Brené Brown’s 6 ‘Empathy Misses’ + Why They’re Important

Disability has taught me a whole lot about these not-comforting-yet-still-ubiquitous moves.

Aug 9, 2021

Photo by Sarah Kilian on Unsplash

Ahhh, the empathy miss — that crucial moment when someone’s having a hard time and you really want to say the right thing, but after you speak there’s just a painfully awkward pause…you’ve stepped in it, and made things worse.

Or the reverse, you’re having a hell of a time and express that fact, and someone says something with the best of intentions — but rather than comfort their words leave you feeling invalidated, misunderstood, and worse than before you reached out.

As a society, we really aren’t great at holding emotional space for one another.

Luckily, a sociology researcher and famed storyteller named Brené Brown has been researching topics in this arena for well over a decade.

She’s covered many relevant ideas in this area, but one of the most helpful is probably her list of empathy misses from the book Dare to Lead.

Brené Brown and Empathy

These are common well-intentioned behaviors displayed in emotional times of need that completely miss the mark, leaving the already upset person feeling more so.

While I’ve certainly been on the side of empathy miss, as everyone has, I’ve also dealt with being on the diminished end recurrently since invisible illness and problematic Autism traits have taken over my life.

People genuinely seem to want to say things to make me feel better, but they’ll wind up invalidating my experience or changing the topic altogether; leaving me feeling not only still alone with the issue, but also feeling like I’ve erred by even bringing it up.

And these are mostly kind, truly well-intentioned, people; and this happens to all kinds of Neurodiverse and/or disabled people.

They are trying — we all are trying — but we lack tools. This stuff just wasn’t included in our social conditioning. (And in some cases, there were toxins in its place.)Brené Brown’s 6 Empathy Misses

Photo by Marc Kleen on Unsplash

The concept of empathy is often described as a quality that people simply possess, or not, but while some folks do seem to have a particular knack for effectively understanding others’ feelings — Brown says empathy is also something we can work to become more effective at.

When dealing with nebulous and subjective issues, it’s often best to look at the failed attempts — or, what not to do. In this spirit, I’d like to present the 6 Empathy Misses identified by this sociologist who’s dedicated her life to helping us live with more heart.

This work branched out from her interest in human shame, with these being common unhelpful reactions after someone’s divulged an err. The list is from Dare to Lead, with explanation text from the book’s study guide, followed by my brief take:

Empathy Miss #1: Sympathy vs. Empathy

The friend who responds with sympathy (“I feel so sorry for you”) rather than empathy (“I get it, I feel with you”)

When faced with an immediate internal reaction of “sucks to be you,” the most caring words are often something like, “That sounds really hard, need to vent?”

Empathy Miss #2: The Gasp and Awe

The friend who hears your story and feels shame on your behalf.

Have you ever confided in someone, sharing a mistake you’re processing — and instead of empathizing, as you might expect a friend to do, they act horrified and judgy?

Yeah, everyone else too. Let’s start trying to remember our own f*ck-ups before condemning those who trust us with their struggles.

Empathy Miss #3: The Mighty Fall

The friend who sees you as perfect. They are so let down by your imperfections and disappointed in you (“I just never expected that from you. I didn’t think you would ever be someone who didn’t do well. What happened?”)

The thing about pedestals is that they’re really easy to fall off of — plus, you know, they’re complete and utter bullshit. No one is perfect. That’s not even a thing. When we expect people to be better than human, we lose our humanity.

Empathy Miss #4The Block and Tackle

The friend who is so uncomfortable with vulnerability that they criticize you (“What happened?! What were you thinking?”)

Otherwise known as, “How to get people to never trust you again,” this deflective move helps those scared of feels to avoid their own self-reflection — and it’s really freakin’ common. We live in a really judgy society and that kind of persistent energy can lead to folks becoming really defensive, which often turns into lashing out with condemnation.

I’ve (slowly) learned that compassion is the way out of judgment. When I’m hurt and my mind gets hardened over the WTF-ness of someone’s behavior, I do my best to imagine there’s a reason I’m not aware of before doing anything about it. It’s hard, but it’s important to remember that perspective really is everything.

Empathy Miss #5: The Boots and Shovel

The friend who is all about making it better and, out of their own discomfort, refuses to acknowledge that you can actually make terrible choices (“You’re exaggerating. It wasn’t that bad. You rock. You’re perfect. Everyone loves you”). They are trying so hard to make you feel better that they’re unable to connect with your emotions.

This is another popular one. When feeling shame, and wanting to talk about the mistake — something that can lead to not making the err again, as the mind’s verbally articulated why it’s a nope — but someone just won’t believe you, it’s invalidating at best; and, at worse, it enables problematic behaviors.

Empathy Miss #6: If You Think That’s Bad…

The friend who confuses “connection” with the opportunity to one-up you. (“That’s nothing. Listen to what happened to me one time!”)

This one’s another one that often happens with truly good intentions, wanting to help the other person see that things could be worse; but it’s actually invalidating, and leaves the hurting person still alone in the issue they were hoping to talk to someone about.

Empathy Miss #7I Can Fix That!

The friend who immediately jumps to problem-solving rather than just being with you in your experience.

Most of us struggle with this one, especially if friends often come to us for help solving problems. One helpful empathic reply is to acknowledge the feelings and ask, “What does support look like?” This gives the person in struggle the opportunity to say, “Just listening helps” or “Can you help me figure this out?”

I’ve got nothing to add here, such wise words.

And a recap from the Daring Greatly study guide:
  • Be kind.
  • Be curious.
  • You don’t need to fix it or make people feel better. Connecting and listening is powerful.
  • Try to understand how the person is feeling (not how you might feel in the same situation).
  • Help people know that they are not alone in their feelings. Even if you’ve never had that experience, you might know the feeling.
  • Let people know that you are grateful they shared with you.
  • Allowing opportunities for second chances. When we miss the opportunity to show empathy or when we would like the opportunity to do it better, we can say, “I’d like to circle back.” In this context, circling back means practicing empathy by trying again.
Photo by Andrew Thornebrooke on Unsplash

Autistic Adults and Autistic Parents Need To Come Together

There’s a knowledge gap, and it needs to be filled.

August 21, 2022

Photo by Suad Kamardeen on Unsplash

There’s a divide of understanding within the autistic community, one that can get quite contentious online: autistic adults and parents of autistic children. I think a root of the problem is society telling parents they’re responsible for raising kids in a manner conducive to doing things in neurotypical ways, the “normal” way, and parents at large face a lot of homogenized expectations and judgment for noncompliance.

But when a child has different neurological wiring, a different neurotype, normal expectations and activities can actually overwhelm their nervous system, making it even more difficult to do things like process language and verbalize. And autists are expected just act like we’re not experiencing this kind of agitating or even painful neurological overwhelm when we are, something that leads to all kinds of trouble, like autistic meltdowns, which are terrifying. During meltdowns, sometimes it truly feels like my brain is going to catch on fire from all the misfiring and pressure, then finally just explode.

They. HURT. And we don’t choose them. And we don’t get to decide when they end.

These kinds of internal autistic experiences have been treated as if they’re irrelevant, as if autists just have behavioral issues and need to learn how to “act normal,” something that makes us even more vulnerable, and we’re already unnecessarily dying decades before our peers.

Bridging the knowledge gaps between us and allistic (not-autistic) folks needs to happen and it won’t without help from parents of autistic children — the hard truth is that you’re the ones society listens to, not us, and we’re dying from the societal apathy. We need parent allies to really listen and to help our voices be heard.

