Tag Archives: mental health

An Open Letter To The TTC – Please Remove These Posters

11 Aug

Dear Toronto Transit Commission,

I am writing with regards to the following poster found in some of your subway cars advertising “Mystery Room,” which is apparently a sort of spooky role-playing game where you have to escape scary situations.

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As you can see, some of the frightening scenarios that you can participate in include “Satan’s Lair,” prison, something called The Mummy’s Curse and a psychiatric ward. All of them are problematic in one way or another, but one of them hits particularly close to home for me.

I am writing this because I am a person who has spent time on a psychiatric ward – in fact, I’ve been a patient at multiple mental hospitals. The first time was when I was sixteen – I saw a clinical psychologist to help figure out what medication would best manage my depression. The second time was when I was twenty one and suicidal – that time I was admitted and spent the night in the hospital. Last year I went to the CAMH emergency room because, again, I was depressed, overwhelmed and suicidal. I was accepted into the cognitive behavioural therapy program there and spent several months completing that as an outpatient this year.

I am not scary. I am not violent. I am not a monster.

I am not some trope that should be used to scare people in a haunted house. I am a for-real person, who struggles daily with an illness that colours nearly every aspect of my life. The same goes for every other person living with mental illness. We’re not the punch line to your “crazy” joke. We’re people coping with very real, sometimes deadly illnesses and that alone is a hard enough row to hoe without tossing mental health stigma on top of everything else.

And that stigma is exactly what these posters perpetuate – both stigma against the mentally ill and stigma against psychiatric hospitals. It plays right into the old belief that people with mental illnesses are dangerous and violent, even though we’re far more likely to be the victims of violence than perpetrators of it. It also makes psychiatric hospitals look like frightening, terrible places, which is pretty discouraging to someone who needs treatment for mental health stuff. Dealing with this shit is scary enough without advertising campaigns like this.

To make matters even worse, here’s what Mystery Room has to say about the mental hospital scenario on their website:

Ward 15 is the place the mentally disturbed were contained. Dr. Johansson had a passion for experimenting on the unanesthetised living. The patients grew mad, losing the ability to speak as their throats ruptured from constant screaming. These people now haunt the ward, seeking and exacting their revenge on unsuspecting victims. As you enter the ward, one thing is certain: it is going to take all of your knowledge and skill to get out alive.

That is actually a thing that has happened. I seriously cannot stress that enough – that is actually a thing that has happened to psychiatric patients in this country. In the 1950s, the CIA performed “mind control” experiments on patients at a Montreal mental hospital. Similar experiments were done in the United States. To make light of this type of violence inflicted against the mentally ill is beyond awful, and to turn it into a form of entertainment makes me pretty much choke up with rage. There are victims of these experiments who are still alive, and you’re advertising a game that makes a joke out of the horrific things they’ve experienced.

Look, Robin Williams died today of apparent suicide; according to his publicist he was “battling severe depression” in the time leading up to his death. My chest hurts for him and his family, and it’s hard not to think about all the other people whose illnesses have or might turn equally deadly. People with mental illnesses are failed by our society on a daily basis, and every time we let something like this Secret Room program pass without saying anything, we are failing the mentally ill even harder.

I’m asking you to please take down these posters. They are not appropriate for public transit, and they do not reflect the values of this city. We, as citizens of Toronto, deserve better than this.

Sincerely,

Anne Thériault

Anyone wishing to lodge a complaint about these posters can do so here.

P.S. here is a list of suicide crisis lines – if you are thinking of hurting yourself, please call someone

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Pharmacopeia, or, The Drugs Don’t Work

11 Jun

TW for talk of suicide

Some days, as I rush around the apartment trying to get ready to face the world, I can’t help but feel like a traveling pharmacy. Inside the vast expanses of my purse, along with my laptop, my wallet, my keys, my book-du-jour, two shades of Sephora lipstick (neutral pink “charmer” and come-at-me crimson “tango”), my headphones, my phone, assorted bandaids, bobby pins and hair elastics, I neatly arrange the bottles of multicoloured pills through which I measure out my life like those metaphorical coffee spoons. Blood-red prescription iron supplements, safety-vest-orange Zoloft, dingy red-brown Seroquel, electric blue Imovane and, of course, the virginal pink birth control pills. My own private stash.

The pills are like little hand-holds to grab onto as I swing myself through my day. Orange and red with my breakfast, to keep my mood somewhere above apocalyptic-crying-level and to boost my energy, red again with supper, to keep my iron levels up over night, then red-brown, pink and blue at bedtime to respectively “enhance” my anti-depressant, make sure that I don’t accidentally bring forth another life onto this dismal planet, and then float me off to sleep the sleep of the innocents.

I’ve been on psychotropic drugs since I was sixteen, and can give you a poetic sort of laundry list of all the different types I’ve tried: Paxil, Prozac, Remeron Effexor, Elavil, Ativan, Wellbutrin, each at varying and increasing dosages. Paxil was the first one they tried on me, and when it perform as expected, they kept increasing the amount until I was a miserable wreck: twenty five pounds heavier, lethargic, awake all night and falling asleep in class. The funny thing was that my doctor kept telling me that it was working, that he was seeing improvements. Never mind that I felt worse than ever – to him, it definitely seemed as if I was getting better. It took months of arguing before he agreed to try a different drug.

