For many years I was very troubled. I drank too much, I was taking a lot of prescribed benzodiazaprenes (klonipin), and I was having serious mental health problems. I had been pathologized by doctors. I was hallucinating and having delusions. I was committed to a psychiatric ward against my will. I was depressed and hopeless.
Effective mental health treatment with medication and Deaf identity-focused therapy helped, but a larger part of the picture for me, which brought lasting and sustainable peace, was finding my culture. Discovering the cultural identities that I have within myself that have been kept from me, that I did not even know really existed, except in some vague way. For many marginalized people, particularly in western society like we have in the U.S., our cultures have been kept from us, our people have been assimilated into white supremacy, our language denied to us, and we have been shamed because we do not fit into western capitalist systems, even though capitalist systems were designed to exclude us in the first place.
When you have a marginalized cultural identity there is stigma around it. There is shame. People will try to put your culture down, keep it from you, destroy it, tell you it is bad, tell you that you do not need it, tease you, bully you, make fun of you, hurt you, murder you. People who do these things are often not in touch with a culture at all, particularly not a marginalized one, anyway, and do not understand the significance it plays in making a person whole, and do not understand the damage that results from being denied who you are. This damage resonates through all of society.
What is culture? Cultural identities can be many things, and they can overlap, which is where the term intersectionality comes in. You may have more than one cultural identity. Cultural identity can be based on race, language, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation/gender, disability, and country of origin, among other things. Cultural identity can be any combination of those things. Many people do not realize that disability is a culture, and that Deafness is a culture. Cultures have shared things in common, like music, food, dance, art, literature, experiences, beliefs, behavior, and more. For many years now in modern U.S. society, disability and Deafness have been positioned by the mainstream as a defect. A medical problem. A shame. Something bad that needs to be fixed. When you are disabled, it is very hard to get away from this belief system. It is foisted on you from the time you first experience disability, whether you were born with it, or experienced it later in life. I am including Deafness, mental health and addiction in this definition of disability. However, that is just for brevity. Deaf people do not consider ourselves disabled. We have a cultural and linguistic difference. But Deaf people are a part of larger disability culture.
I have written before about how Deaf Culture was denied to me growing up, and how I did not even know it existed, and how this affected me, and severally affected my mental health for many years. Sadly, I did not really connect with Deaf Culture until I was in my 30’s, after a brief stint with it as a teenager. When I first learned sign language at age 14, it was so liberating. It changed my world. Being taught sign by a Deaf teacher who welcomed me into Deaf Culture was absolutely incredible. It began to change who I was and how I thought about myself. I then went to another high school with a Deaf program and other Deaf students. However, that experience was short lived, as I left high school, and entered the mainstream world, which views Deafness as a defect and does not want to accommodate it. I fell back into isolation, hopelessness, and depression, and struggled with addiction. I did not even realize how much this was connected to being kept from my culture and my identity.
People often don’t even intentionally try to keep you from your culture. Things are just set up that way, and it is overpowering to maintain cultural identity in a white supremacist capitalist system. Making money and going to work become such a priority in your life, and capitalism begins to define people’s values. Capitalism rules everything in the U.S., and does so much that people are not even aware of how it has affected their value system, beliefs, and behavior. Disabled people often cannot participate in capitalism, which completely depends on exploiting your body’s physical and mental capabilities to the fullest extent possible. All marginalized people are kept down, and historically have been, within capitalist systems. The reason I was not given access at work for so long is because it is expensive. Hoarding as much wealth as possible is the goal of the bosses, and needing an accommodation that costs money, like sign language interpreters, is not going to be part of that equation. However I needed to make money and be employed, or I would be homeless. And for many people like me, they do become homeless.
