The Math of Poverty

Getting some pushback on yesterday’s blog, I see. Apparently poor people haven’t earned the right to be judgmental, or to be angry. Sometimes I think there are only two ways to be an acceptable poor person in the US. The first is the “Bob Cratchit” model: Show up to work every day at your perennially underpaid clerical job, wearing the threadbare yet neat suit you (or your partner) have painstakingly hand-tailored by the light of your single candle, live on your bowl of bean broth a day and never ask for more, and generally show stoicism about your lot. The second is the “dirty beggar” model: wear sackcloth and ashes and hang out on street corners (preferably with your entire family and a small dog), shaking empty coffee cans and hitting up passersby for spare change. This second, while not respectable, is certainly acceptable in that it gives your “betters” someone to look down on and complain about in various forms of media. Falling outside either of those models confuses and alarms people. And when people are confused and alarmed, they react in unpleasant ways.

Which brings me to today’s post. I found something educational in the veiled vitriol of one comment (interesting use of the quotation marks around the word “husband,” by the way; did you mean to question the existence of such a person? or do you simply doubt that we’re married? I decline to upload a copy of our certificate for your inspection.). It went like this:

“With the $10 you spend on Netflix, you could have had THREE pairs of glasses and not waited three years!”

Honestly, at first I had no idea what this meant. $10 is obviously not $101, which was the cost of my glasses. And it definitely would not have covered three pairs of glasses. So I had to rewrite this portion of the comment in my head. It came out like this:

“If you had saved that $10 a month instead of spending it on Netflix, you could have bought three pairs of glasses in three years.”

Ah-ha! That makes better sense–to a point. And this is where the educational part comes in. You see, poverty math is not like money math. Money math is straightforward: X amount x Y months over Z years = AMOUNT. Poverty math is more existential, and there are far more variables. So what looks like a simple equation ($10 saved on Netflix X 12 Months/year X 3 years = $360 = Enough for three pairs of glasses) becomes a complex equation including time and circumstances and all kinds of other things a poor person has no control over. I’ll spell it out:

Let’s say I decide that I’m going to do without Netflix and put that money in a jar every month, so at the end of three years I have enough for my three pairs of glasses. Let’s also say that at this point in time this is the only “extraneous” expense I have so this is the only savings I can make, and let’s grant that I am making enough to cover my monthly housing, food, and utilities.

After six months I have $60 in my “glasses fund” jar. And then something happens. It doesn’t matter what happens. Stuff always happens. Maybe I blow a tire on my car and it has to be replaced. That’s minor; a new tire costs about $60, less if you get one that’s patched. Do I dip into my glasses fund? Of course I do, because I have to have the car to get to work. It puts me back at zero on my glasses fund. This shows how savings are a function of circumstance. So now our equation can be expressed as:

[12(Savings) / (Circumstance)] X 3 = Glasses

You can make up the loss in a relatively short time. But that was a small problem. Let’s say there’s a big one. Let’s say your car blows an alternator. That’s around $300–it’s been a while since we had to have an alternator replaced. It wipes out your monthly food budget. Now you have $60 and no food, and your kids are hungry. Do you hold onto that $60? It’ll buy a lot of macaroni and cheese. Of course your future glasses will take back seat to that. Your savings have actually gone into a negative amount here, because it’s going to take you a while to make up your deficit. Remember, you have no credit cards, only cash in hand.

Poverty Math is an exercise in relativity, and the rule is always Current Circumstance > Future Circumstance.

People come up with all kinds of arguments against this reality of hand-to-mouth living. There’s always the person who will say, “But do you really need the car? Can’t you take public transportation or get a ride to work?” And I’m not going to answer that question, in the first place because there will always be something more important than the future that comes up, and in the second because nothing will ever satisfy these people. No matter what lengths of austerity poor people go to, those who think they know better will always claim they should do more and sacrifice more.

I don’t know if Poverty Math qualifies as a science. Perhaps it’s more of a philosophy. The time and relativity aspects insist that one exist in a kind of perpetual NOW, where worries about both the past and the future become irrelevant. Perhaps this is why so many spiritual systems recommend giving up material goods and living a life of poverty. I don’t see the bright side, myself. The problem of an eternal now is that you lose the ability to believe in the future at all.

If that’s part of enlightenment, I’d rather have the money.

[With regards to Occupy Math, who I hope will find this post humorous.]

Dear Wealthy Person…

Wait: I’ve started off wrong, haven’t I? Because you don’t think you’re wealthy, not at all. You probably think you’re comfortably middle class, though your six-figure income puts you in the top 2% of earners in the US, though your yearly income is more than my husband and I expect to see in ten. I see this as part of the disconnect the wealthy have from those on the bottom of the income scale; after all, studies have shown wealth decreases empathy.

So I shouldn’t be surprised that you’ve posted another meme about how poverty is due to mismanagement of funds and not a lack of funds, and how you’re not about to “throw money at” the poor because it won’t solve the problem. And I’m not. It still makes me mad, though. I don’t have any reason to suppose you posted this meme in response to my sharing my GoFundMe campaign begging people to help us with this week’s $500 in bills that have to be paid RIGHT NOW, yet I do suppose it. Every time I see a meme like the one you shared, it feels personal to me. Both judgment and a slap in the face from someone who doesn’t know, and likely will never know, what it’s like to live in abject poverty. The kind of poverty where every day is another choice of what we can do without, another decision on what to put off and what absolutely has to be paid for.

I’m thinking you believe you could make those decisions better and more easily than we do. Trim the fat! Don’t spend anything extra and then you’ll have money to put away! I’m imagining your voice telling us we don’t need expensive broadband Internet (after the installation fee, cheaper than what we had before, so the alternative is no Internet, mind). We don’t need mobile phones, do we? Certainly not two of them, with two separate accounts! ($75 a month for the both of them, in an area where some places still don’t have landline access. Oh, right–we DO have a landline for emergencies; it’s $25 a month. Sometimes the fiber optic lines get cut.) They just aren’t necessary–except my husband needs to be available to take calls anywhere and anytime a job might come up. Except I have a mental illness and my phone can be my lifeline in a way the landline isn’t, in a way I can’t explain, but of course that doesn’t matter. I didn’t need to spend money on a nice steak yesterday ($7 on a really good sale) because ramen is good enough for every meal, even when I have a literal physical condition that requires and infusion of high quality food every so often. Let’s see, if I eliminate all that “fat” from my budget (unnecessary Internet, unnecessary phone plans but the phones are already paid for, the food doesn’t count because one must have some kind of food), then I’ll have saved a whole $125–not even enough to pay one of the outstanding medical bills we have on hold because my disability (did I mention I’m disabled?) medical only covers 80% and the husband doesn’t have any insurance at all. So we’re stuck with the pile-up of bills incurred when he almost cut off his thumb last fall. Now I’m down to choosing which of the utilities I can sacrifice and whether or not that mortgage payment is really necessary, and do I really have to see my therapist and my medication manager in this next week? That’s another $75, which would be $50 except the last time I saw my therapist (almost two months ago), the Mental Health Center was good enough to defer my fee. But I guess it’s not really important whether or not I’m suicidal.

You may notice that I can tell you the exact amount of every bill and how much we’ve spent in the last few days ($34.81 for a small sack of groceries because the last $10 has to go in the gas tank), and I didn’t even have to look that shit up. So I object to the claim that financial difficulties we face are the result of “poor management.” The truth is, we don’t have anything to manage. When you’re faced with a choice of being shot or being hung, all decisions are trivial.

I know very little about the way you live, other than that you have more than I do. I can admit that. Why do you assume you understand the causes of poverty, or how poor people live?