Here are 10 takes on this gap from other autistic adults, starting with a couple of autists who are also parents of autistic kiddos:

  1. “I fall into both of these categories. I wish that there was more understanding of the different communication styles rather than people jumping down each other’s throats all of the time. I wish that functioning labels would be done away with and that the parents would stop speaking for us and listen to us instead.” A.M.
  2. “I am autistic and so are my children. I’d like parents of autistics to understand that they need to pay attention to what is going on and how their child is interpreting the experiences around them. As much as they can at least. They can’t understand truly but they can watch out for say, how a child might be handling someone having a crush on them or trying to interact with them in some intimate way. 
    .
    And then they need to not approach their autistic kid with morals and judgments the kid may very well not understand. I was raised in the church and things just never made sense, yet when my parents would address whatever the issue was, they’d do it through the filter of something that already didn’t logically make sense to me. Your kid won’t understand what you want or mean if you aren’t speaking a language they understand. They may have to set aside what they think they ‘know’ and approach things differently, potentially without some things (like religion) being the primary measuring stick of a moral code.” S.L.
  3. “That when they talk bad about my autism, they are talking bad about me personally, because I don’t see myself as separate from my autism.” A.F.
  4. “That [autistic adults] often do really understand what it’s like to be an autistic child and we can help them if they listen to us. We can provide insight from an autistic perspective that they may not even consider as a possibility. Yes, parents often do know best, but when your child has a different neurology than you, why not ask the people who share that neurology for help? After all, we want what’s absolutely best for our future neuro-kin generation and will fiercely do whatever it takes to protect them. […]
    .
    Saying things like “my child is more severe than you are” or “you can’t speak for my child because you’re not the same” isn’t helpful. We understand their experience even if it’s not the same as ours. And if you’re saying that me (a mostly speaking autistic person) isn’t the same as your nonspeaking autistic, you’re right. I don’t know that experience because I grew up speaking using my mouth words. But then why not connect with other nonspeaking autistics who do know and understand your child from that perspective? There’s so many types of autistic people in the world; you’re bound to find one that has a similar experience to your child.” M.S.
  5. “They are not the ones with autism and that they have to help that person develop a system/ anything to move through life. I just feel like I was told how to feel most of my life and now I’m on my own idk how to process my actual feelings now that there’s ppl who want to listen. 🤷🏽‍♀️🤷🏽‍♀️” K.N
  6. “Understanding that we aren’t doing ‘bad things’ for the sake of being malicious 99% of the time. I remember having meltdowns and being told I was ‘ungrateful’ and throwing a ‘tantrum’ when the reality was it was like something else had taken over me and turned me into an anger monster. I was never in control until I came down from it and I was blamed for ruining outings and embarrassing my parents. Same thing with not being able to or not wanting to do a task or go to an event. They took this as me being defiant. The reality is they never listened to what I was actually saying when I said no and instead framed me as a defiant child. Talking to your autistic kid on a more peer level will help you communicate better and they will tell you what they need. You just have to listen and learn your child’s language.” S.S.
  7. “That it’s often a journey to understand our own feelings and symptoms. We don’t always have the answers, but that doesn’t mean others should speak for us.” C.T.H.
  8. “What bugs me the most is the idea that something is ‘wrong’ with their child. This whole grieving how they expected their child to turn out or how they wanted their life to be or their kids life to be. Disabilities are not bad, don’t need to be fixed, your child doesn’t need you grieving the loss of the abled child you wanted. Secondly, stop exploiting them on social media to ‘help other parents’ or ‘spread awareness’. Thirdly, I wish they would realize that societal rules are completely made up. Your kid doesn’t need to speak, use fake pleasantries, have fun at amusement parks etc to be loved, respected, or to enjoy life.” C.H.
  9. “That everyone is different. I really wish that was emphasized more. There is no ‘stereotype’, everyone still has their own personality.” S.G.
  10. “That we aren’t unintelligent just because we can’t/don’t communicate the same way. I’ve noticed the same problem within the deaf/HoH community; if you can’t or don’t speak (or can’t speak well) people don’t take you seriously or assume you must not understand normal speech. I can understand you just fine even when I don’t know how to respond or am unable to.” B.N.

Societal Conditioning is Losing Its Grip, Let’s Help

Advocacy movements are changing harmful norms, but they can’t do it alone.

Still from ‘They Live,’ a 1988 cult-classic, very clever take on societal conditioning, and great follow-up to reading about this topic. (Image via letterboxd)

Social conditioning is a lot like air, we hardly notice it, and yet it affects every aspect of our lives.

It’s defined as ‘the sociological process of training individuals in a society to respond in a manner generally approved by the society in general and peer groups within society,’ and it looks like going to school, interacting with peers (especially “fitting in”), engaging with pop culture, adapting to work environments, etc.

These things shape the way we view the world and interact with others.

And right now, Americans are learning that our “air” has some fiercely toxic issues.

Though there have always been Black advocates speaking up, nearly a decade ago The Black Lives Matter movement finally brought national attention to the fact that we most definitely do not live in a post-racial society (which has been clearly reflected in demographic statistics for decades) — and yet our public schools essentially teach that the ’60s brought equality to our country.

Generations were taught that we’re “a nation that doesn’t see race,” learning that ignoring our racial differences was helpful; and this conditioning has led to continued societal disbelief and inaction in regard to the very real racial disparities in the US. It’s horrifying.

Then the #MeToo movement busted onto the scene in 2017, exposing the harmful misogynistic norms that women have been dealing with in America all along — and making a lot of us pretty furious about all the “sugar + spice” conditioning that basically trained us to put up with harassment and abuse, all in the subconscious pursuit of trying to be the “good girls” society told us to be.

Photo by Edrece Stansberry on Unsplash

And though disability advocacy movements haven’t yet caught the nation’s attention, we’ve been yelling for a very long time. From extensive issues with accessibility (for wheelchair users and beyond), massively-funded nonprofits that actually work against us (*ahem, Autism Speaks*), to a society rampant with inspiration porn in place of actually informing people about how to work with our different needs; to excessive government focus on “preventable illness” and little-to-none on the myriad of conditions that can’t be, resulting in a blame-the-patient culture that’s really hard to survive —we’ve got a lot to be upset about.

All-in-all, America has a white-supremacist, sexist, ableist (+!) set of social norms; and they need to change, fast.

While developments like oodles of (brilliant) intersectional entertainment, advocacy movements regularly trending on Twitter, and increased diversity in politics are helpful and encouraging; we also need our societal conditioning to change in a structural way, in our government and healthcare systems, schools, workplaces, and how media is sourced and distributed.

Luckily, the evolution of societal norms is often a direct result of individuals speaking up. A paradigm shift is not only possible, it’s already happening.

For example, those same public schools teach young minds that Thanksgiving commemorates a peaceful celebration of unity between settlers and Native Americans when history shows that the opposite was true. And this propaganda is taught by teachers who are overwhelmingly white, with a lived racial experience that 4 in 10 Americans cannot relate to.

Photo by Mwesigwa Joel on Unsplash

We need schools that teach actual, factual, history, and it needs to be taught by teachers who represent the demographics of the students in this country.

Now let’s pick on the media. Television and magazines propagate impossible ideals, corporate support/dependence, and harmful norms that serve to protect the status quo — which isn’t surprising since six white-male-led companies control the vast majority of the media, often resulting in news coverage and bias that benefits those already on top.

The “normal” office space is also rife with room for improvement. The constraints of “acting professional” usually have more to do with not causing waves than treating colleagues with respect — and this conditioning serves us in the exact same way as the “sugar + spice” bullshite, helping to maintain the toxic status quo through unspoken demands like code-switching.

