Category Archives: invisibility
[Warning for somewhat graphic discussion of medical procedures and adverse allergic reactions.]
I have been dealing with weird, severe, and inexplicable allergic reactions since the age of 14.
Most of these reactions have been to food items; my known food allergies include peanuts, various tree nuts, and (wait for it) green bell peppers. Of course, I take great caution to avoid these foods and my exposure to them. Unfortunately, with my immune system, such caution is no guarantee that I won’t have an “attack” out of the blue.
The first “attack” I had, in fact, was one of those not caused by food. I was a teenager at the time, in Paris on vacation with my family. I don’t remember much about my initial symptoms other than I felt overly-warm very suddenly, and decided that it would be a good idea to take a cold bath in order to rectify the situation. My mom found me in the bathroom of our rented apartment, facedown on the tile floor and missing several items of clothing. I had figured, somehow, that putting my face on the tile floor as a method of cooling down would look less weird than sticking my entire head into the freezer. My face, which had initially turned bright red, swelled up so much that I soon found myself unable to see. I had quickly begun to resemble the Bob’s Big Boy logo; I should note here that if you ever start to resemble a famous food-related logo, you should probably go to the nearest hospital post-haste.
My Bob’s Big Boy transformation was quickly followed by giant, blotchy pink hives that appeared on my neck and shoulders. Joining the party somewhat late was a hot, almost volcanic feeling in my lungs that quickly morphed into breathing trouble. Severe breathing trouble. So my family (my mom, my dad, and my younger brother — who suggested that I not look at myself in any reflective surface so as not to become more freaked out) and I took to the streets of Paris in search of a hospital. We found one — after a quick visit to what we thought was a hospital but which actually turned out to be a convalescent home. At the ER, the staff took one look at me and immediately put me at the front of the queue; I was quickly whisked away to a magical land where a nurse tried to calm me down, completely in French, when I loudly protested the insertion of a large IV needle into the underside of my forearm. The only English-speaking doctor on staff, as it turned out, was on his day off, but came in to examine me and assure my family that I was going to be okay.
When we came back from vacation, I had another attack about a month later. And then another. And a few more, until one ER doctor suggested that I get a full round of allergy tests, more commonly known as “scratch tests.” The scratch tests revealed a substantial peanut and tree nut allergy. I took care to avoid these foods, or any foods that may have come into contact with them. Unfortunately, I still kept having attacks, even when I avoided the dreaded peanuts and tree nuts. I still have them, approximately once every 3-4 months.
Sometimes, I get them as a result of cross-contamination if I eat at a restaurant. Sometimes, I get them for no reason at all — even if I haven’t eaten for a while. The symptoms tend to be fairly consistent: first, a scratchy feeling will start in my throat and lungs, followed by wheezing. Then comes breathing trouble, which tends to feel like an elephant is standing on my chest. Usually, my eyes will then swell up to the point that I cannot open them all the way, or see. Sometimes, I get gastrointestinal trouble as well, the symptoms and signs of which are not things that I can discuss in polite company due to general grossness and/or TMI.
The first five to ten minutes of these attacks are, generally speaking, the worst part(s). By now, my battle plan for dealing with these attacks is well-established: Take a shot or two of my inhaler at the first signs of trouble (usually breathing difficulties plus another symptom), then four or five antihistamine pills. Of course, it takes a few minutes for these things to kick in, which is part of why the “waiting” part is so physically painful. During these first few minutes, I am in some sort of hellish allergy-limbo: it feels like someone or something has put some bricks on my chest and torso, I can’t see or can barely see, and it feels like my intestines are being vacuumed out of me — and the only thing I can do is wait for the medication to start working. I generally consider myself to be a patient person, but nothing will sap your patience like having to wait out a potentially life-threatening medical emergency.
And if that doesn’t work, I have to go to the next level, which is using epipenephrine, a self-contained steroid shot to be injected into the thigh in case my breathing is so severely compromised that I pass out or am in danger of not getting enough air into my lungs.
For these sorts of attacks, there is really no pat, inspirational or life-affirming end, so much as a screeching halt after the medication actually starts working. And this total lack of inspiration or an end in sight is also reflected in some of the responses I have gotten from many abled people in regards to my “allergy issues” (to be addressed in part two).
Today, September 10th, is World Suicide Prevention Day.
Being suicidal, especially if you have long-term thoughts about suicide and suicide ideation, can be a very isolating and lonely experience. Do you tell your friends and family? If you do, how will they react? What about your job? Will you be forcedly committed into psychiatric care? Will people assume that if you haven’t actually harmed yourself, you’re not really suicidal and just faking it for “attention”? If you’re happy and having a good time today, does that mean you’re not really suicidal at all? What exactly do you say, and who do you say it to?