Another part of my identity that has been destroyed in many ways and kept from me is my identity as a Jewish person. My family were refugees from Russia in the early 20th C., and came to the Cleveland and Youngstown, Ohio, area, and also to Pittsburgh, by way of the Bronx and Brooklyn. My great grandfather Abraham Smulovitz was sent to Youngstown at age 12 to live with his uncle’s family, leaving behind his parents and family in Hungary, where as far as I know, everyone was killed. Abraham was sent to the U.S. so he could survive and grow up. My great grandmother who married Abraham, Belle Leibermann, was from a shtetl in Russia, known as Plyskov. A shtetl is a traditional Jewish village. Everyone there was Jewish, as far as I know, and they had all moved to that area to escape persecution. It was a desolate area. But they were found anyway. Plyskov was destroyed and everyone was murdered. It no longer exists. I cannot go there, I cannot ever visit it. It is gone. So much is lost that I will never know and never be able to find out. Luckily, my great grandmother and her family were able to escape the area and survive. For many Jewish people, our families were from Russia and Eastern Europe, and the towns and cities they lived in completely destroyed and their presence wiped out, not just in WW II, but for centuries leading up to it.
When immigrants and refugees come to America, over the generations, people assimilate. The old world is left behind. And for some, that is fine. But for me, understanding that old world of tradition, music, food, dance, language, and so on, is very important. The other side of my family is Irish, and I grew up in an Irish immigrant area, where I was much more in touch with that part of my culture. That has been enriching for me and I am lucky to have been raised to be in touch and surrounded by that. That culture was not denied to me, or hidden from me, or a mystery.
These days I have been studying Judaism, the religion, the culture, the music, the history. You think you may have a good idea of a culture, but you really do not until you delve into it and study it. And when you really delve into it, you learn so much about who you are. Part of this is discovering your community. For me this has been Rabbi Joel at Hillel, his wife Rachael, and Rabbi Yael. I have worked with my rabbi to have accessible Jewish services, interpreted for me in sign language by qualified interpreters who know how to do a religious service that is mostly in Hebrew. This has been very enriching and important to my growth as a human, my health, and my happiness. I have felt a sense of peace, calm, enrichment,and tranquility since I have started to get to know this part of myself. The intersection of Deafness and being Jewish is also interesting, because my Deafness has kept me from my religion before, since services are so based on talking and hearing. Now I have access to this part of my culture.
Another thing that is good about finding your culture as a marginalized person is learning about how many cultures are not at all based on capitalism. Capitalism is not the central core from which the society has sprung, and capitalism is not what the value system is based on. Deaf culture and traditional Jewish culture are not capitalist. There is not a focus on monetizing everything. This changes many things in a culture and belief system, in particular, how bodies are viewed.
There are reasons our marginalized cultures have been kept from us. They threaten white supremacy, they threaten capitalism. They threaten those who are in power by the very nature of their existence, since they are so different, and their value systems so opposite the mainstream. This is why it is so important to know who you really are, and what has been done to your people. It is important to learn about your heritage, to claim your identity, whatever it may be, to take it back from those who have oppressed you.
Our society in the U.S. today is sick. We are in the midst of a terrible drug epidemic. There is widespread homelessness. There is an associated housing crisis. Wages are very low. Health care out of reach. Life expectancy for certain groups is declining for the first time since records were kept. People are isolated, ashamed, impoverished. People do not know who they are, they are not proud of themselves. People become depressed when they cannot participate in and benefit from capitalism any longer. They have based their belief system on capitalism so much, and they blame themselves, and society blames them too, for not benefiting from it. People become so depressed from this that they turn to addiction and suicide or homicide. It causes problems with mental health to feel this way.
This is why social models are so important to understand. The social model of addiction closely parallels the social model of disability. Mainstream culture is sick, mainstream culture is lacking. The world is inaccessible, the world is capitalist. There is much more to life. Community and culture are a big part of it, and so is cultural identity. When I began to learn about the social model of addiction, I was surprised how closely it follows disability theory. With addiction, often comorbid with it is psychiatric disability. I thought about how much better I have gotten with my own mental health since becoming connected to my marginalized identities and my communities. Isolation can really hurt people, and for many years I felt defective and isolated-because I was not in touch with my identities, I was ashamed of my mental health issues, I was ashamed of my hearing loss. Community and culture are vital things for human happiness.
For more about the social model of addiction, watch these captioned videos. Thank you to Dr. Elizabeth Taets Von Amerongen and PhD student Austin Brown at the Disability Cultural Center at Syracuse University for introducing me to the social model of addiction, its connection to disability theory, the work of Dr. Bruce Alexander, and his colleagues. Dr. Bruce Alexander will be visiting Syracuse University this November, 2019, from the 11th to the 13th, where we will have live captioned (CART), ASL translated, accessible presentations with him.