Let's Get Real About the Mental Illness Issues in Our Country
February 22, 2018
**Let's start this post off with a (very long) disclaimer. This post has a chance of offending you. There is a chance after reading this post you may dislike me or think I'm an idiot. There's a chance you may unfollow this blog. There's a chance you unfriend me on social media. That is okay. As I continue to grow in my recovery journey, I'm learning and re-learning who I am at my core. I know my newly cultivated core values may differ than many of your core values. I have my own beliefs through my own experiences that I hold true. You have your own beliefs through your own experiences that you hold true. You and I will not always see eye to eye.And that too, is okay.
I've taken time. I've cried. I've talked. I've debated. I've raised my voice. I've sat in silence with my emotions. I've held onto those emotions, extracted the information they were trying to give me, and let those emotions go. I've been open to both sides of this argument. I've read social media posts, comments, and news articles. I've listened to podcasts. I've watched news pieces from both sides of the political spectrum. I've done my absolute best to be as unbiased as possible and just take in information from every outlet no matter who sourced said outlet.
And after a week of processing and composing my thoughts, I am now ready to talk in both a more calm and public manner.
I cannot sit here and call myself a mental health advocate and NOT provide any commentary about what is going on in our country right now. Some of you have said I'm a brave person for creating a mental health blog in the first place. I still (and probably always will) disagree. But this post - me writing and sharing my thoughts on such a triggering and hate inducing topic - is one of the scariest things I can do, as I have a huge anxiety with confrontation and arguments. So maybe just this once I will believe you in calling me brave. My hands are honestly shaking as I try to type this, already fearful of the comments that could result from hitting "publish". But right now, these issues are far more important than my anxiety ever could be.
I need you to know that I'm not asking you to agree with me. I'm not trying to change your point of view. I'm not trying to preach. I don't think I have all the answers nor do I think I am smarter or better than you. I'm not trying to de-value your own opinions and beliefs. I validate that you have your own and I think it's beautiful and wonderful you do have your own! All I'm asking is that you hear me out for a second. All I'm asking if for you to just listen to my perspective. To read this with an open mind and an open heart. Thank you**
The first time I ever saw any kind of gun in person, I was around eleven years old. A family member had gotten a paintball gun for Christmas or their birthday (I don't really remember which). He had set up a target in his backyard and the adults let the older kids take a turn shooting it. I stood about 30-ish feet away, took my shot, actually hit the target surprisingly, shrugged, and went inside with my dad to watch basketball.
The second time I was ever truly around any kind of gun was almost two-ish years ago, before I met Greg, on second or third date with a guy I met on Tinder. He was an avid hunter (and yes, I know, a vegan dating a hunter doesn't normally work out, but I share this detail in hoping you see that I do my best to be as open as possible with every person I meet) and he wanted to introduce me to some of his hobbies. He took me skeet shooting and I genuinely did have a good time - but not a good enough time to have tried it again since.
Clearly, I do not have a close relationship with guns. I didn't grow up in a pro-gun family. The only real "weapon" my dad uses is a butter knife. No seriously, that's his legitimate tool of choice. My grandfathers fought and shot artillery during wars but they didn't bring that military side of them back to the States when they became civilians again. Or at least if they did, it faded by the time I was born. I don't have uncles or cousins that go hunting religiously. Greg isn't a gun person - our home security solution is a baseball bat that we keep in our bedroom. Based on my personal life experiences, I don't understand the love some have for their guns or the second amendment, as I feel the second amendment doesn't really add much value to my personal, daily life. And I do admit, even with the Orlando and Vegas shootings and other gun related violence that has occurred in recent years, I haven't taken the time to really educate myself on guns or the issues surrounding them.
But boy. Over the course of the last seven-ish days, I've done my best to ingest gun culture like it's my job. I've tried to learn about the lingo, the different kinds, the accessory pieces, the laws, the people who do love them and their POVs, their arguments - everything possibly related to last weeks horrific mass school shooting. I'm in no way saying I'm now an expert, because I'm still definitely not. And I do admit I still don't fully understand the POV of pro-gun extremists. But I am definitely closer to understanding than I was before. And I do know that the only way people take you seriously in this debate - or any debate for that matter - is when you are educated about the issues. I'd like to think I've done that, or have at least done it well enough to write a blog post about it.
