Help Me Eat, Please

It’s nearly midnight and I can’t sleep. Hunger is gnawing at my belly. There’s a little food in the pantry, but it has to last the next four days and most of it needs to go to my son. He doesn’t go to bed hungry: I make sure of it. 

We qualify for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance, better known as food stamps. The government says it’s not supposed to meet all our food needs, but like most recipients, I try to make it stretch to cover everything anyway. Each picture show’s a whole day’s allowance for me. 

I don’t eat anything close to enough. I can only afford for myself one meal a day, for the first few weeks of the month. After that it gets worse. I try, desperately, to squeeze all the pleasure I can out of too little food. And at the end, I feel guilty. I fret over every dollar “wasted” on nurturing my own health. Because there is this question of who deserves food. 

A lot of people believe beggars can’t be choosers. I am literally a beggar, yet I don’t try to subsist on naught but rice, beans, and water. If I really cared about my own hunger, I’d just make “better” choices, right? Defending my texture aversions and dietary restrictions sounds like an excuse. 

And hey, maybe I’m just making up my diagnosed condition of IBS and I really could survive on cheap freezer burritos, except I can’t. My bowels rebel. Do choosy beggars deserve to eat more than one snack a day? 

Some days I convince myself that six crackers, an egg, and a can of Coke is a reasonable caloric intake, because after all I’m disabled. I spend my whole day in bed, so what do I need calories for? I might know logically why that’s silly, but sometimes that self loathing is what makes the hunger pangs bearable. 

There’s a constant running list of things I need to buy first, expenses that come before me. A winter wardrobe for my son and a trip to the groomers for my cat, a non broken desk for writing and a new bottle of cleaner. Every time I buy myself food, I know I’m pushing back those other purchases, all of which feel more deserving. 

When you’re poor, when you rely on social welfare or when you are a beggar, people feel entitled to pass judgment on your every transaction. The more help you ask for, the more entitled they feel. My defense against this is to ask for less than I’m entitled to and less than I need, so I might preserve what scraps of independent dignity I can afford. 

Of course, if I’m this hungry it proves I can’t afford those scraps after all. Today I had what I initially thought was an autoimmune flare up, causing excruciating pain in my back. When I caved to “temptation” (hunger) and ate some buttered bread the pain faded. I’ve learned to ignore most normal hunger pangs, so my body resorted to referred pain to get my attention. 

I had an eating disorder, officially from age eleven to twenty-six. Since then I’ve managed to have entirely disordered habits, whether I wanted to or not. Poverty is as constraining as anorexia, with some similar outcomes. I am thin, and weak, and crazy. 

I don’t know how sane I could be if I wasn’t always hungry. I don’t know how few IBS symptoms I might have, or how few colds I might catch, or how much sleep I might get if I wasn’t always hungry because I literally don’t know what that is like. I have been hungry for twenty-two years. 

I went directly from being an anorexic to being pregnant, to being a woman who was still sick and crazy and filled with self loathing, but now had the perfect excuse to martyr myself and my health. I never truly recovered. I just renamed the reason I subsist on fewer than a thousand calories each day.  I’d like to get better but I can’t afford to. I already have to beg each month to pay my bills: food for myself feels like a luxury I have no right to expect or ask for. 

But I am asking now. I’m asking you to become a subscriber. Ask your friends to become patrons too. And lobby Congress for increased food stamps for all of us. Knowing every other mom on food stamps is likely suffering the same silent starvation makes me feel selfish asking for myself yet I have to. You can also contribute directly using PayPal to

I’m posting this now while my hunger is stronger than shame, or I will convince myself I’m unworthy. 

Meltdown 101

As an autistic mom of an autistic child, I know about meltdowns. Unfortunately, most allistic (non autistic) parents of autistic and neurodivergent children don’t really understand meltdowns, or how they differ from tantrums. I recently invited autistic friends who have had meltdowns to share what they wish peoplmoment. Here are their answers. 

We wish people knew… It’s not misbehavior.

