jennifer hanigan

a pinch of this and a dollop of that

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Believe You Me

In my files is a folder of school papers spanning my years between kindergarten and when I dropped out of high school.  Two or three of these papers are warning letters to my parents about all the sick days I’d taken.  I suspect these letters are, in part, why I was often made to feel I must be faking my illness.  Did you ever tell your parents you didn’t feel well, and get the impression that they thought you were faking it?  Remember what that felt like?  Okay, hold onto that feeling while we chat a bit.

Once, I nearly died from meningitis.  The doctor covering for my own took one look at my record, saw ‘Medicaid’ in my file and decided that my complaints of a horrendous headache were good examples of drug-seeking behavior. He denied me care, over and over, and even when my grandmother rushed me to the ER, he came to the hospital and told me to check myself out, that he knew I just wanted drugs.

Sometimes, when I mention this story, I worry that I’m just being dramatic or looking for attention, and I have to remind myself that no, I was truly sick, I was so sick I couldn’t care for my own kids, I was so sick that even after I got out of the hospital I spent a week flat on my back in a friend’s spare room, bored out of my skull but unable to sit up without extreme pain and dizziness. I was so sick that it was six weeks before I could walk around without an invisible foot-tall stack of books on my head (pro tip: don’t get meningitis).

I lived that experience. It’s mine, and it’s okay to talk about it.

Society, and here I will remind you and myself that society is made up of us, is really good at stealing experiences.  Most especially, when that experience makes society uncomfortable.  And a lot of us, especially when we belong to marginalized groups, are really good at internalizing that attitude.  That’s why, when I’m not feeling well on a work day, I never get by without at least a moment of wondering if I’m faking it.

Recently, a friend from church mentioned that she’d hoped I would recant my coming out.  Doesn’t that sound ridiculous?  I mean, it should…but I’ve had that thought myself.  I’ve heard the voice of doubt in my head asking if I’m sure I’m really bisexual.  Life would be so much easier if I could just shout, “False alarm! Turns out I was just confused or something. Carry on as before!”

So many problems would be solved if I could just erase that part of who I am and let those around me snuggle back into their cocoons of complacency and comfort.

But that would not be okay.  Actually, that would be the opposite of okay.  That’s what we call marginalization. It’s oppression. It’s stealing my experience. And it is not okay.

Still remembering that feeling?  Sucks, doesn’t it?  The not being believed, the implication that your understanding of your own experience must be wrong.  That others know best about your own self.

I’d like to propose a guideline. It goes something like this:

If you’re a man, and I’m a woman, and I’m talking about my experiences as a woman, shut up and listen.

If I’m fat, and you’re not, and I’m talking about my experiences as a fat person? Shut up and listen.

If I’m queer, and you’re not, and I’m talking about my experiences as a queer person, shut up and listen.

If I’m black or brown, and you’re not, and I’m talking about my experiences as a black or brown person? Shut up and listen.

This rule can be applied to all kinds of marginalized groups. And sure, it might make you uncomfortable, at least at first.  But that awful feeling of not being believed? You won’t be doing that to someone else.  And you just might learn something in the process.