DSQ > Fall 2007, Volume 27, No.4

It's almost 8:00 a.m. on a rainy morning. I turn on my cell phone to check messages from the previous night; five from my dearest friend JD: "it's 2:40 and I've been pacing frantically, annoyed that I can't sleep." JD is overweight and experiences sleep apnea. He is a 41 year-old Mexican American gay man with severe depression. He lives alone in a middle-class neighborhood in San Diego. We became very close friends before I moved to Baltimore. I imagine JD in front of his computer before sunrise (considering the 3 hour difference between the east and west coasts) with the lights burning brightly like the hot sun on a clear southern California day. As I brush my teeth I listen to JD's messages as he rattles through the speakerphone:

I'm looking at Peace-Corps to go to one of the countries that need me, to help, so I'm looking on the Internet, with unrealistic intentions of helping the world.

This particular night is typical: JD can't sleep, so he searches the Internet leaving multiple messages on my cell phone as he anxiously anticipates a decent hour to call me at home. In one of five messages he describes the night as peaceful, but mentions that he feels distressed, desperate, sad, and lonely:

I want to experience joy. I want to make a difference. I want to belong. I want to feel healthy and energetic.

JD struggles to remain hopeful, but surrenders to feelings of hopelessness. He repeatedly questions his purpose in life. He can't seem to make sense of why he is alive:

I'm very angry. I hallucinate and I'm paranoid. I can't organize my thoughts. I always want to say twenty things at the same time. I think I have psychosis. I have so many things wrong with me. The reason I'm talking about this is because here it says that to join the Peace-Corps they are unable to accommodate the following conditions. Let's see, which conditions do I have, diabetes, well, I'm borderline. History of psychosis, I know my family has that, but I'm not sure how much psychosis I have, I guess I have part of that. HIV, well, it's only a matter of time. Major recurrent depression, that goes without saying, and obstructed sleep apnea, that's a for-sure. To join the Peace-Corps I would have to control my high blood pressure for at least three months, and my weight needs to be within a medically recommended range. Well, I know I have to control my weight, well, no, forget it, let me close this website.

JD's last message continues to touch upon his highly medicalized condition. As he searches the Internet he comes across several hyperlinks to "The Memory Pill." He selects a video clip from the television program "60 Minutes," which aired on November 26, 2006; JD mentions that he would like to stifle his unpleasant feelings and traumatic thoughts:

I think it's sad that society is unable to cope and doesn't know what to do with people like me. But, yeah, give me the pill. If it's going to help me, and if it's the only thing that our mental health profession can do for me right now, then, give me the pill, I'll take it. I'll try it. I'm angry that everything has to depend on a pill, but I have to have hope, hope, hope, hope. Right now the medication I take only partially helps me function. It somewhat helps me out of my horrible helplessness, my deathlike despair. It's too bad that hope comes in the form of a pill: but give me the pill.

Because JD's body/mind is highly medicalized, he experiences physical and psychological "burdens that no amount of social justice can eliminate" (Wendell, 2001, p. 18). Yet classifying JD as "sick, diseased, and ill" as a way to disassociate him from healthy people with disabilities is alienating because such derogatory labels deny him the right and opportunity to experience his highly medicalized body/mind as simply another way of being in the world. JD is greatly disappointed with people's lack of understanding and support — most insist that he simply get over his depression. But he continues to search for a miracle pill in the hopes that he will be able to better function in an unsympathetic society.

So how should we interpret JD's medically based efforts to treat his depression? Since disability activists and scholars have struggled to resist the medicalization of people with disabilities, what is the disability community's moral and ethical responsibility toward people (like JD) with highly medicalized bodies/minds? Have we reached a point in the disability movement where we are able and willing to embrace the medical aspect of impairments? Have we adopted a politicized approach to medically defined impairments whereby medicalized experiences are fully appreciated and valued?

This commentary has been submitted with JD's consent.

References:

  • Wendell, S. (2001). Unhealthy disabled: Treating chronic illnesses as disabilities. In E. Kittay, A. Silvers, & S. Wendell (Eds.). A. Schriempf (Assoc. Ed.). Hypatia: A journal of feminist philosophy: Special Issue, volume 16, number 4, Feminism and Disability, part I (pp. 17-33). Indiana University Press.
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Copyright (c) 2007 Santiago Solis



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