Awareness vs. Acceptance, Revisited

I’m tired.

Mental Illness Awareness Month isn’t as hellish as Autism Bewareness Month. That’s partly because autism awareness and mental illness awareness are two different forms of bullshit. Autism awareness is ableist fearmongering, while mental illness awareness is…a little more complicated than that. But all too frequently, mental illness awareness takes the form of cheesy inspiration porn about people ~overcoming their illnesses and doing ~inspiring things like rock climbing or walking across the country. And putting up with that doesn’t fill me with wrath like autism bewareness does, but damn is it tiring.

An excellent example of this inspo porn—which, much to my chagrin, comes from an actually MI person, but we all know internalized saneism is a thing—is the music video for “Sick of Me” by Beartooth. It can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GCCEhNYOJbk&spfreload=10. Beartooth is a metalcore band fronted by Caleb Shomo, who has, in the past, been locked in a fierce battle with depression, anxiety, and eating disorders. Many of his lyrics ring true to me, and Beartooth is one of my go-to bands for when my brain is being a douchebag. But unfortunately, Caleb doesn’t seem to have gotten the message that every MI person deals with their illness differently, and that presenting only one narrative on dealing with mental illness isn’t all that helpful. In fact, it can hurt.

The video for “Sick of Me” details the experiences of three people with depression. All three of them “overcame” their depression through hobbies. One took up rock climbing, one walked across the United States to raise awareness of mental illness in war veterans, and one took up cosplay. Although I will admit it was cool to see cosplay presented in such a positive light, there’s a major problem with this: depression frequently saps people of the ability to enjoy hobbies. The message that getting into a new hobby is the best coping mechanism for depression flies in the face of how depression actually works. Did certain extracurricular activities, especially music, keep me alive when I was undiagnosed and suicidal? Yes, but I also don’t go around claiming that getting into music or any other hobby is definitely going to help a person deal with depression.

And the “get a hobby” message isn’t the worst part of the “Sick of Me” mental illness ~awareness video. No, the worst part is that Caleb Shomo said “If you can choose, like really choose, to not let anxiety and depression run your life, you’re gonna make it…it’s your body, it’s your life, it’s your choice.”

Fucking excuse me, Caleb? 

Yeah, it’s my body and my life, but it’s also my serotonin imbalance. I can’t choose to change my neurotransmitter levels. I can choose to seek help and support, and to engage in healthy coping mechanisms. But I can’t snap my fingers and say “depression and anxiety can get fucked; they won’t affect me anymore”. Simply saying that a mentally ill person can choose how their mental illness affect them is reductive at best and saneist at worst. I know Caleb’s heart was in the right place, but way the message was transmitted? Yeah, it left a lot to be desired.

“Oh, Mara,” you might be saying, “that’s just one music video! What about organizations like To Write Love on Her Arms?” To which I would reply, “TWLOHA is bullshit and The Semicolon Project can kiss my borderline ass”. Harsh? Especially in light of the fact that the person who started The Semicolon Project just died by suicide? I don’t think so.

TWLOHA claims not to be a Christian organization, but the “story” of TWLOHA, about a girl named Renee who had carved the phrase “fuck up” into her arm, includes the line “[we would be] her body of Christ, to write love on her arms”. The founder of TWLOHA and writer of this story—Jamie Tworkowski—gives all the credit to God instead of the actual members of the church community who helped Renee with her recovery. Why do I have a problem with an anti-suicide organization being Christian? Because pushing religious conversion on mentally ill teens isn’t healthy, and I have a major problem with the evangelizing tendency from Christian orgs even when they aren’t targeting vulnerable young people. In its early days, TWLOHA was also promoted by Christian bands, which…yeah, I’m all for bands using their fame to promote important causes, but not only were these all Christian bands, TWLOHA ended up smacking of a desire to get famous and sell T-shirts as opposed to actually helping anyone. Speaking of which, TWLOHA commercializes the issues of self-harm and suicidality. It makes money because neurotypicals want to sport apparel that makes them feel like they helped when they didn’t actually do shit. Writing “love” on one’s arm doesn’t help one learn how to care for a loved one with depression. A rubber bracelet with a so-called charity’s name on it doesn’t make one more aware of the warning signs that a friend is suicidal. It’s pointless, money-making ego-stroking.