The effect of our present societal conditioning is that people are expected to “fit in” in order to move up in life, which is functionally racistsexist, and ableist in application — ensuring that the people on top, stay on top.

(And we’ve only talked about 3 offensive ists harming our society! There’s plenty more.)

It might “make waves“… 😮 (‘They Live’ film still provided by Universal Pictures, via Fonts in Use.)

How to Help

Norms are changing on our screens, now it’s time to securely bring inclusive changes into the schools, offices, and community spaces of the United States.

It’s time to check ourselves. And it’s time to speak up against harmful norms.

Everyday. Everywhere.

Luckily, the evolution of societal norms is often a direct result of individuals speaking up. A paradigm shift is not only possible, it’s already happening.

But it needs all of us.

Here are 6 ways we can help detoxify the effects of societal conditioning:

  1. Learn, learn, learn. We need to educate ourselves in areas where we have societally-suggested knowledge gaps (or even misinformation), carefully ensuring that what we’re reading was written by a member of the affected group. This can take some effort, but it’s worth it to ensure that what we’re reading is truly the perspective of the community affected. (There are lots of advocacy personal essays on Medium, so you’re at a great place to start.)
  2. Inspect our language. Our culture is rife with popular terms that are actually offensive to our many vulnerable demographics, and even well-meaning can people offend. (We’re practically trained to, via societal osmosis.) And it’s important to pay attention to aspects that aren’t usually considered; such as more subtle aspects of discrimination (ex. for ableism, hurtful usage of words like ‘crazy’ and ‘stupid’), phrases like “that’s just the system” that subtly stand up for the status quo. And it should go without saying, but this applies to every space — not just those where minority groups are present.
  3. Request change from the leaders of our society, especially politicians and corporations. Be it an email to your local political representatives about the harm of letting misinformation masquerade as news, no longer supporting an offending corporation due to sexist advertising, or calling out a celebrity for the societal ramifications of an ableist action; individual complaints add up and are often (eventually) appeased.
  4. Request change in your environments. Again, individual input matters! When enough of us ask for changes in respect to well, respect, leaders have to respond. And there are now training programs to help educate employees, students, and communities on how to better accommodate one another, so why not encourage one?
  5. Speak up when you’re affected. We need to speak up when we’re hit by the negative outcomes created by societal conditioning, or it will seem like “we’re fine with it.” If a teacher only calls on the white kids, if women in your office are paid less than men, if you’re being treated as if your disabled needs are irrelevant, or anything else of that nature — now’s the time to speak up.
  6. Learn to welcome the different. Even when we try not to let it, subtle-yet-constant conditioning affects how all of us see the world, often creating anxiety around allowing new experiences and people in. But in addition to being the inherently more kind thing to do, diversity has proven benefits; the more perspectives, the more coherent the collective understanding will be.

Inclusivity, attentiveness, and compassion in regards to our differences need to replace the societally-pervasive dinosaur mentality of “that’s just how things are done.”

And it starts with us.

12 Tips from a Gorilla, Re: Global Calamity

He’s got some changes in mind.

If you visited a zoo, and a gorilla started talking to you, what do you think they’d say about humanity? Think they’d be cool with the modern state of affairs?

According to Daniel Quinn, author of 1992’s award-winning Ishmael: An Adventure of the Mind and Spirit — the answers are a whole lot, and hell no.

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Courtesy of Giphy

Ishmael features a man being taught about the world by a gorilla, one who divides humanity into two types: the Leavers and the Takers.

The first philosophy puts humans within the web of nature, working consciously to only take what they need; and the other puts humans as the world’s ruler, free to take whatever we can.

If the events of 2020 have left you questioning the way our society does things, or are interested in living a more conscious life — this should be your next read.

Here are a dozen (very hard-to-narrow-down) quotes from the book:
  1. “The premise of the Taker story is ‘the world belongs to man’. … The premise of the Leaver story is ‘man belongs to the world’.”
  2. “And every time the Takers stamp out a Leaver culture, a wisdom ultimately tested since the birth of mankind disappears from the world beyond recall.”
  3. “I have amazing news for you. Man is not alone on this planet. He is part of a community, upon which he depends absolutely.”
  4. “The obvious can sometimes be illuminating when perceived in an unhabitual way.”
  5. “You’re captives of a civilizational system that more or less compels you to go on destroying the world in order to live… I think there are many among you who would be glad to release the world from captivity… This is what prevents them: They’re unable to find the bars of the cage.”
  6. “The world of the Takers is one vast prison, and except for a handful of Leavers scattered across the world, the entire human race is now inside that prison.”
  7. “Donald Trump can do a lot of things I can’t, but he can no more get out of the prison than I can.”
  8. “They put their shoulders to the wheel during the day, stupefy themselves with drugs or television at night, and try not to think too searchingly about the world they’re leaving their children to cope with.”
  9. “Diversity is a survival factor for the community itself. A community of a hundred million species can survive almost anything short of a global catastrophe.”
  10. “We’re not destroying the world because we’re clumsy. We’re destroying the world because we are, in a very literal and deliberate way, at war with it.”
  11. “The mythology of your culture hums in your ears so constantly that no one pays the slightest bit of attention to it.”
  12. “I think what you’re groping for is that people need more than to feel scolded, more than to be made to feel stupid and guilty. They need more than a vision of doom. They need a vision of the world and of themselves that inspires them.”

Can you envision a version of yourself you find inspiring?

What about the world?

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Why I Stopped Trying to Be “Normal”

Normal is inherently othering, divisive, and reductive.

Photo by Dan Parlante on Unsplash

Originally published in the Medium publication, The Ascent. If you’re a member over there, I sure appreciate claps as that’s how we’re paid. (You can do 50!)

The word “normal” comes up a lot in our society.

We use it as an aspiration, “I just want to be normal,” or as a judgment, “that’s…not normal,” it’s even used like it’s a synonym for healthy, “that’s perfectly normal.”

I believe that all three uses are problematic for many reasons; but primarily because these homogeneous expectations have a very toxic effect on our mental health.

I feel that this is true even for those who feel they’ve achieved this mysteriously lauded act of mediocrity, but it’s especially toxic if you’re born in a body that excludes you from this supposed normality.

During my school years, the adult world told me that I was one of those lucky people, that I was normal, and that this was definitely a good thing — that I’d do just fine in life because of it.

I always knew it wasn’t quite true, and certainly faced much teasing despite this supposed normality, especially early on, and I certainly struggled to adjust to adult life more than my peers — but at 37 years old, I learned that I’m even less normal than I realized.

Last summer, I was officially diagnosed with Level Two Autism.

Society convinces us that we need to be less of ourselves in order to make more of ourselves. This is just bonkers.

This curveball brought many feelings, many of which were good, especially through the initial process of self-diagnosis; learning all about how my particular neurotype works while finally connecting to a community of people who quite literally think like me. There’s been much self-acceptance and empowerment since the diagnosis, it’s hard to explain the lightness that has come from knowing the physiological reasons as to why I am the way I am.

But, unfortunately, those weren’t all of the emotions. It was also really hard to learn that I was not only not normal, but that having tried so hard to pretend like I was had helped send my body and mind into malfunction.

After my diagnosis, I was tormented with endless painful memories slicing through my consciousness, each even sharper through this new lens; often making the other people involved seem cruel. Sometimes it even made me give up on humanity at large because most of them weren’t even “bad people” they were f**king normal peopleIt was horrifying, especially once I learned how high Autistic suicide rates are.

