“This project at work is making me want to kill myself.”
“I can’t help it, I’m just so OCD about my keeping my books in alphabetical order.”
“The weather is so bipolar today. First it was pouring and now the sun is out.”
I’ve been mulling over how to write this entry for a good couple of months now. It’s an important topic for me, but I don’t want to get preachy and I definitely don’t want to patronize my readers (for whom I am unendingly grateful). I know all too well that folks are good and fed up with people telling them what to say and what not to say because someone, somewhere, might deem their words offensive or inappropriate.
But part of advocating against stigma and being a voice in the mental health community is learning when to speak up -- not for the sake of political correctness but in the spirit of helping build a society that doesn’t reduce or minimize its own members to stereotypes and tired, inaccurate analogies.
I want to note that, of course, this issue is not limited to the misuse of phrases or terms regarding mental illness. In middle school, I cringe to report, “retarded” and “sped” were two of my choice descriptors for anything I found unfavorable. I was in college when the Think Before You Speak campaign went live, explaining that it was “not cool” to call people “gay” as an insult or even as a joke. While awareness has been raised and I think we’re doing better, this stuff still happens, and I don’t think we should sit on our high horses and judge others who use this kind of language. Old habits die hard -- I know when I’m very upset about something, I have an upsetting tendency to use the gross, overused pantomime of shooting a gun into my temple. Me! Someone who lives with depression and understands clearly that suicide is the furthest thing from a joke. It can be hard to change our ways, even with the best of intentions.
But while I don’t want to be the PC police, I do believe that this is something we can help each other with. I believe that we don’t want to be a society that uses factual descriptors of disability, of sexual orientation, of mental illness, to carelessly insult others or to casually describe everyday life. It’s a tangible area that we can each work on, as individuals and as communities, to learn to build each other up instead of using our words to relegate others to the dark corners of an ill-defined and poorly understood existence.
As always, I think that the path to compassion is through information and understanding, so I want to explain why it’s such a big problem to talk this way (or to accept when others talk this way).
To understand that this language does those things is to take a step toward understanding those who live with mental illness (or disability, or any other kind of marginalization). As we understand, we become better empathizers, and we’re able to take a step toward loving others more wholly and living with them in a community of compassion and trust.
These days, does anyone think that we could use less of that?
I've been feeling a little anxious and grouchy the past couple of days, and as I tried to sit with those feelings and forge my way through the day today, I think I've finally realized why: I'm actually scared.
I'm not (for once, my family and friends might think) talking about the election, or about the state of U.S. politics right now. I'm talking about the way our society is treating mental illness, every day, all the time, even as I write. Over the past few days, several events have come to my attention, one after another, that have individually affected me in degrees ranging from a stinging slap to the face to the weight of an unstoppable avalanche pouring down on top of me, pressing me helplessly and fearfully into the ground.
First: Halloween is upon us. My attitude toward this holiday is pretty mellow. I use it as an excuse to read “The Shining” by Stephen King or to watch trashy horror movies on Netflix. I’m not a big fan of dressing up, but I get that other people love it. That’s fine. Live and let live. But on Saturday night, a friend told me about an article reporting that Walmart was selling "Razor Blade Suicide Scar Wound” makeup for Halloween. I felt a pit form in my stomach. Do people think suicide is funny? Or scary? Or, worse yet, both?
I recovered well enough from that unpleasant shock, only to learn the following day that a large costume supplier is selling an "Adult Skitzo" costume that depicts a person (supposedly, I assume from the gag-inducing spelling of the name, meant to have schizophrenia) clad in an orange jumpsuit replete with chains, handcuffs, and a Hannibal Lecter-style mask. The pit in my stomach throbbed, grew, as waves of nausea passed over me. Does everyone think that people with mental illness are dangerous? Are we all criminals-in-waiting, deserving only of a hideous costume designed to make us look unhinged and in need of locking up for the good of society?
Is this who I am, to the world?
Obviously, I know that it’s not who I am. But both costumes perpetuate the idea that that people who live with depression, self harm, suicidal thoughts, or schizophrenia are scary -- scary enough to imitate on a holiday all about celebrating the horrible, the terrible, the most frightening parts of our psyches and society. The existence of costumes like these turn mental illness into a spectator sport and manage to place those who live with mental illness, like myself and so many others, into the terrifying "other" that Halloween is all about.
