Revisiting labels: Why “labels are harmful” is bullshit

So, I’ve posted before on why “labels are harmful” is harmful. Now I’m going to talk about why it’s bullshit. This is a re-write of a forum post I made once, edited for typos and clarity.

One of my biggest irritations is people who tell me I shouldn’t label myself. “You trap yourself in a sick narrative,” they tell me. “It changes how you think of yourself – you’re not you, you’re a sick person once you label yourself. It’s not helpful.”

To which I say, in a very heartfelt manner: That is fucking ridiculous.

Allow me to explain: People who have problems with labelling seem to have a magical thought process that if the label isn’t there, the illness, disability, or what have you it exists to name will disappear. Don’t label yourself as sick and you won’t be!

This, quite frankly, is bullshit.

When my lung function was pooped out at 40% of my normal at max and I was having >30% peak flow variability in a day, I was really sick. Realizing that it was a relapse of my childhood asthma and applying a label to my illness didn’t make me sick. I was already sick. And not having a label for my sickness didn’t make me magically well. I was, as I said before, really sick. What applying the label did is give myself and medical professionals I was working with a handle on what was wrong. I could (and did) search journals for info about asthma and for info about comorbidities to worry about and possible conflating illnesses to rule out. It also gave us an idea of where to start with medication, and where to go for our plans B, C, D, E, F, etc. It wasn’t all sunshine and daisies after we got the right label applied to my illness (I had trouble with a doctor who didn’t believe that the first-line treatment wasn’t helping, and eventually I had to switch doctors because of it), but it gave us a place to start from.

Likewise, not having a label for my attention issues when I was a kid didn’t mean I didn’t have those problems. It didn’t mean that I magically was a well-behaved student in elementary school, that I wasn’t up till three or four in the morning every night in high school with insomnia, that I could get out the door without forgetting at least one important thing, that I could remember to eat if I was absorbed in something. It didn’t make my handwriting neat enough for me to read it (I still have a hard time reading my own writing unless I make an effort to be neat – and don’t even try my cursive), it didn’t make me coordinated enough to not trip over my own two feet in gym class, it didn’t mean that I didn’t have meltdowns where I’d hit people and break things and not know why, it didn’t mean that I could handle the school cafeteria (I often ate in the bathroom in the winter, or outside in the summer because the cafeteria just was so loud and chaotic and overwhelming even when the bullies who would ruin my lunch for shits and giggles weren’t there that I wouldn’t be able to eat), and so on.

It did mean that I knew I was different from the other kids but didn’t know why because my child psych didn’t feel that labels were helpful.

So instead of knowing I’m different because (reason), I was left with knowing I’m different but having all the adults in my life lie to me and tell me that I’m normal and that there’s no reason why this should be harder for me than it is for most kids so if I found it harder it was because I was lazy, stupid, irresponsible, and just plain unlikeable. Sometimes they said it explicitly, sometimes they just heavily implied it.

Labels do not make people sick. They do not cause people’s problems. They exist to put a name to something that the person likely already knows they have. In that way, they’re helpful, because once you have a name for something, you can unlock all of the knowledge in the world about that thing. But first you need a term for it.

Labels do not change peoples’ identities. A person forms hir identity through hir experiences. I identify as an asthmatic not because I’m labelled like one, but because I fucking well have asthma. And thus I’ve been through the hoops of poorly controlled asthma. I’ve been up at three AM unable to breathe. I’ve been blue in the ER. I’ve dealt with obtuse medical staff who are unable to recognize that cyanosis in asthmatic = breathing troubles even if there’s no wheeze. And so on. I call myself asthmatic because I am asthmatic, not because I’ve been ‘labeled’ asthmatic. Likewise with my attention problems.

By contrast, not labeling causes harm. Let’s conduct a thought exercise:

Imagine that you have a weird glitch that makes an important program for your work non-functional. And there’s no workaround. And everyone around denies that this problem exists. Your computer works fine, what are you talking about? See, this completely different program isn’t glitching at all! If you don’t know how to use that other program, you should just ask and we’ll teach you.

