Labels.

I’ve been going on about my neurodivergence a lot lately, and that has sparked up a ton of interesting conversations about labels. I’ve been waiting for it all to congeal in some kind of logical structure, but it’s not happening, so here is a pile of label-related stuff.

 

Are labels bad or good?

To me, that’s like asking “are screwdrivers bad or good?” A label is a tool. Do you need it? What are you using it for? Are you hurting yourself or others with it? A screwdriver is useful if you’ve got some screws to deal with. It’s not much use if you want to brush a kitten. It won’t do you much good if you stick it up your nose, and you might want to think about it before sticking it between someone’s ribs.

I am personally rather conflicted about labels and diagnosis in general. I didn’t get mine until rather late in life, partly because some issues just weren’t popular knowledge, but mostly because my mom would have rather pushed me under a bus than be the mother of a wonky kid. Not getting diagnosed while being placed under intense academic pressure “encouraged” me to develop some nifty coping strategies, but it also meant that I struggled for years and years without even knowing that I was struggling. I had no idea that I was overcoming issues most other people never face. I am pretty pissed off about that. On the other hand, I am painfully aware of the fact that now, with the kudos parents can get in certain circles by having “special” children, I would have suffered the opposite fate: my mother being very persuasive, I would have been diagnosed with everything going, gotten medicated to within an inch of my life, and probably only got enough help to make my mom the Best Neurodivergent Mother Of The Year. I am 100% sure that my life would have sucked much more with that kind of “help” than without.

However, I still find my labels useful. I use them for:

  1. Reminding me of the way in which I differ from other people. That gives me a better understanding of the causes of certain interpersonal issues, which is nifty. Perhaps more importantly, it enables me to be kinder to myself. I need things that other people may not need. That’s just the way it is. The ideal person to ensure that I get those things is me. It’s a damn sight harder to look after myself if I ignore my own needs.
  2. Explaining to people why what works for them might not work for me. Most people assume that their experience is universal, and many will fight you to the death if you try and convince them otherwise. Being able to say stuff like “that type of motivation doesn’t work for me because I have ADHD” tends to cut down on a lot of crap.

I find labels less useful for:

  1. Self-limitation. “I might as well not try to do X, because I have ADHD” isn’t terribly useful to me. I could think in those terms, but I choose not to. The line of thinking I favour is “how can I help myself do X, taking the ADHD into account?”
  2. Emotionally blackmailing others. There is a line between arranging a mutually comfortable middle ground between myself and others, and demanding that they ignore their own needs because my neurodivergence demands it. It ain’t even that fine a line. I don’t want to be that person.

 

That ain’t even real!

None of my diagnoses are official. I picked one up entirely by accident; I was tutoring students with learning difficulties, I asked a couple of odd questions on some topics, my supervisor grew suspicious and ran a couple of tests, and – hey, presto! – dyslexia. My ADHD diagnosis is from a professional self-assessment test, but I’ve not bothered getting it formalised by a medical professional. I could probably insist on getting some official tests, but my life doesn’t require that. And – and this is the important bit – the lack of a professional seal on my diagnoses doesn’t make them less valid or less useful.

Official diagnoses, particularly those coming from schools, tend to be a reflection of the results of the impact of an issue – not of the impact of the issue on the person, but on how it affects their performance. Little Billy is struggling to learn to write, the school runs a few tests, and it turns out he’s got dyslexia. Little Bobby also has dyslexia, but his grades aren’t affected enough for anyone to notice. Maybe he lucked out and he managed to pick up enough workarounds (thank you, cursive). Maybe his parents force him to work on his homework until it’s perfect, so he’s exhausted and desperate but making reasonable grades. He still has dyslexia. He’s still working harder than his classmates, because he has to manage the work and the workarounds. He still has the superpowers dyslexia gives him. He could still benefit from knowing that he sees the world in a slightly different way. And, whether he gets a diagnosis or not, his dyslexia is just as valid as Billy’s.

I appreciate that official diagnoses are extremely important when trying to get help. I appreciate that self-diagnosing is fraught with dangers, particularly if one is of an anxious disposition. But I still wish the gatekeeping on this issue would die in a car fire.

 

You would say that?

A million years ago, when I was taught how to teach people with learning difficulties, I was told that I couldn’t say that someone was dyslexic. I had to say that “they have dyslexia,” because “they were more than their disability.” While I appreciate the intentions behind that kind of effort, I think they are ultimately rooted in the problem they’re allegedly fighting against.

