Does Telling People to “Think Positive” Actually Help? An Informal Survey and Some Protips

Positive thinking is the bane of my existence. Not because I can’t do it, but because I’ve so often been exhorted to do it in the most unhelpful of ways. I’m someone who prefers to talk mostly about the neutral or negative aspects of my life to friends and family because I don’t want to seem like I’m bragging, which probably leads people to assume that I have difficulty “thinking positively” (and I wouldn’t blame them). Of course, during periods of depression, positive thinking is mostly impossible, but when I’m feeling relatively healthy I’m actually quite optimistic.

Point is, I’ve gotten a lot of unsolicited advice to “think positive!” and “look on the bright side!” and “just try to find the silver lining!” Chances are, I’ve either done that already, or I’m not going to be able to do it no matter how many times one tells me to.

So despite the fact that I’m actually quite adept at finding reasons to be hopeful and getting good things even out of bad situations, being told to do so, even though it’s almost always well-meaning, usually rubs me the wrong way. Like, what, you don’t think that “thinking positively” occurred to me? And for that matter, when you tell people to “think positively,” does anyone ever go, “Oh wow, I didn’t even realize I could do that! Thanks so much!”?

And yet thinking positively helps me, and it must help many other people or else people would quit telling each other to do it. I wanted to find out more about the contexts in which people find it helpful to be reminded to “think positive” versus the ones in which they don’t, so I did an extremely informal survey of my online friends and followers. I basically asked (I’m paraphrasing here), “Does it ever help you to be told to ‘think positive’?”

Disclaimer: This is not “research,” this is just me asking people I know about their opinions. Maybe if I’d gone for that PhD after all, you’d be reading about this in Science someday, but that’s not going to happen.

Some people said that it doesn’t help at all:

Nope. I find it helpful when people genuinely ask thoughtful questions and then actively listen. Pat answers are a brush off, nothing more.

No. Usually it just makes me feel like I have to shut up now because the person is done listening.

I think just saying “think positive” is a limiting concept since it doesn’t teach anyone how to change negative self talk to positive.

“Think positive” as a general suggestion can actually be harmful – it doesn’t enable its recipient to solve a problem any more than they were before, and can easily lead to an affected individual thinking they’re at fault for being unable to fix something simply by failing to think positively.

“Just think positive” almost always comes couched with The Secret or other metaphysics bullshit in my life. Sooooo I cringe whenever I hear it.

I also don’t think it helps, but for me it’s because it feels like an invalidating thing to say. I’d rather my feelings be acknowledged for their authenticity than be dismissed for not being all sunshine and rainbows like they “should” be.

Telling myself to think positively also occasionally helps, but not always. Other people telling me that does not generally help, particularly since if someone is telling me “just think positive” it’s usually in the context of, I’ve told them some specific problem I’m worrying about and they’ve given me “think positive” as a non-answer.

not when by someone who lacks knowledge of my life and circumstances. Not when I’m clinically depressed, at all.

I’ve never found it helpful, and now I understand that the reason I’ve always found it so upsetting is that the statement comes from a place of neurotypical privilege. My visceral response is almost always “Don’t you think I’ve TRIED THAT ALREADY. Seriously, if it were that simple I would FEEL BETTER.”

I think the logic behind “think positive” and “look on the bright side” are, er, “positive” alternatives to “you like being sad.” They all stem from this idea that is it the person’s own doing, that it is something the individual can control but isn’t trying hard enough, etc. But real depression and anxiety are caused by something beyond the individual’s ability to control.

There aren’t enough characters here for all the four-letter words.

A few said it does:

Certainly. I usually have negative expectations, and have to be reminded to consider positive outcomes. Otherwise, I’d never try anything.

In a really weird way it can me. Like it pisses me off, but it’s a good reminder at the same time.

The majority, however, gave an answer that was basically either “Yes, but” or “No, unless.” And these people generally hit on the same basic point:

It has, if people point out *actual* positive things about the situation.

Yes, but not if they are being dismissive. If they are like, “what about x, and y” then yes. But dismissive, NO.

It can sometimes be helpful to be reminded OF something good, but it doesn’t really help just to be told “look on the bright side.”

It depends entirely on who’s saying it to me. Like if my bestie tells me to chin up it’s entirely different then some random ass fuck

Not as a general statement, no. What has occasionally helped is if someone breaks down a situation and specifically outlines possible positive outcomes – but you can’t just think your way to them.

Although I have found it helpful to try to find the positive aspect in a bad situation, and if I find one I will point it out (especially if the “bright side” is actually black humor), telling people to just generally look on the bright side of life is horse hockey.

Only if they’ve got evidence that says I should. Saying that emptily just sounds like “smile, emo kid!” #ThingsThatDrainMyPacifism

Sometimes, especially if it’s offered along with an example of a silver lining I may have overlooked.

These aren’t nearly all of the responses, but looking through these and the others I got, I hit upon a few major themes that may help you discern whether or not telling someone to “think positive” is worthwhile:

1. Mental Illness

One of the worst things about disorders like depression and anxiety is that they rob you of your ability to be hopeful and think positively. It’s not that you’re not trying, it’s that you can’tSo, when someone’s dealing with sadness, stress, pessimism, etc. that’s brought on by a mental illness as opposed to just “faulty” thinking, telling them to “fix” their thinking isn’t going to be helpful.

2. Proof

Many people said that being advised to think positively helps when they’re actually given “proof” that there’s something to think positively about. Otherwise it just sounds like an empty platitude; if the person who’s telling you to “think positive” can’t even come up with a reason why, that’s not reassuring.

3. Closeness

It feels different to be told to “think positive” by someone who actually knows you very well than, as one person said, by “some random ass fuck.” Although nobody elaborated on why, I can think of several reasons. It’s easier to trust that someone who knows you well generally wants to help you rather than to just get you to stop talking about sad stuff. Someone who knows you well is also more likely to know what helps you. They’re also more likely to actually understand your situation, making advice to “think positive” sound much less flippant than it would otherwise.

In general, telling people to “just think positive” has the same problems as, for instance, telling people to just stop being hurt by bigoted comments or to just learn to keep saying no to persistent unwanted sexual advances: it doesn’t actually help them to do these things. Changing the way you think and feel isn’t like flipping a switch. It requires hard work and practice, just like learning a language or a musical instrument.

Generally that’s a job for a therapist or perhaps a really good self-help book, but if you’d like to help facilitate that process for someone, here are some scripts to help them learn to think more positively without doing the annoying and dismissive “Just look on the bright side!” thing:

  • “That sounds like a tough situation to be in. Is there anything you could do that would make it easier right now?”
  • “Do you think anything good can come of this?”
  • “I’m sorry, that really sucks, but just know that I/your friends/your family will be here to support you.”
  • “Would it help if we went out and did something fun to help you get your mind off of it?”
  • “I know it seems pretty awful right now, but I think you will come out a stronger person because of this.”

Note that these don’t work for everyone and are very dependent on the situation, so use your best judgment. But these are all things that have really helped me to hear at one point or another. And notice that a lot of them involve asking, not telling. Don’t tell people to think positively or do something to get their mind off of it; ask them if they’re able or willing to.