So you ask for training, even though you’re pretty sure you’re doing the same thing as everyone else. The training confirms your suspicions. They give you step by step instructions, except on step 3, your program shuts itself off. On the training computer, it works fine, but when you return to your computer, it shuts off again.

People at work are getting angry with you. Why isn’t your work done? What are you doing with your day? Why can’t you work like Morgan One Desk Over? Hir work is always done on time. Etc.

And you try to explain that your program isn’t working. And they don’t believe you, because when you load the program, it looks just fine. It looks normal.

After a while, you’ll collect disciplinary action. And get a reputation for laziness and being a complainer since you’re always whining about that program that works just fine for everyone else. You just use it as an excuse not to work, others will say disdainfully. You’re too dumb to figure out a simple GUI, others will sneer. There’s nothing wrong with your program, so it must be some problem with you why you’re not getting work done. You have a problem with the boss because you’re too negative and don’t get your work done. There’s nothing wrong with your program. There’s nothing wrong with your program. It looks fine. Nobody else has this problem, so what are you talking about? There’s nothing wrong with your program. You’re being lazy. Just work harder.

That’s what it’s like to have a problem others don’t recognize and not know what it is. Only it’s worse, because it’s not a computer program, it’s your mind or your body that’s got something different.

Then imagine your giddy relief when an IT person is called in to help with the printer and you ask hir to take a peek at your program. The IT person realizes that it was corrupted by a power outage a while back and reinstalls it for you. Xie teaches you how to recognize when the program is corrupted, what to do when it’s corrupted, and how to prevent it from becoming corrupted in the future.

That’s what it’s like to get a diagnosis (label) and a strategy to address your issues.

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mornings

I am not a morning person. To put it mildly.

It takes me a good two hours to fully wake up. At least. And, no, it’s not because I have a sleep debt – the two hours to wake up is true whether or not I’m caught up on sleep.

I’m mostly non-verbal until I wake up. I’ll manage monosyllabic noises. Sometimes single words.

“Coffee?” is one of the only things I say in the morning. That means I like you enough to expend enough mental energy to offer you some of my caffeinated liquid elixir of wakefulness.

I’ve been this way since I was a kid. Since infancy, really.

Another thing I have trouble with first thing in the morning is eating. I’m a slow eater, anyway, but first thing in the morning, a bowl of cereal can take me an hour and a half to finish. But I need to eat it, because otherwise, I’ll bet hungry around 10 and very irritable. And I probably won’t realize it’s due to being hungry. Which is a recipe for work or school problems.

When I’m tired or groggy, I get quiet. My partner, by contrast, gets talkative. Fortunately, he doesn’t mind if I do monosyllabic affirmative noises instead of conversation… too much.

When I go to the gym in the morning, it works pretty well: I’m exercising when I’m normally not wanting to word anyway, and he’s not feeling like I’m ignoring him or just humoring him. Additionally, first-thing-in-the-morning grogginess is greatly reduced by exercise. Not sure if this is because the exercise gets rid of the grogginess or because the exercise happens while I’m groggy, but it works. Before dawn, nobody at the gym wants to make conversation, and the dudebros with terrible form who want to instruct a former competitive power lifter on weight lifting technique while lifting with their backs rather than their legs aren’t out yet. It works.

Designing organization systems

So, I’ve decided to change my approach to organization. Not sure when I made this decision, it just sort of happened and then a only recently did I realize consciously that’s what I’ve been doing.

I’m an engineering student. I just recently changed discipline to engineering. Before, I was a chemist. I still am. I’m just a chemist who’s studying chemical engineering.

So, I’m learning a lot about the engineering thought process, and realizing how it’s similar to but different from the science thought process. In science, the underlying question is usually a “why?” Why doesn’t this reaction work? Why does this related reaction work? Etc. In engineering, the question is typically a “how?” How can I optimize this? How do I get this to work?