The Semicolon Project isn’t a scam, but it is faith-based, which makes my skin crawl a little, as I mentioned above. And the reason I say The Semicolon Project can kiss my borderline ass is because while the Project claims expertise in all (or at least most) mental illnesses, their information section on personality disorders on their Web site? Yeah, it leaves something to be desired. When I first read it, I thought it was vaguely stigma-enforcing, and then I got to the end of the section and nearly put my fist through the computer screen. The Semicolon Project suggests that people with family members with PDs get therapy because living with someone with a personality disorder is that harmful. Talk about lateral saneism.

Mental illness awareness: usually useless, money-making ego-stroking, occasionally lateral saneism, and very, very frequently bullshit. And I think that’s all I have to say on the subject.

“Wait, Mara, you can’t end the entry there!” you might be saying. “What about acceptance? What would contribute to mental illness acceptance?

Sigh. Fine.

Honesty. Honesty and openness.

Mentally ill people sharing their numerous and varied experiences, acknowledging that different coping mechanisms work for different people, and that no two MI people—even those who share illnesses—are the same. Mentally ill people speaking out against saneist stereotypes. Mentally ill people talking about the ugly realities of mental illness, no matter how much it might scare mentally healthy people, because being aware that a mental illness exists doesn’t mean knowing anything about what it’s like to have that illness. Mentally ill people discussing how therapy and medication helped them. Mentally ill people discussing how therapy and medication weren’t right for them.

Mentally ill people, speaking. Speaking for ourselves. Not mentally healthy people speaking for us or selling T-shirts and bracelets to make themselves feel like they did something good. Knowing mental illness exists is a poor, poor substitute for accepting mentally ill people’s lives and experiences as deserving of respect.

Carrie Fisher quote of the day: “We have been given a challenging illness, and there is no other option than to meet those challenges. Think of it as an opportunity to be heroic—not ‘I survived living in Mosul during an attack’ heroic, but an emotional survival. An opportunity to be a good example to others who might share our disorder.”

 

“You’re so strong!” Um…okay…

Content/TW: sex mention, death mention, discussion of inspiration porn, cursing

On the surface, it seems a bit weird to be discussing this topic on an anti-stigma blog, because it’s about NTs actually having what they think is a positive outlook on mental illness. But at the root of stigma is NTs seeing mentally ill people as Other, not like them, not entirely human, etc. And inspiration porn? Yeah, that’s seeing mentally ill people as Other.

You may be asking: Mara, what the hell is inspiration porn? My girlfriend says (half-jokingly) that that phrase inspires her to have sex with me. (I did mention I’m a lesbian, right? I think so. If I didn’t, yeah, I’m gay. I was also, like. Next-level gay for Carrie.) Anyway, what is inspiration porn? Inspiration porn, as coined by disabled activist Stella Young (RIP), is the phrase for what happens when people who are privileged by their ability level feel “inspired” by something a disabled person does because they’re doing a thing while being disabled, oh my fucking god, would you look at that!?. That isn’t the only kind of inspiration porn, though; sometimes it takes the form of a disabled person being treated decently and the abled person being decent is canonized. An example that absolutely made my Autistic blood boil occurred recently when this basketball player sat with an Autistic boy at lunch because the boy was sitting alone. (When I sit alone, I usually want it that way. Leave me be, allistics. And maybe ask the person sitting alone if they want company?) Allistic people fell all over each other awww-ing over this crap. They saw what they perceived as a famous person treating an Autistic boy more nicely than the boy’s peers did, i.e., like a human being. I, personally, think that we Auties should be treated as humans all the time.

