Why I Hate The Mental Illness Rhetoric about Depression

Following the death of Robin Williams, I watched Facebook flood with articles and discussions of depression. It’s a tough subject at the best of times, even harder following the fresh sting of loss.

Emotions were high, so I prepared myself for an onslaught of insensitive posts about suicide being selfish, cowardly, etc. I was dismayed, though, to see phrases like “depression is a life-threatening illness” and “depression is out to kill you” dancing alongside the other comments.

I’ve watched the fight to raise awareness about depression for quite some time, and it seems that we’re finally reaching a place where people sort of understand that depression isn’t a character flaw…but I’m not sure that where we’re headed is any better.

Although it’s important to recognize that depression can be rooted in physical causes, vitamin deficiencies or hormonal imbalances, it’s equally important to recognize that it isn’t always rooted in physical causes. Sometimes it is entirely emotional or situational.

AND THAT’S OKAY.

What’s not okay is to diminish the impact of a person’s emotional process or environment, which is exactly what this “life-threatening disease” model does.

A while back, I talked about reaching the point of no return when I was in the cult. It was the moment that I realized that I would rather die than continue to live the life I was in—that wasn’t an overstatement. I was suicidal for almost two years before I finally left, and one of the things that gave me the courage to break away from the toxicity of the IFB was my suicidality. When I look back on my life, I don’t see that struggle as “dangerous” or as part of a “disease.”

It was a crisis, to be sure—but it was a good crisis. When death was more appealing than my life, I had nothing to lose in trying to make my life worth living. My depression was the signal to me that things couldn’t just go on the way they were. Something had to change.

Had I been taken to a doctor during that time, I could have easily been dismissed as “mentally ill,” given some pills, and sent back into abuse. I might have spent years more, maybe even the rest of my lifetime, trying to battle “depression” (the symptom) rather than the true “disease” (abuse).

I get that the “illness” proponents are trying desperately to end the stigma around depression, but as someone who was depressed for non-medical reasons (still good reasons), I don’t see a true end to stigma.

We might have shifted slightly in our opinion of depressed people, but only because we’ve shifted from thinking of them as emotionally unstable to medically unable to be happy…so technically, the stigma is still there. Sadness, hopelessness, loneliness, desperation—they’re all still “bad.” We’re just more willing to say, “It’s not your fault.”

But I don’t want my emotional state to be acceptable only if it’s caused by an imbalance somewhere. I don’t want to live in a society where being sad is demonized to the point that I either keep it hidden or I go get a pill to make it go away.

I want my emotions to be okay, no matter what. I want to live in a society where having an emotional struggle is as acceptable as having a medical problem. I want to live in a society where depression can be a valid indication that something is off in my environment rather than just an indication of something being off in my body.

The disease model is convenient in a society where minorities and oppressed groups are far more likely to experience depression. It allows us to shake our heads over a “diseased brain” rather than considering what societal factors may be creating an environment in which depression can thrive. It allows us to ignore problems like abuse, discrimination, bullying, economic distress, and prejudice as we scurry around trying to find the magic bullet that will force everyone to be happy with the way things are.

Yes, I struggle with depression. I struggled a lot in high school and college. I struggle less now, but I still struggle (usually when I’m not embracing my emotional work and end up stagnating in the emotion I don’t want to work through).

But NO, I do not have a mental illness or a disease. I don’t have a chemical imbalance. I’m not helpless or in danger because of it. I’ve learned to embrace my downward cycles as an indication that it’s time to make changes in my life or focus on healing old wounds that have been ignored. I’ve found hope. I found my own way of working through it, with the assistance of some amazing people who had the guts to tell me that my emotions weren’t bad or dangerous on their own. It was fucking hard, but it was worth it in the end because I understand my moods better than anyone now, and I know I can sit through the dark times…and grow through them too.

I’m not saying there is never a medical reason for depression. I’m not saying that medication can’t be helpful. I’m not saying that offering assistance isn’t necessary.

But I am saying that the rhetoric that paints depression as nothing more than a physical illness is as damaging, in my opinion, as the rhetoric that paints depression as a character flaw.

What would happen if we stopped talking about depression as if it were the boogyman hiding in the corners of our minds? What would happen if we didn’t assume that emotions were an illness or teach people to be afraid or ashamed of what they are going through?

Maybe, just maybe, we could actually begin to address depression intelligently, allowing each person to figure out what physical, social, and mental components are at play for them. Maybe we’d actually see people capable of working through their depression rather than succumbing to it.

 

Guest Post: Don’t Forget Ferguson

This weekend’s post was written by my partner, outlining some of the things he thinks we can learn from the situation in Ferguson. 