But with that said, this isn't a post on gun control. I'm not here to take away anyone's guns. I'm not here to tell anyone what to do with those guns. Do I have my own opinions about what we could be doing with our guns, sure I do. But this isn't the time or place to voice those opinions, because guns aren't the only source of our issues with gun violence. I'd rather talk about my favorite topic - the topic I feel I do have at least a tad bit of expertise in - mental illness. If I took a shot for every time I heard or read the term "mental illness" or "mental health" over the last week, I'd definitely be dead. Off the bat, I want to say that I definitely agree with people when they say, "we have a mental illness issue in this country." We for sure have mental illness issues, but I think of them differently than the average person.
Am I angry with the way we treat and talk about mental health/illness in a general sense? Yes. Do I wish mental health treatment was more accessible to people who need it? Of course (I definitely would have stayed in my group therapy longer if my insurance had allowed). Do I get upset when I see people who speak out about their mental illness issues getting shamed and ridiculed for doing so? Ugh, more than anything. Do I get frustrated when people make negative comments about depression, anxiety, EDs, PTSD, OCD, abuse, harassment, therapy, medications, etc? It makes my blood boil. But do I also know that while I wish all these external laws/regulations/mental health revolutions could actually start to happen, this change needs to start internally? You betcha.
We don't just have mental illness/health issues. We have deeper problems surrounding those issues. We have issues with respect, empathy, and kindness. We have issues with closing off from anyone who disagrees with our point of view (aka the backfire effect). We have issues with sitting with our emotions - especially negative ones like frustration, anger, and hate. We have issues with coping skills. We have issues with shame and guilt. We have issues based off the kind of language we use. I want to note that we don't have an issue with voicing our opinions. In general, we are all pretty good at talking, and even shouting those opinions, but we aren't that great at listening - especially listening with an open mind and heart.
As someone who deals with a number of mental illnesses (anxiety, undiagnosed manic depression [undiagnosed because I fit a number of the mania symptoms but not quite enough to be fully diagnosed correctly], depression, and eating disorders), I feel as though most of the conversations regarding mental illness are using the term like a trendy buzzword. It feels like most only recognize the misconstrued, stereotyped cliché of "mental illness". I read the opinions of some, which claimed we need to do more to segregate and mandate the mentally ill. That gun violence is a problem caused by the mentally ill because of the "guns don't kill people, people kill people" argument. I read many social media posts calling those with mental illness "monsters", "dangerous and disturbed", "untrustworthy", and point blank "terrible people".
And in reading those opinions, for the first time since starting this blog, I truly started to feel ashamed of my mental illness. Because if you believe those with mental illness truly are terrible, evil-ridden beings, then you also think I am a terrible, evil-ridden being. And that's a pretty shitty belief to sit with.
And with that, I believe this is where our issue with mental illness actually starts. The stigmas, walls, and misconceptions regarding it. The way we as a collective society talk about it. Not the actual people who suffer from mental illness.
And it worries me to see that we (collectively) may not always realize there's a difference - a difference that only adds to the mental health issues everyone is now so concerned about (because let's be real, we really don't talk about mental illness until a tragedy like this happens and we need someone but ourselves to blame).
A number of you have told me that me writing about my mental illnesses have helped you in turn be open and vulnerable enough to talk about your own issues - either directly with mental illness or issues surrounding mental illness such as harassment and abuse, external situations, etc. These conversations always leave me with such joy, because I know how difficult these things are to talk about - and I know the flooding relief that comes when you finally do talk about them. I'm experiencing the happiness that can result from embracing your mental illnesses and/or issues and effectively coping with them. But I also know the overwhelming feeling of fear before you do open up. I know the feeling of wanting to protect those you love. Of shielding them from what's inside your brain. Of not wanting to burden others with your problems. But I fear now, that the more we use "mental illness" like a buzzword, without really understanding what mental illness even is or what the term even means, the harder conversations like these are going to be.
Earlier I said we have an issue with language, and I hold that to be true. Let's take the title of this post for example. I originally titled this "Let's Get Real About the Mental Illness Issues in THIS Country". I later changed this to our so it reads, "Let's Get Real About the Mental Illness Issues in OUR Country." "This" is a little standoffish. "This" feels a little hostile in comparison and a little segregated. But "our" reminds the reader this isn't individual but collective. That we are in this together. "This land is your land, this land is my land", 'Merica, kumbaya, and whatnot...
