My Mental Illness is Not Your Inspirational Post-it Note
I blogged a week ago about mental illness and antidepressants, prompted by an exchange I had with a troll on the #imnotashamed hashtag on Twitter.
I like and support the stated mission of Team Notashamed: “to spread the message that mental heath conditions are nothing to be ashamed of … [and] helping end the harmful stigma associated with mental heath conditions and advocating for better and more accessible healthcare.”
But good intentions don’t mean you never screw up. Rose Lemberg pointed out the following post on the I’m Not Ashamed Twitter feed.
And…no. Just, no.
I have no problem with some of the comments here. Mental illness is not a character flaw. It can be incredibly helpful to know you’re not alone. But some of the others are a mess, and problematic as hell.
I am creative and smart. I am, in all modesty, both creative and smart, yes. But this has nothing to do with my mental illness. Depression doesn’t make me creative or smart. My creativity, my work as a writer, these things happen in spite of my depression, not because of it. Depression is an obstacle I’ve had to overcome in order to be productive and creative. Please stop spreading the bullshit myth that creativity and intelligence are in some way enhanced by mental illness.
I’m so strong because of it. Maybe you are. Great! Maybe you’re not. That’s okay too. I do believe it takes strength to survive any sort of chronic illness, but does that mean the illness makes you strong? Because to be honest, there are times I wish I could put that strength toward other things instead of spending so much of it coping with depression. I don’t see my mental illness as some sort of gift, one I should be grateful for because it makes me stronger. If you choose to believe that for yourself, fine. Don’t push that on everyone else.
I help others now. This one didn’t fishhook my attention as much as the previous two until I saw a few Tweets by Corey Alexander, talking about the imagined trajectory of “graduating” from trauma to helping others, and the pressure on helpers to focus their energies on others to the exclusion of themselves. It got me thinking back to working with sexual assault counselors, and how many of those wonderful, kind, dedicated people had been through their own traumas. Some were still suffering from PTSD. But the emphasis was always on helping others. I think it’s great if you’re able to help others, and being able to draw on your own experiences can make you a more effective helper. But as Rose Lemberg pointed out, the word “now” makes it seem like you didn’t/couldn’t help people before? Or that this is the trajectory everyone should be on. There’s just so much to unpack here.
I’m not going to go through everything. But all right, I get it. Someone wanted to post something feel-good and inspirational. So they Tweeted something problematic, and various folks on Twitter called them out about it.
At which point it sounds like I’m Not Ashamed began blocking people who had a problem with the Tweet. As far as I can tell, they never responded or addressed people’s concerns; they just went straight to blocking.
ETA: They blocked me less than an hour after this blog post was published.
I asked them about this, but haven’t yet gotten an answer. The Tweet that started it all is currently pinned as their top Tweet. We know they’ve seen the criticism, since they were blocking people, so this feels like a pretty clear message that they’re choosing to ignore that criticism.
And that’s the bigger problem here. This is a group that’s set themselves up as advocates for people with mental illness…while ignoring feedback from the very group they claim to support. I don’t know the individuals behind Team Notashamed or their situation, but this feels like symptoms of Toxic Ally Syndrome, where you’re so determined to be an “ally” of Group X that you ignore or argue with members of Group X because you know best. This is often followed by choruses of, “Why are you getting angry at me? I’m your ally! Fine, if you’re gonna be so ungrateful, I’ll just take my allyship and leave!”
I hope it doesn’t go that route. I hope they read and respond to the critiques from the people they’re claiming to want to support, rather than ignoring and blocking.
ETA2: One of the members of that group Twitter account informed me that “All leaders of team not ashamed personally deal with mental illness.” This doesn’t change my sense that it feels like Toxic Ally Syndrome, but I don’t want to erase that these people also either have or deal with mental illness themselves. Hopefully that makes sense?
I’ll wrap this up with a Storification of Rose Lemberg’s Tweets last night about mental illness and identity and the pressure to feel or act certain ways, generally for the comfort of others.