Anyone with executive function issues knows that organizing – and staying organized – is littered with hows.

So, I figured, why not apply my engineering principles that I’m learning to organization? Organization can be thought of as a system. I just need to design and optimize systems to help me stay organized. What if I think about organization as not a matter of keeping track of all the details, but a matter of designing systems that keep track of the details for me?

I’ve already used this with success for the laundry (with my laundry sorter and getting changed in the bathroom all the time and using timers). Which, as a side-effect, solved the problem of the floor of my room. I’ve also designed a system for improving my regularity of gym trips, and I’m working on a few others.

So, I just figured I’d chat a bit about my thought process when I set up something like this.

  1. What do I need? I ignore social acceptability here. Which is hard. It’s hard to focus on “I need ____.” when my brain is going, “I should be able to do it like everyone else!” So this step takes me a few weeks, to figure out what my actual need is. In the case of the laundry thing: I need something that will let me keep my floor clean, and I need it to be something I can actually keep up with. Lastly, I need the transition to the new system to go smoothly – there has to be no system-breaking problems with it by the time I roll it out. If I fail the transition, I won’t be able to implement it. That’s just the way I am.
  2. What do I want? I again ignore social acceptability. It’s okay to be selfish! I’m the one who’s going to be doing it! So, here, it was I want a system that sorts my clothes into tops, bottoms, underwear & pajamas so I don’t have to go digging through everything to find what I need to wear. This is not a need, so if it were to turn out that I can either get my floor safe to walk on or I can get the sorting, I’d sacrifice the sorting.
  3. What are my limitations/constraints? So, in this part: Space. My room is tiny. No room for a full dresser (plus, I hate dressers anyway since I fail at folding and so have a hard time getting stuff to fit). As mentioned before, I fail at folding, so it has to be something that wouldn’t need me to master the black art of folding. I’m not going to magically get over my inability to organize and keep track of stuff, either. Nor am I going to remember to go out of my room to put stuff away, so it has to be something I can do as part of getting changed/laundry/etc. And, money-wise, I needed it to be something I could set up for less than $60 CAD because I am a grad student and we get paid peanuts. Finally, I’m not going to figure out how to break my black-and-white thinking regarding changes overnight, so I should just accept that if I fuck up the transition, I will be unable to follow through with it and will need to try out something else.
  4. What do I already have in place? Erm… Piles on the floor. Dirty clothes go in this pile, clean clothes go in that one.
  5. What are the problems with what I already have? Well, ignoring that clothes on the floor take up a lot of space and really aren’t safe to walk on, sometimes it’s hard to tell where one pile ends and another begins, plus my dirty laundry isn’t sorted. For doing laundry itself, I make use of the kitchen timer, which works when my roommates don’t turn it off to be a passive-aggressive about something – what, I don’t know. I know they do it on purpose, but I can’t magically realize why they’re irritated.
  6. Can I build on something I already have? It’s easier to modify existing stuff than it is to build something entirely new from scratch. This is why it takes children two years to learn to walk competently but an adult can learn a new physical skill in a few weeks. Kids learn much faster than adults, but adults have the framework of existing skills that can be modified. Plus, I know my existing strategy is within my wheelhouse of things I can manage. Therefore, it’s far more likely that a modification of the existing strategy will also be within my wheelhouse of things I can manage than it is that something I design from scratch will be. What I will do is take from the strengths of the existing system: Namely, I always change in the same place, and I always put my dirty clothes in the appropriate pile as soon as I’m done. Timers help me remember to change over laundry, but I currently have a problem with roommate sabotage. Finally, when I get around to sorting laundry, I sort it in four groups: Dark colors, light colors, whites and towels. Take that, modify it.

So, once I had what the problem was figured out and my end goal figured out, I went researching. Someone I know has a laundry sorter, and I priced them. I found they were relatively inexpensive – I got mine for about $35, taxes in. I made sure to get one with four sections. Now, I have somewhere to put the laundry when I get changed. Next, I went looking for plastic bins. I found some that were fairly cheap, and got enough for both my partner’s clothes and mine, sorted by pants, tops, and everything else so six bins. I came in a little under-budget, as the bins came to about $20 since I lucked into a sale.

