People have often asked me how I can stand writing about controversial things, and/or how I can handle the negative comments when I write something that’s widely read … especially the people who know how very sensitive I am (which is anyone who’s known me longer than about 90 seconds). The truth is, sometimes I do get my feelings a little – or a lot – hurt. And sometimes I wonder why I keep doing it. And sometimes I want to just take my ball and go home.
But in many ways, it is far easier to be brave on my blog, where it has the potential to reach many people, than it is on a smaller forum. Or than it is with people I know – even if you’re using the word “know” in the loose, Facebook-era kind of way. I like to keep my own little personal Facebook bubble generally light and happy and controversy-free. Partly because that’s just who I am when I’m not railing about my various causes, but also because I can’t handle the heat. I can’t. Every time, EVERY TIME, I think I’m brave enough to post something that’s going to garner mixed opinions … I regret it, I end up crying, or both. That’s just the way I’m wired, for better or worse. My blog is different, because even though there’s the potential for a much larger group of people to be much meaner to me, there’s also anonymity. There’s safety behind the curtain. There’s the “imagine everyone in their underwear” mind-tricks to keep things in perspective. In small groups though, there’s just so much raw vulnerability. For a person whose greatest blessing and biggest curse happens to be vulnerability, it can be a lot to handle.
Sometimes I forget, though. And sometimes I post something controversial. And then I regret it. And then I delete it.
I did that very thing tonight in fact. I posted the thing, a respectful conversation followed, and still I panicked and deleted. I felt an immediate sense of relief …. promptly followed by whatever the opposite of relief is, promptly followed by bawling in the bathtub (the kind of crying where you feel like you’re never going to stop), and texting my friend to talk me down.
The thing is, I wish I hadn’t deleted it. Because I think it’s an important conversation to be had. I think it’s one of the MOST important conversations we should have. So I’m bringing it over here where I feel brave. Where I won’t feel the need to delete.
Like all of you, I was horrified by the news of another school shooting. Like most of you, I have strong opinions on what I believe should and should not be done to hopefully help solve the problem. Like a lot of you, I’ve been saddened and frustrated and angered by many of the memes I saw floating through my Facebook feed.
For reasons that are obvious to any of my regular readers, I’ve felt particularly stung every time I saw a meme screaming, “Mental illness! MENTAL! ILLNESS!”
I finally saw one that flipped a switch in me that turned off all reason, and I posted this:
I have a mental illness. It is currently well-managed. When it is not well-managed, the only person – THE ONLY PERSON – I’ve ever thought of harming is myself.
As I said up above, what followed was a respectful conversation. No one was mean, no one called me names. The comments were, even from the people who disagreed and/or didn’t understand the point I was trying to make, pretty benign. “There are lots of different kinds of mental illness.” “Different people are affected differently.” “There are many factors at play.”
Yes. Sure. All true.
I feel like I shouldn’t have to say this, but for the sake of clarity: I am not at all suggesting that the shooter was not mentally ill. People who are of sound mind don’t typically go on shooting sprees. The fact that people are suggesting he’s mentally ill isn’t actually my problem.
My problem is that we’re perpetuating a stereotype. My problem is that we’re feeding a stigma. My problem is that we’re taking this tiny percentage of those with mental illnesses (you guys, this is a TINY percentage) and using it as a scapegoat. As a way to explain something away. As a way to make ourselves more comfortable with a situation in which there IS no comfort. “Oh, well he was MENTALLY ILL. Of course.” My problem is that we’re holding this one, extreme, violent person and saying: This. This is what mental illness looks like.
I hate to break it to you, but mental illness FAR MORE OFTEN looks like the guy sitting next to you on the bus minding his own business. Like the co-worker you’re joking with next to the water cooler. Like the person who sold you your house, or cut your hair, or did your taxes. Like the girl in the bare feet and the owl pajamas. The who falls and keeps getting back up again. The one who isn’t going to bed until she hits “publish” on her blog post.
A few fast facts about mental illness and violence:
People with mental illnesses are far more likely to be victims of crimes than perpetrators. (source)
The absolute risk of violence among the mentally ill as a group is very small. (source)
The public is largely misinformed about any links between mental illness and violence. (source)
These inaccurate beliefs lead to widespread stigma and discrimination. (source)
Someone in my since-deleted Facebook post asked me, “Are you saying that you think talking about mental illness is harmful?” And what I think is very much the opposite. I think we need to be talking about mental illness. I think we need to know what mental illness is (and is not!). I think we need to have more compassion. I think we need to harbor less judgement. I think we need to demand true information, and real awareness. I think this conversation needs to happen openly, honestly, and in an ongoing fashion. Because what’s happening in the media right now? That’s not a conversation about mental illness. It’s fear-mongering. It’s sensationalism. It’s perpetuating a stereotype, it’s increasing stigma, and it is HARMFUL.
Let me say that again: Make no mistake. What’s happening right now is harmful to those with mental illnesses, and making those who suffer even less likely to seek help when it’s needed.
I’m going to close with something I wrote on the thread on my Facebook page before I deleted. It was responses to this comment that were what eventually led me to delete the post. Because it was so, so deeply personal. And if you don’t feel heard when you write something so personal … I don’t know. I think it’s one of the most painful things we can experience. This is what I wrote, and the kernel from which this whole post was born.
There are so many people, so so many people, who’ve had or currently have suicidal ideation, who are afraid to get help for various reasons. I think the stigma is a huge one, as well as the fact that there is so much judgment attached (ie: How could anyone do something so *selfish*?, etc). But I also think that talking about it just makes people so damn uncomfortable that they’d do anything to avoid it. I get it. It’s uncomfortable. No one’s even mentioned it in this entire thread, despite my having led with it. But my life is valuable too, as is everyone’s who suffers from a mental illness. The problem is, it seems like no one wants to talk about mental illness until someone commits some horrific crime. This tiny, tiny segment of mentally ill people is literally the only exposure that people are getting. And by sensationalizing it, and using it to explain something away (something that is obviously multi-faceted) so many people are hurt. The feeling that one gets, from this side of it, is that your average, run-of-the-mill person who has a mental illness – which is SO many more people than most are aware of – is unimportant. If they take their *own* lives, oh well, as long as they’re not violent towards others. So sure, let’s have a conversation about mental illness, but that conversation needs to include the vast vast majority of people who live/work/exist without ever harboring violent tendencies. Otherwise, it’s just propagating stereotypes and increasing stigmas.
Let’s do better. Please.