Thursday, March 12, 2015

Of Capitalism and Cortisol (or the trouble with adaptogens)

 Recently, while preparing a lecture on stress hormones, I came across a quote from the Slovenian philosopher and psychoanalyst,  Slavoj Žižek:
"Think about the strangeness of today's situation. Thirty, forty years ago, we were still debating about what the future will be: communist, fascist, capitalist, whatever. Today, nobody even debates these issues. We all silently accept global capitalism is here to stay. On the other hand, we are obsessed with cosmic catastrophes: the whole life on earth disintegrating, because of some virus, because of an asteroid hitting the earth, and so on. So the paradox is, that it's much easier to imagine the end of all life on earth than a much more modest radical change in capitalism"
and it struck me that what Žižek describes is the collective manifestation of the effects of consistently high levels cortisol on consciousness.

Cortisol, like all of our hormones, alters our consciousness.   Released by the adrenal cortex, cortisol serves to keep us in a position to respond to danger when an immediate threat has passed but we are not entirely safe yet.  It acts to elevate our blood sugar so more energy will be quickly available to our muscles, to dampen the inflammatory responses brought on by the adrenaline/norepinephrine response we had to the initial threat, to favor the storage of excess energy as fat over the construction of muscle -- and to make us more afraid of and more prone to perceive immediate, cataclysmic threats in the world around us while also diminishing our cognitive capacities.

From an ancestral survival standpoint this all makes sense -- if you have just escaped from a mountain lion you are better off perceiving a rabbit in the bushes as another mountain lion than perceiving a mountain lion in the bushes as a rabbit.   In response to short term stresses, pessimism serves us well.   And you are also better off remaining focused on crashing sounds in the bushes than on contemplating the nature of mountain lions or future strategies for dealing with them.

In a contemporary context, this doesn't serve us.  When the threats to our survival come from not being ale to pay the rent or afford groceries or from not knowing whether we will be shot by police as we walk down the street we seldom reach a point where we can relax fully enough for our cortisol levels to go down because the threat never really goes away.   High cortisol levels cause us to be prone to fear of sudden disasters, and they diminish our ability to analyze the situation and see alternatives.  They also, of course, contribute to stress-related illnesses.

Contemporary responses to chronic stress amount to battlefield medicine.  The role of a military medic is not to help people  heal but to get troops back onto the battlefield as quickly as possible.  Under capitalism, the role of health care workers is not to help people heal but to restore their economic productivity.   And this gets justified in terms of meeting patients' expressed needs, because most people's day to day survival depends on their being able to continue to work to earn money to meet their basic needs, so the patients themselves get put in the position of needing to ask for the medicine that will restore their functionality rather than the treatment that will support their recuperation and restore their vitality --  since the latter requires rest and restructuring of life, luxuries available only to those with enough wealth not to worry about where their next meal is coming from.

The same imperative was true under state Communism.   Soviet scientists set out to find medicines that would improve people's ability to perform key functions under prolonged stress.   They discovered them in a class of herbs they called adaptogens -- herbs which act by extending the cortisol dominated resistance stage of stress, staving off a complete adrenal crash.   The first such herb researched was Siberian Ginseng -- which was found to allow auto-workers to work long hours at grueling jobs without having to take as many sick days as those who didn't take the herb.

Reimagined in a capitalist context, adaptogens are sold and prescribed as herbs to help people remain active and focused while living stressful lives.  They do this -- for a while.   They buy time, putting off the point where the body can no longer function in the ways a person wants it to, masking and delaying symptoms of fatigue that would normally tell us we have pushed ourselves too far.   And, yes, sometimes that is necessary -- a person working three jobs to feed their kids can't take a week off to sleep and can't reduce their hours and can't go off to the woods for days on end.   But they are not really a solution to the problem at hand, and we need to be honest about this.  Especially because they tend to have the effect of making us normalize the situations we are living in and inhibiting the process of questioning the systems that make survival so brutally difficult.