And as with all things emotional, affirming whatever the person is feeling right now is the most important thing. Even if it’s negative! Their emotions are valid even if you don’t understand them or think that they’re productive.

Blaming Everything On Mental Illness

The Associated Press has revised their AP Stylebook, the guide that most journalists use to standardize their writing, to include an entry on mental illness. Among many other important things that the entry includes, which you should read here, it says:

Do not describe an individual as mentally ill unless it is clearly pertinent to a story and the diagnosis is properly sourced.

And:

Do not assume that mental illness is a factor in a violent crime, and verify statements to that effect. A past history of mental illness is not necessarily a reliable indicator. Studies have shown that the vast majority of people with mental illness are not violent, and experts say most people who are violent do not suffer from mental illness.

That first one is important because there is a tendency, whenever a person who has done something wrong also happens to have a mental illness, to attempt to tie those two things together.

Some things I have seen people (and, in some cases, medical authorities) try to blame on mental illness:

  • being violent
  • being religious
  • being an atheist
  • abusing children
  • spending money unwisely
  • raping people
  • stealing
  • bullying or harassing people
  • being upset by bullying and harassment
  • enjoying violent video games
  • being shy
  • being overly social
  • being too reliant on social approval
  • having casual sex
  • being into BDSM
  • not being interested in sex
  • dating multiple people
  • not wanting to date anyone
  • not wanting to have children
  • being attracted to someone of the same sex
  • being trans*
  • wanting to wear clothing that doesn’t “belong” to your gender

You’ll notice that these things run the gamut from completely okay to absolutely cruel. Some of them involve personal decisions that affect no one but the individual, while others affect others immeasurably. All of them are things that we’ve determined in our culture to be inappropriate on varying levels.

That last one, I believe, explains why these things (and many others) are so often attributed to mental illness. It is comforting to believe that people who flout social norms, whether they’re as minor as wearing the wrong clothing or as severe as abusing and killing others, do so for individual reasons or personal failings of some sort. It’s comforting because it means that such transgressions are the acts of “abnormal” people, people we could never be. It means that there are no structural factors we might want to examine and try to change because they contribute to things like this, and it means that we don’t have to reconsider our condemnation of those behaviors.

It’s easier to say that people who won’t obediently fit into one gender or the other are “sick” than to wonder if we’re wrong to prescribe such strict gender roles.

It’s easier to say that a mass shooter is “sick” than to wonder if we’ve made it too easy to access the sort of weapons that nobody would ever need for “self-defense.”

It’s easier to say that a rapist is “sick” than to wonder if something in our culture suggests to people over and over that rape isn’t really rape, and that doing it is okay.

It’s easier to say that a bully is “sick” than to wonder why we seem to be failing to teach children not to torment each other.

It’s easier to say that a compulsive shopper is “sick” than to wonder why consuming stuff is deemed so important to begin with.

Individual factors do exist, obviously, and they are important too. Ultimately people have choices to make, and sometimes they make choices that we can universally condemn (although usually things aren’t so black and white). Some things are mental illnesses, but even mental illnesses do not exist in some special biological/individual vacuum outside of the influence of society. In fact, in one of the most well-known books on sociology ever published, Émile Durkheim presents evidence that even suicide rates are influenced by cultural context.

In any case, it’s an understandable, completely human impulse to dismiss all deviant behaviors as the province of “mentally ill” people, but that doesn’t make it right.

It’s wrong for many reasons. It dilutes the concept of “mental illness” until it is almost meaningless, leading people to proclaim things like “Well everyone seems to have a mental illness these days” and dismiss the need for more funding, research, and treatment. It leads to increased stigma for mental illness when people inaccurately attribute behaviors that are universally accepted as awful, like mass shootings, to it. It causes those who have nothing “wrong” with them, such as asexual, kinky, and LGBTQ people, to keep trying to “fix” themselves rather than realizing that it’s our culture that’s the problem. It prevents us from working to change the factors that are actually contributing to these problems, such as rape culture, lack of gun control, and consumerism, because it keeps these factors invisible from us.

People disagree a lot regarding the role of the media in society. Should it merely report the facts as accurately as possible, or does it have a responsibility to educate people and promote change? Regardless of your stance on that, though, I think most people would agree that the media should at the very least do no harm. Blaming everything from murder to shyness on mental illness absolutely does harm, which is why I’m happy to see the Associated Press take a stand against it.

That said, it’s not enough for journalists to stop attributing everything to mental illness. The rest of us have to stop doing it too.

[guest post] We Need To Talk About Incest Survival

[Content note: incest, sexual assault, self-harm, eating disorders]

Someone I know and respect asked me to publish this anonymous guest post. -M

Mia Fontaine wrote an article in The Atlantic recently about the incest problem in America. Although we talk about sex scandals, stranger danger, and the abuses of the Catholic Church, as a society, we don’t really address the adult on child abuse that takes place primarily inside children’s homes.

Given the prevalence of incest, and that the family is the basic unit upon which society rests, imagine what would happen if every kid currently being abused—and every adult who was abused but stayed silent—came out of the woodwork, insisted on justice, and saw that justice meted out.

I have felt compelled to write about what happened to me, but I am too terrified of the consequences to post under my own name. Still, perhaps my story might give someone else the courage to do more than post anonymously to the internet. Perhaps someone will read it and realize how important this issue is. Or perhaps I’ll just feel better having written it. All worthy goals.

I was 18 the last time it happened, it was Christmas break my Freshman year in college. I ran and hid in my room and wondered how I’d let it happen again, it hadn’t happened in so long, I was in college now, surely I should have been safe. I didn’t cry, I just shook. In the decade since that night, I’m not sure I’ve ever managed to unpack everything going on inside me at that moment. Fear, anger, confusion, hurt, desperation for love and approval.

I’m not sure when it started. Maybe I was 11 or 12? It started gradually. Inappropriate hugs, hands lingering where they weren’t supposed to be, hands being held where they didn’t want to be. It escalated over the years to being given alcohol, oral sex, and being told that “if your mother ever found out, she would kill me.”

It was never vaginal intercourse and so, until the recent change in definition, it didn’t seem like I could call it rape. And, even though he lived with me, he was a step-relation, so I wasn’t sure whether it could be properly defined as incest. And I loved him, he was family, so I didn’t want anything bad to happen to him. And it didn’t always feel bad, some of the things felt good. And when so much of life was filled with hate, criticism, and being ignored, it was really something for someone to show affection at all. At the time, I felt it was my fault and, without any labels that seemed right, couldn’t think of what it was that was being done wrong exactly, just that it made me nauseous to think about. With the massive age difference, I knew it was statutory something. I don’t know, I tried very hard not to think about it.

But then a strange thing happened. My body forced me to think about it. I stopped having my period. I knew, physiologically, that it was impossible for me to be pregnant, but I was terrified just the same. A home pregnancy test confirmed my understanding of anatomy.

After three months with no period, I made an appointment with a psychiatrist at school, but, when I refused to take antidepressants because I was terrified my parents would find out, they refused to see me. Then I decided I had to make an appointment with a gynecologist. My mother was annoyed by my urgency at needing to go. It took two months to get into see someone — a very religious, old Southern man with a private practice.

