F is for Freedom

by Sparrow R. Jones from Unstrange Mind

F is for Freedom

Freedom has been my life’s rallying cry. I have endured much in seeking it and many times over I have surrendered all my possessions in order to regain it. I am apprehensive of marriage, children, 30-year mortgages, and tenure because in each of life’s milestones I sense a millstone.

And so freedom has been a prime motivator in my decisions and actions.

I yearn to breathe free.

In writing this, I wanted to describe freedom. But as I began my attempts to do so, I realized that I was unable even to define freedom. Freedom has just always been one of those “I know it when I see it” things. Additionally, the shape of freedom has always been most clear to me in those times when freedom itself was nearly or completely absent.

So I looked it up. Merriam-Webster says freedom is “the power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants without hindrance or restraint.”

I need to unpack that.

“The power or right …” Power is deeply coveted and can be hard to come by. I’ve learned that neurodivergent people don’t have the market cornered on feeling (or being) powerless, but we do tend to get a bit more than our fair share of powerlessness, it seems. Freedom belongs to those powerful enough to take it and keep it for themselves. But rights are there to protect us from running too short on power to survive and thrive.

It has been claimed that democracy is two wolves and a sheep voting on what to have for dinner. The only thing that stands between vulnerable people and that vision are rights. Rights are power that one is entitled to and society has agreed to respect and protect. That doesn’t mean we don’t have to fight to get and keep them. But we live in a society with the notion of rights and that should put freedom more within our reach than if we could only be born into freedom or take it by force.

“… to act, speak, or think as one wants …” To act as we want: to be free from ridicule, bullying, abuse, and privation because we move differently from others, have intense or unusual interests, display nonverbal social cues differently, behave in ways that are misunderstood. To speak as we want: to sign, to type, to point, to get help pointing, to use our voices, to communicate in the ways that are most efficient and effective for us. To use more than one method if different ways of communication are easier for us at different times.

To think as we want: our brains process information differently and when the inputs are different, so are the outputs. So often we are called wrong when all we are is different. Our choices are judged with the criteria of someone else’s life in mind and we are pressured to conform to parameters that were shaped without a thought for people like us. Our choices are not your choices and do not need to be your choices. Our choices should not be your choices. History has shown that privileging someone else’s choices over ours leads to workfarms and institutions rife with human rights abuses.

“… without hindrance or restraint.” Living our lives without being tased or shot by the police. Working our jobs without being fired for not being able to produce the desired vocal tone or facial expression.

Acquiring our educations without being locked inside file cabinets and mailbags, tied up, pharmaceutically restrained or subject to corporal punishment including electric shocks. Seeking mental health care without the fear of being placed under emergency psychiatric hold by a therapist untrained and unexperienced in serving clientele with our particular neurodivergence.

Freedom is definitionally crucial in neurodivergent lives.

At present, my life is the most free it has ever been. I have sculpted my life into less-common shapes in search of elusive freedom. I was deeply unhappy with my life and decided I would take the course of the sculptor, comically described – take a block of stone and chip away everything that doesn’t look like a horse. Or, in my case, treat my life as a malleable work of art and remove everything that doesn’t look like freedom, well-lived.

At different points in my life, there have been different bits of stone that needed to be chipped away. I’m in the process of chipping at bits all the time. But when I looked around me at the apartment I’d been living in for twelve years and realized it was the longest I had ever lived in one place in my life, I realized the part of my life that most clashed with that dimly-seen but strongly-felt vision of what my life could and should be was how and where I was living.

While it is a comfort to be near people one trusts and knows well, it is stressful to be surrounded by unwanted people who trample on one’s boundaries. My neighbors invaded my life in a variety of very unpleasant ways, including social ambush and creepy advances. I felt like a sitting duck living in an apartment where anyone knew exactly where to find me and make demands of me.

I felt isolated from other Autistics. I was living in a substandard apartment without running water or heat for many of the years that I lived there. My landlord was intrusive, treated me like a child, and sent frightening drunks to repair things in my apartment when he did send anyone at all.

I enjoyed going for walks in the high desert surrounding town but I felt like I was running the gauntlet of neighbors every time I did leave to get outside in nature. In the winter I was trapped inside by ice and snow in addition to the constant social pressures.

I decided to chip away the pieces of my life that kept me stuck in an unwanted living situation and realized I wanted to live in a vehicle instead of an apartment or house. I wanted the mobility and freedom to go visit my friends and travel and wake up surrounded by nature. I researched and saved and sold things and worked to make my life look more like the life I wanted to live.

