This is a hard essay for me to write, because it ends not with empowerment but with failure, disengagement. My relationship with activism is one that has changed dramatically in the last fifteen years. In the early days of my diagnosis I was more empowered or possibly more naïve, being less afraid of arrest and the subsequent denial of medication, and more willing to put myself into dangerous situations. There were many marches in the early days, but I will talk about the two most memorable ones.
At nineteen I traveled from Portland to Seattle with friends for the World Trade Organization protests that became known as the WTO Riots or the Battle of Seattle. I was tear-gassed and ran from rubber bullets, fleeing the police across barricaded city streets. I enjoyed the sense of danger, thinking little of the fact that I was narrowly escaping arrest every time I left an intersection at “one” when the National Guard announced they were moving in on a count of three. I was a teenager, my friends were anarchists, and my perspective was different then.
Several years later I attended an abortion rally with my mother and sister, this one without the violent confrontations. It was exciting and empowering to march, to chant, to hear Hillary Clinton speak, to see all of these women brought together for a common cause. It made me realize the power of the people, united, will never be divided, as goes the chant.
But then, as my disorder worsened, I became divided, weakened, less bold and less brave. While I was willing to attend safe, non-confrontational marches, such as the Dyke March at Gay Pride last year, where there were permits and no risk of arrest, my taste of civil disobedience had diminished. I was a different person, and if I could be terrified of the voices coming through the window, the shadows on the ceiling, the shivers in my skin, then the prospect of actual material danger was insurmountable.
There was also a more banal issue, which would come to eliminate my ability to participate in the rising Occupy Movement: Irritable Bowel Syndrome. While I have never been technically diagnosed with it, and I am not sure if the fact that I have to take a shit every ten minutes for most of the day has more to do with the six medications I take or with a legitimate gastrointestinal problem, whatever the cause, the power of the people stops when I can’t find a port-a-potty.
So I was an armchair activist when Occupy went down. I sat in my apartment overlooking downtown and read the twitter feeds and wished I could be there so much, but knew deep down that the six medications taken twice a day were so integral to my ongoing survival as a sentient adult that I could not even risk them being taken from me for a few hours, much less the weeks or months that incarceration would result in. I would be smearing my own shit on walls and speaking in tongues at that point, and that would result in institutionalization that could be permanent. I could not risk it. I have worked hard to get to the point I am at now, and I do not want to watch my personhood fade away for a cause, any cause. My mental health is the most important cause at this point in my life.
Now, I do not do activism that puts me physically in danger. One could argue that living as an out, publically married lesbian and an out mentally ill person, writing about it under my own name on the internet is a form of activism, but I do not feel the need to flatter myself. I am no longer running from teargas, dipping my scarf in rainwater to better breathe through the acrid smoke, I am sitting comfortably in a office chair which the cat watches me from atop the printer with calm green eyes. My disability and the caution of early middle age have taken that wild-eyed girl in the patched black hoodie away from me, I will never be her again, but, then again, I never got arrested.