He didn’t believe me when I said I’d never had sex and forced me to take a pregnancy test–I explained that after six months amenorrheic I’d be showing if I was lying, but that didn’t help. They never asked me if I’d been sexually abused, but who knows what I would have said. They never asked what I thought had precipitated the loss of periods. I guess I wasn’t thin enough to be anorexic, so it didn’t matter, even though it was a clear sign of depression. The fifth or sixth time he asked me if I was really a virgin, I started to cry, I never felt so judged. Not that being a virgin was important to me, but being honest absolutely was.

He wrote me a prescription for some hormone that induced a period and for a year’s supply of birth control. Somehow, the massive cramping didn’t make me feel any better.

I had to go to a family event that fall where He was present. And He had started dating someone I knew, someone I respected and liked a lot. I didn’t know what to do. At the same time, my family was harshly criticizing me for being fat (size 12) and not caring about my appearances. Presumably they thought my unhappiness was from being “too fat to be loved” rather than some negative experience of mine.

I began self-harming–cutting and starving myself. I visited pro-ana websites “out of curiosity”. I would eat a Milky Way bar and nothing else. I would eat with other people so they wouldn’t know anything was out of place and go home and throw it up. I made a friend take all my knives and scissors. I fantasized about driving through stop signs and red lights through traffic and getting into horrible accidents. I drove through the city late at night trying to get lost.

I’m not sure what broke, but finally I went to see another school therapist and agreed to take antidepressants.

It was too late, I felt, to try to tell my parents, and my therapist agreed, but only because she thought my parents were horrible. She felt like I should just try to get them to treat me like an adult and stop complaining about my weight all the time. The incest and rape thing just wasn’t that important because it wasn’t going to happen again, but unless I stopped them, my parents would continue to be awful.

It got better. I stopped seeing the therapist six weeks later, and was much better than I had been. I still occasionally had nightmares, but managed OK. A year after this, I tried to talk to my mother about what had happened. I woke up in the night after a nightmare and was shaking, and my mother heard me walking around. She took me to an all night diner and we talked. I told her what had happened and she told me I had misinterpreted events. I insisted I had not. She didn’t remember the conversation the next day. Her therapist later told me that she wouldn’t survive being told, the guilt would kill her, so she must have blocked it. He told me I couldn’t ever tell her.

I am happy now, I love myself, I love others and others love me. I am doing what I want to do, I am an activist in causes I care about, and I am fighting fights I want to fight. And I can’t find it in myself to fight this fight out loud.

I feel like an enabler, writing this anonymously. Never having confronted him. Never having told the family. What good would it do now, to open all of that up? It wouldn’t help anyone, just open wounds. Just make people hate me or hate him…but probably me. Who wants to do that? To destroy a family? I like a lot of the people who would get hurt.

And so I stay silent. Along with thousands and thousands like me. Justice is not being stopped by a powerful organization like Penn State or the Catholic Church, but by the reality that the victims would be hated just as much as, if not more than, the perpetrators. We’ve broken down some of the barriers to reporting stranger assaults on children, but we haven’t solved the larger problem of helping those living with their abusers. Society isn’t built to fix this problem or help people like me, but it doesn’t always have to be like this. Go read that article in The Atlantic, share it, write about this issue, support RAINN, and be willing to hear the truth, even when it is unpleasant.

LGBT Celebrities Do Not Owe Coming Out To Anyone

Everyone’s got an opinion on Jodie Foster’s speech at the Golden Globes last night. If you haven’t seen it, here’s a video with a transcript.

In the speech, Foster spoke affectionately of her ex-partner, with whom she raised children, and explained that she “already did [her] coming out about a thousand years ago back in the Stone Age” but values her privacy too much to make it a big spectacle.

That’s not a good enough excuse for one writer, though (watch out, it’s apparently Low-Hanging Fruit Day over here at Brute Reason):

I mean, is it 1996? Jodie’s defensive speech, in which she seemed to blame Honey Boo Boo and reality TV for supposedly creating a climate that forced her out of the closet, harkened back to a time when it was a big deal to proclaim your sexual orientation. Hello, it’s 2013! People are getting “gay married” and homos can be out in the military and stuff!

[...]Why am I so angry? Because I’m roughly the same age as Jodie, and yet I had the courage to come out exactly 20 years ago.

I honestly don’t see what is “defensive” about Foster’s speech and where exactly she “blames” current pop culture for “forcing” her out of the closet. She does joke about how celebrities are expected to live very publicly and have their own reality shows and fragrances and whatnot, but the part where she blames this for making her come out seems to be entirely in Baer’s imagination.

Baer goes on and calls Foster’s need for privacy “an excuse” and then offers this bizarre caveat:

A lot of people will criticize this piece and write angry, hateful comments saying that it was up to her when and where to come out, and they’re absolutely right, but that still doesn’t mean she wasn’t a coward, and it doesn’t change the fact that she could have helped millions of people by coming out years ago.

A bunch of things jump out at me:

1. This article seems to be more about the author than about Jodie Foster.

As in, it’s all about Baer and how courageous she was for having come out a long time ago. Even though she doesn’t dedicate that much of the article to talking about her own courage, that’s clearly the main theme–she was courageous and Foster was not.

Baer undoubtedly deserves respect for coming out so early (well, for coming out at all), but that doesn’t mean Foster is a “coward” for not being so public about her sexual orientation. As she explains in her speech, everyone that she wanted to know, knew. That may not be “out enough” for Baer, but it’s still out.

Whenever someone’s done something awesome–come out, for example, or recovered from a mental illness–there’s a certain tension in figuring out how to talk about the people who haven’t succeeded in doing that thing yet without being a total asshole about it. My reasoning is that you don’t know why they haven’t and it’s best not to assume. I suppose Foster could really be a coward, but personally I doubt it. It’s more likely that she had other reasons for not coming out publicly (assuming that the ways in which she has already come out don’t matter, which is what Baer seems to be assuming).

2. Considering Foster’s history, Baer is incredibly dismissive of her stated need for privacy.

Many celebrities guard their privacy carefully, and not all of them have any desire to be in tabloids all the time. But Foster has a unique story in that regard. In the 1980s, a fan of hers named John Hinckley, Jr. became obsessive and started sending her love letters. He then attempted to assassinate then-President Reagan, stating that he was trying to impress Foster. The resulting intrusion of her privacy by the media is something that she’s known to have had a lot of discomfort with.

Given this, one would think that Foster could get away with needing privacy a bit more than the average celebrity, but in rushing to condemn her, Baer misses these nuances.

As Foster said in the speech:

But seriously, if you had been a public figure from the time that you were a toddler, if you’d had to fight for a life that felt real and honest and normal against all odds, then maybe you too might value privacy above all else. Privacy.

3. It’s not Foster’s job to “help millions of people” by coming out.

It’s not anyone’s job, actually. Foster’s job is to make movies. Baer’s job is to write articles about the entertainment industry. All of us should probably try to be decent people and to help others when they need it, but not at the cost of our own well-being. Chastising someone for failing to “help millions of people” just seems odd to me because it presumes that Foster is somehow failing live up to her responsibilities as a person.