In Googling (there’s that unnecessary Internet service again) to find a citation for another statement I want to make, I found a lot of articles from people who seem to think as you do, right down to using the same words: “Throwing money at” the poor won’t cure poverty, for whatever the reason of choice happens to be. Can I just take a minute to tell you how offensive that wording is? Every time I see it in relation to someone or something needing funding to solve a problem, my sight turns red. I get an image of someone throwing meat at a starving dog to distract it, then running away. Running away without LOOKING and SEEING whether that dog has been mistreated, whether it’s chained, whether it has sufficient water and shelter and all the things a dog should have. To me, it says a lot more about the person who uses the phrase than it does about the people at whom it’s directed. It says you want an easy way out. It says you don’t want to think. It says you want to do the barest minimum thing possible to assuage your guilt, and maybe to keep you safe where that dog can’t get you. So you talk about “throwing money,” and then you dismiss the very concept, because you’ve made your pronouncement that it won’t work. And you know what, in some ways you’re right. “Throwing money” won’t “solve” poverty on a wide basis. Solving the problem would mean taking a good, hard look at the problems that cause it, at the limitations of Capitalism and Calvinism, and working hard to combat them. But that’s too hard. So you declare yourself without responsibility to your fellow human beings, who have had the misfortune not to start out with as much as you have, of who have slipped into the hole that waits for everyone who doesn’t toe the line. To those with mental or physical disabilities, or just with the wrong temperament, to do what one has to do to succeed within the system’s limitations. You got yours, they need to get theirs. World without end, Amen.

I’ll tell you what: “Throwing money at” poverty might not cure it. But it certainly helps to be able to get over the next hurdle and breathe a bit before you have to face the next one.

My husband owns two pairs of pants, did you know that? One for work and one for not-work, with a not-too-badly worn pair of jeans for those dirty jobs around the house. Is that too much for him to have, do you think? Should we sell one? Maybe with the money from it we could start an investment portfolio. I’m a bit luckier: a friend regularly gives me an Amazon gift certificate for my birthday, so I can get some clothes, a pair of boots. My good winter boots are 20 years old. My husband hasn’t had a new pair of work boots in at least 15 years, maybe more. If we can’t make them last, what do we do? There’s no money for new ones.

THERE’S NEVER ANY MONEY FOR NEW ONES.

Last time someone made a major contribution to my fundraiser, I bought new glasses ($101). I felt guilty for doing it, even though I’ve been needing new glasses for about three years now. I felt guilty about wanting to be able to see. But maybe that’s another thing I should have done without.

You know what else we don’t have that’s considered normal? A television or cable service. Entertainment in this house is hauling the laptop into the bedroom and hoping the screen lasts through another hour of streaming something on Netflix. Oh–should I have added Netflix to the list of things we can do without? That’s a whole ‘nother $10 per month! I should celebrate.

I know you have a job, wealthy person. I’m almost certain you don’t need it, because your partner earns the bulk of your income. It’s a hobby for you. Even that hobby would sustain us comfortably–more than comfortably. We’d be well off if we had the wages you earned from your hobby. Currently the husband is working part time at half his usual wage because that’s the only work there is. And yes, this much is true: We chose to live where we do, in an area that doesn’t offer a huge amount of opportunity. And we did all right until the Recession hit. We were willing, and are still willing, to make certain sacrifices. We saw a way toward a better future. That’s why husband went back to college right before the Recession. But you know what? That college degree has done bupkis for us. No one wants teachers here. No one wants to “throw money at” education. Good gods, what’s going to happen in a rural area with no alternatives but public school under our current president, I can’t bear to think!

You might advise us to up and move if we can’t make it where we are. I want to ask you, who’s going to pay for us to do that? Is someone going to guarantee work and moving expenses? Is someone going to find us a new place to live–far, I might add, from family members who are getting older, and who need us, and who don’t want to move? The house we live in wouldn’t bring much. We’re fortunate in that my dad bought if for us as a wedding present, but we’ve had to mortgage it up to the eyeballs. And you know, poverty has affected our house, too. I think we’d have to put about $10,000 into it before we could sell it. Where’s that going to come from?

I’m winding down from the intense rage I felt at the beginning of this post, but I want to add one last thing: You know what they worst thing is about being poor? Besides the moralizing, judgmental people who think they know what your life is like, I mean. The worst thing is, you get to this state where it seems like all you’ve known and all you’ll ever know, so there’s no use in dreaming of anything different. I was noticing this just this morning: We used to say things like, “Maybe next year we’ll get a chance to go to Denver Comic Con,” or “I really want to go to the Ren Faire in Larkspur; maybe next summer.” But we don’t say those things anymore. Because we know it’s not going to change. There’s not going to be any Comic Con this year, or the next year, or the one after that, so why bother even thinking of it? And maybe you’ll say that’s part of our problem: that we don’t make plans and then stick to them, so we never get out. But I’ll answer you this: You can’t make plans and stick to them if you don’t have the wherewithal and you have no way to get it. No matter what plan you make, it has to be able to shift in the face of necessity. And necessity boils down to food and shelter, with warmth and light and water coming not far behind. When I see your self-righteous meme, I imagine you think we’re not keeping track of these things. The truth is, we juggle them every single day. It doesn’t stop the unexpected from happening: The blown tire that has to be replaced, or else husband can’t get to work; the sickness that makes it impossible to work; the family emergency; any other thing that a wealthy person like you has a cushion for and we don’t.

The truth is, giving poor people money does work. You just don’t want to believe it does, because it relieves you of responsibility to help. In my book, that makes you a taker every bit as much as you think I am. So I guess we’re even.

 

A Twisted Relationship Part III: Discipline

My dad was a big man who suffered from various kinds of chronic pain most of his life. When he was a teen, he was bedridden almost a year with some genetic disorder that appears from time to time in adolescent males. I don’t know how to spell it, so I haven’t been able to look it up. Otto Shleggerer’s Disease? Auto-Schlegerer Disease? That’s phonetic, but neither have turned up any Google results, so I remain in the dark. He had bad knees, and arthritis, and from what I know now I suspect he also had sciatica. At least, he had some kind of pinched nerve in his back that caused incredible pain. He complained a lot about his “damned left leg.” I may have inherited a little of this. I have a weird numb place in my left leg that seems attributable to a pinched nerve. So far, it hasn’t caused me pain, thank the gods.

Anyway. Every time he consulted a doctor, the doctor told him to lose weight, because if he weren’t so big he wouldn’t be in pain. So my dad would go on one diet or another. Sometimes he lost a few pounds. Inevitably, he’d give up. I’d come upon him in the kitchen at odd hours, “evening off” the pan of brownies or picking at the leftover Thanksgiving turkey. And because I didn’t know what I know now, I despised him for what I saw as a lack of mental discipline. I thought, “Geez, dad, the doctor told you what to do if you don’t want to be in pain; why don’t you just buckle down and do it?” And I hated it all the more when he complained about his physical ailments, because I thought suffering them or not was under his control.

Now, as I struggle with my own metabolic problems, which sometimes cause me to feel like I’m starving to death an hour after eating a full meal, I wonder if he was just hungry.

I vowed not to be like my dad. When I wanted to lose weight, I’d do it, come hell or high water. Never mind physical discomfort, or lack of interest in exercise, or anything else standing in my way. I’d put my will to it, and I’d do it. I wouldn’t give anyone an excuse to despise my lack of discipline. I wouldn’t claim to want a thing and do the opposite of everything necessary to achieving it.

Unfortunately, this attitude, combined with certain other factors, led directly to my becoming anorexic. When losing weight didn’t lead to, for example, a reduction in the amount of bullying I suffered or being able to attract a boyfriend, I decided I wasn’t disciplined enough and hadn’t lost enough weight. So I restricted my food intake and increased my exercise level more and more. And before long, I reached a point where I literally wasn’t in control, though not in the way I feared. I knew my obsessions were killing me (probably long before anyone else did), and I could not stop. When I became bulimic, I couldn’t stop that, either. I kept telling myself, “Just put your mind to it!” But my mind had no influence. Eating disorders are funny like that; I expect all compulsions are. I experienced something similar when I engaged in self harm through cutting. There’s a period before an episode when you’re trying to resist. But the longer you resist, the more anxious you become and the stronger the compulsion gets. It builds to a point where you can’t think of anything else; you just want to get it over with so you can go back to some semblance of normality. So you give in, eat the bag of cookies or vomit or whatever, and then there’s this kind of relief, almost like you’ve had an orgasm. Until the compulsion hits again.

As I wrote that, it struck me how similar this sounds to the classic cycle of violence: A period of tension-building, followed by a violent episode, followed by relaxation of tension and remorse. I think they’re the same, only in relationship violence the compulsion is focused on the other partner and in eating disorders you’re driven to be violent toward yourself. I wonder if anyone else has thought of it this way, and if not looking at it this way is a reason perpetrators of domestic violence have such a high rate of recidivism.

