Tag Archives: mental illness

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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Guest Post: Life As A Mountain Hike

7 Nov

My husband Matt wrote the following post about how challenging it can be to have a partner who is depressed. If you are at all technically inclined, you can check out his own blog, Quoth The Runtime, “Segmentation Fault”. He mostly writes about programming, but he also posts some pretty great stuff about the rampant sexism and misogyny in his industry.

LIFE AS A MOUNTAIN HIKE

I’ve come to the conclusion that the best metaphor I can conceive of for everyday life is that life is a mountain trail. Some days you have to work hard to make any progress, other days are simple, and some are nicely balanced. You can see beautiful vistas, or find yourself in the bottom of a dark valley. The weather can be reflective of your mood, a lot like what you see in movies (there’s a reason why it always rains during movie funerals). Some days the air’s become so thin that it’s a struggle to do anything of any great significance. You see your friends from time to time on the trail, and perhaps you’ve arranged to meet sixty miles up the trail in two days, and you only hope it’s downhill or level at worst, because you have a lot ground to cover in not much time.

So, given that life is a mountain trail, what is it like when your partner is depressed? It’s like hiking with someone with impaired lung function. They need to carry oxygen, and some cases are worse than others. Some patients need to basically have the mask on the whole time, while others can operate normally with a couple of deep breaths every once in a while.

How does this affect your relationship? You both have to take more load. Your partner has to carry the tank, so you offset that increased load into your own pack. But you’re also thinking about their oxygen supply. Sometimes it’s “do they have enough air in the tank,” but when you’re really paying attention, it becomes “do they have enough airflow”, and usually that only happens when their depression becomes apparent again. The big problem with depression, not just socially, but functionally, is that it’s invisible. Depression quite literally changes how the patient thinks, both on and off treatment. Enough airflow from the tank, and your partner is brought up to baseline.. except for the fact that they’re still carrying the extra weight, so you’re still taking some of what would otherwise be their load! With the right treatment, the patient can feel reasonably close to “normal”, but if they don’t maintain the treatment, for some reason–maybe a disrupted routine means not taking their medication for a few days, or maybe they’re feeling so good they self-moderate to a lower dose–or their circumstances change and now they just aren’t getting enough air (perhaps their brain chemistry has adjusted), then they can’t perform as well… and as their partner, it’s up to you to keep an eye on that. It’s not just your partner’s concern.

Living with a depressed partner is hard. In addition to everything that normally comes up in any relationship, you’re ultimately their partner in managing their depression, too. Whether it’s as simple as giving them some slack on the harder days, and letting them do their thing while you pick up the housework, or something as detailed as collaborating in their treatment plan, their depression will always be there, whether it’s forgotten, or it’s the elephant in the room, or it’s something than can freely enter the conversation as necessary. But remember, it’s invisible, and it’s insidious. Because it’s part of how your partner thinks (and not, say, an obvious but treatable impairment, like a significant limp) it’s all too easy to forget that it’s even there when it’s well managed.

It’s easy to become resentful that you’re doing more of the housework, because it’s easy to forget that it’s not that your partner is being lazy, they’re depressed. It’s easy to forget that depression manifests itself in more than just tears; it can also be lack of energy, lack of motivation, or lack of interest. When depression isn’t obvious, it’s all too easy to forget that it’s there, and then it’s all too easy to establish a mental separation between your partner and your partner’s depression, because you might only think about it when they’re well and truly despondent. While you and your partner may not want their depression to be a part of their identity, it’s critical to remember that it’s always there, in the same way that an amputated limb is always missing, even if it’s been replaced by a prosthesis.

And when you’re in a long-term relationship, you’ve been carrying the extra weight for as long as you have, it’s easy to forget that what you don’t see in your partner’s backpack is their failing lungs and their oxygen tank. If your partner’s been having an easy time with the hike–perhaps a couple of huffs on the tank a day is all they’ve needed for months–it’s easy to forget why you’re carrying more of the weight. It’s easy to forget that it’s so that they can simply keep up with the pace of every day.

