The Necessary Labor of Naming and Respecting Chronic Anger – Part 2

Part 2 of 2

As we stated in Part 1 a culture of accessibility is one that is informed about anger, fear and sadness. Emotional literacy is crucial.Below is a list of types of anger that we’ve experienced directly or heard about from our colleagues.

1. Screaming to be heard/fighting against the expectation of invisibility

The constant drone of the inconvenience and ignorance inherent to pain and disability isn’t quantifiable, so it’s not allowed to exist among the “elite.” Holly’s physical therapy ends at 10. The faculty meeting is at 12. It’s only an hour’s drive. Logically, she thinks, I can make it. Physically, I will go. Emotionally I resent it, even if it’s a necessary evil. The minutiae of disability is easily overlooked and the constant maintenance chronic illness requires is quickly forgotten when there is no crisis occurring at the present moment.

There’s been a lot of buzz recently about chronic illness, spoons, and mental fatigue (e.g. difficulty making decisions, paying attention, understanding a process, etc.). The emotional and mental labor of chronic illness and disability are heavy and almost completely invisible. And invisible disabilities come with invisible consequences. There’s something to note about women (e.g. cis women, nonbinary people, genderfluid people, trans women and transfeminine women) being invisible in the first place. In addition, even though they are invisible, their so-called absence of input, attendance, patience, etc. is hypervisible. Essentially they are perceived as a nuisance because they aren’t seen to be doing the invisible labor that is expected of them. Here we must also acknowledge Kimberlé Crenshaw’s concept of intersectionality: oppression caused by sexism and racism compounds the oppression caused by ableism. The stigma of invisible illness is therefore higher for people from multiple marginalized groups, for example womxn and nonbinary people of color

2. Loss of usefulness (strip mining) when usefulness = humanity

You see it in every teacher movie: the truly committed, hopeful, usually white teacher is willing to sacrifice their time, their happiness, the family, and their health to dedicate every last ounce of their energy to their classes. We read “feel good” news stories about people working three jobs to get by, who spend 80 hours a week building businesses, and work never-ending overtime for their companies. The result is that people are expected to sacrifice their physical and mental health to the workplace.

If admins and colleagues were trained to have realistic expectations about your boundaries and to take you at your word without judgment, then perhaps things would improve. Academia likes to think it’s better than other jobs, but it still relies on “human resources” (a term that makes our skin crawl). It’s still part of an extraction economy, as Instagram philosophers like Queer Appalachia point out to readers, as they connect the dots between strip mining for coal and strip mining bodies for labor until they wear out, sick with illness caused by the nature of the work. You’re never supposed to be angry. When an institution relies on exploitative labor practices, it’s just a matter of time until the system collapses. When you’re expected to happily be exploited, anything that gets in the way of not just doing your basic job but of being “strip mined” ruins everything. It’s very angering that everyone working these jobs and administering programs reliant on adjuncts can see how unsustainable it is, and yet we can’t do anything about it. Workers feel futile and impotent, like failures.

3. Frustration of not being taken seriously or being minimized

Frustration and irritability is caused by repeatedly having to “come out” as having an invisible illness. In one incident, one of Holly’s colleagues, who is familiar with her condition, cuffed her hard on the back of the neck during a flare. She was in terrible pain because of it, and reacted with a gasp, turning in physically, and shutting down emotionally. Her colleague did not notice for over an hour, then asked her husband if she was okay. So even when you take the risk of disclosing your condition, you are often still not seen.

Disclosure is in fact a risk. In at-will states, it may be illegal to fire you for being disabled but it is not illegal to fire you for too many absences, not performing the emotional labor of social niceties well enough, having the wrong color hair, or any other excuse they can think of to remove the inconvenience of accommodating you. Therefore, every disclosure is an enormous act of trust, and when you are misunderstood it’s not just annoying, it’s hurtful and frightening. As Holly asks, if my colleague doesn’t even understand how to not physically hurt me, how are they able to protect my job? Just like a careless pat on the back can destroy my night out, a careless word—or the accretion of a hundred separate careless words—has the potential to destroy my career.

4. Annoyance at microaggressions suggesting your body is an inconvenience

Room temperature, fluorescent lighting, stadium or lecture hall seating—these are all environmental factors that can affect accessibility. To be sighed at, consistently overlooked, or for someone to even “jokingly” suggest that you’re a “princess” —these microaggressions suggest that our bodies are inconvenient, our needs are mere preferences, and our difficulties are faked.

5. Rage at consistent lack of control or ability to resolve problems

Case in point: two local colleges that rely on adjunct labor for a large majority of the teaching at the institution both had major problems recruiting adjuncts this semester, Spring 2019. They didn’t have enough teachers. They couldn’t get them. They assigned many more classes than typically allowed to several adjuncts, some of whom were verging on full-time status but did not see the benefits. People have figured out that being an adjunct isn’t an “in” at an institution. It’s jumping on a treadmill because they don’t want to “lose an adjunct.” And in no universe is it acceptable to be that dependent on adjuncts.