Belonging is being somewhere where you want to be, and they want you. Fitting in is being somewhere you really want to be, but they don’t care one way or the other.” ― Brené Brown

The combination of that emotional maelstrom plus not having anyone to talk to about it brought continuous Autistic meltdowns, which led to dangerous public scenes, seizures, a terrifying mental break, and neurologically-disabling Autistic burnout that I’m still fighting nearly a year later.

The most overwhelming upset was, and is, because Neurodivergent people are made to believe we need to spend our precious mental energy on acting “normal” to be accepted and survive. (FYI: Faking your neurotype doesn’t leave much energy for the important stuff.)

And we aren’t the only ones — in addition to systemic issues and individual biases, BIPOC communities are given the burden of code-switching, which has toxic effects on mental health. As a fellow Medium writer puts it, “Code-switching causes more harm than good because it creates tension between self-expression and social acceptance.”

Photo by Samuel Regan-Asante on Unsplash

There are many more examples of how already-disenfranchised communities have to bend and twist to squeeze into “normal,” and it’s not at all limited to those who’re in bodies perceived as different in some way — there are all kinds of ways we can be “too different,” “too much,” or “not enough,” and they rarely have anything to do with lacking integrity or kindness.

Additionally, when crises happen in people’s lives, they often feel as if they’ve been thrust from the safety of being perceived as normal.

Whether it’s with issues regarding abuse, finances, rape, or the many other ways life can unexpectedly go pear-shaped — people who’re already going through a lot often then also have to deal with shaming from the people in their lives, as well as fearing they’re perceived as “having baggage,” or being “too broken.”

We wind up feeling like we have to hide in some way to be safe, which often leads to going through difficult times alone.

In my case, others continually encouraged me to hide the (many) ways of being I know now are Autistic, and it took me over 25 years to see that the opposite is true — we must show up authentically to have any shot at finding true acceptance and belonging.

If you are always trying to be normal, you will never know how amazing you can be.” ― Maya Angelou

We’re all being taught the wrong message.

In effect, society communicates that our whole selves aren’t enough; it actually manages to convince us that we need to show up as less of ourselves to make more of ourselves. This is just bonkers.

Plus, it’s just a scam! The idea that being seen as “normal” keeps us safe is just an illusion, a test to see how far we can bend before we break. And if you look at the headlines in recent years, it’s easy to get the impression that the time to snap is upon us…

If you ask me, we’re collectively losing our shit because we’ve been convinced that we must be something we aren’t to survive, that we must be “normal,” because everyone else is and that’s just the way we like it.

But normal isn’t a freakin’ thing. (And it never was.)

Screw Normal, Go Be Your Best You

Photo by davisuko on Unsplash

Comparison is about conformity and its paradoxical message is to “be just like everyone else, but better.” — Brené Brown

While some folks might truly feel they are whatever is presently considered “normal,” it’s safe to say most of us find the expectations dictated by the concept to be FAR too tight (to say the least ) — so we have to squeeze ourselves into an uncomfortable mold, conforming to unwritten expectations that don’t suit, and, mental health-wise, there’s a heavy price to pay for this self-erasure.

To prioritize being normal is to decide that *who we are* isn’t safe. This is not an okay expectation! And it does not improve the lives of those working to oblige, it very often does just the opposite.

When we squeeze ourselves into whatever’s currently typical, when we spend our days trying to “be normal” — we wind up wasting our energy and focus on losing ourselves, rather than on becoming our best selves.

I love the way another Ascent writer describes the empowerment of tossing conformity aside, saying her whole self is “far more powerful than the Swiss cheese cutout I used to be.”

And of course it is!! We need our whole selves to thrive.

7 Reasons to Stop Trying to Be “Normal”

Photo by Bart LaRue on Unsplash

Let’s break it down, here’s 7 reasons to stop trying to be normal:

  1. Normal” is not a thing. I moved from city to city, hoping to find a place where the whole me was considered “normal,” and while I never found it, I did discover that there’s actually no such thing. While it’s most definitely possible to feel not normal, and some people do feel it more often than others, normal is just an illusion. Life isn’t that simple.
  2. It upholds toxic norms and power structures. The concept of normal is a moving target that’s defined a million ways, but most influentially by — and for — the people in power; the people in charge of media, the people at the top of the ladder, the influencers of our world. It’s an ephemeral nonsense concept that serves to uphold the status quo through shame. It’s bullshite, we don’t need it, and we certainly don’t need to waste our energy pretending to be it.
  3. The concept is inherently othering. As discussed above, “normal” leaves a lot of people out. There’s just far, far, faaaar, too many ways to be not-normal, and humans are a beautifully diverse species — and we’re stronger for it! Diversity is an evolutionary advantage, it’s a good thing that we’re all different. We need to start letting people share their full stories, and we need to start fully listening to perspectives and experiences different from ours. Working to understand each other better is the only way to improve things.
  4. Fitting in is very different from belonging. My life changed when I started reading the work of sociological researcher, Brené Brown. I’ve already shared a couple of quotes of hers, but here’s one more: True belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world — our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance. In other words, when we squeeze ourselves into normal-shaped molds, we give up our ability to know real belonging due to denying our authentic selves a voice.
  5. Save yourself mid-life crises (or end ‘em). Trying to be normal is basically committing to the role of who we think we’re “supposed to be.” And if we look around, it’s easy to see that this often creates long-term commitments we can’t keep. How many of us wind up totally rearranging our lives halfway through because our original choices don’t really suit who we are as we start to really know ourselves? What if we could save all the fuss by simply living true in the first place?
  6. John F. Kennedy said it sucks. In his more dignified words: Conformity is the jailer of freedom and the enemy of growth.
  7. It’s not important, kindness is. Normal is often used in a way that suggests some associate the concept with integrity, with being good, “someone nice and normal,” but they are completely different things. They have nothing to do with one another at large, but especially in societies where marginalized societies report systemic ill-treatment. It’s easy to see that normal is very often a big jerk. Acts of compassion and understanding are demonstrations of integrity, not looking or acting a certain way.

When we simplify the human experience to one word, it reduces people to stereotypes and pits us against each other.

As a species, I think we’re ready to graduate from this Us vs. Them paradigm that leaves nearly everyone scared to be seen as “them,” and all of us competing against each other instead of working together. (And we’ve got some very real problems to solve.)

We have to stop trying to put each other in boxes, we’re all wildly unique people — that’s the beauty of humanity! It is not something to hide.

Screw “normal.” We don’t need no stinkin’ boxes.

Photo by Kristina V on Unsplash

Why Many Autistics are Offended by Elon Musk’s Use of “Aspergers”

The term is no longer in the US’s diagnostic manual for very good reasons…which include Nazis.

(Image via People.)

Originally published in the Medium publication, An Injustice!. If you’re a member over there, I sure appreciate claps as that’s how we’re paid. (You can do 50!)

In early May, Elon Musk made a personal announcement while hosting the NYC-based show Saturday Night Live, one that’s upset many autistic people: “I’m the first person with Asperger’s to host SNL, or at least the first to admit it.”

It’s okay if you’re not seeing the harm in that.

US society (and global perception at large) is becoming more conscious and undergoing many simultaneous changes in perception, like a massive detox — people at large are still ill-informed of impactful issues concerning disadvantaged communities, and the autistic population is no exception.

All we can do is listen to a variety of people from the affected communities, and learn.

In this case, community objections include the smaller issues that Dan Aykroyd was actually the first autistic person to host (which was uncool to gloss over), and the word ‘admit’ could reflect internalized ableism — but the main issue is around the term ‘Aspergers,’ which has become controversial, especially here in the US.

