The concept of drinking from a firehose describes the impossibility of retaining each piece of new information when someone is immersed in a novel setting, such as starting a job or traveling abroad. There is a reason that we use firehoses to extinguish large fires—they function quite well within the scope of this task—and not for personal drinking fountains.
For me, firehose mode is the only option for information processing. My brain perceives stimuli as if vital sensory data floods from every nook and cranny of my external surroundings. Excitement quickly becomes overload, then invariably leads to burnout. I ritualistically perform certain actions, often just to keep afloat. I make copious lists; find methods of categorization; wear headphones to dampen noise; and I self-stimulate.
A “Books” list contains the 174 books that I wish to read at some point, which of those I hope to read in the more immediate future, along with a full inventory of the 134 books that I own. Each item is neatly adorned with the title, author, publication year, genre, and a brief summary. My “Clothes” list documents each article of clothing that I own, including color and fabric type.
Amidst persistent growth over time, my “Quotes” list sits as a tangled gargantuan, swollen to a 77-page tome of over 34,000 words, with only the first fifteen pages separated into differentiating topics, an effort now in a state of permanent hiatus. The repository remains open; the bold words and piercing ideas of others intertwist with one another, a house with endless additions but no coherent floor plan.
At the helm, the “Executive Summary” acts as a moderator of sorts, consisting of a list of my 48 lists, including their status (Current; Research; Inventory; Hiatus; Completed), which life system they comprise (Creative Expression; Personal Development; Learning; Finance; Relationships; Exploration; Maintenance), and of course the URL to take me to the document.
Clearly, despite earnest exertion and periodic reassessment, certain elements drift into far regions, known but forgotten. On bad days, it is an exercise in wading through the murky sludge of a Kafkaesque labyrinth of my own making. But ideally, as the firehose bursts forth without mercy, I can fill certain buckets of various sizes in the hopes of using the stored water for irrigation purposes to cultivate facets of myself that I want to nurture and help flourish.
I wear headphones whenever I am reading or writing—no, not the kind for listening to music, but far bulkier and intended for mining and construction projects—in the ceaseless battle against the distracting low-level hum of ambient noise. But even within my own head, pathways can become clogged and it all can start to feel jumbled.
While reading nonfiction I summon a level of concentration to absorb new information while simultaneously directing it to the appropriate point within the landscape of all existing information. If I properly care for this landscape, it can be called knowledge as the puzzle pieces begin to fit together. Alternatively, a jagged terrain sometimes envelops me with its absence of structure or meaningful patterns.
Even with headphones, and even while taking the time to get the gunk out of my brain and onto all of these lists, the firehose still exudes a pressure that often overpowers me. There is no valve to adjust, no mechanism by which I can negotiate with the external world to deliver its surroundings to me in a more gentle manner. In the face of this sheer force I find myself coughing up water while struggling to sit upright, my eyes occasionally glancing to the periphery at the firehose that thrashes wildly, relentless and without direction.
A sting of defeat punctures me, leaving me deflated and disheartened, as if my brain is waterlogged and only capable of focusing on the shiniest and brightest fragment of unchallenging digital satiation available. Guilt begins to permeate, even though I know rationally that relaxation and stretches of time not subject to the dictates of productivity are restorative practices crucial for physical, mental, and emotional health.
A gnawing sentiment defies this logic and a narrative emerges that I am tapping out due to some lack of strength instead of opting out as a form of self-care. But we all need to care for ourselves. I do know that, and yet to emotionally internalize such a core truth remains no small feat. My knee-jerk urge is to grind myself down to a splintered nub while espousing to others the need to be kind and patient with themselves.
I did, and still do in many ways, conceive of my neurological firehose as a problem. I can also redefine it. It is not a superpower, not for me at least. But it can also just be an immutable facet of myself that I can begin to accept. I will not change or eliminate it; there is no cure nor do I want one.
And it makes me wonder, and perhaps begs the question to others, as integral entities interconnected within a rich collective tapestry, how we can be kinder to ourselves and to others when there is a firehose, however it may manifest, seeming to demand urgent attention at the forefront of conscious experience.
Part II — The Reclamation of Stimming
On September 26, 2018, Professor M. Remi Yergeau gave a talk at the CUNY School of Professional Studies about her book, Authoring Autism: On Rhetoric and Neurological Queerness. During the question and answer portion, she said something that continues to resonate with me.