It’s undoubtedly true that many people would’ve been happy had Foster come out (or, again, come out more publicly in the way that Baer apparently wanted her to). Perhaps she would’ve been an inspiration for a lot of LGBT kids. But that doesn’t make coming out an imperative. I would probably inspire lots of people if I won a marathon or donated all of my worldly possessions to charity, but that doesn’t make it a moral imperative for me to do so.

4. Baer’s reaction shows an incredible amount of entitlement.

We consider ourselves entitled to a lot from celebrities. They must be Good Role Models. They must always be grateful for their fame, even if they never asked for it and even if it often causes them enormous personal difficulties. (Consider the never-ending excoriation of Kristen Stewart for failing to appear cheerful and grateful enough.) If they’re queer, they must always come out and be willing to serve as advocates for LGBT causes.

You could argue that it’s not healthy or “right” for any queer person to live in the closet (though in my opinion you’d still be wrong). But that’s not what Foster was doing. Given that she had already come out to everyone who matters to her and has lived her life as a gay woman–for instance, by dating another woman and raising children with her–Baer’s presumption that Foster owes us anything more than that is predicated on the fact that she’s a celebrity.

Like many others, Baer assumes that celebrities’ lives exist for her consumption and that celebrities who happen to be queer exist solely to validate her and other LGBT folks. But Foster is a human being. She is a human being who happens to be a famous actress and who also happens to be gay.

5. Baer is shockingly dismissive of the negative consequences that coming out can have for celebrities.

She writes:

Nobody was asking Jodie to be president of the gays. Ellen [Degeneres] is a great example of someone who came out, had no interest in being the poster child and is just living her life honestly and openly. Though she occasionally fights publicly for LGBT causes, being a lesbian doesn’t define her. But here’s the amazing thing that happened to Ellen. At first her big announcement seemed to derail her career. She disappeared for a while and almost gave up on show business because she was “mired in depression.” After some dark days, which a lot of newly out people experience, Ellen ultimately was rewarded for being her true self. Today, because of her talk show, she’s arguably one of the most beloved stars on the planet, adored by millions, gay and straight alike (except for a handful of moms who now refuse to shop at JCPenney, but c’mon, they’re dumb).

First of all, I’m not sure why Baer thinks that Ellen isn’t a “poster child” when such a great deal of media coverage about her has to do with the fact that she’s a lesbian. But second, notice how Baer just skims right over the part where Ellen suffered from depression and nearly quit her career as a result of coming out. As though that doesn’t even matter because she gets to be “her true self” now. As though the bullying from One Million Moms is just a crappy little side effect.

What if that sort of public opprobrium and the depression that can result from it wasn’t something Foster felt capable of dealing with?

Nobody should have to suffer through bullying, depression, and possible career loss for coming out as gay or trans*. I think we can all agree on that here, and many of us advocate in various ways to make coming out easier and safer. But blaming an individual for not being willing to put themselves through this is unconscionable.

I don’t know what private struggles Foster has gone through with regard to her sexuality, and neither does Baer. It’s none of our business. That’s why calling her a coward for not doing what others have done is wrong.

Six Months

Every New Year’s Eve, I write a post about the year that’s about to end. When I was younger, I mostly used these posts to talk about significant things that had happened to me (getting a boyfriend, losing a boyfriend, getting into this or that program or college, and so on), explain what I’d learned from them, and make resolutions for the future.

Looking back over my resolutions from past years is kind of sad for me now. It’s both unsurprising and depressing how many of them concerned random metrics that I’d allowed the world to value me by–GPA, weight, stuff like that.

These were always the resolutions that I was never able to keep.

I don’t do New Year’s resolutions anymore, mostly because my resolution would be the exact same every year: do better, be better.

Over the last few years, the theme of depression has completely taken over these New Year’s Eve posts. In 2010 I wrote about being diagnosed and recovering. That was the first time I wrote about depression publicly, and I’ve continued doing so ever since.

In 2011 I wrote about relapsing and trying to find a way to carry on. At the end of that post, I wrote this:

A few days ago. I’m walking near Union Square in Manhattan. The sun has nearly set and the wind is chilling. I hear a man begging for money.

“Can you spare some change?” he’s saying, over and over. The passerby walk past him and he says, “That’s okay. Maybe next year.”

I put a dollar bill in his cup and he says, “God bless you, miss. I really mean that.”

He says happy New Year, and I say happy New Year too.

And then I continue on my way.

Maybe next year.

Today I returned to that exact spot. Not on purpose or anything. I’m in New York for the week and that spot just happens to be located next to my favorite bookstore in the world, the Strand.

And even though it was cold and I’m not in a particularly good mood today, I realized: the “next year” that I’d been dreaming about has come to pass. That year was 2012.

The end of December marks six months since my depression symptoms suddenly abated last summer. Psychologists seem to agree that at the six-month mark, remission officially becomes recovery. I don’t know what this means other than that I get to say that I’ve recovered.

I feel like I should have some Good Insights about how to recover from depression, but I really don’t. Medication helped me deal with the worst of it, but it stopped working after a while. I never managed to find a therapist that helped, but I’ll keep looking.

There were a number of amazing things that happened to me this year, some of which I attribute to my recovery. However, the interesting thing is that they all happened after my symptoms stopped, not before. Stuff like getting involved in the atheist movement, meeting my best friends and my partner, growing my blog and moving to FtB, finally deciding what I’m doing next year (getting a masters in social work), and so on. My life has changed so drastically over the past six months that I sometimes wonder if recovering from depression somehow opened me up to let all of this in. But I don’t know.

People who suffer from depression are constantly being exhorted to Look On The Bright Side and Be Open To Love and all that stuff, but here’s the thing–I was unable to do any of these things until my symptoms had eased up. I would never have been able to be outgoing enough to meet all the awesome people that I’ve met, and although I’ve been a good writer for a while, it got much easier to handle criticism and promote my blog once I didn’t feel depressed anymore. And while I hope my partner would stick with me if I had another depressive episode, the person I was half a year ago probably wasn’t someone he would’ve been interested in. Sad, but true.

I’d bet that the connections I made after I recovered are a large part of the reason I’m still doing so well, though. Without them, maybe I would’ve relapsed quickly. My writing, my friends, my partner, and even all the random acquaintances I’ve made while blogging are like a large safety net, giving me something other than myself and my moods to focus on when I’m not doing very well. My future, which is starting to clear up and coalesce into an actual set of plans, is always on my mind, reminding me that the college life I’ve never liked is finally ending soon.

I wish I could tell you how I got to that place I was at six months ago, ready to connect with the world in a genuine way for the first time in years. Maybe the illness had just had enough. Maybe I started getting enough vitamins or something and some random chemicals in my brain balanced out. I don’t know.

