Thursday, September 30, 2010

A Note on Suicide

I'm not sure I really need to say this, but trigger warning for discussion of suicide.

I've got suicide on the brain because of the tragedies in the last few weeks of young men who've killed themselves because of bullying related to homophobia. My previous post was about the strength of character and the strength of will that it takes to live with mental illness. I stand by everything I said there.

I've attempted suicide on several occasions, and I know better than I'd like to know how it feels to think that life is not worth living. It sucks to struggle and struggle and feel like you're getting nowhere. It sucks to feel like nobody cares about you, nobody cares about your struggles, your worries, your life.

I never meant to imply or say that suicide is reflective of a lack of strength of character or will. Suicide happens when the seas of life swamp one's boat and one just can't take any more. Suicide is horribly tragic, because for many people who kill themselves, there were people in their lives who were willing to help if only they'd known how bad it was for the person who committed suicide.

There is help. There is hope. Suicidal despair is not a reflection of your character or strength of will. It is not weakness, it is an expression of being overwhelmed in the worst way.

And it is always, always a tragedy when someone commits suicide.

Crazy Does Not Equal Of Poor Character

Part Four of Crazy Does Not Equal...

[Trigger warning for brief mention of rape, child sexual abuse, more detailed mention of self-injury, and brief allusion to suicide. Be safe.]

Full Disclosure: I have schizoaffective disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder. I have suffered from one form or another of mental illness for most of my life, mostly depression in one form or another, anxiety, and various manifestations of PTSD. I am 34 years old, a cis woman, white and Cherokee, divorced, mother of one completely awesome daughter, bisexual with polyamorous tendencies, a proud bleeding-heart liberal, an eclectic pagan, and completely out of my tree.

I've always been hesitant to be open with people about my mental condition. Mental illness is still hugely stigmatized, and I don't want to be treated as if I'm somehow less than other people because my brain and mind are funky. But I've come to the realization that mental illness will remain stigmatized unless people with mental illnesses are open about their conditions and show the world that we're not what society would have the world believe.

People with mental illnesses are often stereotyped as violent, or, in contrast, figures of fun, to be mocked for “abnormal” behaviors. And if we're not to be feared or made fun of, we're childish and incapable of making our own decisions. Failing that, we're weak-willed or of poor character, often therefore leading to the conclusion that we're responsible for our conditions and could be “normal” if we'd just decide to be. On top of all that, we're often considered lacking in intelligence, which can be part and parcel of the “childish and incapable of making our own decisions” or “weak-willed or of poor character” tropes.

Someone of truly poor character is someone who is deliberately cruel, who lacks compassion, who harms the weak. Poor character is lying, stealing, hurting people, basically living without ethics, and I'm sure there are in fact some people with mental illnesses who are of poor character, just as there are plenty of people who do not have mental illness who are of poor character. But poor character and/or a weak will do not go hand in hand with a psychiatric diagnosis.

People with depression often hear things like, “Cheer up” or “Look on the bright side” or “Why are you so negative?” or worse yet, “Count your blessings.” I don't know about anybody else who's struggled with depression, but all of the above drive me crazier than I already am. If, in a depressive episode, I could cheer up or be more positive, don't you bloody well think I would? Nobody chooses to be depressed. Nobody wants to feel like that. Depression feels like pure hell, and if we could just cheer the fuck up, we would. It's just not that fucking easy. People with PTSD hear similar things. “Why do you have to dwell on the past so much?” drives me right up a wall. [TW: child sexual abuse and rape] Do these people think I want to have flashbacks of being sexually abused (as a child) and raped (as an adult)? Do they think I want to relive terrible, horrific events in my life? Do they really think I'm going through all this for fun? For attention? I know how to get attention. It's called talking. I talk to my family. I talk to my friends. I talk to my therapist. They all pay attention to me when I'm talking. I blog. People read my blog (and my guest posts at Shakesville) and make comments. That's attention.

But some people think that people with mental illnesses (and I've just mentioned the two with which I have the most personal experience) are weak-willed and/or “doing it for attention,” neither of which says much for a person's character. If you really think that people with mental illnesses are weak-willed, go back and read Sometimes Mental Illness Really Just Bites, and maybe, just maybe you'll understand what strength of will it takes to get through life with a mental illness, how hard the day-to-day can be. And believe me, the attention you get when your mental illness symptoms are out of control is NOT the kind of attention people want. Nobody likes to be watched constantly, or committed to a psychiatric ward, or drugged or restrained, all of which have happened to me. Nobody would do that to themselves on purpose, not even someone who is seriously mentally ill.

To clarify, I have put myself in psychiatric wards before, because I could feel things getting out of control and I knew I needed help to regain control. But being involuntarily committed is a world of suck.