The world’s eye is on Ferguson, Missouri following the police shooting of an unarmed black teen. Questions of racism, mass civilian protests, and para-military reactionary violence hold the nation’s social media spotlight, in spite of reluctant media coverage.

The news has made a point of selectively reporting on the rioters who loot and destroy property, as if that justified the presence of snipers aiming their guns at civilians. Never mind that people go on crimes sprees all the time without prompting law enforcement to resort to armored tanks and riot gear. They ask us to believe that it’s necessary to shut down schools, enact a curfew, and bring out the arsenals over a few Molotov cocktails and broken storefronts.

But when the police are taking cameras away from reporters and citizens and arresting individuals just for protesting, the claim that police response is focused on rioters and looters rings hollow. There is a fundamental difference.

Protesters raise their hands in front of police atop an armored vehicle on Wednesday in Ferguson. St. Louis Post-Dispatch, J.B. Forbes/AP

The scene in Ferguson is not just some small number of criminals who hate and oppose police. Thousands of ordinary citizens congregated to employ one of the dearest human rights in the history of humanity: the right to protest and petition the government for a redress of grievances.

And the police retaliated with teargas, smoke bombs, and rubber bullets. Ferguson PD came out with helicopters, armored vehicles, and military-grade assault weapons, essentially enacting martial law.

And we rightly recognize that this is unacceptable.

The nation responded with a wave of outrage, and following public demonstrations all across the U.S. in solidarity with Ferguson, things seem to be settling down. Yet this shouldn’t be the end of our action.

We must ask difficult questions. Why did these abuses occur? How did the country arrive at a place where it was possible? Who is responsible?

For when police fail to limit their response to the actual criminals and criminal actions, instead removing all constitutionally guaranteed freedoms from every single citizen in an entire city, they have not simply failed as a police organization. They have sunk to the level of the criminals they supposedly despise and fight. And this is more than disturbing.

Yet the near-unanimous social opposition to the police’s actions is slightly surprising. An even more stringent martial law was enacted in the Boston manhunt for the bombers, and the nation’s response this time is fundamentally different. Instead of largely supporting the removal of every citizen’s rights, an entire city (and the nation with them) is protesting the injustices.

This objective contradiction leaves us to wonder what impetus and justification caused these police-state actions. The police do not wake up one day and shoot an unarmed black teenager. A government cannot suddenly seize the power to attack its own citizens, punish them for exercising 1stAmendment rights, indefinitely detain them without probable cause, or suppress them.

Everyone wants to identify different culprits. The nation points at the Ferguson Police department. Some point at Presidents they didn’t/don’t like. Others raise their voices against an oligarchy run by corporations. Still others blame Congresses for passing bad bills or being generally inept.

We decry racism where we find it. We can castigate a media that kowtows to their owners. We throw our hands up in despair.

But to find the nearest complicity, we need look no further than the mirror.

You. Me.

We have turned blind eyes to comparatively minor violations of freedom that paved the way for incrementally larger ones. These have occurred piecemeal over decades, sometimes in secret, but usually, largely with America’s approval as citizens exchanged freedom for a sense of safety.

We trusted President Obama not to use his new power – to execute or detain US citizens without probable cause – against us. We believed the TSA’s promises that their disregard for due process is necessary for our protection.

We allowed the NSA to surveil and record innocent US citizens as long as they kept the terrorists at bay. We turn blind eyes to the FCC as they censor public speech. We were convinced by our leaders that curfews and martial law were the only way to catch the Boston Marathon bomber.

We’ve been lulled into complacency over the violations of our rights and privacy for years…until we get a glimpse of the repercussions of letting go of the Bill of Rights. We watch in horror as a fundamental shift occurs, from our government and its citizens together facing an outside enemy—to our government facing its citizens, who have become its enemy.

And it was inevitable. For when people voluntarily relinquish their human rights, abuses naturally follow.

Let Fergusun be a lesson. We must be vigilant. We must be active. Freedom is not something to take for granted. Let this tragedy be the wakeup call for us to protect each other’s rights from the ever-reaching arm of power. The government can only be of the people, by the people, and for the people if the people maintain that balance.

The Bystander Effect in the Global Economy

The bystander effect is perhaps the most insidious of human faults. From the many Germans who didn’t speak out as those around them were taken to concentration camps to the folks in New York City who closed their windows and turned away as a Kitty Genovese was murdered by a serial rapist on their street, the tendency for people to ignore something happening to others has produced some of the most bone-chilling stories…not so much from the atrocities committed, but from the realization that the vast majority of people are willing to let it happen right under their noses.