The latest addition to my personal valley of the dolls is the Seroquel, typically used as an antipsychotic. I wondered if my doctor was trying to tell me something. I asked Nathan if he thought my doctor was trying to tell me something.

Me: It’s an antipsychotic. Do you think my doctor thinks I’m psychotic but just doesn’t want to say anything in case it upsets me? Am I psychotic?

Nathan: The medium isn’t always the message, Tiger. [Editor’s note: he likes to call me Tiger. Sometimes also Buddy or Slugger or Buckaroo. One time it was Tex.]

Me: But Marshall McLuhan said it was!

Nathan: Heritage Moments aren’t always right.

But then again, sometimes they are. So put that in your pipe and smoke it.

I’ve never really been able to tell if these drugs help at all (except for the sleeping pills, which are an insomniac’s best friend, and, of course, the birth control, thank god). Sometimes I take them and things get better, but it’s hard to know if that’s from the pills or from the natural dips and rises of my inner life. But I keep taking them, even after I swear that I won’t. They’re well-marketed, these drugs, and at my weakest moments I always find myself acquiescing. The doctors make a good case for acquiescing.

Those doctors always sell me on the antidepressants by telling me that I have a chemical imbalance, a lack of serotonin that causes my brain to short circuit and makes me want to die. That’s the best way to describe what it feels like to be suicidal – a short circuit, a glitch in the system, a design flaw. Killing yourself becomes the answer to everything. Your mind becomes like a record needle that jumps the groove, a sort of skip in your mental process where instead of going forward and thinking up solutions to your problems, all that you can come up with is, the only way out is to kill yourself. And the drugs are supposed to fix that skip, supposed to make it so that your record can play all the way until the end, and then you can flip it over, then put on another record, and so on ad infinitum, happily ever after.

The idea of a chemical imbalance is supposed to make you feel like you’re not crazy in the 19th century meaning of the word;  you’re not some kind of incurable case about to be shipped off to Bedlam. What’s wrong with you is physical – like a diabetic who lacks insulin (they’re always comparing selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs to insulin for some reason), you just need a little medical help replacing something that your body is failing to make on its own, and then you’ll be fine. It’s not really a mental illness so much as it is a physical condition with mental manifestations. You’re not like those people.

By those people they mean, of course, the people with schizophrenia, or borderline personality disorder or some kind of nonspecific psychosis. Doctors never let you forget that there is a hierarchy of mental illnesses, one which you might slip down at any given moment. Doctors want you to remember that your place in the mental illness food chain is a relatively coveted one, lest you get any big ideas about going any crazier.

It’s easy to internalize the stigma against mental illness. Sure, you’re mentally ill, but you’re not like them. You don’t ever want to be like them.

Never mind that you already are one of them, no matter how you frame it. Never mind that all of your attempts to distance yourself, to other, only make things worse for everyone. Because you’re basically giving healthy people permission to other you.

You and your delicately imbalanced chemicals.

The chemical imbalance theory has been around since the 1960s. There was never much research done into the idea; it was just something that seemed like it could be right, and everyone sort of ran with it. Maybe they couldn’t properly test for that sort of thing back then. Maybe theories were the best they could go on. But now, fifty years later, it might be time to re-examine those theories.

According to Robert Whitaker, author of Anatomy of an Epidemic: Magic Bullets, Psychiatric Drugs, and the Astonishing Rise of Mental Illness in America, doctors have known for a long time that the chemical imbalance model is likely flawed. In an interview on CBC’s The Sunday Edition, he says,

And as early as 1998, the American Psychiatric Association in its textbook says we’re not finding that people with depression have any abnormality in their serotonin, but because it’s such an effective metaphor for getting people to take the drugs and sell the drugs, it’s continued to be promoted.

According to Whitaker, people who take psychiatric drugs were more likely to still have symptoms five years later than those who didn’t take psychiatric drugs. Because, see, here’s the catch – people who take SSRIs but don’t have low serotonin to begin with begin to rely on those drugs to manage their serotonin levels. SSRIs actually reduce the brain’s ability to produce serotonin.

So maybe the drugs have never actually been helping me, or any of us; maybe all they’ve done is create a population of people who are dependent on psychiatric medication.

And maybe The Verve were right after all, and the drugs don’t really work, they just make you worse.

It bears thinking about, anyway.

I’ve been reading about lobotomies recently (as any good mental health patient does, I suppose), and I came across this gem in Ronald Kessler’s The Sins of the Father describing Rosemary Kennedy’s lobotomy:

We went through the top of the head, I think she was awake. She had a mild tranquilizer. I made a surgical incision in the brain through the skull. It was near the front. It was on both sides. We just made a small incision, no more than an inch.” The instrument Dr. Watts used looked like a butter knife. He swung it up and down to cut brain tissue. “We put an instrument inside,” he said. As Dr. Watts cut, Dr. Freeman put questions to Rosemary. For example, he asked her to recite the Lord’s Prayer or sing “God Bless America” or count backwards….. “We made an estimate on how far to cut based on how she responded.” ….. When she began to become incoherent, they stopped.

