Saturday, 15 June 2013

Individualism and Mental Illness

I have been told that because I speak candidly about my depression and the driving forces of its development, that I can't truly be depressed - that if I was, I would hide it. That I would be ashamed of it, not wave it around proudly, like a banner.

I won't name names. The purpose of this blog post is not to call anybody out, and besides - they know who they are. No, the purpose of this blog post is to talk about why I try to be open about my mental illness, and my history of abuse.

We live in a society that stigmatizes mental illnesses of all type for a number of reasons. As a society, we value individualism above communalism and certain types of  personal success over less ambitious forms of contentment. What happens when you have a culture of individualistic ambition is that you wind up with a society of people who look down on asking for help when you "shouldn't" need it.

Now, we also know that people get sick. There's no denying that. Medicine is a huge business in our society. It saves some lives, extends others. Helps to ease the discomforts often associated with death. But even in this arena, where the veil of compassion and care hangs over everything, recovery is still an individualistic concept. People defeat their illness, battle the disease, and come out on top - the survivors.

And fair enough: people who live through illnesses like cancer and AIDS are fighters. But they didn't just punch and kick their way through it. We have a habit of downplaying the role of the science and the medicine in individual survival stories. We talk about his battle with cancer, her triumph over heart disease. When we talk about the person who is sick and surviving, we don't tend to look at the years of research that went into finding their cure, the thousands of dollars in research grants that paid for that research, the thousands of hours of lives that researchers spent in labs, and the taxes that citizens contributed to fund those research grants. We don't bring attention to the web that holds the survivor aloft, alive.

This is a reflection of the individuality we value. The individual survived. The scientist cured. The government funded. We talk about the individual actions, not the interaction of those actions.

Mental illnesses throw a wrench in this system of individual empowerment. For one, we can't see them. There's no lump upon which to perform a biopsy, no parasite to remove. There is simply our brains, and by proxy, our minds. You can fight a mental illness about as well as you can fight your own shadow. You find that when you try, you're just yelling at yourself.

Despite the work of many researchers that have spent their lives trying to figure out how to help those with mental illnesses, our society doesn't pay much attention to that sort of science. The mind is an ethereal place. The kind of place that coincides too much with the imagination, and therefore with faking it. We - the public at large, I mean - don't see the research in the news. We see the caricatures of the crazy cat lady, and the loony old homeless man, and the emo teenager who cuts herself for attention.

But we're told it's illness, and fine, we believe that. But people with real illnesses FIGHT and BATTLE and DEFEAT their diseases. They buckle down and win. So, if you have depression, or anxiety, or crippling OCD (among others), why can't you FIGHT and BATTLE and DEFEAT it like everybody else does, like all those other survivors do?

We forget that the other survivors played a very small role in their survival. That while they may have fought some of the battles, the doctors and the researchers and the funding agencies are the ones that won the war. And we forget that, because we can't amputate it, that the mind is still a part of the body, that it is a function of our brain, which we also cannot amputate or transplant. We cannot cut the disease out, or irradiate it into oblivion. We actually have to address the illness and interact with it, and it's complicated. We can explore the oceans and outer space, but we still have a hard time exploring our own minds.

And so, we find ourselves unable to work with mental illness the way we work with cancer or polio, at least not publicly.

There is a lot of shame around being broken in a way that can only be blamed on your own body - and we are individuals, aren't we? We create our own success and fight our own battles. If your body - the symbol of your individual person - does not work properly AND you can't just install a tube or cut out the part that doesn't work to fix it, then what good are you? You become a burden. You require help, and that means someone else has to sacrifice their own individual success to help you. And so you become ashamed. Of your illness. Of your inability to get better. Of your failure to be a successful person, and therefore to be a worthwhile person, or a person at all.

I talk about my mental illness because I refuse to be ashamed of it. A person with cancer is allowed to talk about their ongoing work against their illness. I should be allowed to talk about the ongoing work against mine. Mine won't get "cured" and it may not be fatal. If I'm lucky, I will get to live my life with successful coping mechanisms. That doesn't sound like much of a war story, or much of a triumphant recovery story, does it? It certainly doesn't paint me as the hero, considering my inability to vanquish my own brain.

I live with depression and mild anxiety, a touch of OCD. They come from a history of emotional and verbal abuse that severely affected how I view myself and my place in the world. Combine that with the influence of the Autism that runs in my family (I know myself too well to believe I've escaped it completely). And you know, I'm not ashamed of it. People who develop cancer after being exposed to radiation aren't blamed for getting cancer. I refuse to be blamed for developing mental illness as a result of exposure to a different sort of harmful environment.

The reason I am expected to be ashamed, though, is because by being open about my mental illness and my need for emotional support, my inability to achieve success completely on my own, and the way my mind turns itself against me, I am asking for help where I "shouldn't". Living openly with depression and other mental illnesses means relying on others for support, it means giving up some level of individual success. It means questioning the validity of the argument that I, as an individual person, should be able to pull myself up by the bootstraps and FIGHT and BATTLE and DEFEAT.

We shame mental illnesses in part because they question our ability to be autonomous, successful individuals who don't need anybody's help to do anything. And because we place such high moral value and succeeding without help, we look at those requiring assistance to maintain themselves with moral disdain.

I do think the tide is shifting, but my observations could be skewed. I'm probably part of a self-selecting group, but even if I see a change just because I spend more time with people who think along similar terms, it still means there are others out there who understand this. And if enough of us stand up and question why we, as a society, still look at a legitimate illness this way, then perhaps more people - people outside our little intersectional circles of theorizing - will start questioning this status quo, and perhaps there can be some positive change.

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