I am dyslexic. I do not “have dyslexia,” because my dyslexia isn’t a disease. Those kind people banging on about how “I’m more than my dyslexia” can fold their banners up neatly and stow them, because duh. Of course I’m more than my dyslexia; but it is a part of me, a vital component of the way in which I interact with the world. It’s not going to go away, and I would not want it to. If you took my dyslexia away, you wouldn’t have a better version of me; you’d have a different person. Maybe that person would be cool, but they wouldn’t be me. Furthermore, calling me “dyslexic” doesn’t make me feel less, because being dyslexic doesn’t make me less. Anyone who thinks that is coming from a position of entrenched ableism, and the problem sits with them, not me.

….but I still say that “I have ADHD” because that’s the way I’ve learnt to say it, and it rolls of the tongue more easily than saying “I am an ADHDer”. If any of y’all has got a better option, I’ll take it.

Which isn’t to say that people don’t have the right to pick their own labels, or that communities don’t have the right to fight against stigmatising labels. I am merely curious as to where the focus of our efforts went. If those terms weren’t considered offensive or limiting, using them would be a non-issue. Is banning those terms really the best way to fight against the associated discrimination?

I am starting to think along the same lines about other terms, particularly those relating to the effects of trauma. There is a big push in self-defence to stop people from labelling themselves “victims,” “damaged,” “broken,” and so forth. The idea is that such labels are self-limiting and/or manipulative, and that is probably about half right about half of the time. It ignores the fact that words can mean a lot of different things to different people, and can be used for widely different purposes.

“Weak” labels aren’t necessarily used for self-flagellation or emotional blackmail. For instance, people may call themselves “victims” because they are innocent of what happened to them, and holding onto that fact makes them feel better. The label doesn’t have to carry any connotation of permanent damage; it can merely indicate that something majorly bad happened to them, and that they weren’t at fault.

A friend of a friend commented that she labels herself as “broken” because she is aware that she has suffered and still suffers as a result of her early trauma. She lives with limitations caused by that trauma. If her abuser had broken her limbs in a way that rendered them permanently damaged, people wouldn’t begrudge her the label, right? But because it’s “all in her head,” she has to fight for it. I hadn’t considered that point of view before, and I only disagree with her because I’m painfully aware that people are assholes about physical damage, too. Chances are that she could have no working limbs left, and people would still begrudge her the way she chooses to label herself – and it would all be done for her own good, to give her more agency, because that’s totally how that works.

As for labels becoming so sticky that they become an obstacle to recovery, any label can do that. The problem is how the label is used, not the label itself. And if that’s the concern, replacing “weak” labels with epic ones is not going to help matters, so we ought to toss “survivor” right out the window.

I think we should be able to pick up and use the labels we find useful in that moment, and discard them when we no longer find them useful. This is going to sound unduly Zen, but our self isn’t a constant; why shouldn’t our labels change as we do? And, if we allow ourselves to try labels on and pick the ones that truly fit, the ones that make us better able to face the day ahead, should any third party really have any say in it?

 

 

 

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Heroes.

I’ve been listening to the Odyssey at work, as one does. I’ve not read it from cover to cover since I was eight or nine – yes, it’s perfectly normal. The book was lying about the place, nobody told me that it wasn’t suitable for children, so I picked it up and read it. Although I dropped Greco-Roman mythology as soon as I discovered that there were other kinds, some of its lessons stuck with me. One of the main ones is about how varied the Greek concept of “hero” used to be.

Achilles was heroic for being able and willing to kick alllllll the ass. Odysseus was heroic for being cunning. They were both special, both admired by a whole load of people, but they were hardly similar. A whole load of other people around them were considered special for all kinds of other characteristics: strength, bravery, honesty, steadfastness, loyalty, craftsmanship, etc. Even people who seemed to be at a clear disadvantage could be special. Someone could be special for their athleticism, but they better not feel too superior to someone with a physical disability. The latter person may excel at poetry, politics, or some kickass craft that made them just as special, but in a different way. People were valued for what they could do better than other people, and their help was sought in situations where those skills were deemed useful. That’s what I got from the stories, anyway – maybe people looked at Odysseus and found him lacking for not being honest enough, or looked at Achilles and deemed him a blockhead, and the poets just left that bit out. As a child, however, I was struck by how totally different people could still be special and valued for what they could contribute, rather than being measured against a fixed standard and found wanting.

Even more interestingly, all the “superpowers” the heroes have seemed to let them down at least once. Achilles had his heel, Odysseus had an uncanny penchant for taunting one-eyed giants… They were special people, but they were also all fallible, and when they were upset they cried. A lot. Hell, if you ever want to get plastered to a Greek myth, take a swing every time someone cries.

