Cis people (people who identify with your assigned gender of male or female), please read this. It will help you be a better ally to trans* people (people who don’t identify with their assigned gender, or perhaps don’t fall on the male/female binary at all). Trans* people and non-binary people, maybe you will find solidarity in this.
Trigger Warnings: suicide, mental health stigma, claims that suicide and suicidal people are selfish, psychiatric abuse, psychiatric hospitals
I just read on another blog that I follow that someone was stuck on a train because someone had jumped in front of the train. Rather than feel sympathy and sorrow for their fellow human being who had felt so sad and desperate that they chose to end their own life, this person claimed the person who committed suicide was selfish to have jumped in front of a train, causing people to be late. This is what they said:
“Something needs done about this, it happens too often and now my train is delayed again. These people should be locked up for disturbing all these timetables”
First of all, this person valued getting wherever they needed to go on time over the life and mental health of another human being. I hope I don’t need to go into all that is wrong, and frankly disturbing, about that. The specific situation aside though, plenty of people claim that people who commit suicide in any way (or even fantasize about it, with no intention of acting on their fantasies) are selfish. This is what I want to discuss.
I myself have been suicidal many times (sometimes with a plan to act, and sometimes without one but vaguely daydreaming about it). I also am close to many people who have been suicidal. In my experience (both in my own life and in what I’ve heard from them about their experiences), suicidal ideation often has little to do with wanting to die, and certainly has nothing to do with wanting to hurt loved ones. That first part may be surprising to you, so let me explain: Nobody knows for sure what happens after death, if anything, and that uncertainty is scary, even to people who are suicidal. Suicidal people may also have aspects of their life that they like, that they love even. It is a last resort. It is not about wanting to die or not wanting to live. It is about not having any other options, running too low on cope to handle the bad, no matter how good the good may be.
It is about not having any other options.
Suicide is rarely anyone’s first thought when they first become depressed. A suicidal person may have already gone to family and friends for support extensively to no avail, or they may not have anyone to support them at all, they may have already exhausted all their options for mental health treatment, or they may not be able to afford treatment or live near humane treatment, they may have already exhausted all their coping skills to no avail, or they may not have many effective coping skills or ways of learning new ones. So let me repeat once again for good measure…
It is about not having any other options.
Many people in this state of mind are very, acutely aware of the effect their death would have on others, and this can keep them going but it can also be torture to think about. If your life is so miserable that you can’t imagine making it through another year or even a week, knowing you can end it may be your only source of comfort. It’s like for instance being in a terrible job that is traumatic for you and you know will never get better, so the only thing that comforts you is the thought of the weekend coming. The thought of death is like that for some people, like looking forward to the “weekend” from the struggles and trauma of life. Imagine if there was no weekend to look forward to, just neverending suffering, how would you deal with that?
The suggestion was to “lock people up”, but long-term psychiatric hospitalization is like jail. “Patients” (or more accurately in my opinion, “inmates”) are not usually allowed to go outside, eat fresh and healthy food, have phone or computer access, or have visitors for more than a specified hour each day (if that). There is not much to do. Staff may be abusive. Restraints are used on inmates who don’t follow the rules, rules which may be very restrictive and silly and unnecessary and even abusive and traumatic. Restraints, seclusion, and punishment may also be used on inmates who the staff just don’t like. Ever seen One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest? Not all that much has changed since then, especially in long-term, high-security, locked wards. If hospitalization is the only possibility, then death may be a welcome alternative.
That comfort, the only comfort you may have, is gone and replaced with guilt once you realize it would hurt the people who love you, and possibly even distant acquaintances. That comfort is smashed to tiny pieces when people call you (or others in your situation) “selfish” for even thinking about it, nevermind acting on those thoughts.
Another thing: it’s true that not all suicidal people are aware of the effect their death would have on others, but this is not a sign of selfishness either. This is in fact a defining symptom of depression. Depression twists your thoughts. It makes you feel like you’re a horrible person, a burden on others and the world at large. Sure, it’s possible to recognize these thoughts as “the depression talking” and learn to combat them…though often only with years of practice, comfort from loved ones, and therapy. Not everyone has loved ones, or access to a humane therapist (or any therapist at all). And for some people, “years” may be too long to wait, to continue to suffer.