But when the depression becomes apparent again, naturally, you respond with compassion and empathy. You encourage your partner to talk about it, or you give them their space, but if you forget, or don’t realise, just how bad their depression really is when it’s in force, then you may forget how your partner may really need you to respond when their depression strikes. Of course, the deeper problem with this is that your partner is an adult, or at least competent to make their own decisions. It’s very difficult to convince who a person who doesn’t believe they need air–they’re just a tired today, or the trail’s harder than they expected–that they really do need air… At least, it’s hard to do that without coming off as condescending and paternalistic (and, let’s be honest here, if anyone is liable to be offended, and rightly so, by paternalistic talk from her husband, it’s Anne) when you’re in a partnership of equals.

My own overwhelming desire to respect Anne’s agency and autonomy has meant that, on a number of occasions, I’ve dropped the ball badly, because I have a pretty significant mental block around telling anyone I love, “you need to do x.” Particularly so when I know that the thing I believe they need to do is something they would ordinarily object to. Anne has already told the story about how her postpartum depression drove her to pharmaceutical help; but I don’t think she mentioned in that story her difficult history with pharmaceutical treatment, or with psychotherapy. I had broached both ideas in the past during lesser episodes, and met with resistance on every occasion. I didn’t want to press the issue again (and I didn’t know had truly bad her depression had become until I read that post), and every time her depression has resurfaced since, I’ve had a hard time finding the strength to ask basic things like “have you been missing your medication,” or, “have you been using your blue lamp,” because I want to be able to trust that she has, and I don’t want her to think that I think she’s forgotten, or incapable of taking of herself. I don’t think that she can’t take care of herself, but I worry, at those times, that her depression will colour how she hears these things, or tell her that her treatment isn’t working, and that she should just give up.

But as her partner, she does need me to be able to say these things (whether she’ll admit it or not). She needs me to be able to tell the difference between herself talking and her depression talking. She needs me to be able to see that the trail’s too hard for her today, and figure out what needs to be done, whether it’s replace the tank, try to open the flow more, take more of the load (or straight out jettison some stuff, or find someone to help), or even just make her stop and sit for a while. Maybe she needs me to call for help, but I’ll never know–and she may never admit it, even to herself–if I can’t talk to her about her depression.

We’ve both recently started following TSN anchor Michael Landsberg’s Twitter feed. Landsberg, if you weren’t already aware, also suffers from clinical depression, and has written about it on his blog for Off The Record, particularly in light of Wade Belak’s death. Landsberg has been promoting a topic on Twitter, #sicknotweak, in the buildup to launching a website of the same name, in order to promote a change in how we, as a society, view depressed people–that they aren’t weak, but they’re sick, just with something that isn’t normally visible. It’s an important paradigm shift that I need to keep in mind, particularly when Anne’s depression comes to the fore again. Depression is, fundamentally, a disease like any other that needs to be managed.

Just like a hiker with a bad lung needs to manage their air intake.

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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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Dear NRA, The Answer Is Almost Never More Guns

21 Dec

By now, you’ve almost certainly heard about the NRA’s press conference earlier today regarding the Sandy Hook school shooting. After waiting a week and remaining “respectably” silent (do you think they meant “respectfully”?), they are now ready to tell us how to solve the problem of gun violence:

More guns.

I mean, naturally, the answer is always more guns, isn’t it?

It gets worse, though; the answer isn’t just more guns, it’s GUNS IN SCHOOLS.

That’s right, you read correctly: the answer is armed personnel in schools in order to protect innocent children.

Because, says the NRA, the real truth is,

…that our society is populated by an unknown number of genuine monsters. People that are so deranged, so evil, so possessed by voices and driven by demons, that no sane person can every possibly comprehend them. They walk among us every single day, and does anybody really believe that the next Adam Lanza isn’t planning his attack on a school, he’s already identified at this very moment?

Because it’s fear-mongering and exploitative when people rightfully point out how dangerous automatic and semi-automatic weapons are, and how lax gun control laws lead to tragedies like what happened at Sandy Hooks, but it’s totally not fear-mongering to say that society is populated by an unknown number of genuine monsters.

And because having men and women carrying guns in our schools is totally going to make children feel safe. Seeing an armed man or woman every day definitely isn’t going to make them feel as if being at school is a dangerous, life-threatening activity.

I mean, pardon my language, but Jesus fucking Christ, when does it end?

Is there ever going to be a time when more guns isn’t the answer?