More likely, though, all the stuff I was reading and writing was finally going to my brain. While feminism certainly can’t cure serious depression, it really got to the roots of a lot of the issues I was having that were contributing to my depression. For the first time, I started to understanding that, yes, I can be serious. I can be critical. I can be passionate. Being these things doesn’t keep me from being a kind, loving person that others can actually appreciate, and it doesn’t have to make me an outcast. In certain social circles, of course, it does. But fuck those social circles. Seriously.

Feminism also showed me what I can expect out of my friendships and relationships. I don’t have to put up with the mean-spirited jokes, I don’t have to accept the shrugs and cold shoulders and eye rolls. I don’t have to deal with people who cancel plans at the last minute and treat me like their own personal therapist without ever offering any support in return. I don’t have to pretend to laugh at sexist, racist, and homophobic comments made “ironically.”

And so I stopped. For a while, this meant I had less friends and had to be more picky. This is fine. As it turned out, I left just enough space in my life for a loving, loud, affirming bunch of feminists to walk right in and become my dearest friends.

There are times when you need to compromise. I don’t expect to have the perfect job in the perfect city any time soon, if ever. I will probably always have a bit too little money. If I find a good enough apartment in a good enough neighborhood for a good enough price, I’ll take it. The thrift store clothes will do just fine.

But when it comes to friends and lovers, I will not settle. Ever. Again. When it comes to my writing, I will say what I want.

My happiness now does not come from the academic achievement I used to yearn for. I never did lose that weight. Those resolutions were all bullshit. When I see people getting these things, I sometimes reflexively feel jealous and then I remember:

I have beaten an illness that consumed my mind for nearly a decade, and I beat it without any of that stuff. For six months now I have been happy, sometimes so happy I could cry, without any of it.

The clock will tick on, six months will turn into seven and then eight and then more, and maybe someday I will lose count of how long it has been since I found myself again.

Happy New Year.

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New Year in New York.

How It Feels To Shed Your Skin

Being a young and mobile person is a bit like having a never-ending case of whiplash.

I don’t have a single identity or home or social circle; I have many, and I’m constantly leaving one for another and feeling like the skin that has been grafted onto my preexisting skin is being ripped off and the resulting wound is replaced with another.

There is my life at school, which is the busiest and most visibly meaningful (but actually probably the emptiest) life of them all. There is who I am with my family in Ohio, and who I am when I visit my intended future home, New York City. I am someone else entirely apart from all these people with my long-distance partner (first one, then another) when one of us is visiting the other.

Leaving each of these is like heartbreak. At that moment it feels like nothing is deeper and truer than who I am in this place, with these people, at this point in time. I tell myself over and over that once I get to my destination I will become that person and it’ll feel normal again, but no amount of telling it makes it feel true. It is always like leaving myself and becoming someone else, someone I don’t want to be. And upon arriving I briefly experience the sickening feeling of having become someone I dreaded becoming just a few short hours before, across a few state lines or perhaps a two-hour flight away. That feeling squeezes me by the throat and then finally slinks away and I grow comfortable and complacent in my new (old?) skin.

Shortly before leaving I often grow aloof and distant from the people I’m with, and this breaks my heart even more. And probably theirs. It pains me, but it seems better than letting myself stay close for those final hours, which would mean letting them see me collapse in tears as I imagine being torn away from them by whichever car, bus, train, or plane is doing it this time.

There is a certain courage that you need to let someone wipe your tears away, and it is a courage I rarely have these days.

The reason I need courage is because there is so much to be afraid of. People misread the particular mix of emotions I feel when I’m leaving and assume that I must be pathologically attached to them or confused about where I “belong” (why the hell do I hate Ohio so much but invariably lose control of myself when leaving it?). The truth is, yes, I get very attached to people. But I don’t think there’s anything pathological about the way in which I get attached. I think the difference between me and people who aren’t depressed is that, sometimes, the way you keep from being depressed is by choosing not to acknowledge the enormous amounts of pain and pleasure that others can give to you, and living as though you are truly independent.

Whose way is better? I can’t say, but I know that I’m incapable of ignoring the bonds between myself and the people I love for the few hours it takes for me to leave. And because I can’t ignore them, having to sever them over and over and then splice them back up and sever them again, every couple of months, feels like the worst thing in the world.

Someone pointed out to me recently that the same theme keeps coming up whenever I tell the story of my life, how I came to be so depressed, and how I eventually (mostly) recovered. That theme is disconnection. My worst misery is when I feel disconnected from people, society, and life itself. It’s when I feel misunderstood by the people close to me or when I feel like an outsider (this happens often to me; if you read my previous post you can see a little snippet of it). Or when I feel like I just don’t understand the people around me and why we can’t seem to agree on anything, or when I feel like I have no traditions to give shape to my life, or when I feel like I’m not “fully” any of the things that I think I am–feminist, atheist, Jew, Russian, Israeli, woman, student, activist.

(In my better moments, I realize that, well, of course I’m not “fully” any of these things. Nobody can possibly fit some hypothetical Aristotelian prototype of any of these things. The very nature of such identities is that the pressure to belong and conform is significant and that we will always wonder if we’re really measuring up to what we’re “supposed” to be.)

On the other hand, the greatest happiness I’ve ever known is feeling connected to people and ideas and places. It’s the feeling I had at Skepticon. It’s reading a brilliant book or article and feeling completely in sync with the author. It’s holding someone I love close. It’s discovering that my partner and I both hate Michael Cera and love Los Campesinos! and agree on virtually every ethical and political issue that we care about.

Given this, it’s not very surprising that I have such difficulty with transitions. Of course, everything is ultimately temporary and change is part of life for everyone, but this much temporariness and this much change is just too much. That whiplashy feeling I get every time I have to switch identities and hop across state lines is a sign that someone like me just isn’t made for this lifestyle.

I have strategies to help me cope with it, of course. I always carry things from one place to another to help me remember who I am when I’m somewhere else. I have stacks of notebooks from other times. I almost never recall old memories.

Mostly, though, I write. Telling you this right now is the only thing that’s helping.

A while ago, I wrote that the happiest day of my life up until that point had been my older brother’s wedding, because I got to spend a whole day focusing entirely on other people and not on myself. My new sister-in-law read it and replied that she felt much like I did when I was younger and that once you grow a bit older and start to settle down, it gets easier. Not necessarily because Change Is Bad, but because people like me are at a stage in our lives where we are basically required to focus on nothing but ourselves. Our education, our needs, our desires, our constant criss-crossing of the country in search of opportunities. Once you’re able to turn that focus outwards at other people, that feeling of disconnect subsides and real, lasting happiness–not the kind you might get from parties or straight As–can take its place.

I hope she’s right. I hope that after I’ve finished all of my degrees and chosen a city to live in, life will stop jerking me around like this every few months. I hope that I can finally build a network of friends and acquaintances that will be more or less stable. I hope that the people I spend time with will have known me for longer than a few months. I hope that my work will feel more meaningful than my schooling.

I hope, because tomorrow I will rip myself out of one skin and shoddily sew myself into another, and the person I am right now, as I write this, will already be just a distant memory.

A Handy List of Everything Wrong with Creating a Database of People with Mental Illnesses

It’s not like anyone expected the NRA to say anything intelligent during its long-awaited press conference on Friday, so I’m not exactly disappointed by what they said. I am, however, completely appalled at the NRA’s ignorance of mental illness and insensitivity to those affected by it.