Then I went into troubleshooting what could go wrong before I applied this:

  1. Room is tiny. So, I have to move the sorter elsewhere. Bathroom fits it perfectly, so I’ll stick it in there.
  2. Problem with above solution: I’m not going to remember to carry laundry from my bedroom to the bathroom. So get changed in bathroom instead.
  3. Not a lot of room for bins in current room configuration, but if I move my desk, I can stack them next to my bed. That works.
  4. Roommate sabotage is a problem that needs fixing. I have a timer on an old cell phone I don’t use anymore, why not use that instead of the kitchen timer and take them out of the equation?
  5. Solution to 4 leads to problem 5: The reason why I started using the kitchen timer was because if I used a timer within arms reach of my computer, I’d shut it off without thinking about it and it wouldn’t serve its purpose. So… set the timer across the room, so I still have to get up and move to shut it off. This will work.

Then I applied it. I chose a Saturday to build everything and set up the bins because it’s a lower stress day and I was less likely to get too anxious about it (I still ended up cursing a lot, I admit) and also because Saturday I have enough time to do laundry. First, I built the sorter. Then I sorted the laundry, which made me realize I needed to do laundry, so I started a load. I set the timer up away from my computer, then I sorted my clean laundry into the appropriate bins.

So far, the only breakdown in the system is that I just don’t have enough work jeans so I sometimes end up with, “I don’t have enough dirty laundry to do a load, but I’m all out of stuff safe to wear at work!” And I usually discover that on a work morning. So I will remedy that in a few weeks, when I get the money saved up.

The other systems I’m working on:

  • Prevention of clutter buildup. This one is still in its infancy. I’m still trying to figure out why I have clutter buildup, so I can sort out a solution to the underlying problem.
  • Kitchen countertops: Should be fairly easy – I think all I need to do here is have garbage cans where I most frequently work in the kitchen rather than where they’re most commonly placed. Relatives will try to move them back to the “right” space whenever they visit, but nothing says I can’t just move them back where I want them when they leave. In the pre-implementation troubleshooting.
  • Housework: Not even sure where to begin here. Thinking I need to break it down into smaller problems, but not sure how. Need to think more.
  • Keeping track of school/work stuff: I’ve got some good stuff to build off, here, but I’m already doing pretty well with it, so it’s low on the priority list.

I have to say, thinking about organization as an engineering problem? Way more effective than anything I’ve tried before. For the first time in my life, I can safely walk across my bedroom floor. That’s pretty huge. Doing it everyone else’s way never worked, so it’s high time I chuck their ways out of the window and choose instead to design my own. So far, it’s working.

It’s the little things that make you know you’re different.

My partner shuts his laptop with his headphones in the microphone jack on game night. A feedback squeal erupts. “Aaaaaaa!” I yelp, and slap my hands over my ears until he gets it sorted. Others stare quizzically. I realize I’m the only one in the room with my hands over my ears.

I’m walking on campus, and I hear a high-pitched whine from a ventilation system. I plug my ears habitually as I pass it. It’s the change of class, about five thousand people are crossing campus. I see one young man with his ears plugged. We nod at each other, silent recognition of each others’ discomfort.

It’s bright outside, and I realize I forgot my hat. I walk across campus for coffee with my eyes shielded by my hands and squinting so hard I can barely see. I hear someone laugh at me as I walk past.

I still bounce down stairs at 26. I just don’t let anyone see me, so I don’t get asked, “What are you, six?”

I’m at a conference, in an interesting lecture, but I can’t sit still. I remember why I never wear this blouse now – the tag is poking into my side, aggravating me to no end. In the interest of not irritating the heck out of those sitting around me, I am the only person in the lecture of around 200 who has to duck out for a short while. Someone later asks whether or not I had too much coffee. I say yes because I know from experience that “My shirt tag was annoying me and I had to go tape it down” won’t be believed.

