We need to talk about “Dork Diaries.”

stigma

Dear readers,

I have not been this angry and unsettled about a piece of pop culture since the Fear VR: 5150 Knotts Berry Farm debacle of September 2016. This afternoon, I happened upon a post made by one of my Facebook friends regarding a book series called “Dork Diaries,” which is aimed at children (particularly girls) aged 8 to 14. The protagonist is a 14-year-old girl named Nikki Maxwell and her life as a middle schooler.

Before I get into the meat-and-potatoes of this post, I want to warn you that the following images contain extremely discriminatory language that some readers may find upsetting. All images were provided via a good friend of mine on Facebook who is also a mental health advocate and fights like hell against the stigma. I respect her deeply and am grateful to her for bringing this to my attention.

Below is the first image I saw regarding this series. 

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Let me begin by stating that I have not read any of the books in their entirety and had no idea they even existed until just a few hours ago. I also hate that by writing this post, I am giving this author more attention. However, I cannot let this issue go unaddressed for a number of reasons. For the sake of brevity, I’ve made a list:

 

  • Stigmatizing language hurts all of us, and we need to knock it off. Seriously
  • The age range AND gender at which the books are targeted is highly disturbing, given the nature of the content. I’m not talking about the whole “celebrities being seen without panties but not phones” bit that many reviewers have cited as problematic.  

 

 

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I’m talking specifically about the use of phrases such as “totally SCHIZOID!” etc. to describe the narrator’s peers. (I am also not 100% sure what the author means by “acting schizoid,” and I don’t think she does, either.)

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Dropping “RETARD” (please note the caps), even as a self-descriptor, is unacceptable. Come on, people. I thought we were better than this. The sad part is, the author could have gotten rid of the problematic language without negatively affecting the rest of the content. Cutting it would have actually made the book better. I’m wondering where the editor was in this process, if there even was one. I’m wondering why we still live in a world where this kind of thing manages to slip by largely uncontested.

 

  • Where did the narrator (a 14-year-old girl) learn this language? Why does she think it’s okay to casually throw around such hateful, derogatory terms? Why isn’t this addressed in the book? And more importantly, why did the author think it was okay to write this in a children’s book without any sort of disclaimer?

Kids don’t come up with “you’re trash because X/Y/Z” on their own. They hear it from somewhere else, accompanied by the implication that it’s acceptable to dehumanize others for being different and perpetuate that toxicity ad infinitum. And this is a powerful reminder that none of us exist in a vacuum.

We can’t bubble-wrap our children, nor should we. There will always be bullies. There will always be stigma. But what we can do–what we must do–is educate ourselves and our children about the glorious range of people who share this planet with us. We must teach them accountability and respect. We must teach them that they are okay just the way they are and that the limitless expanse of diversity makes the world a far more beautiful, interesting, and magical place to live.

I am not in favor of censorship. What I am in favor of is self-awareness and recognizing when you’re about to fly off the rails and discriminate against an entire group of people in one broad stroke. Anyone who steps into the public eye has a duty to ensure that they are not causing harm to others. Context is also important. While this type of language would be a bit unsettling in a book written for adults (though I would take less issue with it given the audience and their assumed level of maturity and awareness), it is absolutely disturbing when it appears in a book written for children.

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As a writer, an advocate, and a budding therapist, this sickens me. It’s lazy writing designed for shock value, to laugh at and “other” people who are living with mental illnesses and disabilities. Rachel Renée Russell’s writing is irresponsible at best, though I would go so far as to describe it as dangerous because these attitudes are dangerous. These attitudes have gotten people killed.

The one silver lining I can see is that a parent could pre-read the book, then use it as a jumping-off point for a discussion with their child (or children) about why such language is hurtful and not okay to use when describing another living, breathing, thinking, feeling human being.

Here’s an easy way to tell if you’re about to say something awful about another person. Take whatever adjective you were going to use–let’s say “schizoid,” for the sake of continuity–and replace that word with a group that has been historically discriminated against (but that society has collectively acknowledged was abused, stigmatized, and worse).

For example, the above passage would read “OMG! MacKenzie was acting totally JEWISH.” [Or “Black.” Or literally any other group that, when used as an adjective in a negative context, would make you look like a terrible person.]

That sounds bad, right? Does it make you feel really gross? It should. We may think we’ve conquered racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, all the other -isms…but we haven’t. We’ve barely even addressed them. All we’ve done is move on to another scapegoat, another bogeyman, another substitute that is slightly more socially acceptable but still conveys the level of disdain as older, more taboo slurs and epithets.

