On activism, and nature and nurture


Trigger Warnings:  self-harm, violence, bullying, psychiatric abuse, ABA, homelessness

In the last year, through Icarus and also through spending way too much time browsing the Internet instead of doing homework, I’ve learned a lot about the concepts of privilege and oppression.  Admittedly, I didn’t understand much about this until this past year; although I was involved in queer activism in 2008-2009, my focus was on convincing people to be nicer to queer people, which is a somewhat overlapping yet distinct issue from systematic oppression.

Learning about these things has been comforting and enlightening for me, because it’s made me realize just how much of my mental health issues are a result of interaction with the psych system itself.  I know; that is the opposite of what it’s supposed to do.  But I think most people would agree, including many people who work for it, that the American psych system is pretty fucked up.

I have low self-esteem because throughout my life, whenever I’ve gone to a mental health professional with any concern, regardless of how warranted my emotions were and regardless of how much trauma I was going through, I was the one who was blamed.  It was always an internal, biological problem, never a societal problem…

Age 13:  I am severely bullied for being neurodivergent and Pagan.  Mom catches me in the act of trying to slit my wrists with broken glass animals.  She feels in over her head and sends me to a therapist, who rather than validating that my bullies are assholes, diagnoses me with ADD and bipolar.  Because clearly, I’m just being weird and oversensitive, and therefore deserve to be bullied.  She also refers me to a psychiatrist, who prescribes me my first stimulant and mood stabilizer.  These come with a number of nasty side-effects including anxiety, chronic pain, hypothyroidism, insomnia, headaches, dizziness, dry mouth, hair loss, and incontinence.  A number of the side-effects though, despite starting precisely when I started the meds and despite them being common side-effects of these particular medications, were also blamed on me:  specifically my neurotransmitters, body, lifestyle, and personality.

Age 16:  I am still depressed.  The bullying is still a problem; my medication has caused me to gain weight, which has given them a new thing to tease me about, and they’re also starting to wonder why I haven’t dated anyone yet.  It has also since extended to my teachers as well, who refuse to teach to my learning style and tease me for asking more questions than the other students.  A diagnosis of LD is added for my brain not being compliant with the primarily-auditory and verbal teaching style of the school, and a diagnosis of autism is added for my “lack of age-appropriate relationships” and social awkwardness that is clearly the cause of the bullying (not, again, that the bullies are assholes or anything).  I get started on Applied Behavioral Analysis, a behavior modification program for autistic people.  It is based on the principles of behaviorism (punishment and reward), and you get punished for displaying “autistic” behaviors (like hand flapping or not making enough eye contact) and rewarded for displaying “appropriate” social behaviors (like making small talk and making eye contact constantly).

Age 25:  I seek therapy for trauma related to an abusive relationship and homelessness.   I receive a diagnosis of borderline personality disorder, because of my “pattern of dysfunctional relationships”.  The homelessness is brushed off as being a result of poor planning on my part.

It is now my default to blame myself; no matter what happens, if I am upset, it is a mood swing, a chemical problem, time to see the doctor and get a new medication.  I do not allow myself to feel angry, because I’ve been told time and time again that the world is fine just the way it is, there is clearly nothing to feel angry about.  I also have very little models of positive uses of anger (my parents both have anger management problems, and would take their anger out on me, which was frightening; it made it hard for me to want to acknowledge my own anger when for many years I thought it could only hurt people.)  So whatever anger I may feel is generally internalized, and I get depressed and self-hating, and sometimes this prevents me from functioning at all.

I also realize now though that it is much more complicated than that…

Nature and nurture are not mutually exclusive.  In theory, this is well-accepted (it is one of the first things they teach in Psychology 101), but in practice, it isn’t always acknowledged.  Mental health professionals and psychology researchers would just assume always blame the brain.  To social justice activists and sociologists, it is always a faceless and nameless “society”.  In reality though, society impacts the brain, and our mental health impacts society.  Society, after all, is nothing more than a culmination of individuals.

As such, while seeking therapy and working through self-help books and doing whatever else to take care of myself can and does change the world (I am part of the world, so the more equipped I am to reach my personal full potential, the better off the world is for it), participating in activist movements likewise helps me as much as it helps society.  No matter how much I work on my own resilience and stability, if I must continue to live in an unjust and cruel world, my mental health will continue to suffer.

Participating in activism has always been emotionally healing for me, though I am only just now beginning to understand why.  It is empowering to know that my anger at injustices can be channeled into a positive passion for change, rather than be directed unfairly at innocent bystanders, or fester inside of me until it manifests into crippling depression.  Activists throughout history were angry about one thing or another, and it motivated them to do something about the problem.

However, I do feel limited at times in my activist work, because of certain values and lifestyle preferences.  For one, because of the experiences I’ve had with bullying (and witnessing, time and time again, a cycle in which the bullied would become the bullies), I am a pacifist:  I vowed around age 15 to try my best to never hurt anyone, with my words or tone or hands or anything else, even if they hurt me first.  I vowed that the cycle of violence and abuse would stop with me.  And if I do hurt someone accidentally and they point this out to me, because of course I’m not perfect and everyone has different triggers and boundaries, I apologize and avoid doing the same thing to that person again in the future.

Limitation #2:  I have a technology addiction, because of which I have strict limits on my Internet use of three hours daily.  My participation in online activism is generally limited to this blog and sharing/posting things on Facebook.  Some days, days when the full three hours need to be spent say on homework or internship applications, I don’t have time even for that.

Limitation #3:  I cannot risk arrest.  This is not due to moral qualms, but because anything but an absolutely spotless background check would bar me from a career doing…anything that I’d want to do.

However, there are things I can do…

write and post and read, here and on Facebook

attend peaceful protests and rallies, that are neither violent nor law-breaking

donate to causes I care about, as I am able

make art, since art is a blueprint for how we wish to see ourselves and the world, and any successful project has a blueprint

share myself and my story, as honestly and openly as possible while still keeping safe from stigma.  People are more likely to treat others who are different from them with respect if they know and understand members of these groups, see them as more than abstractions or statistics, and recognize that they’re not all that different from themselves.  It’s called developing empathy, and with empathy comes compassion.

answer questions, clearly and patiently, no matter how ridiculous the questions may be.  So much cruelty comes from simple ignorance, which is possible to resolve, provided we are willing to become teachers.  Like teaching any other subject, it’s important to recognize that people are unlikely to learn without clear explanations made patiently and kindly.

help to form diverse local communities, which may not seem relevant to activism at first glance, but this relates to the above point about empathy:  modern society is often very isolated, and when people are isolated from each other (particularly from others who are different from themselves), it is harder to have empathy and therefore harder to have compassion.  Also, it is near-impossible for anyone (no matter how skilled or resourceful or dedicated) to make a global difference by themselves:  communities, on the other hand, are able to collaborate and mobilize.  Even something so simple and seemingly small as organizing a public board game or craft night can ultimately make a difference.

continue to work on myself, so that as Ghandi famously said, I can “Be the change [I] wish to see in the world”

can be an activist, while staying true to who I am and who I want to be.  This is what I bring to the world.  What do you bring?


2 responses »

  1. Pingback: Friday Links, 9/6/13 | Tutus And Tiny Hats

  2. I like what you say about activism, how it allows your anger to be channeled into something productive. I resonate with that statement.

    Do you know any other blogs that participate in similar practices?

    I look forward to reading more.


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