Sometimes it’s hard not to feel like doctors take the same approach – albeit on a much smaller scale – with psychiatric drugs. Increase the dosage until the patient becomes incoherent, or at least docile. Push the pills until they don’t feel anything, because feeling nothing is better than feeling sad or confused or anxious. Don’t offer counselling, or therapy, or life management skills. Just fork over pills pills pills until some kind of effect (or affect – little psychiatric joke there for you) is achieved.

The truth is that we don’t know how psychiatric medication works – we just know that sometimes it does. If you’ve ever taken the pills, you know that it’s a lot of trial and error until you find something that gives you some kind of relief. Which is great and everything for the people who benefit from it, but where does it leave the rest of us? We become guinea pigs of a sort, choking down brightly-coloured pill after pill, praying that something, anything will work. Because, honestly, it’s better than the alternative.

The alternative is, of course, that the brain is still a vast unknown. That we are only just barely beginning to grasp its complexity, and we may never fully understand it. That those of us who suffer from mental illness are sailing in uncharted waters, with no stars to guide us. What looks like Cassiopeia or Orion to everyone else is just a jumble of unknown lights to us. And maybe for some, the drugs make the stars realign into their proper order – but for the rest of us, maybe we need to begin creating our own private constellations to ferry us from one point to another.

The thought is terrifying, and I feel unequipped to deal with it. I’m not an astrologer. I just want the same stars as everyone else.

I’m going to keep taking the drugs, at least for now. They feel like a sort of safety net, and I know that I’m not ready to walk the high wire without them. But someday, someday soon, I want to begin to chart my own inner universe. I want a map of my own personal stars, and there isn’t anyone else who can do that for me. If I’m not willing or able to play amateur stellar cartographer, well, then, what’s the point? A lifetime of one brightly-coloured pill after another, each with its own dreary side effects, none of them even remotely effective. I can’t live like that.

But I haven’t lost faith that I can, somehow, find a way to live.

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When Getting Better Is No Longer An Option

27 Apr

Trigger warning for talk of suicide

I used to think that I would outgrow it.

I used to think it was just hormones. The same hormones that caused the constellation of angry red pimples on my face and back. The same hormones responsible for the dark, wiry hair between my legs and nearly unnoticeable A-cup-sized swell of my chest. I thought that once the hormones settled down, I would feel better. Normal. But even once I grew used to my new body, even once I hit my twenties and everything was supposed to level out, I still felt it. The same howling misery, the same blind, raging creature whose claws and teeth were sunk somewhere too deep to find, was still there.

I did not outgrow it.

I used to think that I would get better, if by getting better I meant being cured. I used to think that I would find the right combination of drugs and therapy and life choices to make this thing, whatever it was, go away. Or maybe I would just wake up one morning and it would be gone, instantly and inexplicably, the same way it had come. I thought that it might recede like the tide going out, and then, like a bare beach scattered with seaweed and shells, I would go back to being the person I’d been before, only with a few small relics left over from what I’d been through.

I did not get better.

I might never get better.

These past few months have been hard ones. Really hard. And I don’t know how to talk about this, except that I think I should. For the last weeks of March and the first few weeks of April I was suicidal. Suicide was all I could think about. I didn’t want to die, exactly, but I didn’t want to be alive, either, and I couldn’t think of any other option. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t read. I’d injured my hamstring, so I couldn’t really do yoga. I couldn’t string two thoughts together. I couldn’t even follow a conversation. All that I could do was get up in the morning and drag myself to work, and then drag myself home and cry. On weekends Matt would take over childcare, because I couldn’t get out of bed. Everything seemed awful, without any understanding of why it was awful. I felt like I’d come up against a brick wall, and all I could do was scratch at it until my nails broke and my fingers bled. I couldn’t imagine what the future would look like, other than more of the same but worse.

None of these are especially good reasons for being suicidal. But the thing about being suicidal is that you don’t need a good reason. You just are, and you don’t know how to get out of it. What makes it even worse is that you can’t talk about it – suicide is too big, too scary to bring up with your friends and family. And if you mention it to a health professional, well, I mean, forget it. All they want to do is lock you up so that you can’t do it (and rightly so), but they don’t seem to want to talk to you about the whys and hows of the way that you feel. Which means not only is everything awful, but on top of that you don’t have any kind of outlet. Because you don’t want the worry or the pity or the fear of the people around you.

So you just don’t talk about it.

Things are slowly improving now, but I know it will come back. That’s the funny thing – when I’m well, I’m constantly aware of it waiting for me, biding its time, sidling around me like a constant threat, and yet when I’m in the middle of a breakdown I can’t imagine that I’ll ever be ok again. When things are bad, the only thing that exists is the pain I feel. That is my only reality. While some part of me logically knows that it’s a cycle and eventually I have to come out of it, there is just no way to make myself believe that fact. The only fact I can trust in is how terrible everything is in that moment.

