Update!

explanations, housekeeping, Uncategorized

Good afternoon, readers!

I have not abandoned you–on the contrary, I’ve been busy doing research for the upcoming series on deinstitutionalization and the history of psychiatric hospitals here in the United States. (I’m also back in school now and taking three classes–counseling techniques, diversity and social justice, and legal and ethical issues of counseling–all of which are very interesting!)

I do post more regularly on the Facebook page for The Dissociated Press, so you can check out (and like, if you’re so inclined) the page for updates and other bite-sized posts.

I hope to be back on a more regular posting schedule soon!

-Jess

Andrea Gibson – The Nutritionist

a cure for what ails you, three hopeful thoughts

Hello, readers!

Today, I want to share with you a poem/spoken word piece that has always deeply resonated with me. The first (and second, and third…) time I heard it, I was reduced to helpless tears. I had the privilege of meeting Andrea Gibson and seeing her perform about six years ago, when she was doing a show in my hometown of Dubuque, Iowa. I ended up getting a comforting hug and crying on her shoulder when I told her how much this poem means to me, and I will never forget that moment.

“The trauma said, don’t write this poem. No one wants to hear you cry about the grief inside your bones.” This, and the final lines: “Live. Live. Live.” will always make me cry–not from sadness, but from relief. This is the single most reassuring thing I have ever read (and heard) in my life.

When I discovered Andrea Gibson I felt, for the first time in my life, that I was not alone and that everything was going to be all right in the end. It was the first step in my long journey that eventually culminated in the ability to just sit with the pain and accept it for what it is. I have learned that no matter how low I feel, how dark the dark nights of the soul get, not every day will be like today.

The Nutritionist

The nutritionist said I should eat root vegetables
Said if I could get down 13 turnips a day
I would be grounded,
rooted.
Said my head would not keep flying away to where the darkness is.

The psychic told me my heart carries too much weight
Said for 20 dollars she’d tell me what to do
I handed her the twenty,
she said “stop worrying darling, you will find a good man soon.”

The first psychotherapist said I should spend 3 hours a day sitting in a dark closet with my eyes closed, with my ears plugged
I tried once but couldn’t stop thinking about how gay it was to be sitting in the closet

The yogi told me to stretch everything but truth,
said focus on the outbreaths,
everyone finds happiness when they can care more about what they can give than what they get

The pharmacist said klonopin, lamictil, lithium, Xanax
The doctor said an antipsychotic might help me forget what the trauma said
The trauma said don’t write this poem
Nobody wants to hear you cry about the grief inside your bones

My bones said “Tyler Clementi dove into the Hudson River convinced he was entirely alone.”
My bones said “write the poem.”

The lamplight.
Considering the river bed.
To the chandelier of your fate hanging by a thread.
To everyday you could not get out of bed.
To the bulls eye on your wrist
To anyone who has ever wanted to die.
I have been told, sometimes, the most healing thing to do-
Is remind ourselves over and over and over
Other people feel this too

The tomorrow that has come and gone
And it has not gotten better
When you are half finished writing that letter to your mother that says “I swear to God I tried”
But when I thought I hit bottom, it started hitting back
There is no bruise like the bruise of loneliness kicks into your spine

So let me tell you I know there are days it looks like the whole world is dancing in the streets when you break down like the doors of the looted buildings
You are not alone and wondering who will be convicted of the crime of insisting you keep loading your grief into the chamber of your shame
You are not weak just because your heart feels so heavy

I have never met a heavy heart that wasn’t a phone booth with a red cape inside
Some people will never understand the kind of superpower it takes for some people to just walk outside
Some days I know my smile looks like the gutter of a falling house
But my hands are always holding tight to the ripchord of believing
A life can be rich like the soil
Can make food of decay
Can turn wound into highway
Pick me up in a truck with that bumper sticker that says
“it is no measure of good health to be well adjusted to a sick society”

I have never trusted anyone with the pulled back bow of my spine the way I trusted ones who come undone at the throat
Screaming for their pulses to find the fight to pound
Four nights before Tyler Clementi jumped from the George Washington bridge I was sitting in a hotel room in my own town
Calculating exactly what I had to swallow to keep a bottle of sleeping pills down

What I know about living is the pain is never just ours
Every time I hurt I know the wound is an echo
So I keep a listening to the moment the grief becomes a window
When I can see what I couldn’t see before,
through the glass of my most battered dream, I watched a dandelion lose its mind in the wind
and when it did, it scattered a thousand seeds.