  • “That we’re not having meltdowns at you, ever.”
  • “We aren’t doing it for attention or to be disruptive; that it’s because we’re in pain.”
  • “It’s not because we lack self control or don’t care about others
  • “We are more embarrassed/ashamed to be having one in public than you are to be near us.”
  • “I’m not just being an asshole, and I’m not enjoying it either.”
  • “That I’m not doing this to spite you.”
  • “It happens to us, and it’s about us not being okay.”

Meltdowns communicate disabling upset

  • “That a meltdown is communication. It’s data, and the more real you treat it, the clearer its message will be.”
  • “Meltdowns happen in my brain/body, not my heart/feels.”
  • “Meltdowns don’t all look the same. They aren’t all kicking and screaming. Sometimes they look like being quiet and confused.”
  • “Treat a meltdown like a medical episode, such as a seizure or migraine.”

They can usually be prevented 

  • Meltdowns “are largely (not totally) preventable”.
  • “They don’t just happen out of thin air. People might not verbally tell you that they are reaching the breaking point, but there will usually be signs. Pay attention.”
  • “Know your child’s triggers and address them before they become a problem.” 
  • “I don’t go from passing for normal to meltdown in 0 seconds. You missed the cues. And if I didn’t have to pass for normal.. I’d not be as likely to melt down.”
  • “A meltdown isn’t always because I’m sad or upset. Sometimes just overwhelmed.” 
  • “The triggers of a meltdown may not  seem important or meaningful to you, but your opinion and experience are not objective just because you’re allistic.” 

How to respond in the moment

  • “Help us get to a dark cozy quiet space where we won’t be disturbed or forced to socialize.”
  • “If someone is having a meltdown and needs to be left alone, get out of their space.” 
  • “Do not crowd, hug, or touch me.”
  • “I often can’t speak. If I’m not responding or take a long time to answer, prompt me that it’s okay to use my phone or other writing implement.” 

Women Who Ruled: Empress Wu 5/5

A series of small rebellions and border skirmishes marked Wu’s middle reign. Being an ardent student of history and economics, Wu was able to turn early defeats to latter victories. In 698 the issue of succession rose once more as two of her Wu clansmen nephews pushed the Empress Regnant to name one of them as heir.  Other clans also jockeyed to make marriage alliances to link them to the Tang dynasty, and end the Zhou era. 

At the urging of her advisors, and with the agreement of her nephews, Wu recalled her third son Li Zhe from exile. Li Dan relinquished his status as heir soon after, making Li Zhe once again Crown Prince. Empress Wu had his name changed to Wu Xian. By 699, aware of her own advancing age, Wu secured oaths of peace and loyalty from the princes and princesses of the region, that they would honor the succession. 

In the later years of Wu’s reign she relied more and more on certain key advisers, a decision not supported by all. When word of a negative diuscussion between Wu’s grandson, granddaughter, and grandnephew reached her ears, she ordered all three to commit suicide. (And I thought my grandma was hard to please.)

Two men Wu trusted a great deal at the end were the young attractive Zhang brothers. Wu kept, or kept up the appearance of, maintaining a male harem well into her seventies. It was widely speculated the Zhang brothers performed sexual favors for the elderly empress. When Wu fell ill in 704 and only the Zhang brothers, not her chancellors, was permitted to see her, suspicions they were controlling her grew. 

Wu recovered for a time, and allowed an investigation of the Zhangs but interrupted it with a pardon for the young men. When Wu fell ill again in the spring of 705, her chancellors and descendants of Emperor Gaozong staged a coup. They seized the Zhang brothers and surrounded the palace on February 20th and executed the brothers for treason. Wu was forced to sign edicts naming Li Xián as regent and then emperor. She died that December and was interred with her husband and descendants.

Her monument remains blank, never etched with a flattering epitaph as Wu expected when she had it built. Every contemporary portrait was ordered destroyed. Her record, like the record of other women who ruled, has been wiped out and smeared with slander. It’s incredible how much we do know, but some of that is probably preserved falsehood. Wu ruled with a network of secret police, the giving and taking of titles, and a constant eye toward potential threats. 