I’m learning to live with the fact that I am not going to get better, if by not getting better I mean that I am probably going to live with depression for the rest of my life. This thing, this goddamn soul-sucking thing, is not something that I can cut out, or drown, or poison. I can’t look at a CT scan and point out where it is. I can’t even really know anything about it, except that it lives inside of me and feeds off of me and leaves me aching and exhausted and so sad that sad isn’t even the right word for it. I don’t know what the right word is; maybe there isn’t one.

I’m also learning to live with the fact that I am never going to be the person I was before all of this started. I’m not even sure that it makes sense to want to be her anymore – she’s an absurdly hopeful little thirteen year old girl with no life experience and little understanding of how the world works. She’s the last memory I have of what I was like before this dark creature began nesting inside of me, and for a while I clung to her image as something that I could maybe someday achieve again, but I need to recognize that she’s gone. She’s gone and she is never, ever coming back.

Mental illness destroyed who I was. And I’m at a place now where I’m trying to recognize that that’s not a bad thing. I mean, I don’t think that it’s a good thing either. It’s just a thing. A fact. A truth. My family and I have had to adjust to this reality; we’ve had to mourn the loss of who I was and who I might have been, while at the same time accepting the person who was left behind. It’s a funny sort of thing, a weird feeling that I’ve somehow lived two lives – like a building gutted by a fire whose façade stays the same but whose interior, once restored, is entirely different.

I don’t know how to explain it any better than that.

So I’m learning to live like this. I’m learning to ask for concrete things – help with housework, help with childcare, help with routine daily tasks. I’m getting used to the idea of talking to my employer about my mental health, and negotiating the possibility of time off when I need it. I’m trying to be better about accepting the fact that sometimes I just need to lie in bed and do nothing. I’m trying to be better about accepting all of this, because fighting it tooth and nail has gotten me nowhere.

I’m trying to tell myself that I am not weak. I am strong, and I will get stronger. The person that I was might be gone, but this version of me, the one that exists now, is just as good as she was – mentally ill, yes, but kind, compassionate, smart, funny, and with so many people who care deeply for her. She, too, is worthy of love.

If you are depressed, experiencing suicidal thoughts or otherwise need someone to talk to, please call 1-800-273-8255

For international readers, here’s a database of crisis centres listed by continent

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It’s Just Your Depression Talking: On Agency and Mental Illness

31 Jan

I walked out of my therapy appointment yesterday. I don’t mean that I stormed out or anything – I politely told my therapist that I wasn’t in a great headspace and that talking about it was making me feel worse instead of better – but still. It felt like a rookie move. The kind of thing a sulky teenager would pull when things weren’t going the way she wanted them to. I felt that a real grownup would have stuck it out, pushing through all the bad stuff and coming out the other side. Because that’s really what talk therapy is, isn’t it? Wading through the shit and dealing with it, with the outcome of all that hard work being that you’re a better, happier, healthier person.

Except yesterday I couldn’t, or wouldn’t, wade. Talking wasn’t getting me anywhere – I was stuck in an endless loop of the same anxieties over and over again, and rehashing them just felt like poking an open wound. Reviewing my situation wasn’t giving me any special clarity, my therapist’s insights weren’t helping, and I was getting more and more frustrated and upset as the hour went on. It felt so stupid to interrupt my workday, drag myself halfway across the city and pay good money just to sit there feeling terrible. I didn’t want to talk. I didn’t want to think. I just wanted to do something, anything, to shut off my useless brain. So I left, went home, and a crawled into bed.

When I told my friend about what I’d done, she asked, “Do you think that was you making the decision to leave therapy, or your depression?”

Framing a depressed person’s behaviour and speech as being influenced by their illness can seem helpful. I’ve certainly said things like, “that’s not you talking, that’s your depression,” often enough, both to myself and other people, as a way of mitigating negative self-talk. It works because it acts on the idea that depression feeds us vicious, nasty lies about ourselves, and that if left unchecked these lies will fester deep in our minds, crippling our self esteem and destroying our self-image. So when someone is telling you how worthless they are, how pathetic, how unloveable, the appeal of reassuring them that this type of talk is a function of their illness is undeniable. But telling someone, especially someone who is suffering from a mental illness and has spent years dealing with all the stigma that comes with it, that it’s not really them talking can be downright dangerous. Because once you’ve labelled someone’s voice as not being authentically theirs, once you’ve convinced yourself that what they’re saying isn’t coming from them but rather some invisible bogeyman you’ve labelled depression, you’ve taken away some of their agency. You think that you’re telling them something positive, but really what you’re saying is, “I don’t think that your words are your own.

How does anyone talk themselves out of that corner? Once their words and actions become suspect, how can they make you believe that it’s really them and not their depression? How can they have any agency when everything they do or say is written off as being done or spoken by some sort of evil spirit possessing them? It’s a slippery slope from there, and one that many people suffering from mental illness have faced before. Because once it’s been decided that it’s the illness and not the person talking, then that person may be considered to no longer be competent to make their own decisions. And then things can get really, really bad.