And now I have lived in a vehicle for the last year, traveling, camping, meeting other Autistics. People ask me how long I will do it and the answer seems to be “indefinitely, or maybe only forever” because I find myself thinking of ways to make my vehicle life better, digging into the lifestyle, letting go of even more material possessions, and planning how and where to be, always with vehicle living foremost in mind.

I must pause the narrative at this point to talk about how unusual I am in this regard. The average member of the general U.S. population – I can’t really speak for the rest of the world, having traveled so little outside my own country – is not fond of moving house and not interested in living a nomadic life (although the traveling life is often romanticized.) You must take that typical craving for location stability and increase it exponentially if you wish to represent how much the typical Autistic loathes moving house.

But there are outliers in any group and I am among the outlier population of nomadic Autistics. While there are stereotypes about Autistics being rigid, rule-bound, creatures of routine, those stereotypes have formed around kernels of truth. Most Autistics are not fond of change.

But clinging to stereotypes is too rigid for me. We aren’t gingerbread cookies; Autistics are different from one another as well as different from people of other neurotypes. Some of us are sensation-seekers in different arenas – sights, sounds, motions. And some of us follow big dreams that carry us to many different places. Some Autistics love travel just for its own sake. I love to live in small spaces. Maybe not as small as the six by three railway tool shed Thoreau suggested a person use as shelter, “and so have freedom in his love, and in his soul be free,” but something small and cozy and just enough. My path to freedom is the Way of Enough: enough food, enough travel, enough space, enough smallness, enough clothing and warmth and cool and learning and loving and music and life. I don’t need piles and piles of things. I want to have just enough. Having enough is freedom for me. Not having too much is freedom for me.

As a child, I daydreamed of a turtle house. I imagined it as a small, rolling home that I could travel everywhere in. It was sort of a cross between a wheelchair, the plastic bubble the immune-compromised boy lived in on the made-for-TV movie, and a modern tiny house. In my mind, I could go everywhere in my tiny rolling turtle home and never have to leave the compact, portable safety it provided. If the world became too intense, I only need close my doors and windows and retreat inside my house. Thinking back on those daydreams, I can see the trajectory that took me from there to here, living in a minivan, feeling safe to travel, live, love, explore, create, express so long as I can retreat to my vehicle’s compact, cool safety.

My love of “mobile turtle living” may be unusual for most Autistics, but my craving for freedom is not unusual for us. In my observation, freedom is a core value among most neurodivergent people. The manifestation of that freedom for others doesn’t usually look like the free life I am sculpting for myself, but this takes us back to my initial difficulty in defining freedom. I think freedom was so hard for me to define because the shape of freedom can be so dramatically different from life to life. It only makes sense that the freedom to act, to speak, and to think the way each of us was born to act, speak, and think will look different as it is lived by different people. Each of us sculpts our own ideas of freedom, carving our dreams into the wet clay of our lives, then chipping away the unwanted pieces as it all hardens over time.

Freedom means not being bullied or abused by others. Everyone must be free to live their lives peacefully and in peace with others. A free society is one that accepts and respects difference. It begins with children learning to seek to understand others instead of attacking those who do not or cannot fly in unison with the rest of the flock.

We can work toward this freedom by refusing to be bystanders to injustice. More freedom for each of us is more freedom for all of us.

Freedom means being able to choose. Everyone must have the right to refuse what is bad or harmful to them. No means no. At the same time that we are learning that the world has limits, we must be learning that we have personal power and the right to bodily autonomy – the right to set our own limits. There is no freedom where a person’s will has been stripped from them. A cry for freedom is a cry for others to honor our competence and respect our choices for our own lives.

How can we be called free when we are surrounded and too often submerged in ableist rhetoric that rests on tired metaphors of imprisonment, snares, traps, and theft leaving behind only an empty shell?

It all comes back to freedom. The Neurodiversity Movement is about freedom. Freedom to be who we are – Autistic, schizophrenic, bipolar, and more: neurodivergent. Freedom from harassment, unfair and inaccurate judgment, oppression. Freedom to live with dignity, without shame, in the community, out and proud. Freedom.

This is part of a series of posts addressing themes from the neurodiversity movement and paradigm which will be published during the course of April 2016. To read the rest of the posts, please click here.