February 17, 2016 @ 12:32 pm
I’m with you in that my depression and anxiety problems (and all their attendant other problems) are a part of my I’ve worked hard not to feel shame about, and that part of it for me has been talking about it frankly, frequently, and in public (mostly). I’m not a huge Twitter fan, so the current brouhaha has occurred without my notice (so thank you), and the particular tweets you found problematic say something different to me (the “creative” one sounds like a defiant declaration, that one can be creative and smart despite mental health issues, not because of them).
But the idea that an advocacy group won’t listen to complaints about its message is bothersome. That they refuse to respond makes me wonder. They must not have expected anyone whom they consider to be under their umbrella to feel differently about the message and had no prepared response. Or they are taking the anecdotal to be universal and the response just confuses them. I don’t know.
In any case, thank you for sharing and talking. I find that your words do me good.
February 17, 2016 @ 12:45 pm
I never had a term for this before. It helps, somehow, in the effort to say, no, you *don’t* know what’s best for me.
February 17, 2016 @ 12:48 pm
‘I am creative and smart’ in another context would be a good counter to the fact the anxiety and depression brain weasels always seem (for me) to keep a Greatest Hits catalog of all the times I don’t feel or act smart and all the times I feel like my creative outputs are hackish and derivative.
But this seems like affirmation to others, not to yourself. Other people are a lot more likely to forget the time I managed to tell my astronomy class the wrong answers to general relativity problems that happened around a decade ago.
Jim C. Hines
February 17, 2016 @ 1:07 pm
The unwillingness to do anything but block people is really frustrating to me. They’re trying to do something good and positive and important, but they stepped on someone’s foot in the process. Instead of listening and moving their foot, it’s just closing their eyes and ignoring the people they’ve hurt.
February 17, 2016 @ 1:10 pm
Yeah; as a self-affirmation, I occasionally use something similar to ‘creative and smart’ when my brain weasels are particularly active. Or I go back and re-read the comments on some ‘fic I’ve written (under a different pseud, because yeah). Because Depression Lies, and I occasionally need a way to remind myself that it’s a lying liar who lies.
But “so strong” and “help others” is the kind of thing that occasionally makes me want to haul off and punch well-meaning people in the face.
I am still surviving the awesome conjunction of brain weasels and rough upbringing; that’s a sort of strength, yeah, but it’s MINE and has nothing to do with other people. And it’s not much of an affirmation, anyway, because of what Jim said up there.
And not everyone has the capability to nurture others and, oddly, my places of nurturance have very little to do with my anxiety or depression. and that’s all okay.
Also, Toxic Ally Syndrome just made its way into my mental vernacular, so thanks for that, Jim.
February 17, 2016 @ 1:23 pm
Toxic Ally…brain weasels…depression is a lying liar who lies…so many things I needed to see today. Thanks, all.
February 17, 2016 @ 2:05 pm
Oh, that’s just lovely. ‘We don’t want your negativity, we’re trying to ~help~!’
I’m reminded of the way people like to talk down to folks with special needs, in a way.
February 17, 2016 @ 2:18 pm
If they are all dealing with mental illness, then I don’t think Toxic Ally Syndrome is the right diagnosis. Instead, it reminds me of Straight White Middle Class Feminism (SWMCF for short) where other women, who complain that SWMCF doesn’t apeak to their issues are blamed for being divisive, or simply shoved off to the side. sWMCF is focused on real issues that damage real people, and the movement grew out of real pain and real activism. It also is frequently defensive when nonstraight, nonwhite, nonmiddle class, nonWestern women point out that SWMCF concerns do not address the ways in which sexism hurts women who don’t fit that demographic. Its assumptions (and statements) that “all women face the same issues” fail to take into account the lived experiences of women in whose lives sexism operates differently.
SWMCF often is defensive or non-responsive or exclusionary instead of listening to what women they unintentionally hurt are saying. These people are doing the same thing to people whose experiences of mental illness is different than their own. The second you start blocking people who say “your message is hurting me” or “I am also mentally ill and your message rings false to me”, they are abrogating to themselves the position of gatekeeper — and it’s no more okay for them to decide who speaks for “the mentally ill” than it is okay for SWMCF to discount and silence the voices of women who don’t fit that demographic.