It was removed from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-5) in 2013, when Asperger’s Syndrome was absorbed by Autism Spectrum Disorder (many in the community prefer the more-descriptive Autism Spectrum Neurotype).

(Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash)

The associated functioning labels were also dropped due to harmful outcomes: those labeled “low-functioning” experienced opportunities being withheld despite ability and many in the “high-functioning” category were conversely presumed able to do things that they could not, therefore denied support and accommodations, leading to meltdowns and reduced functionality (and worse).

Basically, the functioning labels were a hot mess that left a lot of autistic people traumatized.

The new way has many flaws as well, mostly for also having a vague approach that leads to similar experiences of ableism — but at least it’s a little more specific and refers to support needs rather than pretty directly implying ability in the verbiage. Now, formally diagnosed autistics are assigned a Support Level at diagnosis. (Self-diagnosis is also widely accepted in the community due to excessive bias and barriers in the diagnosis process.)

I have a diagnosis of Level 2: Requiring substantial support. I was just diagnosed last year, but suspect I’d have been a Level 1 around 6–7+ years ago, as the problematic areas have greatly increased; something that’s common among autistics who mask their traits.

It’s presently a helpful distinction for me, as being without support has resulted in extended burnout and frequent meltdowns — however, it’s easy to see how it could backfire in very similar ways, especially as troubling traits fluctuate.

To provide an example of how problematic autistic traits can be fluid,
at this time I’m capable of doing things like writing essays about my current special interest (ta-da); but if I were to try to do this in an office, early morning hours, or even attempt to change topics, I’d very likely wind up having a meltdown, which would then take days (or more) to recover from.

I wasn’t always so sensitive in those respects and easily flew above the radar by subconsciously masking my traits (as happens, that backfired in a multitude of ways, including increased need for support).

Presently being a Level 2 doesn’t mean that I’m more intelligent than a Level 3, or less so than a Level 1.

These levels have absolutely nothing to do with intelligence, nor capabilities at large — instead describing our need for support/accommodations in order to function in our (neurotypically-biased) society.

The DSM describes differences in ‘social communication’ and ‘restricted interests & repetitive behaviors’ (the latter of which are affectionately known as special interests and stimming in the autistic community). This is a change from the old paradigm, in which those with Aspergers were widely viewed as being more intelligent due to superior intellectual development, a perception that has not died.

Public perception has very real effects.

When Elon Musk publicly disregarded the changes of DSM-5 in its home country, he portrayed himself as someone more intelligent than the autistic community at large; and the continued use of the term has negative ramifications on other autistics.

He could have used the updated terminology, helping to erase harmful stigma via a show that’s been a US culture staple for decades — but instead, he perpetuated it.

Sure, maybe he didn’t know, but given his fame and legendary genius status it’s safe to presume that someone gave him a head’s up, or he got there on his own; particularly since the change is nearly a decade old, and he’s been based here since 1995.

Also, Nazis.

The term ‘Aspergers’ got its start in Germany, 1934, when Dr. Hans Asperger discovered Nazi psychiatry.

In a 2018 New York Times article, researcher Edith Sheffer described his work on autistic children: Some laud Asperger’s language about the “special abilities” of children on the “most favorable” end of his autistic “range,” speculating that he applied his diagnosis to protect them from Nazi eugenics — a kind of psychiatric Schindler’s list.

But this was in keeping with the selective benevolence of Nazi psychiatry; Asperger also warned that “less favorable cases” would “roam the streets” as adults, “grotesque and dilapidated.” Words such as these could be a death sentence in the Third Reich.

And in fact, dozens of children whom Asperger evaluated were killed.

Yes. You read that right.

The term Asperger’s is directly aligned with the murders of dozens of autistic children — all for the sake of Nazi eugenics, or wealthy white dudes deciding who’s “fit” to live life on Earth.

Another horrifying passage from the NY Times article: One of his patients, 5-year-old Elisabeth Schreiber, could speak only one word, “mama.” A nurse reported that she was “very affectionate” and, “if treated strictly, cries and hugs the nurse.” Elisabeth was killed, and her brain kept in a collection of over 400 children’s brains for research in Spiegelgrund’s cellar.

Sooooo, that’s where the term ‘Asperger’s’ comes from.

It’s Time to Do Better

It’s disturbing to know what’s really going on here, but that’s the reason why we DO need to acknowledge it. (Image of Hans Asperger via Nature)

While I understand that it’s hard for people to just have their diagnosis terminology switched on them, the changes in the DSM-5 were made for crucial reasons (more than discussed here) — and the update is having a really hard time gaining awareness.

This lack of societal knowledge means the continued perception that those with “Aspergers” are more intelligent/capable than those identified using the term “autistic.”

I want to emphasize that not all autistic people are aware of these US-based changes, and there are also situations where continued usage is logistically necessary. I don’t want to imply that individuals, autism organizations, and social media figures with the term in their branding are bad for not having changed.

We can only do what we can do. I get it.

But Elon Musk is not a likely-to-be-cash-poor non-profit or YouTuber, he is literally the richest person in the world and he’s also one of the most well-known.

He could have easily helped, but instead he did the opposite — and while that (alone) isn’t worth vilifying him for, the move shouldn’t just be overlooked.

It needs to be learned from.

Another quote from that NYT article brings this point home: Does the man behind the name matter? To medical ethics, it does. Naming a disorder after someone is meant to credit and commend, and Asperger merited neither. His definition of “autistic psychopaths” is antithetical to understandings of autism today, and he sent dozens of children to their deaths.

Other conditions named after Nazi-era doctors who were involved in programs of extermination (like Reiter syndrome) now go by alternative labels (reactive arthritis). And medicine, in general, is moving toward more descriptive labels. Besides, the American Psychiatric Association has ruled that Asperger isn’t even a useful descriptor.

She wraps up the essay with a request to the reader: We should stop saying ‘Asperger.’ It’s one way to honor the children killed in his name as well as those still labeled with it.

People act like psychology was built on the backs of giants, but it wasn’t.

Asperger may be the most offensive of offenders, but he’s far from the only toxic contributor.

It’s time to start looking at things from a more inclusive, efficacious, and empowering perspective.

We need to truly acknowledge that everyone’s worthy of life, even the (many) demographics that struggle to thrive in a society that was not built to include us — and moving away from this harmful term is one step towards those ends.

P.S. Nikola Tesla is rolling over in his freakin’ grave for being associated with such a perpetrator of societal ills. (You big Edison!)

The #ActuallyAutistic Movement vs. Sia’s Movie, ‘Music’

Authentic representation matters, especially when the demographic is so vulnerable.

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#ActuallyAutistic actor, Anthony Hopkins, with Kate Winslet. (Image via Lester Cohen and People)

Like Sir Anthony Hopkins, I am a late-diagnosed autistic person.

And when I tell people that I was diagnosed with autism at 37 years old, they very often don’t know what to make of that fact — some even hinting that since I don’t “seem autistic,” that I might be misdiagnosed, that the highly-experienced mental health professional who spent hours diagnosing me was incorrect.

This experience is rather typical for late-diagnosed adults.

The reasons for this are multitudinous, but can largely be filed under “autism updates in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition” and “stigma and misrepresentation,’ which is where Sia’s movie Music comes into play — as the film is highly problematic in that regard.

As we say in the neurodiversity community, “If you’ve met one autistic person, you’ve met one autistic person.”