We like to believe that we live in a fairly moral society—that the crimes that happen, especially the predatory ones—are committed by the amoral few while the rest of us wring our hands in distress until they are stopped. But the reality is that, when it comes down to it, we’re more likely to ignore violations against others as long as it doesn’t feel likely that those violations will come upon us, even more likely to do so if those violations have the potential to benefit us.

I’m sure I’ve already lost some of you by jumping straight into Godwin’s law. Now I’m going to take this in a direction that will no doubt seem melodramatic, but I ask that you hear me out (or read me out).

One of the largest collective bystander effects that I see continuously unaddressed in the U.S. is with regard to corporations. Naturally, the things that might come to mind the easiest are the seemingly “small” injustices that could fit within capitalism in an arguably “healthy” way (though I wouldn’t argue that position myself)—things like low wages for workers, the bullying of others within the market, and tax evasion. It would be nice if that was all that our bystanding as consumers had been overlooking, but consumer bystanders have been overlooking far more than that. Let’s take a look at a small list of some of some of what corporations have been involved in or linked to over the years.

Even when corporations are caught, as Tyson was with animal cruelty or Amazon with the neo-Nazi security company (linked above), they might get a slap on the wrist, perhaps a fine, maybe even an outcry from customers…

…then sales resume as if nothing happened.

It’s as though consumers are more angry at the fact that they were forced to become aware of an ethical problem than about the actual problem itself, sending the clear message “keep your slave labor, abuses, environmental destruction, and cruelty out of my sight so I can consume the products you acquired through those means with a clear conscience.”

Is paying a MacDonald’s employee less than a livable wage on par with ignoring the murder of someone in front of your eyes? Maybe not (though you might want to ask the low-wage worker how their lives are effected), but we are smart enough as Americans to know that that’s not all that is happening behind the scenes of these corporations. We just don’t care enough to dig to find out what atrocities we are complicitly paying for along with our “cheap” goods.

So in this instance, I think it is neither melodramatic nor unreasonable to remind us of Neimoller’s famous poem about World War II

First they came for the Communists, and I didn’t speak up, because I wasn’t a Communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up, because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak up, because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me, and by that time there was no one left to speak up for me.

As authors are quickly discovering with Amazon, corporations aren’t just willing to attack the “other.” They’re even willing to turn on the ones they claim to value if it means more money is in it for them. How close to home does it have to get before we finally decide that it’s not okay for corporations to abuse the world anymore?

Releasing the Kraken: Breaking Silence on Abuse

Not long ago, I broke silence with my parents about my sexual abuse. I’d been preparing for the moment of disclosure consciously for a little less than a month, but it was a move that my subconscious had been preparing for my whole life.

On many levels, the aspect of myself that I’ve been most afraid of encountering has been that little girl abandoned twenty years ago into a nightmare of silence and pain. To see her meant that whatever illusions I was clinging to about my childhood would have to be revealed for what they were. I couldn’t tell whether she or I was more afraid of losing those illusions.

But this summer, I reached a point where I no longer wanted to be silent. It was a familiar feeling similar experience to when I came out as bi—the moment of knowing that it would cost more to stay in the closet than to risk the pain of rejection from those I loved.

My Underworld Goddess, for that’s how I’ve come to see this 5-year-old me, lost her fearsomeness. I knew she held a world of pain that I would have to feel in order to reunite with her, but it no longer seemed like a punishment she was waiting to inflict on me for having left her buried for so long. There was relief, as if she’d been waiting for me to decide that she was worth more than the preservation of the “rules of engagement” I’d picked up within my church and family that “things like that” don’t get discussed.

The aftermath of breaking silence has taken me by surprise…but then again I’m not really surprised at all. I wasn’t prepared for my own loneliness. I would have thought that breaking silence would have made me feel less abandoned. And to that thought, my Underworld Goddess gives a bitters smile of knowledge beyond a child’s years.

Of course I feel abandoned. The real question was never whether my mom knew about my abuse or not. The real question is, How does a five year old child get slapped with that kind of secret pain and no one sees?

I could answer that question academically, speaking about power dynamics, authoritarian/patriarchal cultures, unspoken rules of a cult, confirmation biases, etc. etc. etc., but it doesn’t really answer the question.

I doubt there is an answer that would help a five year old understand how something that shattered her world couldn’t even cause a blip on the radar of others.

I’m terrified of being abandoned again. I say “again” because I have been terrified of being abandoned so many times before. It’s one of those fears that hasn’t always made sense, striking while I’m surrounded by dear friends or in the arms of my partner. However illogical it is doesn’t matter, for it’s primal, a lesson I had ingrained in me so well that I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to unlearn it.

