“Let’s stop pretending we can manage our way out of here.” – Billy Bragg
When my blood pressure got so high that capillaries burst in my eyeball, I could no longer keep living the way that I had been.
It was a year after my initiation as a Feri priest, an experience which exponentially increased the amount of life force running through me. That life force magnified my remaining guilt and shame and fear to the same magnitude, while magnifying my desire and need to show up fully in the world in all of who I am.
It was a few years after I had found out I was Autistic, and a few months after I had begun the process of coming out as Autistic at the college where I was teaching and in my herbal, radical, and Craft communities. I still didn’t understand the full implications of what that really meant. My understanding was at the level of vaguely getting that my executive function challenges – my difficulties in performing simple tasks like paying the electrical bill or ordering and picking up takeout – and my way of weaving novel webs of connection between previously disparate facts and ideas were somehow connected with each other.
I didn’t understand yet that I process language and facial expressions differently than others do, or that the depths of my emotional empathy – the felt sense of others’ joy and pain –often overwhelmed my capacities for cognitive empathy, correctly guessing another person’s internal processes. I continued to try, unsuccessfully, to imitate the behaviors, reactions, and responses of the neurotypical people around me, constantly sensing that my performance was somehow “off” and that, when it slipped further, things would fall apart as they had time and time again.
Hypertension – hyper-tension – emerged from my body, simultaneously trying to contain the abjectly divergent parts of my being that threatened social order while trying to brace myself against the repercussions of expressing them. My attempts to survive a culture bent on the eradication of people like me were threatening to become the very thing that killed me.
So I let the dam break. I disappeared into the night to perform rituals by the harbor and by the Hawthorn. I let my hair down and wore stranger clothes. I made my decisions in consultation with gods and ancestors, even when they flew in the face of the logic I had followed.
In the aftermath, a life I had loved was rubble. I don’t say that lightly: a family I had built was torn asunder in the process. As I struggled to hold things together, the suicidal voices that overtake so many Autistic people were often overwhelming, telling me that my existence was a burden on the people I loved, that it would be better to die than to face or be who I really was. I felt unable to reach out for medical or psychological help; I was living in a foreign country where both Autism and depression are grounds for being considered “medically unfit” to be issued a work permit.
The experience was devastating. But like the tower of the tarot, that life I had loved was built on a shaky foundation. The lightning strike that set the fire that brought the tower down liberated me from the constraints that informed its architecture: the assumption that my Autistic life should look like the life of a quirky neurotypical person, that fundamentally different ways of perceiving, thinking about, and feeling the world around me could somehow translate to a life that looked very much like the lives of people around me.
But those lives (and the lives of the “high functioning” model Autistic people celebrated by inspiration porn) were shaped by a culture that insists that there is one right way of thinking, feeling, perceiving, communicating, acting, and being. It is a culture that seeks to eradicate differences, because observable divergence makes visible the possibility of not complying with cultural norms enforced to maximize production and profit. In trying to model my life after the lives of those around me, and after the lives of “exemplary” neurodivergent people who could pass as neurotypical or whose talents could easily be harnessed to generate wealth, I was using the master’s blueprint.
But I already knew I wanted nothing to do with the culture I had been fighting to be accepted by, that my fundamental goal was to crack open its concrete and make way for the wild things it drove from the world to return.
I began to queer my performance. I began writing and speaking openly about being Autistic. I explained to people why I needed them to not interrupt my lectures ,why I needed quiet while I was preparing to see a patient in clinic, and why delayed responses to e-mails were not a sign of disrespect or a lack of caring but of my executive function capabilities being overwhelmed. I allowed myself to stim in public when I needed to, and talked about stimming as a natural strategy for grounding in overwhelming situations.
And it all helped. A lot. For a while.
I still was driving myself beyond my capacity, having internalized capitalism’s ethos of productivity and production, re-framing them in terms of commitment to my students, my patients, the plants . . . ignoring the fact that when I don’t walk in the woods, don’t do my morning practice at my altar, don’t lift weights, and don’t have solitude and silence, my nervous system quickly overloads. Last autumn, in a semester when I was often teaching six days a week, I began losing speech in my afternoon classes toward the end of the week. A quick dose of Calamus tincture and a few minutes of silence would usually bring speech back, but I knew something was really wrong . . .