In 2013, the DSM-5 redefined autism when it combined five developmental disorders (including Asberger’s) under Autism Spectrum Disorder, a term contested in the autism community, with many favoring the less problematic, and more descriptive, Autism Spectrum Neurotype; but a change that’s generally been supported in both the scientific and autistic communities, though some do call for more revisions to help autistics find diagnosis (and its tools) before traits become more problematic.

The changes were completed nearly a decade ago, but are still being integrated into the often-archaic mental health system, and autistic females are still thought to be extremely underdiagnosed.

One of the reasons for this underdiagnosis is that females are often adept at a coping method called masking, which involves suppressing natural reactions in an often-unconscious attempt to “seem normal.” (It should be noted that this presentation, called the ‘female phenotype’ is another debated term as there’s great evidence that any gender is capable of this — Sir Hopkins, an accomplished actor, is a very likely example of a male who could likely sort out “acting normal” via observation and imitation.)

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Sir Hopkins, normal’ing it up for ‘84 Charing Cross Road.’ (Image via ScreenRant)

Though masking can be very effective, this coping method often becomes problematic for the autist’s mental and neurological health.

Masking is highly associated with autistic burnout; a condition which very often results in a severe physical and neurological incapacitation (including going nonverbal) that can last for months, or even longer, and is (unsurprisingly) associated with suicidal behavior.

So, while one might think that if autistic traits don’t persistently disable, they shouldn’t warrant a diagnosis — it isn’t that simple.

Hiding the way one’s brain functions requires an immense amount of neurological effort, and, sooner or later, it comes at a cost; and if society keeps getting the same stereotyped representation, autistic people will continue to be underdiagnosed due to them, and their therapists, not seeing autism as a potential diagnosis.

We shouldn’t live in a society where medical professionals often follow media and societal expectations over science, but we do, so we need the media to take portrayals very seriously.

The Representation Issue

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(Image via @ThriveAutieThrive.)

To explore the second matter, “stigma and misrepresentation,” we’ll first turn to the #ActuallyAutistic movement.

Actually Autistic is a movement that was started by the autism community on Tumblr in 2011 and has since been spread to other social media platforms, which now has millions of posts across TikTok, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and other social media platforms.

The movement was started because people in our society, at large, have a very narrow idea of what autism looks like, and it causes a lot of really harmful issues for autistic people.

The thing is, autism does not look or “seem like” anything — and the media is telling people it does.

We’re individuals with unique experiences, each affected by different areas of the spectrum; plus, many of us are masking our traits in order to survive in a society that seems determined not to take us seriously.

As we say in the neurodiversity community, “If you’ve met one autistic person, you’ve met one autistic person.”

To further explain, autism also can also manifest in all kinds of ways because the autistic neurotype affects many aspects of neurological function.

Unfortunately, ‘Music’ has not only had oodles of ableism issues, but Sia herself taunted the autistic community when the abundant representation issues were brought up on Twitter.

Most think of the spectrum as a linear construct that goes from ‘mildly autistic’ to ‘very autistic,’ but the autistic experience is actually more akin to a color wheel representing many different traits and behaviors within the areas of executive functioning, perception, social abnormalities, movement, language, monotropic mindset (focus on special interests), sensory processing, and more.

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Abed might look wildly refreshing in this line-up, but these presentations are extremely similar — there’s so much more to the spectrum. Lineup: Sheldon of TBBT, Rain Man, Abed of Community, and Dr. Murphy of TGD (Image via @ThriveAutieThrive)

So, Rain Man might have been highly affected in the areas of language, monotropic mindset (counting), and social abnormalities.

Sam on Atypical might have a very similar profile, and, more importantly, expressed in a very similar way.

The same goes for Sean Murphy on The Good Doctor; as well as Abed in Community and Sheldon Cooper on The Big Bang Theory, who arewidely perceived as being autistic.

Therein lies the problem.

When physiological conditions are repeatedly portrayed in the media in a similar fashion, it creates a broad misunderstanding and stereotyping in regard to what conditions actually look like, and, crucially, what responses are actually helpful, and which can (often unintentionally) harm.

This gap in public perception and awareness leads to a lack of emotional support, denial of crucial services, and even misdiagnoses — which is a huge deal as 72% of autistic people are considered high-risk for suicide.

How autistic people are represented matters.

It needs to be accurate, and it needs to involve us.

The Trouble with ‘Music’

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We don’t need Kate Hudson’s patience, we need actually freakin’ autistic portrayals in the media. (Image via Signature Entertainment)

So, you might be saying, “What about Sia’s movie? That’s different, it’s about a female.”

Unfortunately, ‘Music’ has not only had oodles of ableism issues, but Sia herself taunted the autistic community when the abundant representation issues were brought up on Twitter. (This controversy resulted in the filmmaker deleting her account after publicly apologizing.)

Makers of streaming art — please let this Sia moment be the last stereotyped representation of an autistic person.

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Image via Twitter screenshot. (@Sia has been deleted.)

Additionally, Music appears to be a female version of a similar profile: speech problems, monotropic mindset (music), and problems with social awareness — with a large helping of differences in movement, resulting in highly-problematic stimming imitations performed by a neurotypical actress.

And, again, it’s expressed in a very similar way, Music is a lot like Rainman…but with more pizazz.

There needs to be a wider representation of the autism spectrum, so that people may gain a better idea of all the different ways we can appear in life, and stop unwittingly harming us.

To give an example of a potential presentation that defies stereotypes, I’ll cite another fictional character dubbed likely autistic by many autie fans: the wonderful Leslie Knope, of Parks and Recreation.

Knope is a passionate and hilarious woman who only wants to talk about her special interests (politics, her friends, waffles, and Friday Night Lights), can behave aggressively (often inadvertently), has great difficulty understanding boundaries, and though she’s extremely compassionate and caring, the emotional reactions of others often surprise and confuse her, which continuously causes issues. (She’d have a really challenging time in the “real world,” I guaran-fucking-tee it.)

Or, better yet: the similarly dynamic, complex, and utterly delightful Matilda on Everything’s Gonna Be Okay, played by Kayla Cromer — who is actually autistic!

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This is a neurotypical actress. This is not okay. (Image via news.com.au)

As Matilda’s a recent grad, maybe in future seasons we’ll see her dealing with day-to-day adult autism issues; trying to make it in an office without masking herself into burnout, dealing with sensory issues whilst need to “be professional,” managing grocery shopping with executive functioning issues, and the challenges of stunted success due to simply not “seeming normal.”

And while I could do with less self-deprecating humor from Matilda in regard to autistic traits, I love knowing that the performance is at least coming through an actress who knows what it feels like to behave in ways that are often misunderstood; and it’s also just so healing and inspiring to see an actually autistic person rocking their chosen field.

Though I still watch The Good Doctor and I wish Atypical hadn’t been canceled, now it has been done: Cromer, and Everything’s Gonna Be Okay, have proved that an autistic person can lead a television series.

As a result, if a new show or film comes out without true autistic representation, it will almost definitely get shit from the #ActuallyAutistic community.

Which brings us back to Music.

Personally, I’m not black-and-white on if only autistic actors should play autie characters; but they absolutely have to be extremely knowledgeable about why we do the things we do, they should understand how it feels, physiologically — and no one knows that better than someone who is actually autistic.

This is especially relevant for a character like Music, who is completely nonverbal (which doesn’t mean vacant, as many presume) and has very visible stimming traits.

We Have So Much to Offer, Please Help Enable us to Do So

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Actually Autistic actress, Kayla Cromer, being a badass despite a hidden disability. (Image via Media Access Awards)

I truly cannot overstate the importance of our society becoming more aware of the fact that autism can appear in a myriad of ways, especially in adults.