Then there’s “300,” and the myriad of copycat movies it spawned. In these modern versions, Greek heroism is very narrow, very prescriptive, and very focused on working them abs. Heroes go out, kick as much ass as they can find, and flex a lot in the process. Nobody cries, obvs; in fact, having the emotional range of a teaspoon is pretty much the only way to be A Man (anger is, of course, not a feeling, because reasons). I find this mangling of very clearly told stories fascinating. The ideal of the Greek hero we end up with is so vastly different from the one we can gleam from the most cursory examination of actual Greek myths that it’s a whole ‘nuvver animal. I wonder how the “300” aficionados would take it if they discovered that their Greek heroes cuddled same-sex friends, wept over each other’s shoulders, and totally lost their shit in grief.

The current representations of Greek heroes speak about us, our culture, our relationship with what makes people special. Greek poets may have provided the backbone of the stories, but it is us, or at the very least our media culture, who are turning them into what they are now. It is definitely us eating them up and hailing them as The Way To Be.

I’m reminded of that glorious article about Kirk Drift, and its TL/DR version. Modern Kirk is a misogynistic uber-jerk oozing toxic masculinity, and has nothing to do with the actual Kirk in the actual episodes of the actual show. We’ve collectively made this new Kirk out of our warped vision of the old one, much as we’ve made our new Old Greek heroes. And these revisited heroes all kinda suck, which doesn’t say much about us.

Trauma?

A couple of years ago or thereabouts, a friend of a friend asked me a question:

“Is the source of your trauma public record?”

I told him that I didn’t know and that I’d have to think about it. I wasn’t lying: I genuinely didn’t know. What do people actually know about my past? My friends, particularly my online friends, know more than is good for them, but what about the world at large?

I’ve blogged pretty openly about some of the shit that went down in my past, and the vast majority of my fiction is not actually terribly fictional, but I’m not sure that enough of my readers have read enough of my writing to get a clear picture. I’ve also not blogged about some of the harder stuff, for the simple reason that I don’t want to. I take an interest in self-defence and I have a vagina, so I’m aware of the fact that a whole load of people assume that someone, as some point, must have attempted a forcible entry into said organ. And yeah, that’s happened, but, to be honest, those weren’t pivotal points in my life. I don’t mean to trivialise the seriousness of sexual assault; it is just that the context of my life has been such that I had more impactful things going on. (Note: that is NOT a good thing. That’s not “resilience;” that’s “fucked up.”)

That was the second part of the question, the bit that I really couldn’t work through: do I have A Trauma? Do I, really? This is a line of thinking that shines a merciless light over the inconsistencies between what I think and know about trauma, and how I apply the concept to myself. I don’t see myself as traumatised. I don’t think I have a right to that badge. Nothing ThatBad(TM) has ever happened to me. I have never been hit by a single, major event that could/should have caused me trauma <<knocks on wood>>. As for the events and situations that left a mark, they shouldn’t have. It just so happened that I occasionally got hit in my weak spots, when I didn’t see it coming, or at times when I was unusually susceptible to certain stimuli. Unfortunate, really, but not traumatic.

I would never, ever apply this line of thinking to any other human. It would never occur to me to evaluate an injury based on my perception of the seriousness of what caused it: “Yeah, well, I’m sorry, but your leg just shouldn’t be broken. No crutches for you.” It would also never occur to me to discount the impact of an injury because other, worse injuries were also present. A broken toe is a broken toe and should be attended to, even if the whole leg is smashed up. Yeah, you want to prioritise the more serious injuries, but that’s not the same as dismissing the rest of them. Rationally, I know that I’m just not looking at my situation from the right angle, but that doesn’t mean that I’ve managed to do anything about it. I’m working on it, though.

Overall, that damn question, so casually thrown, has been plaguing me. The more I think about it, the more it seems to sprouts other questions to which I also don’t have answers. That’s vexing, but it’s nowhere near as vexing as the realisation I had a few days ago: the question wasn’t meant literally. The guy in question was asking me whether I wanted to talk about the traumatic event(s) in my life – a question that, in the context of our conversation, wasn’t particularly out of place. My literal-minded ass, totally oblivious to social niceties, has been chewing over the question like a damn koan, when the dude was just being tactful. I find that hilarious.

Neurodivergent #5

I swear, I’m almost done with this.

So, a wee while ago, I got me a new & shiny adult ADHD diagnosis. It’s been utterly awesome.  Seriously, it’s one of the best things that ever happened to me.

First and foremost, it has given me a clue as to WHY almost everyone seems to zig when I zag. They’re not being weird at me: their brains are literally wired differently. They are not better actors than me, better able to fall into an inexplicably difficult (and often crushingly boring) part for the sake of having a quiet life; they are being themselves. They don’t have to act. Incredible as it may sound, the factory-standard “normal” is their natural setting.

