A Long-Delayed Post About Mental Illness

Trigger Warning: Discussion of depression and suicide.

(Finally posting this because I just posted about vulnerability and the Break the Silence event is coming up.)

I started working on this post last summer. I haven’t posted it yet because 1.) I’m scared and 2) I’d rather tell people this in person. But the reality is that I don’t know when I’d have the opportunity to sit down with people one by one, or if I’d ever have the courage, or if I’d want to dump that on people when they weren’t ready for it.

So if you aren’t ready for this or would rather hear it from me in person, please stop reading and give me a call.

The point that I’m avoiding is that I’ve been struggling with depression since I was about sixteen, that is my junior year in high school. I didn’t realize it was called depression or that anyone else might be going through similar things until my freshman year of college. In high school, I just thought I was bad at being a person and worse, just a bad person. I had trouble focusing and getting out of bed. I lost interest in everything. I snapped at friends for no reason. And I had suicidal thoughts.

I have attempted suicide twice in my life. Once my junior year of high school, around the height of my depression, when one morning I just couldn’t stand up. The other time my sophomore year of college when everything else in my life was pretty darn perfect, new job as an RA, happy, healthy relationship, still loving my school, and I found myself crying almost every day for no reason. Eventually I reached the place where nothing else made sense, and the spiteful voices in my head had hissed at me for long enough, and I just sat down and took some pills. The only reason I stopped was because I had a meeting. Thank God for the ceaseless call of punctuality.

That was definitely the low point. And I’ve had bad days since. Days when I couldn’t stop crying, when the world around me shifted without warning into the prehistoric gray, the land of mist and fog. In that place the only way out seemed to be self-destruction. I’ve since had more suicidal ideation, that is thinking of ways to end my life, making semi-plans, without necessarily taking steps to accomplish them.

I don’t really want to go into those details, though, other than to say this: please don’t minimize the experiences of people with mental illness. It is really and truly an awful and isolating thing to go through and is only made worse by its stigmatization. It is a physiological over-stimulation of the brain’s chemical processes in response to stress and no less “real” than any other disease that attacks the brain. As if the pain were not enough, putting the blame on the person struggling with the illness adds unnecessary shame and isolation. And believe me, it isn’t as if the person hasn’t been telling themselves the same words. I can’t count the number of times I told myself “Get over it, Laura, it’s only in your head.”

But I consider myself to be unbelievably lucky. I’ve been surrounded by friends and family members who have done everything they can to support me, who have sat with me and saved my life over and over again, often without knowing it. I’ve been privileged enough to go to a college that offers counselors. I have health insurance. I have the language to talk about this and people willing to listen.

Tragically, this is not the case for most people with mental illness. And that’s why I’m really writing this: beyond attempting to end the silence that surrounds and confuses mental illness, there are some things we can all do. Be on the look-out for friends going through similar struggles. Although the symptoms vary from person to person, you can look for withdrawal from typical activity, dramatic changes in sleeping and eating patterns, withdrawal from social involvement, and spontaneous and seemingly random mood shifts including anger, aggression, or crying as some common signals. Hopefully you’d notice these anyway. If these symptoms continue for extended periods of time or are accompanied by other negative thought patterns, it might be a good idea for the person to talk to a professional. If not a professional then a supportive friend can be helpful, although also terrifying.

This isn’t to say go out and start diagnosing people, it’s to say be aware.

And if you do think you have a mental illness or if you’ve been having suicidal thoughts, please, please reach out to people. It’s one of the scariest and most difficult things to do, but you are incredibly and unquestionably worth it.

Thanks for reading, and if you’d like to talk this through with me or someone more qualified, please do. I’m putting this out there as a conversation starter and not an exhaustive diatribe. Though it did get lengthy.

As an end note: thank you to everyone who has helped me knowingly or unknowingly throughout the years. I wouldn’t be here without you, and I am so grateful every day. I have been doing amazingly well. In 2014, my breakdowns were relatively low and often sparked by outside events rather than simply occurring at random as they have in the past, and 2015 is breakdown free so far! I don’t know how long this trend will continue, but it is encouraging!

 

 

“What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World”: The Role of Cynicism, Optimism, and Vulnerability

I really like the Decemberists. In case you missed it.