Someone’s staring at me in the conference reception. Her face is screwed up in that mixture of bewilderment and snide mockery that any bullied kid learns to recognize instinctively. I realize I’ve been fluttering my fingers at shoulder level for who knows how long. I drop my hand to my glass and lightly drum the glass side instead.

I sneak out of my session two minutes early, so I can grab coffee before the coffee break rush starts. Then I slink off to a quiet corner I found on the registration day, when I spent an hour staking out quiet areas where I can retreat to. I know all of the quiet corners. Someone else invades mine for a cell phone conversation. Feeling irrationally irritated, I flee to a different quiet area.

My stomach feels like it’s trying to tie itself into a pretzel. There’s a meet and greet going on, and I know I should at least show my face at it, but I’ve been up since 5 and am exhausted. I lean my head against a pillar and let the waves of sound drift over me.

A person is giving an interesting talk. The person seated next to me moves away a seat. I realize I’ve been rocking side to side as I get more intrigued by their work.

I attended a conference recently. It was exhausting, fun, draining, and exhilarating all at once. It was also alternately joyful (when chatting with people equally gleeful about their stuff) and terribly lonely (when I did something that made other people treat me like a freak and/or when I hit a point of it’s-too-much and needed to slink off somewhere for recharging).

Sometimes, going to an environment not set up to accommodate you sends it home how different you are.

Not expressing stuff the normal way can be dangerous.

There are a number of things I don’t express in the “normal” way.

For example, few people can recognize when I’m anxious unless I’m panicking. Because short of panic, my response to anxiety is to grin and act giddy and also to make a lot of smartass remarks. Which is taken by most as amusement and also being a smartass. It’s also why I used to be a holy terror in class (if your response to anxiety caused by someone yelling at you is to grin and giggle and crack jokes, the person yelling at you will be incensed and they will yell at you more until embarrassment overrides fear and you start crying or until you panic and flight or fight kicks in, I say from experience. A screamed, “is this funny to you?!” is almost as bad to me as a shouted, “look at me when I’m talking to you!”).

Not many can recognize when I’m in severe pain because the drama, for lack of a better word, of my reaction to pain is inversely proportional to the severity of both the pain and its cause. So if I’m whining about how much stubbing my toe hurt, it probably does hurt, but I’m not injured. If, by contrast, I’m curled up on the ground in silence holding my toe, with or without tears running down my face, it’s probably broken. Since most people do the opposite, by and large, my pain is either under- or over-estimated whenever I have to deal with unusual doctors.

And only two people can recognize when I’m having serious breathing issues. Because to outsiders, it just seems like I’m thinking or maybe a bit cold. I get quiet,  and I stare off into space. I hunch over a bit. It’s subtle. If it’s bad enough that I’m anxious, I might seem cold but in good humor, as I’ll crack jokes and generally act giddy. This has caused medical people to not treat me for asthma because I’m not acting like most people act when they’re having breathing trouble.

My point is this: If, like me, someone expresses stuff unusually, that can lead to misinterpretation by others. And the misinterpretation can cause serious problems. I’m not yet sure how to fix it, since in my experience even saying explicitly that I react to stuff weirdly doesn’t work.

 

When I was violent

This is a post investigating my childhood violence. I will illustrate my point by summarizing different situations paraphrasing how my parents gossiped about them to relatives, and then from my point of view at the time. I hope these anecdotes will make my point clear, but if they don’t, I shall sum them up at the end.