Don’t worry, though; the NRA has another solution to gun violence.

They want a national registry of the mentally ill.

Yes, you heard that correctly: they don’t want a firearm registry, but they want the government to register every single person diagnosed with a mental illness. Because apparently what they’ve taken away from the whole “now is the time to talk about mental illness” discussion is that, rather than improve access to mental healthcare and work to reduce stigma, what we actually need to do is keep tabs on all the crazy people.

Never mind the fact that the mentally ill are four times more likely to be the victims of violence. Never mind the fact that “mental illness” is an incredibly broad category that includes an array of disorders ranging from anorexia nervosa to depression to schizophrenia. Never mind the fact that not all people with mental illness are violent, and not all violent people are mentally ill. Let’s just get on with this and start keeping tabs on the one in four Americans who have been or will be diagnosed with a mental illness at some point in their lifetime.

And fuck, I know that it doesn’t even bear saying, but how the hell do you think this will affect the stigma surrounding mental illness? Do you think that people will be more willing to go to their doctors and ask for help if they know that a diagnosis will land them on a national registry of people that the NRA believes to be deranged, evil monsters?

There is one thing, and one thing only that I agree with the NRA on: we live in a culture of violence. We live in a society that not only normalizes but celebrates violence. What I can’t wrap my head around is the fact that they don’t seem to understand that owning and using a gun contributes to that culture of violence.

I also don’t think that Grand Theft Auto makes anyone go on violent rampages, but hey, what do I know? Not as much as the NRA, apparently.

Look, I get it – guns don’t kill people, people kill people. But you know what? Adam Lanza would have been able to kill a fuck of a lot less people had he been carrying a knife, a club, or a crow bar. Saying that guns don’t kill people, etc., is like saying that polio doesn’t kill people, shitty immune systems do. But guess what? You still wouldn’t have died of polio had you not been fucking exposed to virus in the first place.

You guys, the way we view guns and violence is fucked up, and we need to fix it. I don’t know what the answer is; I can theorize, based on events that have happened in other countries, that stricter gun control is what’s needed, but it’s true that I can’t say for sure that that would fix everything. What I do know that is the answer is definitely not more guns. The answer is not a national registry of the mentally ill. And the answer is most definitely not armed personnel in schools.

gun-da-kop2p44

Violent Crimes and Mental Illness

16 Dec

In the wake of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, there’s been a lot of talk about mental health. Comments like, “Now is the time to talk about mental illness!” and “We need mental healthcare reform NOW before this happens again!” are littering my Facebook and Twitter feeds. Many people, people that I care about and whose opinion I respect, want to use this tragedy as an opportunity to talk about how America’s mental healthcare system needs to change.

But you know what? Now is not the time to talk about that.

Don’t get me wrong, I am hugely in favour of mental healthcare reform, both here in Canada and in America. We need better access to mental health professionals, and shorter wait times to see the ones that are available. We need to end the system of patient abuse that occurs in group homes across the country. We need to make therapy and expensive medications more accessible to people who may not have a steady income. We need to increase the monthly payments to those who are too ill to work, because what they receive now from the government is not enough to live on.  We need to give people with mental illnesses the tools they need to advocate for themselves, and we need to work towards ending the stigma that comes with the term “mental illness”.

I do believe that talking about our mental healthcare system is something that we need to do, and badly.

What we don’t need to do is conflate mental illness with shooting 20 small children.

See, the thing is, mental illness is a pretty broad umbrella term that covers all kinds of things. Depression is a mental illness. So are anxiety, anorexia nervosa, bulimia, PTSD, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, obsessive compulsive disorder, and many, many other things. And yes, some symptoms caused by some of those illnesses can cause violence, but, given the fact that 1 in 4 Americans suffer from a diagnosable mental illness in any given year, I think that we can safely say that most people who are mentally ill are not prone to going on shooting sprees. In fact, studies have shown that people living with mental illness are four times as likely to be the victim of violence.

It has recently been reported that Adam Lanza was, according to his brother Ryan, suffering from both Asperger’s syndrome (which is on the autism spectrum) and a personality disorder. However, according to the same report, the brothers hadn’t been in contact since 2010, and it is currently unknown whether Adam Lanza had received further diagnoses since then. But the term “mentally ill” was being tossed around for a while before Ryan Lanza’s statements were made public, and, from what I can see, there is still a lot of assumption going on about what Adam might or might not have suffered from.

