Cortland Nesley


I grew up with a mother who found a lot of solace and comfort in the clinical linguistics of mental health. It presented a framework in which she could engage with the way she was feeling without engaging with the traumas she had growing up in poverty with an alcoholic father. A way to acknowledge she was said without re-triggering herself. I think for her, it is a lot easier to relegate her feelings to unbalanced chemicals than to political and personal trauma. This sounds like a value judgment, but I promise it’s not. It’s not how I find power in language around “mental health”, but I know it brings joy to my mother and so I respect it. However, what was linguistics of solace and comfort for my mother, was the language of restricted imagination for me.


I grew up with a similar framework of “mental health” to my mother’s, one that relied heavily on medicalizations and deterministic clinical frameworks. And when I was diagnosed with Aspergers, that was treated with a largely similar philosophy. Back then, I didn’t put a lot of thought into what my pathologized labels meant. I didn’t understand the medical implications, how it was juxtaposed to my neurotypical peers, and I certainly didn’t know that this particular label’s origins were tied to a doctor that worked with the Nazi regime. I had no sense of history when it came to the way I identified. I didn’t know that there was an implied power to the words I was wielding. Whether I knew it or not, I felt the effects of this power, even if I couldn’t pinpoint it. When I felt shame around my behavior or felt othered, I was not aware that those feelings were informed by a specter of eugenics in which I compared myself to a mythical ideal of “sane” and “abled”.

In the years since my childhood, I’ve tried on many different labels. I started to get curious about my lineage, not necessarily of my blood lineage, but the lineage of my communities. How did the lineage of the Autistic community, Disabled communities, Queer communities, Mad communities, all impact the words I used to talk about “mental health”? I’ve moved away from person first language toward Identity first language. I’ve learned to love and wield Disabled as an identifier. The more I engaged with the histories of the words I was using, the more I learned to love myself. And in equal measure, I was becoming weary of the history of those who wielded the clinical diagnosis my mom found such comfort in. The histories of medical authorities committing acts of violence against people like me made me question and recoil against their words. What does it mean to wield their words? What do their histories tell me about my history?

I don’t really talk to my mom about this journey. I usually can be fairly open with her, but I suspect this exploration might hurt her. She’s always held tremendous fear that she messed up somewhere in raising an Autistic child (a fear grounded in another history, the history of the refrigerator mother. The history of blaming mothers for Autism). Whenever I bring up a new discovery about being Autistic, she feels guilt that my new thought meant her old one was wrong. But as this particular exploration (the de-medicalization and Maddening of mental health) becomes increasingly important in my life, I try to find a way and reconcile my blood lineage with the lineage of my communities. The values of my birth family and the values of my found family.

The lineage of Autistic self-advocacy is filled with histories built by the conflict between the self-advocate and the parent advocate. I feel these histories play out when I talk to her about these things. She tries to fight those histories, and for that, I’m very grateful. Still, I see the pain and the guilt, and sometimes I wonder what silence might offer instead. Lately, I 've leaned into silence a little more. Maybe it's ok if I have my core strong beliefs...and still can choose to spare my mother some hurt.