So the next time I tell you how easily I come out of my skin, don’t try to put me back in
just say here we are together at the window aching for it to all get better
but knowing as bad as it hurts our hearts may have only just skinned their knees knowing there is a chance the worst day might still be coming
let me say right now for the record, I’m still gonna be here
asking this world to dance, even if it keeps stepping on my holy feet

you- you stay here with me, okay?
You stay here with me.
Raising your bite against the bitter dark
Your bright longing
Your brilliant fists of loss
Friend

if the only thing we have to gain in staying is each other,

my god that’s plenty

my god that’s enough
my god that is so so much for the light to give
each of us at each other’s backs whispering over and over and over
“Live”
“Live”
“Live”

You can watch one of the many versions of Andrea performing here, and I encourage you to check it out! It’s a great reminder that no matter how lonely we get, none of us exist in a vacuum.

Continue to raise your bite against the bitter dark, friends. Fight as hard as you can, because the world sees us as broken. Refuse to give up. Fight to show everyone that you matter, that you are more than the sum of your parts or the chemicals inside your brain. You are more than a diagnosis, a code on a medical chart, the endless insurance claims and the bills and the medications you swallow every day just to feel okay.

You are a human being, first and foremost. I hope none of you ever forget that. You matter. Your life matters. You are worth something to the universe not because of who you are or what you’ve done, but because you’re here. And you’re going to be okay.

News Day Tuesday: Knott’s Berry Farm and Fear VR: 5150.

stigma

I stumbled upon this article on a Facebook page dedicated to mental health news earlier, and I’ve been itching to share it with you, readers!

Knott’s Berry Farm is, as most of you know, an amusement park in California. The park has announced plans for an attraction called Fear VR: 5150, set to open just in time for the Halloween season! Festive, spooky fun, right? Hold on a minute.

For the uninitiated, 5150 is the code used in California for an involuntary psychiatric hold. That alone should be enough to give someone pause–a 5150 hold is no joke. It’s no picnic for anyone involved. It’s not something to be taken lightly, and it’s certainly not something that should be marketed as entertainment, as is the case with this attraction.

The ride begins with patrons being strapped into wheelchairs and “admitted” to a psychiatric hospital. The attraction’s story follows a psychiatric patient who is possessed by a demon.While the whole 4D VR experience sounds pretty cool, I must object to the attraction’s subject matter. It’s a shame the technology was used to stigmatize mental illness, since it’s not like the stigma needs any help gaining ground.

I’ve never been hospitalized for my mental illness, which is something that people often find surprising when they learn that I have bipolar disorder. The disorder often does require hospitalization. Therefore, I can’t really speak to what the actual admissions experience is like; though I’ve read plenty of memoirs, nothing can compare to experiencing it for yourself. However, the set-up for the attraction is wildly insensitive and I can’t begin to fathom how it was approved.

On the other hand, the stigma against mental illness is so prevalent that, upon further reflection, it’s frighteningly easy to see how most people could view it as “just fun.”

Thankfully, the “5150” portion of the name has been removed, but the fact that an attraction like this even exists is highly disturbing. I’m unsure whether they’ve revised it and removed the wheelchair/admission portion at this time, but considering Cedar Fair Entertainment (the mother company for Knott’s) issued this statement, I certainly hope so.

“It is never our intent to be disrespectful to any individual or group,” Cedar Fair Entertainment, parent company of Knott’s Berry Farm responded in a statement. “The virtual reality experience is actually built around paranormal, zombie-like activity in a medical hospital setting. Part of the confusion stems from the use of the code 5150 in the experience’s original name. For that reason, the name has been changed to FearVR.”

I can get on board with a horror attraction set in a medical environment–I definitely love horror movies and stories set in spooky old hospitals. What I don’t love is that even for a second (before backlash from mental health advocates pushed Cedar Fair toward some semblance of decency), someone thought that using a police code for an involuntary hold in the title of a theme park attraction was a good idea. And it’s not just one person–it’s the whole team of developers who approved the title. It’s the marketing team, who thought it was okay to take a very serious situation and turn it into a way to make money and draw patrons to the park. It’s the people who didn’t have a problem with the name because they either lack knowledge of mental health care or because they simply don’t care.

That Cedar Fair was quick to issue a statement and change the name of the attraction is cold comfort considering that many people won’t see the harm in the name. Those of us who speak out against it will be accused of whining, of being overly sensitive, of being “special snowflakes.”

The truth is, any sort of hospitalization is not to be taken lightly. I doubt anyone would defend an attraction that was called, for instance, Diabetic Shock or Alzheimer’s Ward. Why is it that in 2016, it’s still considered acceptable to make light of psychiatric illness? I long for the day when people living with mental illness are treated the same as people with cancer or organ transplant candidates.