I’ve realized that my recent blog posts, in addition to being few and far between tend to be on the ranting side. I’d like to attempt to rectify this without sinking into naivete, which is always the strange and probably self-inflicted balance I walk.

Growing up I was what I’d like to call a morbid optimist. I have a sort of fascination with death that maybe spawns from the time our “pet” skunk, Pepe got shot by the neighbor. Or maybe from reading too much fantasy as a child, see here my adoration with The Lord of the Rings. There’s nothing that so perfectly marries death and hope for an eleven-year-old madly searching for something more interesting than corn in her life.

I wanted to believe in “the best of all possible worlds”. I wanted to believe that people were inherently good and that bad things came from the outside. Death when it happened, thought eleven-year-old Laura, was a sort of shining symbol and not much more.

And then I got to high school. It turns out that people do bitchy things for no reason. And further that some people tell lies. And further that some people hurt other people. Badly. During my time in high school, friends came to me to confide, some with more serious problems than others, on a fairly regular basis. Hearing my friends confess their pain over and over both heightened and lessened my own. I wanted more than anything to take the pain from them and put it on myself.

The world got darker in high school. I saw the effects of parental death, divorce, domestic abuse, and mental illness played out across the bodies and souls of the people I cared about. I lost sight of that shiny fantasy world that had been a hallmark of my childhood years. Swinging the way only hormonal teenagers can I went from a raging optimist to a moping cynic.

And maybe I still should be. But I’m not.

People still tell me things. Their secrets, their hopes, their fears, their loves. It is something of a job for me being an RA and more importantly a part of being a human and a friend. The people I love keep getting hurt. And getting hurt. And getting hurt. And it kills me more than I can say. But I’ve also realized something: in these confessions, these deep meetings of the soul during which I see more than I want to of human depravity, I also see more than I ever imagined of human greatness.

My friends are great. I mean it not just in the sense of “OMG they’re awesome xoxo”. I mean my friends are what is meant by the best of humanity. They are caring, strong, admirable, hopeful, growing, beautiful, and most of all willing to be vulnerable. And for that I cannot thank them enough. In sharing their stories, the painful and the powerful, they bare their souls to me. And I can only stand in awe of what I see.

Can I talk about my friend who despite their difficulties still has the energy and willingness to make the best jokes?

Can I tell you about the friend who inspires me daily with the way they have grown and created through their pain?

Can I tell about the friend whose grief has been turned into unfaltering love for everyone else around them?

Can I make you meet these people? Because they will change your life. Just as they changed mine.

I could be a cynic still. I know that there’s enough bad stuff to fill the world twenty times over. But these amazing fucking people I know, these people have shown me that love is strong enough to make it all worthwhile. And that there is more beauty in the world than any single person has a right to deny.

So thank you to all you people who know who you are. For being yourselves and reminding me of the importance of vulnerability.

 

The Problem with Asking Michael Shermer to Speak at Carleton’s Convocation: Part 2

Trigger Warning: Discussion of racism and Islamophobia, including racial caricatures and graphic racial violence. Laura cursing further.

All right, let’s say you just don’t care about women, or you don’t believe in sexism because, hey, you’ve never seen it, and you think people just can’t take a joke and are all probably just overreacting.

There were further problems with Dr. Shermer’s January 9 Convocation speech at the Skinner Memorial Chapel (again available to the public eventually at this link).

After the first pretty banal though condescending half of his speech in which Dr. Shermer pointed out that people believe ridiculous things for their own safety (the irony almost chokes me), Dr. Shermer then began to discuss religion and specifically Islam and specifically brought in the Charlie Hebdo attack.

Side note on Charlie Hebdo: go read the wonderful Jacob Canfield’s article in the Hooded Utilitarian. (Side side note: Some people seem to be reading victim blaming into Jacob’s article. I did not. I think his point, which is what I was trying to reflect in my post as well, is that the cartoons created in response to the attack rather than helping to heal or promoting the cause of free speech, are simply anti-Islamic with disastrous racial undertones. No one is saying that people should be killed for what they create or that the cartoonists were in anyway responsible for their own deaths. Dear God, no. But I also don’t think that people should be using this event as an excuse to publish further hate-filled cartoons. See below.)

