I mentioned here that I was considering writing the history (and even future!) of “What’s Your Story?” on this blog, both for the edification of others and also as a keepsake & reminder for myself.
I, a first-year, entered the 300-level disability studies course already sharing something in common with the professor I did not yet know: both of us were unsure as to whether I was qualified to be there at all. Luckily, the class in question was a joy to work and “prove myself” in, and became a major factor in my final decision to take up critical disability studies as an informing area of my CST focus/specific course of study and research.
Although I gradually grew more comfortable in the class as the months passed, I grew more anxious at the looming threat of our final projects. We were heavily encouraged not merely to write a paper (the required length of which was still longer than any academic work I had written in high school) but instead to transform our classroom knowledge into an action project of some sort. I did to some of the requisite research for a paper topic, in case possible action project plans fell through (as I feared they would). I ended up writing –– for a different class –– the paper whose topic I researched, and nervously proposed “some kind of open mic, speak-out sort of thing, that I am not calling a ‘support ‘group’ therapy session.”*
I had initially come upon the idea by considering my irritation with the traditional group-therapy model: patients sit in circles to publicly confess their sins to the all-knowing professional, who then –– instead of giving them Hail Mary’s –– imposes upon them pre-determined Coping Skills as though said respective skills are a magic bullet for all people who might share a common diagnosis. The name “What’s Your Story?” emerged from a similar sense of irritation at having to divulge my (mental health) history accurately, consistently, and with gradually-increasing (not too rapidly, lest I look like a faker) degrees of self-awareness that will eventually conclude with recovery; sanity.
I have heard the phrase “what’s your story?” in myriad forms, contexts, and tones. What each shares in common is that they are coming from the mouth of someone in power. These people –– in their quest to intimately Know you, the Other –– creates the very narratives about the “causes of mental illness” and the pictures of “what insanity looks like” that they believe they are searching us to discover!**
Given this, I quickly realized I had to take my story back and share it on my own terms.
I figured that a way to radically reinvent the “story” conversation was to bring into the open –– and dare I say, “fight the stigma!” (although I always hate sounding like a highway billboard or inspirational video) around existing-as-disabled. Although I did not have much access to the knowledge and experiences of people whose disabilities are marked as “physical,” I knew the questions of “what happened?” paralleled in many ways the demands for story-disclosure with which psychosocially disabled, mentally ill, etc. people are barraged.
I made posters, sent emails, created Facebook events as well as a distinct group for attendees/participants, and haphazardly coordinated the physical space in which the event would take place. I bought allergen-friendly food, created the transcript documents for peoples’ performances, and set/cleaned up the space. My professor had generously offered extra credit to any of my classmates who showed up at my event, which only slightly diminished my then-anxiety around low attendance.
The event turned out to be as successful as it was exhausting. It didn’t run as smoothly as more recent events have (obviously) nor was I brave enough to share something of my own at the time. I don’t remember precisely how long the first event lasted, but I remember it ran far longer than I had thought it would, mostly due to the group discussion that took place after the formal readings were over. It occurs to me in hindsight that this was the first time I had experienced such a well-attended, compassionate discussion on disability. I had set the parameters clearly beforehand: abled accomplices were welcome to listen & learn, and would become unwelcome upon any attempts to dominate the discussion or claim upheld expertise.
I don’t know who it was who suggested to pass around a paper, taking down emails of attendees who wanted more events like that one. If they’re reading this, they’re welcome to email me so I can give them the hug they are most certainly due come fall. The desire to speak for myself and with others like me, instead of speaking of myself and to those who erroneously claimed authority over my life experiences, was clearly shared.
So, the next semester, I planned another event. And then there was a zine. And another zine, accompanied by an event. And then there was Amsterdam, and I was very sad to have missed out on hosting what I’m sure would have been a great event with amazing people. I’m excited to move forward now that I will be back at Mount Holyoke for four more semesters.
There were a lot of unintended, useful things that came of “What’s Your Story?”: organizing experience, planning knowledge, on-the-ground knowledge of what event accessibility can look like, learning to edit aggregated content, learning to recruit contributors, learning to publicize events via word-of-mouth and social media. My resumé has thanked me 1,000 times over. This series of events has also brought me closer to innumerable peers who I may never have known well if it weren’t for “What’s Your Story?”. Finally, having assisted in producing, and certainly seeing, the benefits of peer-based disability organizing and the sharing of feelings and knowledge as equals and not inferiors gives me a way to talk about alternatives to institutional medicine & psychiatry in the real world.
Unfortunately, there still exist the conditions that necessitate events like this. These are the conditions that lead people, when I first try to explain “What’s Your Story?” to them, to scratch their heads. The notion of unmediated wisdom coming from the mouth of a disabled person is unthinkable when the producers of knowledge we see all have Dr., or at the very least, LCSW, attached to their names. As someone who, relative to others like me, has an increased degree of autonomy over their life, I do feel a sense of responsibility to keep organizing these events simply because I’m able to. But also, every time I (re-)read a zine, attend an event, or even simply describe the event’s ethos to others (as I’m doing now) I feel a sense of pride, accomplishment, and fun. Yes, disability can be fun; we can commune to revel in each others’ brilliant imperfections (if you will) with no need, no desire for “fixing.”
* There exist far more overlapping terms that psych-professionals use to talk about professionally-mediated spaces in which disabled people come together, and almost all of these are shortened to “Group”, which tends to be used as though it’s a proper noun.
** Obviously, I was not thinking about this as a first-semester first-year, at least, not in those terms. As I reflect now, I’m able to use such concepts thanks mainly to theorist Sara Ahmed. I’m currently reading her (2000) work, “Strange Encounters,” in which she describes the way the ego’s desire for knowledge of “the strange(r)” produces the conditions that make people “strange(rs)” in the first place.