There’s also a petition to shut the attraction down based on its stigmatizing and highly insensitive concept.

You can check out the full article here. And a new personal post is coming your way this week! It’s hard to say when, since my laptop is on the fritz and I’m borrowing my significant other’s (who needs it for class), but never fear–I will deliver!

Until next time, readers, stay safe and lovely.


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News Day Tuesday: Mental Health First Aid in Canada

News Day Tuesday, stigma

Good afternoon, readers! This Tuesday, I’d like to draw some attention to Mental Health First Aid training in Canada, the importance of which I cannot possibly overstate. As the article states, there’s training everywhere you turn to deal with things like broken bones or heart attacks. CPR classes have been around forever, and just about everybody can recognize the signs of a stroke.

But not many people know how to recognize the signs of mental illness. It’s hard to identify it even in yourself; without proper information, it’s almost impossible to spot it in others. Part of the Mental Health First Aid training program (or MFHA) is the discussion of symptoms and what to look for, but the other component–and, I’d argue, the most important–is discourse on the stigma surrounding mental illness.

After all, if we’re not comfortable talking about it, comfortable with asking our friends, family, and colleagues questions that probe deeper than a simple “Are you okay?”, there’s no chance that we’ll feel comfortable enough with the topic to actually help those who need it most.

I believe programs like MFHA are crucial to reducing the stigma and normalizing mental illness, because honestly, it’s not any different than physical ailments. It’s in our brains, coded into our DNA, not something we bring upon ourselves. It is not a moral or spiritual failing. It’s an illness that, like any other, requires compassion and treatment.

I know I’ve written about this almost to death, but I need people to know that they’re okay, that they’re not freaks or “insane.” I need people to stop flippantly saying things like, “You need to take your meds!” in response to an argument they don’t agree with. I need people to learn to confront, and eventually accept, the things that scare them, the things that lurk in the deepest, most private recesses of our mind.

Education is the only way to combat ignorance and fear. We need to share our stories and show everyone on the “outside” that we’re just like them. We have lives and relationships and jobs and passions. Above all, we are human. We are not something to fear. The sooner we can help others realize this, the sooner we can all start fighting the common enemy–the stigma that costs and destroys lives.

Do you know how to recognize signs of mental illness in others, readers? And more importantly, how and when did you first recognize it in yourself? It’s a hard topic for sure, but it’s one that needs to be addressed.


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News Day Tuesday: Digital mental health care

a cure for what ails you, News Day Tuesday, stigma, therapy

This week, I’d like to touch briefly on digital mental health care, which has become increasingly popular. I recently applied to work as a volunteer with Crisis Text Line, which is an awesome resource that allows people in crisis to communicate with trained volunteers via text message.

I’m still waiting for one more letter of recommendation, but if I’m approved, I’ll get to counsel others via text–how cool is that? It’s a four-hour-a-week commitment that lasts for one year, and I’d definitely encourage anyone with an interest or background in mental health to consider applying.

From Crisis Text Line’s website:

  1. We fight for the texter. Our first priority is helping people move from a hot moment to a cool calm, guiding you to create a plan to stay safe and healthy. YOU = our priority.
  2. We believe data science and technology make us faster and more accurate. See our Founder’s TED talk for more scoop on how we’re using this stuff. While we love data science and technology, we don’t think robots make great Crisis Counselors. Instead, we use this stuff to make us faster and more accurate–but every text is viewed by a human.
  3. We believe in open collaboration. We share our learnings in newsletters, at conferences and on social media. And, we’ve opened our data to help fuel other people’s work.

This article from Scientific American examines digital mental health care and its pros and cons. I’m a huge fan of anything that allows people to get the help they need, and many people simply don’t have the means to physically attend therapy due to income, transportation, disability/illness, or other factors.

The article also raises very valid concerns about “impression management,” or the tendency clients have to only share information that is likely to make the therapist think positively of them. On the one hand, many people find it easier to express themselves through writing; because there are barriers between the writer and the reader, people may share more freely than they would in person.

On the other, it’s hard to overstate the importance of face-to-face interaction, particularly in a therapeutic environment. Being able to see the client allows the therapist to assess the client’s nonverbal cues, such as body language and facial expressions. This, in turn, can help the therapist direct the session in ways that make the experience as comfortable and productive as possible.

What do you think, readers? Would you be more likely to “talk” to a counselor via text, or do you prefer old school face-to-face therapy? Personally, I’m all for attacking issues from every possible angle, though I haven’t tried digital counseling myself (yet). If anyone has personal experience with digital mental health care and would like to share their story, please do! I’d love to hear from you.