“Once they get what they want, they won’t love you anymore.” “Once you speak the truth, they won’t love you anymore.”

Did someone ever say those words explicitly to me? Not that I can remember. But children are experts on picking up on what’s left unsaid, especially in abuse.

I say “again” also because I realize that in all of the abandonment I have experienced, it was the moment of abandoning myself that hurt the most. I don’t think I could have broken silence before now without it actually hurting my healing more than helping it. But there’s a part of me that realizes how absurdly long it took me to stand up for myself—to face my Underworld Goddess. Now that I’ve done what she asked me to do, I wonder, “What next?”

I get no answer, and that is where my greatest pain lies. My fear of abandonment comes to rest at its root. Twenty years of grief have finally been set free, but the child of grief is nowhere to be found. I have accumulated a host of archetypes within myself to whom I can turn for support in almost any given moment…except in this moment, when all I can say to myself is, “please don’t leave me here alone.”

Finding the Silver Lining in the Black Cloud of Fear

Of all the “negative” emotions that I’ve reclaimed, I think I’ve been mulling over fear the most. At one point, I would have almost said that it was the only emotion that was truly negative, but I cringed to hold such a double standard for myself.

Usually when I try to reclaim a “negative emotion,” I try to brain my way to finding constructive uses for that emotion. Perhaps I’ve done that to some extent with fear, .e.g. telling myself that it’s healthy to be afraid of jumping off of a ledge; however, I think this particular reclamation has been far more unconscious than conscious.

Still, I want to try to at least trace the outlines of the process even if I can’t fill in the details of how or when I moved from a negative association to a more neutral place.

In beginning my new job, I’ve faced some downright terrifying challenges. (By terrifying, I mean anything out of my element, from having to speak my mind to my supervisor to potentially having to call the police on a violent person. My brain hasn’t exactly done a stellar job of determining which fears are legitimate and which are ‘just discomfort’.) I’ve found myself having to think and act quickly without nearly as much training, knowledge, or confidence as I felt I needed in those moments.

It’s exhausting to encounter so much fear, and there were days I wondered if I was really cut out for human services.

However, I’ve discovered that it’s also incredibly empowering.

In moments when I’ve been faced with my fears and I had no other choice but to respond to them, I figured out how I wanted to deal with them pretty damn quickly. I wasn’t conscious of any sort of reclamation though; I didn’t have time to think through the implications of diving head first into the things that scared me.

A large part of the reclamation must be attributed to Clarissa Pinkola Estes. In her analysis of the Bluebeard tale in Women Who Run With the Wolves, she talks about each person having an inner predator, a part of themselves that seeks to destroy or sabotage the self.

Rather than the typical self-help advice cajoling an individual to destroy or eradicate destructive parts of the psyche, Estes talks about recycling the inner predator into more positive expressions.

A few weeks after reading that chapter, I was preparing a ritual based on TWLOHA’s poignant Fears vs. Dreams campaign as a kind of ice-breaker for a group of women with whom I was planning on meeting. I wanted it to be more than just stating a fear and a dream with our names (boring!), so I had arranged to have us plant seeds in a flower pot to represent our dreams.

Initially, I also intended to have us all burn a paper with our fears written on them, a standard method for releasing; however, something in me rebelled against the idea of just getting rid of my fears, as if my vulnerabilities and sensitivities were some sort of refuse.

I noticed that my fear and dream for this project almost seemed connected to each other, like one was the shadow side of the other.

I remembered the Bluebeard story and was inspired with an alternative version for my ritual–burying. The act of putting (biodegradable) paper into a flower pot to break down and feed the seeds seemed like such a beautiful way to tie fears into dreams. By breaking down the fear, its power is taken away as a predator, allowing its nutritive qualities to be absorbed and transformed into something empowering rather than debilitating.

As much as fear can be (has been) the root of so much pain and intolerance and negativity, it’s also the root of courage. (No really, the idea of courage simply doesn’t work without fear’s presence.)

Granted, some fears are a little silly and need only be named to lose their power. But others are more legitimate, notifying me of when I might be in danger or when something valuable to me is at stake. Unfortunately, fear, as an emotion, doesn’t differentiate between silly and legitimate.

So long as I treat all fear as something that needs to be erased from my life, I remove its power to inform my decisions in positive ways, sabotaging my own ability to live courageously.

However, when I take the time to face my fear, name it, dismantle it, and recycle it, I create a way for fear to be a positive force in my life, not motivating my actions and decisions, but nurturing the places of hope and courage that do motivate my actions and decisions.

 

 

My Boobs Don’t Create a Stumbling Block for Your Marriage, but Your Beliefs Do.