I know that most of the people who want to talk about mental illness right now are good people. Like the rest of us, they’re trying to figure out what just happened and why, so that we can make sure that we never have to live through a tragedy like this again. I’m sure that these people think that it’s kinder, more humane to say that Adam Lanza was mentally ill, rather than just calling him a monster. Unfortunately, what they’re actually doing is making mental illness the scapegoat here. What they’re doing is adding to the stigma that surrounds mental illness.

At the end of the day, saying things like, “Now is the time to talk about mental illness,” is not going to help anything. It’s not going to make an event like this less likely to happen again. In fact, if anything, by continuing to spin the narrative that the mentally ill are violent killers, you are probably making it less likely for those with mental health issues to seek treatment. By making mental illness out to be this big, scary thing, you are making it more likely that friends and family will ignore any signs of problems in their loved ones out of fear and denial. By simplifying the gun control debate to something like, “Well, mentally ill people just shouldn’t have guns,” you are contributing to the idea that people with mental illnesses are scary, dangerous and cannot be trusted.

And although I don’t feel like it should need to be said, let me reiterate: yes, I want to talk about our mental healthcare system. Yes, I want to talk about mental illness. But I don’t want to talk about it today, not when all anyone can think of are those 20 children whose lives were lost. I don’t want to talk about it when the term “mentally ill” conjures up images of a young man storming into a school, armed to the teeth and ready to open fire on innocent people. Because while there are people whose illnesses cause them to be violent, and those people certainly do need a better healthcare system, the vast, vast majority of people who desperately need to see mental healthcare reform will never harm anyone.

I guess that what I really want to say here is that this hits home for me. I’ve been pretty open on here about living with depression and anxiety; I received my first diagnosis when I was 16, which means that I’ve been grappling with these illnesses for nearly half my life. These disorders are a part of me, and I try hard not to be ashamed of them.

So please keep in mind that when you talk about mental illness, about the tragedies it causes and the lives it takes, you are also talking about me.

PhrenologyPix

How We Talk About Mental Illness

10 Nov

Jared Lee Loughner was sentenced yesterday. In August of this year, he pled guilty to 19 of 49 charges, including first degree murder, after going on a shooting rampage in Tucson, Arizona. His actions left six people dead and injured twelve others, including former Representative Gabrielle Giffords. Yesterday he was given a sentence of seven consecutive life terms in prison, with no chance of parole. Jared Loughner will spend the rest of his life in jail.

I remember this shooting vividly. It happened on January 8th, the day I was admitted to the hospital on bed rest at 34 weeks pregnant. I spent two weeks in the high risk antenatal unit, with only books and my computer to fill long hours spent in an uncomfortable hospital bed. Because I spent so much time online, I followed the shooting and its aftermath intently, metaphorically holding my breath as I, along with so many other people, waited to see if Gabrielle Giffords would live after taking a bullet to the head during the attempt on her life.

That’s what the shooting was, after all – an attempt to assassinate Giffords, whom Loughner hated for many reasons, chief among which was that she was a woman. In fact, he’d said repeatedly, both online and in person, that women should not hold positions of power. That was why he’d shown up there that day, why he’d brought a 9 mm Glock 19 semi-automatic pistol to a public meeting held in a supermarket parking lot  – because he couldn’t stand the idea of a female member of congress. The thought chilled me, as I’m sure it did many other women.

I’ve continued to keep up with Loughner’s legal proceedings, in part because of the mixture of fear, fascination and revulsion the shooting inspired in me, and partly because, in my mind, this event is somehow bound in the circumstances surrounding Theo’s birth. There was something so strange about sitting in a hospital, doing my best to ensure that a healthy new life came into this world, while someone else worked equally hard to take another life, or rather, several lives, out of it.

I’ve read a lot about the shooting.

I’ve read about Gabrielle’s amazing recovery, and her struggles to regain her mobility and independence.

I’ve read about Christina-Taylor Green, the nine year old who was among those killed.

I’ve read about the other victims, and how this tragedy has impacted their lives and the lives of their families.