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News Day Tuesday: Should emergency personnel be able to access protected health information?

News Day Tuesday, stigma

For this week’s News Day Tuesday, I found a rather intriguing article on the NY Daily News about providing emergency personnel, particularly police officers, with information about a person’s mental health prior to arrival on the scene.

Shaun King makes an excellent argument in favor of this:

Sometimes people having a psychotic breakdown are completely unable to stop moving. It may be impossible to actually hear what someone else is saying. When men or women do not obey police officers, law enforcement is often trained to say it louder and clearer.

At first, I was all in–if we can save lives and keep people with severe mental illnesses from being, you know, shot because of misunderstandings and lack of knowledge, that’s awesome! But then I began to consider the cons, such as 911 operators (who may or may not have medical training themselves) having access to my protected health information (or PHI).

While I agree that relaying pertinent information about a person’s mental state, such as whether or not they are psychotic, could perhaps positively influence how police interact with said person, we have to consider the very real danger of this information making things worse. Despite the fact that emergency personnel and law enforcement officers should be held to a higher standard than the general public, they’re still human, and humans are prone to biases. That’s one reason the whole mental illness stigma is still a thing.

Using the same example of a person suffering from psychosis, I worry that this person could fall victim to an officer’s personal biases and be treated worse because of their mental illness(es). And frankly, that thought is scary as hell.

This danger could be mitigated, to an extent, by requiring further training on how to deal with calls involving any kind of mental illness. But there are the usual concerns of how to fund the training and the risk that a law enforcement officer could, in the heat of the moment, completely forget (or disregard) what they learned. At the end of the day, human behavior can be pretty unpredictable, especially in situations as tense as a 911 call.

Even if this weren’t a concern–and it very much is, given the troubling track record of police interactions with those suffering from mental illness–I know a lot of people simply wouldn’t feel comfortable with having non-medical personnel having access to their charts. I worked in medical billing for a brief time and often felt uncomfortable with the amount of access had, even though I sometimes needed to explain charges and medical codes to patients and therefore needed to be able to see their charts.

I’m definitely straddling the fence on this one, at least for now. What do you think?

You can read the full article here.

Roar, roar, the thunder and the roar.

a cure for what ails you, Authoress, explanations, major depression, rapid-cycle bipolar disorder, stigma, three hopeful thoughts

I am in the throes of my first major depressive episode in over six months. I know exactly what caused it—money problems, worrying about my grandma (who is now 91, essentially nonverbal, and raised me on her own, which basically makes her my mom), frustration over the slow divorce process, trying to figure out what’s going on with my headaches—but remained wilfully ignorant of the warning signs because I hoped it would pass.

I finally accepted/realized what was happening in my brain last night. I’ve been really horrible to myself lately in terms of inappropriate guilt and self-loathing. I’ve been blaming myself for a lot of things, most of which are completely out of my control. Once again, it’s not that I’m unaware of these problems. It’s that I have no idea what to do with the insights.

But I’m trying to stay positive because I know this will pass. My depressive episodes tend not to last very long—usually a month or two, and I’m about a week and a half into the really bad phase of this one. The final divorce hearing is on November 5th. Last night, my ex and I had an appointment at Green Path to figure out the debt situation, which is bad but not as bad as it could be. My fella’s coming back from his latest business trip tomorrow night. I’m one step away from completing my graduate school application; all I have left is the personal interview.

And I’m reminding myself of my plans for the future, too. Once I have my license, I plan to work as a counselor for a while, then go on to pursue a Psy.D and possibly a degree in Criminology as well, just for kicks. It’s looking more and more likely, given the progression of my various illnesses, that I won’t be able to have kids by the time I’m ready—and even if I’m able to retain some shreds of fertility, it’s probably not a good idea because I have so many health problems that are heritable. In other words, I have no reason not to go ridiculously hard at the school/career thing.

Once I’ve attained a certain level of credibility, I want to combine my love of/talent for writing with my passion for psychology (and, of course, fighting the stigma) and gain access to a psychiatric hospital with the goal of eventually writing a book about the hospital, perhaps some of the staff, and most importantly, the patients.

I want to tell their stories. I want to show people that we’re really not that scary. Even when our brains are doing some freaky and perplexing things, we still have hopes and dreams and fears and all the other little things that make neurotypical people “tick.”