Given my history, I have a complicated relationship with the concept of discipline, which often translates in my head to “forcing yourself to do something you really don’t want to do because ‘not wanting to’ isn’t a valid excuse.” Some of this my mother instilled in me. Inevitably when I expressed a lack of interest in doing one thing or another, she responded with, “Well, you could if you wanted to.” Which is problematic in and of itself; it dismisses lack of desire as a reason not to participate in an activity and at the same time implies that lacking interest is itself a flaw, while also promoting the completely irrational idea that the only obstacle to accomplishing anything at all is not wanting to badly enough. By that reasoning, people living in poverty have no excuse because surely if they really wanted to they could be rich, and making accommodations for the disabled is wrong-headed because if they really wanted to they’d succeed on the terms of the able-bodied.

A lot of cultures seem to place an inordinate value on the ideas of discipline and self-control. We admire asceticism. In a benign form, discipline counsels moderation; “Nothing in Excess” (Greek, μηδὲν ἄγαν) was inscribed over Apollo’s temple at Delphi, and the advice was repeated by philosophers like Socrates and Plato. Personally, I think a little excess at times is healthy, but for the most part (and leaving aside questions of “who gets to define excess?”) I don’t have a problem with the idea. However, taken to extremes, discipline can be harmful, as well as easily exploited. We’ve all heard stories of abused children whose parents claim they were “just trying to instill discipline.” Some religious sects encourage mortification of the flesh, even to self-flagellation (and in groups where this is the norm, the tool for administering blows is often known as “the discipline.”)

Speaking as a Pagan, I do see some of the reason behind these practices. On a purely practical level, if you mean to embark on a long period of meditation, a vision quest, or other observance, it’s good to be able to ignore hunger and other bodily discomforts. Another truth is, asceticism promotes an out of the ordinary state of consciousness, wherein one can better access wisdom and information not apparent from or on the physical plane. Self-inflicted (or other-inflicted) pain can act as a catalyst to a shamanic experience. Pagans often share food after a Circle not only to be social, but to aid in returning from magical consciousness. Eating and drinking is one of the best ways to ground and recenter.

The problem lies not in the practice itself, but in the fact that discipline is seen as morally superior to the lack of it. I could write an entire different essay on why this came to be the case. It would include things like religions and philosophies of transcendence, which favor the upper classes, superseding religions of immanence, which tend to spread power more evenly, and the way religions of transcendence privilege things of the spirit over those of the flesh as a way to reinforce oppressive systems. But, as I said, that’s another post. *winks* The result is that the ability to endure unpleasantness has become a good in and of itself, rather than a temporary means to a particular end.

So what does this have to do with my eating disorder, my relationship to my body, and fat phobia in general? Short answer particular to me: It makes it really easy for me to beat myself up and get stuck in a loop of bad thoughts. Although I have, at various points in my life, been highly capable of doing things I find personally unpleasant to achieve an end, I still see myself as lacking in discipline, especially as regards my body. It goes back to the prevalent mythology that some body sizes are bad, even harmful, and altering the shape of one’s body into one better and less harmful is a matter of simple math, calories in vs. calories out. This is a view that people cling to despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Even medical professionals, who should know that multiple factors affect body size, promote it. When combined with the idea that self-control is morally superior to lack thereof, it perpetuates stigma. After all, people think, much as I thought of my father, if you know the equation, what stands in the way of working it? Nothing but your determination and will. And the idea that those of us who don’t fall into a narrow definition of physical acceptability–and worse, don’t or won’t work to get there–are in total control of factors like how our metabolisms process food and how much activity our bodies require to effect change excuses all kinds of stigma, from public fat shaming to financial penalty.

In our culture, fat symbolizes laziness and excess. Any student of history should know this was not always the case; fat once signified prosperity and the ability to withstand periods of famine. In a country where most people have enough to eat and a significant portion of wealth is inherited, prosperity is tied less to hard work and more to the concept of leisure (much in the same way middle class people like to have lawns surrounding their houses, because a large area of uncultivated ground shows you don’t have to grow your own food). For those to whom it doesn’t come naturally, maintaining a small body size implies you have both the time and resource to devote to it: Joining a gym, hiring a personal trainer, shopping for and preparing the appropriate food or having it delivered. Where celebrities, whose jobs may depend on their looks and who are actually paid to maintain an image, are the equivalent of royalty, it’s easy to dismiss the difficulties of the poor, the overworked, those living in food deserts, and those who simply aren’t interested in spending every moment of spare time in an effort to make their bodies comply with and idealized concept of health and normality. Far easier to condemn them for lack of discipline than challenge the prevailing wisdom.

I suffer a good deal of guilt over my lack of discipline. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I wish my body were different. I wish I didn’t get hungry as much as I do, or that someone could at least explain to me why this is the case. I wish it didn’t seem to take me three times the physical activity to achieve half the results others seem to. I wish my lower arms didn’t flap in the breeze and my belly weren’t so large and my back didn’t have obvious rolls. And, of course, I always have that little voice in the back of my head asking, “If you really care about those things, why don’t you get up off your fat ass and do something about it?” It’s a question I have a hard time answering, but I think a lot of it has to do with the role of discipline as a measure of worth.

When my friend offered me a free gym membership, I thought a long time before taking her up on it. I decided, from a completely rational place (or so I thought at the time), that I could try it without attaching some weird agenda to it. I thought, “Twice a week is okay. I can do that. It isn’t unreasonable.” I set goals unrelated to weight and body size; the first was, “I want to be able to walk to the gym, do a circuit, and walk home without wanting to die.” I kept the commitment for two or three weeks, and then I got sick, and I got triggered. I started telling myself, “There, that’s over, and you don’t have to do it again for three days.” Which begged the question, “If I have to console myself with the idea of not going to the gym, why am I going to the gym at all?” I didn’t have an answer. I slept badly one night before a scheduled gym session, and decided to postpone it, just one day. I castigated myself for weakness, and lack of dedication. I fell into a spiral of guilt and justification: “You know sometimes you have to do things you find unpleasant to achieve goals,” to “But I really don’t fell well! Besides, I don’t get any immediate reward for doing it, and I have no guarantee it’ll change anything.” to “Well, then, stop complaining about your body because you obviously aren’t willing to do the work.” Over and over. It’s a cycle I’m all too familiar with from my anorexic days, and I don’t want any part of it now.

On social media, a day doesn’t go by when I don’t see one friend or another engaged in this same kind of self torture. “OMG, look how gross my body has become, I can’t believe I’m in such bad shape, I need to stop being lazy and get back to…” The treadmill, the gym, the Zumba class. Whatever. And I have no problem with a true desire to get into better physical condition (although the definition of this eludes me; it seems ever-changing). I don’t have a problem with people who really like to exercise, who’ve been ill and unable, or gotten out of their routine for one reason or another. Some people find it uplifting. For some people, the daily walk is their favorite personal time. I am not one of those people; if I ever was, I can’t remember it. My relationship with exercise is too loaded, with gym class bullying, with the toxicity of my eating disorder, with the politics of the dance world. I don’t like that all forms of movement are overwhelmingly emotionally painful, but there it is.

I just wish people would stop with the self hate in the name of discipline. Shaming yourself into doing something never is good, no matter what the result. But as long as society promotes self-discipline as a moral imperative, I fear that wish will go ungranted.

Part One Here

Part Two Here

 

 

Worst Episode of TV Ever

CW: Fat Shaming, Mental Health Stigma, Spoilers for Season 2 of LOST (if anyone still cares).

I dreamed all last night of people ridiculing me for being fat. What triggered it? I don’t have to look far.

A little while ago, my husband and I, late to the pop culture party as usual, started watching LOST on Netflix. I’d heard the buzz when it aired in the days before Internet streaming, but I’d never had much interest in it. Then I heard Michael Emerson plays a leading role, and since he’s on my short list of actors I would gladly watch read the phone book, I suggested we give it a try.

For the most part, I haven’t been disappointed. The characters are varied and engaging even when somewhat hateful, and the writers apply the Mystery Island trope to good effect. I know going in that some of the mysteries will never be solved and that’s okay with me. Some of the performances are outstanding. Some not so much, but that’s the way it goes.

