Good Vibrations, Bad Vibrations, Overwhelm, and Meltdown

I spent the evening with Polyphonic’s video essays on Fairytale of New York, Walk on the Wild Side, Wish You Were Here, Tangled Up in Blue, The Thin White Duke, The Chain, Deals with the Devil, Freddie Mercury’s Voice, Flea’s Bass, and John Bonham’s drums. Polyphonic offers captivating and well-produced looks at legendary songs and musicians.

The episode on Good Vibrations, Brian Wilson’s pocket symphony, had me bringing out the headphones to disappear into the version of the song from Smile.

Headphones and curated good vibrations are how I cope with sensory overwhelm, especially when I’m out in the world, outside my Cavendish bubble, where I’m unable to control my context. Smile and Pet Sounds are great albums in which to go for a sensory swim and let the world dissolve.

The Brian Wilson biopic, “Love and Mercy”, has a very relatable scene where Wilson is overwhelmed by the noise of utensils and conversation at the dinner table.

Overload, meltdown, outburst, and retreat. That escalation is a feature of my life, at times a daily one. As meltdown approaches, everything feels like shouting, everything is too much. Sounds and social interaction become painful, and adrenaline and anxiety surge, humming through my body and senses, overloading wires insufficient to the immensity of tidal flow. The dinner table scene is a good representation of how I experience overwhelm. A noisy, crowded dinner table is a personal hellscape.

I came across this piece on Autistic Traits and Experiences in “Love and Mercy” that explains further.

This scene is quite similar to how I experience an autism sensory overload. When sounds, lights, clothing or social interaction can become painful to me. When it goes on long enough it can create what is called a meltdown or activation of the “fight-flight-freeze-tend-befriend” (formerly known as “fight or flight”) response and activation of the HPA axis; a “there is a threat in the environment” adrenaline-cortisol surge.

This makes seemingly benign noises a threat to my well-being and quite possibly real physical danger to my physiology. Benign noises become painful, and if left unchecked, enough to trigger a system reaction reserved for severe dangers. This is what days can become like on a regular basis for myself and many on the spectrum.

“Let me stick a hot poker in your hand, ok? Now I want you to remain calm.”

That is the real rub of the experience of sensory meltdowns. The misunderstanding that someone with Autism is just behaving badly, spoiled or crazy. When the sensory overwhelm is an actual and very real painful experience. It seems absurd to most people that the noise of going to a grocery store could possibly be “painful” to anyone. So most people assume the adults or children just want attention, or they can’t control their behavior. In work situations I get accused of all kinds of things. And when I leave a noisy situation like a party to step out to take a break, people will notice that I’m “upset”. They will assume or worry that I must be upset at something or someone. And that’s just if I do take a break. If I can’t take a break or get my life out of proper oscillations and can’t avoid noise or sensory/emotional overload, then I can get snappy, defensive, irritated and under very unfortunate circumstances even hostile.

What the stress of noise means, in the autism’s world of an over-sensitive physiology and ramped up stress experiences, is that that pain is warning of us of real damage being created in our bodies. So this anxiety and reactivity isn’t necessarily just perceived but is actually happening. We are not being overly dramatic or a brat (what those with Autism are often accused of). Damage to our physiology is what noise can actually do.

Source: Autistic Traits and Experiences in “Love and Mercy” The Brian Wilson Story – The Peripheral Minds of Autism

As I write this, I’m coming down from a long day punctuated by meltdown. I feel scoured and hollowed by adrenal exhaustion. Time for a swim in the good vibrations of someone who understands.

Forced Smiling, Psychopathologizing Hopelessness, and George Carlin

In “The Effects of Authority, Compliance, and Pathologizing Students”, I quoted psychologist Bruce Levine’s piece on “Why Anti-Authoritarians are Diagnosed as Mentally Ill” noting how his thoughts on authority and compliance align with social model self-advocacy.

Two pieces on authority in education and a piece on side effects in education caught my eye on social media this week. The first is a Bruce Levine piece from 2012 on Why Anti-Authoritarians are Diagnosed as Mentally Ill that resonates with this social model self-advocate. Neurodivergent and disabled folks are medicalized, pathologized, and written off at school. Levine’s narrative complements Jonathan Mooney’s Learning Outside The Lines and Alan Schwarz’s ADHD Nation.

Source: The Effects of Authority, Compliance, and Pathologizing Students

Having steered the higher-education terrain for a decade of my life, I know that degrees and credentials are primarily badges of compliance. Those with extended schooling have lived for many years in a world where one routinely conforms to the demands of authorities.