In 4,000 years of Chinese history, Empress Wu stands apart for reigning in her own name. 

Women Who Ruled: Empress Wu 4/5

Wu had her fourth and youngest son Li Dan crowned as Emperor Ruizong, but in fact maintained total rule.  The young boy was not moved to the emperor’s chambers, nor appeared at any public function. He was essentially a prisoner in his private quarters. Wu stopped speaking from behind a screen or showing other outward signs of deference to the male gender. 

As Empress Regent, Wu installed copper boxes around the imperial city where residents could anonymously tattle on one another, and developed a highly effective secret police. In 690 she had Ruizong give up his nominal rule officially, declaring herself leader of a new Zhou dynasty. The 690s were a reign of terror for high ranking Chinese officials and she ordered at least 30 suicides during the decade. 

By this time Wu had the official title of Empress Regnant but styled herself as “emperor” or “female emperor”. She carried on an affair with a Buddhist monk and elevated the Buddhist religion, building temples in each prefecture. Wu initially named Li Dan as her successor, though for a time contemplated naming a member of the Wu clan as heir. 

Wu had a great number of people executed during her reign, almost all of them perceived threats to her rule. When she ordered the execution of Li Dan’s wife and mother in law for witchcraft, he was too fearful to speak up for them or even mention them after their deaths. She barred her ministers from meeting with Li Dan and had him investigated for treason.  

As his servants were being tortured to give false confession, one attested to Li Dan’s innocence so fervently he slit his own belly to show the fortitude of his conviction. Wu had the servant sent to surgery to be saved, and called for an end into the investigation on Li Dan. 

In 694 Wu became briefly enchanted with various forms of mysticism. She claimed to be the future Buddha to gathered support for her rule. However, in 695 when these mystics failed to predict a fire set by her jealous Buddhist monk lover, Wu became skeptical and enraged. She had her mystics demoted to slaves. 

Women Who Ruled: Empress Wu 3/5

In 664 it’s believed her level of government interference was resented by the ailing emperor, and she had employed a Taoist sorcery, the very crime that had taken down Empress Wang. Somne of Gaozong’s advisers urged him to demoite Wu. As he held the edict ready to sign, Wu burst into his chamber to plead her case. She had the advisers who’d supported her removal falsely accused and convicted of treason. 

By 666 annals state she was nearly the equal of the emporer, permitted to give offerings to the gods beside him. She was also beside him at court, behind a screen but on a seat of equal grandeur and elevation. In 675, with his health worsening, Emperor Gaozong sought to make Wu Empress Regent. His advisors opposed this move, which he never made official. 

Li Hong, the Crown Prince and Wu’s firstborn son, reportedly urged his mother to exhibit less control, and less retribution. He asked that his imprisoned half sisters be allowed to marry . Li Hong died suddenly and mysteriously soon after. Her second son Li Xiàn became suspicious that he was truly the son of Wu’s sister. Wu’s Taoist sorcerer declared that Li Xián was unsuited for the throne and was assassinated soon after. Wu suspected Li Xián’s hand in the murder. 

After a stockpile of weapons was discovered in his home, Empress Wu formally accused her son Li Xián of treason and the murder of her mystic. He was deposed and banished. Wu’s third son Li Xiân (renamed as Li Zhe became the heir. Emperor Gaozong specified in his will that Li Zhe ought to ascend immediately following his death, and look to Wu to guidance. In late 683 Gaozong died. Li Zhe became Emperor while Wu became Empress Dowager and Regent. 

Li Zhe was crowned in early 684 as Emperor Zhongzong and ruled for only six weeks. Zhongzong rebelled against his mother’s wishes while seeming to capitulate to his wife’s, elevating her relatives and even a favored wet nurse to high office. His chancellor and mother plotted together with leading generals to have the young emperor deposed and his father-in-law convicted of treason. 