Mostly, though, I’ve read about Loughner. How at first he was declared unfit to stand trial after a federal judge ruled that he was mentally incompetent, saying, “At the present time, Mr. Loughner does not have a rational understanding of these proceedings.” How he was given a diagnosis of schizophrenia, and was found to suffer from delusions and disorganized thinking. How, when he finally was deemed fit to stand trial, he was so drugged that he could barely talk. How he still resists being medicated, and has to undergo forcible treatment at the hands of prison officials. How he often doesn’t really seem to understand what happened that day, and has stated in court that he believes that his assassination attempt was successful, and that Gabrielle Giffords is now dead.

It’s pretty clear that Mr. Loughner is seriously ill.

I’ve been reading some of the victim impact statements today, and I’ve been surprised at how some of the victims talk about his illness. Take, for example, what Mark E. Kelly, Gabrielle Giffords’ husband, had to say:

“You tried to create for all of us a world as dark and evil as your own. But remember it always: You failed.”

I found this jarring, to be honest. Let’s be really clear here: I think that Loughner’s actions were, indeed, evil. I know that a mentally ill person’s “world” or mind or whatever term you want to use can certainly be called dark. However, it bothers me that Kelly would refer to the delusional world that Loughner lived in as evil. It also bothers me that Kelly seems to believe that Loughner had some kind of agency over his actions, as if he wasn’t driven by the illness that gripped him body and soul.

Another statement that I read said the following:

“We’ve been told about your demons, about the illness that skewed your thinking.

It’s a painful saga, a tale of missed opportunities and lack of support, of the appalling absence of attention to your behavior. Your parents, your schools, your community –- they all failed you.

That is all true, but it is not expiation. It is not enough. There are still those pesky facts.

You pointed a weapon at me… and shot me… three times.”

While the victim, Ashleigh Burroughs, acknowledges that Loughner was ill, she seems dismissive of his “demons”, demanding, instead, that he answer the “pesky facts” – as if he hadn’t already tried to answer them, only to come up with nonsense, jumbled facts and recollections of the day that are flat-out untrue.

I am not here to criticize Kelly or Burroughs, and I am certainly not here to diminish what they went through. They’ve seen and experienced things that I hope to never, ever encounter. I am not saying that how they are dealing with this is wrong, or that what they said is wrong. What I’m saying is that the way that we, as a culture, talk about mental illness is fucked up.

The things is, this hits close to home for me, because mental illness is something I’ve struggled with. Still do, in fact.

It’s not something I really talk about, ever. I’m deeply uncomfortable even as I type this out, but I want to share this with you, so that maybe you’ll understand where I’m coming from.

When I was in high school, things were tough. I felt sad and hopeless, frequently without any concrete reason. I cried, often, both at home and in public. I wonder, now, if my social isolation lead to this, or if my isolation was a product of how miserable I was. Chicken or egg, right? Certainly both lead to a sort of vicious circle of being alone, then being sad because I was alone, then having no one want to be around me because I was so annoyingly, unendingly down on myself and finally ending up, once again, alone.

When I was sixteen I told my mother about how I felt, and she took me to see our family doctor. He gave me a prescription for Paxil and referred me to a therapist. I hated therapy and stopped going after a few months; the medication didn’t seem to do much, so my doctor increased it, and then increased it again. I couldn’t sleep at night, and I was exhausted all day, sometimes napping on my desk during class. I couldn’t concentrate, and often left my homework unfinished because I was too tired or unfocussed. My grades started to slip, and my teachers grew frustrated with me. One even recommended that I be removed from the special arts program that I was part of. I went from being an A student to barely pulling Cs and Ds and the grownups in my life tsked, shook their heads and told me that I would have to work harder. I failed grade 11 math the first time, and then, the second time around, desperate to pass, I cheated on a test. I got caught. I was suspended. My doctor increased my medication. I didn’t feel any better.

In university, things were initially easier. I had lots of friends, and I was once more getting As and Bs. I forced myself to complete my assignments, working in the computer labs late into the night. My concentration improved, and I tried to be less of a perfectionist with my work – even if I thought something was badly done or incomplete, I submitted it. I turned in every single  assignment on time. I figured that what I’d been lacking in high school was gritty determination; I decided that I could push my way through anything. I thought that if I didn’t succeed at something, it was because I hadn’t tried hard enough.

