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Feb 25 2013

The Myth of ‘Fight Back’

There’s an unfortunate habit of journalists to treat stories of mental illness as triumphs of will.

She fought an eating disorder and won! Now she’s happy with her body and wears whatever she wants!

He battled depression, and now he is this Super Famous Person I Don’t Recognize!

I don’t want to knock this idea on the personal level. I’m quite sure that for some, the metaphor is useful. Maybe even the most helpful way of envisioning recovery. That’s spectacular. I’ll promote any method of recovery. Imagining tapdancing bananas? Go for it.

My concern is for how the media elects to find one narrative–a story that automatically excludes perhaps even a majority of those with mental illness, and what that means for our understanding. “Fighting” doesn’t mean miraculously getting well for everyone, sometimes fighting means just staying here.

There’s exactly three dresses on hangers in my closet. Not because I own three dresses–I almost never wear pants–but because everything else is crumpled on the floor, the bed, the desk. I’ve tried on eight outfits. Maybe ten. And right now? I’m curled up in the corner in the same shorts and shirt I started in.

I’m going to put on nice clothes and go out at some point, because it’s one of my best friend’s birthdays, and you don’t get to do otherwise. Because I want to, and because isolation when clothes make me anxious seems like failing.

But first I have to breathe. The world has to stop closing in. The music is too loud and I can feel every inch of my skin. It’s not the romance novel kind, right before the heroine lands on 6,000 count Egyptian cotton sheets–it’s raw nerves and sandpaper air. It’s been weeks since this happened, and and and…

Breathe in.

The thing about clothes is that you have to wear them. You cannot show up to an interview, to class, to any function, without clothes. So I’ll find something to wear. Eventually.

Don’t you dare tell us to fight back.

We fight to be the awkward guy with at the edge of the conversation, to show up to parties and turn in homework. We fight embarrassment when we can’t drink punch at your party, when your ‘OCD’ means you cleaned your room, and ours means obsessions and compulsions. We fight to meet deadlines and call hotlines when things get bad.

Some of us fight just to be here.

 

 

 

37 comments

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  1. 1
    Miri, Professional Fun-Ruiner

    <2

  2. 2
    Kate Donovan

    Edited very slightly for clarity.

  3. 3
    Robert Arnow, Freeze Peach Inspector

    <2. This.

  4. 4
    keelychaisson

    This, times a million.

    Those of us who “beat” our mental illnesses (whatever that means–a cure? success in spite of the illness?) may have worked our asses off, but we ALSO got lucky. Lucky to have the support we needed for recovery. Lucky to have a good therapist. Lucky to find meds that work. Lucky that our brains happen to respond positively to any of those things.

    I happen to have had a diagnosis that usually leads people to struggle much more than I do. I could quibble about whether I ever actually had/have Borderline Personality Disorder, but the fact is this: I have been in treatment programs designed for people with BPD, and they have helped me. But my point in sharing that is this: I learned two things from group therapy for BPD. 1) Mindfulness meditation/mindfulness techniques are awesome (provided you learn them at a time where you can handle it and at an appropriate pace) and 2) I am so damn lucky.

    Because damn it, I was often the only person in the room at those sessions who had never been hospitalized. and that isn’t because I’m “better” or “stronger” than the other people in that room. We were all fighting our own fights as hard as we fucking could–you weren’t placed in groups like that until your primary therapist thought you were ready to handle it. We were all fucking committed to making our lives better. The differences between us were in our individual quirks of mental pathology, and our life circumstances. I was lucky to respond decently to medication and to have fucking amazing friends on my side, and to have a stable living situation and a job I could do and take pride in.

    To this day, many people in my life want me to adopt a “I struggled against mental illness and won!” narrative, as well as wanting me to affirm for them that I am somehow significantly different from “those people”, the ones who are really sick. Sure, you take meds, but you never have to be hospitalized. You aren’t THAT bad.

    And you know, I’m not “that bad”, in that I function pretty well and usually can pull off “normal human” if I try. But I know that I am fortunate to have that, and that I am not morally superior to the people who don’t. I’m not even really in a different category–if I don’t take good care of myself and remain relatively lucky in terms of social support/life circumstances, I could very easily be somewhere very different. Hell, even if I do everything right, my brain chemistry may just decide to fuck with me, and I know it.

    Which is why the “fighting back against and beating mental illness” narrative bugs me too. For most of us, this is not ever going to be a fight we WIN. At best, we can commit to keep fighting, whatever that means for us.

  5. 5
    Susannah

    Yes.