  1. The situation: A brawl between me and five classmates when I was seven.
    • The way my parents tell it: The school called in the middle of the day, and said she got in a fight. Some kids were roughhousing with her, and then out of the blue, she attacked one, kicking and biting him. His friends tried to help out, and she attacked them, too. She insisted they started it, even though everyone who saw it agrees she threw the first blow. We talked it over with the school, and decided on an in-school suspension and at home grounding to her room for the fights, and no sweets for two weeks for lying about it afterwards.
    • My point of view: I was reading my book. Some kids came over and stole my book. I tried to get it back, and they kept it away from me. I called to a teacher, who didn’t even look sideways and replied, “Play nice, kids.” I told the boy who stole my book to give it back. He smirked at me and ripped the cover off. I tried to grab it from him, but I was too short to reach. I told him to give it back again, and he asked me what I was going to do about it and shoved me into one of the other boys, who also shoved me. I punched the boy who stole my book in the stomach to get him to drop the book, and then the other kids grabbed me, so I fought back. After the fight was over, the boys insisted I started a fight for “no reason” with them and claimed the book was damaged during the fight. The teacher and my parents believed the five of them over me, even though I wouldn’t be so foolish as to pick a fight with a group of five kids for shits and giggles, and I was grounded for having my book stolen and getting ganged up on.
  2. The situation: I attacked my sister while doing chores when I was eight.
    • The way my parents tell it: She was being grumpy about having to do dishes. She was defiant and left the room when told to do them, so I brought her back and made her continue. Without warning, she took it out on her little sister. It’s not okay to lash out at people because you’re angry. Plus, she’s older, and shouldn’t be beating up her younger sibling. She should have the maturity to deal with her anger in a more productive way.
    • My point of view: The part about “no warning” is just plain wrong. And so is the idea that I was just grumpy about having to do dishes. Here’s what really happened: My sister had been bothering me all day, so I was cranky, and I hated the dish soap my mother used because I’m allergic to something in it so it caused contact dermatitis and made my hands and forearms itch (which my mother gaslighted me about when I complained – “It doesn’t itch, you’re just being lazy.” – but I still can’t use that dish soap brand as an adult, and if that’s all the store has, I have to wear gloves. Since my allergies have gotten worse as I’ve aged, I don’t get contact dermatitis anymore. I instead get hives. The allergy has been diagnosed by an allergist, so I’m not making it up). Plus, I hate doing dishes by hand – I hate not being able to see what I’m doing, my relatives used to put sharp stuff in the sink when I wasn’t looking and the first I’d find out about it was when I cut myself, my mother always made the water painfully hot, and she wouldn’t let me change the water until it was so thick with filth it had the texture of snot and would make me gag. So I was feeling irritable to begin with. My sister decided to start poking me in the ribs, which I find extremely painful (I’ve had broken bones that I didn’t find as painful as a poke in the ribs, just for context). I told her to stop. She continued. I appealed to my mother, who was in the room. She told me to ignore my sister. My sister continued poking me. I said it hurt and told her to stop again. My mother told me it didn’t hurt and to stop complaining, ignore her and do my dishes. My sister continued to poke me. So I tried to leave the room. My mother grabbed me and hauled me back to the sink, telling me that I couldn’t leave until I finished the dishes. My sister poked me again. I told my sister if she poked me again, I was going to hit her. My sister poked me again. I exploded and punched her several times about the face and shoulders. As far as I was concerned, it was self-defense after all non-violent ways of getting her to stop were exhausted. For this, I was grounded and made to do the dishes every day for the next two weeks. Nothing happened to my sister.
  3. The situation: Me throwing a dumbbell through the wall at eleven.
    • The way my parents tell it: She was downstairs with some other kids, and suddenly we heard her screaming, “Leave me alone!” and there was a crash. We come downstairs to find a hole in the wall and she was ranting in an empty room about how the other kids wouldn’t leave her alone.
    • My point of view: Again, I was reading. My sister and her friend thought it would be funny to bounce erasers off my head. They did this a few times, so I went upstairs. My parents were having a discussion they didn’t want kids around for with the adults, and sent me back downstairs. I tried to protest that the other kids were bothering me, but my father told me he didn’t want to hear it and that I should go back downstairs, so I went back downstairs. My sister and her friend changed to playing the “I’m not touching you” game and sticking their hands in between my book and my face. I told them to leave me alone, but they wouldn’t stop, so, since the adults had already told me they didn’t want to hear it, I retreated to the bathroom. My sister’s friend lied to the adults, saying she had to use the bathroom and I wouldn’t get out, and the adults threatened to ground me if I didn’t get out. They continued to bother me, so I went upstairs and asked if I could wait in the car. My parents told me not to be rude and to go back downstairs and to “play nicely,” and that if I came upstairs again, I would be grounded. I went back downstairs, and they continued the “I’m not touching you” teasing, this time, faking that they were going to slap me because they thought the way I flinched was funny. So I retreated to a linen closet instead, and my sister’s friend told her mother that I was messing up the linen, and I was told to get out of the linen closet. I left the closet and was immediately tormented again, so I went upstairs, where I was told by my mother that I was grounded because I needed to learn to play nice with the other kids, and she sent me back downstairs. They started playing a game of sneaking up on me and pulling my ponytail, and after a few times of telling them to knock it off and leave me alone, I lost my temper after over four hours of being bothered by them and not retaliating. I grabbed the nearest object (the dumbbell) and started to throw. Partway through the throw, I realized that it was very heavy and would really hurt somebody if it hit them, but I was already past the point of no return in a throw where I would hurt myself if I didn’t actually throw it. So rather than hurt someone else or myself, I threw it at the wall. The other kids didn’t want to get in trouble, so they ran into a bedroom and lied that they weren’t in the room with me and that they hadn’t been bothering me. Since I’d been “acting up” all day, my parents believed them over me, grounded me, docked my allowance the amount to repair the wall, and let the other kids get away with no sanction. One upside: They made me wait outside in the car for the rest of the visit, where I was able to read in peace.
  4. The situation: I attacked a boy in my high school at 14.
    • How my parents tell it: The school called and said she’d attacked a boy who was trying to get her attention. She charged at him just out of the blue and had to be pulled away by two other girls in the class.
    • My point of view: That kid had bullied me for years, with sexual harassment (calling me sexy and groping me), name-calling, and just generally being a jerk. My complaints were either punished (in elementary school – for “tattling”) or brushed off as him “liking” me (in middle school). I’d had a bad day, as I’d failed an assignment due to my handwriting issues again and my parents had gotten in an argument with me wherein they’d pulled that “ask you to be honest and then get angry when you are honest” BS and they’d grounded me for answering their question honestly at their request. So I was already on edge. I knew he was just trying to get my attention to make fun of me again, and I snapped.