I know that in the past few years there’s been a lot of uproar over costumes. Personally, I think some folks are too easily offended by, and others far too insensitive to, the negative stereotypes many costumes might perpetuate. As a fairly reasonable person, I try to come down in the middle on this, but in this case, there was no mistaking the visceral reaction I was having. As my husband pointed out, how many people did these costume ideas have to get through to be planned for, made, and marketed? How many people looked at the scar makeup and the schizophrenia costume and thought, sure, these look good, make a few hundred of them and see how they sell. Seriously? How many?
But lest you think that the othering of those with mental illness is confined to the boundaries of the imagination and the world of make-believe, I'll tell you the other part of this, the part that’s making me write furiously, with shaking hands, now.
Over the weekend I learned that on October 18, New York City police shot and killed a 66-year-old mentally ill black woman named Deborah Danner, after being called by a neighbor who reported that Danner was acting irrationally. Suffering from schizophrenia, Danner was in the middle of a mental health crisis. When she waved a baseball bat, an officer shot her twice in the torso, killing her. He didn’t wait for Emergency Services to arrive or attempt to use his Taser instead.
And last night, scrolling through my Facebook newsfeed, I saw yet another disturbing headline. A 23-year-old, pregnant, Native American woman named Renee Davis was experiencing severe depression and suicidal ideation. On October 21, her sister called the local police to report that Davis was suicidal and to ask for a wellness check. Rather than helping her put down the handgun with which she was armed and getting her the help she needed, police shot and killed her.
Writing about these women makes me feel physically ill. My heart is pounding. I feel like a cat is swatting at the butterflies in my stomach. What if my illness gets to a point, someday, that I need emergency help? What if the wrong person comes to my aid? Could my story turn out like Deborah Danner’s or Renee Davis’?
Because this is what it feels like to be categorized, stigmatized, othered. And it’s not just about Halloween costumes, or about being politically correct, or about not hurting anyone’s feelings. It’s about the fact that the Halloween costumes that started this whole train of thought for me are a devastatingly accurate reflection of what is going through the minds of thousands of Americans: if you are sick, and your sickness lies in your brain, you are different. You are other. You are scary.
In extreme cases, if you are sick and your sickness lies in your brain, you are so scary that you’re actually dangerous, and you may even be killed. For being sick in a way that is, despite all our efforts and awareness-raising and painful sharing of personal stories to try to end the stigma, still unrecognizable and even less understandable to the greater population.
Because what happens when your brain is sick is that the world around you stops making sense, and you are unable to interpret the sights and circumstances and cues you face for what they are. They become blurry, ambiguous, indefinable. Maybe paranoia blocks out all sense of reason, or maybe the sudden appearance of an authority figure causes confusion or fear. Waving a baseball bat in the middle of a psychotic episode should signal that a sick person is afraid and confused. Holding a handgun in contemplation of suicide should indicate that a person is in the darkest, most painful and vulnerable point in his or her life. A person with scars on their wrists should not be inspiration for a titillating, naughty Halloween costume.
These are not signs of danger, of interpersonal violence, of fascinating gore. They are indications that we -- those who are acting or have acted in such a way -- do not feel safe. That we are not safe in our own minds. That we are still less safe in the outer world that fails to understand us. That we are scared of being labeled, and dismissed, as other.
Ultimately, these actions of irrationality indicate that we cannot recognize our allies from our demons, that our state of mind has confused the people who are our safety nets with the ones who are pushing us closer toward the ledge. And now, those blurred roles may actually be warranted, because it would appear that the rescuers supposed to come to our aid may not be able to recognize that battle going on within us. Our helpers, in these cases, can become our killers. It’s not enough that we fear being the other; we must now be scared that being other will, ultimately, be the end of us.
I have never felt that the mere fact of who I am, of my existence, is a threat to my own safety. I am a straight, white woman who grew up in a nice town and has had little chance to feel the pain, confusion and isolation of being “the other.” I have a lot of privilege in this world, and I know it. But now that I feel it -- sick, tearful, afraid, helpless -- I know that I am learning a tiny something about how other minority members of our country must feel day to day. This is beyond stigma. This is beyond stereotypes and labels.
This is about being unable to take people out of the box you’ve put them in, and instead labeling that box with a big fat word -- SCARY, or DANGEROUS, or OTHER -- and sealing it up tight, making growth and relationship and humanity impossible. It’s about making sure that everyone -- be they trick-or-treaters or family members of the mentally ill or the children whose minds we are charged with molding as they grow into our newest generation -- knows that we are not like them. That we are to be feared, to be left outside, to be permanently silenced in our bleakest moments rather than to be loved and cared for and helped to safety.