Are my depression and I really two separate entities? And is it necessarily useful to create this other, this monster, that represents all of my misfiring neurons and dysfunctional cognitive processes? This is something that I’ve been wondering about, and I’m still not sure what the answer is. It’s tempting to believe that depression is a sort of slippery parasite that changes my behaviour in order to further its own agenda, like that ant parasite that makes them climb to the very top of a blade of grass in order to ensure that they’ll be eaten by sheep and thus pass the parasite on. But I’m not sure if it really works that way.

I’ve heard of cancer patients imagining that their tumours are evil invaders, and then meditating on the idea that their bodies are fighting these bad guys off. Maybe that works when there’s something measurably wrong with your body, when you can pinpoint the existence of cells gone haywire, masses that have formed, blood counts run amok, but my depression is, for better or worse, my own brain. If my depression is smart, it’s because I’m smart. If my depression is tricky, then it’s because my mind has given it the tools it needs to trick me. I can learn how to manage it, how to work with it or maybe even outsmart it, but I can’t cut it out. And though it’s tempting to imagine it as a sort of demon that seizes me, takes me over and forces me to do it’s bidding, it’s not like that. Not really. It’s just my poor, sick brain.

There have been times when I’ve felt relief at hearing someone tell me, “That’s your depression talking.” There have been times when telling myself that has been a useful way of checking in and re-evaluating a situation. But there have been other times – many other times – when I’ve thought, “If this is the depression, then where am I? And why do you get to decide what my voice sounds like?”

Sometimes I make bad choices. Sometimes I say stupid things, especially about myself. Sometimes my depression really does influence my self-image, how I talk to myself, how I behave. But I am still me. I am still myself. I have my own voice, and when I speak, the words belong to me alone.

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Slut-shaming, Suicide, and Mrs. Hall

6 Sep

Most of you have probably already seen Kim Hall’s post FYI (if you’re a teenage girl). Both the original and the many, many brilliant take-downs written in response have been circulating social media this week, so it’s been pretty hard to avoid. If by some chance you’ve managed to miss out on all the fun, I highly encourage you to take a moment to go read Mrs. Hall’s open letter to all girls everywhere. It sure is something.

A lot of really smart folks have written some incredible posts touching on Mrs. Hall’s contribution to societal problems like slut-shaming, rape culture and body image issues. I don’t have anything new or brilliant to say on those topics, but I do want to talk about an aspect of Mrs. Hall’s message that hasn’t really been touched on yet: the very real link between the ideas that she’s putting forward and the recent rise in cyber-bullying, online slut-shaming and teenage suicide.

When I read Mrs. Hall’s letter, the first people that I thought of were Amanda Todd, Retaeh Parsons, Audrie Pott, Cherice Morales. In each of these cases, photographs of the girls that showed them either in various states of undress, or else showed them being sexually assaulted, or in some instances both at the same time, were circulated on social media. In each of these cases, the girls became social pariahs. In each of these cases, the girls committed suicide after enduring bullying and slut-shaming both online and offline.

I am not saying that Mrs. Hall is consciously suggesting that her children should shame or bully their classmates, especially those who have been sexually assaulted. If you asked her, I’m sure that she would tell you that those ideas are so far from what she intended to communicate as to be almost laughable. But still. Slut-shaming, ostracizing and bullying are the end-game of everything she is teaching her children.

When she writes:

And now – big bummer – we have to block your posts. Because, the reason we have these (sometimes awkward) family conversations around the table is that we care about our sons, just as we know your parents care about you.”

And:

And so, in our house, there are no second chances with pics like that, ladies. We have a zero tolerance policy.  I know, so lame. But, if you want to stay friendly with our sons online, you’ll have to keep your clothes on, and your posts decent.  If you post a sexy selfie (we all know the kind), or an inappropriate YouTube video – even once – it’s curtains.

What she is really telling her children is that girls who do not conform to her particular ideas of “modesty” are bad. She is telling them that the girls who post sexy selfies are worth less than the girls who cover up. She is telling them that the girls who pose with an “extra-arched back” and a “sultry pout” are not good enough to associate with her children. Worst of all, Mrs. Hall is telling her sons and daughter that it is fine – in fact, actively encouraged  in their household – to shun and ostracize these girls.

By saying that these teenage girls do not respect themselves, Mrs. Hall is teaching her kids that they are undeserving of anyone’s love or respect.

And that’s a pretty fucking toxic message.

If you think that this is too much of a reach, think about it this way: when Mrs. Hall and her family sit around their dining room table and critique the selfies posted online by her sons’ female friends and Mrs. Hall announces that yet another girl needs to be blocked because she’s showing too much skin, what her children learn is that the way that those girls are behaving is shameful and they deserve to be shamed in a way that makes them face real-life consequences. And when a Hall boy goes to school and tells his friend that he’s not allowed to hang out with so-and-so because her pictures are too slutty, and that friend tells a friend, and that friend tells a friend – well, it’s not hard to imagine what those real-life consequences will be.

And, of course, in high school, as in the Hall household, there are very rarely second chances.

