Why I Don’t Want to be Cured

Tempted to wave the magic wand and cure my disability? Well, maybe for a day.

Among the things that non-disabled people find the most difficult to understand are those campaigners who say that they do not want to be cured of their impairments. If anything, this claim is hardest to stomach for people on the political left, wedded as they often are to notions of public healthcare, scientific progress and psychological malleability.

We are often accused of being in denial. Surely, we are asked, if someone could wave a magic wand and all physical or mental quirks could be excised, anyone would be foolish not to take the opportunity. It is true that there are certainly days when I feel like that, but these are my bad days, when I would not regard myself as making my best decisions. The rest of the time, I accept who I am, because I have self-respect and, anyway, I have no choice.

This is the fundamental problem with the ‘magic wand’ approach. It creates a possibility that does not exist and is therefore rather meaningless, rather like wondering whether you would want to live for ever. Unfortunately, unlike in the search for eternal life, when it comes to ridding the world of disability, there is rather less scepticism about finding the philosopher’s stone.

In most cases, there is and is never likely to be a magic wand, a cure that is cheap, free of risk and, most importantly, genuinely works. In the case of autism, which is my impairment, there is not a single treatment that has withstood the rigours of scientific scrutiny and yet the quacks continue to peddle their wares, selling false hopes at the expense of self-acceptance. All doubt fades, so desperate are people for us to be gone.

Even when so-called ‘cures’ exist, they can be partial in their effects, resulting in highly ambivalent consequences. For example, cochlear implants do not allow profoundly deaf people to hear perfectly or to speak like everyone else. As a result, many who choose this option feel no less isolated from the hearing world than previously and yet may create distance between themselves and other deaf people, who use less integrationist solutions such as sign language.

Similarly, those who are treated for facial disfigurements rarely end up looking like Joe Average but rather like people who have had bad plastic surgery, perhaps not surprisingly because that is often exactly the case. Of course, there is always a small risk of death or serious injury in any such surgery but, in the case of conjoined twins, an operation to separate them can frequently be fatal. Nevertheless, this fact does not prevent commentators from assuming that it must always be the necessary approach.

For the last century and a half, a central feature of the history of medicine has been its unremitting optimism about its ability to solve social problems, buoyed by the undoubted success of the germ theory of disease. However, no recent innovation can compare with the elimination of smallpox and the relative control of cholera and tuberculosis. Indeed, the greatest discoveries, such as the role of insulin in diabetes, have allowed people with impairments to live longer, when before they would have perished.

Medicine, whether with stem cells, genetic engineering, or psychotherapy, is not going to make us go away and is a distraction from the vital task of finding social and political solutions, based upon rights and access to jobs and services. But if there really was a magic wand, I know what I would do. I would cure myself for one day, just to see what it was like to be normal, knowing that I could use the same magic wand to return myself to the real me afterwards.

As a child, I was very successful in my schoolwork but found it difficult to make friends. I went to Cambridge University but dropped out after a year due to severe depression and spent most of the next year in a therapeutic community, before returning to Cambridge to complete my degree. I first identified myself as autistic in 1999 while I was studying psychology in London but I was not officially diagnosed until 2004 because of a year travelling in Australia and a great deal of NHS bureaucracy. I spent four years working for the BBC as a question writer for the Weakest Link but I am now studying law with the intention of training to be a solicitor. My hobbies include online poker and korfball, and I will be running the London Marathon in 2007. I now have many friends and I am rarely depressed but I remain single.
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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue