Are we stigmatizing ourselves to death? Can reminding everyone of how sick we are all the time eventually erode our sense of self until our own words disappear us? And what if using illness as justification for not making the most of life under revised parameters made us even sicker?
A brain wired differently from the majority and prone to malfunctioning isn’t a membership card to an exclusive club. It doesn’t make us special, it makes us human even when we need accommodations; back pain gets them so it should be the same for brain pain. What’s more, if we’re able to remain functional in any way and move forward, we’re already doing far better than we give ourselves credit for.
Depression sank me for half a decade, torpedoing my writing voice, and taking the rest of my life down with it; I spent five years holding my breath. Every single word I commit to paper is further proof I’ve bobbed back up to the surface again even though the weather is still rough. But what happens when mental illness is the only framework you’ve ever had and life gets challenging?
Mental illness is not an excuse for when we behave irrationally, it is an explanation; making the difference between the two is how we fight stigma. Ergo, illness only diminishes us if we lend it a hand with the words we choose to discuss it: The language we use inevitably defines our reality.
As an explanation rather than as an excuse to spin another “woe is me” tale, mental illness is a great conversation starter to help our loved ones help us. Finding the humility to apologize to those we have wronged is key to helping us communicate better, albeit later. With depression, delayed communication is the only way to convey its reality; who reports live from a hurricane that could kill them? Once the hurricane lets up, we can try and take stock of it with those who witnessed it.
Nothing relieves any of us of the duty of care we, humans, have toward one another, be it non-verbal. Unless we hold ourselves accountable for our words, looks, gestures, attitudes, or deliberate silence can mean as much or more. If stigma comes from lack of knowledge, self-stigma comes from refusing to accept illness shifted the goal posts. Whether abdicating agency or invoking victimhood, we can never fully take responsibility for our own life, it happens to us.
When we don’t accept mental illness changes parameters, it becomes the perimeter; we identify with it. So how can we demand from others they see us as another variation on the human theme when we allege our differences make us special?
You don’t get to have your cake and eat it; you cannot keep whining about being different if you demand others see you as an equal. No double dipping either: You don’t get to help yourself to the spoils of stigma by serving up what you decry and then complain about being a victim of it.
And yet, this is what happens on the internet. Our desperate search for the attention and validation missing from our offline lives has led some of us to amplify stigma for pity clicks and pity bucks. Journal entries presented as confessional writing do not personal essays make as they always leave readers behind and offer no reflection. We never write and publish for ourselves but always because we want to be heard. And it takes people to listen.
The self does not the perfect parent, friend, mentor, guru, or partner make; like society, life is always plural, never singular.
Thanks to the global platform that is the internet, our voices can be heard without having to interact with any of the gatekeepers of yore, be they human or machines. There are very few rules and they are very difficult to enforce therefore freedom of speech is still guaranteed in more countries than not but our ability to use the platform varies. Being able to write about mental illness from experience with self-respect and dignity takes time. It is also a privilege we earn through ongoing self-inquiry and our commitment to accepting whatever we find.
Allowing illness to define us may be easier but it hurts everyone. Why are we being ableist to ourselves when we want to end ableism? For example, would we still describe ourselves as feminist when we deliberately stir up misogyny with clickbait because it’s more lucrative to point the finger than to understand who and what it is pointing at? Instead of curiosity, we embrace labels and boxes, semantic blindfolds that keep us where we are, passengers in our own lives.
When we realized passing commentary on whatever we saw was more lucrative than figuring out where we were going, our hearts and minds died a little.
As with everything pertaining to humanness, our mental health is fallible; like our bodies, our minds malfunction. They also age, they break down, and eventually they shut down. The more we share with others how we manage our mental health, the better for everyone as many of us still reflexively fear what we do not yet fully understand.
Narrating our lives point by point without attempting to interpret what has happened to us is counterproductive. The familiar aspect of the topic might strike a chord among fellow humans and make us feel less alone for a hot minute but it won’t have been thought-provoking to write or read. Instead, it keeps us exactly where we’re at, glued to the spot by a diagnosis we have no idea how to live with so we hail it as our guru, our guide, and our shield.
Different diagnoses command a different kind of attention, elicit a different kind of voyeurism. Although we all have a dark side, most of us have found it will smother us unless we keep it in check. If only we believed in ourselves half as much as we believe in our limitations, if we expended as much energy showing we can instead of defending why we can’t…
When we cannot think, going into observation mode might lessen our anxiety and provide material for future writing. But typing those up without context or attempt to connect the dots isn’t writing, it’s data entry. Writing is data processing, it calls for intellectual and emotional labor and rigor; writing demands of us the ability to step back and gain critical distance. Wonky or not, human brains are not machines and they need time to process life; cutting out thinking is against nature. Nevertheless we do try and we end up missing nuances as our command of language becomes more or more tentative, our words vaguer and vaguer.
One day, humanness is a synonym of sickness and we begin to self-destruct in a flurry of frustration. Wasn’t the internet supposed to save us from ourselves by connecting us across all that divides us? If the words we choose to publish do not enrich our experience of being a human in the world or encourage the growth of empathy, compassion, and dignity for all, how will we ever reclaim our humanity once we’ve sold it off to the highest bidder?
And how will we ever hold on to language once words have lost most of their meaning? Language is a living organism; when one definition takes over all others, the word shrinks and so does our vision of the world until it’s so tiny it fits just the one person.
I’m a French-American writer, journalist, and editor now based in the Netherlands. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.