When the inconvenient reality of mental illness comes out of hiding and meets you on the page, it can make for uncomfortable reading.
In February 2017, I briefly emerged from my depressive funk and was functional long enough to write a piece about mental health and fascism before sinking again without a trace.
Alas, one reader didn’t like being reminded of the brittle, fragile, and unpredictable nature of our shared humanness, and much less of the parlous state of American democracy.
My piece was unusual in so far as it examined the similarities between depression and fascism. As a journalist who had been incapacitated by the disease for almost four years at the time of writing, I wanted to share my uncanny reasoning and editors agreed to let me do exactly that.
Our idea was to try and provide some measure of comfort to others similarly afflicted and let them know they were neither alone nor invisible in those dark times. But this one reader took it as his personal cue to lash out, shame, and discredit me in one fell swoop of the keyboard:
“Looks like Kitty is losing her fragile grasp on reality. She needs to have her meds adjusted.”
It only took 17 words to declare my intellectual labor null and void on account of my self-disclosed mental health status. I did my due diligence and it won’t surprise you to hear he wasn’t a medical professional.
It was the first time in my career I had ever written a personal essay or tackled mental health. His reaction made me understand there and then it likely wouldn’t be the last.
To that random internet person, my thinking out loud in print was a reprehensible aberration that warranted chastising.
And this reader felt entitled to do so, without second thoughts for the potential impact of his words. On the internet, hubris is the modus operandi of those who prefer to hide behind screens and phony aliases to better humiliate others.
Having the courage of one’s opinions or indeed the ability to express them respectfully isn’t the default anymore. And even when we do so, rare are the interlocutors with enough intellectual humility to engage because their ego treats feedback or requests for clarification at as an unwarranted attack.
Or, worse still, gaslighting.
This reader wedded their unequivocal disapproval and pseudo medical advice to my byline on AlterNet for a few days. It’s only after I posted a screenshot of their comment on twitter to illustrate how rampant stigma was that it disappeared.
Women journalists will confirm this kind of abuse is standard and a tacitly accepted occupational hazard. This is something we’re expected to flick off as deftly as a rogue piece of lint on a sweater before we move on to weather more of the same.
In ordinary times, I would have done so. But those weren’t and still aren’t ordinary times in America. When POTUS himself publicly shuts down and discredits those who disagree with him, bully tactics have become state-sanctioned.
Calling out abuse is the one way we can prevent bully behavior and othering from becoming normalized, acceptable, routine.
So I did.
As journalism is a public service, I pushed back in the name of mental health advocacy. I was lucky enough to have recovered my voice although I’d soon lose it again shortly afterwards.
But what about those who can’t speak up?
Silence amplifies stigma and so does abuse.
In an unforgiving society driven by greed where many regard depression as a moral failing and a character flaw, people like me are stains on the social fabric of Americanness.
We’re people who should be kept hidden from view or at most tolerated on the condition we never speak of what ails us.
For fear of losing face or being branded as “lesser than”, many of us comply. We unwittingly aid and abet stigma to protect ourselves from further harm beside that which our own brain already subjects us to.
Under a regime whose motto calls for the restoration of some mythical “greatness”, intellectual honesty is frowned upon. It’s a social faux pas at odds with a capitalistic culture of winning at all cost.
In short, there isn’t a place for less than glowing contributions to the collective narrative. Any frayed or breaking thread woven into the ongoing story of what it means to be a human in America must be pulled out.
In an era of post truth studded with alternative facts, the invisible reality of depression stands to be gagged and bound.
It may even become fictionalized as something other than what it is unless we speak up and insist on facts.
For example, a common fallacy depicts depressives as a danger to society but that seldom is the case. Depression is a condition likely to kill those who suffer from it but rarely those around them. With this in mind, chipping away at stigma one piece of writing at a time isn’t just an act of self-preservation anymore, it’s also an act of resistance.
When the highest echelons of government embody the loss of fellow feeling, we can no longer ignore the complexity of human health. Doing so only serves to further disenfranchise those who are denied a voice and subjected to public humiliation for being incapacitated by the invisible force field of depression.
And yet, depression can strike anyone at any time. There’s no insulation against the illness, be it money, gender, geographical coordinates, physical health, skin hue, sexual orientation, religion, education, or age.
Much like the flu, depression is a universal disease and a depressive’s reality today could be yours tomorrow. But because depression is invisible, it falls to those intimately familiar with it not just to explain it but to try and warn others, too.
But whenever we do, abuse may follow. Is it really too much to ask to afford mental health advocates the courtesy of self-expression so those who have no direct experience of the disease might learn to spot the warning signs? And nip it in the bud when it strikes so they don’t end up losing years of their life as I did?
Or is more helpful to call for immediate medical intervention because our daring to think out loud and in print rankles?
As an aside worth bearing in mind, the erroneous notion of the mentally ill as “subhuman” is nothing new. It was once popularized by the Nazis to justify forced medical trials on those deemed “unworthy of life” in the T4 program under the direction of Josef Mengele.
They were subsequently exterminated.
Lest we forget, stigma can kill in many more ways than one but only when we choose to ignore or relinquish our duty of care toward one another.
Yes, we do have one; the sooner we all understand that, the better.