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On Un-Fearing Madness

Photo credits, clockwise from upper left: Kristine Wook, Cristina Eisenberg, Nathen Domlo,

By Robin Gow

I don’t think I’ve ever been more cautious about hope than these last few weeks that have begun the Biden administration. The night the election was called I cried at Biden’s acceptance speech both because he mentioned “trans” and “disabled” voters and because I wondered how I had come to want so little that the slight mention of my worth could reduce me to tears. For weeks I’d been passing a huge billboard hung outside my small town that reads “Biden: Vote for Sanity.” In Trump country, I appreciated the billboard’s loud presence among a sea of Trump signs but the word “sanity” still needles me. That wasn’t the only place I saw people referring to the “sanity” and “logic” of Biden’s future administration. In the wake of the Capitol Hill debacle, I noticed television hosts, friends, and random Tweeters calling these people “deranged” and “crazy” and “insane,” but often avoiding terms like “white supremacists,” “terrorists,” or even “traitors.” Sure, yes, I heard those words too (thankfully) but I’ve been thinking about what it would look like if we could separate the concept of “justice” and “progress” from “sanity.” I feel invested in this as a person with multiple neurodiversities who is often a little less than “sane” and also as someone who cares about ending police brutality.

The first time I experienced hallucinations was in undergrad, but possibly younger. I started hearing someone talking on the other side of my dorm wall. Normal enough, I thought. I told myself it could be someone in the house. Only, I always knew it was different because they knew my name and directed what they said at me. Sometimes, I’d feel skin-crawlingly paranoid they were telling people bad things about me. I stayed there on winter break when everyone was gone but me, and yet the talking continued. It continued with noise-canceling headphones and earplugs. Always the same voice. At the time I was involved with the college’s Gender and Sexuality Alliance, Feminists in Action, and several other student groups focused on raising awareness for injustices and inequalities on our small college campus. One of my biggest worries was that if people knew how “crazy” I was, that I wouldn’t be able to be part of these communities and work towards our shared goals—that I would be discredited or people would be scared of me. In meetings, this meant making up excuses for why I lost my train of thought or why I was acting sporadically. It also meant I didn’t address the behaviors that impacted other people and often prevented me from being as good a community member. Like, for instance, I took up way too much space in the kitchen spaces with my impulse food hoarding. Of course, I’m not blameless in that but I think fears around marginalized people seeming less than sane made it harder for me to navigate. My dream is that we can start to build a movement for equality not based on putting up a façade that we’re all doing fine all the time—especially in the midst of a global pandemic.

Alone in quarantine, I hear the wall voices still. I get along well enough without any medical intervention but I don’t tell my therapist about this experience because I’m scared of my autonomy being taken away. I know it’s something I should discuss but I’m terrified of people thinking I’m “insane” because I know that label comes with connotations like violent, unprofessional, and unworthy. In addition to this, I’ve lived with OCD and sensory sensitivities for as long as I can remember. I’m proud of being an autistic person but the r-word has been thrown at me since I was little—since before I even really knew what it meant. I want to live in a world where my mind and minds of people like me and with other neurodiversities are valued and not equated with literal White Supremacists.

I think there’s a lot to learn from being a little “mad” and I want to come to a place where leaders of political movements and politicians don’t have to pretend to be stoic, unfeeling, and neurotypical to be respected. I don’t really endorse a lot of what Joe Biden says but I felt acutely defensive of him when people brought into question his competency because of him fumbling over words a few times (he has a stutter) or people calling him “demented” because he’s old. And honestly who cares if he has dementia? I think neurotypical people frame the lives of people who don’t have perfect memory as less human and less worthy of sharing their opinions and less able to even have opinions or policies. Recently, I’ve started following more neurodiverse organizers and leaders on Instagram and Tiktok and it has made me feel like change is happening. Their power as leaders comes from both their revolutionary drive towards social change and their honesty about what it can feel like navigating the world as a neurodiverse person.

The poem by Zoe Leonard, “I Want a Dyke for President” is something I return to at least yearly. Comprised of the repeated line “I want a ____ for president” when the “____” a list of people in categories deemed undesirable. The more I read it, the more I question if the poem is even truly arguing for these people for president, but rather drawing attention to where lines are drawn for respectability, especially within the so-called liberal Democratic party. In the poem, Leonard writes, “I want someone who’s been to therapy” and I would want to add “I want someone who is not sane—who lives through what it means to come undone—who finds their own paths of self-understanding.”

It’s not just about how these sentiments make neurodiverse people feel too—this emphasis on “sanity” has tangible real-world impacts on neurodiverse people’s lives especially when people exist at different intersections like race and gender presentation. Police inflict violence on all communities of color but when a person of color is also neurodiverse this puts them even more at risk. While there are instances of police violence towards neurodiverse people of all races, white neurodiverse people are less likely to face violence when we’re crisis while people of color are often deemed “violent” or “dangerous” because of police’s racism coupled with a lack of understanding of neurodiverse people (ableism). Additionally, these interweaving systems of injustice lead to high populations of incarcerated and homeless neurodiverse people, again, most drastically impacting neurodiverse people of color. I don’t just want a world where neurodiverse people are leaders but also where we can be treated with care when we’re having a mental health crisis and have our lives valued the same as neurotypical people.

I’m also hoping for a time where we can define for ourselves what access looks like. People with all different kinds of disabilities need to be included in all the spaces we occupy but inclusion doesn’t look the same for everyone nor should it be standardized. Some people with my same disabilities might want or need medications. I might even want them myself at some point. Some of my tools right now include noise cancelling headphones and fidget devices. I would love to see all methods of access normalized and for neurotypical people to trust us when we express what our needs are.

I do actually think it is progress just for Joe Biden to mention “disabled” people as a group of people. I want this to be a year we work to listen to neurodiverse people and not just ones who fit respectability models. A year we stop valuing “sanity” over substance and the complexities of everyone’s personhood. I hope we can celebrate madness and that support for people like me doesn’t always involve trying to make us conform to neurotypical standards but can come to consider what it would mean for us to thrive.