When Mrs. Hall advises her son’s female friends to, “take down the closed-door bedroom selfies that makes it too easy for friends to see you in only one dimension,” I can’t help but wonder how many dimensions her sons and her sons’ friends saw those girls in before they heard those comments. Probably they saw them in the same way that they saw all their other female friends: as girls who were funny, girls who were smart, girls who were good at sports or art or music. Probably the Hall boys saw them as brilliant, well-rounded individuals, each contributing in their own interesting way to their lives. Probably they saw them as people.

But now?

Well, now they likely only see them in, as Mrs. Hall says, one dimension. That dimension being, of course, their physical bodies. Mrs. Hall has successfully reduced these girls to little more than pretty, shiny, skin-baring objects. And it’s pretty fucking easy to treat an object badly. It’s pretty easy to treat it cruelly, sub-humanly, even, because objects don’t have feelings. Objects don’t have thoughts. Objects exist only for the pleasure of others.

Objects are not people.

And so I worry about those girls, the girls that have already been branded as impure and immodest. I worry about the other girls that her sons will meet and, armed with their mother’s opinion, brand on their own. I worry for them because of the teasing and humiliation that they might have to endure; I worry about them because of the ways that the Hall boys and their friends might other, might even dehumanize these girls. I worry that when these girls tell adults about how they are being treated, they will be made to feel as if it is entirely their own fault, as if they were asking for it. I worry that they will start to think that, as Mrs. Hall said, there are no second chances. I worry that these girls will feel like their worlds are closing in on them, that one stray picture has ruined everything forever, that there is no way out of the mess that they believe they’ve created.

I worry for these girls’ lives.

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Stigma

26 Jul

When BlogHer asked me to speak at their annual conference on a panel called Mental Health in the Online Space, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. For one thing, I’ve never spoken at a conference before, and for another, I’m hardly a professional when it comes to talking about mental health. I mean, sure, I have lots of thoughts and opinions and feelings about it, and I feel pretty comfortable writing about my own experiences, but I’m by no means an expert. In fact, when I first received the invitation to speak I was sure that BlogHer had sent it to me by mistake.  But it turned out not to be a mistake, which is how I found myself sitting in a fancy conference room in a fancy hotel in fancy ol’ Chicago talking about whacky brain things.

The whole thing went pretty smoothly; a lot of it felt like we were preaching to the choir, to be honest. Our audience was mostly made up of people who had either had their own mental health struggles or else had experience with mental illness through their friends and family. Most of what we said was met with sympathetic nods or else comments from audience members who wanted to share similar issues that they’d experienced. About halfway through the session, though, just as I was starting to settle in and feel like I was getting the hang of things, one question caught me by surprise.

One of the panelists had mentioned that she hadn’t told her employer why, exactly, she was speaking at BlogHer, because she hadn’t wanted to divulge her mental health history. This is a pretty common dilemma faced by most people who live with mental illnesses, so I didn’t think anything of it until a hand shot up in the audience.

“I don’t have a mental illness, so I’m sorry if this is offensive,” said the woman, “but you’ve all talked a lot about stigma and, well, if you don’t tell your employer that you’re mentally ill, aren’t you contributing to that stigma?”

At that moment, we all looked at each other, and I could tell that all of us were thinking the same thing:

Ohhhhhh, she doesn’t know.

She doesn’t know that when you tell someone that you’re mentally ill, they look at you differently. When you tell your boss that you’ve struggled with your mental health, they start to treat you like something other, something lesser. Instead of your usual assignments or tasks, you might be asked to take on something a little more boring, more mundane. When you want to know why your role has changed, your boss might tell you that they were concerned that your former duties were too stressful for you. When you try to explain that, no, it’s not like that, you might get a look that’s a cross between father-knows-best and we’re-just-looking-out-for-you.

She doesn’t know that even if you do divulge your status as mentally ill, that doesn’t mean that you can talk about it, casually, as if it’s just another illness. For example, when someone at work asks you how you’re doing, you can never just reply, oh, you know, sad and a little anxious. If you have to take the day off because you woke up to a panic attack and you feel as if the grim, grey sky might crush you if you move from your bed, you can’t tell your employer the real reason why you won’t be at work; instead, you have to fake a convincing cough or else invent disgusting details about a fictional stomach flu.

She doesn’t know that when people talk about mental health in their workplaces, they run the risk of getting fired. Oh, not fired specifically because of mental illness, because that’s illegal, but fired for one of any number of trumped up reasons that their employer might come up with. She doesn’t know that someone can be fired for taking too much time off for doctor’s appointments and therapy sessions, even if those things are necessary in order for them to function. She doesn’t know that someone can be fired while they’re on a leave of absence due to anxiety or depression just because they’ve posted pictures of themselves smiling on Facebook.

I wish I was making that last one up, but I’m not.

Most of all, what this audience member doesn’t know about is the stigma; stigma felt by everyone, your friends, your family, your doctor, and even you, yourself, the mental health advocate. She doesn’t know what it’s like to have to learn as much about your illness as you can because your doctor’s understanding of it is, at best, incomplete. She doesn’t know what it’s like to go to see a psychiatrist, one of the best in his field, and, after you’ve explained your history to him, none of which has been in any way violent, harmful, or neglectful towards others, have him ask if Children’s Aid has ever been involved with your family. She doesn’t understand that those of us who struggle with mental health issues grew up in the same world as everyone else, and we absorbed all the same toxic messages about mental illness that everyone else did. She doesn’t know about how we internalize that stigma, how we have to fight against our own shame, guilt, fear and doubt in order to love ourselves or even just take ourselves seriously.