And what about the kids reading it who happen to have any of the conditions Russell has singled out in her books as targets of derision and malice? What happens when a child who has some form of mental illness or disability? How is a parent supposed to help heal the damage done when the hatred is right there in black and white for the child to see? The message sent by these books is that it’s acceptable to make people feel less-than because of something they cannot control.

And readers, you should never let anyone make you feel like less than you are, period. You are beautiful. Your brain is beautiful. You are strong. And we all deserve better than this.

With love,

One of those so-called mentally ill “weirdoes”

— J

 

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New Risk! Story!

Authoress, call for submissions, news and goings-on, rapid-cycle bipolar disorder, three hopeful thoughts

Happy Caturday, readers!

Just wanted to post a quick update to let you know that I’m still here and that I finally got it together enough to whip up a demo for the lovely Kevin Allison of the Risk! podcast. I performed in the Live from Milwaukee show in November and he approached me shortly before Christmas to see if I wanted to do another story on growing up/living with bipolar disorder, which I instantly agreed to–unfortunately, life kept getting in the way and I kept procrastinating. Fortunately, the demo is complete and I’m just waiting on my potato-quality internet to send it off. 🙂

On a more personal note, I’m relocating with Paul to the Baltimore-ish area in about a month and a half and am really looking forward to scoping out the advocacy and storytelling scenes down there. Also, I really want to branch out and start interviewing/gathering stories from other people living with mental illness, so if anyone’s interested in participating, definitely reach out.

Big things ahead, readers! This girl is hungry.

My very first column – “Depression: Cancer of the Mind,” published October 15, 2008.

major depression, memories, stigma, therapy, three hopeful thoughts, Throwback Thursday

This marks the beginning of a new mini-feature on the blog: Throwback Thursdays. See below for more!

When I was nineteen (and probably manic), I submitted a column proposal to my hometown’s newspaper. Shockingly, they decided to pick it up. It wasn’t a huge reader base—my hometown’s population is somewhre in the 60,000 range—but I was surprised and elated to have the opportunity to share my experiences and put a face to mental illness, which was a big deal in a small city in Iowa.

I had to abandon the project seven months later, when taking a full course load and working two part-time jobs plus an internship became too much; however, I was approached the following summer by two women in my hometown to write a series of articles regarding the transition from high school or college to the “real world.” The series caught the attention of Mental Health America (the Iowa branch) and I was honored with an award and some cash (which, as a poor twenty-year-old college student, was greatly appreciated). 

I’ve kept all of the articles and letters in a box for years. I still pull them out sometimes when I start to feel like a hack or minimize the impact of the things I’ve done. Ultimately, it’s not about recognition or awards (although I must admit that my writerly ego really enjoys being stroked from time to time). It’s about having tangible proof that I was here, that I was able to accomplish something despite having been dealt what most would agree is a fairly difficult hand in life. 

As an existential nihilist, it’s difficult for me to see any inherent meaning in the universe, which I view as absurd and often confusing. But it’s actually a very hopeful philosophy/worldview to have, because it means that each of us has the opportunity to create meaning for ourselves and share it with others. I am slowly beginning to learn that “hope” is a four-letter word, but it’s not necessarily a bad one.

Over the next few weeks, I’d like to share my articles, some memorable stories about my time as a columnist, and perhaps a few of the more poignant letters and emails I received in response to my columns. I’m somewhat mortified by how young my voice is, but I’m reminding myself that it’s an interesting and valuable snapshot of who I was at 19: a girl who wasn’t afraid to put herself out there, who believed she could make a difference in her own small way and was maybe a bit idealistic.

In some ways, I think I am still that girl.

“Depression, cancer of the mind” was originally published on October 15, 2008. My editor had titled the first article, which I’m assuming was because I was too disorganized/cycling too hard to do it myself. I can’t remember who came up with the titles after that; it was probably a mixture. The column appeared every other Wednesday.

Note 1: The features editor decided to give my series a title—Depression: Cancer of the Mind—and a little banner at the bottom, which I thought was the coolest thing ever.

Note 2: At this point in time, I was still diagnosed with and being treated for mild-to-moderate PTSD and general depression. It wasn’t until September 2012 that I was re-evaluated and diagnosed with major depressive disorder, and it was an even longer wait (July 2013) until my correct diagnosis—rapid-cycling bipolar disorder, type I, and C-PTSD with dissociative features—was confirmed and I was able to begin treatment.

Depression, cancer of the mind   Published October 15, 2008

Sometimes people ask me, “How did you do it? How did you make it through 11 years of severe depression without ever once asking for help?”