These are the things I wish I could tell you:
Be as kind to yourself as you can. If you are having long-term suicidal thoughts, you are ill. You are not weak, you are not failing, you are not letting anyone down. You are sick, and just like if you had a bad cold, or some sort of infections, you need to take care of yourself, and let your body and your mind recover.
There is not a quick fix. Talking to a friend, or a professional, or a help line, taking medication, spending some time in short or long term care, these are all helpful but take take time, something you can take as much of as you need. I wish I could promise you that talking to someone would force your mind and your body to heal, but it won’t. This is not because you’re a failure, but because you are ill, and again, you need to give yourself time, because you are not a failure, and you are not letting anyone down.
You do not have to be perfect. Just like someone with a cold or an infection may skip their cold medication or their antibiotics, and as a result may get sicker or set back their recovery, you too can end up screwing something up. This does not make you a failure, and you have not let anyone down. You are still worthy of getting the help you need, and you can still reach out to people who want to help you. Again, there is no quick fix, and you are allowed to make mistakes.
I cannot promise you that everyone around you will be accepting. It is not unusual in my travels through the internet to find people writing about how people who attempt or commit suicide are “selfish” or “bad”. These people are wrong. You are ill, and that is not the same thing at all. But there are people who are trained to help you, and are willing to help you in the road to recovery, no matter how hard or how long it is. Some of these people will be strangers, and some of them will be friends or loved ones. I know it’s socially isolating and scary, but please try and reach out, because they want to help you. Here is a small list of resources that may be helpful to you.
Your pain, and how you feel, it is all real. You are allowed to feel these things. You are allowed to be who you are. None of this makes you bad, or undeserving, or unlovable.
I hope you find what you need.
People with disabilities, especially women, have all the same pressures currently non-disabled people do to look “good enough”, with added bonus of being either non-sexualised or hyper-sexualised, as well as having people infantize them to an incredible degree.
Talking about disability and self-esteem and body image is very difficult for me. People look at me and see a woman without a disability (or a woman with a non-evident one), and I pass. I don’t get the odd looks that a woman of my age (or younger, or older) using a cane or crutches would. I don’t get the pats on the head that women who use wheelchairs report, and I don’t have people leaping out of the way when I’m using a motorized scooter.
But at the same time, women like me are often used as stand-ins for “horrible”. Whether that’s the simple of “she took off her glasses and suddenly she was beautiful!”, or the more complicated of “oh my gosh! the woman I had sex with is actually a crazy person! Quick, let us make many movies about crazy = bunny-boiler = grotesque!”, I’m well aware that women like me are bad, ugly inside, and unacceptable.
These things add a whole other layer to the conversations that many women, feminist and non, have about self esteem and body image. We are all inundated with the constant barrage of White, Long-Haired, Slender (But Not Too Slender), Tall (But Not Too Tall), Unblemished, Healthy-looking, Young women in most advertising and fashion spreads, television shows, movies, and even on our book covers.1
At the same time, though, poster children and the pity parade are a fairly common image of disabled children – whether with visible or non-evident disabilities – that present people with disabilities as weak, as undesirable, as needing of pity – and always, always, always, as children. Very rarely are images of self-possessed, happy, disabled adults shown, unless they are in one of the “he’s so brave” “look at what she’s overcome” news stories.
I don’t know how this affects other people, or how they deal with it. I know that when Don first got his cane, and then his wheelchair, his self-esteem and image of himself took a hit, and it took a while for me to convince him that yes, I still found him attractive (and I can’t tell you how much I love that wheelchair, since my sexy sexy husband now has energy!). I know for me it would be nice to see images of Actual Crazy Women who aren’t mockeries of women like me, but treated like actual people. It would be nice to see casual fashion spreads with people with evident disabilities in them, rather than only seeing “diversity matters!” posters that include maybe one (male) wheelchair user, usually white.
As I said, I find these things very hard to talk about, because in many ways I don’t even know where to start. While to some extent discussing pop culture and representations there is important, how do we, as individuals, deal with our own self-esteem issues? How do we, as a group, tackle the constant attacks on people with visible disabilities to hide parts of themselves? Make yourself more approachable by putting sparkles on your cane! Soup up your wheelchair and maybe someone will ask you a question! Hide your obvious aid-devices so that they don’t offend people! Cake on make-up so no one can see your scars!
I think there’s so much here to talk about. Please, tell me your thoughts.