They can’t help that, anymore than I can help being me, and that explains a hell of a lot. When I try to explain to them that I don’t feel X, that I don’t wanna do Y, or that Z doesn’t really work for me and they don’t believe me, it’s not a reflection of the value they place on my words. They have only one point of view on the world, same as I do. Unlike me, though, they believe that point of view to be universal. I’m not better than them, better able to empathise, more perceptive. I simply live with constant, daily reminders that other points of view exist. They live surrounded by people broadly like them, so they don’t. It’s an exposure issue. When they assume that “everyone does/is/feels/thinks X”, their are often almost right. It really depends on the acceptable margin of error one is willing to assign to that word, “everyone”. The impact of their conviction on our connection depends both on their willingness to have it shaken, on how far removed it is from my reality, and on how much of a barrier it builds around me, or between us.

For instance, I have had months-long “conversations” with people about the purpose and future of this blog. What that has generally boiled down to was them lecturing me at length about why I should do things I would hate in order to achieve goals that are not in fact my goals. When I’ve tried to explain that fact to them, the vast majority of them insisted that I was wrong. I want what they want, and if I state otherwise then I’m lying, to myself or to them. I found that annoying, excruciatingly disrespectful, and, eventually, a deal breaker – I cannot be friends with people who believe me to be other than I am, to be pretending, no matter how often I tell them otherwise. I don’t have a solid definition of “friendship,” but I’m sure it isn’t an endless fight to have your reality recognised.

I wonder now if they ADHD diagnosis would have helped me be more tolerant, or helped them understand. I doubt it. Chances are that the same people would have seen it as a flaw in me, a problem I can learn to overcome if I only work hard enough. I could be just like them, if only I tried!

Problem is, I don’t want to. I fucking love my brain, even when it hurts. I love the speed at which it operates. I love the way it can spot patterns and connections, however tenuous, and lead me on wild, exciting tangents. I love its ability to immerse itself into an activity, erasing the passage of time into an all-consuming now; yes, it may make me late for dinner, but now is when life happens and my brain naturally lives there. I got me a factory-issued Zen brain: how cool is that? And – not very Zen, I know – I absofuckingluely love the fact that my inner life is so vivid; I’d take my inside-of-the-pinball-machine emotional landscape over anyone’s Monet-inspired watercolour, thankyouverymuch.

I don’t love the fact that my memory is shite, that I lose things all the time, that making myself do chores is a little slice of hell, that my ability to focus and energy levels oscillate wildly. I don’t like the Achille’s heel of my rejection-sensitive dysphoria. But I can live with all that as a more than acceptable trade-off for having the most fun brain ever. Without the diagnosis, I would have never known how lucky I am.

I would also have never known how much of a giant pain in the ass I can be to those who don’t operate like me. I now have a list of basic human traits I don’t have and functions I can’t perform, or that I perform so wildly differently that it can still be an issue. That’s a problem when dealing with neurotypical people, particularly if an environment is not accepting, but it can become even more of an issue when dealing with people whose neurodivergence doesn’t match mine. In particular, some of my favourite people are on the autistic spectrum. We like each other a lot, but our brains are quite simply not designed to play well together. Knowing that fact has enabled us to have open and honest discussions about our needs, so we can try and meet in the middle instead of driving each other up the wall.

This is important: we sat down, brought out our baskets of needs and issues, spread them on the table, and talked about how we can meet as many of them as much as we can, together, so we’re all as happy as we can be, both with ourselves and with each other. The final result may look something like us masking our neurodivergence in order to function, but it isn’t: it is an entirely different process that embraces who we are. Its goal is to help us be ourselves and work together. We are creating a space in which we can both be and do. I’m 44, and I’ve never had that before. I’ve always had to choose, and sometimes the choice has been fucking expensive. What I have here and now is comfortable and comforting in a way that I can’t even begin to explain to people who’ve never had to act like someone else just in order to be. It’s home. I’m home.

A few months ago, I sat and listened to a self-defence instructor lecture us on “othering.” What she said was: “I can teach those people how not to be othered.” It hit me like a brick to the face at the time, but I wasn’t quite sure why. I knew I was one of “those people”, and I also knew that her cis/het/mono/white/anglo/upper-middle-class solution wasn’t going to work for me. I know how to pretend that I am what I’m not; that’s how I survived my childhood. I know how to “fit in,” more or less. I know how to “function”. I also know how much that hurts, the barrier it builds between you and the world, you and your loved ones, and you and yourself. Instead of being othered by others, you’re othering yourself; it may help you survive, but it won’t help you thrive. Where there is no acceptance, there can be no love. All there is is the endless grind of performing, performing, performing, while the person you really are lies not just unloved, but literally unlived.