I guess I can understand their disbelief: I have been through the mental equivalent of hell and come out the other side. I have climbed over Satan’s frozen back, much like Dante traveling through Hell in The Inferno. The only difference is that in this case, “Satan” is the despair trapped inside my mind, causing it to decay slowly from the inside out.

Some say that schizophrenia is the cancer of mental illness, but to an extent, I disagree. It’s true that schizophrenia does kill the mind and allow the sufferer to descend into madness. But just as there are many types of cancer, there are infinite varieties of mental illness that could be considered cancerous.

Depression is one of them.

When you are depressed, most people assume that you will “snap out of it,” even though the stereotypical person living with depression does not leave his or her bed for days, sometimes weeks, at a time. It is every bit as destructive as cancer or diabetes, though even now few people realize it.

I suppose this is because people traditionally fear the unknown, and mental illness, aside from death, is one of the biggest unknowns of all. It can strike anyone at any time. Even those of us living with depression who have found ways to cope and make it through the ending and exhausting days look just like everyone else. Unless you are having a particularly bad bout of depression and feel the urge to run from the room crying (which society views as unacceptable), depression usually goes unnoticed.

It is my hope that by sharing my struggles against the silent suffering associated with depression, others will know that they will be OK, that mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of, and will share this knowledge with others. The more that people know about mental illness, the better; educating the public is the first and most effective step in fighting to tear down the stereotypes.

Something that I would like anyone who has lost hope to know is that you are not crazy, only extremely sensitive to the world around you. You are very brave, but you do not need to suffer alone. There is always help available, and accepting it is not admitting defeat.

Five stigmatizing/problematic phrases and why you should stop using them.

abuse, explanations, stigma, three hopeful thoughts

I’m generally a pretty tolerant and patient person when it comes to talking about mental illness— I want to be polite and educate people and I think it’s counterproductive to get pissed off about every single thing (also, I don’t have the energy for that). That being said, there are a couple of phrases I hear on a regular basis that make my blood boil. They’re often used out of ignorance, not actual malice, which is why I believe it’s so important to call people out and use the mistake as a teachable moment.

1. “I’m so OCD about that!”

What people usually mean: “I have some quirks and like to have some things a certain way.”

Why it’s hurtful: Obsessive-compulsive disorder is a mental illness, and by misusing this phrase, you’re essentially invalidating the everyday struggles of those living with the disorder.

One of the main characteristics of the disorder is obsessive, invasive thoughts, ideas, or behaviors that often interrupt other thoughts or activities. In order to alleviate these thoughts, the person typically has to partake in a certain behavior or set of behaviors (sometimes called rituals)—this is the compulsive part of the disorder.

For example, I’m sure you’ve all heard of the fear of being contaminated/hand-washing obsession/compulsion. What people don’t realize is that many people living with OCD find the disorder distracting, disruptive, and embarrassing. By saying things like “I’m so OCD!” you’re minimizing their very real concerns and struggles and turning it into a cutesy one-liner. Don’t do that.

2. “I don’t want to go to that party; I’m so antisocial.”

What people usually mean: “Well, ‘social’ means you like being around people, right? So ‘antisocial’ must mean the opposite!”

ImageWhy it’s hurtful: This one actually does piss me off because the people who say this are completely misusing the word. It doesn’t even mean what you think it means so in addition to trivializing a very real and serious disorder, you’re also making yourself look like an uneducated ass-hat.

In reality, “antisocial” refers to a specific personality disorder, the hallmark of which is a persistent disregard for the rights and feelings of others. There’s a whole list of diagnostic criteria at the linked page, but the most common example/trope used to describe this disorder is the person who hurts people and feels no remorse for what they’ve done.

People with antisocial PD are not bad people. It’s problematic and can cause a lot of emotional damage, but again, the thing to remember with any mental illness is that the person suffering from it did not cause it.

3. “I’m so bipolar!”

What people usually mean: “I had, like, one mood swing today and it took me off-guard so I’m going to misappropriate a mental illness because of my very general and poor understanding of what it actually is.”

Why it’s hurtful: Like most of the examples on this list, “I’m so bipolar!” is problematic because it minimizes another really serious disorder by presenting it as one-dimensional, and that one dimension everyone knows about is the mood swings. If you ask a person on the street what they think bipolar is, nine times out of ten they’ll say “mood swings.”

That’s why this phrase is so damaging—it completely ignores all the other symptoms of this very complicated illness. I’m assuming most of you have been following this blog for a while, so I’m sure you’re familiar with what goes on in the brain of someone who’s bipolar. (I prefer the term “manic depressive” because while it’s technically outdated, it’s more descriptive than “bipolar,” implying a range of emotions rather than two strict “poles.”)