It’s extremely difficult to live in a society that was literally built for a different kind of brain, that persistently overwhelms our neurology; a society that disables and disregards us, and very often when there’s a simple way to just work with us, if only people would choose to try instead of dismiss.

And I believe, I hope, that they would choose to work with us if they just knew how; and if they just had any idea of what we’re actually up against.

The autistic community hasn’t been able to get people to understand on our own; unsurprising as there’s a lot working against us, and the vast majority of us are exhausted and platform-less.

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(Image via EGBO Giphy)

We need the media’s help with this. We need you to start telling our stories.
Our actual stories, in all their complexity and variety.

They need to be heard so people will start taking us seriously, so we can get the support we desperately need. When you start listening to autistic adults, hearing our harrowing tales of trying to survive in this incompatible world — that horrifying statistic about 72% of us being high-risk for suicide starts to make a lot of sense.

We are truly up against so much, even if we don’t “seem autistic” in the moments that you’ve witnessed.

But our struggles don’t mean we have nothing to offer the world; as wonderfully demonstrated by Sir Hopkins, Miss Cromer, and so many others, we have much to contribute.

We just need people to start asking and learning how to work with us, rather than (often unwittingly) working against us, so that we may live up to our true potential; and while readers are encouraged to peruse the internet of #actuallyautistic, we desperately need the media to take the lead in ensuring accurate and authentic representation of the vast autism spectrum.

So, makers of streaming art — please let this Sia moment be the last stereotyped representation of an autistic person. Fund actually autistic projects, hire actually autistic creatives, and seek actually autistic consultants.

Nothing about us, without us.

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More of this please, media. 🙏 (Image via EGBO Giphy)

Why ‘marijuana’ should have always been called ‘the gage’

By Meg Hartley
Published on November 14, 2019· Last updated July 28, 2020

In the 1930s, two distinct potential futures existed for cannabis in the United States.

Cannabis was no stranger to us at that time. Cannabis tinctures were widely available at pharmacies, but people weren’t accustomed to getting high off of those tinctures. Things were changing as Mexican migrants and the (largely black) jazz subculture started to enjoy smoking cannabis as a way to relax and unwind.

Our cultural pendulum swung over to Anslinger, shaping the trauma-filled world of cannabis that we now live in—but if it hadn’t, that “satanic” jazz music might have shaped our world instead.

This might have been just fine and dandy, had it not been for a man named Harry Anslinger, the first commissioner of the US Treasury Department’s Federal Bureau of Narcotics. He got the gig in 1930, so when alcohol prohibition ended just three years later, it looked like he was out of a job—until cannabis came into his crosshairs. Anslinger was also openly racist and extra motivated by the idea of turning its predominantly black and brown consumers into criminals.

There’s many horrid quotes by Anslinger that sum up his revolting position, but this succinct one is the most powerful to me: “Reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men.”

Cannabis gets a new name

Anslinger was a man with a mission. He was going to save his job, and he was going to lock up a whole lot of people of color while he was at it. Ol’ Harry knew that turning people against cannabis would take some real spin—he needed a bad guy, and granny’s arthritis medicine wasn’t going to be it.

Cannabis needed a total rebranding. It needed a whole new name.

Cannabis would have continued to be called “the gage”—a name that gives credit to some of the jazzy creators of our cannabis culture, rather than give homage to the man who did everything in his power to squash it.

“Marihuana” was the moniker that he ran with, transforming the beloved herb into an evil drug that caused “Reefer Madness.” To illustrate this PR spin, I’ll use another Anslinger quote:

“Marijuana is the most violence-causing drug in the history of mankind…Most marijuana smokers are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos and entertainers. Their satanic music, jazz and swing, result from marijuana usage.”

As you know, our cultural pendulum swung over to Anslinger, shaping the trauma-filled world of cannabis that we now live in—but if it hadn’t, that “satanic” jazz music might have shaped our world instead, and no one would be talking about “marijuana.”

Cannabis would have continued to be called “the gage”—a name that gives credit to some of the jazzy creators of our cannabis culture, rather than give homage to the man who did everything in his power to squash it.

Smoking the gage with vipers

Portrait of Stuff Smith, Kelly’s Stable, New York, N.Y., ca. Sept. 1946 (William P. Gottlieb, Library of Congress)

The gage has found itself beloved in many creative circles, but in the early days of jazz it was muse, subject, and therapy tool, all-in-one—a splendid inspirational force that penetrated the culture. As a muse, it inspired open thinking and lengthened time, allowing “vipers,” cannabis-loving jazz musicians, to mix it up and add more notes.

As a subject of jazz lyrics, there’s a whole catalog of early jazz songs dedicated to the gage. Take these lyrics from “Viper Mad” by Sidney Bechet and Rousseau Simmons:

Wrap your chops round this stick of tea 

Blow this gage and get high with me 

Good tea is my weakness, I know it’s bad 

It sends me, gate, and I can’t wait, I’m viper mad

And here’s some choice lyrics from Stuff Smith and his Onyx Club Boys, “Here Comes the Man with the Jive”:

Where’s the man with the gage?

There is a man from way up town

Who will take away your blues

And any time the man comes round we like to spread the news

He is known from coast to coast to every cat alive

And any time they give a toast is to the man who brings the gage

Whenever you’re feeling small, don’t care for this life at all

Light up and get really tall

Here comes the man with the gage

Speaks the truth, doesn’t it? And to illustrate the point of cannabis as a therapy tool, I’ll quote the the man who’s perhaps the anti-Anslinger, father of jazz, Louis Armstrong: “It makes you feel good, man. It relaxes you, makes you forget all the bad things that happen to a Negro. It makes you feel wanted, and when you are with another tea smoker it makes you feel a special sense of kinship.”

But in the end, the penalties for illegal cannabis were too much even for even Armstrong, leaving us these fine words on the matter:

“Well, that was my life and I don’t feel ashamed at all. Mary Warner, honey, you sure was good and I enjoyed you heap much. But the price got a little too high to pay. At first you was a ‘misdemeanor.’ But as the years rolled on, you lost your misdo and got meanor and meanor (jailhousely speaking). So bye bye, I’ll have to put you down, dearest.”

Attempting to make good

It shouldn’t have happened like that. People in undeniably challenging positions—like a black community just a couple generations after slavery—not only had this cultural treasure taken from them, but then the community at large was further punished with the horrific effects of the the war on drugs.

Looking at the baby cannabis industry now, it’s hard to argue that attempts at social equity have been successful (or anything more than lip service).

Changes won’t happen in the industry overnight because people replace a word, but perception matters, especially to people choosing who’s going to sit in their corporate boardrooms. If we start refusing to say Anslinger’s “marijuana,” perhaps it could create some cognitive dissonance in those rooms, a bunch of white Boehners finally realizing they don’t know WTF they’re even doing in this scene.

Probably not. But changes in lexicon do drive conversation. They matter. Perception has already shifted worlds for “cannabis” despite the fact that it’s only been a few years, and many still don’t even know what it is. (Though confusion isn’t wholly unhelpful in a PR switch, ask ol’ Harry Anslinger…) Having another politically-correct term in the mix could help shed light on the POC communities currently being ignored by the industry.

In some dreamy alternative universe without Anslinger, the popularity of getting high off of cannabis in the US would have came to be right as alcohol prohibition ended, perhaps tempering the way Americans now treat booze, making us a nation with far less drunken ills.

