“Be strong!” Um…okay…

TW: suicidal ideation, death

I have a lot of feelings about the idea of “strength” when it comes to mental illness. In the wake of Carrie Fisher’s death, I have seen Internet posts exhorting people to be “strong” because it’s what Carrie would want. Unfortunately, that hurts all three of my feelings. Said feelings are awfully muddled and I hope that making this post can help me sort them out. (That’s something else you might see quite a bit on this blog: muddled feelings and opinions. I tend to be very strong in my convictions, but sometimes I’m just not sure about stuff, and I think it’s important to normalize the process of going from not sure to sure. Nobody was born sure.)

Regarding the idea of being “strong” while mentally ill, what does that actually mean? Well, from the lips (or keyboards) of NTs, being “strong” seems to mean “not showing symptoms because I’m uncomfortable seeing them”. From these same people, “strong” can also mean “deciding to not experience symptoms”, as if that were even possible. Claiming that such a thing is possible is invalidating and insulting to MI people. If a person could simply decide to make their symptoms go away, then what they’re experiencing wouldn’t be an illness, would it? (Note: I’m not talking about the use of techniques such as cognitive behavioral therapy to confront symptoms and work through them so they aren’t so debilitating. CBT is my jam.)

These aforementioned definitions of “strength”—the ones touted by NTs that are unfair to MI people—are garbage. Many MI people feel emotions much more acutely (or, depending on the illness/es, less acutely) than NTs. This means that many of us grieve differently. Seeing us be visibly different makes NTs uncomfortable, and that is why they trot out the idea of “being strong” in the face of tragedy. It’s saneist and it needs to stop.

So if saneist NTs are using unfair definitions of “strong” to refer to behavior and attitude when dealing with mental illness symptoms and grief, what does “strong” mean to the MI community? Well, no community is a monolith, so when I say something along the lines of, say, “The Autistic community prefers identity-first language” (which is true, by the way), I am referring to a majority and I am aware that not every person in the community I’m discussing feels the same way. But I’m not sure I can even say what the majority of the MI community feels about the meaning of the word “strength” in the context of being mentally ill.

As far as I can tell, a common definition of “strength” in the MI community is being able to do things despite one’s mental illness. These aforementioned things can seem small to NTs, like brushing one’s teeth or attending class. They can be bigger, like not committing suicide despite the signals in your brain whispering: “do it. Do it.” “Strength” can also mean being able to face the NT world and say “look, I can’t do this thing right now due to my mental illness. I have to take care of myself instead.”

I personally am cagey about the using the word “strength” or “strong” publicly when it comes to mental illness. Staying alive when it would understandable to die from one’s mental illness is often considered “strong”. But to me, it feels disrespectful to call those who died of their mental illnesses “weak”. I similarly think that many MI people do sometimes feel weak due to their mental illness, and there is no shame in that. Some find comfort in radical vulnerability (a topic I might cover later) or even, paradoxical as it may sound, find strength in weakness.

In my own head, I have often defined “strength” as staying alive in the face of suicidality and when I don’t feel like I even am alive. I have CPTSD and like to refer to trauma as “the kind of murder where nobody dies”, a phrase I stole from an Emilie Autumn lyric. I will never know the person I would have been had I not been traumatized. When I think of how CPTSD has left me an empty shell that mimics her surroundings instead of a real person, I feel like there is no point in living anymore; I’m not even alive in the first place, right? But I tell myself that I should be stronger than those thoughts of not living anymore, and I put down the cup of bleach and continue to breathe. This conquering of suicidal ideation is the definition of “strength” that helps me the most. It is not a definition that I believe is universal.

I think the best definition of “strength” in the context of mental illness that I can present here, in the conclusion of this post, is being like Carrie Fisher: unashamed of being who you are in all of your mentally ill awesomeness. If you can’t be “strong” in other ways—if you can’t get out of bed today, if you can’t take that shower, if you can’t go to work, if you cry over Carrie’s death—that’s okay. There is no shame in that. And there is no shame in struggling with internalized saneism. Most if not all of us have a degree of it, and it can be quite the stumbling block when it comes to advocating for oneself and the MI community. Carrie was unique and special in how she conducted her advocacy. I aspire to be like her, but hell, it may take me a while.

The Carrie Fisher quote I have chosen to accompany this post feels apropos for the topic: “I’m mentally ill. I can say that. I am not ashamed of that. I survived that, I’m still surviving it, but bring it on.”

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