Somewhere, in all of this, we who live with mental illness have lost our ability to be safe and respected while we are sick, and instead have been made out to be dangerous.
It seems that our fellow humans have learned that it is easier to mock the pain they think is attention-seeking, and to label as dangerous the behavior they see as unreasonable, than to look with compassion on the person next to them and try to keep them safe.
We must do better.
I’ve been quiet on here for the past week, and while it’s partly because I’ve been in a bit of a slump -- missed a bit of work, fought off a lot of headaches, took a lot of naps -- it’s also because I’ve been thinking about what to write next.
You know what my depression is like on a bad day. You know how it has affected my marriage. You know how my diagnosis came about, what my major symptoms are, how I feel about medication. Prior to beginning this blog, I pretty much knew all of those things myself.
What I didn’t know, and what you therefore can’t yet know, is how writing posts for this blog has brought me to feel about owning the labels of depression, anxiety, and most of all, mental illness. Whether we want them to be hard-and-fast labels or not, that’s what they are. Being the person of words and language that I am (once an English major, always an English major), I’m generally a fan of labels. I like things to be defined, to be clearly delineated, so that everyone can be on the same page about whatever they’re talking about. It makes for more efficient, productive conversation, and to me that’s always a good thing. Even and especially regarding mental health.
But how would I feel once I defined myself as mentally ill?
It’s one thing to admit to “having depression.” I’ve been owning that one for awhile now amongst friends and family, and it doesn’t bother me. While I never know how someone might react when they hear this for the first time, I generally don’t think much more of making this admission than I do about telling someone that I have high blood pressure, or that I wear glasses for near-sightedness. But to own up to that depression as a true mental illness -- how does that feel? I’m still not sure.
At times, in previous entries, I have referred to my depression as an illness, and I know intellectually that’s true. But how I feel about that personally -- that’s a bit of a different story. Sometimes I feel unworthy of the label: am I truly mentally ill? Isn’t that term reserved for people in a psychiatric hospital, or with more severe diagnoses, with something worse than “just” depression? I don’t self-harm; I’m not suicidal; I can work most days, and see my friends and family, and generally live my life (with some exceptions, naturally). Does my condition really warrant the label of “mental illness”?
But yes, I have decided, it does. People who are not mentally ill do not spend days on end in bed, avoiding sunlight, feeling too tired and too worthless to shower or brush their teeth. People who are not mentally ill do not miss the wedding of two close friends because they feel too low to leave the house or too anxious to fly. People who are not mentally ill do not go out to their favorite restaurant, eat their favorite meal with their favorite cocktail, and shrug, indifferent, because they don’t even feel a glimmer of enjoyment.
Society has taught us a lot about which people we label as mentally ill. People who are mentally ill (or mentally “unstable,” that’s a good one, too) are crazy; they hear voices, act irrationally, do things that make no sense to the people around them. The label is a catchall to explain behavior we don’t understand, to reason away instances of inexplicable violence in our communities, to dismiss people on the margins of society. It’s a way to push people who are different into a category, to force them into a box we can stick a neatly printed label on and put on a shelf, gathering dust and staying safely contained away from everybody else we love and want to keep safe.
This is not okay. This is stigma, and it’s a reason I am writing openly and honestly about my own mental illness here and now.
Who are the mentally ill, really? We are not people sitting in corners, crying or holding our heads in our hands or staring into a dark room. We are not aggressive or violent; we are actually more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators of it. We are not a punchline, a joke to make your friends or coworkers chuckle.
Sure, sometimes we sit in a dark room and cry. Sometimes some of us can act aggressively when we are hurting or scared. Some of us hear voices. Many of us can handle a joke at our own expense. But essentially, we are just people. We are writers, thinkers, students, graduates, professionals. We are the person sitting in the park, playing with our dogs or reading a book. The person serving you coffee with a smile at your local cafe. We are probably even your doctor, your accountant, your child’s teacher. We are your parents, your children, your siblings, your friends -- and we are sick. That’s all. We are people, who happen to be sick in a way you can’t always see or expect to understand.
Yes, I am mentally ill. No, I don’t need you to sympathize or try to fix it. What I need you to do is keep me out of the labeled box on your dusty top shelf, and keep me in your life the way you hold the rest of your loved ones dear.
I’m mentally ill, and I can own that. Can you?