Last December, I wrote:
"It makes no sense to speak of healing people if we are not willing to address what is making them sick and ultimately killing them.   I tell my students all the time that my prescription for everyone who walks into our clinic is the complete transformation of this society, and that anything else we do is harm reduction -- necessary and often life saving but not curative.  And while I don't have a roadmap to guide that transformation, I can tell you one thing -- the first step is refusing to accept the cruelty and suffering around us as normal.  Because the trouble with normal is that it always gets worse."
Maybe the process begins with giving people medicines and practices that connect them with new senses of possibility --  in my next post I will explore some of these approaches .  .

_____________________________________________________

Want to read more about dreaming and thinking and working our way out of the mess capitalism has put us in?  Go to:  http://godsandradicals.org/

Monday, January 26, 2015

The Hyperlexic Paradox

The precocious development of a large vocabulary and the use of unusual and complex sentence structures are common elements begins of early childhood for many Aspies, and remain a features of our communications well into adulthood.   And it is one of the reasons we are so often misread.

Some see us as cold or formal or distant because to those who don't know us well our expression comes across as more similar to literary or academic writing than colloquial speech -- a byproduct of our hyperlexia.  When you are 9 and the only person whose words reflect an understanding of your inner reality is a dead Irish poet, you tend to find yourself communicating in strange ways.  And those habits stick.

Others take the complexity of our language and our obsessions with it as signs  that we feel at home expressing ourselves with words.  For me, they indicate the exact opposite.

All my life, I have been trying to communicate what I think and feel in a language that evolved from a way of viewing the world completely alien to my own experience.   In the folklore of my ancestors, precocious speech was seen as a sign that a child might be a changeling -- all I can say is that is not far off the mark.   From an early age I always imagined that I came from another world where people thought and felt like I did.  I assimilated language in an unsuccessful attempt to explain my reality.  And when speech and prose failed, I tried poetry.

Speaking of the way modern Irish literature grew out of the experience of colonization, Malachy McCourt thanked the English "for stuffing their language down our throats so that we could regurgitate it in glorious colors."  I could say the same of the "gift" of a language shaped by a culture that aims to limit the acceptable bounds of sensation and perception -- being an Autistic person whose only available means of communication was a language shaped by neurotypical assumptions made me a poet. 

 Ironic, perhaps, because the assumption is commonly made that Aspies don't understand metaphor.  But what I actually find is that usually when I am speaking literally people take it as metaphor, because what I am speaking of exists outside the world that their sensory gating allows them to perceive, and when I am speaking metaphorically people tend to take what I am saying literally, because I have translated it into terms that appear more concrete to them than my actual concrete experiences do (which tend, in turn, to be misinterpreted as abstractions.)

You might think that being a poet makes it easy for me to express my feelings.  But I write poetry precisely because everyday language doesn't readily convey what I feel.   When it comes to things I am feeling intensely, sometimes conversation is nearly impossible.   Knowing that my words will only express an approximation of what I am saying, I become slow and meticulous in attempting to choose each one.   And each one also is a signifier fraught with a dozen layers of meaning for me.  And sometimes typing or uttering them can bring me into a place of being completely overwhelmed by the thoughts and feelings they evoke.

And once I have written or spoken words, I often hear them repeated to me in a new context that shifts their meaning.  I hesitate in conversation when it is important for something I say to be understood because I see how quickly meanings I did not intend can become attached to my words, and the ways in which the words I use take on a life of their own.  As Adrienne Rich writes in her poem, "North American Time"

"Everything we write
will be used against us
or against those we love.
These are the terms,
take them or leave them.
Poetry never stood a chance
of standing outside history.
One line typed twenty years ago
can be blazed on a wall in spraypaint
to glorify art as detachment
or torture of those we
did not love but also
did not want to kill.


"We move but our words stand
become responsible

for more than we intended

"and this is verbal privilege"

A verbal privilege not shared by my Autistic kin who this culture deems "low functioning" and who most people assume lack a rich inner life -- until someone like Carly Fleischmann finds a way to all too briefly break into the world of language and describe her experiences.  (That is, until they are silenced by electroconvulsive therapy as Carly was . . .)