Further side note: It’s tragic that people were murdered in France, and I don’t want to sound isolationist, but I can’t help but think that the discussion of Charlie Hebdo is a nice distraction from the continued racial injustice in the United States. See the #NAACPbombing movement. (Where is the backlash against all white men in response to the bombing??)  It’s a much easier narrative: in a different country; related to Islam, a religion we feel very comfortable railing against; related to free speech a subject we all love to rabidly protect without fully understanding its implications and complications. The Charlie Hebdo attack was incredibly sad and unnecessary, but so were the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. They are different situations in which the cost was human life, a price too high for any ideal or “mistake”, but I can’t help but wonder how happy people would be to talk about something happening in France if we didn’t have something we wanted to ignore in our own backyard. And where was the global “I am Garner” movement? Laura wonders.

So, back to Dr. Shermer’s talk in the Chapel this Friday. As I said, Dr. Shermer transitioned excitingly from ignoring the banner reading “We Remember” (in reference to the allegations of sexual assault. See Part 1), to talking about how, while all religions are inherently wrong, some (read here Islam) are more wrong than others. He then shared some of the terribly racist covers that have been circulating post Charlie, like this gem:

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 It reads: “You can’t murder our freedom”. I’ve never been more ashamed to speak German.

He showed us some statistics regarding how many Muslims world-wide believe in sharia and would like to see it codified. That’s fine, but he then equated believing in sharia with supporting murder and extremism. PLEASE SHOW ME THE STATISTICS OF THOSE IN THE UNITED STATES WHO BELIEVE THE BIBLE IS THE WORD OF GOD AND THAT IT SHOULD BE CODIFIED INTO LAW. This is part of a religion, believing in the given text as the word of God. If you did not believe this, you would not be part of said religion.

HOWEVER, BELIEVING IN YOUR OWN RELIGION DOES NOT AUTOMATICALLY MAKE YOU AN EXTREMIST, NOR DOES IT MEAN THAT YOU ARE IN SUPPORT OF MURDER.

If we want to get into violence supported by religion why don’t we look into the KKK, shall we? How many people of color were mutilated and executed in the name of Jesus Christ in our own country, in our own backyard? How likely is it that the NAACP bombing was motivated by a religious-minded white man? Why didn’t you talk about that, Dr. Shermer?

Dr. Shermer willfully participated in the continued Islamophobia that has held sway in this country since before 9/11 and which is still at play in France. On his twitter account (read for a bitter laugh that turns to incomprehensible cursing) he continued to defend his statements repeatedly questioning where were the Christians who committed such acts? Here are some, Dr. Shermer:

KKK: Perhaps you’ve heard of them. “Bringing a Message of Hope and Deliverance to White Christian America! A Message of Love NOT Hate!” Responsible for the death and mutilation of thousands of people of color since its creation in 1866.

Lord’s Resistance Army: A militant extremist Christian group accused of murder, mutilation, child sex-slavery, and abduction.

Kataeb Party:  A right-wing, predominantly Christian group responsible for the Sabra and Shatila massacre, between 762 and 3,500 civilians murdered in 1982.

But that’s not the point. I’m not trying to say we should persecute Christians anymore than we should persecute Muslims. All religions have committed atrocities. People will use anything they can to motivate their inhuman actions. Singling out Islam as “the worst” religion in this regard, and then spreading the ignorant and downright fucking stupid comics that perpetuate racial stereotypes, is grossly inappropriate. This is not a matter of “political correctness” as Dr. Shermer seemed to think, but of continued Islamophobia and inherent xenophobia and racism. (Particularly look at the correlation between distrust in Muslims loyalty and belief in the military/police in the United States. Interesting.)

So if you weren’t convinced that allowing this man on our campus was a bad idea based solely on his previous treatment of women, then perhaps his current actions of stereotyping an entire religion during a time when they are already receiving backlash for the actions of a few extremists might convince you.

Oh, also his tasteless jokes about stalking and stoning homosexuals. You’re right though, Dr. Shermer, you’re not as politically incorrect as Family Guy. Congratulations.

THE POINT IS DON’T FUCKING INVITE INSENSITIVE ALLEGED RAPISTS TO OUR CAMPUS.