If you’re new or need a refresher, check out NIMH’s website for an awesome and relatively simple description.

4. “He’s so schizo/psycho!”

What people usually mean: “He is behaving erratically or in a way that does not make sense to me.”

Why it’s damaging: This is two-fold.

First of all, schizophrenia is a particularly severe mental illness; there is no cure, and treatment options are kind of dismal at the moment. When you call someone “schizo” when you’re referring to nonsensical or erratic behavior, you are (once again) minimizing the actual severity of the illness and all of its nuances.

This is bad for one simple reason: it perpetuates misinformation and makes it seem like having a mental illness makes someone “bad,” which perpetuates the stigma.

The same goes for the term “psycho.” I’ve actually cut people out of my life for repeatedly using the term after I’ve explained why it’s so harmful and offensive. “Psycho” usually refers to “psychosis,” which is a break from reality. It can happen for a variety of reasons—trauma, substance abuse, or mental illnesses like schizophrenia (the one most people associate with psychosis) or bipolar type I (psychosis/hallucinations/delusions are not at all uncommon during severe manic or depressive episodes).

You say “He/She is psycho/schizo,” and what happens? People laugh. When you misuse those words (and really, you shouldn’t be using them at all because they’re offensive abbreviations that are always used in a derogatory manner), you’re telling people that it’s okay to laugh at people with mental illnesses because they’re “different.” They’re “crazy.” I’d like to think that the people who fall into this category are simply misinformed, but the reality is that there are a lot of terrible people out there who are unwilling to learn or change their behavior.

5. “She’s crazy!”

What people usually mean: This can mean one of two things. It’s sometimes used as a positive descriptor, in which case it means something like “She’s wild and uninhibited, which makes her fun.” I really don’t have a problem with it being used in that context because “crazy” is one of those words that can be used in a variety of ways, and this one happens to be complimentary. If you want to use that term to refer to yourself as a coping mechanism/making light of the situation, that’s totally fine. It’s when other people begin to use it that it becomes an issue (if you haven’t given them permission to do so). But in general, I still believe that people who aren’t mentally ill have no right to use that word to describe someone.

When it becomes problematic: When it’s used to hurt people or make a generalization about someone’s mental health. I’ve had “You’re crazy” thrown at me hundreds of times in the last twenty-some years, and it has almost exclusively been used to mean “You’re unhinged, you’re different, you’re not like us, there’s something wrong with you.”

That’s what stigma is—perpetuating the idea that the mentally ill are somehow “different” or “wrong,” not like the general public and certainly not worthy of being treated like people who are mentally healthy.

I’m sure you’re having the knee-jerk “Jesus H. Christ” reaction when you read it broken down like that—or at least, I hope you are. I hope you realize that it’s definitely not okay to discriminate against another human being for any reason, and I hope you’re doing your part to call people out and be more mindful of your own phrasing.

What to do when you’re called out: This is pretty simple. There are three steps to dealing with being called out for saying something problematic:

  1. Listen to what the person is saying and make every effort to understand why they’re upset.
  2. Apologize sincerely. Say something like, “I’m sorry for saying x. I didn’t realize it was hurtful, but now that I know, I am going to do my best not to say it anymore.”
  3. And then move on. Don’t get butthurt or dwell on it (“Those mean social justice people! They’re too uptight, they made me feel bad, bawwww.”) Just take it as a learning experience and try to use what you’ve learned to educate other people.

That’s really the only way we can fight this thing, the gigantic stigma-beast that makes life unpleasant, if not downright hellish, for most of us. At some point, we’re going to need people on the outside, allies who aren’t mentally ill (and remember, “ally” is a verb, not a noun) to help spread the word and back up what we’re saying.

The sad reality is that a lot of people are dismissive of our experiences with mental illness because we’re mentally ill, and therefore we’re apparently not credible sources about our own oppression. (Lollll.) And common sense tells us that the more people are fighting this battle, the more people we’re going to reach and the more minds we’re going to change.

Manic Depression: A Brief Explanation

authoress in motion, explanations, major depression, medication, rapid-cycle bipolar disorder, self-harm, stigma

I finally got around to editing the explanation video on bipolar disorder/manic depression (I prefer the latter term as I feel it’s more descriptive).

In the video, I talk about the different categories of bipolar disorder, what each phase (from depression to mania and mixed states) is and what it feels like, and tips for dealing with a mixed episode.