unacceptable things to stop and explain your position, they also might listen. And if they don’t, you tried, and you did a good thing. And if the person really cares about you, then they will most likely listen.

Key point four: I mentioned this briefly during key point three. Try to explain why the microaggression is wrong. A good explanation for why saneist language is wrong is “it is used to deny rights and humanity to mentally ill people, so it’s hurtful”. Emphasize that while somebody may not intentionally be denying rights and humanity to mentally ill people, the use of the language is still harmful because words have power and meaning. It sucks, but that’s the way it is. If they keep hitting you with the intent argument, try the foot-stepping counter-argument: if you accidentally step on someone’s foot, you may not have done it intentionally, but you should still get off their foot, apologize, and try to avoid further foot-stepping.

Key point five: think about who it is you’re talking to when asking someone to stop it with the microaggressions. I’m absolutely terrible at this, but I’m trying to get better. Are they someone who will respond well to jargon? Would they prefer layman’s terms? Will they only listen if you get angry, or do they admire an argument delivered calmly and coolly? If you consider questions like these before asking someone to change their language, you may get a better response.

Key point six: some people are lost causes. They don’t want to listen and they never will, at least to you; they have to make a point of standing their ground. This doesn’t mean you should give up trying to spread the word on how saneist microaggressive language has an impact on how mentally ill people are perceived and treated, but it does mean that there might be times when you should conserve spoons and say “Well, I guess I’m not going to convince you” and disengage with someone who’s acting like a willfully ignorant douchenozzle.

Why does this matter? How will all of this help destigmatize mental illness and dismantle saneism? Shouldn’t you have bigger goals than getting people to stop using a few words, Mara? Well, I think correcting microaggressive language is a actually good place to start when it comes to my big goals. But what do I think will solve microaggressions? Well, first people have to know what words not to use. But my long-term hope is that once comparisons to mental illness are no longer used to describe things that are illogical or evil, mentally ill people will be seen as less immoral, less frightening, less Other. My most long-term goal would be that NTs see mentally ill people as people to the degree that it is repugnant to use a comparison to mental illness as an insult.

If you’re still with me after this fairly long entry, you might be wondering what exactly constitutes saneist language. On that front, I think I will defer to Autistic Hoya. They have covered saneist and other ableist language more eloquently than I could.

Today’s Carrie Fisher quote is one I mentioned in my first entry, but it’s of great help to me when I’m scared to call out saneism even though I want to: “Stay afraid, but do it anyway. What’s important is the action. You don’t have to wait to be confident. Just do it and eventually the confidence will follow.” I’m very, very afraid today. But I will do my best to keep my fear from halting my mental illness advocacy.

Definitions and Abbreviations

Well, here I am at my second entry. Looks like I’m really doing this. (For you, Carrie.)

I’m going to be using some abbreviations and terms that many people may not use or be familiar with. So for the sake of making this blog easily comprehensible, I’m making an entry on some of the aforementioned terms and abbreviations.

Ableism: the oppressive system that privileges abled people over disabled people; bigotry against disabled people

Allistic: not autistic

Autistic (capitalized): autistic and proud; a political identity as well as a neurodevelopmental one

Favorite person: someone who is idolized by a person with BPD; the person with BPD’s happiness and self-worth depend heavily on how their FP treats them

Microaggression: casual degradation of any socially marginalized group, often through language

Neurodivergent: having a mental, neurological, developmental, intellectual, and/or psychological disorder and/or disability

Neurodiversity: a movement dedicated to the acceptance of autism as a natural variant on the human experience and not a disorder 

Neurotypical: not neurodivergent

Neurotypicalism: the oppressive system that privileges neurotypical people over neurodivergent people; bigotry against neurodivergent people

Saneism: the oppressive system that privileges mentally healthy people over mentally ill people; bigotry against mentally ill people

Spoons: units of wherewithal; used by disabled people to describe their ability to accomplish tasks, e.g., “I actually had the spoons to clean the kitchen”; reference to spoon theory, developed by Christine Miserandino

Trigger: stimulus that causes or exacerbates symptoms of an illness or other disabling condition

ARFID: Avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder

ASPD: Antisocial personality disorder

BPD: Borderline personality disorder

CPTSD: Complex post-traumatic stress disorder

CW: Content warning

DID: Dissociative identity disorder

DP/DR: Depersonalization/derealization

ED: Eating disorder

FP: Favorite person

GAD: Generalized anxiety disorder

HPD: Histrionic personality disorder

ID/DD/LD: Intellectually disabled/developmentally disabled/learning disabled

MD: Mood disorder

MDD: Major depressive disorder

MH: Mental health

MHCP: Mental health care provider

MI: Mentally ill

ND: Neurodivergent

NPD: Narcissistic personality disorder

NT: Neurotypical

OCD: Obsessive-compulsive disorder

OSDD: Otherwise specified dissociative disorder

OSFED: Other specified feeding/eating disorder

PD: Personality disorder

PTSD: Post-traumatic stress disorder

TW: Trigger warning

I also think I’m going to close each of my posts with a Carrie Fisher quote. Some of them will be humorous (since she was hilarious) and some will be more serious and related to mental illness. Today I think we need some levity, so here is what Carrie said when Stephen Colbert asked her about being asked to lose weight for filming Star Wars: “They want to hire part of me, not all of me. They want to hire about three-fourths, so I have to get rid of the fourth. The fourth can’t be with me.”

Something else I’m doing today is donating to the Bipolar International Foundation in Carrie’s honor. I think she would approve.