Sometimes speaking or writing at all feels like a betrayal of my own heart and my own experience.  The harsh sounds of English doesn't reflect their flow.  The concepts the words of the language refer to are not mine.   The history that shaped the language and the culture is a history of brutality.   And I want to stand outside of history.  But poetry never stood a chance of standing outside history, and neither did I.

And so I write.  Knowing that I will be misunderstood.

Monday, December 8, 2014

The Trouble With Normal

On my way to class yesterday, I saw the police breaking up a temporary homeless camp just outside the college.

In my classes, there are students who are underslept because they are working too many hours to try to pay their tuition, and students who are going hungry because there are not enough decent paying jobs and Victoria is an expensive city.

Economists tell us this is "the new normal" -- a phrase I have hated since the first time I heard it used by the army when they were telling families about the changes they could expect to see in their loved ones returning from Iraq with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Traumatic Brain Injury   As humans, we have the capacity to normalize a lot of things.  But, as Bruce Cockburn says, "The trouble with normal is it always gets worse."

We have normalized police harassment of Black men on the street to the point where ostensibly serious journalists and politicians are getting way with blaming Eric Garner for his own death, saying that he should have known better than to ask the police not to arrest him or to take their hands off of him.   We have normalized the glorified jail cells in schools that children -- most of them people of color -- are locked up in when they fail to maintain a performance of neurotypicality.  We have normalized the murder and disappearance of Indigenous women.   We have normalized rape culture.  We have normalized violence against Trans* people.  We have normalized the Oil Sands.  We have normalized twenty three years of war in Iraq.

To be sure, many of us don't approve of these atrocities.  But too many of us never give any of these realities a second thought as we go though our days unless they show up in the headlines or in our facebook feeds or touch the life of someone we know.

But when I show up in clinic, no matter who is sitting across from me, I see these realities etched in the bodies and hearts of the people coming to me for help -- because what our minds rationalize our hearts absorb and our bodies experience.    To be sure there are places where the scars left are deeper and more obvious. (Though still invisible to too many in medicine.  Why is that more doctors don't make a connection between the elevated rates of hypertension in African-American men and the dangers of being a Black man walking down the street in America?)   But even people further removed from the most immediate and deadly impacts of the physical and psychological violence our culture has normalized are still living with the effects of its cultural and ecological violence.    Its no accident that we call heart disease, diabetes, cancer, anxiety, depression, and autoimmune disease "the diseases of civilization" -- they are the direct consequences of the physiological and emotional stress of living in a culture that depends on massive structures of organized violence for its continued existence.

 As Denise Levertov wrote decades ago in words that are still too apt:

The same war
continues.

We have breathed the grits of it in, all our lives,

our lungs are pocked with it,
the mucous membrane of our dreams
coated with it, the imagination
filmed over with the gray filth of it

It makes no sense to speak of healing people if we are not willing to address what is making them sick and ultimately killing them.   I tell my students all the time that my prescription for everyone who walks into our clinic is the complete transformation of this society, and that anything else we do is harm reduction -- necessary and often life saving but not curative.  And while I don't have a roadmap to guide that transformation, I can tell you one thing -- the first step is refusing to accept the cruelty and suffering around us as normal.  Because the trouble with normal is that it always gets worse.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Famine, Plague, and Colonialism: Thoughts on Ebola

There is a saying in Ireland -- "God put the blight on the potatoes.  The British put the famine on the Irish."

In other words, while the blight that hit Irish potatoes in the nineteenth century was, in a sense, a disease of natural origin, the mass starvation that ensued was the result of the Irish people, under a centuries long military occupation, being forced to grow a single crop on badly depleted soils.  A people given control over their own lives and the way they lived on the land their ancestors had inhabited for millennia would never have created such a vulnerable food system and economic system.