Along with a few other laughable suggestions, like putting armed security guards in elementary schools, Wayne LaPierre, the NRA’s Executive Vice President, said this:

“How many more copycats are waiting in the wings for their moment of fame from a national media machine that rewards them with wall-to-wall attention and a sense of identity that they crave, while provoking others to try to make their mark.

A dozen more killers, a hundred more? How can we possibly even guess how many, given our nation’s refusal to create an active national database of the mentally ill?”

Now, I’m not sure to what extent LaPierre actually believes that this is a realistic and ethical goal as opposed to a throwaway remark intended to deflect responsibility from his organization and the products it defends. It’s also unclear how much the NRA’s leadership has discussed and promoted this idea.

However, I think it’s still worth using this example to show how ignorant these people are about mental illness, because I’m quite certain that they are not alone.

So, here’s everything I can think of that’s wrong with the idea of creating a national database of people with mental illnesses.

1. It’s redundant.

As Kate explains on Ashley Miller’s blog, mental health professionals are already required to break confidentiality and report when patients pose a clear threat to themselves or others. Rather than putting this in some sort of “database,” they report it to the people who know best how to use this information–the police. I’m not sure if LaPierre is suggesting that we create a public database of people with mental illnesses so that armed vigilantes can take matters into their own hands or what, but I think most reasonable people agree that dealing with people who have expressed the intent to harm others is best left to the police.

Furthermore, as Sarah Kliff writes in the Washington Post, 38 states already require or allow the use of mental health records in background checks for people trying to purchase guns, and the Gun Control Act of 1969 bans the sale of guns to people who have been committed to a mental institution in the past. However, that act is difficult to enforce because state reporting laws vary so much, and unfortunately for LaPierre, it is unconstitutional for the federal government to require states to report mental health records for a national database.

2. It violates existing laws.

As Kate also mentions, HIPAA (the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) requires that people’s medical records be kept private. (So strict are medical confidentiality rules that when I saw a psychiatrist as a 19-year-old dependent on my parents’ medical insurance, the psychiatrist had to ask for my consent before she explained to my mom why she thought I needed antidepressants.) Creating a national database of people with mental illnesses would mean repealing or amending this law. Can the NRA summon up enough support in Congress for that?

If LaPierre intends to use this database to restrict the ability of people with mental illnesses to access to resources they need, such as jobs and schools, that would also violate the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act), which bans discrimination on the bases of mental and physical disability. And, regardless, as mentioned in #1, creating a national database would probably not be constitutional because the federal government would have to force states to report mental health data.

3. It’s probably impossible to determine which diagnoses should be included.

Repealing or amending HIPAA would also mean deciding which diagnoses would suddenly not be subject to confidentiality. People like LaPierre seem to think that schizophrenia and bipolar disorder are the most “dangerous,” but what about substance addiction, which is highly correlated with violence? Would every alcoholic have to be registered? What about autism, which many people falsely associate with violence? And, if yes, then what about Asperger’s Syndrome, now considered a “mild” version of autism that’s on the low end of the spectrum? What about depression, which can sometimes involve psychosis?

Or, since LaPierre simply called it a “national database of the mentally ill,” should we include everybody with mild depression, social anxiety, a phobia of elevators, an eating disorder? Should we include people whose mental symptoms are caused entirely by another, purely medical illness? Should we include people who develop depression as a result of, say, cancer?

4. The list of ethical ways to use this database is very short.

Seriously, what would you do with it? Deny these people access to employment, education, and housing? Then you’d have to repeal the ADA. Surveil them? That’s a violation of civil liberties (not that our government’s great about that). Bar them from purchasing guns? As mentioned above, that’s already going on in the majority of states, and it’s one of the reasons “liberals” are trying to pass stricter gun regulations. But this is where the common argument against such regulations–that criminals will find a way to get guns anyway–can be turned right back on those who tend to spew it. It’s worth noting that Adam Lanza did not purchase his guns; he got them from his mother, who bought them legally and is not reported to have had any mental illness.

5. Most people with mental illnesses do not get treatment.

And you can’t register them in a database unless they do, obviously. One study suggests that over 60 percent of people with serious mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, do not receive consistent treatment. This means that a majority of the people who should be in the database wouldn’t be in it, anyway.

Although the association between mental illness and violence is tiny, people with untreated mental illnesses are more likely to be violent than those whose illnesses are being treated properly (although the link between mental illness and violence is still very small). This means that the people who would be on this database are the ones who are least likely to cause anyone any harm.

In any case, the percentage of people who don’t get the treatment they need would probably go up, because:

6. It would discourage people from seeking treatment.

The stigma of mental illness and treatment already keeps many people from reaching out for help. If you know that going to see a therapist or psychiatrist could put your name on a national registry of people to be feared, stigmatized, and discriminated against, why would you do it?

Even if most of what I’ve said above about misuses of this database turns out to be a huge strawman–which I don’t know, because LaPierre hasn’t specified how he wants this database to be used and it’s important to consider the potentially dangerous ramifications–people will still worry. Even if the only purpose of the database is to prevent people with mental illnesses from purchasing guns, people will still be worried about that information falling into the wrong hands.

This, of course, is the final nail in the coffin of LaPierre’s idea. Even if nothing else that I’ve said about it were true, this point would be reason enough not to do it. Anything that prevents people from getting treatment is, by default, the wrong solution.

I already know many people who refuse to seek treatment for a mental illness because they are worried about being discriminated against if the wrong person finds out. Although the ADA supposedly protects them, it is difficult if not impossible to prove that discrimination has occurred. Those fears could grow much more urgent if simply going to a doctor and receiving a diagnosis puts your name and medical information into a national database accessible to god-knows-who.

This is what tells me that not only is LaPierre scapegoating people with mental illnesses to divert opprobrium from his own organization, but he also completely misses the point and fails to understand the first thing about mental health and treatment.

He gives away his views on people with mental illnesses when he says this: “The truth is, that our society is populated by an unknown number of genuine monsters. People that are so deranged, so evil, so possessed by voices and driven by demons, that no sane person can every possibly comprehend them.”

We are “genuine monsters” to him.

He’s wrong, of course. There are plenty of “sane” people who comprehend those with mental illnesses–researchers, therapists, psychiatrists, social workers, friends and family of those affected, and people who have recovered from those illnesses. That LaPierre personally fails to understand them says more about his own lack of both empathy and research in the field than about the supposed need to stick them all in a national database for the perusal of bigots.

It is also worth noting that in this emotionally charged statement, LaPierre fails to distinguish between people who commit acts of violence because of an illness they cannot control without proper treatment–which LaPierre wants to make it even harder for them to get–and people who commit acts of violence because they have no respect for human life and are seeking to make a political point, get personal revenge, and so on. Although violence and death, especially of children, is tragic regardless of the cause, that doesn’t mean that all violence is caused by the same type of person.

If I could make a suggestion to LaPierre, I would tell him to talk less, read and listen more. There’s reasonable disagreement to be had about how to prevent further mass shootings, but his suggestion was not reasonable. It was ignorant, offensive, and probably dishonest.