I want to paint a picture of the hospital to prove that Hollywood has it wrong—I had the opportunity to tour the state hospital in Independence, Iowa as a senior in high school and found the facility stunningly different from what we’re fed through popular media. I’m tired of cringeing every time I hear the words “multiple personality disorder” on TV or see a straitjacket Halloween costume. I’m tired of being “The Other,” and I suspect most of you are, too. I’m tired of being seen as exotic and dangerous and unpredictable and sort of otherworldly just because my brain tends to misfire sometimes. I’m tired of having my struggles used for shock value. I’m tired of seeing symbols of our oppression used as fashion statements by the oblivious.

I want to fix that obliviousness or die trying. This is the one topic that has gotten me consistently fired up, regardless of my mental state. Even when I’m so far down that I can barely get out of bed, I can still muster up enough passion to call out the horrifying things I see, to correct the misinformation, to have a meaningful dialogue where I and the other person walk away feeling as though we’ve learned something.

As a nihilist, I reject the concept that anything has any inherent meaning; therefore, I don’t believe in the idea that anyone has a “calling.” That being said, I find this to be a very hopeful philosophy because it means each of us can choose our path in life. I believe that the things I’ve been through, the abuse and my brain chemistry and the various horrors I’ve seen, were formative in such a way that I feel compelled to devote my life to psychology. I guess this is how theists feel when they decide to become members of the clergy.

At the very least, I have to believe that my suffering (though I hate using that word because it feels incredibly maudlin and self-absorbed) has meant something. I have to believe that it’s redemptive and that it’s not too late for me, that my life has meaning. I constantly look for motivators, little signs that I’m meant to be here and that my existence has a purpose. I think that when a person is pushed to their absolute limit, they either try to find a reason to stay alive or they completely give up on life. I’m not ready to give up.

I am tougher than Chinese algebra and I am going to be okay.

Mental Illness in Entertainment: Six Feet Under

a cure for what ails you, memories, rapid-cycle bipolar disorder, relationships, self-harm, stigma, suicidal ideation, three hopeful thoughts

I recently binge-watched “Six Feet Under” for the first time (Michael C. Hall and Frances Conroy being the main draw, though my backup plan for life since I was 15 has been mortuary school) and was overall impressed with the show’s treatment of Billy, who has severe bipolar disorder with psychosis. However, though Jeremy Sisto’s* performance was excellent, I had a hard time fully enjoying it because of the painful memories it dredged up—not because of his behavior, but because of other characters’ reactions to it.

As I’ve mentioned several times on this blog, I wasn’t properly diagnosed until I was 24 years old, a full sixteen years after the initial onset of my symptoms. (The disorder is notoriously difficult to diagnose in children and teens because teens are stereotypically “moody” and, in my case, mixed episodes in children can look a lot like run-of-the-mill temper tantrums.)

The result is that in both of my long-term relationships, I’ve been accused of being manipulative and even emotionally abusive simply for expressing my needs. Most of you can probably relate to how difficult it is to reach out for help when you’re struggling, and I’m not sure how telling a loved one that I was worried about hurting myself and didn’t trust myself to be alone counts as either. Each time, I felt guilty beyond belief for making the person in question cancel plans to sit at home with me when I couldn’t stop crying and generally was not much fun to be around. But at the same time, I doubt many people would begrudge, say, a cancer patient for needing company on a bad day.

It’s true that at times, my behavior was what most people would refer to as “a little off,” and I am horrendously embarrassed by it. I try not to look back at the things I said and did back then because I know that my illness was the culprit and that I was not at all myself.

I take comfort in knowing that I’m stable now and haven’t had a major episode in over a year. I am in a relationship again, and though it’s in the fledgling stages, it’s actually functional and healthy and I can handle prolonged absences (my fella travels for work quite a bit) without panicking and worrying and feeling intolerably lonely. For the first time in my life, I’m experiencing true emotional independence. I’m able to take care of my own needs and create my own happiness. For the first time in my life, I am not hinging my happiness and emotional well-being on a man. I actually have object permanence and can trust that he’s going to return and not suddenly decide he no longer cares about me. I have accepted that if that ever does happen, it’s not my fault. And while I appreciate his presence and that he augments my life and has affected it in a very positive way, he is not my entire world.

This is a huge step. I’m pretty much the last person I ever expected to see in a healthy relationship, but amazingly, I’m managing to pull it off. The entire experience thus far has been incredibly healing, and with each good experience, each good day, I am learning to forgive myself for the past.

Since it's official now, here's a super-cute picture of us. :3

Since it’s official now, here’s a super-cute picture of us. :3

* On a lighter note, does anyone else think he totally looks like Kevin Rowland? (Check out the video for “Come On Eileen” by Dexy’s Midnight Runners, then tell me I’m wrong.)

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.