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.
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.