Neurodivergent #4

A few weeks ago, I aced a test, which is generally the kind of thing that brings joy into my life. Alas, it was a test for adult ADHD.

This result has shocked and astonished my friends. Apparently everyone expected  me to have been diagnosed in school (thank you, friends). Alas, I’m old enough that, back in my days, that kind of diagnosis just wasn’t an option. In my school, you were either “normal” and expected to behave and perform “normally,” or one of the special kids who had their own separate classroom where they didn’t really do any schooling. There was no space to be just different enough from the norm to need a little bit of help, or just some leeway to do things your own way. You were in, or you were out.

There was also a real stigma on being anything other than “normal.” I’m fairly sure that my mother would have rather drowned me at birth than be pegged as the parent of a child with learning difficulties. Hell, I didn’t even get my dyslexia diagnosis until university, when I started tutoring students with learning difficulties. My mom and my teachers were fully aware that I couldn’t tell left from right, that I struggled to remember which way round numbers were supposed to go (we wrote in cursive, so letters weren’t as much of a problem as long as I started from the right corner of the page), and that I occasionally picked up a book upside down and started reading like that without noticing, but they put it down to me not paying enough attention. It was something I would grow out of, particularly if aided by enough telling-offs and the ambient shaming that was the hallmark of a good old-fashioned childhood.

The ADHD diagnosis has shocked and astonished me, too. I mean… I knew that I’m faster than the average bear, that my motivation doesn’t work like other people’s, that I either hyperfocus or can’t focus at all, that conversations with me inevitably go off on wild tangents, that my energy levels have only two settings (“CHARGE!!!” and “none”), that I can be a teeny weeny bit short on the impulse control front… I knew that things that other people don’t find difficult, like sitting the hell down and watching TV, are serious challenges for me… But I didn’t think anything of it. I didn’t put all these elements together, and I sure as hell didn’t see them as part of A Thing that I have, or rather A Thing that I am.

I also didn’t know that ADHD goes further; that it has a profound effect on my emotional environment – or, rather, what totally eluded me is that most people’s emotional environments are profoundly different from mine. From what I can gather, most people live in a painting, while I live in a neon sign – garishly coloured, and flashing on-and-off between blindingly bright and utterly black. It’s kinda pretty, and I enjoy it, but it’s damn hard to ignore. The bottom line is that the disconnect between how I react to emotional stimuli and how “normal” people react is due to the fact that I perceive those stimuli in a profoundly different way. We are exposed to very different experiences, even when, on the surface, we’re going through the same thing.

I thought everyone was stronger than me, more resilient, more immunised to the ups and downs of daily life. It turns out that my ups and down are just bigger, which is why they affect me more. That was an interesting revelation for me. Much like my dyslexia diagnosis, it has given me the opportunity to review how I measure myself against the world, kinda thang. Yeah, I find certain things infinitely more difficult than most people, but I can also do things most people can’t do. Way back when, I fell in love my dyslexia – not just to be resigned to it, because it isn’t going anywhere, but to actually be whole-heartedly glad that it’s a part of me. Now I’m learning to love my ADHD. I don’t know who I’d be without it.

Because I’m me, the diagnosis has also given me the opportunity to re-evaluate my internal mechanisms. I have new terminology and new criteria to play with, so I took my brain out of its casing and I am having a damn good look at it. The most interesting aspect of this exploration is learning to distinguish the things that are genuinely a part of me, and those that I’ve picked up en route. For instance, I got me some prime rejection sensitive dysphoria. Like it or not, it is a part of me, a direct result of the way in which my brain is wired. But – and here is where it gets fun – I also have a bunch of trauma from growing up in a fairly abusive environment. The combination of the two – being oversensitive to a particular stimulus and actually been smacked with that stimulus hard and repeatedly from infancy* – has given me a bunch of coping mechanisms, some of which are grossly counterproductive. Thing is, I can work towards changing my coping mechanisms, improving my habits, and reducing the impact of my trauma on my daily life, but the rejection sensitive dysphoria is never gonna go anywhere. I can do my damn best to mitigate its impact on my life, but I have to live with it.

Again, because I’m me, knowing that I live with it helps, a lot. The beast has a name. Now that I know that it exists, I can keep an eye on it, and maybe avoid it eating my goddamn face so often.