Using the terms "mental health" and "mental illness" all willy-nilly is another example of this. (And yes, that works on both sides of the argument. Spouting off gun jargon with no clue about what that jargon actually means is just as harmful - which is why I've been learning all I can [and why this post doesn't touch the gun side of the argument].) We already have a hard enough time beginning the mental health conversation. For many, it's extremely difficult to disclose if we think/know we have one, based off our collective society's preconceived notions about people who do have a mental illness. No one wants to be labeled as "broken" or "damaged" or "crazy" - and that can definitely happen when you are vulnerable enough to come forward and say you have a mental illness or are suffering from symptoms of mental illness. I've lost countless people in my life because they think less of me now (coping and some days thriving with my mental illnesses publicly) than they did before I decided to speak up (numbing my pain, self harming, closed off from everyone, suffering privately). Heck for most of us it's freaking hard just to talk about any kind of negative emotion we may be having in general, as most of us have been taught to bottle our emotions and push them far away from the surface. If we now start negatively associating mental illness with terms like "insane", "crazy", and "evil" - if we now start negatively associating mental illness with attacks such as bombings, mass shootings, hate crimes, etc - the few helpful conversations we are having are only going to dwindle further. And that my friends, is the absolute WORST thing that can happen if we want to effectively start to create change and find solutions.
This use of such hate and fear based language is only going to cause more divide and segregation in a country that is fighting to stay united as it is...
We collectively don't know how to speak to each other anymore - or at least that's what it feels like. We've taken the anonymity of the internet and ran a million miles away with it. We tell others that they are stupid and that they don't know what they're talking about. We shame them. We hate them. We tell them their opinion isn't valid or that they aren't entitled to an opinion at all. Instead of listening to what someone else has to say (whether they are factually correct or not), we shout loud enough that we drown their words out entirely. That cycle continues and instead of coming closer to a solution, we only fall further away from one. We've started taking on this superiority complex and have lost so much respect for one another. And I think that's what breaks my heart the most in all of this.
I want to start segueing into the conclusion of this post with a quote from one of the podcasts Greg showed me over the weekend. I had been going off on my rants and views and frustrations - trying to process everything after news of the shooting broke into the media. And I couldn't quite get my words to come out the way I wanted to. I am so grateful to have a partner who heard both what I was and wasn't able to communicate and realize the ending of this specific podcast was everything I was trying to get out of my brain. And that it could validate the thoughts I was having frustrations with - aka the way I feel we are now demonizing and further misunderstanding those with mental illness. The Podcast is called "With Friends Like These" and no matter how you feel about this specific podcast or it's host, Ana Marie Cox, I urge you listen to the last five minutes of that podcast. This post is already long enough, so I'm going to paraphrase the parts I feel are the most relevant (scroll to the bottom of that link to listen to her entire reflection). She says:
"So I had a rough week...It was bad, mainly because my brain is not wired like everyone else's...The one thing that would make me guaranteed to never feel depression again would be a new brain - and I've become somewhat attached to the one that I have...but I am getting better at just letting my dark feelings happen...I've embraced the fact that I have a mental illness. I'm not ashamed of it because I know that feeling shame about my mental illness will make it worse. Feeling shame about my mental illness could kill me. And indeed it once almost did. And that is why I take pretty seriously the discussions that people are having right now about whether or not the mentally ill should be able to own guns. I think talking like that defines a whole category of people, who are my people, as inherently dangerous, as killers, as evil doers, and that kind of talk shames us. And it puts us at risk. Not because of violence that we might do to others, but violence we do to ourselves...lumping together those with a history of violence and threatening violence with people who have a mental illness is as discriminatory, and actually, as inaccurate, as linking violence and race or violence and religion. Any time we make gun control about the identity of who gets to have guns rather than the demonstrated history of the gun owner or the guns themselves, we are adding weight to stereotypes and stigma."
Last week, 17 families learned that they will never get to hold their loved ones again - 14 of those loved ones being children who had everything to live for. Instead of showing those families support, empathy, and love, our (or at least my) social media feeds were being filled with with negativity and arguments. They were being filled with more fear. More yelling. More closed-mindedness. More indifference. More hate. More of the reasons we are in this predicament in the first place. What was it that Yoda said again? "Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering." Guys, I'm afraid we are only going to continue to collectively suffer if we continue down this path...