She doesn’t know about how some of us hate ourselves for these things that are not our fault, and then feel like hypocrites for hating the very things that we’re trying to educate others about.

And that’s the key, isn’t it? Education, I mean. That’s the way to end the stigma and shame and fear. I know that, other mental health advocates know that, and even that woman in the audience knows that – which is why she was asking about how my co-panelist could hide her mental health issues from her employer rather than taking the time to educate them. The fact is that education about mental illness is incredibly important. But (and this is a big but) you can’t put all of the responsibility for educating others solely on the shoulders of mental health advocates. For one thing, it can be exhausting and emotionally draining to try to explain over and over again the particulars of brain chemistry and trauma and he ways that those things can shape your life. For another, being one hundred percent open about your mental health all of the time can, as mentioned above, have real-life consequences. And yeah, in a perfect world you could be like, fuck this job if they’re going to look down on me for an actual, bonafide illness, but we don’t live in a perfect world, and sometimes you have to take what you can get just so that you can pay the bills.

Education about mental illness needs to start earlier for everyone, and it needs to come from the top down. It should be included in grade school health classes, in curriculums designed, in part, by mental health advocates. Education needs to come from doctors, who need to be properly educated themselves about all the ins and outs of the sad, lonely world so many of us find ourselves in. Education needs to be everywhere and be accessible to everyone in the community, because that’s honestly the only way we’re ever going to get to a place where someone can casually say at a dinner party, oh man, I had a manic episode yesterday and coming down sucked but I feel way better now, without everyone else giving them the side eye.

Because I don’t know about you, but I’d be pretty down with living in that world.

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Dispatches From The Dark Side

1 Feb

Trigger warning for talk of suicide

If I was writing about almost any other health issue, I wouldn’t hesitate to post this.

If I had diabetes, or cancer, or liver failure, you wouldn’t feel strange reading this.

If I started out by saying, “I went to the hospital last night because I had the flu,” no one would think twice about this. No one would call it oversharing. I wouldn’t feel ashamed or embarrassed.

But I didn’t go to the hospital because I had the flu.

I went to the hospital last night because I wanted to die.

I mean, I say that, and that’s how I felt, but the truth is that I didn’t really want to die, did I? If that had really been my intention, I would have just done it. I wouldn’t have talked about it, wouldn’t have told anyone, and certainly wouldn’t agreed to go to the hospital.

Intention is tricky, though, slippery, even, all tangled up with impulse, drive and desire; I don’t think I’ll ever understand what it is that I actually want. It’s like peeling an onion, folding back layers and layers of truths and semi truths, never able to really get to the core of how or why I feel these things.

I’m not writing this because I want your pity, or comfort, or advice (although you can offer them if you want to).

I’m writing this because I want to be honest. I want to be like someone who paints their self-portrait and doesn’t spare any details; I want to show you my pimples, the dark smudges under my eyes, the crease that bisects my forehead, evidence of a lifetime of squinting because I didn’t want to wear my glasses.

I’m writing this because I don’t want to be embarrassed or ashamed anymore, and for some reason saying these things publicly makes them easier to bear. It’s like racing to tell all of your darkest secrets before your ex-best friend can betray your trust; you get to keep some kind of control over the situation. Sort of.

I’m writing this because I want to talk about it, and this is the only way that I know how. I’ve developed this online voice, this sort of character that’s both me and at the same time an amplification of me, a louder, brasher, more combative version of myself. It’s easier for me to write about this in this character; I would never be able to look you in the eyes and say these things.

I promise that we don’t have talk about this in person. The next time we meet, we don’t have to refer to what’s written here.

But right now I do want to talk about wanting to die. If you’re not up for that, I totally give you permission to stop reading right now.

I wish I could tell you why I want to die, but I can’t. The truth is that I have a good life, maybe even the best. I’m married to someone that I love a whole lot, someone who loves me in return. My son is amazing; I’m not even sure that there are words to describe how great he is. I enjoy my work. I like where I live.

On paper, I should be very happy.

But still, I want to die.

I can’t tell you why, but I can tell you what it feels like.

It feels like all of the days ahead of me are grey and blank and empty. Not empty in the sense of possibility, but empty in the sense of being hopeless.

It feels like wearing a shirt that’s rough, scratchy, uncomfortable, and that shirt is my skin and I can’t take it off.

It feels like discovering that all of my favourite foods suddenly taste like cardboard, but I eat and eat and eat anyway because I need something to fill all that empty space.

It feels like standing in direct sunlight, feeling in on my back, my shoulders, my head, but never having my brain think sun. All it can think is heat. Like there’s this distinction, this appreciation that I can’t make anymore; everything is broken down to its most basic elements. Nothing is good or beautiful – everything is awful and dull in its own way.