So what’s wrong with inspiration porn? The fact that disabled people do not exist to ~inspire abled people. When abled people coo over disabled people existing while disabled, it’s Othering as hell. (If I wasn’t clear in the first paragraph about what it means to “Other” someone, it means to treat them as Not Like You in a big kind of way, often in a way that paints the Other as subhuman.) We’re just trying to live our lives. And now I’m going to bring this back to the idea of strength, because a common form of inspiration porn is mentally healthy people calling mentally ill people “strong” just for existing. And we’re sick of it.

Remember when I said that NT definitions of “strength” when it comes to mental illness are “garbage”? I stand by that. Unfortunately, I forgot to talk about the garbage definition that is “you’re so strong for dealing with mental illness every second of your life!!!1!!111!!!one!!”. UGH. I’m strong because I have done martial arts for much of my life and like weightlifting, Dave*, not because I’m mentally ill. It’s hard for me to articulate why this attitude pisses me off so much. Because as I mentioned in my last entry, some MI people do derive strength from how much our brains have put us through, and the fact that we survived it. But then again, some of us don’t survive it. Others are so damn tired of being “strong” and long to exist without struggling constantly. Many hate being reminded that we’re “strong” because we know we have no other choice, but NTs seem to think we do. I guess the “you’re so strong” attitude makes my skin crawl because the NTs who ascribe to it are sort of…acting like mentally ill people are here for them to judge and consume. And that’s creepy to me. It involves a mental chasm or fence that NTs are placing between them and us, sort of like we’re animals in a zoo. When an NT tells me that I’m “so strong” because my neurotransmitters like to misbehave, I feel like I’m a tiger in a cage being gawked at. And I want to unsheathe my giant claws.

The “you’re so strong” narrative is also really patronizing. Remember that mental chasm I mentioned that NTs are placing between themselves and mentally ill people when they ascribe to that narrative? That chasm often makes me feel as if I’m on one side, feeling small and childlike (and pissed), while the NT reaches over to pat me on the head. It’s infantilizing. It places NTs in a position to be the one judging because they’re NT. Not being mentally ill gives them the authority to judge. Even though the trait these NTs are ascribing to us is supposedly good, the reason they are making that judgment is rooted in Othering us. I might go so far as to say the “you’re so strong” narrative is dehumanizing, turning mentally ill people into a feel-good movie for their consumption. Ew.

While some NTs genuinely (and foolishly) think they’re helping when they call a MI person “strong”, I have also noticed that there’s also a self-congratulatory element that I have noticed inherent in NTs invoking the “you’re so strong” narrative. When they croon “you’re so strong for dealing with your mental illness”, they picture themselves canonized for being what they think is nice and supportive; they see themselves as the basketball player who decided to join an Autistic boy for lunch. They think of how the basketball player was praised, not of how he didn’t ask the boy if he even wanted company. And they pat themselves on the back for what is really an act of Othering. They haven’t thought about the implications of the word “strong” when applied to mental illness (as I blathered about in my last entry), because in order to think about how another person might react to something, you have to first see them as a person. It’s inconvenient for an NT to consider someone a person when their goal is to use that Poor Widdow Mentally Ill Soul to make themselves feel good.

So, yeah, the “you’re so strong for dealing with your mental illness” crap is inspiration porn, it’s saneist, and it’s gross. On the surface, it might seem positive, but the idea of “strength” when it comes to mental illness is incredibly complicated. Not to mention that the fact that NTs feel like they get to make that call about us being “strong” is coming from a messed-up place of willful ignorance, smugness, privilege, and just…ugh. It’s messed up, okay? If you’re NT and call a mentally ill person “strong”, you had better be agreeing with them when they call themselves such, doing so with their permission because they’ve told you it helps, or referring to how much they bench. Want to actually help mentally ill people? That’s another entry for another day, and it’s one that I really hope many NTs will read.

Carrie quote of the day: “One of the things that baffles me (and there are quite a few) is how there can be so much lingering stigma with regards to mental illness, specifically bipolar disorder. In my opinion, living with manic depression takes a tremendous amount of balls.” Well said, Carrie.

 

* “Dave” is an all-purpose name for some saneist dipwad and is not a reference to a real person.