Autonomy: When is a Choice Not a Choice?

Jennifer McDougall
3 min readJul 10, 2020

I feel like First World Countries dangerously promote the idea that autonomy is completely attainable.

If autonomy “is the capacity to make an informed, uncoerced decision” (Wikipedia) how can this lofty ideal of true independence ever be achieved? How can we EVER be fully informed? How can we EVER be free from external control or influence? How can we EVER be independent?

We (as in the ruling, white privilege We) claim that all individuals are able to rise to the same level…how is this possible when all individuals are not given the same opportunities, the same knowledge, the same safety, shelter, and nourishment?

And why, then, do we proceed to judge others’ decisions and realities, as though we all have equal background?

Is it REALLY a choice when a single mother leaves her child alone frequently because she is working three jobs to survive? Is it REALLY a choice for a homeless person, with mental health issues and no access to a bar of soap, let alone permanent shelter, to find employment? Is it REALLY a choice for someone in an abusive relationship to leave when they have children who need to eat, no finances, and self esteem that has been battered into submission?

We make it seem as though everything is possible — that autonomy is only strewn aside by someone too lazy to seek it.

Do you know why they call it the American Dream? Because it only happens when you are asleep. Vijay in Guru (Movie)

When is a choice not a choice?

I’m going to share a very personal story that, for me, is shrouded in guilt and shame. Many of you know that my husband was diagnosed with Early Onset Alzheimers’ a few years ago when he was 47 years old. This makes for a very challenging reality for our family — especially our kids who have shared in confidence that “Mom, I don’t even remember who nice, fun Daddy was before he became so stupid and disgusting”.

What only my closest friends know is that, a year before he was diagnosed, I was going to leave my husband. I married him because I wanted children and although he is/was “ a nice guy” he has always been extremely lazy and unwilling to help and there has never been passion and certainly very little intimacy in our relationship. The shame and guilt comes into play here: I stay not only because who else would take care of him (his family, though familiar with a history of Alzheimers’ — his mom, grandma, uncle, great uncle, second cousin, etc all suffered — refuses to acknowledge, let alone help despite several humbled requests on my behalf) but because of finances. I earn almost 3x what he does and that would mean I would have to pay a significant chunk of spousal support. I would have to give him half of the house, despite the fact that I had purchased and reno-ed homes before our relationship, which led to income investment towards this property. I have paid into a life insurance policy for him that would no longer go towards helping the kids and I after his death. I absolutely loathe being his caregiver (and I know that this is only the beginning) and yet I stay because I almost feel as though I don’t have a choice. If I want financial security for our children, I need to stay.

As I write this it sounds very selfish. When I told my therapist that I needed to live with the consequences of my choice, she asked, “Is it REALLY a choice?” And suddenly I truly wondered: when is a choice not a choice?

When is being autonomous not a viable reality?

My example might sound like a petty, White Girl story…I realize that many more realities are far more harsh and extreme than is mine. It is just a tiny example of a promised autonomy that can’t (or at least feels like it can’t) be fulfilled. We promise autonomy and independence and assure people that it CAN be accomplished without “external control or influence”. CAN it?

When is a choice not a choice?



Jennifer McDougall

Attempting Serious and Satire... Sometimes successful. Editor, Doctor Funny.