  6. 6
    Armored Scrum Object

    It’s not just that it’s a questionable metaphor, it’s that so many people — including mental health professionals — merely give lip service to it, largely robbing it of the power it might otherwise have. My experience has been that the more desperately I need allies in my “fight”, the more likely I am to find paternalism and condescension instead of actual help, culminating in hospitalization. There’s nothing quite like being in a mental hospital to validate my feelings of powerlessness and alienation.

  7. 7
    johnbrowne

    hey ashley, saw vid about your dad “disowning” you. silly word; parents dont own their kids. maybe “disknowing”. my granddad did that to my white mom after she married my black dad. 20 years later
    he came and stayed with us and apologized for being a jerk and we forgave him. sad when parents act like children (immature).
    know that you are setting a great example for him and maybe someday he will be able to live up to it.
    you and your family are the future, and that scares some people of all “tribes”. the word “race” is a
    misnomer. but, just because some folks are afraid to more forward, doesnt mean they have a right to hold the rest of us back. theyll catch up someday. luv ya!
    dr browne.

  8. 8
    sueinnm

    This whole past year (and much of this one) has been a struggle just to keep going. My book deadlines have been so close (deliberately, because of a catastrophic loss of income) that my mental health has seriously declined while I try to meet those deadlines (and often fail.) I have been in a mixed bipolar state for so long that I have almost forgotten what it’s like not to be in it. (I’ve had a few better days lately, but only because the deadlines are a little ways off now.) For the first time in my life, in May of last year, I spent a weekend in the “Behavioral Health Center– i.e.Psychiatric Jail, for wanting to run my car off the road. Just getting through a day is hard. I’m a highly function person in spite of my mental health issues, or I couldn’t be a writer. But I withdraw into myself, don’t want to see my friends, hate the gym (too loud, too busy, too crowded, too open–earplugs help), just forget the good things about being around other people.

    I have few allies. I have one friend whose own problems make her sympathetic to mine (and vice versa) and we can help each other … when we get to see each other. My other friends don’t understand, not really, and I feel I have to put on a mask. So I don’t see t hem.

    I hope that therapy will eventually help (my meds are only minimally effective), but the fact that I was probably bipolar from the youngest possible age means I’m dealing with the consequences of the reactions of others to my illness from early childhood on, and that turned me into someone without any self-esteem at all.

    This stuff isn’t fixed. It’s lived with, and hopefully mitigated my medications, support and therapy.

  9. 9
    Kate Donovan

    I’m Kate, the author on this post.

  10. 10
    shockna

    We fight to be the awkward guy with at the edge of the conversation, to show up to parties and turn in homework. We fight embarrassment when we can’t drink punch at your party, when your ‘OCD’ means you cleaned your room, and ours means obsessions and compulsions.

    My entire goddamn life. Thanks for the post, always enjoy these.

    Also, what do the “_>

  11. 11
    M can help you with that.

    The “I just need to Fight and Be Strong and Not Let the Problem Get To Me” schtick set me back at least 10 years. 10 years was how long it took me to accept that no, being the movie-style warrior-victim isn’t productive, and that I do need help in ways that turn out to have been extensively tested for effectiveness all along. Hell, I had to come around to the social/philosophical/political position that we’re all products of our interaction with our social environment before I could even begin to get past the Horatio Alger-style crap that is especially toxic for those of us who rely on others in ways that don’t invite Horatio Alger-style deletion from consciousness.

    “Fight back”? You’re damn right I’m fighting back. But I’m fighting back by enlisting the help of the people (friends, family, psychiatrists) who are very good at the things which are necessary for me to be even remotely functional and which I’m very bad at. Because putting together a team — even if the team is a whole support system — is what the smart heroes do.

  12. 12
    Phil

    Wow, I just saw a video of you insulting your father. I am a young man, atheist and am repulsed by you. I may share none of the political views your father believes in but I certainly sympathize with him.
    In your question to attach yourself to any hair-brained “progressive” idea, you have decided to sacrifice your children to the alter of ‘diversity’ by giving him/her no identity and a huge risk for diseases, no ability to get bone marrow transplants, a live of alienation and confusion, and all so you could stick it to the man who raised you and took care of you all your life.

    You really are not an atheist, you are more like a pagan who sacrifices children to fake “gods.”

    I would like to shake your dad’s hand and I guarantee you that the consequences of your actions will come from Nature itself, not your loving father, who tried to save you from your hateful alternative lifestyle.