One of the main characters is Hugo “Hurley” Reyes, played by Jorge Garcia. Hurley has the dubious distinction of being the only fat person among the plane crash survivors. Another, Rose, might be considered fat, but she’s only kind of fat. She’s also a woman in her 50s, and she’s Black, all of which, right or wrong, diminish the impact of her body size on the story line. Hurley is young, and he’s superfat. So I’ve paid particular attention to his treatment.

At first, the writers seemed to avoid falling into the usual traps of portraying a Fat Person. He’s not the funny fat person or the butt of physical humor regarding his size. He’s not unusually clumsy. In fact, the rest of the survivors treat him with respect, except for one character who’s a nasty piece of work anyway and never passes up an opportunity to call him “Jabba” or “Michelin” or any other size-oriented slur that comes to mind. Hurley’s an organizer, often put in positions of trust. He calls out assumptions that he must be hoarding food because he’s the fat guy. Parts of his back story show the discrimination fat people face, like being forced to buy two seats on a plane even though he occupies only one. I remember remarking to my husband that I appreciated the portrayal.

And then.

It started in little ways, in the back story. We see Hurley watching TV and eating fried chicken out of the bucket. Hmm, well maybe that’s not so bad. Eating fried chicken out of the bucket isn’t a behavior peculiar to fat people. The fact that the writers chose to show the fat person doing it was certainly problematic, but it’s not the point of the episode, so let it go. Later, Hurley is reprimanded at work, a fast food fried chicken place, for eating out of the hot counter. Kind of mindlessly, you know, like you eat chips when you’re reading. Except fried chicken. That same episode opens with a dream sequence of Hurley in the pantry of the newly discovered Hatch, where he crams fistfuls of cereal into his mouth, drinks ranch dressing directly from the jar, eats candy bar after candy bar. And here I’m getting really, really uncomfortable. It’s getting harder to let go. I can tell myself EVERYONE has been living on fruit and fish and what they can scrounge for over a month at this point and ANYONE might fantasize such indulgence, but why did they have to make it the fat guy? Why make that choice? It comes clear not much later, when we learn that Hurley is, in fact, hoarding food. That he hides in the jungle to eat chips and ranch where no one can see. That every assumption people make about fat people is confirmed by his behavior around food.

Bad going, writers. And it gets worse. So much worse.

We learn early on in the series that Hurley spent time in a psychiatric hospital. I was curious as to why, all the while praying it would have nothing at all to do with his size or his relationship to food. Well, those prayers were offered in vain. In episode 18 of season 2, we learn what sent Hurley to the psych ward. “Dave” is about the most offensive 45 minutes of TV I’ve ever watched, in so many respects. It combines every single myth about being fat with mental health stigma in ways that left me screaming “FUCK YOU!” at the screen. And all of it is geared to turning Hurley from a fat man unapologetic about his size to one who is properly ashamed.

I don’t even know where to begin with this. The episode opens with chipper Libby running down the beach, Hurley panting in her wake. They stop. Red-faced, Hurley hangs his head and says “maybe I could stand to drop a few pounds.” Libby lauds him for trying and assures him “these things take time! You didn’t gain the weight overnight; you won’t lose it overnight, either.” Later, when he reveals his food stash to her and describes his relationship to food as a burden and a sickness, she says, “If you want to change, change.” I wanted to punch her in the nose.

Hurley, however, takes her words to heart. He destroys his food stash in an ecstasy of tearing open packages and dumping jars, shots redolent of “Fat person finds liberation from the chains of eating.” Unfortunately, he finishes just in time for the rest of the survivors to discover a mysterious supply drop. Oh no! More cereal to challenge Hurley’s insufficient willpower. As he stares with dismay at the palette of boxes and jars, he catches a glimpse of someone unexpected: An old friend from the psych ward. And that’s when things get really awful.

Flash back to Hurley in the psych ward, talking to his doctor. The doctor asks how the diet is going. Ugh. Right off we get the message: Hurley’s in a mental hospital because he’s fat. They don’t need to say it in words. The implications are clear. Hurley says he had chicken breast and salad for lunch: Look, I’m trying to be a good fat person! Some more chat, and then the doctor says: “You’ve been here two months, Hugo, and you haven’t made much progress!”

Let me pause to convulse laughing. The writers have just shown they did NO RESEARCH WHATSOEVER into inpatient psychiatric treatment. My very first thought upon hearing this line was, “Wow, Hurley’s mom must have really good insurance!” The facility depicted is a rambling Hacienda-style building with lots of open space, private rooms, and wide windows in the shrink’s office. That is, it resembles a high-class rehab facility, NOT your typical inpatient situation. I’ve been in a number of psychiatric hospitals. They’re usually cramped and feature shared rooms and shabby furniture. Psychiatrists don’t conduct therapy or interact with the patients much beyond prescribing medication. They don’t generally have spacious on-site offices. They meet with patients wherever–in the common room, in an activities closet. Nurses and techs do the day-to-day stuff. Staying two months without making progress is unheard-of. Even when I was a teen, most people’s insurance kicked them out after 30 days. I think we’re supposed to believe Hurley’s in his late twenties, so it’s a stretch to assume his mom’s insurance even covers him. And I doubt the fast food place where he works offers a great mental health package. The last time I was inpatient, charges ran to $10,000 A DAY. Who’s paying for this?

Moving on. There’s some more talk between Hurley and his shrink. The eponymous “Dave” is mentioned. The shrink implies Dave doesn’t want Hurley to change. In the next scene, we find out what this means. Hurley goes to the facility’s basketball court (more laughing), where a game in in progress. All the players are wearing pyjamas and bathrobes. Not only is this just plain in accurate–most places insist on patients wearing street clothes as a way of maintaining “normalcy”–but the bathrobes have dangling belts. REALLY? You don’t get that in a mental health facility those would be verboten? ANYTHING a person might use for self harm or suicide attempts is strictly regulated. We weren’t even allowed to have shoelaces. Belts are right out. Way to show you have no idea what you’re talking about.

Anyway. Dave’s at the basketball game. He’s loud, abrasive, and nasty. He calls people names. But for some reason he and Hurley are friends. Dave demonstrates this by talking Hurley into eating tacos. Oh, I see. In Hurley’s case, “change” is defined by “staying on his diet” and Dave’s not wanting him to change is equal to talking him out of this “healthy choice.” The same thing replays later, when Dave encourages Hurley to steal someone else’s graham crackers instead of sticking to his afternoon snack of celery. He also talks Hurley out of taking his meds. Hurley, by the way, is being given clonazepam, brand name Klonopin, which is an anti-anxiety medication. There are problems with this that I’ll get to in a minute. Meanwhile, the shrink appears with a camera and tells the guys he needs a photo of them for the bulletin board.

This is where my husband turned to me and said, “Dave’s not real.” Oh, fuck. Of course he’s not. He’s…what? The personification of Hurley’s relationship to food? The voices in his head that hold Hurley back from achieving what he otherwise might, i.e., becoming not fat? It makes some sense of the fact that Hurley would be hanging out with this absolute douche nozzle, but speaks volumes about what the writers actually think about Hurley’s size. In any case, Dave is an hallucination, and if that’s so CLONAZEPAM IS NOT THE RIGHT MEDICATION. Hurley’s doctor should know this. He should be treating Hurley for a mental illness, not for being fat. But fat, apparently, is all the doctor can see.

In the present. Hurley goes to Sawyer, the con-man-cum-pack-rat, to see if he has any clonazepam in his “stash.” Sawyer responds with a typical jab at Hurley’s size. Hurley loses it and proceeds to beat Sawyer to a pulp while screaming, “Jabba! Michelin! Stay-Puff!”. My husband and I cheered, but when the two are separated and people ask what happened, Sawyer only says, “He just went crazy!” I don’t expect Sawyer to own up to his insults, but I would have liked SOMEONE to tell him, “Well, you had it coming, asshole.” Of course, we don’t get that because crazy fat guy is just crazy. I mean, if he didn’t want people to call him names, he should just lose weight, amirite?

In the last flashback, we learn how Hurley ended up in the hospital. He stepped onto a crowded deck, which collapsed under his weight, and a person died. Guilt and trauma caused him to suffer a catatonic episode, during which, his doctor points out, “You stopped speaking. You stopped sleeping. But you never stopped eating, because eating is how you punish yourself.”

Repeated screams of “FUCK YOU, YOU SMUG ASSHOLE!”