I find it interesting how often people caution others against embracing labels. They’re self-limiting. They’re depressing. They’re divisive. They give you excuses to be less than you could be. I mean, yeah, they can do all of  the above, if that’s how you use them, but you don’t have to. You can use them to know yourself better, to learn what makes you tick, which is pretty fucking critical if it’s different from what makes everyone else ticks. Know thyself, yo. If you don’t, how the fuck are you ever gonna love yourself?

 

 

[*Conundrum: would the same environment have been abusive for somebody wired differently from me? How does one measure the seriousness of abuse, when its impact can vary depending on whom it hits? But that’s a headfuck for another day.]

 

 

 

 

 

Neurodivergent #3

I have a friend whose name is not Tony, but when I thought about writing a blog about him this song got stuck in my head, so immagonna call him Tony.

Tony is either a superhero, or a total butt and extremely lucky. He is a very good listener. If I have a problem, I know he’ll lend me an ear, and I know that our conversation will not just make me feel better, but actually be useful. The issue is with the shape that usefulness can take.

There is a thing people habitually do that drives me up the wall. You mention a problem, and their response is to basically say “hey, so, have you thought about not having that problem?” Poor? Just get money! Sick? Just get better! Lonely? Just get friends! While there is a factual accuracy to their suggestions, their failure to recognise that there are some teeny weeny issues with their tactics are rather vexing – to me, anyway. Yes, I understand that ultimately the cure for poverty is money, that the cure for sickness is health, and so on, but it so happens that if I could easily get money I wouldn’t be poor, if I could magic myself better I wouldn’t be ill, etc.

Every single time someone pulls that stunt, I get frustrated. Not when Tony does it, though – and he does it quite a bit. The issue is that Tony gets it right – when he’s talking to me, anyway. Somehow, he can always tell the difference between something that I am, however temporarily (e.g. ill, poor, an ADHDer, etc.), and something that I do (e.g. letting my brainweasels scurry all over the place, shitting as they go). So I can tell him that my rejection sensitive dysphoria is kicking me in the teeth, and he’ll listen and commiserate. But if I tell him that I’m panicking because of a social engagement, he’ll come out with something like “but have you thought of not doing that?”

Rejection sensitive dysphoria is something I can’t get rid of – in a very real sense, it is a part of who I am. Social anxiety is a mental habit I have developed. While the two are intimately connected, they are not the same. It can be hard for me to remember that, but it’s true. While I can’t get rid of the rejection sensitive dysphoria (though knowing that it is A Thing helps a hell of a lot), I can work on my social anxiety and reduce its impact on my life. I’m lucky like that.

The jury is still out on whether Tony is lucky too. It could be that he genuinely has a superpower that enables him to see inside people’s hearts and brains. It could be that he shoots off at the mouth, and gets it right because his guardian angel works overtime. I don’t know. What I do know for sure is that I can’t do that. I can’t pull off that trick. I have to make myself remember that different people have similar-looking problems for entirely different reasons, and that, because of that, what looks like an obvious solution to me may be an insurmountable obstacle to them, and that rubbing that in their faces is not helpful.

PSA: Whistleblowing

So, an organisation or group you’re invested in is getting hit by allegations, and you don’t know what to make of it. You weren’t there, there are people you admire in both camps, and you just don’t see yourself ever knowing what’s true and what isn’t. How the hell are you supposed to take sides, let alone take action, in a situation like this?

Lemme tell you one thing you can be 100% sure of:

The way in which the group is treating this whistleblower is the way in which the group treats whistleblowers.

This may sound like a truism, but people apparently find it very hard to grok the concept, so let me elaborate.

People and organisations often have statements about how they would deal with certain events. These can range from formal, overt policies (e.g. tourney rules, child protection policies, whistleblowing procedures, etc.) to informal statements (e.g. “if anyone ever hurts one of my kids, I’ll kneecap that fucker”).

Thing is, these statements are only worth anything if the people responsible are actually willing to implement them. They are nothing but promises, and often, when the shit hits the fan, they are found to be empty promises.

What you are seeing right now is how the group and individuals in question actually, for real and no shit, respond to this type of event. If the manner of their response is grossly dissimilar to their prior statements on the subject, you can be pretty damn confident that those statements aren’t worth a good goddamn.

As far as I’m concerned, this is pretty bad already, but worry not: you can trust me to make it worse. This epiphanot comes with three main corollaries:

  1. The way in which the group and various individuals are responding to these allegations is most likely also the way in which they’ve responded to concerns in the past.

If someone reporting an actual issue that actually happened to actual people and has caused actual damage results in the people responsible trying to bury the whole thing, and the affected people with it, do you really think they would have responded any better to the same people voicing mere theoretical concerns about the subject? This attitude not only doesn’t help clean up the mess after a tragedy has taken place, but it actively allows tragedies to take place, time and time again.