But we don’t live in that world, we live in one where this plant has gone through a hell of a journey to accomplish legal-ish status—and we’re still calling it by the name beloved by those who banned it.

US Hearts and Souls

Is current American culture *really* reflecting our hearts and souls?

In good moments, I see people coming together to rise up for what matters, folks advocating both for those who are different than them, and for themselves. I see able bodies who are happy to endure a little discomfort for the safety of those more vulnerable to COVID. And I see the beauty of the human spirit, so willing to fight, support, and serve — and so often with such powerfully beautiful creativity.

But then there’s the rest. Those who think people like me (#spoonie) should just stay home, forever, because they can’t be bothered to wear a piece of fucking fabric on their faces like the rest of the now-recovering world, and the rest of the fucking history of pandemics.

I see people who just don’t care that others (including seniors!) have been working for minimum wage in the front lines, now ready to throw in our teachers; people who whine about being bored and inconvenienced — begging for things to “go back to normal” when the norm is fucking hell for so many.

I do my best to stay positive, but I’m one of them. It’s not okay to be a poor person in our country — is that what resides in our hearts and souls? Do I not count because I haven’t been able to get my body and brain to work in an employable fashion? Because there’s no test for what’s wrong, should I just be grateful that decades of paying disability taxes covered a teensy bit of the time I’ve been desperately trying to survive? If I can’t keep figuring it out, do I deserve to perish? Is that what resides in our hearts and souls?

And are we the kind of people who don’t trust communities reporting mistreatment, even though the stats clearly reflect it (always have), and more shocking video footage of it comes out allllll the time? The kind that still fucking manage to say “is it REALLY all that prevalent though? Things seem fine from my suburb. I just don’t see it.”

Is that what resides in our hearts and souls?

How is a cannabis pill made? Its journey from seed to capsule

By Meg Hartley
Published on June 22, 2020· Last updated November 16, 2020

In the legal cannabis industry, getting a processed cannabis product can be just as mysterious as buying meat at the grocery store—conveniently packaged and unrecognizable from its original form. And while I appreciate a shroud of mystery around how pigs become sausage, when it comes to cannabis products, I’d actually really like to know how that sausage was made.

This wave of curiosity came to crest with my new favorite cannabis product: a little capsule called RA’, named after the Egyptian sun god. I found myself wondering about the journey the plant material inside had taken: Where did its voyage begin? Did the person who grew it love their job? How did it go from trimmed plant all the way to handy capsule?

I traced my little cannabis pills back to their source and got to talk with some amazing humans on my journey. I found fascinating insights, industry scoops, and people who dedicate their lives to the plant we love.

While you might not want to think about how your sausage was made during breakfast, this is a backstory you’ll love to have in mind when enjoying cannabis products. It is a very human industry, my friends; let’s do our damndest to ensure that it stays that way.

Starting from seed

outdoor marijuana growing

(Courtesy Sweet Sisters Farm)

Our plant’s journey starts at Sweet Sisters outdoor farm in Mendocino, Northern California, which is part of the Emerald Triangle, an area globally celebrated for its cannabis. Referring to themselves as a “family unit,” they don’t at all claim to be breeders. “The beauty of being a legacy farmer … is that we have had seedstock in our own possession for years, that we know can work well in our own microclimate,” said the family unit.

They’ve been farming the same land since 1981, when the two farmers who started the family unit met at a nursery buying cannabis growing supplies. Since then, they’ve had plenty of time to learn their favorite cultivars, some that go back to the ‘80s—back when they used to have true indicas and sativas, before all the hybridization. They know the growth cycles of various strains, as well as important details like which seeds will be resistant to mold and powdery mildew, and which ones will grow into buds that they enjoy and prefer.

The planting process starts in mid-March by cracking the seeds, which will sex in 6-8 weeks. Then they enjoy watching all of the individual characteristics come out of each plant within the cultivar: “It’s an honor and a pleasure to watch her grow,” said the family unit.

Sometime in September or October, it’s harvest time. After cutting the plants, it’s time to cure; watching the humidity and heat, it’s done in about two weeks, depending on each individual plant. They leave it on the branch so it finishes its final cure and holds better until it can get to the trimmer’s bench. Then they do some paperwork and it’s out of their hands.

On the trimmer’s bench

trimming marijuana

(Courtesy of Root One Botanicals)

From Sweet Sisters farm, our plant heads to Root One Botanicals. They do many things at Root One, but our plant is here to get trimmed. The beautiful buds will be separated from trim, which RA’ does not use in their products. But before it’s time to work with the plant, there’s paperwork to do.

Like many other legal states, California uses a program called Metrc to track each plant from seed to sale. Root One CEO Jon McColley describes the process as “arduous and boring” but also recognizes its importance.

Once harvests come in, plant material gets divided between A, B, and trim, depending on the bud’s size, and waste (stems, etc.) gets tossed out. “It’s segregation, separation, and manicuring; putting those tiered products into their proper place,” said McColley.

McColley reports that the people doing the trimming dig what they do: “It’s amazing what kind of enthusiasm it creates in a workforce … they love the work, being able to work around the plant day after day and just being immersed.”

After our plant has been processed by the Root One crew, it’s tagged and entered into Metrc, then heads out down to Long Beach, California.

The finished capsule

RA’ Flower is our plant’s stop before the dispensary, where it will be made into capsules. According to RA’ Founder and CEO Alan Hoskins, “Once the flower is brought in here, we weigh it, and then I usually try and process it right away just for the sheer fact that cannabis starts the degradation process once it starts growing and being in the sun, and that’s just the natural element. So it’ll come into the building, and then we ‘powderize’ it,” he said, explaining that they use a machine akin to an industrial food mill.

To turn THCa to THC, they blend up the plant and put it through a low heat decarboxylation process. According to Hoskins, the most important part is minimizing the degradation of plants and retaining “important plant constituents, like terpenes, flavonoids, all those wonderful things.”

After the impurities are removed and it’s powderized, “All you’re left with is this really beautiful green powder, which is all flower, decarboxylated,” said Hoskins.

The powder is then tested for potency and terpenes, and Hoskins’ wife, Ashley, takes it away to put into capsules, using a manual machine called an encapsulator, which halves the capsules and puts them back together after they’ve been filled by hand.

Once capsuled, it’s packaging time, and, of course, good ol’ Metrc comes into play here as well. “When [the flower is] brought into the building it has to be entered into Metrc; when I take that flower, and I go to process it, I have to put a new tag on it [for Metrc]; once we decarboxylate it and activate it, it has a new tag; once I put it into packaging, it has another tag,” said Alan, laughing. “So, yeah, it’s very cumbersome. But, you know, it allows the state to really see where every product goes so if there’s a recall on something, they’re able to reach out.”

The Hoskins’ came from the healthcare industry so they’re used to regulations, but not accustomed to the chaos of the cannabis industry. “It’s not an easy business to navigate. It’s over regulated, it’s overtaxed. You know, when there’s 38-40% tax, and people rely on this for medicine, that only helps the black market thrive,” said Alan.

But to them, contributing quality cannabis makes the industry worth it. “It’s about getting a super high-quality product to market, to people who need it. And this is the future of medicine, no doubt,” said Alan.

The other folks involved in the capsule’s journey expressed similar sentiments about the fine art of bringing cannabis to the world. “If there’s just one thing that [readers] should be aware of, it’s that every one of those buds they are consuming has been picked up by loving hands and just been cared for,” said McColley of Root One. “This is the worst get-rich-quick scheme in the history of mankind. The people are doing it because they love the plant and they know that this is something bigger than all of us.”