I am all for measures to give people hope and other options besides suicide. I am all for improved healthcare, more affordable and accessible healthcare, free community centers and support groups where people who don’t have friends can make them, community art centers with open studio time and open mic nights and concerts and plays, and increasing and improving affordable classes and groups to teach coping skills.
It should also be noted that not all people who commit suicide or think about it do so because of biological, chronic conditions like clinical depression or bipolar. Many are dealing with external issues with their lives and society at large, such as poverty, homelessness, abuse, bigotry, and loss. These issues also need to be dealt with, and in the meantime people who have suffered or are suffering from such trauma need to be supported. This does include the trauma of people who have lost a loved one to suicide or witnessed a suicide, including train conductors (who are prone to developing PTSD if someone jumps in front of their train) and those riding the train.
But if we’re going to do this, let’s do it for people with mental illness and/or trauma. Let’s do it so they can have peace in life rather than needing death for peace. There are much better reasons for suicide prevention than avoiding “inconvenience”.
An alternative viewpoint to my post Service and mental health, Ziya Tamesis of a day with depression talks about the importance of self-care to mental health, and how ze takes care of hirself to help with hir anxious depression. I definitely agree that self-care is very important to mental health. Ultimately, it’s important for everyone (not just mad people/people with mental illness!) to find a balance between serving others or a cause and tending to one’s own needs and pleasures. Some may already have such a balance, and if you’re one of those people, good for you! Tell me your secrets! 😉 Most people though, I’ve found, tend to lean more in one direction than the other if left to their own devices and not paying attention, and so need to practice the opposite end of the spectrum to arrive at a middle ground.
To take care of myself, I see a therapist and psychiatrist, attend Icarus Project and ASAN chapter meetings, talk to and spend time with my family and friends (in-person and also via social networking/Skype/phone/texting!), make art, dance (when my back cooperates with me), swim and do yoga (again, when my back cooperates with me), spend time in nature (when the weather cooperates with me), read, use aromatherapy, get massages, go to fun events, and practice my spirituality.
What do you do to take care of yourself, on an ongoing basis or when you’re having an especially rough time? How do you find a balance between “me time” and “other people time” that works for you?
At the end of the music therapy session I described in my last post, Wakana told me to make a list of all the things I’m doing “just for me.” She often gives me homework without holding me accountable for doing it, but this time I want to make an honest attempt at it.
I feel the need to justify doing anything “just” for me; to be honest it feels kind of selfish. I’m not sure if that’s the gender training talking (“women should put everyone else first”) or the depression; they’re most likely interrelated.
Whatever the case may be, and as much as I may struggle to believe it, my justification is this: everyone needs to do things that are just for themselves, it’s a vital part of self-care and all-around health / wellness. Doing things just for oneself does not reduce or limit the things one can do…
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My friend Cameron compiled this zine on mad people’s descriptions of their madness, as a positive and “mad pride” and “radical mental health” friendly alternative to the DSM. In addition to the self-descriptions of their madness, each contributor also created a piece of artwork depicting their madness. I contributed to this zine under the pseudonym Lila. It’s awesome, check it out!
DSM Alternative Zine.
As a warning, this post will probably be considered controversial by some. I also want to make the caveat that I live in America and have not lived in any other country, so this post will only speak to America.
It may come as a surprise that social justice, with its emphasis on the creation and maintenance of “safe spaces” and advocating for the rights of marginalized groups, would have ableism essentially built into the culture of many of its communities. However, I have noticed this a great deal, to the point that despite being politically progressive and an activist myself, I often feel more emotionally safe in apolitical circles. Most social justice activists would not have any doubt that ableism is real or that people with disabilities should be included as a “marginalized group” whose rights we should consider and work toward. The issue is not in intent, but follow-through. Unless it is a specifically disability-focused circle or formal group (such as Icarus and Autistic Self-Advocacy Network), people with disabilities are often left out of the discussion and consideration. Here’s why I say this:
Vilifying “big pharma”
I am all for critiquing America’s healthcare system in general, including “big pharma” and its large influence on healthcare. People are often medicated when they don’t need to be, because of this influence and because normal emotions and behaviors are pathologized, and many providers wouldn’t even consider suggesting “natural” options (such as supplements and lifestyle changes). I believe that because many prescription medications are addictive and have side-effects, these natural options (in addition to therapies and other non-medical treatments) should be tried first, and medication should be considered a last resort unless it’s a condition that automatically requires medication.
However, conditions that automatically require medication (sometimes even just to stay alive) do exist. Also, many people have exhausted all other options, with little or no success, and find that medication is the only thing that makes a significant difference. Some people may be able to eventually live without meds, but need them temporarily to be able to reach that point, because their symptoms were so severe that they were unable to effectively participate in non-medical or alternative treatment. When the discussion moves beyond critique to outright vilifying, these people are lumped in with the “enemy” and often judged and shamed for getting the treatment they need to survive, function, and be happy and well.
Words as the most important unit of respect
This (like everything else in this list) may not be true in every social justice circle, but what I’ve personally noticed both in my geographic area and online is that a great deal of importance is placed on the words people use, sometimes to the point of this being more important than actions or underlying beliefs. Certain words and phrases are considered respectful while others are considered a sign of moral failure, and people who use the latter (whether or not they were even aware of their unacceptability) are often treated poorly with little explanation as to what they did that caused this reaction.
Though I’m focusing mostly on ableism in this entry, I do consider this both ableist and classist. There are a multitude of legitimate reasons (that have nothing to do with morality) why someone may not be able to keep up with what words are ok to say and not (which also does change over time, sometimes at a rapid pace). They may not have had the opportunity for a good education, in combination with lacking access and/or ability to do independent research. (They might for instance have a learning or intellectual disability that gets in the way of reading comprehension and/or finding appropriate resources, they might not live in a neighborhood with a library or be able to afford to buy books or magazines, they might not have Internet access at home.) Learning and intellectual disabilities can also affect memory, which may include remembering which words are ok to say and not (especially as this changes over time).
Autism and some other developmental disabilities affect social and communication skills. How this manifests of course varies from person to person, so not all autistic individuals have trouble in this area. However for some, so much concentration and effort needs to be devoted to things such as making eye contact and forming complete and intelligible sentences that little is left for choosing the best words for the situation. Also, some autistic people as well as people with other disabilities (and even some neurotypical people) communicate better, or entirely, by nonverbal means. These other means of communication (such as AAC, body language, facial expression, hand gestures, images etc) are all valid and effective, and to consider them less so than words is ableist.
All this is not to say that we should throw in the towel and allow people to continue to use slurs and other disrespectful and inappropriate words. However, if we try to fight fire with fire, we are likely to completely lose a lot of people, who will then go on to avoid social justice circles and continue using the offensive words. What I suggest is education: either explaining (in a patient manner) why the word is offensive and what to say instead, or if one does not have spoons for that in the moment (or ever, which is ok too…nobody should be obligated to be an activist or educator), pointing them in the direction of helpful resources. If even that takes too much time and energy, then just ignoring and avoiding them.
Conflating intelligence with morality
Many in the disability rights and neurodiversity communities consider the concept of intelligence itself to be ableist. “Intelligence”, as defined by such measures as IQ tests, is not just describing one’s knowledge base and ability to think and problem-solve. That alone would be ok to define (although it would still be problematic to tie it to morality, since there are plenty of moral people who struggle with these skills, often again because of learning or intellectual or developmental disabilities). However, typically when someone talks about intelligence, they are referring to a very specific way of learning and thinking and problem-solving. Other ways of doing these things, regardless of their effectiveness, are undervalued or perhaps even dismissed entirely. It is also dismissed when a person is able to effectively do these things, but then cannot prove their awareness through verbal means.
More on this: Ableist Word Profile: Intelligence
Pushing people to do more than they can or is healthy for them
This can be a problem in activist communities overall (including, for instance, environmental and animal rights activism), not just social justice. Some activists pressure everyone involved in activism to be very active in it, and judge and shame and guilt-trip them if they are not. Besides that there are plenty of valid reasons why non-disabled people might not be able to be especially active themselves (lack of time, money, energy etc), disabled people have the added issue of needing more healthcare and having fewer “spoons” (emotional and physical energy) than non-disabled people as a general rule. Healthcare and recovery can take a lot of time, energy, and resources that could otherwise go toward activism; disabled people should not be made to feel bad for this as it is not within their control. Also, some activist actions require specific skills and abilities that not everyone has. (For instance, a march requires the ability to walk for an extended period of time and the ability to tolerate crowds and loud noises. Online activism, aside from adding your name to virtual petitions, generally requires the ability to be articulate in writing.) This is not to say that people with disabilities (even severe ones) can’t be active activists, just that they need to choose actions that are well-suited for their abilities and sometimes will need to say no even to things they really care about.
Activists with disabilities (as well as non-disabled activists who can’t do everything they want to do for whatever reason) often already feel guilty about their limitations, so judgment is supremely unhelpful. People cannot be shamed into changing. However, if your intention in pushing people to do more is not to judge but rather to help them become more involved, there are things you can do that are not ableist (or classist or whatever else) and will not make people feel bad in the process. If you are an organizer you can work to make your actions accessible to more people, for instance by… finding a place to hold a rally where people can sit down if they need to and has limited noise pollution; organizing a wide variety of different types of actions (petitions, protests, Twitter blasts, conferences, zines and performance and visual art, speeches etc); holding events on weekends or in the evening to not interfere with full-time employment and/or doctors’ appointments; using technology to include people who can’t be at an event in-person (live-Tweeting, conference calls, Google Plus video chat hangouts, photographs and video recording etc); providing financial assistance for events that cost money to participate or for people to come from a long distance; and also just asking people what would help them be more involved.
Discouraging people from asking questions
Seeing as ignorance is harshly judged in social justice culture, dissuading people from asking questions leaves many disabled people stuck between a rock and a hard place. As I said above, people with certain kinds of disabilities (as well as financial or time-related limitations) are not able to do much (if any) independent research. They may be able to take classes at a university or adult education or community center, if they’re able to find teachers who understand their situation and accommodate it, but this is not an option for everyone. For some people, asking questions may need to be their primary or even only way to learn. Because of this, if they are discouraged from asking questions or judged for it, they will continue to be ignorant about some things (since nobody is born knowing everything or taught everything by school or their families or friends), which also will be met with judgment and sometimes exclusion.
Again, it is ok to not want (or be able) to be the person who educates a particular ignorant person. Referring them to others or a reading or video is perfectly acceptable, and even if you can’t do that, simply letting them know that you can’t or don’t feel like answering their question is also fine. As long as they are not discouraged from continuing to ask questions about things that they’re curious about, they’ll probably eventually find someone to help them.
“The tone argument” and other forms of “derailing”
In case you’re not aware, the “tone argument”, according to Geek Feminism Wiki, is the argument that social justice activists “would be more successful if they expressed themselves in a more pleasant tone”. (http://geekfeminism.wikia.com/wiki/Tone_argument) This is looked down upon by social justice activists themselves because it focuses on the tone rather than the content, sometimes to the point of purposefully ignoring or distracting from the content. It is considered a type of “derailment” (http://geekfeminism.wikia.com/wiki/Derailment), which is more-or-less another word for a tangent, specifically when a person being made aware of something offensive they said or did changes the subject rather than acknowledging the offense.
I do believe these are real things that are sometimes used purposefully in order to avoid responsibility for one’s actions. A person being told they did something wrong may not want to believe or acknowledge this or make the effort to change, so instead deflects back on the other person (tone argument) or uses some other tactic of shifting to another topic (derailment). Although this might not always be purposeful, it still allows the person to avoid taking responsibility for their actions or improving their ability to treat others with respect, so regardless of intent, it is still something that people should try to avoid.