The shrink shows Hurley the picture he took, proving Dave isn’t real. Dave shows up one last time, to convince Hurley to escape. There’s a shitload more wrong with this scene, including the common room window being secured with a padlock for which Hurley has conveniently been able to steal the key and the locked grate not being wired to an alarm. Of course, along the way, Dave encourages Hurley to pick up whatever food happens to be lying around, and the whole escape attempt seems to be motivated by a desire for cheeseburgers. Dave goes out the window, but Hurley, with his new, magical knowledge that Dave is an hallucination, refuses.

On the Island, in the present, Hurley tracks down Dave, who asks him what happened after he didn’t go out the window. Hurley replies that he “got better;” after a couple weeks he was released, he got his old job back, he won the lottery. Dave replies, “Yeah, right,” and tells Hurley none of that ever happened, that he is, in fact, still back in the hospital, catatonic, and ALL of this is another hallucination. This was the most realistic part of the episode to me. In my worst times, I have similar thoughts. Maybe I never left the hospital. Maybe I’m in a padded cell back in Michigan. Maybe I never went to college, got married. When those thoughts hit, I breathe and think, “If I were hallucinating, I think I would hallucinate a better life than constant poverty and wretchedness.” Hurley, however, lets Dave lead him to the edge of a cliff where, Dave assures him, all he needs to do to “wake up” is throw himself off. Just in time, Libby appears! She asks Hurley why he thinks the Island isn’t real, and he tearfully admits that “In real life, a girl like you would never like a [fat] guy like me.” She kisses him! Yay! She really likes him! And Hurley immediately goes on a diet to be worthy of her (we see this in subsequent episodes). Can I please barf now?

As I said above, this episode disgusted me. It was repulsive on every level imaginable. How difficult can it be to give the fat guy a back story that doesn’t involve him literally being in a mental hospital because of his size? Apparently too hard for the writers of this series. And it angers me on a personal level, as a person with a history of eating disorders and a troubled relationship with size and food. Perpetuating these myths and stereotypes does a huge disservice to all kinds of people. When food and eating is involved, often that is ALL mental health providers can see and that’s what they treat. The treatment for anorexia? Eat more. The treatment for Bulimia? Just stop. For Binge Eating Disorder? The same. “If you want to change, change!” Looking at the surface as it is colored by societal expectations and assumptions about food prevents providers from finding the source of issues, and even causes them to dismiss issues as irrelevant. Hurley had a fucking psychotic episode! Losing weight isn’t the indicated treatment. It never is and it never will be.

With all the problems in this episode, probably the worst thing about it is that it’s meant to evoke sympathy. All the back stories are.  They’re a line on the characters’ experiences and the situations that brought them to this place and time. We see Jack’s troubled relationship with his father and the breakdown of his marriage; Locke’s inability to let go of his own desire for a father figure, which has numerous tragic consequences; Kate’s run from the law; Mr. Eko’s past as a crime lord. We even feel some sympathy for Sawyer, for fuck’s sake! But Hurley? The great tragedy in his life is BEING FAT. He’s worth $156 MILLION and no one believes him because HE’S FAT. He doesn’t feel worthy of love because HE’S FAT. There are a zillion ways the writers could have chosen to tell his story that had nothing to do with his size, but they opted for the usual. I can almost see them sitting around in the planning stages saying, “Hey, we gotta cast one really FAT guy so we can show how terrible it is for him to be FAT!” I sure hope Jorge Garcia got a lot of money for this role. And the bitch of it is, most viewers will buy it. They won’t question why we aren’t seeing Hurley losing the love of his life or playing in a rock band or working in a high tech industry, because fat is all they can see. Just like the doctor portrayed in this episode.

If you’re new to LOST and thinking about watching, give this episode a miss. There’s no redeeming quality to it and it doesn’t tell you anything new. If you’re a writer, for the sake of all the gods, DON’T DO THIS. Don’t succumb to stereotypes and do your fucking research if you’re depicting things outside your personal experience.

That’s all.

 

Rewarded for Being Sick

TW: Eating Disorders, Diet, Exercise, Body Dysphoria

Over the summer my mom, who is 91, moved from her house to an assisted living facility. Since then, my siblings have undertaken the monumental task of emptying the house of nearly a century of accumulated STUFF and making the property ready for sale (I have neither the financial nor the emotional resources to make multiple trips back to Michigan to participate in this struggle. Mea culpa).

A couple weeks ago, I received a couple boxes of things I had requested from my mom’s house. These included every report card I’d ever earned since preschool, my baby album, and a huge assortment of pictures, one of them my framed senior portrait from high school. Cool: it’s good to have a visual record of my existence and, as a friend pointed out, I will never lack for things to post on #throwbackthursday. Since it was, in fact, Thursday the day I received the boxes, I scanned several of the pictures and uploaded them to Instagram. My senior portrait was one. I wasn’t prepared for the way people responded, nor was I prepared to confront my reaction to their response.

high school 1

“Beautiful!” “Flawless!” “Gorgeous!” “I can’t believe anyone ever called you ugly!” That’s a sample of the comments people posted on the photo thread. An overwhelmingly positive response, yet my reaction was not so positive, and nowhere near straightforward. I remember, you see, going in to have that picture taken. What I remember best isn’t the stale air in the science wing of my high school or the way the photographer hit on me. What I remember best is how sick I was. I had mono at the time. I must have contracted it in the psych ward where I’d spent a couple months not having my depression treated the previous summer. I guess it was a pretty bad case, because I was out of school most of the first term.

But mono wasn’t the only thing I brought home from the psych ward. I brought home a severe eating disorder. At the time of my senior portrait, it had a firm grip on me, though it had yet to progress to the point it did later. At the time of my senior portrait, I weighed in at 105 lbs, less than half my current weight, with almost 40 lbs yet to lose before I hit my lowest point. So when people remark on my beauty in this photo, it’s hard for me to take the compliment. It reminds me of the isolation of that year, and the silence surrounding my mental state and continuing weight loss. And it reminds me, too, of how oppressive Western beauty standards are to young people who will go to great lengths to fit within their narrow confines. It reminds me of how women are taught, almost from birth, that our value lies in what we look like above every other accomplishment, to the point where girls are praised for being sick with an enthusiasm that no one ever shows to healthier pursuits.

Maybe I look gorgeous and flawless in this photo. I don’t know. What I do know is what I hear when people respond to the photo with those, and similar, words. I hear: “You were beautiful when you were sick, so your sickness doesn’t really matter.”

I haven’t talked a lot about my eating disorder in this blog. It was a long time ago–almost thirty years. If you’re interested, I’ve mentioned it here, and here, and here. In the last weeks, however, I’ve come to realize how much the relationships to food and exercise–especially exercise–I developed when my ED was at its peak still impact me.  Anorexia Nervosa and Bulimia Nervosa (I’m fond of the portmanteau, “Bulimorexia,”) hit mainstream consciousness in the late 70s and early 80s, but understanding of the disorder was hit or miss, and treatment methods focused on symptomology rather than underlying causes. For all I know, they still might. EDs are incredibly difficult to treat and people who suffer them are notoriously prone to relapse. In my experience, mental health professions infantilize those with EDs to a keener degree than those with any other disorder. To make matters worse, EDs and the people who suffer them are all too often the butt of cruel jokes in popular culture. When prominent figures–mostly women, but also men–lose “too much” weight, no one offers them concern or sympathy. Instead, they’re made the unwilling objects of scandal porn, with their pictures plastered on the fronts of news magazines alongside articles in which random, uninformed individuals speculate about their diets. Or newscasters and comedians wisecrack about vomiting and laxative abuse (people made those jokes in my time, too, though usually among their own peer groups and behind closed doors).

All of it reinforces the shame people with EDs feel about their bodies and the rituals we engage in to maintain control. I can’t speak for others, but for me shame was the overriding experiential quality of my ED. I felt ashamed of my body, of my very existence, to begin with. I felt ashamed when I ate and ashamed when I exercised. Later, I felt ashamed when I binged and more ashamed when I puked. NEWS FLASH: People with eating disorders don’t need the media to tell us we’re disgusting and wrong. We don’t need the media to point out how vile it is to eat a full meal knowing full well you’re going to puke it up later, or how deranged it is to disconnect from every human endeavor but obsessive exercise even when we have trouble walking up a flight of stairs. WE KNOW IT. WE ALWAYS KNEW IT. And if we had the power to stop, if the idea of not being in control weren’t so terrifying, we’d stop. The unfortunate fact is that the feeling of control is imaginary. The disorder pulls our strings, and it keeps pulling until someone intervenes or we die.

