How often do you find yourself in situations where you just don’t quite “fit”? I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately in terms of mental health, specifically Complex PTSD. I haven’t said anything yet because I’ve still been trying to come to terms with what this means in the context of my life but I was diagnosed with C-PTSD about a week and a half ago. The psychiatrist said it with so much certainty after having only spent about 20 minutes with me, until that point I had only ever been told I have depression and generalized anxiety disorder. Of course, I never shared any of my history with those medical professionals, so part of that was on me. I am incredibly good at “passing”, rather, adapting to fit whatever the situation calls for. And, in the case of psychiatrists, they tend to see what they want to see anyway. I only wanted to be on meds for my depression and anxiety so that was all I divulged. I wasn’t too keen on talking about the past. I made a conscious decision to shape myself within that environment, as a result the environment also adapted.
As I think through this ability to “pass” within society and to make myself “fit” in situations I have been reminded of an essay I wrote about 5 years ago. The original title of the essay was “Passing and Adaptability: The Entanglement of Queer theory, Disability Studies, and New Materialism.” The essay was for my New Materialism class (part of a graduate program in English) and was a response to Eva Hayward’s “More Lessons from a Starfish: Prefixial Flesh and Transpeciated Selves” and Rosemarie Garland-Thomson’s “Misfits: A Feminist Materialist Disability Concept”. I focused specifically on what it means to pass as someone with a disability or as someone who identifies as Trans because those were the lived experiences alluded to in the essays to which I was responding. But, as I think about it now I think more in terms of mental illness/mental health. Typically I wouldn’t share this sort of thing here because it feels really tedious and pedantic, the exact opposite of what I want for my blog. However, I really think there is some merit in re-contextualizing this argument and having a conversation about how “passing” or “fitting” is a crucial part of surviving for so many of us with mental illness diagnoses.
In the essay I discuss this idea of dissonance within music; in music, minor chords are still a complete, resolved entity. They may not give us the warm fuzzies that major chords give us but they are, nonetheless, perfect just the way they are and they’re important when it comes to creating music with depth. It’s this idea that I’m currently really stuck on in my own life. As I’ve been in therapy I have been fighting with myself and fighting against progress because I couldn’t get beyond the idea of progress as being synonymous with changing myself. I have been trying to remold my existence, chisel off the pieces that don’t “fit” the image I’ve built in my head of how a healthy person looks and acts. But, maybe progress and getting healthy doesn’t actually work that way. In fact, though my therapist hasn’t outright said as much, I think that this is something she has been trying to get me to see differently.
By trying to change myself I am buying into the false perception that I am “bad” or “wrong.” And that belief is a huge part of what took me to therapy in the first place. In re-reading this old essay of mine, I realize that I am music. I am a composition of major and minor chords. Some parts of my song may not feel good to everyone else but they are a part of me, without them I would not be the person I am and there is good within that person. It isn’t the “me” that needs to change, so much as how my song “fits” into the whole score. It is about creating harmony between me and my environment, not simply “passing” because I can.
So, without further ado…. the essay (with additional thoughts in bold):
Is there somewhere within your memories, your imagination, where you can recall or hear the pounding out of notes, the mixing and mashing of unlike tones, the entanglement of active chords, the creation of discordant melodies? Have you ever been privy to this unique experience of knowing, of feeling within your very being, what it is and what it means to just not quite fit? Dissonance, cacophony, a state of perpetual unrest; this is the queer experience. The realm of existence outside of the conventional, separate from the majority, a world of minor seconds and diminished fifths actively waiting. Waiting for something to change, something to give. A single shift, a half-step up the scale or a half-step down, and misfitting becomes fitting; harmony is attained. Consonance. In the world of music, something can not quite “fit” without being lacking; all of the components for a harmonious melody can be there and still there will not be repose. The solution is quite simple; adapt. But do we (either people in general, or more narrowly the disabled or transsexual) adapt or do our environments adapt to us? According to Eva Hayward in “More Lessons from a Starfish: Prefixial Flesh and Transpeciated Selves” and Rosemarie Garland-Thomson in “Misfits: A Feminist Materialist Disability Concept” in order to come to know a harmonious existence we must understand the encounters in which we either come to “fit” or “misfit” with various environments.