So a month ago I moved to the foot of Pahto (which the maps call Mt. Adams) and I am trying to build a life with enough silence and enough space to remember who I am so that I can write and teach and heal, hoping that a clinical practice in Portland two days a week and a smattering of teaching gigs will pay the bills. Slowly but surely, and with loving support, I am coming back to myself – and embracing the fact that, in the eyes of capitalist culture, I am permanently disabled.
You can tell a lot about a culture by who and what it deems disordered and disabled. Discourses of functionality and dysfunctionality both beg the question (and reveal its answer) — what does this society view as the role of human beings?
The modern notion of disability stems from distinctions made under early capitalism in England between the “unworthy” and “worthy” poor – those able to produce wealth, and those unable to.
The liberal view is that the latter should be wards of the state while the former should be allowed to starve; the right’s position is that none who are not engaged in the production of wealth should be allowed to eat, find shelter, or be clothed except by the grace and charity of generous individuals. Both agree that the existence of those who don’t “contribute” to the economy is a tragedy that should be prevented. In the twentieth century, Fascists and ostensible progressives agreed that eugenics provided a path to a better future. The same holds true today. The one thing all four US presidential candidates appear to agree on is the idea that the world would be a better place with fewer people like me in it. They differ only on the means of achieving that end.
How many of those in prisons and hospitals or living on the streets because of their failure or refusal to produce wealth would have been seers and diviners and prophets and priests in societies that viewed or view the celebration of beauty or the participation in the dreaming and creation of worlds as the purpose of human life?
Defenders of capitalism point to infanticides and infant mortality and child killings in pre-capitalist societies as evidence that capitalism serves those it deems disabled. But, ultimately, it is not capitalism but the technologies that emerged from it that has rendered some deaths preventable. Besides, those of us who are speaking about breaking free from capitalism and re-enchanting the world are not talking about abandoning modern technology – we are talking about changing the ways in which technologies are developed, produced, and applied.
Silvia Fedirici writes that the body is “a natural limit to exploitation.” Fedirici speaks beautifully of how the body’s desires both constitute and engender resistance against oppression.
The same is true of the body’s pain, the body’s breakdown, the body’s refusals to continue to endure conditions that deny its needs and its dignity and its pleasures – they, too constitute somatic expressions of the body’s hunger for liberation. And they too create natural limits to our exploitation.
(And when I speak of the body here, I speak too of the mind, the heart, the spirit, conceptually alienated from their fleshly home by Christian theology and the Cartesian split, experientially alienated from their fleshly home by trauma, stress, and sensory overwhelm, but called back in when we begin to feel again, even if the first thing we feel is pain. Even if the only thing we feel is pain.)
For those of us who have spent a lifetime trying to pass as “high-functioning” in the eyes of the dominant culture, there is a tremendous power in the moments when we become disabled – when our bodies become literally unable to comply with the demands put on them by the market, by its ethos, by cultural expectations. When pushing harder is no longer an option, when every attempt to push away the pain or push past the overwhelm or push through the fatigue has failed, it is no longer possible to continue living your life in the same way.
As an herbalist, I find these are the moments where connecting someone with the living medicine of plants, to the botanical equivalents of hormones and neurotransmitters, puts them in touch with elements of a consciousness fully outside our cultural context while inducing subtle somatic shifts that change what it feels like and what it means to be embodied and alive. And in my own life, these have been some of the moments when the plants, the land, my ancestors, and my gods have spoken most clearly. They hold me close, saying,
“Okay. That’s done now. Come back to yourself. It is time to bring forth something new.”
When the culture around me demands things I cannot give, I have no choice but to refuse. Biology renders me unruly. And in the wild landscape of my body, a new world emerges.
Sean Donahue is a highly neurodivergent wild forest creature who defies the seelie/unseelie binary. He lives on traditional Klickitat territory in Trout Lake, WA and has an herbal practice in Portland and Beaverton, OR. He is an initiated priest of the BlackHeart line of the Feri Tradition of witchcraft, and carrier of the Green Wand.
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