I’m fairly sure (today I am, not guaranteeing tomorrow) that eating disorders aren’t, at their roots, about eating at all. I think they’re about this deep sense of shame, of not measuring up or fitting in, and a need to alleviate the shame by forcing oneself to conform and controlling what one can as much as one can. In the case of young people–and people with EDs are getting younger all the time–one’s own food consumption is often the only thing in life one can control. I think this need manifests in EDs because Western culture is so fatphobic. (Disclaimer: I have no idea of the incidence of EDs in non-fatphobic cultures, if any exist. So I may be full of shit.) When I got bullied for being fat, I knew deep down that fat was the worst thing a person could be. I knew it because my sisters were constantly dieting, and because of the way my father sneaked slices off the roast or “evened off” the brownies when no one was looking, and because the very first thing my pediatrician always brought up at my annual exams was my “pudginess.”

With my brother, somewhere in Europe, 1970
With my brother, somewhere in Europe, 1970

When the girls at my school teased me for being fat, when the boys called me an ugly cow, I’m not sure they even meant the words in a literal way. Even at the time, I could see very well that lots of girls in the popular crowd were bigger than I was–including many who tormented me. I think what they meant was, I was OTHER. I didn’t fit into the homogeneous norm. I didn’t wear the right shoes with my school uniform, or shop at the right places, or have the right haircut. (I’ve recently learned that Grosse Pointe, the Detroit suburb where my exclusive prep school was located, had a real estate point system designed to evaluate prospective homeowners and exclude “undesirable minorities:” Jews, People of Color, and so on. This explains a whole lot.) Since they didn’t know how to express the level of threat presented by an OTHER who was obviously of the same race, they fell back on the worst things they knew:  Fat. Ugly.

Sometimes I wonder how the deep sense of shame and not ever being “right,” combined with the brain chemistry that leads to eating disorders, would present in a less fatphobic culture. It’s a mind game, because we can’t know in the culture we have. Despite the movement toward body positivity, or maybe because of it (backlash is real), Western culture is more fatphobic than ever. “Obesity”–in quotes because the very term implies that there is a single correct weight and a single right way to have a body–is considered a disease in its own right now. People hand out fat shaming cards to random strangers on public transportation. An Australian foundation is offering a fellowship to an author who wants to “join the fight against obesity.” Primary schools send remarks on kids’ weights along with their report cards. Insurance companies deny coverage to people who don’t participate in company-sponsored “wellness programs.” Everyone is obsessed with “fitness”–in quotes because fitness for what? Fitness to be considered human? I can’t even buy a box of cereal without finding a message that some foods are objectively good and some are bad, and only “willpower” will save me from succumbing to temptation.

20151214_122450

Don’t tell me about “willpower.” I stopped engaging in the behaviors of disordered eating through force of will, because the treatment I received barely merited the name. I cannot express how damaging these attitudes are to those of us susceptible to developing eating disorders. The message that “you’ll be more acceptable thinner” gives false hope that losing 10, or 20, or 30 pounds will finally assuage the inner sense of inadequacy. And when it doesn’t, the obvious deduction is “I haven’t lost enough weight yet; I’d better lose more.” Eat less, boost exercise, take laxatives, induce vomiting. Whatever. No one really cares as long as you stay within sightly and attractive parameters. In fact, they’ll tell you how great you look. Until you don’t.

Though I managed to disengage from obsessive patterns and disordered behaviors thirty years ago, I still have most of the attitudes. Issues of weight and body image trigger me. Getting weighed at the doctor’s office causes an immediate anxiety attack. Examining my food choices, even considering altering my diet, gives me heart palpitations. The very word exercise is so fraught for me that having it show up in my social media makes me want to hide from it. Being hungry triggers me, and I am hungry almost constantly. Even well-meaning suggestions that have nothing to do with diet per se, writing advice like “trim the fat from your manuscript,” send me into a rage.

One of my doctors all those years ago told me, when I expressed my fear of getting fat, “People like you don’t ever get fat so you don’t need to worry about that.” But since no one ever helped me deal the underlying causes of my ED and the only way I could survive them was by boxing them up and sealing them away from my everyday reality, I DID get fat. I’m fat, and I’m sedentary, and I don’t like it (always affirming that being fat and sedentary are not bad in and of themselves, but this doesn’t feel good to me). But the attitudes inherent in EDs make electing to pursue what others might consider a positive change all but impossible. Exercise and conscious food choices are not positive. They’re a punishment. A reminder that I am worthless. And when I do make an attempt to modify my body, there’s always a chance that I’ll fall into the old patterns, that I’ll go too far. That when I can’t reach my goal within a healthy system, I’ll modify the system, again and again, until there’s nothing healthy about it. And because I’m fat now, fatter than I’ve ever been, people will admire me for my progress and determination. The same way people admire that senior portrait.

Now that I’m in therapy again, and for the first time I’ve pursued therapy because I want my life to improve rather than because I’ll die if I don’t, I’d like to address these issues. To find a way to have a healthy relationship with food and exercise. I’d like to be able to say I don’t attach any weight loss agenda to those things, but it wouldn’t be true. When I hear the words “healthy relationship to food and exercise,” my mind immediately adds, “and if I can do that, maybe I’ll be able to lose weight.” I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to let that part of it go, no matter how many articles about body positivity I read.

I do know that interacting on a daily basis with the culture of fatphobia is physically and emotionally painful. I hope before I die, body positivity will become the norm and fat shaming will be seen for what it is: An oppressive attitude that threatens lives as much as any other axis of oppression. An attitude that causes even well meaning people to reward people for being sick.

 

 

The Problem with Critique of “Ableist” Language

Trigger Warning: Bound to make some people mad.

I follow a page on Facebook, Chronic Illness Cat. It’s essentially an on line support group for people with chronic illnesses, mainly physical ones like Fibromyalgia and other auto-immune disorders, but I find their content relevant to mental health issues as well. People can post questions about medications and talk about their struggles, and there’s always someone who can say, “You’re not alone.” In my opinion, this is one of the main reasons support groups exist: to validate people’s experience.

One of the most popular features of Chronic Illness Cat is member-created memes. These feature the eponymous Siamese cat along with pithy, usually humorous, comments about living with a chronic illness. The humor is generally the dark, frustrated variety you use when you’re reaching to find some light in a miserable situation. It pokes fun at the illness and illustrates the common experience of people who are doing their best on a daily basis to cope with the hand they’ve been dealt. Critique of well-meaning healthy people, the medical establishment, and the illnesses themselves bear witness to the lives of those with chronic illnesses and provide an avenue for bonding and commiseration. It’s the kind of thing you can look at while shaking your head and laughing quietly: “Oh, gods, I know that one. Me, too. Doesn’t life suck sometimes?”

suffering meme
an example

Last week, one of these memes caused an ugly incident on the page, which involved accusations of promoting “ableist” language, insensitivity, “throwing the neurodivergent under the bus,” and the like. In fact, the moderator of the page, who herself copes with chronic illness, received death threats and suggestions that she should kill herself. All because one of the memes she posted contained the word “stupid.”

Leaving aside, for the moment, the fact that SENDING DEATH THREATS TO A PERSON IS NEVER AN ACCEPTABLE RESPONSE TO SOMETHING THAT UPSETS YOU, the incident pretty much exemplifies the problems I have with critiques of “ableist” language, and language policing in general, not to mention a tendency I’ve seen all over the Internet to take offense at every little thing and smear trigger warnings on shit that is pretty much part of life, and can you just please get a grip?

the meme in question
the meme in question

Look, I’m a writer. I understand the power of words and terminology. I understand that changing the way we use language is an integral part of changing the way we think. I understand that learning new language actually makes our brain able to access new concepts. I believe in language as a political tool that can be used both to oppress and to overcome oppression. I’ve even touched briefly on my irritation with people’s tendency to co-opt mental health terms to refer to everything from the weather to nail polish, here.