- The last one is so ubiquitous that until just now I didn’t realise that of all the non-fiction books on my desk about disability, only one has an actual image of visibly disabled people on it. Most of them have very plain covers, or abstract-type art on them. ↩
Dear abled/non-disabled people without disabled parking placards who use disabled parking spaces anyway,
I don’t care if you want to use the space “because it’s so convenient.”
I don’t care if you only “need” to use the space “just for a minute.”
I especially don’t care if you back up your illegal use of said disabled parking space with some bizarre justification like, “But some people FAKE being disabled to get these permits, so what’s the difference?” or “Well, if a person in a car with a blue placard shows up, I’ll move” or “But there isn’t anyone disabled who needs to use the space here right now, so what’s the harm?”
The harm is that I or other disabled people are so often witnesses to your saying these things, and we are presumably expected to not react at all to your taking advantage of something that is not for you. I personally do not own a motor vehicle, so while I don’t need a disabled parking permit, I also don’t need your entitlement complex and your basically telling me — a person with disabilities — that some of the regulations intended to benefit me and people like me are rules that can be bent by you if it’s the most convenient option for you, an able(d) person.
Just don’t do it. It’s illegal and carries penalty of a possible fine for a reason.
This sort of legislation? Is not intended to benefit you, or be a convenient thing that you can take advantage of when you feel like it. Most of the world is already set up for you. These “convenient” parking spaces don’t have to be set up for your use, too.
If you ever want to confuse people, tell them glasses are assistive devices that assist people with lower-level vision impairments, and then compare these assistive devices to such things as arm crutches or wheelchairs. In my experience, they’ll often insist that people who wear glasses are normal. (Not like people who use wheelchairs or arm crutches or any other type of assistive tech, no no, those people are disabled. And everyone knows you can tell who has a disability and who doesn’t just by looking at them, right?)
I’ll often introduce people to the idea that our image of what “disabled” looks like is constructed by talking about glasses as assistive tech, just assistive tech that is generally accepted by society. For a lot of people I interact with every day, getting glasses is routine, and you’ll see glasses everywhere on the street – advertisements for fancy glasses frames! and for new types of lenses! Glasses for everyone! (For certain definitions of “everyone”.)
At the same time, media & pop culture still use glasses as “code” – either for This Is Serious Work, or This Person Is A Nerd/Geek (and a particular type at that) or a scientist/doctor, or a Serious Scholar. This is true whether the person uses glasses all the time, or if they just use them for certain things. On Leverage, for example, when “the bruiser” character Eliot puts on his glasses
he suddenly becomes totally sexy and I’d totally hit that because I’m shallow it’s usually an indication that his persona for the episode is Egghead/Nerd or Expert on something. Neal, who is a “recovering” con artist, does something similar in White Collar when he’s doing close-up nerdy-type work on his forgeries, or when his persona is “doctor”. I also clearly remember Elle Woods putting on her Serious Glasses and getting into her Serious Clothes for when she wants to be taken seriously as a lawyer in Legally Blonde. Glasses = Smart!
What brings this back to Glasses As Assistive Tech is that glasses are very normalized to people watching the shows, and yet glasses aren’t all the common as just a Thing The Character Wears in the show. I know why this is – glasses cause light-reflections, glasses make it harder to read someone’s expression on the screen, glasses can be dangerous in fight scenes, if they have lenses they can get scratched up and cause more problems, and if you’re not someone who wears glasses all the time I’m betting they’re distracting.
But, of course, movies and television aren’t the only media we consume. Comics, novels, and video games don’t have these problem. You can give every character in a novel glasses if you want, and it doesn’t really matter. And yet, when I was reading romance novels & chick lit all the time, I can only remember one heroine who wore them, and she went through the whole “Oh, but no one will find me pretty! Men don’t make passes at girls who wear glasses!” (And, despite her glasses being a huge thing in this novel, the cover art didn’t show her with them. Not that this is surprising, but still.)
So what does this have to do with anything? Well, glasses are assistive tech that is very normalized, and yet doesn’t appear very often in our media. When it does appear in our media, it’s often a code for something. This person is Smart. This person is Studious. This person in Playing A Role.
This person is Eliot and his glasses make him really really hot omg why are there not more episodes of him wearing glasses and being friendly? And if we can’t see this incredibly common type of assistive tech in our media being used as just a Thing That People Wear, it’s no wonder we so rarely see people using assistive tech in our media just because Some People Are Blind or Some People Uses Arm Crutches or whatever.
Commenting Note: Sadly, I am still on Thesis Time, and likely will be until the end of the calendar year. Comment-approval/responding to will be slower-than-usual on account of this.