So authoritarians financially marginalize those who buck the system, they criminalize anti-authoritarianism, they psychopathologize anti-authoritarians, and they market drugs for their “cure.”

Source: Why Anti-Authoritarians are Diagnosed as Mentally Ill

His recent piece, “Hopeless But Not Broken: From George Carlin to Adderall Protest Music”, further explores authority and how we pathologize and suppress critical thinkers. This paragraph particularly struck me:

Witnessing a mental health profession that is fast on its way to achieving complete ignorance about the nature of human beings would simply have validated Carlin’s general hopelessness.

Students and families who’ve slogged through the deficit and medical models, SpEd, and their collective penchant for behaviorism, compliance, and authority can relate to this sentiment. We leave so many minds out. We have forgotten so much about children, learning, and the nature of human beings that hopelessness is a valid feeling.

Collecting data on human learning based on children’s behavior in school is like collecting data on killer whales based on their behavior at Sea World.

People all over the world know these things about children and learning, and interestingly, they are as workable for learning how to design software or conduct a scientific experiment or write an elegant essay as they are for learning to hunt caribou or identify medicinal plants in a rainforest.

But we don’t know them any more.

Source: A Thousand Rivers – Carol Black

We have a medical community that’s found a sickness for every single human difference. DSM keeps growing every single year with new ways to be defective, with new ways to be lessened.

Source: The Gift: LD/ADHD Reframed

Going around social media right now is a story about a school forcing students to smile.

Students who do not smile in the hallways between periods will be instructed to, and if they refuse, they will be sent to the guidance counselor’s office to talk through their problems, reported Lebanon Daily News. Meanwhile, parents claim that reports of bullying in the district are mostly ignored by administrators.

Source: Students Not Smiling At School Will Be Punished, Say Teachers

This policy is sexist and ableist, among other problems, and ties in with Levine’s thoughts on authority and hopelessness. The students aren’t the problem; it’s the authoritarians who refuse to analyze systemic causes and get structural. Forced smiling pathologizes a hopelessness that is perfectly understandable and reasonable given the structural isms of school and society. Forced smiles don’t address poverty or principals who are sexist, authoritarian assholes. Forced smiles are just more mindset marketing bandages slapped over suppurating structural injury.

Not smiling in the face of reckless and illegitimate authority doesn’t mean you are mentally ill or broken. It’s the authoritarians and those who comply who are broken. Hopelessness is legitimate. Gaslit smiles are not. Forced smiling and the psychopathologization of hopelessness are deeply authoritarian attempts to overwrite another person’s reality.

Carlin was a far better therapist for critical thinkers than are the vast majority of my mental health professional colleagues. Shaming hopelessness as some kind of character flaw or, worse, psychopathologizing it as a symptom of mental illness only adds insult to injury. Hope missionaries ignore the reality that pathologizing hopelessness does not make critical thinkers more hopeful, only more annoyed.

I know many mental health professionals who espouse hope but who are broken and compliant with any and all authorities. In contrast, I know anti-authoritarians who, like Carlin, express hopelessness but who are unbroken and resist illegitimate authorities. Carlin modeled a self-confident rebellion against authoritarianism and bullshit, and he provided the kind of humor that energizes resistance.

I don’t know the exact moment when I became hopeless about my mental health profession, but my experience has been that one can be embarrassed by one’s profession for only so long before that embarrassment turns into hopelessness.

The symptoms of ODD include often argues with adults and often refuses to comply with authorities’ requests or rules. At that time, I was in graduate school for clinical psychology and already somewhat embarrassed by the pseudoscientific disease inventions of my future profession; and throwing rebellious young people under the diagnostic bus with this new ODD label exacerbated my embarrassment.

My embarrassment transformed into hopelessness as it became routine to prescribe tranquilizing antipsychotic drugs to ODD kids; to diagnose kids with mental disorders merely for blowing off school while their entire family was falling apart; and to prescribe Ritalin, Vyvanse, Adderall, and other amphetamines to six-year-olds who had become inattentive as their parents were engaged in a nasty divorce.

Achieving hopelessness about my profession had great benefits. It liberated me from wasting my time with authoritarian mental health professionals in efforts at reform; and it energized me to care solely about anti-authoritarians who already had their doubts about my profession and sought validation from someone within it. Embracing my hopelessness about my profession made me whole and revitalized me.

Witnessing a mental health profession that is fast on its way to achieving complete ignorance about the nature of human beings would simply have validated Carlin’s general hopelessness.