    You may or may not come to your senses and marry a white man someday, but I would never touch you with a ten foot pole. Your market value has decreased to the point where no decent man would touch you even if someone paid them to.

  13. 13
    Timothy

    “Your market value has decreased to the point where no decent man would touch you even if someone paid them to.”

    I’m a decent man. I couldn’t more strongly disagree. I don’t think of women (or men) in terms of market value.

  14. 14
    Timothy

    Great post, Kate.

    “My concern is for how the media elects to find one narrative–a story that automatically excludes perhaps even a majority of those with mental illness, and what that means for our understanding. “Fighting” doesn’t mean miraculously getting well for everyone, sometimes fighting means just staying here.”

    Very, very true.

  15. 15
    Lux Pickel

    I often forget that I actually attempted suicide once. I was reminded this morning and it occurred to me that controlling my depression isn’t just about Not Feeling Bad all the time. It’s about staying alive. Sometimes brain chemicals are stronger than rational thinking.

    Love you <3

  16. 16
    sc_5b5039dd39eec895ccc71934d4e6783f

    Wow, you’re a right fucking piece of work, aren’t you?

    Never mind the fact that you’re talking at Ashley as though it were her who wrote this.

    No, an idiotic lack of basic reading comprehension is the least of your failings, you worthless racist piece of shit.

    By the way, no one cares that you’re an “atheist”. It’s not a badge that automatically guarantees that you’re worthy of oxygen. Your post here should be framed as evidence against that notion, in case anyone might not be sure yet.

    Fuck right off.

  17. 17
    Kate Donovan

    Wow, hi, you’re a terrible human being.

    …Also, you’ve got the wrong author. I’m not Ashley.

  18. 18
    Phil

    That is because you are not honest with yourself, or at least with us…

  19. 19
    Phil

    Ahh, leftist *tolerance.* What a reminder of the type of people humanity is up against.

  20. 20
    Phil

    So you believe in absolute rights and wrongs? As a third year undergrad in some humanity degree shouldn’t you be aware that all values are relative? I guess values that don’t jibe with the dominant empire building worldview are not kosher here, much less the thought criminals who think them.

  21. 21
    Kate Donovan

    Further comments that are off topic will be deleted. This is my post, and I really don’t care about your feelings or buzzwords you string together.

  22. 22
    Phil

    So you attack me personally and then declare to delete my comments. Could I expect anything less?

  23. 23
    Gretchen

    Best of all is the fact that this guy showed up to be a racist misogynistic piece of shit in response to a post on mental illness.

    On what it’s like to not have control, or at least the kind of control most people take for granted.

    On what it’s like to claim dignity in the face of that.

    Point made, I think.

  24. 24
    Phil

    Lux, as someone who has experienced depression, I understand what you are saying: rationality is not the totality of what we are, it is a tool that has evolved with us to best serve our perceived interest.

    My own method for conquering depression was understanding my genetic makeup and mentally dissociating my ego from that which is fixed.

    My recognizing that moods are “not me” it has created a sense of calm, a stoic “amor fati.”

    This and being out in nature, doing organic gardening and focusing on career and family goals has eliminated by depression. Writing a dated journal does wonders in understanding our own mood swings.

    Also remember that the stresses of modern society are more than we are meant to take, so finding a return to nature is not to be frowned upon, imo.

  25. 25
    HappiestSadist, Repellent Little Martyr

    This is an amazing, and incredibly truthful post.

  26. 26
    Nathair

    The proud refusal to accept that what happens in my mind might honestly be different than what happens in your own. It certainly explains why people like Phil are so damned angry and threatened all the time.

  27. 27
    Stubborn Blonde Warrior

    All right sweetie, let me lay it down for you in nice-people words then.

    You remember when mommy told you as a little one, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all”? I mean, I’m sure she did.

    See, basically, we’re just trying to remind you about that. But, see the words are meaner because… wait for it…

    YOU’RE A GROWN-ASS ADULT AND YOU SHOULD KNOW THAT BY NOW.

    See, when you’re being blatantly intolerant–of black people, of liberals, of women (AKA half the population of the world… just so you know, since you seem to have them confused with walking pieces of meat you can sell off to the highest bidder)–you don’t get to play the “you’re being mean to me” card. You started this fight, and you started it on nothing besides personal attacks. And you haven’t stopped using anything but. So, yeah, we do kinda get to tell you you’re being an ass when you don’t seem to understand that hurling insults at people merits an angry response. You don’t get to whine about how “intolerant” we are because we don’t sit meekly and let assholes yell at us.