How To Make Your Social Spaces More Welcoming To Shy, Socially Anxious, or Introverted People

Social interaction is hard for many people for many different reasons. Plenty has already been written on how these people can change themselves or learn how to better cope with social situations, so I have little interest in rehashing that. What I really want to discuss is how others can set up their social spaces and events in ways that make it easier for these people to participate.

A disclaimer: this post is written from my individual perspective (albeit with a few suggestions from friends). I’m just one person, one person who is an introvert and has struggled with social anxiety and shyness in the past. If you read this post and find it useful, discuss it with other people you know who might disagree with or confirm various parts of it.

It’s also important to note that shyness, introversion, and social anxiety are different things. Shyness is a personality trait that some people grow out of after childhood and others don’t. Introversion is a personality “type” that rarely changes much during a person’s lifetime and can involve a bunch of related traits. Social anxiety is a mental disorder that can be treated in various ways, but not everyone has access to treatment or is able to find one that works. The reason I’m lumping them all together in this post is only because people who have them can all benefit from similar social accommodations–not because they’re the same thing.

So, first and foremost:

1. Include them.

Sounds so obvious, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, it’s not. Social events of all kinds, whether informal ones like parties or “serious” ones like conferences, are often attended by groups of friends. But they’re also often attended by people who come hoping to make friends and meet like-minded folks. If you’d like to bring new people into the fold of your group, you have to create an environment in which new people feel welcomed and wanted, even if they’re shy, quiet, or anxious around strangers.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve walked up and introduced myself to people–or, worse, been invited somewhere with a group of established friends–who then proceeded to ignore me and keep discussing their own inside jokes and gossip. When I was younger and more socially anxious, reaching out to people was almost impossible because I was terrified of this exact possibility and the awkwardness that ensues when you’re greeted and introduced and then ignored.

Now, as an adult who’s much more likely to be the one with the established friend group than the newbie, I sometimes catching myself doing the same thing and I try to make an effort to include the new person in the conversation instead.

Excluding people from conversation is rude at best and anxiety-provoking at worst, and it’s easy to avoid. If you’d like new people to come to your events and feel welcome there, you have to actually include them.

And on another level, it’s important to actually invite people to your event even if they seem shy or not very social. Give them a lot of information about the event–what will happen there, how many people there will be, who else they know is coming, and so on. As long as your invitation isn’t coercive (see below), they can decide for themselves whether they’re comfortable attending or not.

2. On the other hand, don’t try to force them into social interaction.

Social coercion bothers me, both in my personal life and on a philosophical level. If someone’s perfectly happy sitting off to the side on their own, there’s no reason for you to try to force them to mingle just for the sake of feeling like a successful host. Even if you think it’s “for their own good.”

If you see a person at your event who seems shy or anxious, you could come up to them alone and ask if they’d like to be introduced to others or to participate in whatever’s going on. (For large events like conferences, it can be helpful to have a person whose job it is to do this.) If they say no, that’s it. Say, “Okay, please let me know if you change your mind!” and leave them alone.

Note that some people with social anxiety wouldn’t agree with me on this, because they wouldn’t want to be approached at all. This is one great reason why you should seek other opinions, not just mine!

3. Physically organize your space in a way that allows shy or anxious people to have time alone.

We’re used to having to sneak outside and stand in the cold. We’re used to hiding away in the bathroom as people knock on the door and ask if we’re “okay in there.” (No, but not in the way you mean.)

Why not make that unnecessary?

An event should have quiet areas or rooms where people can go just to be alone and recharge. If that’s not an option, consider having things they can look at or fiddle with when they don’t feel like talking–coffee table books, those little mechanical puzzles, and so on. Introverts, shy people, and people with social anxiety often find that they need to get away from people for a bit after socializing for a while. Unless the venue allows that, this often means that they have to just call it a night and go home.

4. Try to avoid overcrowding as much as possible.

I know that sometimes having a crowded event or party is unavoidable, especially for those of us who are still young and living in tiny cheap apartments. If you can, though, make sure there’s plenty of space for the number of people you’re inviting. Ensure that people can easily get through aisles or to their seats, and that there’s enough seating. An overcrowded event is annoying for everyone, but for people with social anxiety it can be unbearable.

5. Provide activities for people to do instead of just talking.

This kind of goes along with not forcing people into social interaction (see #2 above). See if it’s possible to provide board games or other things that people can do with each other that saves them from the burden of having to come up with conversation topics, which can be really hard to do when you’re shy or anxious, especially if you don’t have any close friends at the event.

Another thing you can do is create opportunities for people to help out that don’t involve a ton of socializing. Ask for volunteers to record talks on video, serve food, etc. Some people who otherwise have trouble being social find it easier when they have something else to do too.

6. Pay attention to the way you have conversations.

Aside from actually including people in the conversation (see #1), there are various things you can do while talking to shy, anxious, or introverted people that will make it easier for them to participate.

First of all, decreasing the emphasis on small talk or avoiding it entirely can really help people who have trouble with conversations. It may seem counterintuitive, since small talk is often what we do when we don’t know what else to say. However, it’s also the type of conversation that many introverts and shy people have the most difficulty with, because you have to follow preestablished social “rules” and find a way to somehow make it interesting that you’re majoring in biology or spent the holidays in Chicago or have a daughter studying at Ohio State.

Instead, ask them something more interesting. Don’t be afraid to venture into “taboo” subjects like politics and religion. Many shy and quiet people will suddenly open up when asked about something they’re passionate about.

When you’re having conversations with people, allow for comfortable silences. Silence is a healthy, normal part of interacting with others. Sometimes people–especially shy or socially anxious people–need time to process what’s been said or to form a cogent response. I once went on a first date and the conversation had gotten pretty deep and interesting, so I paused for a few moments to collect my thoughts. My date immediately went, “Well, that’s an awkward silence!” No, the silence wasn’t awkward. That comment was awkward.

Trying to fill up every single silence makes us feel like we’re inadequate at conversation and makes the anxiety worse.

One last very important thing: please avoid loudly calling attention to people’s verbal slip-ups, mispronunciations, and so on. If you must correct someone, do it quietly and politely. “Oh, I think you might’ve meant genotype, not phenotype,” not “Um, what are you talking about? It’s definitely genotype, duh.” Or “Just FYI, it’s pronounced ‘salmon’!”, not “HAHA did you just call it SAL-mon? What’s wrong with you?” (You may think I’m exaggerating, but as a foreigner who got most of her English vocabulary from reading, my frequent mispronunciations have garnered some incredibly rude responses from friends.)

Changing the way you plan events and interact with people in order to include those who find socializing difficult may seem like a lot of work, but it’s worth it. Some of the most interesting people you’ll meet are very withdrawn at first, but welcome them and they may amaze you.

Who Is To Blame For A Suicide?

Yesterday I was driving around in my hometown and listening to the radio. The DJs did a segment on the suicide of Jacintha Saldanha, a nurse in a hospital where Kate Middleton was being treated, who was pranked by some radio DJs and tricked into giving out Middleton’s medical information.