I’m also “disabled,” which is a word I personally hate, but it makes a convenient shortcut into a particular concept (and more about that later). I dislike feeling as if I have to offer credentials for my disability, but for the information of anyone who doesn’t know and who might be reading this blog, I have Bipolar Disorder, PTSD, Social Anxiety and other “mental illnesses,” as well as chronic migraines, all of which are severe enough that I managed to convince the United States Government that they actually do prevent me from running out and getting a job at the Stop and Save on the corner of the highway–no easy feat, let me assure you.

I know a thing or two about language, and I know a thing or two about disability, and I am confident that I can make a judgment in this area. And my judgment is that most people who complain about “ableist” language have no idea what they’re talking about. And when you get reactive without knowing what you’re talking about, you run the risk of undermining your entire point.

anxiety memeI’ve found discussions of “ableist” language irritating for some time now–perhaps ever since I first became aware of it as an issue. But I never could quite articulate why or how they irritated me. Plus, I am a strong proponent of the right of any marginalized group to define itself–i.e., if a disabled person says something is a problem, then we need to accept that it’s a problem, the same way we have to accept it if an Indigenous person says something non-Indigenous people do is a problem, whether we like it or not. However, there is a difference between misuse or oppressive use of language that is a problem to everyone in a marginalized group and that which is a specific trigger to an individual. This is where I see critique of “ableist” language falling down.

I try to keep an open mind and educate myself in all aspects of intersectionality, or at least as many as I am aware of and can keep track of. In the wake of the Chronic Illness Cat fracas, I stumbled across this article about “ableist” language, which I read in an attempt to make some sense of the entire thing. And what I found was, instead of shining a light on the issue, it  in many ways exemplified my personal problem with the whole subject. It starts out with some common disability metaphors: “The economy is crippled by debt;” “He’s blind to his privilege:” etc,. and points out that these metaphors are common in our language and culture and that they are “almost always pejorative.” Okay, right here I have a problem. I don’t think the word pejorative was used appropriately, in the first place. The definition of the word I could find that makes the most sense is “disparaging.” Myself, I don’t see either of those uses (or any in the other examples) as disparaging as much as pointing out an actual thing that is happening. For example, a person who is blind, for one reason or another, actually can’t see. Yet “seeing” can take many shapes aside from processing visual stimuli. Sure, there are lots of other ways you might say “blind to his privilege” that don’t use the word “blind.” You might say he “can’t perceive” it, or “can’t see” it, or any number of other things. And this begs the question: How would those be less “ableist?” How is”can’t see” better than “blind?” The answer is, it’s not. A person could just as easily object to one as the other. You could just as easily object to “can’t perceive,” or “is unaware” or anything else on down the line, because words don’t have just one meaning. Even a lot of words that have been used in bad ways. I’m sorry for the state of the language, but it’s simply the truth. Once you start eliminating the words you don’t like because they may have at once time been used to oppress, there is no clear stopping place.

One of the first things the article in question says is,  ableist words, “perpetuate negative and disempowering views of disabled people, and these views wind their ways into all of the things that most people feel are more important.” I have to say, “Well, yes and no.” Some do. Simply using the word, though–this is something I have to question. Going back to my first example, does “blind” say something negative about  people who can’t see, aside from giving the information that they can’t perceive and/or process visual information? I’d have to say no. The word itself implies no value judgment. If you want to argue that disability is, in itself, seen as negative, that’s something different. I’d have to take the stance that since we talk about DISability, that in itself implies that there’s something negative about it (which is one reason I dislike the term). So maybe let’s look at that, instead. But I’d bear in mind that many, if not all, people with disabilities would probably trade them for good health and able bodies, were it in their power to do so. To me, that says that we, the disabled, ourselves see disability in a negative light. And I believe this is something that needs to be addressed before you go around policing other people’s language.

At another point, the article has this to say:

“Think about it this way: Consider that you’re a woman walking down the street, and someone makes an unwanted commentary on your body. Suppose that the person looks at you in your favorite dress, with your hair all done up, and tells you that you are “as fat as a pig.”

Is your body public property to be commented upon at will? Are others allowed to make use of it — in their language, in your hearing, without your permission?

Or is that a form of objectification and disrespect?

In the same way that a stranger should not appropriate your body for his commentary, you should not appropriate my disabled body — which is, after all, mine and not yours — for your political writing or social commentary.”

Here’s my problem with this example: In the first instance, that of a stranger making an unwanted commentary on a woman’s body, the event is personal. Someone has addressed another person to their face and made a judgment: “You’re as fat as a pig.” But using words like “blind,” “crippled,” “paralyzed,” and what have you in the context of social commentary is not personal. The two incidents are not the same. And if it hits you on a personal level every time you see the word, whether or not it’s directed at you, that’s your problem, not that of society at large. That’s your trigger. You can look at why such and such a thing triggers you, you can make people aware of it; you can ask for accommodation. But it is not always possible to make triggers disappear–and, in my opinion, it shouldn’t be. I get triggered by graphic depictions, in word or film, of emotional abuse. When I come across them, I can skip a few pages, or cover my head with a blanket until the scene is over, or leave the room, or eat chocolate, or any number of other things. I don’t start a movement to  abolish depictions of emotional abuse from all forms of media, because not everyone has the same triggers. Some people may even find the things that trigger me to be of immense benefit. And when you try to demand that everyone just stop doing shit that triggers you, you both undermine the whole purpose of trigger warnings and give ample ammunition to a segment of society that believes the whole concept is a sign of weakness and laziness.

As far as the Chronic Illness Cat meme goes, I saw a few comments from people who don’t like the word “stupid,” because that particular word has been used to bully them. And that’s valid. People with learning disabilities, in particular, often are demeaned as “stupid” and “hopeless” (are we going to censor that word, too?), among other things. But, at the risk of repeating myself, personal triggers are not necessarily ableist language. I, myself, am triggered by the word “ugly.” For me, that word is incredibly loaded. I cannot conceive of demanding that we remove the word from common usage because it perpetuates a negative stereotype of those with non-normative appearance. No more can I imagine demanding we cease using the word “fat” because it’s been used to vilify people of size.

There are words that only have one meaning, and that meaning is meant to degrade. “Cunt,” “Nigger,” “Redskin,” “Moron,” “Retard,” “Chink,” “Spic,” and any number of other racist, sexist, homophobic and ableist slurs. By all means let’s challenge them where they appear. Let’s work to excise them from our vocabularies. But let’s make a distinction between language that really is hateful and harmful and stuff we just don’t like. Otherwise we make it harder for others to take us seriously, and we actively sabotage the very battles we’re trying to fight.

I’m fully expecting that some people will not take kindly to my point of view in this area, and I reserve my right to be proactive about my mental health. Comments are closed.

Where Did “All That” Money Go?

Right now, I am having a panic attack about money.

The experience is nothing new. I have a panic attack about money at least once a week–that is, whenever we don’t have any.

How does this happen? Payday was just last Friday, less than a week ago. And yet, we’re broke. In fact, we’re about $400 in the hole. More, much more, if I count the money we owe various places that I just ignore because there’s no way of paying it after meeting our immediate needs, and thinking about it sends me right over the edge.

I’m having a panic attack because in the culture in which we live, in the United States in particular, but perhaps elsewhere as well, cash on hand is equivalent to personal worth and personal success. As much as I repeat to myself that this reasoning is flawed and my inherent worth is not contingent upon worldly riches, there’s always the niggling voice at the back of my head telling me I have no right to complain because other people have it so much worse, that I have no right to live because I’m incapable of providing for my basic needs and those of my family. I’m not a Christian, but I was raised Presbyterian, and Presbyterian doctrine includes the Calvinist notion of predestination. No one talks about it much, but it’s always there, behind everything. You’re damned or saved at birth, nothing can change it, and worldly success or failure is a sign of which direction you’re headed. Success means God loves you. Failure means God hates you. The end. There’s nothing you can do to change it.

My husband is a high school English teacher in a charter program for kids at risk. I am on disability for mental health reasons (this alone, the fact that I have claimed disability for an illness no one can see, is problematic for me. It doesn’t matter that the United States government agrees that working at a regular job is impossible for me and would cause further damage to my health. I can’t help but feel that if only I tried harder, if only I got over myself, if only I stopped being so lazy, I could do the things that need doing). This is the story of where our money goes.