Do you get the point? If not, I’ll spell it out: “unprovoked” “out of the blue” violence by a single kid lashing out against one or more others almost never happens. Explosive, angry violence like that pretty much always has more to the story than the adults see. No, I wasn’t right to explode, but the explosions could have easily been prevented if the adults around had paid a little more attention (the teacher who didn’t even glance up, where she would have been able to see that the boys had stolen my book), applied a little more discipline (my mother refusing to discipline my sister for antagonizing me), enforced boundaries and respect a bit more (the last three examples), or been a bit more flexible (if a kid is being bothered so much by other kids that they retreat upstairs even after threat of grounding… maybe just let them wait in the damn car, FFS). In my case, yes, I would have violent angry explosions, and to attack others in such a way was wrong. I do not dispute that.

However, what was also wrong was the fact that others were allowed to torment me with impunity before, during, and after my explosion. What was also wrong was the fact that my attempts to resolve the situation non-violently were ignored by the other kids and alternately ignored or actively sabotaged by the adults around me. What was also wrong was the fact that, sometimes, I was punished for attempting to resolve a situation non-violently (being punished for “tattling” on a kid who was bullying me, for example).

If you have a kid who’s prone to angry explosions at other kids, adults, I would suggest you investigate bullying as a source. All of my angry explosions were bullying related – either sibling bullying or peer bullying. Other things may have contributed (sensory stuff, stress, etc), but bullying was the only common denominator for me as a kid. I am not saying that all explosively violent kids are bullied kids. YMMV with that. What I am saying is that explosive violence doesn’t occur out of the blue, and that treading a violent explosion as if it happened in a vacuum is a wrong-headed recipe for more explosions.