In the same way, we can say that while the Ebola virus is a product of evolution, the Ebola epidemic is the product of centuries of European in West Africa, wars fought with weapons made by those same colonizers, and a global capitalist system that has consistently looted the global south for the benefit of the ruling classes of North America and Europe (and, more recently, and to a lesser extent, Japan and China.)

Western journalists, speaking about the spread of Ebola in countries like Sierra Leone and Liberia have tended to pin the disease's rapid spread on burial customs that involve touching the dead.   While it is true that contact with the dead can result in the transfer of bodily fluids that spread the disease, focusing on burial customs pins the blame on the people impacted by the disease while ignoring the larger forces at play that created the conditions for it to become an epidemic.  These conditions include:

  • The collapse of the agricultural sector throughout the global south together with civil wars pushing more and more people into crowded urban areas where disease can spread quickly.
  • The lack of clean drinking water and adequate sanitation.
  • The overwhelm of underfunded public health systems already strained by dealing with diseases like malaria
  • Malnutrition making people more vulnerable to infections disease
and these factors all have their roots in the current and historical economic and military policies of colonial and neo-colonial powers.

As Allyson Pollock, Professor of Public Health at Queen Mary University in London, says:

[Liberia and Sierra Leone] had a total erosion and collapse of their public health care systems and this is the tragedy.  So the population has very, very few doctors and nurses.  They simply cannot cope and of course the public facilities that are there are overcrowded, they are in terrible conditions and they are completely and utterly understaffed.  So this problem of an epidemic was going to hit them, it could have been Ebola, it could be something else – it could be cholera or whatever. This was actually going to come home to hit these countries very hard indeed.  This was entirely predictable and it’s been predictable for more than 20 years and it is what the public health lobby and the public advocates have been talking about.  The solution to these epidemics is not the magic bullets of vaccines and it is not sending in the troops.  It’s structural, it’s social, it’s economic, it’s environmental and it is putting in all the public health measures.

There is not much we can do as herbalists to heal those now infected with Ebola.  Even if we had the perfect protocol for treating the disease, getting the relevant herbs to people and finding a safe way to administer them would be next to impossible.   But as people living in nations that continue to benefit from colonialism, we can address the roots of the epidemic by addressing the destruction wrought by global capitalism.

As I often tell my students, the prescription for almost every health care crisis we face is the dismantling of systems of oppression.   Everything else is harm reduction -- necessary and right and good but not a cure.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Gathering the Edgewalkers: The Traditions in Western Herbalism Conference

I am, by nature, a witch at the edge of the woods, as my friend Kiva would say.  Sometimes, quite literally -- right now I live in a small cabin on unceded W̱SÁNEĆ territory on the southern tip of Vancouver Island, on land surrounded by Douglas Fir and Hawthorn and Big Leaf Maple.   Sometimes my solitude has been more closely surrounded by people and the trees have been further away.   But my work happens in the places where the wild, the human, and the divine meet, both within me and around me.  Its a calling I was born to in many ways, coming into this world with a queer neurobiology.  It has opened me to unspeakable beauty.

But it has also been a lonely calling.  I have found myself an outsider among outsiders again and again -- among hippies, activists, and pagans, finding that my difference was different from the differences that united them, and ending up feeling more alone than I started.

To some extent this is to be expected.  Anyone who has read enough Terry Pratchett knows that "the natural size of a coven is one" . . .   But they also know that now and then those solitary magical ones need to come together to make sure nobody has "gone off cackling."

Sometimes I find those moments of connection visiting another herbalist or witch, or even grabbing a few moments on the phone or online (though the people I actually enjoy talking with on the phone are few and far between.  Phones can be pretty stressful.)  Often I will find those moments of connection with students and patients and other teachers.

But all year I look forward to the Traditions in Western Herbalism Conference (thought it has sometimes gone by other names in recent years) -- where a ragtag bunch of herbalists and activist and witches and curandero/as come together from across the continent to share our love of wild medicine in a place where our individual and collective strangeness is enot just welcomed but celebrated.