It’s the summer, which unfortunately means that modesty police are out, shaming women for their bodies and lamenting the uncontrollable minds of men. There are far more blog posts right now about how women should dress than would be reasonable or desirable to read, but I have to admit that I can’t resist clicking on a handful of links that come across my newsfeed.

This time it was this post about a woman begging for girls to keep their boobs out of her marriage.

I could write about my angst with the body-shaming or the problems with assuming that women are responsible for men’s fidelity and thoughts…but I’ve already done that and so have so many others. And ironically, I’m not upset at the body-shaming post. Rather, I feel incredible sympathy for the author.

So today, I’m not ranting about feminism and bodily autonomy. I just want to say something to Lauren, who is so upset about the bikini-riddled Internet and afraid of losing her husband to some other woman.

I get it. So much.

I don’t agree with you on any of what you said, but I feel all of your pain because once upon a time it was my pain too.

I haven’t been married that long. Five and a half years is hardly any time with someone, and certainly not enough time for me to feel that I have advice to bestow on other couples.

But I think that we have a lot in common.

Like you, I believed that other women were my enemy. I believed they were trying to steal my husband, ruin my marriage, and break my heart. I also believed that my husband was a helpless victim who would be lured away by their wiles and charms—that his mind was so photographic that he couldn’t ever—EVER—forget the things he saw.

I believed it was my responsibility to guard his heart and our marriage, which ranged anywhere from trying to be available for sex all the time to actively previewing movies so that I could cover his eyes if something came on.

I believed it because I was taught it. Every book I read, every sermon I heard, every class I attended told me that if I didn’t believe those things or act accordingly, my marriage was trashed.

I was controlling. I knew I was controlling. You probably do too.

I was insecure. I was afraid of being compared to all those (obviously) more beautiful women out there on the Internet (and sometimes in real life).

I was practically counting down the days to when my husband would cheat, and I believed it would be my fault for not being able to do enough to keep him faithful. Our goodnights were laced with interrogations about what he had seen, whether he was struggling with remembering it, what I could do to make things better.

And we were miserable.

Because there was nothing else for us to be but miserable in such a relationship. Our own love was undermined by a distrust planted so deeply that we never thought to question it, and our friendships were poisoned by the constant competition with any woman and shame around any man.

It was terrifying to start dismantling some of the teachings with which I’d been raised. Avoidance conditioning (where you teach someone to do something to prevent something bad from happening) is one of the hardest behavior patterns to break. For all I knew, when I started to dismantle those beliefs and confront the insecurities they created around my body and my relationship, I could have been throwing my marriage out the window, guaranteeing what I was most afraid of.

But what I discovered was that the opposite was true. When I let go of the control, my relationship grew stronger! Lines of communication opened up and trust deepened as we explored what it meant to be together without owning each other. The world started to look less threatening when we stopped assuming that every woman was a threat or that skin was taboo.

He had his own work to do, too. I quickly discovered that relationships weren’t one-sided, and I couldn’t be responsible for keeping us strong. But when I stopped trying to coddle him like a child, I discovered that he was more than capable of doing his own work. In fact, he dismantled his views of how he’d been taught to view women far more quickly than I dismantled mine.

We don’t have everything figured out yet. Our relationship is constantly changing and growing, which means that boundaries are constantly shifting. But that’s okay. There’s far more stability in a relationship that can morph and change as needed than with a relationship that is far too rigid to withstand summer Facebook photos.

I know now, more than I ever could have before, that he is with me because he wants to be, and the fact that he could leave at any moment makes me feel all the more secure in his love. We even share each others’ crushes, which usually end up being the same person since I’m attracted to the same kind of women as he is.

On some levels, I think being bisexual may have made it easier for me to dismantle the “other woman” teachings from modesty culture because it allowed me to see how I could be attracted to women without losing control of my mind or that I could be attracted to multiple people without losing my love for my husband. But I still think we would have arrived here eventually anyway because it’s just not healthy to live with that much fear and distrust.

I don’t know what kind of backlash you’ve gotten since you put up your post. I’m sure it hasn’t been pretty because Internet commenters tend to be the underbelly of a very ugly beast. But I hope that this can be a catalyst for you to find a way to grow stronger in yourself, question some of those fears, and open up new avenues for relationship development.

Coming from someone who has been where you’re at, you don’t have to live in fear.

P.S. Your friendships will also be far more awesome when you aren’t projecting the weaknesses of your relationship and self-esteem onto their shoulders. Just as you shouldn’t be responsible for keeping your husband faithful, they aren’t responsible for keeping you secure. If you own your own shit, you empower yourself to be able to change it.