“For me personally, I still stim but I developed these tricks to make it stop, and it gets to a point where I’m no longer sure what’s more comfortable for me because it’s all anxiety now. It’s like it took something core away from me…Before I was trained to recognize that I was “unusual” or aberrant, it was fine, it was great. But now that I know, it’s always tainted.”
Similarly for me, it is oftentimes all anxiety, and I search for viable pathways to reclaim agency over my body. The locus of the endeavor lies in reconciling my continuing need to stim with the memories of that very behavior being used against me. At young ages imitators performed the flailing and spastic motions as I did, caricatures bearing the disguise of an homage.
Nearly my entire adulthood has involved, at least to some degree, the suppression of my full range of embodied expression with the paramount goal being to appear normal, and then seemingly only ever holding that title on a trial basis. Despite a concerted effort over the past two years to unlearn my myriad masking techniques, along with an awareness of the harm that such self-denial has caused, that same anxiety described by Dr. Yergeau still lives inside of me.
It is very possible to rationally understand that certain aspects of our cultural messaging are unhealthy and perpetuated for the purposes of benefiting a very specific group of people, while nonetheless remaining emotionally beholden to that same guidance. In so many ways, again similar to Yergeau’s experience, stimming is tainted for me.
Throughout the course of my life, the real social contagion continually materializes as this viscid coating that demands conformity. I have encountered it overlaid atop all experience, and I know its shape as neurotypicalized cisfatalism. But it dons ever-changing faces and appears in numerous forms. Laverne Cox, putting her spin on bell hooks, described it as “cisnormative heteronormative imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.”
This mechanism of control breeds complacency, complicity, and compliance in those who may access the scraps of its inequitable bounty. I did benefit, and continue to benefit from this organization of society, and am only now beginning to develop a critical awareness of how these rewards inevitably come at the direct cost of others.
I am white, I grew up in an affluent suburb with continuous access to educational institutions and learning resources that are unavailable to many people. That was, is, and will continue to be a privilege that I seek to leverage in the hopes of forging broader and deeper and more holistic notions of justice.
But this system did bludgeon me into submission with its authoritative instruction on which types of bodies are deemed acceptable. Mine, when I exercise complete liberty over it, is unacceptable; and most people inhabit bodies either outright unacceptable or similarly acceptable only on the condition of their constant adherence to this rigid framework.
I was assigned male at birth, born into a body whose limbs needed to periodically and without warning shake and flap. The gendered expectations of boy, coupled with the clear social cues that stimming was irregular and thus bad, obstructed my full bodily autonomy, constricting me in such a way that it took over a decade of drug and alcohol abuse followed by several years of psychotherapy to begin to glimpse a path toward living peaceably and feeling whole.
There exist a litany of ways in which mainstream society subtly but distinctly illuminates for us the fundamental inadequacy of our bodies in their current state. But we are pushing back, beginning to search for avenues wherein we can reject those previously ingrained precepts and begin to heal. One example is Aaron Rose Philip, a trailblazer whose modeling work celebrates that our full spectrum of corporeal diversity is deserving of acceptance and worthy of love.
In a scene from the 2009 documentary, Examined Life, philosopher Judith Butler talks with artist and activist Sunaura Taylor and a part of their conversation pertains to Taylor’s experiences ordering coffee as a disabled person. Butler observes that, “there’s a challenge to individualism that happens at the moment in which you ask for some assistance with the coffee cup, and hopefully people will take it up and say, ‘yes I too live in that world in which I understand that we need each other in order to address our basic needs.’”
We do need other people. We coexist with one another and we need each other. Within this newfound paradigm, I can assess how and why I hold onto those hard-fought masking techniques and ask myself who benefits from my exerting a portion of cognitive and physical energy to inhibit myself from following my natural inclinations.
But I still mask; I still suppress stimming due to my deeply held desire to preserve some vague concept of decorum and respectability. Behavioral patterns solidified over the course of decades cannot be unlearned overnight. But I can at least say to myself, “today it is okay to stim. I am neurodivergent, I am not defective.”
None of us are defective, despite all the social conditioning we have internalized to the contrary. We can remind ourselves each day that we are not defective. We can show up for each other and work to build a world that promises us safety and human dignity and offers us the freedom to know love and to feel seen inside of heterogeneous bodies.