Especially when there are so many other deserving people we could hear talk. Maybe some who aren’t fucking wealthy white men. There are more important things than notoriety. Like being a good person.

The Problem with Asking Michael Shermer to Speak at Carleton’s Convocation: Part 1

Trigger Warning: Discussion of sexual assault/harassment. Laura will be cursing.

Note: You can (eventually?) watch the full convocation recording here.

A brief context for people unaware: on January 9, Dr. Michael Shermer, a renowned skeptic and scientist, founding publisher of The Skeptic magazine, and a man of TEDtalk fame gave a convocation in the Carleton College Chapel entitled “Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time”. An appropriate title as I left the chapel absolutely stunned. For very different reasons than I believe the talk intended.

Further context: Dr. Shermer has over the past several years been surrounded by multiple allegations of sexual harassment and assault ranging from unwanted intercourse following the plying of drinks and drunken gropings to general consistent “sleaziness”. If you Google Dr. Shermer, the sixth link leads to an article from freethoughtsblog.com that links to a history of these allegations as well as a discussion of what is the appropriate response beyond court action. One of the suggestions was NOT INVITING THIS MAN TO SPEAK.

I’ve tried my best to remain “objective” or whatever in this situation to avoid accusations of bias, but that is also complete bullshit. Sexual harassment and assault are a reality of our society, and IT’S NOT OKAY. Let’s just take a moment and recognize that there is a known drug in our society called the “date-rape drug”. If I read about that in a sci-fi book I’d think it was unbelievable. BUT IT’S A WELL-KNOWN PART OF OUR LIVES. IT EXISTS.

I’m pissed. I’m pissed that Dr. Sherman has the power and means to avoid serious consequences for his past actions. I’m seeing the injustice of being a wealthy, white, straight, cis-gender, highly educated, atheist man in the United States working before my eyes, and I’m angry. He is able to get away with despicable, sub-human actions, with seemingly no consequences.

FURTHER, I AM OUTRAGED THAT CARLETON COLLEGE, THE PLACE OF HIGHER EDUCATION I HAVE BEEN ATTENDING FOR THE PAST FOUR YEARS AND WHICH HAS TOLD ME REPEATEDLY THAT THIS IS A “SAFE SPACE” ENCOURAGING TOLERANCE AND SUPPORT OF HUMAN BEINGS WOULD INVITE A MAN WITH THIS BACKGROUND TO OUR CAMPUS.

This is unacceptable. Absolutely unacceptable.

Even if you believe as Dr. Shermer said that “the burden of proof is on the person making the extraordinary claim” and that “you shouldn’t believe everything you read on the internet”, let’s be good skeptics and determine what has the higher likelihood:

1.) That numerous women in the skeptic and atheist world, a world already fairly anti-women (another article here if you’re unconvinced), would risk their reputations and their well-being in order to defame one of the biggest names and most powerful people in the skeptic community (Fun Fact: A recent report has shown that the percentage of false accusations of sexual assault are right around… 2-8% this in contrast with the massive 68% of assaults that go unreported).

OR
2.) That a wealthy, powerful, straight cis-gender white man who has plenty of evidence from the society around him that he won’t be held accountable for anything he does would take advantage of women (multiple sources have witnessed him pushing drinks on women, flirting inappropriately etc.) and rely on his lawyers and the general sentiment that victims of sexual assault are somehow a) lying or b) responsible for their victimization (BOTH OF WHICH ARE ABSOLUTELY FUCKING RIDICULOUS BY THE WAY).

Let’s just think about that for a little bit.

With these two scenarios, accounts of the second which are easy to find by a simple GOOGLE SEARCH what would you do? Would you invite this person onto campus? I WOULD THINK FUCKING NO, BUT THEN WHO AM I? JUST A STUDENT ON SAID CAMPUS.

I went to the convocation, though, in the hopes of asking some questions. However, in addition to condescendingly telling us not to believe everything we read online, and that the burden of proof is on the person making the claim, Dr. Shermer refused to take questions at the end of the convocation despite having the time to do so.

AND THEN THERE WAS THE ISLAMOPHOBIC RANT. But I’m realizing this post got really long, so I’ll be making a second part to deal with that.