[TW: Self-injury]
I used to self-injure, which some people think that people with mental illnesses do for attention. It's not. Again, the attention you get when someone finds out you've been cutting or burning or whatever the hell is not the kind of attention anyone wants. I hid my cuts. I tended to make shallow, small, but painful cuts that could be passed off as cat scratches if anyone saw. I picked at them to keep them from healing too soon, but I never let on what I was doing. I did it because the physical pain made the emotional pain easier to bear. It was cathartic. I haven't cut in over a year, and I don't see myself cutting any time in the foreseeable future, but I remember the relief of physical pain and bleeding. It just made the emotions easier to manage.

I've known quite a fair few self-injurers, and I don't think any of them does/did it for attention. They did it for the same reasons I did, to make the emotional pain easier to take, for the catharsis. People who self-injure are trying to cope with phenomenal loads of pain, often burdens they've borne for their entire lives or close to it. These are not weak people. These are not attention hounds. These are people dealing with HUGE problems, and they're doing the best they can.

People with mental illnesses are not weak. They are dealing with the day-to-day bullshit we all deal with, and with a whole lot more on a day-to-day basis. They are dealing with what I like to call musical meds (when one's psychiatrists are trying everything under the sun and then some to find a medication cocktail that works). They are dealing with symptoms that, like some kind of monster out of Greek mythology, try to drag them down every time they pick themselves up. They are often dealing with loads of pain from childhood or adolescence that would break a weak person.

A weak will does not go hand in hand with a psychiatric diagnosis, nor does poor character. It takes strength and character to live with mental illness. It takes strength and character to get through a day with the symptoms. It takes strength and character to pick oneself up again after yet another episode. I am a person with mental illness, I am strong, and I am not alone.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Sex Education is a Basic Right

Call me what you will, right now I've got sex on the brain.

This doesn't come out of nowhere. These two posts on Shakesville and this post at AngryBlackBitch have got my mind workin'.

So, let's talk.

Sex is a touchy topic. A lot of people are squeamish about it. Our culture makes it something to be ashamed of, something dirty, and at the same time, tells us that all the cool people are doing it.

But one thing we need right now is sex education. Comprehensive, open discourse, education about sex in all its wild and woolly aspects.

What would that do? It would help prevent unplanned pregnancies (and by that token reduce the need for abortions), it would help reduce the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, and I honestly think it would make the world a better place.

Who should give the sex education? Ideally, parents. As the mother of an 18-year-old daughter, I felt, even before she was born, that it was my responsibility to make sure she knew how to be an adult by the time she became one, and part of being an adult is being educated about sex.

I had my daughter when I was 16. Needless to say, it was not a planned pregnancy. I was in the eleventh grade in high school. I grew up upper-middle-class, and I'm fairly well-educated. I knew where babies came from, I knew what sex was, but from books. My mom handed me books and left it at that. There was no discourse, let alone open discourse.

I decided before I had my daughter that she would know the things I didn't know about sex until I jumped into the pool, so to speak. I wanted her to know that there's more to it than Tab A into Slot B. I wanted her to know about contraception and the correct ways to use it. I wanted her to know about masturbation. I wanted her to know about the ways emotions can get tangled once the pubic bones start bumpin'.

So I opened a discourse with her when she was little. She knew what periods were long years before she got hers. She knew about the changes in her body that would come with puberty before her age was in double digits. And she knew about condoms and how to put them on correctly (which I did NOT know when I was her age). Most importantly, she knew and still knows that she can come to me with questions about sex and her body and boys' bodies and girls' bodies and whatever she needed to ask. I sometimes have had to tell her "I don't know, let me look it up for you," but I'd rather she got an honest "I don't know" than a line of bullshit.

But not all parents are comfortable talking that openly with their kids, gods only know why.

So what we need is comprehensive sex education. Kids need to know this stuff before they jump into the pool. They need to know how to prevent pregnancy, how to prevent sexually transmitted diseases. They need to be encouraged to explore their own bodies and discover what they like and don't like before they have sex with a partner or partners. They need to know that sex is nothing to be ashamed of, that when entered into with full consent and responsibility, it can be--it should be--joyous. Every student in every school across the country needs sex education, not that abstinence-only horseshit that the Bush administration tried to push, but comprehensive sex education covering not just the mechanics of Tab A into Slot B, but contraception and how to use it, abortion, disease prevention, sexual health (as in, it's not normal to bleed every time you have PIV sex, another thing I didn't know when I became sexually active), fantasies, masturbation, oral sex, anal sex, all of it. GLB students need to know that their orientations are legitimate, that it is, in fact, okay to be sexually attracted to other people, regardless of their equipment or identity. Transgender students need to know that their identities are legitimate, and they need to know about their options with regard to gender reassignment procedures and the legal tangles of gender identity.

The kids need to know all this. They need to know it without shame, without guilt, and maybe most importantly, without bullshit. And not from a book. From parents and teachers who care that these students, these children and adolescents, these young women and men, grow up to be well-adjusted, healthy adults.