Then, in third year, things got tough again. I had to leave school due to my financial situation, which was hopelessly snarled after three years of monetary incompetence and inattention. My mood grew worse and worse, and the university clinic doctor frantically tried medication after medication, hoping something, anything would work. Nothing did. I finally received an official diagnosis from him of dysthymia, a mood disorder marked by chronic depression. I started to feel like the future was endless and blank, and that I had no way of getting myself out of this hole. I talked about suicide. My doctor had me hospitalized.

I have literally never told that to anyone other than my mother and Matt until now.

Things got better after that, although I’m not sure why or how. My hospitalization was nearly ten years ago now and, although there have since been some serious dips in my mood, until I was hit with postpartum depression I’d managed to steer clear of that dark place. I even totally went off any kind of medication for seven years, encouraged by a hospital psychiatrist who told me that I wasn’t really depressed, that there was nothing chemical about it, I just had bad coping skills.

I stopped thinking of myself as someone who was living with depression; I told myself that I was just moody, or easily upset. If I had to put a name to what I was feeling, I called it anxiety, which seemed easier and more socially acceptable. Calling what I felt depression made me feel like I was making excuses for myself, and it made me feel like a freak. I refused to us the term mentally ill to describe myself. I went back to my philosophy of pushing myself hard, and then harder when things were difficult. For a while, it worked.

Then Theo was born, and everything went dark, and I couldn’t get out of it.

As part of the postpartum depression program I participated in at Women’s College Hospital, I had to have a monthly meeting with a psychiatrist. My family doctor had put me on Zoloft just before I joined the Women’s College program, and it was up to this psychiatrist to figure out whether or not I was on the correct medication, and what the right dosage was. I gave her as complete a medical history as I could, and then immediately asked how long I would have to be medicated.

“Well, let’s see,” she said, looking back through her notes. “It looks like you’ve had two, maybe three major depressive episodes in your life. You’ll need to be on the Zoloft for at least a year, but I would recommend that you stay on it for five.”

I was shocked. The medication was supposed to be temporary; I wasn’t sick, just fucked up on hormones. I’d thought that I would only be taking Zoloft for a few months, until this whole postpartum depression thing cleared up. That was how it was supposed to work, right? When I told her that, she just smiled.

“I think your old doctor’s original diagnosis of dysthymia was correct,” she said, “and, based on what you’ve told me, I think it’s likely you also have generalized anxiety disorder. This isn’t going to go away once your hormones settle down.”

So here I am, nearly two years after the birth of my son, still medicated and still struggling with my mood. I’ve more or less come to accept this, though. I am a person who is depressed. I am mentally ill.

This is hard to talk about, and what makes it harder is the way our society views mental illness. In the media it’s portrayed as frightening and dangerous, or else as funny and laughable, but rarely as something normal, rarely as something that so many people live with every day. We throw around words like crazy, insane, or psychotic when we’re talking about people whose actions we disagree with. In spite of strong evidence to the contrary, we view it as something made up, or an excuse not to get work done. We want people to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, and we don’t believe them when they tell us that they can’t. We marginalize and mock the people who need us the most.

Mental illness is deeply stigmatized in our society, and will continue to be so until we do something about it.

When we believe that Loughner had agency over his own actions, rather than being controlled by a serious illness, we contribute to that stigma. When Mark E. Kelly refers to the world view of a schizophrenic as evil, he contributes to that stigma. Hell, the fact that we even use words like “evil” or “demons” to describe mental illness contributes to that stigma.

The tighter we hold this stigma, the longer we continue to have beliefs about mental illness that are untrue and have no basis in scientific fact, the harder it is to talk about it. And the harder it is to talk about it, the more people will go untreated. And the more people who go untreated, the higher the risk of something like this happening again.

Which is why I’m talking about this now.

Edited to add: I certainly don’t mean to imply that all those who are mentally ill lack agency over their actions, or even that that those who do lack agency do so all of the time. I also don’t mean to say that someone who is gripped by mental illness will suffer from it forever. I don’t really know how to talk about this, and I acknowledge that I am probably missing a lot of information, and communicating badly. I apologize for that, and for any offence that anyone might take from this.