Jim C. Hines
February 17, 2016 @ 2:36 pm
I’m still not sure what “deals with” mental illness actually means, but yeah. That sounds like a pretty on-point diagnosis/description of what’s happening.
February 17, 2016 @ 2:46 pm
As someone who has worked in the mental health field for many years and developed depression and anxiety in the middle of that career, this is particularly meaningful. There was my absolute despair of being “on the other side of the desk”. What if my co-workers knew? Yeah, it sucked. After beginning treatment I began to evaluate how my co-workers treated their clients and I found them to be incredibly condescending. There exists an “I know better” mentality even with the best trained therapists. At times the person who has to deal with the symptoms of their illness would try to speak up, to make clear, what their life was really like and often, the response was that “you’re not trying hard enough”. Damn! I know that walking everyday will help these symptoms, being able to get out of the house to start these activities is even harder. I truly hope that someday the patients really do run the asylum, they understand the struggle.
Tina Smith Gower
February 17, 2016 @ 4:02 pm
Hmmm, yeah. The blocking seems very frustrating and concerning. Like Sue E above, I’ve worked as a psychologist and a counselor (for kids). I think there are better ways the above post-its could have been worded as you pointed out. I understand it’s difficult to take criticism (for anyone, not just people with mental illness), but this behavior doesn’t do much to help their image.
I’ve got issues with anxiety–sometimes this would make it difficult work with other people who also had anxiety. Sometimes it meant I was not the best candidate to help someone or would need to call in someone else to consult or guide me (I worked mostly with kids, so maybe that makes it easier to put ego aside to do what’s best for the client. Maybe it was just me). I think the post-it about helping *now* is well intended, but much more complicated than a post-it can convey. And that’s just one post-it concern.
It seems they were trying for a mix of positive affirmations? Like the kind that are taught in cognitive-behavioral therapy, but taken out of that context and put into the context of not being ashamed of mental illness changes the meanings…especially online.
I hope that they will re-think their stance on dealing with the objections. I’d love to see them turn it around. It seems that they are trying to become a resource that is much needed.
February 17, 2016 @ 4:07 pm
My previous therapist had also been in therapy, as you are, and I found it made her easier to connect with. So there’s that.
February 17, 2016 @ 4:08 pm
Re: ETA2, makes perfect sense to me.
February 17, 2016 @ 4:52 pm
Feel free to remove this comment if you feel it’s too much of a derailment from the topic of mental illness.
Yours and Rose Lemberg’s comments about feeling obligated to behave a certain (positive) way for the benefit of others at the expense of one’s own wellbeing reminded me of this piece by Sara Douglass: http://www.saradouglassworlds.com/the-guilt-of-cancer/ (original title: An Angry Post).
Content note: discussion of terminal illness at the link.
February 17, 2016 @ 4:53 pm
“We do mental illness BETTER than you” is the message that I get, whether they meant it or not. Reflexively blocking everyone who you supposedly support that mildly disagrees with you doesn’t help “the cause” or any people.
Intersectionalism. It’s a thing they should look into, like SorchaRei was analogizing with SWMCF.
I don’t have the twitters or they’d have blocked me by now too.
D. D. Webb
February 17, 2016 @ 6:47 pm
I mean, misunderstandings happen; we’ve all said things with the best of intentions that turned out to be not so smart in hindsight. But you acknowledge the error, apologize and move on. This kind of doubling-down on this would be a bad move even if they were doubling down in any kind of responsible fashion, instead of blocking all dissenters.
I kinda get where they were coming from. Personally, I feel that I have gained some benefits from mental illness; learning to function as a chronically depressed person has, I believe, made me more resilient, empathetic and thoughtful. However, I would be very, very leery of saying my depression was the cause of that. Surviving trauma of any kind can strengthen a person; hardship can be a great teacher if you let it, and if the circumstances are right. But the thing is, those circumstances don’t always align. Sometimes an illness is just an illness, and holding it up as a source of strength is a big slap in the face to its sufferers.