When you think about it in this context, these hiring practices and treatment of persons with disabilities of work are obviously unsustainable because strip-mining eventually taps all of the resource. It’s very angering that everyone working these jobs and everyone administering programs reliant on adjuncts can see how unsustainable it is, and that we can’t do anything about it. Workers feel futile and impotent, like failures. A culture of accessibility is one that is informed about anger, fear and sadness. Emotional literacy is crucial.

6. Disgust at ignorance and cruelty

Most people we work with on a daily basis aren’t outright cruel, but following every semester student evaluations arrive and we have no recourse or ability to defend ourselves against the inevitable, anonymous non-academic complaints from students. For example, a professor we know shared a not uncommon anecdote about a student evaluation comment regarding her pregnancy. Every female professor has a story about a student commenting on her appearance. Professors with disabilities inevitably receive comments calling them absent, lazy, disengaged, etc., no matter what arrangements they make to avoid disrupting the flow of the class. Countless studies have shown that student evaluations are notoriously biased and prejudiced, yet administrators insist we keep them because appeasing students as ‘customers’ takes precedence over faculty mental health.

7. Fight, flight, or freeze: physical responses to anger — biology is undeniable

Even if you are uncomfortable or unsure in naming emotions, you can at the very least pay attention to what is happening inside your body, physically, in difficult situations. Let’s say your requests for accommodations have been repeatedly ignored or denied, and it’s happened again. Which of the following do you turn to?

  • Fight: use valuable spoons to tell off the ignorer/denier, to argue once more in your defense, to research research ADA law AGAIN to make a case AGAIN. Protest from within and without the institution. Build that network, gird your loins, once more into the fray.
  • Flight: leave the room, leave the building, leave the conversation, leave the profession. Anything is better than doing this again. Escape the moment.
  • Freeze: shield up, mask on, don’t move, play dead, shoot out your intestines like a sea cucumber so the predator will be satiated and move on. Brainlock.

You will probably recognize your own patterns in these descriptions. For me (Sara), option C, freeze, has often been my go-to in times of conflict. I feel anger, and I feel my negative reaction to being angry, and I don’t move. From the outside, a viewer might assume I’m peaceful. In fact I’m frequently praised by coworkers, family, and friends for being “even-tempered” and preternaturally calm. In truth, I’m sometimes dissociating from the moment because I’m stuck in a loop in my head and must write down what is happening to stay in the present (“The Devil’s Race Track,” as Samuel Clemens called it). In a culture that demands women be accommodating, I have developed a defense mechanism of shutting down: it goes something like this—this can’t be happening, this is happening, I hate this, I have no voice, I have no choice, there’s nowhere to run, think of something clever, this can’t be happening, this is happening. In response to this habit, I have learned to turn to my love of and habit of writing, and, when I can’t respond, I record. This strategy helps me comprehend what I’m hearing and feeling, creates a record of the interaction, and gives others in the room a sense of accountability because their words and actions are being documented. Writing gives me power.

While this list of seven kinds of anger makes no pretense of being all-inclusive, we do hope that it can provide at least a form of vocabulary for beginning the process of naming—and therefore normalizing—the anger we feel (and battle, and ignore, and beat ourselves up over). Heavy should be the head that wears the crown. Crowns imply power and therefore responsibility to others. By naming our unpleasant and inconvenient needs, we can shift at least some of the burden to those who can shoulder it.

About the Author

Holly Clay-Buck

Holly Clay-Buck Grew up in small town Oklahoma. She graduated from Northeastern State University with a BA in English and the University of Tulsa with an MA in English. She is an Assistant Professor and Coordinator of Developmental Studies at Rogers State University. Her academic interests include intersectional disability advocacy, pedagogy, queer issues, and development of popular language. She is the author of How We Write: An Essentials-Only Guide to Composition and multiple articles and presentations focused on disability, collaboration, and developmental studies. Holly is involved in the LGBTQIA+ community, participates in local activism, and takes care of her friends and family.

Sara N. Beam

Sara N. Beam’s formative years were split between several small towns, first in southeastern Oklahoma and then in Fort Smith, Arkansas. She graduated from Hendrix College in 2002 with a B.A. degree in English. After moving to Tulsa, she completed the University of Tulsa (TU) English Master’s and Doctoral Degree programs in 2010. She is Applied Assistant Professor of English and Director of the Writing Program at TU. Her academic interests include teaching, written composition, disability studies, women’s and gender studies, visual rhetoric, and childhood studies. Her scholarly work includes co-editing and writing sections of the 2015 book Children’s and Young Adult Books in the College Classroom: Essays on Instructional Methods and the 2019 anthology of Oklahoma women’s personal stories, Voices from the Heartland, Volume II. In the Tulsa community, Sara is a volunteer with the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society and is a board member on the Little Blue House at TU, an interfaith voice for peace and social justice.

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