Originally published: 25.03.15
I have been cross-posting my writing on The Huffington Post Blog for a while, but until recently, no one had commented on any of my pieces. That changed last month, when The HP posted my story about rape. All of sudden, dozens of comments piled up at the bottom of this one essay.
Almost all of the responses were supportive and empathetic, and many people shared their own stories. Some commenters, however, used the space to express their belief that girls and women have a duty to protect themselves. They argued that “predators pray [sic] on easy targets,” and that there are certain situations “where even ‘no’ has no meaning.”
Unfortunately, these sorts of responses to rape are common, and they didn’t surprise me. What did catch me off-guard, though, was the possibility that my story might be rejected on the basis of my mental health. Several respondents seemed to find my story implausible or unreliable because they did not believe that a sane 15-year-old could have a psychiatrist. One commenter in particular felt so strongly about this detail that she responded to my post eight different times, repeatedly stressing that I must have a “serious mental illness.” As this woman described it, she read my story and just saw “crazy.” Apparently, she was convinced that either I had to be lying about having a psychiatrist or I had to be so mentally ill that no one less qualified than a psychiatrist could possibly treat me. From her perspective, both of these scenarios meant that my story must be filled with lies.
At first, I wanted to respond specifically to this woman’s false accusations and inaccurate assumptions. I also wanted to address the ridiculous notion that mental illness and insanity are somehow synonymous.
After I read through all of her comments, though, something unexpected and embarrassing happened instead. In thinking about this woman’s categorical assertion that people who are mentally ill are incapable of differentiating between truth and fiction, I found myself dismissing her as crazy.
I wish my mind had not made that mistake, but there it was. In a way, I had committed the same offense that she had. Her ideas did not align with mine, and her drive to discredit me made me feel vulnerable. So, in my attempt to comfort myself, I assumed that her mental health must be affecting her judgment. But of course having illogical or uninformed thoughts does not make someone crazy. We all tend to ignore the biased and fallible qualities in our thinking, especially when we feel strongly about something.
To me, “crazy” can mean many different things, and I have used the word in a variety of ways without thinking much about its longstanding, derogatory connotations. Words traditionally used in the context of mental illness have become so commonplace in our everyday speech that I barely notice them. Hysterical, insane, psycho, delirious, lunatic, mad, manic, depressed, and crazy are just some of the ones we regularly throw around. All of these words have been, and some still are, used to describe real and serious mental health conditions.
The spillover of language from one area to another might be something we should avoid. Or maybe this blending of worlds demonstrates the real ambiguity that exists in talking and thinking about mental health. We might like to reassure ourselves that we are very different from the “seriously crazy” people over there who cannot differentiate between reality and fantasy. Admittedly, “mental illness” as a general description is often fraught with associations and stigmatizations that are both unappealing and frightening. Still, while we may want to distance ourselves from “mental illness,” mental health is not some aberrant part of life that only crazy people need to worry about. Mental health, just like physical health, is something that we all must attend to, something that needs care and support everyday no matter who you are.
There is no sharp line that separates the mentally ill from the mentally healthy. All of us act in irrational ways; all of us have thoughts and feelings that don’t make sense; and all of us have experienced compromised or altered brain functioning. Many people living with a “serious mental illness” are perfectly sane and honest human beings, and some people without a MI diagnosis are irrational liars who are out of touch with reality. Just because certain neurons misfire or because specific biochemical levels in your body are low or high does not mean that all aspects of your mind are dysfunctional. If someone breaks her toe, she may be in a lot of pain and have a hard time walking, but to assume that this injury would automatically paralyze her makes no sense.
I freely admit that I have a “serious mental illness.” I have had depression my whole life. Among other things, this illness means that I started seeing a psychiatrist when I was a teenager; that I now take medication to try to stabilize my mood; that I often feel inadequate, useless, and like a no-good burden; that I can get overwhelmed at the prospect of facing people; that I rarely sleep well; that I sometimes cower with dread when confronted with everyday activities; and that, in my search for quiet and peace, I have occasionally tried to escape in self-destructive ways. But I can’t see how any of that has any impact on my ability to tell the truth or how that makes me “crazy.”
Before my piece about rape ran on The HP Blog, it never occurred to me that my mental health would cast doubt on the integrity of my story. Clearly, that view of the world was naïve. Perhaps my ignorant expectations of my potential audience was just as irrational as that woman’s view of mental illness. If someone like me, who should know better, is capable of even momentarily discounting a person’s argument based on a passing idea about her mental health, then I should not expect people who are less familiar with mental illness to behave any differently.
Even so, while I acknowledge that we all are susceptible to irrational biases, I still hope that people will begin to realize that the term “mental illness” covers a huge range of real and complex issues, and that the history of psychiatry and psychology contains many misconceptions and problematic associations that have unfairly stigmatized people for too long. I am not asking people to pretend that they don’t have doubts or questions about someone whose experience differs from theirs. Rather, I would like to suggest that people who feel confused or incredulous about something try to clarify their concerns by asking questions instead of making accusations.
I started this blog specifically to try to normalize and destigmatize mental illness. I hoped that, by openly and honestly sharing my feelings and personal experiences, people might see depression and anxiety a little differently. But, after reading the comments asserting that I am a crazy liar, I can’t help but wonder if I have made a really bad and maybe even crazy mistake.
The Not Me : In school, my art work was about the construction of gender, conflicting female identities, fairy tales, and cognitive dissonance (images at francescamilliken.com).