Just because depression has taught me a few things doesn’t mean I advise it as a path to personal growth. I hope everybody can learn and grow from their obstacles, but I would never wish them on anybody. It’s a fine line between appreciating the growth opportunities of hardship and romanticizing hardship. Sounds like these folks accidentally strayed across that line, which again…people screw up.
But this reaction… Really troubling.
February 17, 2016 @ 6:50 pm
There’s a difference between not being ashamed of mental illness, and lieing about the difficulties and struggles that come withh it to make it look more acceptable and palatable to the public.
February 17, 2016 @ 7:19 pm
I’ve spent a lot of time recently doing talks. I’m being increasingly drawn into the circuit of Lived Experience talks around my being poz. I do touch on my mental health issues. But often it’s mainly about this disease. And how it not only effects you physically but out among others.
And I’ve been asked almost every time about standing and talking, about being brave or strong. And I came to this point a while ago, so it often just flows now when it comes up.
When I was 18 I was diagnosed as manic depressive, now they apparently call it bipolar. Either way I’m more on the depressive side of things and I deal with that now through medication and random forays into counselling. But at the time and ever since the singular thread I recognized is that I have spent my time going through these kinds of things alone. Knowing, from inside, how easy it CAN be to talk out there was a choice I made at 18 that has held most of my life.
When I can, when I have whatever it is in me that allows it, I’ll talk about my experiences. I’ll share so that somewhere even one person might hear: you are not alone.
You are not a freak.
You are not WRONG.
Sometimes I don’t have the energy to do this. But for most of my life I have. I can stand in the middle of my battles and my triumphs, my failures and I can talk about it from the center of the maelstrum. I can’t give answers, I can’t give inspiration, I can’t give solutions. I can give insight. And what you do with it is up to you.
But it creates a moment where silence and isolation are broken and people are left with a connection to difficult things. In difficult ways.
I’ve been called brave or courageous. But I counter : I’m not. I’m not special. It takes will to NOT keep going. Even lying in bed, staring at the ceiling… time ticks past. It keeps going, the world keeps going. Whether or not I want it to.
When Little John died… I remember thinking… why didn’t the world STOP. Just screech to a halt. Why did people keep laughing? Why did I feel this pain, this loss of a man I loved and … how did I keep going?
You often don’t have much of a choice.
My strength is standing back up. It’s not a miracle or extraordinary. It’s standing up. When I can. And moving forward again. And then I fall. And I sit and live through hell. And then one day I get almost, kind of bored with the monotony of pain… and I get up. And go on.
It’s not strength. It’s just not stopping.
So I’m different than I was before this. And that. And the other. And I know how people see it. But I can easily tell you: we all do it. We just… don’t stop.
Until we do.
That’s what this gives you. Not strength or specialness or talent or some sort of validity to wisdom. It gives you a chance to see, and be an expression of, the almost unstoppable force of living. (shrug) Life keeps going. Even when we don’t.
It’s scary here. It’s frightening and lonely to realize that, for instance, the day after Little John died the world kept going without him and NOTHING changed. But it also seemed really familiar. Life doesn’t give a shit about us, but it will use us and keep going. Good bad or indifferently.
February 17, 2016 @ 7:29 pm
Yeah, the blocking is extremely troubling. The mature response would have been to look at whether these criticisms were valid (which they were) and then trying to make up for the mistakes.
Maybe the Toxic Ally Syndrome isn’t the right wording, but they are definitely proving to be toxic.
February 17, 2016 @ 7:30 pm
Gah – reminds me of my ex-therapist who believed in transference (i.e., I was projecting and behaving irrationally) but not counter-transference (i.e., couldn’t admit when his very strong reaction to something had everything to do with him, not me).
February 18, 2016 @ 2:31 am
YES!!!! Blessed Martyr syndrome particularly gets me. (Don’t get me started about Van Gogh who in my opinion would would have painted lots more wonderful pictures if he was NOT mentally ill). I am an artist myself and I would have been an artist regardless of being Bipolar, nor does my illnes ‘inspire’ my work thank you very much. The very few works I have made while unwell never see the light of day.
As it happens I do do a bit of helping others but that does not mean anyone else should feel any obligation to do so, and in fact I think we should only do decide to do so if we are currently well enough to cope with that.
