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Strange Sparks From The Witch's Hut

Step It Up, Wimp!

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Step It Up, Wimp!

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This is my post for Blogging Against Disablism Day 2009.

Renee, of Womanist Musings, has a post called Walking Away: The Luxury Of An Ally. It's based on two posts by vriane, available here and here. Astute readers who know what the word ally means will instantly note a problem with using these two posts as the base for an article about the privilege of allies: the issue at hand is transphobia, and Vriane is a trans woman. She is, therefore, not an ally in this situation, despite her action, which Renee criticizes as coming from "extreme privilege".

Here's some of Renee's words about vriane:

Isn’t this lovely. S/he finds the stress of dealing with the real life issues of transwomen to difficult and therefore s/he is going to withdraw. I wonder if Monica or Lisa Harney would like to spend one day of their existence not having to deal with transphobia? Do you think that either of them could declare that trans issues are just to stressful and bow the hell out of it all because they felt like it?

Can you hear the dripping sarcasm and scorn? I can. The Monica referred to is Monica Roberts of TransGriot, who links to Vriane's post in this post, via a dismissive reference to someone being "stressed". The quotation marks are Monica's, and in context they imply either that Vriane is not really stressed, or that there is something invalid about being stressed out.

Vriane's two posts do indicate a high degree of stress. She's experiencing high anxiety levels "that can be crippling and distort one's perception", along with nervousness, fear and anxiety. She also cites personal reasons for why she is choosing "to limit [her] following of current events by not following anymore, at the moment, both TransGriot and Questioning Transphobia". Vriane mentions several times that this is not necessarily a permanent course of action, but one made for the time being.

When I read Vriane's posts, I see some indications that she might have an anxiety disorder. I don't know whether she does or not, or what other issues may or may not be going on in her life. She is discussing a personal decision, made not as the privileged luxury that both Renee and Monica think it is; but with regret, and out of need. And I will not judge whether her need is "real" or not. I cannot possibly know. But I can grant Vriane the dignity of accepting her word for it, of letting her be the arbiter of what she does and does not need, of allowing her to be the expert on her own limitations.

Not everyone is willing to do this. I have CFIDS and Fibromyalgia (two interlinked conditions - by naming both I am clarifying that I have both symptom sets), complicated by hypothyroidism and suspected PCOS. I also have chronic depression, and while you won't find it in the DSM, my condition of being a survivor of years of sexual, physical and emotional abuse functions a whole lot like a chronic illness - leaving scars, requiring treatment, having flare-ups, necessitating lifestyle adaptations, imposing limits. All of these conditions are invisible. For many years, I didn't even walk with a cane (which I now do). And the judgements rained down: [Have an invisible illness? Prepare to say them with me!]

You're just lazy. You're just depressed. You'd be better if you lost some weight. You'd be better if you just did more exercise. You just need to see a good doctor. You just need to take xxxx. You're just acting out. Get up - you're not an invalid. There are other people with real problems, you know. You need to get out more. You need to try harder. You need to get yourself on a routine. You're wallowing. You're acting like a baby. And so on. We've all heard them. Some of us have said them to ourselves. I know I have. Now, here's Renee's final paragraph:

You have to keep fighting even when it hurts. You have to keep pushing the envelope even when those around you accuse you being to sensitive because people that are battling oppression don’t ever get to choose. If fighting for justice seems hard in the face of all of the ugliness, that is because power used corrosively is positively evil. When you think about tuning out, stop and pause for one moment and realize that this only aligns you with those you claim to be vehemently against. If you believe in justice there really should never be a choice.

That first sentence is especially troubling to me, as someone dealing with chronic pain. You have to keep fighting even when it hurts. When I fight, it hurts. When I do anything, it hurts. If I am conscious, I am in pain. When I sleep, I dream pain. Pain, as I explain to people, is not a feeling. It is where I live, and while I can't make out my neighbours through the fog, I know I don't live here alone. In this state, pain loses some of its natural value as a defense mechanism that means "you've gone too far". But even I have different levels of pain, and some of them still mean "you've gone too far. Stop now, or things will be very bad." For "pain", you can also substitute "fatigue", or "stress". High levels of either also mean "stop right now!". If a person with normal health pushes their limits too far, they may get sick for a few days. If I go beyond my limits, the punishing effects can last for months. Because my condition is progressive, any setback may also become permanent. And there are people for whom extreme levels of stress can be lethal.

When someone urges people to ignore their pain, to do more, to keep pushing, to try harder no matter what the cost, I think of a manic sports coach, the kind who ends up getting sued after the athletes end up sick or injured. These people view any physical weakness as a character flaw (ya wimp!) that can't be tolerated. And "stress"? Definitely not a valid reason for anything (I'll give ya stress, ya whiner!). And when the "playing field" is social activism, here's the ultimate shaming tactic: When you think about tuning out, stop and pause for one moment and realize that this only aligns you with those you claim to be vehemently against. In other words, if you slack off, you are the enemy. And someone else gets to decide if you're slacking off.

A comment I sometimes get, when I mention that I have spent the last day/few days/week in bed is, "oh, I wish I could". Lying in bed seems like a delicious luxury to the able-bodied. They're picturing themselves sleeping in, guilt-free, feeling coddled, lounging peacefully without care. A break in routine. They're not thinking about pain from lying still too long, about bedsores, about itchy skin and stinky sheets from sweating fits, about dehydration because you didn't wake up when you were thirsty. They're not thinking about missing desired events, of feeling lonely, of guilty awareness that things need doing that you can't even contemplate right now, of boredom, of wanting to do something fun or useful but lacking the energy. There is no luxury in forced inactivity. There is no luxury in any adaptation imposed by the need to avoid more pain or other consequences, by the need simply to survive.

I mentioned that I don't know if Vriane has any kind of disability. It doesn't really matter whether she does or not. Her needs and limitations are hers, and she should not be shamed for acting on them as she sees fit. Likewise, your needs and limitations are yours, and mine are mine. They are different, and neither of us should be shamed for advocating for ourselves. I can't carry heavy objects. That's a limitation, and I refuse to be shamed for it. I have only a few good hours out of every day, and I need to prioritize what I do. Another limitation, and I refuse to be shamed either for the fact that it exists, or the specific ways I deal with it.

After being called on it by a commenter to her post, Renee read enough of Vriane's journal to discover that the "privileged ally" she had been lambasting was a trans woman. She apologized to Vriane for the mistake in a footnote, but left the post as it stood, and did not apologize for judging Vriane's actions and shaming her. To me, as to other commenters to the post, the shaming of Vriane would not be excused even if she were an ally. If you need, for whatever reason, to step back from whatever activity, it should not matter who you are. When I sleep or do house chores rather than pursue social justice, am I less culpable for my lack of contribution to survivors' issues because I am a survivor, and guiltier for not fighting racism because I'm white? Would I be more virtuous if I used my limited resources to fight only isms that do not apply to me? Certainly there are fewer of these than of isms that do apply, so it might be easier.

As I said before, my own voice to myself has not always been free of harsh judgment. It's a struggle not to internalize what so many would have me believe about myself. But one of the gifts that comes with healing as a survivor is learning to see surviving as a radical act. When you have been pushed down and broken too many times to count, simply existing is an accomplishment. Or, as a wise friend used to say (herself an activist with some serious chops), "when it's all you can do to survive; just survive". And do what you need to ensure that you do survive, in the best shape you can. Even when others don't understand. Being able to do less may be your reality, but being worth less never will be.
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