Hayward comes to know and explain the “critical enmeshment” or “enfolding in which language, music, and matter are lively relatings” through the song “Cripple and the Starfish.” The song vibrates and fluctuates, enters into Hayward’s being, in much the same way as Hayward’s words strike me; they penetrate and permeate, entering into my very existence and knowing – through my epidermis, dermis, adipose, muscle, into my vital organs, my cells and my being. There is something about her writing that moves me, creates music within me; the “tonality” of her “voice” aligns with the notes of my existence. These words, they trans-form me, change me. Hayward’s argument gains a different sort of consistency, as her language creates harmony. In both Hayward’s and Rosemarie Garland-Thomson’s arguments language, words, play a vital role in the construction of being. Hayward states that her “cut is of [her] body, not the absence of parts of [her] body. The regenerative effort of [her] cut is discursive; [her] transﬁguring cut is a material-discursive practice through which [she is] of [her] body and of [her] trans- self” (72), and that “animals are bound in language such that language cuts into flesh but does not completely devour the body” (75). When these two statements are taken together they illuminate the question of what role language plays in the “healing” or regeneration of the self and of the body. If the cut is essential to regeneration, and language “cuts into flesh” then it would stand to reason that language plays a vital role in the becoming “of the body” and “of the self.” As for Thomson, “identity is at once performative and narrative, emerging as particular material bodies interact in particular social locations and moments” (596). There is no “cut” in the misfit model proposed by Thomson, but she makes clear that language here also plays a vital role in the act of becoming. It is this act of becoming which I see as crucial to the understanding of “fitting” within a mental health model.
Interestingly, though Thomson places much significance on the role of language, she neglects to consider one very important definition of the word “fit” when she is exploring how this particular word applies to fitting and misfitting. One of the many definitions she provides for “fit” exists within the realm of British slang, for one to be fit they are to be ‘sexually attractive or good-looking’ (593). As Thomson suggests this provides “a generally positive way of being and positioning based on an absence of conﬂict and a state of correct synchronization with one’s circumstances” (593). She proves that “fit” is an exclusively positive term (especially in regards to physical being), but there is one definition that she never mentions that could have been potentially useful to her argument, one that focuses specifically on the body and materiality. In America, the term fit can be used to point out a person’s athleticism, to say that one is in excellent physical shape is to say that they are “fit.” When considering fit-ness from this standpoint what then becomes of the misfit? If:
Misfitting serves to theorize disability as a way of being in an environment, as a material arrangement.[…] A ﬁt occurs when a harmonious, proper interaction occurs between a particularly shaped and functioning body and an environment that sustains that body. (594)
Thomson and Hayward both argue for definitions of disability and trans-ness that avoid the concept of lack, but when regarding “fit” as something to do with health are we still able to define the misfit as one who does not lack? If people with disabilities become “misﬁts not just in terms of social attitudes—as in unﬁt for service or parenthood—but also in material ways” (594) then they are regarded as lacking. This lack, I believe, can also be attributed to those with mental health diagnoses; those of us who have been told by one medical professional or another that we don’t quite meet the norm. We are, to them, in some way missing the very traits necessary to make us “normal”. This is where I would like to bring back the ideas of music and harmony. It is possible to need without lacking, as in music. What I want to explore now is how those individuals who are typically positioned outside (though we know that the outside/inside dichotomy is quite possibly fictitious) find a way to attain harmony.