Source: Hopeless But Not Broken: From George Carlin to Adderall Protest Music

Accessibility, Access Intimacy, and Forced Intimacy

These pieces on access intimacy and forced intimacy by Mia Mingus very much resonate with my experience. Forced intimacy is the continuous submission to patient hood required to access the right to learn, work, and live differently. K-12 SpEd families, higher ed students, and workers needing accommodations regularly experience forced intimacy. Forced intimacy “chips away at your soul. Every box you tick, every sentence about your ‘impairment’ and ‘needs’ becomes part of the narrative of your identity.

Forced intimacy is a cornerstone of how ableism functions.” “Forced intimacy is the opposite of access intimacy.” “Access intimacy is that elusive, hard to describe feeling when someone else ‘gets’ your access needs.” That feeling is rare in the abundantly ableist medical and deficit models, though I have experienced it a few times, notably with neuropsychiatrists who noticed and met my sensory needs with a quiet, no-big-deal attitude. They understood that compassion and good user experience make for better data and better outcomes.

My moments of access intimacy are accompanied by floods of relief. The usual mountain of anxiety, miscommunication, and empathy gaps need not be scaled. “Your body relaxes and opens up with someone when all your access needs are being met.

My most profound moments of access intimacy are when I meet an educator or healthcare worker conversant in neurodiversity and the social model of disability and respectful of identity-first language.

Treating my identity not as a disorder, but as a difference, one that matters in helping me and understanding me, is powerful compassion that makes for access intimacy.

Selected quotes:

There are many ways to describe intimacy. For example, there’s physical intimacy, emotional intimacy, intellectual, political, familial or sexual intimacy. But, as a physically disabled woman, there is another kind of intimacy I have been struggling to name and describe, what I have been calling “access intimacy.”

I have begun using the term loosely and am still realizing different aspects of it. This is in no way a complete describing of it, instead, this is an initial naming and the beginnings of giving it shape. I am offering it as something that has been useful for me and I hope is useful to others to describe all different kinds of access, not just in relation to disability. I think Access, as a framework, is powerful for so many of our lives. Here, I am speaking from my own lived experience as a physically disabled person but I know access intimacy can also happen in many different ways for mamas and parents, women of color, queer and trans folks, etc… Anyone can experience access intimacy.

Access intimacy is that elusive, hard to describe feeling when someone else “gets” your access needs. The kind of eerie comfort that your disabled self feels with someone on a purely access level. Sometimes it can happen with complete strangers, disabled or not, or sometimes it can be built over years. It could also be the way your body relaxes and opens up with someone when all your access needs are being met. It is not dependent on someone having a political understanding of disability, ableism or access. Some of the people I have experienced the deepest access intimacy with (especially able bodied people) have had no education or exposure to a political understanding of disability.

Access intimacy is also the intimacy I feel with many other disabled and sick people who have an automatic understanding of access needs out of our shared similar lived experience of the many different ways ableism manifests in our lives. Together, we share a kind of access intimacy that is ground-level, with no need for explanations. Instantly, we can hold the weight, emotion, logistics, isolation, trauma, fear, anxiety and pain of access. I don’t have to justify and we are able to start from a place of steel vulnerability. It doesn’t mean that our access looks the same, or that we even know what each other’s access needs are. It has taken the form of long talks into the night upon our first meeting; knowing glances shared across a room or in a group of able bodied people; or the feeling of instant familiarity to be able to ask for help or support.

Source: Access Intimacy: The Missing Link | Leaving Evidence

Forced intimacy is a cornerstone of how ableism functions in an able bodied supremacist world. Disabled people are expected to “strip down” and “show all our cards” metaphorically in order to get the basic access we need in order to survive. We are the ones who must be vulnerable-whether we want to or not-about ourselves, our bodyminds and our abilities. Forced intimacy was one of the many ways I learned that consent does not exist for my disabled asian girl bodymind. People are allowed to ask me intrusive questions about my body, make me “prove” my disability or expect me to share with them every aspect of my accessibility needs. I learned how to simultaneously shrink myself and nonconsensually open myself up as a disabled girl of color every damn day.

Forced intimacy is the opposite of access intimacy. It feels exploitative, exhausting and at times violating. Because I am physically disabled and use a manual wheelchair, I often experience forced intimacy when able bodied people push my wheelchair without my consent or when I am in situations where I have to be pushed by people I do not feel safe with, know or who are actively harassing me while pushing me. This often happens when I am traveling and have to rely on strangers for my access needs. I cannot count the number of times a strange man has pushed my wheelchair in the airport, while saying offensive and gross comments to me. These are the moments where disability, race, gender, immigration, class, age and sexuality collide together at once, indistinguishable from one another.

The contradiction of having to survive in the oppressive world you are trying to change is always complicated and dehumanizing.

Source: Forced Intimacy: An Ableist Norm | Leaving Evidence