When I am offering a description of myself as someone with an illness, my blood pressure begins to rise when someone tells me not to “claim it.” I find this paternalistic intrusion troubling in its presumption of my recklessness in describing my life’s circumstances. There have been times when I’ve experienced coughing fits that have left me breathless. A person who doesn’t know me typically expresses genuine concern for my welfare. In refusing the cough drops or the water that the person offers in their bid to ease my apparent distress, I usually explain that the coughing results from a paralyzed vocal cord and soon passes. Sometimes, this admission leads folk to speculate on family members who have trouble with crumbly or mixed consistency foods. I then offer insights from my ENT about possible ways of addressing the impact of paralyzed vocal cords, and the people thank me for sharing what I’ve learned. Cool. The most common response to my admission, however, is “we’re not going to claim it,” and that irritates me and has led to several heated exchanges. “WE” cannot tell “ME” how I will self-identify. “WE” cannot tell “ME” how I will communicate my experience of the world.
I did not come-of-age with the expression and I do not belong to a faith community that counsels against “claiming” illness or other material conditions, like poverty, that greatly inform how a person experiences the world. From my perspective, rejecting a medical diagnosis, for example, and its consequences reflects one’s departure from reality. Too, I’m not going on a journey to discover a neutral vocabulary that pleases everyone. Presuming that you know the best way for another person to define their experience insults an individual’s ability to speak for themselves, and it ignores the integrity and credibility of another’s ability to make sense of their encounters.
Age and folk wisdom often sanction the power people think they have to tell you how “WE” should define our world. The wisdom of age is a MYTH. If maturity and wisdom merely happened because we aged, every adult in the world would be wise. Unfortunately, wisdom doesn’t just happen! Wisdom derives from careful study and reflection. Too many times, I have been told to “wait until you turn 52 (62, 72, etc.)” before describing, assessing, or making claims about my life. Just recently, I had a conversation with a colleague who told me that I didn’t know what it meant to be tired given my age. In response, I told him that the toll that illness has taken on my body greatly informs my experience of fatigue; I don’t need to wait.
Some people “keep living” and they never learn anything about the world that might alter their circumstances. When folks start telling me how “young” I am, I know that an attempt is being made to undermine my credibility in describing my experiences. Wise people wouldn’t attempt to silence me. Wise people find home with people, of any age, who are actively processing the meaning of life.
I certainly have my opinions about how language can be employed to best serve another’s interest, but I don’t assume a right to tell them how to speak of themselves or what happened to them. For example, I read an article in The Huffington Post about a young girl who had been drugged and raped by the manager of her rock band. From what I read, the rapist-manager was sadistic. Towards the article’s conclusion, the subject of the story realizes that she was victimized and was in no way responsible for what her manager did to her. At that point, the woman referred to the rapist-manager as “my rapist.” Now, if this were my story, I would use different language. The rapist isn’t hers. Claiming the rapist ignores the breach of boundaries constituting the violence and aggression that contributes to the egregious nature of the crime. The person who rapes is no more “my rapist” than the person who breaks into my house and robs me is “my thief.”
The subject of the article has her reasons for describing the asshole who raped her as “my rapist,” but the article doesn’t reveal this information. I would never tell that woman how to tell her story. To me, doing so would constitute another act of violence. In my case, I usually say, “I have a paralyzed vocal cord” or “I have Sarcoidosis.” These nouns are indeed in my possession. Controlling the impact of these nouns requires facing the truth of their existence. Rape, however, is a verb. One does not have rape. Rape happens to you. Making the rapist one’s possession suggests that someone else’s disgusting behavior belongs to you when it doesn’t. Rape happens to you. The passivity and thus the victimization is obvious in the sentence structure.
Recognizing the ways that we intrude into other’s lives with our own philosophies and convictions shows respect for that person. Many of us are too gracious, too tired, too insulted, or too professional to become confrontational over the matter. I have had and I expect to have other moments when I act in the spirit of Anna Julia Cooper when she wrote:
Only the black woman can say when and where I enter, in the quiet, undisputed dignity of my womanhood, without violence and without suing or special patronage, then and there the whole Negro race enters with me.
I speak for me. ME! When someone tries to tell me what to say or attempts to speak about me as if they know my experience better than I do, they are not doing so “without violence.”