I have been going to the conference every year since its inception.

The first time I came, I had never been to a major herb conference before, and arrived feeling a little awkward and intimidated.  But by the end of the first day, I found myself sharing meals with people like Matthew Wood and Howie Brounstein and jim mcdonald whose work I had been following for a long time, and was struck by the way that they treated me as a colleague and an equal, encouraging my work while they shared theirs.  

The second year, I was moved to find that Wolf and Kiva were willing to take a chance on inviting an unknown herbalist living in rural Maine to teach about working with Skunk Cabbage, Ghost Pipe, and Black Cohosh to connect with the underworld and with submerged aspects of the self.  The experience helped me realize that when I taught  from my own experience rather than just repeating things I had read and heard I could begin to help other people engage or re-engage their own hunger for authentic connection with plants in a way that could change their lives.  

The Traditions in Western Herbalism Conference has always emphasized this kind of vital teaching and practice, bringing forward new voices and challenging established herbalists to bring forward aspects of themselves that don't often get seen in public.   This year's iteration of the conference, the HerbFolk Gathering, brought that to a new level, as elders of the community like David Hoffman and Matthew Wood and newer voices like Asia Suler and Rebecca Altman taught classes infused with enchantment, where their love and passion for the healing found in forest and desert and swamp and field was palpable and contagious.  The magic spilled into the evening, as a community danced and celebrated.

The connections made at these conferences have extended into the rest of my life too.   Friendships made over plant conversation and strange libations have evolved into a network of witches at the edge of the woods who keep each other from going off cackling, and a continually growing confidence in the necessity of my own strangeness.

Gathering the edgewalkers may be like herding cats, but somehow Kiva and Wolf have turned a bunch of scattered feral cats into a pride of lions.   There is room in the pride for you too!

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Toxic Myths About Autism

The most common response I get when I talk about Autism is -- "You aren't really Autistic. Or at least not very much.  You can (speak coherently/empathize/more or less put on your own clothes/or insert whatever the speaker thinks Autistic people can't do)."  It is often followed by the suggestion that my pride in my neurological difference is somehow insensitive to the parents of people who are "really Autistic."   The fact that I can pass in some situations as neurotypical doesn't diminish the reality of my Autism and the gifts and struggles it brings me.  Neurotypicality exists at the level of performance.  Autism is a fundamental set of factors shaping my experience of the world.

But the most common discourse I encounter about Autism in spaces where my neurological difference is invisible is built around the idea that Autism is an epidemic caused by vaccinations or aluminum cookware or GMO's or whatever toxic bogeyman is in vogue at the moment.  Now to be clear, there are real issues involved with the safety of some vaccines, aluminum cookware is not good for anyone, and I am highly skeptical about the safety of GMO's especially when developed in a capitalist context.  But the idea that my neurology is a pathology caused by toxicity is highly offensive.

I spoke to the issue of the pathologization of Autism in my last blog post on Autism as neurological Queerness.   And there are actually some strong parallels between discourses around endocrine disruption and sex and gender and around neurotoxins and Autism.

Popular discourse around endocrine disruption tends to focus on the idea that xeno-estrogens are feminizing male bodies.  Its telling that such discourses often refer to xeno-estrogens as "gender bending" compounds -- language that conflates gender (a socially constructed category based on performance) with sex (a socially constructed category based on perceived biological difference, similar to race in its origin and its problematic claim to scientific reality), and defines expressions, experiences, and bodies that fall outside the accepted male/female binary as "bent" and aberrant.  The anxiety about feminizing male bodies reflects both a misogynist bias and an implied pathologization of Trans* bodies.   This is not to say that endocrine disrupting compounds are not a huge public health problem  -- but rather that framing the problem in terms of the bending of gender further marginalizes people who fall outside the bounds of culturally sanctioned gender expression while deflecting focus from the real problem of the non-consensual altering of our endocrine makeup by corporate polluters.