February 18, 2016 @ 11:16 am
The problem with reducing anything to an inspirational quote is that it loses individual nuance, and assumes that all members of ‘x’ group think alike — even if the person writing them is a member of ‘x’ group.
Here is my personal take on those quotes:
“It’s not my fault” “It’s not a choice” “It’s not a character flaw” — I’ll agree with these three wholeheartedly. I wish they’d stopped there.
“It doesn’t define me.” — It may not define me, but it constrains everything I do, every day. I am disabled because of it.
“I’m creative and smart.” — Yes, I am. And it’s not my illness that makes me so — my illness constricts my creativity. Like many others here, I will say that I am a much better writer and thinker when my brain is getting the proper blood flow and balance of neurochemicals.
“I’m so strong because of it.” — Actually, I am significantly weaker because of it. Things that average people take for granted, I can’t do. This one particularly frustrates me, because having a condition doesn’t mean one is weak or strong, and it doesn’t magically confer some mystical strength on one.
“I help others now.” — I help others when I can. I try to be up front about my illness, and educate people. That said, I often am not able to help others because I have to hoard my energy for the needs of myself and my son. I can’t reach out to just anyone, and am often as much in need of others helping as being able to help others. And, more to the point, I am not _obligated_ to help or educate others because of my illness.
“I’m not alone.” — No, I’m not. But it doesn’t mean I don’t feel that way when others with the same issues try to tell me how I’m ‘supposed’ to feel.
February 18, 2016 @ 3:06 pm
What if you’re NOT “creative and smart”? I mean, IQ is on a bell curve and by definition half of humanity is below average. Some people don’t have a creative bone in their body. And there’s nothing wrong with that — maybe they’re great at cleaning houses and mowing lawns (things I suck at and hire out). But if they have a mental illness, I can’t imagine anything more stressful than internalizing the “I have to be a genius artist TOO!” idea.
And how’s about “I’m so strong IN SPITE of it.” Because everyone could get a lot more done if they didn’t have to spend spoons fighting off the brain weasels*. Just think if you had all that energy available to, say, leave the house whenever you ought to and get things done. Travel, go to parties, have romantic dinners, show up at work every day.
*I would like to see this illustrated literally, BTW. Cartoon or photoshop.
February 18, 2016 @ 3:47 pm
I want to thank you for your link – I have a friend who is stage 4 terminal and I think he’d like the article. His best friend (who is how I know him) is the person taking care of him and she gets so much crap from people around them over it. She tries to keep the idiots away from him because honestly, he’s got enough to deal with and doesn’t need the guilt trips. So she gets them instead because somehow, taking care of someone with end stage terminal cancer that WILL kill them (not might, will), is a glory hound’s greatest dream. Not withstanding all of the pain, heartache, and weeks she is forced to spend away from her husband and daughter while literally watching her best friend die.
February 19, 2016 @ 3:16 pm
Yeah, I know what you mean. (Well, I know what it means in my life, at least; I won’t be so arrogant as to claim I really know yours.) You keep going because you haven’t yet figured out how not to — and there’s no one whose arms you could fall into to be carried. It reminds me of Brecht’s Mother Courage.
And the fact that you can go on, somehow, seems like disproof that you really do have a mental illness or whatever. If you actually can walk, you can’t be handicapped. If you can keep a job and pay your bills, you can’t actually be ill, right? Especially if you don’t have some well-known diagnosis that Explains It All, just those lead weights on your ankles and wrists that only you can see.
I wish I could believe that and internalize it. Too many years of being alone, and too many years of daily indoctrination that I was a freak, queer, wrong, and too many decades of trying to hide my freaky, queer, etc., nature from the world.
Sorry to be such a downer….
February 19, 2016 @ 4:35 pm
You are not a downer.
You are not alone.
I struggle with feeling like a freak, like there’s something WRONG with me all the time, and my depression has been well-regulated since the late 1990s. Internalizing those messages is difficult.
You are not alone.
My depression and your depression and Jim’s depression are not the same, and our battles are not the same, because we are not the same person. But in some ways I feel we are all fighting the same larger fight. To be heard. To be seen. To be understood. To be accepted as who we are — and yes, that includes self-acceptance.
