Using the master’s tools to build a shack outside so you can be alone (aka navigating disability gatekeeping in the educational system)

Even before I stopped taking medication, I stopped going to therapy. I didn’t have a therapist through most of the withdrawal process; only at the very beginning did I seek out a psychologist because I thought it would be safe. But I just found myself arguing with her, as we had such different worldviews and experiences. I could never get her to understand that given my history and my positionality, my extreme emotions were rational and evidence-based. I know there are radical therapists out there, but I just don’t have the time to find one by trial and error, and my insurance situation is such that I can only go to Medi-Cal approved providers or UCLA doctors. I did go to a psychiatrist and a psychiatric nurse practitioner while I was going through withdrawal because I still needed that script and because I figured they might have some knowledge worth sharing. Once I was done with the meds, though, I found no help in continuing to visit a mental health provider. I know therapy is, maybe, supposed to be a place to have your views challenged, but I don’t think therapy should be a place where your essential humanity is challenged. Most therapists are viewing me through the medical model or a similar paradigm, and likely have varying degrees of allegiance to the status quo. This is evident in their disbelief of my experience.

Before I went back to school, my desire to disengage from the mental health enterprise was not an issue. I didn’t see myself needing to verify for anyone that I’ve got the crazy. I figured that in a work scenario, I would continue to—like most people–use clever little white lies to get the breathing room I needed for myself. When I first started back at community college, I dodged needing to request accommodations for my crazy when it came to assignments, accessing services, and the like by leaning on financial and temporal support from my mom and my boyfriend. Their help allowed me to arrange my life as such that I could focus solely on school. That combined with my school being on the semester system rather than the quarter system (meaning we had 16 weeks to complete one course rather than 10) provided me enough cushion time to perform my self-care activities and fall apart when necessary, but still do the homework, meet deadlines, and get high marks.

the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house, but they WILL build a kick ass shed miles away, in the woods.

the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house, but they WILL build a kick ass shack miles away, in the woods.

I first realized I would have to notify the system that I was, indeed, a person who has historically been labeled “mentally ill” by practitioners at the end of last spring, when I was investigating how to get to UCLA. For some reason, simply living off-campus doesn’t entitle you to the ability to buy a parking permit. You have to go through this bureaucratic process that involves applying for the permit several months prior to the start of the quarter—with the potential to not be approved—and paying for it regardless of whether or not financial aid has disbursed. At community college, permits were cheap and plentiful; they issued them without regard for lot capacity. I spent a lot of time circling, but at least I didn’t feel like I had to fight to get a permit at all.

To get a permit the “normal” way for fall quarter last year, I would have had to apply for the permit in May or June and pay for it in August. I didn’t even know for sure that I would be driving there alone (rather than carpooling or using the vanpool) until August, because I wasn’t able to register for classes and thus couldn’t know what my schedule would be. And I sure didn’t have almost $300 in August, since that’s the month Rob doesn’t get paid and I don’t get any financial aid until the end of September. For a couple months, I was wracked with anxiety over the prospect of having no way to get to school, and I realized that I shouldn’t have to deal with this. No one should have to deal with this. No one should be going through this big step, going from community college to university—a step notorious for being a stumbling block for many students—and also having to deal with uncertainty on such a huge issue as transportation. Living 30 miles away should get you access to a permit, period. So, I decided to use the fact that my anxiety has been labeled pathological to make my life a bit easier. I got a letter from my last doctor vouching for my disability, and I applied for a permit via the Center for Accessible Education (CAE). CAE allows you to get a pre-approved application pretty much anytime during the quarter, so as long as you can get the money together, you can get a permit. But, I had to consent to be labeled in order to secure this luxury for myself. I had to admit on paper that I couldn’t navigate the obstacles the school erected in my path without an unacceptable level of suffering.

CAE also offers other services—and professors will grant you accommodations like more assignment time—if you submit to their more in-depth application process. At first, I thought I would just need the parking, but lately, I’m wondering if I shouldn’t make it easier on myself and just allow my diagnosis to serve me. UCLA is on the quarter system, so everything is accelerated, and it’s far, so getting there and back drains my soul. I’ve found that here, circumstances are such that I need to leverage my diagnosis to secure breathing room and refuge from unrealistic demands. The idea of expending valuable energy on the application process and potentially having to defend my choice not to take medication is intensely unappealing, however. What I really wish is that universities would stop simply accepting the inequality in society and perpetuating it, and start modeling what a better world could look like. Part of this might involve not forcing differently abled/neurodivergent/neuroatypical etc. people to engage with or submit to the medical system in order to prove their suffering would be increased without accommodations, especially when doctors are the source of that suffering for so many. A better path would be to simply disengage from capitalism and the culture of individual achievement and hyper-productivity it has produced. But since universities themselves are metamorphosing into profit-making enterprises, I suppose that might be asking too much. What’s really frustrating, and borders on gaslighting, is that the rhetoric the administration and faculty deploy around being more inclusive and supportive of nontraditional and historically underrepresented students does not reflect the structural reality. From jump, I have noticed obstacles that make it more difficult for students who don’t live on campus, who have jobs or kids or just the desire to not completely destroy their health over trying to meet the extracurricular and academic demands of being a “successful student”.

Part of me wants to try to change this system while I’m in it, to help whoever comes after me. I realize, though, that I just don’t have the energy to expend changing an institution I’m not even sure needs to exist in the first place. I don’t know that these sites of formal education are the best way of disseminating knowledge through a populace. I don’t think they are; I don’t feel like they are, but I’m willing to be wrong. As mechanisms for producing more individuals to fill socially acceptable occupations, universities don’t have a place in my ideal world. In my experience, formalized education processes out creativity and true contemplation in favor of a kind of diversified groupthink that passes for critical thinking. I would like to see a much more individualized educational system that allows learning to happen naturally. I don’t think we all need to know the same things. I do think we should all know certain things—a true history of world societies, economics, and exploitation for example—but I don’t think we’re currently teaching those things in school when we need to be, which is at the elementary level. In any case, my survival strategy for the remainder of my stay in the educational system has to be conservation of energy. I will leverage my diagnosis when need be to counter any structural obstacles both at the institutional and the social level that cause me unneeded suffering, but I won’t seek to transform the institution itself.

These are the trade-offs we make every day as revolutionary-minded crazy folk. We consciously choose when we engage with labeling and when we disengage; we decide when to deploy it in order to mitigate some of the harm structural inequality and access barriers cause, and when to reject it when it degrades our humanity. Hell, these are the trade-offs we make every day as black women, as queer and trans people, as people of color and other oppressed folks. Systems of oppression all have release spouts, features that allow oppressed people within them to use the system against itself in small ways. For example, as a queer femme cis woman, I could potentially leverage sexism and patriarchy to get a free meal on a first date if I was broke and starving (and single!). But no one should be starving in a world of abundance. My pseudo-privilege doesn’t negate the immense and disproportionate harm patriarchy does to cis women versus cis men, and it doesn’t negate the fact that the harm I would be attempting to mitigate was inflicted by an unjust social structure. I see the “accommodations” I can access similarly, in that I am addressing a harm that derives from our society’s embrace of hyper-productivity and white supremacist capitalism. It doesn’t negate that harm, but it makes it just a little bit easier to live with.

In this moment, that has to be enough.

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