On the other hand, not all people who request a change in tone or subject do so in order to avoid changing or taking responsibility for their actions. People who communicate best nonverbally use tone as a primary means of understanding what others are trying to say. As such, an offensive tone is as difficult for them to tolerate as offensive words are to people who communicate mostly verbally. Also, if the tone doesn’t go with the meaning behind the words, misunderstandings can very easily occur. What may seem like an attempt to censor may simply be confusion and an attempt to understand so that they may best be able to apply the request.
As for derailment in general, a lot of people just have a poor attention span due to ADHD or LD or similar. Alternatively, they may be paying attention but have circular (rather than linear) thinking, which means that they make sense of things by connecting topics to other topics. This can again be due to ADHD or LD. It is not necessarily a problem (most often, it is simply a different way of thinking than the norm), but it does mean that they need to be allowed to connect topics to other topics in order to arrive at an understanding of them. So what seems like derailment may actually be a sign of active listening.
If people legitimately do things that are offensive, and are not at all open to change, then they should not be allowed to get away with it. People who are open to change need to be educated. However, not all actions actually are what they seem to be on the surface. The person you are talking to may in fact have an invisible disability, and are behaving in the only way they can or that makes sense with the way their brain works. As such it’s important to give the benefit of the doubt. Valuing some ways of perceiving and interacting with the world more than others, unless it is legitimately cruel, is ableist. Society thrives on diversity.
Recently my rat Squiggle had some health problems of his own. He managed to get himself stuck in a tunnel that I didn’t realize he had outgrown, and scraped up his hand along the bottom. He then started picking at the wound which made it worse, so he needed to get a cone around his neck. And in the process of helping him with this issue, the vet also realized he was having problems with his eyes (thankfully only dry eye resolved through eye drops) and a respiratory infection (thankfully resolved through medicine). He is mostly ok now. He still has the cone and will for a few more days, until the wound completely heals, and is still taking the medicine for the respiratory infection, but both the respiratory infection and his hand have healed a great deal, and his eyes are completely healed and he no longer needs eye drops. *sigh of relief*
I hated seeing him in so much pain, and scared from going to the vet and getting medicine every day (which he hates as much as he hates having a cone on his head, and I don’t blame him!) Initially, before the vet had figured out what the problems were and that they were treatable, I was scared myself. At the same time, for the first time in a long time my attention was not on my depression. I couldn’t spend all day wallowing, because Squiggle needed me. And that gave me a reason to get out of my head and be active.
This made me realize how necessary it is for me to be part of something larger than myself, and contribute to others. I wish the best of health for Squiggle, and he of course doesn’t need to be sick for my own need to serve others to be met. I would love to get back into volunteering. It can be really hard for me to commit to doing something on an ongoing basis when I’m often too depressed to get out of bed, nevermind be helpful. However I have joined a volunteer placement organization that lists drop-in days of service at non-profits such as animal shelters, soup kitchens, after-school programs, and Habitat for Humanity. This is perfect for me because I’m not sure what I’d be best at and enjoy the most, and it’d allow me to try different things out. It would also allow me to volunteer only as I am able.
Unfortunately, among many other problems with the mental health system, I find that mental health treatment can oftentimes encourage being self-centered. The common assumption is that if someone is struggling, they need to focus on self-care and on their issues until they’re feeling better. This doesn’t necessarily work, though. For me at least, I find it to be counter-productive; if I spend a lot of time thinking about the problems I have, I develop a low self-esteem. If I focus too much on self-care, I have nothing to distract me from my emotions or to make me feel fulfilled and like I’m needed in this world. The self-care approach may work for some people (in particular people who are coming from a history of ignoring their own needs completely in favor of others; who perhaps are learning for the first time that they’re important too). But I do wish there were more options of treatments that focused instead on developing the ability to contribute and caretake, and on finding the right outlet that would best make use of the client’s unique interests and talents.
I have to give happiness in order to keep it.