It feels like the life-support system in my brain failed, and no one bothered to install a back-up. So now the ship is going down and the lights are flickering and we’re running out of oxygen and everyone is panicking.

It feels like being tired all of the time, like never being able to get enough sleep. I just want to sleep.

I do things. I go out, and I spend money on things that I used to enjoy, in my former life, the life that, on the surface at least, is nearly indistinguishable from the one I live now. I don’t enjoy anything anymore, though, and spending money that on things that don’t make me feel better only adds another layer of shame and guilt onto what I’m already feeling.

At home, at night, I feel trapped. The lights are too bright, the air too dry. I can’t sleep. I can’t read. I can’t watch TV. I can’t write. I can’t talk. I pace and pace and pace, trying to get rid of the prickly, irritable energy that’s building up in my veins, in my bones. I think that I could feel better if the apartment was clean, if the dishes were done and the bathroom sink scrubbed, but I don’t know where to begin, so I pace some more.

I just don’t want to feel anything anymore. I don’t even want to feel the good things. I just want to go to a place that’s beyond feeling.

And I know that suicide is selfish. But I also know that if I was dead, I wouldn’t care about anything anymore. I wouldn’t have to feel guilty about the people that I’ve left behind.

But I can’t help imagining Theo, what it would be like for him if I were to die. How he would cry and cry for me. How he would never be able to understand that I wasn’t coming, not ever. I think about how I would break his heart, think about the fault lines that I would trace along that tiny, powerful muscle, cracks that would break over and over for the rest of his life and never, ever heal.

I don’t really want to die.

I just want to sleep and sleep and sleep forever.

But it sort of amounts to the same thing, really, which is why I went to the hospital last night. Because I love Theo and don’t want to leave him. Because even if I couldn’t feel anything anymore, I would still find some way to miss him.

I live in a big city, so there’s a special hospital just for head cases like me. It even has two sites, one downtown and one in the west end. I went to the one downtown.

They lock you into the ER waiting room. There is a sign on the door that says AWOL Flight Risk. I wanted to take a picture, but I didn’t think they would like that.

There was a woman screaming in a room at the end of the hall.

There was a young man in a suit brought in by two police officers.

There was an unconscious woman brought in on a gurney. Her feet were bare.

There was a girl on the bench next to me, lying with her head on her mother’s lap. Her father was there, too. He said,

“You said that at the last minute something told you not to jump. What was it?”

But she didn’t answer.

While I was there, two code whites were called, which means that there’s a violent patient somewhere in the hospital. One of them, according to the man on the intercom, had a weapon. Both calls sent the ER staff into a flurry, running for doors and phones and elevators.

And I thought, I don’t belong here. I am not having an emergency. These people are having emergencies. I am someone who is fine, only a little sad sometimes. I am coping. I get up every day, go to work, take care of Theo. I am fine. I just have to be stronger, better, less self-indulgent.

And I wanted to leave, but I didn’t.

Finally it was my turn to see the doctor. She was young, kind. Her outfit wouldn’t have looked out of place in my closet, and I coveted her glasses.

She listened to me, took a few notes. Recommended a few things. She said that her main prescription was to try to prioritize things that make me happy.

I’m not sure how easy that will be to execute, but I like it anyway. I’m strangely pleased that instead of having me try another pill, a different pill, she handed me a piece of paper telling me to prioritize my own happiness. It seems like something that would happen in a book, or a movie, and I’ve always wanted to live in a book or a movie.

So how do I feel now?

Raw, I guess.

The same, I guess.

Maybe a little more hopeful, so that’s a start.

I still can’t stop reading Anne Sexton’s Wanting To Die.

I still can’t stop reading Ted Hughes’ book Birthday Letters, or poem his Last Letter.

But maybe I’ve read them a few times less today than I did yesterday.

I am trying to find some happy way to end this post, but I can’t think of any. I want to offer you some kind of hope. Then again, if I had cancer, or diabetes, would I feel that same urge to comfort you, to take care of you? Maybe. I don’t know.

I will leave you with this, one of my favourite quotes from the Bell Jar. It’s as true for me now as it was for Sylvia Plath when she wrote it more than 50 years ago.

“Don’t you want to get up today?”

“No.” I huddled down more deeply in the bed and pulled the sheet up over my head. Then I lifted a corner of the sheet and peered out. The nurse was shaking down the thermometer she had just removed from my mouth.

“You see, it’s normal.” I had looked at the thermometer before she came to collect it, the way I always did. “You see, it’s normal, what do you keep taking it for?”

I wanted to tell her that if only something were wrong with my body it would be fine, I would rather have anything wrong with my body than something wrong with my head, but the idea seemed so involved and wearisome that I didn’t say anything. I only burrowed down further in the bed.

I would rather have anything wrong with my body than something wrong with my head.

But since I do have something wrong with my head, I’m glad I’ve got all of you to listen.

For anyone who is in a state of mental health crisis, here is a link to the Mental Health Crisis line. You can also call Telehealth, if you’re in Ontario. If you are experiencing any kind of depression or are having suicidal thoughts, please, please call one of the numbers above, or else contact your doctor or local mental health crisis line.

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