Popular discourse around Autism and neurotoxicity puts forward stories of parents who either experienced their children "becoming" Autistic after a toxic exposure or witnessed a decline in symptoms and behaviours they saw as undesirable after detoxifying their children's bodies in some way.  (Ever notice that people only talk about Autistic CHILDREN and Autistic adults are generally invisible in the culture?  But that's a rant for another day.)   These stories frame Autism as a disorder, Autistic traits as something to be reduced or eliminated, and parents as victims and protagonists in the drama of Autistic peoples' lives.

There is a possible grain of truth to the relationship between toxicity and physical health problems in some Autistic people.  Many of us do seem to have slower detoxification pathways than the general population -- and especially reduced methylation.   I theorize that in an ancestral context this may have served to help us process phytochemicals from the environment over a longer period of time, rendering us more sensitive to some forms of communication from the living world.  But in a contemporary context it does render us vulnerable.   If I can't methylate mercury and other neurotoxins as rapidly as most people it is conceivable that I would experience symptoms of mercury toxicity from lower levels of exposure than than other people -- such as the levels I experienced breathing in the air in an area with three incinerators, or maybe, maybe, maybe the levels contained in now sidelined vaccine adjuvants, especially if that mercury was added to a high load from ambient sources.   But that does not mean my Autism was caused by neurotoxins or can be "treated" by their removal.

But you know what else causes an increase in inflammatory diseases and neuro-endocrine dysregulations?  Trauma.  And that is something we Autistic people experience plenty of:  bullying by peers as children, feelings of alienation, harrowing experiences with the medical world to name a few experiences most Autistic people I know share.    And when our experience is pathologized, we experience deeper alienation.

So instead of "searching for the cure" to Autism lets search for the cure to environmental and emotional toxicity:  remaking the society that has become the coal mine where we Autistic people are the canaries who are punished for showing the mine owners that we can't breathe the air.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Autism: Neurological Queerness

William Blake famously spoke of the doors of perception which, if cleansed, opened into infinity.  For me, those doors of perception, my sensory gating channels, have always been wide open -- though I am often a bit far sighted, seeing the laticework underlying the structure of this world while missing parts of the human exchange going on around me. And I sometimes get overwhelmed.

It changed my life to find out that this experience is called Autism.

While Autism is classified as a disorder, it is actually a set of neurological variations that allow for a profoundly different experience of the universe.  Autistic people have always existed and we serve a fundamental ecological role in a healthy community, mediating between worlds.  Some of my Autistic predecessors were the people who lived at the edge of the village, maintaining connection between the human, the wild, and the divine.  My herbalism and my magic are in many ways an inheritance from these ancestors of the Craft.

The variation in human neurology is as profound as the variation in human sexuality and impacts our experience just as deeply.   As with sexuality and with gender, monotheistic religions and their capitalist descendants (the relationship between monotheism and capitalism is one brilliantly pointed out by Rhyd Wildermuth) decreed only a narrow band of neurological experience and expression permissible, and demonized or pathologized variatiom from the norm.

The way in which hierarchies are created within Autism diagnoses designating some of us "high functioning" and some of us "low functioning" points to the role of capitalism in establishing and enforcing compulsory neurotypicality.  Functionality is defined largely in terms of ability to play economic functions.  "High functioning" Autistics are those of us who were and are verbally precocious and able to give name and voice to complex layers of reality.  To the extent that our creative perception can be harnessed for lucrative purposes, we are tolerated as eccentrics.  More so if we learn to mimic neurotypical traits, putting on a convincing performance of social fluency.  That performance has its cost, however, in the form of stress-induced illnesses like the hypertension I struggle with.    Those whose expression does not include language are deemed "low functioning" and their silence is presumed to reflect a deficiency in mental processing.  But I can tell you that I have those silent places in me too, and sometimes using words at all feels like a betrayal, and I recognize those places when I see them.

For me, Autism is a neurological Queerness, a way of being in the world rendered transgressive by a culture intent on total control and infinite growth.

But we cannot be controled, and our power grows at the edges.