Women Who Ruled: Empress Wu 2/5

Content warning for infanticide

Wu was the third ranking woman in China by 652 CE, after Gaozong’s first wife Empress Consort Wang and a favored consort named Xiao but best known to history as the Pure Concubine. That was when she birthed her first child, a son named Li Hong, soon followed in 653 by his brother Li Xiàn. Neither of Wu’s sons stood to inherit their father’s reign as the childless Empress Wang had already secured the emporer’s promise the son (Li Zhong )of another, lowborn consort (Liu) was heir. 

In 654 Wu gave birth yet again, this time to a daughter. By this point Empress Wang and consort Xiao were working together against the ambitious Wu, without success. According to the slanders of the day, Wu smothered her own week old infant with the emperor, then blamed the babe’s death on Wang. Others believed Wang murdered the babe in jealousy. Historians speculate on the possibility of SIDS. The true cause of the baby’s death is unknown. 

In 655 Wu formally accused Wang and her mother Lady Liu of witchcraft. Emperor Gaozong began meeting with advisors to discuss demoting Wang as a faction of supporters rose around Wu. Many expressed disapproval but the decision was ultimately left to Gaozong who stripped Wang of her titles and had both Wang and Liu placed under arrest in a remote part of the palace grounds. The Pure Concubine soon followed. Wu was Empress Consort now. 

In 656 Gaozong changed his succession, stripping his eldest son Li Zhong with Consort Liu of the honor and making Wu’s eldest son Li Hong heir to his throne. From 657 through 660, Wu led a campaign of retribution against all who had opposed her ascension. This involved demotions, banishments, forced suicides, executions, and an assassination attempt on Li Zhong.  

When Emperor Gaozong had a debilitating stroke in 660, Wu was named administrator of the court, with almost all the powers and responsibilities of emporer. She elevated several members of her family to high positions, however when they did not show sufficient gratitude, she would have them demoted and exiled. When a younger cousin caught the emperor’s eye and soon after died of poisoning, Wu was suspected but relatives out of her favor were convicted. 

Women Who Ruled: Empress Wu 1/5

18th century posthumous portrait of Empress Wu

Content warning for forced hair removal in this passage

Today I’d like to start a new series on historical women rulers from around the world. Patriarchy and patrilineal inheritance of power have been common in most cultures throughout human history. Women who ruled did so as queens, consorts, regents, and mistresses and they had to fight twice as hard to maintain their power once it was won. 

Wu was born to a common yet wealthy family, her father a minor general. Her original name is lost to history, except her patrynym Wu which she retained her whole life. Her father broke with traditional gender norms and encouraged child Wu to read and study. The year of her birth is believed to be 624 and she came to China’s imperial palace in 636 CE as a concubine. Only the most beautiful young women (or girls) were selected as concubines. Young Wu was at the fifth rank of the hierarchy of palace women, with the duties of a chamber maid. 28 other consorts outranked her. 

Before we proceed farther, we should go over a few relevant terms. An empress consort is the wife of a reigning emperor. An empress dowager is the widow of an emperor. An empress mother is an empress dowager as well as the mother of the reigning emperor. An empress regent is an empress mother who rules the empire on behalf of her child emperor. An empress regnant rules an empire in her own right. 

Over the course of her life, common born Wu would hold each of these titles. She is the only woman in 4,000 years of Chinese history to do so. Throughout the course of this mini bio I will resort to phrases like “it is believed” and “some scholars say” because scandalous rumors follow female rulers during their reign and after. Imperial history has not looked kindly on usurpers or women. 

Wu came to the palace as a concubine of the emperor Taizong. It was traditional for the childless concubines of a deceased emperor to have their heads shaved and be sent to live out their days in a nunnery, unspoiled by other men out of respect for the fallen emporer. Yet when Taizong died, Wu managed to escape this fate and returned to the palace as one of his son Gaozong’s wives. Some speculate Wu seduced Gaozong in advance of his father’s death to achieve this.