Thomson regards harmony as involving “a ‘proper’ or ‘suitable’ relationship with an environment so as to be ‘well adapted,’ […] or ‘satisfy[ing] the requirements of’ the speciﬁed situation” (593). The “specified situation” here, no doubt, being discursively and culturally constructed. This is why people who are “different” are cast-out, it is easy to see when they do not satisfy certain requirements. Harmony seems to be outside reach. If harmony were truly outside of reach though people would not be able to “pass.” Hayward seems to consider “passing” as a negative solution, and Thomson mentions it in passing as if it is not a viable option. Despite their apprehension toward “passing” the validity of it cannot be denied. When it comes to disability there are individuals who are afflicted with “invisible” disabilities, and often these people do not let anyone know. They pass. Similarly, in the LGBT community men and women who do not meet the mainstream expectations of what a gay or lesbian person should look like can and do often “pass” as heterosexual. It is unfortunate that we live in such a society that requires this form of passing/adapting from individuals but it, nonetheless, does not diminish the harmonious effect of this passing (at least on a surface level). The only person who can cast these individuals as “misfit” is the individual themselves, and for this reason the adaptability of the person to their environment needs to be given more consideration. Thomson seems to suggest that the environment needs to adapt to the disabled, whereas Hayward argues that the individual can and will adapt to their environment. I would argue that they are both right. In order to achieve harmony both human and environment need to adapt to each other. We are all of us, everything, in a constant state of fluctuation, interacting and intra-acting. Everything existing with agency.
Yet, there was much of Thomson’s argument that seemed to deny the disabled individual agency. She provides numerous scenarios in which the individual could have shared agency with environments:
“One citizen walks into a voting booth; another rolls across a curb cut; yet another bumps her wheels against a stair; someone passes ﬁngers across the brailled elevator button; somebody else waits with a white cane before a voiceless ATM machine; some other blind user retrieves messages with a screen reader. Each meeting between subject and environment will be a ﬁt or misﬁt depending on the choreography that plays out” (595).
In most of her scenarios the environment was adapted, and if it was not then the individual did not “fit.” These scenarios seem to deny those cases where adaptation can and should go both ways. It is understandable that Thomson would be arguing for environments more suitable to those with disabilities, but in many ways she is denying disabled individuals the vary agency she wishes to attribute to them. They are still misfitting, existing in the zone of discordance. It is here, along these lines of thinking, that those of us with mental health diagnoses are at a distinct advantage in our environments. There is no doubt in my mind that many of us have come to regard ourselves as “unworthy” or “unlovable” or “too much” or “not enough.” We have come to see certain traits within ourselves as “bad” because they don’t quite allow us harmony within society. But, I’d like to propose an alternative. What if these are the very traits that make us exceptional? Strong? Survivors? What if we are really just adding flair to the music of life? I mean, wouldn’t things be boring if all we ever had were major chords?
As Hayward and Thomson prove there is not one single path to becoming, to experiencing the entanglements of the world in a harmonious way. There are many. Hayward and Thomson have created melodious arguments, each strong in their own ways; they account for two notes in a chord, a diminished fifth, one step away from harmony. There are questions that remain to be answered. Thomson suggests that bodies must rely on their environments to adapt, but why? Is it truly possible to achieve a better understanding of disability and other positions of “otherness” without falling into a definition of lack? When it comes to the discursively and culturally constructed is it ever really possible to separate inside from outside? “Material” differences will always exist, so how do we come to understand those differences without someone or something falling back into the land of “other?” Perhaps Hayward is right; the answer to harmony and healing is in “the cut.” If it is, does language hold the key to harmony? If language really does hold the key to harmony then perhaps all we need do in order to “fit” within the world is reframe the narrative.
Garland-Thomson, Rosemarie. (2011). Misfits: A Feminist Materialist Disability Concept. Hypatia. 26. 591 – 609.
Hayward, Eva. “More Lessons from a Starfish: Prefixial Flesh and Transpeciated Selves.” Womens’ Studies Quarterly 36.3-4(2008): 64-85.