Refusal

There are lessons I have learned in my life. I have worked to make myself small as not to be noticed because when I am noticed, I tend to get into trouble. Or ridiculed. Or cause trouble. Or all three. I am an extrovert who was forced into introversion as a survival strategy. But then, it never works and I explode, boil over, take up all the space, turn back up to 11, rage, cry, scream, dig in my heals, refuse. Or rather insist. Emphatically.

I have always been “too much.” I was reminded of a paragraph I read that made me rage in all of my too-muchness.

TL;DR, this book on ADHD basically advises parents with kids with ADHD to react to cruel teasing and bullying to laugh along with it and to “lighten up” so that people will like you. THAT ADVICE IS TERRIBLE. I did that. And know where it got me? It taught people that it was ok to treat me like shit. It taught me to minimize my own feelings in favor of other people laughing at me. It taught me that there was something so wrong with me that I would never be accepted unless I was the ass-end of a joke.

A moment of clarity for me was at our Montreal wedding reception when my husband pulled me aside at one point in the middle of the festivities to ask, “Are they always this mean to you?” I laughed, and said, honestly, that this was nothing compared to how it usually was, and the look of horror on his face told me that this, in fact, was not normal. I think he deeply understood in that moment why I was so self-deprecating, constantly apologizing for everything. My friends and family’s love was dependent on my ability to do these things, and do them well.

It also explained why I often conflated cruel teasing with love in my own interactions with people. And why I always viewed true signs of care, of friendship, of love and community with suspicion. I was waiting for the slap in the face that I would have to smile and laugh at to deserve whatever kindness or acceptance that was being offered.


I have, at various points in my life, been labeled difficult, obstinate, stubborn, contrary, too loud, too opinionated, too much. This always broke me, because I worked so hard to make myself small, to make myself likable, to make myself pliable, to make myself agreeable, to make myself frictionless, to please people. But they never noticed when I made myself small, only when I would explode beyond my self-imposed boundaries. These were always moments when they saw me as being too much, but I felt like I had had enough.

But even when I was making myself fit, there were small instances of my true self shinning through. My workspace was, is, and always will be a cluttered mess, but as I learned, my ADHD needs that. My “resistance” to clean it up was understood, even for myself, as being me having a problem with authority. In this same way, even though I now can put up a virtual background to hide my bed in the background, lest I appear unprofessional in zoom meetings, I don’t actually want to. I’m resisting.

My lovely friend and colleague Kate Bowles has a beautiful post on exactly this issue, the pressure to “professionalize” our homes under these conditions. We connected over this and she gave me a word to describe my behavior, no, to describe my reactions: refusal. It’s an effort of agency in situations where you feel like you don’t have a lot, or even any at all. When I would most lose my cool, so to speak, is when I felt the most powerless, having the least amount of agency, or (more often than not) when I saw an injustice against someone I cared about.

The effort of agency. It’s refusal’s seed.

I don’t feel like I’ve been doing a lot of refusing lately. The job demands that we say yes, enthusiastically to any and every dictate, performed with a smile and ease, seemingly ceaselessly. The kids are being spoiled rotten, with me having no good reason to enforce a bedtime or wake-up time or limits on their screen time. Our therapist says they are doing amazingly well, so I guess there’s that.

I am refusing to enforce a lot of school on them. The daughter does her work of her own volition, because that’s who she is, but the son…not so much. I enforce that he attends his synchronous class time, but other than that, I don’t have the time or energy to enforce anything else. When I tried to get him to practice his oboe and attend his music class, he burst into tears because he was so anxious about it, and now never wants to play music ever again. Yes, that is an extreme reaction, but not out of character, and Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria is real and powerful and really, there are more important things than playing an oboe. We tried. It’s not a passion. We’ll let it go.


There was a movement during Quebec’s history, when a group of artists could no longer take the repression and censorship and corruption of the Catholic Church, which governed all aspects of life in Quebec: political, personal, spiritual, social. They penned a manifesto, Le refus global. I liked to the English translation of the text, but to read it today, it still sounds relevant, timely even. It sounds like some of the cries at protests we heard before protests were banned except if you’re protesting the right to be able to protest, saved for a select few. Some words from the refus:

We must abandon the ways of society once and for all and free ourselves from its utilitarian spirit. We must not willingly neglect our spiritual side. We must refuse to turn a blind eye to vice, to scams masquerading as knowledge, as services rendered, as payment due. We must refuse to live out our lives in the only plastic village, a fortified place but easy enough to escape from. We must insist on having our say – do what you will with us, but hear us you must – and refuse fame and privilege (except that of being heard), which are the stigma of evil, indifference and servility. We must refuse to serve, or to be used for, such ends. We must refuse all INTENTION, the harmful weapon of REASON. Down with them both! Back they go!

Make way for magic! Make way for objective enigmas! Make way for love! Make way for what is needed!

This was written and signed in 1948.

I refuse to ignore the affective labor we are performing, and refuse to stay silent about it. That is my main refusal, my most public offering of troubling the narrative. There are the usual refusals, too, refusing to give into despair, the refusal to submit to my basest desires, the refusal to give up. I refuse to hold myself and my family and friends to a standard that is nearly impossible in the best of times, improbable in the worst.

Make way for magic. Make way for objective enigmas. Make way for love. Make way for what is needed.

Refuse the rest.

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