You are not alone.
In the end, all anyone can do for you is hand out sticks; it’s your choice whether or not to keep fighting. (http://boggletheowl.tumblr.com/post/41509206591/ive-been-getting-a-lot-of-these-lately-and-i , for reference.)
But you are not alone.
February 20, 2016 @ 6:26 am
February 22, 2016 @ 11:59 am
I wish I could believe that and internalize it. Too many years of being alone, and too many years of daily indoctrination that I was a freak, queer, wrong, and too many decades of trying to hide my freaky, queer, etc., nature from the world.
Oh, it’s easier to broadcast than receive this. For all of my life the sense is that I’m off. Every step of the way there were people looking for reasons. It was because I was manic depressive, then it was because I’m gay, then it was… And every time people were looking for explanations of why I function how I do.
I function differently AND I have all those labels too. (shrug) I can’t honestly say that any one of those things is the keystone, but everyone is sure as hell convinced they can know. But the mental illness means my being able to deal with that difference is not just an uphill battle, it’s one with people racing down the hill around me, slapping me as they go.
Saying is not being. But. Saying it over and over is my attempt to drown out the people saying I was alone. I am alone. I am different and wrong. I’m not sure I’ll ever get to believing it.. but I want to create some counter-noise. Create a space in the world that is neutral. I can’t imagine making it better for others, but I can certainly try to cancel the noise in the other direction.
You’re not alone.
Tipsday: Writerly Goodness found on the interwebz, Feb 14-20, 2016 | Writerly Goodness
February 23, 2016 @ 8:53 pm
[…] Jim C. Hines: My mental illness is not your inspirational Post-it note. […]
March 6, 2016 @ 9:55 am
I’m not ashamed of my mental illness. I’m also not ashamed of my thyroid problem. Neither am I ashamed of being short. These are all aspects of being me. This is not to say I’m not inconvenienced by my mental illness (oh, so many times in oh, so many ways), or my thyroid problem (2 hours wait each morning between taking my meds and eating breakfast? Woo fscking hoo.) or by being short (no I can’t reach that thing up there on the top shelf of the supermarket gondola, could someone please reach it down for me? Thank you).
The “affirmations” up in the quoted tweet really do come across as being more about “no, really, my mental illness doesn’t inconvenience me, see!” than “I’m not ashamed”. They seem to be coming straight out of the “positive thinking solves everything” play-book. The rationale being that if one can just think positively enough, everything in the garden will come up roses (even though what you planted was thistles).
Me? I find trying to “think positive” my way out of a depressive downturn means the thing I start thinking most positively about is a serious cost/benefit analysis of suicide. This isn’t a strategy which is suited to long-term survival, in so far as I’m concerned. What works better for me (much to the barely-suppressed fury of the “positive thinking solves everything” types) is acknowledging that yes, the situation sucks; yes, I feel like hammered crap; and yes, my brain hates me and wants me to be miserable. After acknowledging all of that, and accepting today is going to be a crappy day no matter what happens, I’m actually far better set to cope with things.
(This actually is a feature of depression – it’s called “depressive realism”, and it’s one of the survival-oriented aspects of the condition. Basically, people who are depressed do tend to be able to see a far less rose-tinted, and far more accurate picture of the world than people who aren’t. Where depression starts becoming maladaptive is in the reactions generated to the data thus obtained).
Depression is not just something I can put to one side when it gets inconvenient. It’s part of me, just like being short and having a dodgy thyroid. I have to make accommodations to deal with it, just the same way I have to make accommodations to deal with being short (not storing things on high shelves, using steps, asking people to reach things down for me) or having the dodgy thyroid (regular blood tests to check everything’s functioning; that two hour wait after taking my meds in the morning before I can eat; rugging up extra warm in winter to deal with the sluggish circulation). No, it isn’t something to be ashamed of. But it isn’t something I can pretend doesn’t exist, either.
 There have to be some positives to any apparent mental maladaptation, otherwise natural selection would have pruned the tendency out of us centuries ago