Let’s talk a little about metaphors. Metaphors are pretty cool, and they are pervasive in our society. In fact, neurotypicals have a tendency to not even think about them or sometimes even be aware that they are speaking in metaphors. We are so surrounded and immersed in metaphor it’s like the air – something barely even thought about.
Unless something in the air doesn’t quite fit, or you can’t seem to breathe right. Suddenly the air is very much on your mind (talking about metaphors using a metaphor. yep). When you’re autistic, metaphors don’t flow as smoothly as they do for other people. I know that I tend to be more aware of them than many people around me.
Now, I am here to talk about one particular metaphor. One that is rarely questioned (though it is sometimes, and the questioning is growing) but I think causes many problems. That being – the “battle” or “enemy” metaphor for illness. A friend shared this really great article going over many of the problems with the utterly pervasive battle/fighter/war/enemy metaphor that is used in medicine. Thing is, a metaphor is not simply a word thing, about helping us convey a concept. The metaphors we choose to use actually play a really deep role in how we conceptualize ourselves and the world around us. If you want to read more about that, read the book Metaphors We Live By, by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson.
With illness or disease, we push people to view the illness as an enemy to fight. We say the person who is sick is a fighter, and encourage them to view themselves this way. Medicine, doctors, tests, etc all become weapons in this fight. I think we hope that this metaphor will help people in dealing with their disease, but there is growing evidence that this is actually not helping. From the previously linked article:
“1970, Polish physician Zbigniew Lipowski introduced a framework for characterizing the meaning that patients ascribe to their illnesses. These categories include viewing illness as a challenge, value, enemy, or loss, among others. Since then, studies that have interviewed cancer patients around the time of diagnosis and followed them for years after have found that patients who view their disease as an “enemy” tend to have higher levels of depression and anxiety, and poorer quality of life than those who ascribe a more positive meaning. They also tend to report higher pain scores and lower coping scores.
Which basically means – this metaphor is not working.
However, I also want to look at it a bit in terms of the things I deal with – autism, depression, and anxiety. These are all things to do with my mind. Literally – my brain. They are all happening right here in my head. Now, with autism it is obvious. While some people out there still want to “fight” autism, I find it utterly bizarre. You cannot separate autism and me, so there can be no fighting autism without fighting myself. When you tell a child that autism is an enemy, you are telling them that their own brain is their enemy.
For me, this even extends to depression and anxiety. They’re in my brain. I don’t want to fight my brain. They’re part of the chemicals my body makes. I don’t want to fight my body. If I really, REALLY look at them, in the end if they are my enemy then so is my body. I am not interested in making my body my enemy.
On top of that, for me they are chronic conditions. In the war metaphor the best I can hope for is a stalemate. I will never truly win. What a terrible way to view my life. I don’t want to see myself as fighting a war I can never win.
So I’m not going to.
Not that it will be easy. It is SO easy to view my body as my enemy, my problems as my opponents to defeat. My culture is absolutely saturated in this metaphor and there is no getting away from it. This can only work as a conscious and deliberate choice on my part to reject my culture’s dominant metaphor and replace it with my own. It is a choice to accept myself, with all that it entails. It will be hard. It will take work. I believe it will be worth it.
Therefore, depression and anxiety are challenges. They are part of my mountain to climb. They are problems that I can find a solution for.
Ok, I actually want to look at that last one a little more closely. The book Metaphors We Live By that I mentioned before had something really interesting to say about the phrase “solution to my problems.” It involved a non-native english speaker hearing the phrase, and seeing an elegant metaphor in it. One that we don’t actually use, but I think is much better than the way we currently use the phrase.
What if by “solution” we meant it in the chemistry sense:
- the process by which a gas, liquid, or solid is dispersed homogeneously in a gas, liquid, or solid without chemical change.
- such a substance, as dissolved sugar or salt in solution.
So, for example, salt water is a solution. In this metaphor, the “solution” to our problems is the substance in which we can dissolve as many of our problems as possible, while precipitating out as few as possible. I want to dissolve my depression, my anxiety, my sensory problems, etc. Some of this is accomplished with medication, some with certain boundaries on what I do and how I do them, some with care of what I eat, and so on and so forth.
With the metaphor, it is presumed that these problems don’t actually go away. They are simply currently dissolved. It means that if something changes (and anything can cause a change), they might precipitate out of the solution, requiring us to tweak it. It does not mean we’ve done something wrong, it does not mean we lost, it does not mean we have to fight another battle. It’s just something that happens and that’s ok. We simply continue the process of finding the best solution at the time – and the best solution will definitely change over time. That’s life. It’s no big deal.
I like this metaphor much better. I may have enemies to fight, but they will not be my own body.