Know why? Because the explosion, by and large, works for the kid. When I exploded at the boys, I got my book back (albeit in need of repair) and they quit bugging me. When I exploded at my sister, she quit poking me. When I exploded at my sister and her friend, they quit bothering me. And when I exploded at the boy in my school, he quit bullying me. By contrast, non-violent stuff generally didn’t work if the kid is at the point of explosion. Maybe the kid doesn’t know how to resolve the situation non-violently. Maybe the kid tried but it didn’t work. In either case, by not investigating where the breakdown in non-violent conflict resolution happened and correcting it, you are allowing a situation where non-violent conflict resolution is either useless or inapplicable for the kid to continue.

Kids aren’t little adults. They don’t have the experience to magically know the right way to resolve a situation. You have to teach them. Furthermore, kids don’t have the same powers that adults have: if an authority figure refuses to investigate or take action on something they report, they don’t have the power to ask for the authority figure’s supervisor. Nor, generally, do they have the resources to buy surveillance supplies and engage in their own evidence-gathering to support their claims when they return to report a second time. You have to provide that for them, and make sure that the channels they do have to work through actually work. If you don’t, you’re setting up the situation such that an explosion is their only way out of an unbearable situation, and then you’re punishing them for taking the only option available to them in their desperation, and how is that fair?

“You just don’t want to.”

Ariane wrote a post that I didn’t feel I could respond to adequately in a comment, so I thought I’d write a post in response.

Perhaps the single most harmful thing I’ve ever internalized was, “You just don’t want to.”

As in, “You could talk fine yesterday, so I know you can talk well when you want to. You just don’t want to.”

As in, “Well, two weeks ago, you had more homework than you had this week and you finished it all fine, so I know you can get work done when you want to. You just don’t want to.”

As in, “You were fine at your birthday party, so I know you can behave at parties when you want to. You just don’t want to.”

And so on, and so forth.

See, what those people didn’t realize was that the circumstances were different. Yesterday, we weren’t talking about how kids bullied me. Two weeks ago, all my homework was in classes that send out email reminders. At my birthday party, we didn’t go to sensory hell that is Chuck E Cheese.

But I’ve internalized that message of I-just-don’t-want-to. And, for me, it works as a thought-terminating cliche that poisons most aspects of my life.

  • Rather than seek help for my problem staying organized, I assumed I just didn’t want to stay organized, and that on some level I enjoyed the moments where I’d realize the assignment was due today about when the prof asked for them to be handed in or the getting up at 3AM to pound out an assignment when I had classes from 8AM till 9PM that day and was going to have a hard time staying awake through them all.
  • Rather than seek help for my handwriting issues or find some alternative to handwriting, I assumed that I just didn’t care enough to write neatly, and that on some level I enjoyed looking at the strange scribbled hieroglyphics in my notebook and trying to figure out what they meant, minus a Rosetta Stone.

And so on, and so forth.

I’ve internalized many other harmful things growing up (lazy, unathletic, stupid, intentionally rude, etc), but this one is the most insidious and the most difficult to combat. Because I can point to the workload I take on as proof I’m not lazy. I can point to martial arts as proof I’m not unathletic. I can point to the fact that someone once told me to stop apologizing for existing as proof I’m not intentionally rude. But how do I prove to myself that I don’t want to fail, even as I fail at something over and over again?

But thing is, right now, I know I don’t want to fail. I get giddy and bounce around with joy every time I figure out something else that helps me be a little more the independent, successful adult. The most recent being a laundry sorter that sorts dirty clothes for me (a work of genius, that invention). But in the heat of the moment, when I’m beating myself up over burning a sauce I was making again or forgetting that important work document again or what have you? I don’t remember that. I remember “You did it last week, so why can’t you today?” and “You can do it when you want to.”

“You just don’t want to.”