Michael and Kele’s Payday Adventure

Michael gets paid on the 22nd of the month. In August, this falls on a Friday–fortunate, because we inevitably have many errands to do on the one day of the month when we’re assured of having some cash in hand, completing all these errands involves travel, and we only have the one car (a ’97 Ford Escort, in case anyone cares). Also, Michael’s school is on a four-day schedule, so on Fridays he’s free to DO the errands we need to do. When payday falls during the working week, it’s a whole different set of complications actually getting access to the money.

In our household, I’m the one who looks after finances. I’m not crazy about the role, but I’m capable. We’ve tried working with a more equitable system, but Michael is really bad with money and organization and keeping track of dates, like dates when bills are due. So it’s just better if I handle all that. The downside for me is, I constantly have a running tally in my head of what’s in our bank account and what’s out, and what’s owed on what date, and what needs to go where. What can be put off for another month, what needs to be paid now, what utilities are about to get shut off, what’s the last possible moment I can wait before I have to take care of this, that, or the other thing. I did this even during the five years I was otherwise incapacitated with depression and spent every waking moment staring at the walls. It’s extremely stressful, especially when there simply isn’t enough money to go around. Which there never is. I don’t mind being responsible for our finances, not really. But when there isn’t anything to work with, it gets rough.

Anyway, this particular payday we have about $100 in the bank to start. That may sound like a good thing, except it’s not. The reason we have this money is that the cheque I sent to the phone company to keep our service from being turned off bounced; when it came through, we were $10 short. So the bank returned the cheque and charged us an additional $30 for the honour. I also had to spend about $100 on medications that weren’t covered by my disability insurance, but that cheque hasn’t gone through yet.

Sidebar: I hate insufficient funds fees. I suppose, if I’m charitable, I can believe that banks have some kind of cost when there isn’t enough money in an account to cover a cheque, but to me is seems like charging a person who hasn’t got any money MORE money is counter-intuitive and unnecessarily punitive. I saw a meme somewhere to the effect that banks make $30M a year from poor people by charging them fees for being poor.

Another sidebar: I could have let the phone company hang, I guess. We never use our land line. But if I hadn’t paid, we would have lost our Internet service, and the Internet is one of my main mental health lifelines.But poor people don’t deserve DSL connections. What in the world am I thinking by wasting that money?

So, we have a little money, which is good, because we have no gas in the car, and to deal with Michael’s paycheque, we have to drive 30 miles to Delta. We go up to the Stop & Save on the Corner and spend $10 on gas. Then we stop at the diner in Hotchkiss and get breakfast, because we had no food in the house and we’re starving, and we figure it’s okay to spring $25 for bacon and eggs. Because it’s payday.

All through breakfast, while we’re discussing our plan for the day, I hear my father’s voice in the back of my head: “Why do you think you deserve to sit down at a restaurant and be waited on when you keep having to ask hardworking people to bail you out of your financial troubles?” I try to tell him everyone needs treats from time to time and $25 isn’t going to make a difference to our finances one way or the other, but he’s very loud.

After breakfast, we drive up to Garnet Mesa to pick up Michael’s paycheque from the school office and then into Delta to cash it. The reason we have to do this: Michael doesn’t have a bank account. Michael doesn’t have a bank account because our previous bank charged off a credit card balance we ran up paying for my medication before I qualified for disability (at one time I was on medications costing in excess of $1200/month), and there’s some Federal regulation that you can’t open a bank account if you owe a bank money. Our new bank account is in my name only. But we can’t have Michael’s paycheque direct-deposited, or even have him sign it over to me for deposit, because the current bank is afraid if my name isn’t on the cheque Michael will one day make a fuss about “his” money ending up in “my” account. Despite the fact that we’ve been married twenty years.

Michael’s net pay this month is $1571.00. For anyone who still thinks teachers make loads of money, this is how it works. His salary is actually $19K a year, for ten months, four days a week, seven hours a day, trying to teach the most difficult students in Delta county the rudiments of the English language. A lot of the time, his teaching does not look like teaching. It looks like counseling, because the kids with which he works have problems ranging from poverty and homelessness to substance abuse. Their school is the one safe place in their lives and their teachers are the only trustworthy adults they know. Michael does not get any benefits. Contrary to popular belief, teachers do not get 2-3 months “paid vacation.” His yearly salary is spread out over twelve months, only ten of which he’s paid for. This month he got an additional $150 for a week of mandatory “training”–a euphemism for a bunch of meetings that had very little bearing on what his job actually does. At least they paid him for sitting through them.

We cash the cheque and walk up the block to the crafts store, where we spend $30 on beads and a book of knitting patterns. Then we walk around the block to our insurance agent’s office and pay them $71.00 to keep our car insurance up to date. After that, we run up to City Market and fill up the gas tank, a thing we only get to do on paydays. Because we earn “fuel points” for shopping at City Market, the tank of gas costs just over $30.

While we’re there, I notice that our car registration expired in April. Great. I’ve been waiting for the notice with the mail-in renew form since January, and we never got it. Okay, good thing I noticed. We can stop and take care of it at the County Annex in Hotchkiss on our way home.

We’re now at $1440, if anyone was keeping track. I definitely am.

Our next stop is the health food store on Rogers Mesa for vitamins, face cream, and a deodorant rock. I also get a pound of peaches and a couple cookies, because breakfast is wearing off. These five items cost $85.00. Again, I hear my father’s voice. My father was one of those people who would drive 30 miles to get a double coupon deal and fill the closet with boxes of crackers he got on sale. He says, “Why do you need to waste that money at a health food store when you could get vitamins and face cream at the normal grocery for twenty bucks?” Well, Dad, I’ll tell you: I’m allergic to every face cream the grocery store sells, and the more expensive vitamins work better. They’re a mediation for me, and medications don’t come cheap. I also don’t think spending $20 every six months on a nice face cream is out of line. I value my skin. But maybe people in my financial position don’t have any right to vanity, either.

The bank envelope now holds $1355.

Next stop, the County Annex to renew our car registration. This is where we find out that 1. The County isn’t responsible for sending out the renewal notices. The State does that, and sometimes they forget, and they’re phasing our renewal notices anyway, so we’re just going to have to keep track and 2. There’s a $25 fee for every month you’re late on renewing your car registration. So, instead of the $75 we’d have paid if I’d done this on time, we have to spend $150 to bring our car into compliance with the law. I don’t like it, but it has to be done.

Our bank envelope now contains $1205, and I’m beginning to get short of breath.

We stop at the Credit Union and deposit $1000. If you’ll remember the beginning of this adventure, $300 of that is already spent on the phone bill and on medications. Another $550 goes to pay our mortgage. When we make the deposit, I find out that the phone company cheque came through a second time before we got the money into my account and bounced again to the tune of another $30. Shit. I was praying that wouldn’t happen. I’ll have to make an Internet payment when we get home.

If you’re keeping track, which I am, we now have $205 in cash out of the original $1571 and $150 available in the bank. Usually at this point we’d go grocery shopping, but I’m so freaked at the sudden depletion of our funds that I can’t cope, so we just head back to Paonia. We stop at the market to pick up something for dinner ($30) and at the Post Office for me to mail some packages ($10), leaving us with just over $150 in hand at the end of payday.

It’s not over. I have to spend $100 on books that I promised people as part of various promotions–giveaways, pre-orders for which I may or may not get paid, a copy for the firm that holds the license to a song a quoted. One for the Library. It’s another place I hear my father’s voice: “What gives you the right to waste time and money at this unprofitable hobby? Can’t you write in your spare time while you do something worthwhile? And how do you imagine you deserve to SPEND anything when you have no guarantee of making anything back?”

Well. At the end of payday, we’re about in the same place we were at the beginning. $50 in the bank, $150 in hand, which will have to go toward food, because we don’t have any. That’s where all the money went.

And my mind is full of the electric bill, and the water bill, both of which have to be paid immediately. Not to mention the $500-odd I owe the local clinic and the extra $500 that got tacked onto the bill for my surgery last January because reasons. The $200 outstanding to the company that provides the oxygen condenser I have to use at night. The $10,000 some collection agency is demanding within 10 days or else they’ll take me to court, again from credit cards we had when we weren’t quite as poor, which we ran up paying for my $1200+/month medication. Michael’s student loans, which I think started out at $10,000 but now have accrued interest up to about $20,000.

I get my disability payment on the 3rd of next month. It’s $384, and it’s already spoken for.

That’s where all the money goes.