  1. The way in which the group and various individuals are responding to these allegations is most likely also the way in which they’ve responded to past allegations.

Some people whistleblow loudly, clearly, and publicly, but not everyone does. Many if not most people test the waters by taking their issue to the persons immediately around them or above them, the persons in charge of a particular issue, or a person they trust. If the response is underwhelming, some may react by blowing their whistle in public, but many won’t – and if you blame them for that, then you don’t understand the issue. It so happens that people who have been hurt generally need to focus on getting themselves back together. Banging their head into a wall may not be very high on their priorities.

If the response to these allegations looks to you like a giant clusterfuck, or a meat grinder, there is a very real possibility that other, less public allegations were addressed equally badly, and you never got to hear about them.

  1. The way in which the group and various individuals are responding to these allegations is most likely also the way in which they would respond to allegations made by you or your loved ones.

Put yourself in the victim’s shoes, because, in a very real sense, one day you could be. One day you, or someone you love, could be the person trying to get heard because something bad has happened and you don’t want it to happen again. How do you think it would feel, to be trying to deal with your damage while fielding personal attacks from the community you once trusted?

If you’re absolutely sure that that could never be the case, because people like you aren’t treated like that, congratulations: you are aware of the fact that you are in a privileged position within your group. Now, can you be sure that people bent on evil aren’t enjoying the same privileges? Can you, really?

 

Oh, I’d almost forgotten: all of this also applies to you. You might have some wonderful, lofty ideals about what-you-would-do-if. Well, that “if” is happening right here and now. How are you looking?

Neurodivergent #2

Once upon a time, I went to a very bad Krav class. No, I’m not saying that all Krav is bad; but that class was. One of the drills ended with a finishing move: a “knee bomb” to the chest.

I dropped that move out of my practice. It wasn’t because I don’t want to go to jail (though I’d rather not, thank you). It wasn’t because I’m aware that with my scant mass my chances of that move working well against the types of opponent I’m most likely to face are limited, and that if I’ve got them where I can knee bomb them, my best option is to run the fuck away. I try to be a good sport when attending classes, even when I don’t agree with the content, but I absolutely do not engage in behaviours that can harm me, and knee stomps firmly fit in that category.

I have luxating patellas. I’ve had them for as long as I can remember. They are not a construct of my imagination: they are a physiological issue that I live with. They are also something that, when I bang my knee in certain positions, often results in me ending up in a heap of pain and profanities, clutching at my leg. In a nutshell: knee bombs for me = no bueno. I may or may not injure my opponent, and I would almost definitely injure myself.

I explained this to the teacher when he came by to tell me that I was doing the drill wrong. Then I explained it to him again. And again. And again. About the sixth time I was telling him the same damn thing just to have him patiently explain to me what the drill was supposed to be like, I grabbed his hand, put it against my knee, and made my knee pop so he could feel what I was talking about.

He literally screeched and recoiled. As it emerged, he didn’t know what “luxating” meant – or, in fact, what a “patella” was. And it wasn’t just a matter of terminology. Telling him that I had dislocating kneecaps wouldn’t have helped, because he quite simply had no idea of what a human knee is actually like. He was telling  students to use knees as weapons, but he didn’t know how knees worked.

That’s not what I want to talk to you about. I want to talk about brains.

If you’ve been a human person for any length of time, you might have discovered that not all brains are the same. It’s not just that different people have different ideas about the same things; they can also respond in different ways to the same stimuli. Here is a fun fact: sometimes those differences are caused by software, kinda thang. Sometimes, though, they are caused by the hardware, or by the operating system.

Two people with similar brains can be fed different data, and come to different conclusions – no surprises there. They can be taught different ways to look at the same data, and still come to different conclusions – again, this is pretty easy to graps. In those eventualities, providing both people with the same data and/or the same ways to analyse data can result in them coming to the same conclusions. Yes, stuff like beliefs and feelings and ego etc. often get in the way of that, but it is eminently possible to make those brains synchronise. That isn’t necessarily the case for brains that are fundamentally different because of how they’re wired.

Some people perceive the world in different ways because their brains are different. For instance, I have dyslexia, which fundamentally alters the way in which my brain handles shapes and directions. If you tell me to turn right, their is absolutely no guarantee that I’ll be able to follow that instruction in a timely and accurate manner. Screaming at me to GO LEFT NOT RIGHT is not going to improve matters, because I didn’t ignore the instruction out of inattention or carelessness: it is an instruction my brain cannot parse, particularly under pressure.