Fear of the unknown is where most of my anxiety lies. Fear of not knowing the outcome of certain situations. Of not knowing what people are thinking or how they may or may not be judging me. Not knowing when I will die or if I will have lived a fulfilling life before that happens. Not knowing what comes after death. Not knowing the outcome of big exams or projects or presentations or if I had prepared enough for them. Not knowing where my career is going - if I will be successful or one day homeless. Not knowing how my friends and acquaintances will respond to the posts I write, to name a few. And I noticed in my observations this past week that fear seemed to be the core emotion filling most of the arguments on my feed. Fear of the government coming and taking away guns. Fear of those said guns. Fear of regulations and restrictions. Fear of when another mass shooting will occur if regulations and restrictions don't occur. Fear of the mentally ill. Fear of pro-gun extremists. Fear of possible change. Fear that there will be no change at all.
Maybe - in alignment with our issues of gun control and mental illness because I don't want to downplay those issues - we have a deep, underlying issue with fear (and coping with that fear) in our country. I personally think fear is at the core of the ever strengthening divide we are all experiencing, but that is a blog topic for another day. If we think about it, what is fear? Technically it's a warning emotion that keeps a person from trying something. Fear holds you back. Fear closes you off. Fear keeps you stagnant. Fear is what keeps us from changing.
So how do we fight that fear? Technically, the opposite of fear is curiosity, as curiosity is what draws us to something, rather than keeping us away from it. I fight my fear of the unknown through continual learning. It's why I read a lot of books and articles. It's why I'm now getting into the podcast game. It's why I try to surround myself with people who are different than me and can teach me different ways of of thinking and living. I also fight my fear of the unknown now by just doing things. By saying yes to new people and opportunities - even if my fear of said person or opportunity is telling me to not do it. Does it always work, heck no, but whether success or failure, I know I have grown immensely simply by trying. By saying "no" to fear and "yes" to curiosity.
My hope for the time being, is that we can start to stop fearing and stigmatizing the mentally ill. You may find this surprising, but the mentally ill are actually less likely to commit crime than those who aren't. And those who are mentally ill are more likely to become the victim of a crime than those who don't have mental illness. I want us to start having conversations that aren't riddled in shame and bias. I want us to start being open and vulnerable, not just with each other but with ourselves as well.
I hope we can start to shed the idea that a person is either sane or insane and there is no in-between. I think all of us have our moments of madness (aka times of struggle and feeling "off") as well as our moments of brilliance. I think we could all benefit from talking to a mental health professional and trying therapy. I think it's crucial we all start to sit with our emotions and listen to what they are trying to tell us, before numbing or shoving them away. More importantly, I think we learn how to cope with those emotions before they turn into anger and hate.
And lastly, I hope we can all start to swallow our pride periodically. I ache for a day where we can just listen to each other and talk without resorting to shame, guilt, anger, and insult. I hope we can all start to see the positives and the light that shines within all of us - no matter a person's gender, sexuality, religion, race, status, or life views. Turning to love and compassion is the only way things are going to get better. I know one blog post ending in love isn't going to make much of a difference. I know so many things need to change on a governmental level in order to create a better future for all of us. But I will also continue to fight and say this all starts with how we treat each other on a fundamental level. We can't expect our world leaders to lead with love and respect if we can't even do it ourselves - we need to be the example and set the new standard.
My name is Kelly and my brain is predisposed to anxiety and depression. I can't change that. I know it's not my fault and it's something I'm fighting with, coping with, and accepting daily. But I also know that my depression and anxiety was fueled to the point of wanting to take my own life based on the way others treated me. Based on the ways others talked to me and talked about me. Based off words and actions of others that I took to heart - the negative words that fed my demons and fueled my continual cycle of self-hate. I don't blame those people for how I dealt with their words and actions, as I'm sure they were dealing with their own shit as well. But I wonder what could happen if we talked to each other with the intent of actually wanting the best for one another. And I know that's a stretch. I know there are certain people you just don't want to be nice to. But if we start simply respecting each other again...I don't know friends...maybe that respect could spread like wildfire. Maybe that respect could evolve into love. Maybe that communal love could trickle up into politics, political parties, and political office. And maybe then we could create legislation and change that's actually effective. Maybe that could be the spark of the revolution we all so desperately need.