    And considering the fact that you continue to hurl insults at anyone who tells you otherwise, rather than owning up and coming back with anything that would make your argument credible–facts, maybe? Scientific studies, if you really wanna reach for it… but you’d have to use ones that aren’t from 100 years ago, so that might be a bit difficult for you–you’re not being much other than a hypocrite.

    Ta-ta! We’ll see you when you find scientific evidence that your “how the world works” thing actually works! :)

  28. 28
    WMDKitty -- Survivor

    Clean up on aisle 14, Mabus spill.

  29. 29
    WMDKitty -- Survivor

    Oh. My. Ceiling Cat.

    So much THIS. It’s not about “winning”, it’s about making it through the day! It’s a constant battle!

  30. 30
    shockna

    That is because you are not honest with yourself, or at least with us…

    This seems rather…. Familiar….

    Actually, rather like this old religious argument:

    “You know God exists, you just deny it and aren’t honest with yourself because you like to sin!”

    But then, atheism by itself has never guaranteed that a person won’t be an idiot.

  31. 31
    shockna

    In your question to attach yourself to any hair-brained “progressive” idea, you have decided to sacrifice your children to the alter of ‘diversity’ by giving him/her no identity and a huge risk for diseases, no ability to get bone marrow transplants, a live of alienation and confusion, and all so you could stick it to the man who raised you and took care of you all your life.

    Who says identity can only come from race? And even further, if identity is racially derived, why wouldn’t a mixed race individual have twice the sense of identity of a single-race person?

    Ever stop to think that any life of “alienation and confusion” may, in fact, be directly caused by racist imbeciles like you?

    You may or may not come to your senses and marry a white man someday, but I would never touch you with a ten foot pole. Your market value has decreased to the point where no decent man would touch you even if someone paid them to.

    “Market value”? You’re a PUA, aren’t you? Well, that certainly would explain plenty about your other idiotic positions. A sort of crank magnetism for those predisposed to hatred.

  32. 32
    dab

    Hahaha, so you’re a tone troll, too. And you’re crying about potential censorship later in the thread. Priceless.

    Really, you have to be the lowest of the low to come on here spouting racist drivel and insulting Ashley, but then rush to clutch your precious pearls and bawl “leftist” when someone insults YOU.

    The fact that your views aren’t tenable is merely underscored by the fact that you respond with whines about tone and an empire-building leftist conspiracy instead of anything with substance. Not that a full-blown racist could have anything worthwhile to say.

  33. 33
    Divizna

    How can you possibly know what a decent man would do?

  34. 34
    punchdrunk

    Phil cured serious illness with mental toughness.
    I can’t wait to hear how he amputated his arm with nothing but whiskey and a rusty saw, or that time he killed a grizzly with his bare hands.

    That man deserves his own theme song.

  35. 35
    Lux Pickel

    Hey, I noticed that your response to my comment was very nice and cordial. I can empathize about going out in nature–it is a huge help.

    What I can’t understand is why your approach to (who you assumed to be) Ashley came from the opposite direction… This post is by Kate, which you’ve already figured out I’m sure. I have to assume there are other venues more appropriate for you to comment on the video. Perhaps comments on the video, unless they’ve been disabled?

    Your whole comment seems to be very harsh. Terms like ‘hateful alternative lifestyle’ I thought were reserved for people who make a lifestyle out of burning people and skinning little kids, or are only comments from religious bigots targeted toward homosexuals.

    Don’t get me wrong, I don’t intend to start an argument with you. I merely want to know why you would let such strong emotions and apparent biases direct you in commenting on the matter, rather than seeking to empathize with Ashley (which is what I’m trying to do with you right now; I simply want to understand).

    I would also like to point out that Ashley’s value does not come from people like you telling her whether or not you’d touch her with a pole. You have attempted to devalue her by telling her that ‘no decent man’ would want anything to do with her. One of the many goals of feminism is to remove this idea that women’s worth comes from what the men in their lives value them to be.

    I seek only to know and to understand, and to share in this human experience.

  36. 36
    philll

    Hey Lux,

    I would be more than happy to answer all of your questions in a calm, rational and respectful tone. The issue here is that virtually every time I try to respond to said questions on this blog, the response and links are immediately erased by the owner.

    If you kindly post an email or any other way I can reach you (even a fake email from yahoo you make in 2 seconds) I will gladly respond to you, as you are someone who is clearly a good person and someone that I respect.

    You will notice that even your response to me has been censored here. So much for anything resembling the classical liberal doctrine of freedom of speech.

    All the best,

    Phil

  37. 37

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