So what? Well, there is a pedagogic gap in self-defence teaching. It isn’t peculiar to that field: it shows in any field that allows enthusiasts to raise to teaching positions by being good at doing the thing rather than at teaching the thing. A lot of self-defence teachers get into teaching because they are passionate about the subject, which is great, but they do so without ever acquiring a background in teaching. That can cause no issues if the people they are teaching are wired like them and can learn like them, but it can cause giant trainwrecks when that is not the case. Teachers who do not understand specific learning needs can fail to recognise them when they show up in class. This can mean that those needs may not be addressed, or even be misconstrued as misbehaviours and punished (fistbump to all the kinetic learners and ADHD folks). This is about as much fun as a dose of the ‘flu, but it’s not the worst thing that can happen.

Worse issue (for me, anyway) arise when teachers can’t tell between a student’s “symptoms” and wiring. Personal characteristics that are intrinsic to a person can end up being misdiagnosed as symptoms that should be treated by doing whatever would work for the teacher. So, for instance, the teen with paralysing social anxiety is told that they just need to buff up and learn to throw down, and – hey, presto – they’ll magically become self-confident. That worked for the teacher, after all, and for a whole bunch of students they’ve taught!

But maybe that teen’s social anxiety has naff-all to do with their physique and ninja skills. Maybe it’s a direct result of how their brain was wired or programmed, and it needs a totally different approach in order to be resolved. Maybe it will never go away, and all a student can do is learn to manage it. And when that isn’t recognised – when a student trusts a teacher who is simply misinformed, and when neither of them can recognise the reason for the student’s “failure” to improve – things can get really bad really quickly.

 

 

Neurodivergent #1

Last Christmas, a youtuber I follow got a very-late-in-coming diagnosis of neurodivergence. He put out an extremely candid vlog detailing what that diagnosis meant for him. Knowing what he is, and how that differs from neurotypicality, has given him the ability to spot the differences, as it were, and to help reduce the friction that those differences can cause. That is difficult, but helpful.

The diagnosis has done something else, though: it has told him that he is not ill. He isn’t going through a phase he’ll get over. He is quite simply different, and those differences, good and bad, are here to stay. All he can do is manage their impact to the best of his abilities.

The most cutting part of the vlog, for me, was listening to him explain how much time he wasted waiting for what he thought were his symptoms to get better, or to go away. He was waiting for the right time to go out and do what he wanted to do. That time will never come. He now has to accept that, and to accept that the time he spent waiting in vain won’t come back to him.

I found that incredibly interesting, as well as incredibly moving. I also found it relevant to the self-defence field. There is a tendency in self-defence and recovery to try and use one-size-fits-all solutions to individual problems, without actually looking at the origins of those problems, without distinguishing between symptoms and personal attributes, and often without trying to disentangle the causality of the issue. Does the student have social anxiety because they were attacked, or were they attacked because they have social anxiety? Can they change their victim profile by reducing that anxiety, or is it a part of them that won’t be “cured” by “standard” fixes, because their anxiety has a different source? Is telling people that you can “fix” them helpful when it is not only untrue, but predicated on ableism?

The thing I find most interesting, though, and the main reason I am writing, is that I can’t post the link to the original vlog here. It is a splendid, honest, open, truthful piece of self-chronicling, and I don’t trust my audience to respect it.

In case someone’s missed it, the world of self-defence is full of people who hurt people on purpose. Some are straight trolls, doing it for kicks. Some justify that behaviour as a teaching moment, because what doesn’t kill you obviously makes you stronger and we all want stronger people, yo. Some are predators of various kinds, often operating under the aegis of other predators – or, worse, of people whose ego is so large and so wrapped up in their identity as Defenders Of The Helpless that they can’t contemplate the merest possibility of sheltering a predator in their midst.

No, I’ve not run a scientific study on this, and yes, there are plenty of good people in self-defence, too; but years of personal experience have taught me that this is A Problem. I personally only realised the extent of it when I had a giant falling out with a prominent self-defence instructor and – hey presto – suddenly stopped having issues with online creeps. I write about creeps all the bloody time, and all I needed to do to remove them from my life was cut one self-defence instructor off. I didn’t see that coming. So much for my expertise, hey.

The world of self-defence has a problem, and it’s a problem big enough that I don’t want to lead it to the doors of people I like, people I don’t want to be affected by the bad company I keep. I don’t want to be the discarded bag of chips that attracts the flock of seagulls; if I take on that role, I will feel responsible for all resulting screeching and shitting. And I cannot begin to express how bad that makes me feel, how disappointed I am at the discrepancy between what self-defence can be, and what it really is.