The DJs on my hometown station put a caller through and asked for her opinion. She said that it’s not at all the DJs’ fault that Saldhana clearly had issues and that they shouldn’t have lost their jobs because of what happened. Furthermore, it was “irresponsible” of Saldhana to kill herself and leave this whole mess behind.

Lesson one: never listen to the radio in Dayton, Ohio.

Lesson two: people have a lot of trouble with grey areas and blurry lines.

(Of course, I mostly knew both of these things already.)

It seems to be very difficult for people to form an opinion on this tragedy that isn’t extreme. Some say that the DJs were just doing their jobs, the prank was completely harmless, just a bit of fun, and Saldanha was messed up and crazy. Others say that the DJs are terrible people and should be blamed for Saldanha’s suicide. The latter seems to be the minority opinion.

I don’t think that the truth always lies between two extremes. In this case, though, I feel that it does.

Suicide is a complex phenomenon and the suffering that causes it–and that is caused by it–makes it even more difficult to comprehend. A particularly painful fact that the friends and families of people who kill themselves sometimes have to face is the fact that suicide often has a trigger. Sometimes, that trigger is other people.

I remember reading a young adult novel called Thirteen Reasons Why a few years ago. The novel is very serious for a YA book, and the premise of it is that a teenage girl, Hannah, has killed herself and left behind a set of audio recordings in which she explains to every person who was implicated in her mental troubles what it was that they did.

One was addressed to a guy who found a poem she wrote and spread it all over the school. Another was to a guy who took photos of her through her bedroom window. By the end of the book you get a picture of a girl who was just completely used and marginalized by almost everyone she interacted with.

And yet–this is the part that some readers, judging from the reviews, didn’t get–Hannah is not supposed to be a wholly sympathetic character. You’re meant to feel sorry for her, but her actions are meant to make you uncomfortable. The tapes she leaves behind seem a bit vindictive. And at the end you learn that two of the major triggers for her suicide were that she failed to stop a rape at a party and that she allowed her friend to drive drunk–and hit and kill someone.

So, who’s to blame for Hannah’s suicide? Her classmates were cruel, yes. But they didn’t know what she was going through. And she could’ve saved herself a lot of guilt had she intervened and stopped the rape and the car accident, but can you really expect a terrified teenage girl to do that?

The point of the book, to me, is this: you can’t blame anyone. It’s comforting to think that you can, but you just can’t.

Similarly, the Australian DJs who pranked Saldanha could not have known what would happen. In fact, even now we don’t really understand. Although she reportedly left a suicide note, we don’t know what it says, and we don’t know what kinds of personal struggles she might’ve had leading up to her death. To their credit, the DJs have said that they’re heartbroken and sorry.

But blaming Saldanha is sick and cruel.

And while I don’t blame the DJs for her death, I still think they shouldn’t have done it.

The thing is, we live in a world that presumes that everyone is “strong” and mentally healthy and capable of dealing with whatever life throws at them without falling apart. This is why people like Saldanha are blamed and exhorted to “just work on their issues,” even after they’ve died.

We assume that people are always capable, for instance, of refusing repeated sexual advances, ignoring social coercion and proselytism, dealing with mental health issues without ever being taught how, overcoming pervasive racial inequality, facing the humiliation (and, sometimes, terror) of street harassment, suffering through targeted online hate campaigns, refusing to believe it when magazines tell them they must be thin, and so much more. We expect them to do all this without anger, because anger is “counterproductive.” So, of course, is mental illness.

We expect people to conform to an ideal that includes emotional strength, confidence, and resilience, and we refuse to concede that few people are able to live up to this ideal all of the time. How much do we expect a person to bravely, stoically handle? I’m not sure there is a limit.

The DJs assumed, whether consciously or not, that Saldanha would either see through the prank or be able to deal with the international attention she would receive for falling victim to it. As it turned out, she was not.

At The Daily Beast, Kent Sepkowitz writes:

With the recent focus on bullying sparked by suicides of young people who were hectored as outcasts, a new or newly articulated risk factor for suicide has gained currency: humiliation. Though certainly related to hopelessness and to real or threatened financial embarrassment, humiliation is its own very private experience, with its own equally private triggers. How and why certain events might brutally transgress honor and dignity in one person yet the same events barely touch the next, remains inscrutable. In this particular tragedy, it seems a sense that she was being publicly ridiculed—humiliated—somehow pushed Ms. Saldanha over the edge, an edge previously defined and maintained by her tremendous pride in her work.

Why do we expect people to deal with public humiliation for our own entertainment?

I would hope that rather than limiting the discussion to what these particular DJs should or should not have done, we expand it to talk about the exploitation and degradation that modern media thrives on. That these DJs would even think to go through such trouble to obtain someone’s private medical information is ridiculous. That there is a market for that information is ridiculous. I’ve long believed that celebrity gossip is unethical, but when it sets off a chain of events that ends in a suicide, that becomes even more apparent to me.

Not only is it impossible to blame any individual person in this awful story, but to do so would be to miss the point. Something in our culture–in the ways we relate to each other and in the ways we expect each other to be strong–is broken.

If I absolutely had to lay blame on something, it would be that.

“Home”

This week I learned that depression and writer’s block together is a scary thing, as writing is my primary way of alleviating depression. Then I realized that the reason I couldn’t write was because I was refusing to write the piece that was trying to come out. When I finally let myself “feel the feels,” this is what resulted.

In the dark and the stillness, the floor of my family’s house creaks and groans.

I have this ritual whenever I come home. Or, as I should probably call it, “home.”

I walk through the whole house and find all the things that are different. Like that game where you look at a picture and then you look at another, nearly identical picture and you have to spot the changes.

One time they had a new machine for juicing citrus fruits. They made fresh juice out of it. Now they make it for me every time.

Another time they had new bookshelves for me to look through. New photos, almost every time, of a little brother and sister who grow up without me now. This time they took apart the kids’ bunk bed. They’re too old for it now; they sleep on their own beds now.

Next time, maybe, they’ll have their own bedrooms.

Things will fall apart and be replaced. New gadgets will appear, charging next to the landline phone. There will be middle school textbooks, high school textbooks, someday. There will be other things, things people need as they grow old, things I can’t think about without literally weeping.

The floor will creak a bit more each time.

Before I left for college, my parents promised me that they’d never clean out my room and turn it into anything else. “This will always be your room, your home,” they said.

They didn’t lie. The only ways they alter my room is to clean it after I leave from my visits, always in a hurry, always leaving behind half my stuff and dragging away other stuff; or when my mom wants to borrow clothes that I left behind. I’ll come home and see her wearing something I’d long forgotten and she says, “Oh, I took this. Hope you don’t mind!” I don’t.

When I come “home” my room is almost the same. Entering it is like reentering the world of my high school self, although I can never really feel or understand that world again. I was so alone. Politically conservative, overly romantic, unable to put a name to the dark moods that often consumed me. The worst was definitely still to come, of course, but I already had a glimpse of what I was in for.

The only source of continuity, really, is writing. Even in high school I was known for that. A very different type of writing, sure, but writing nonetheless. My notebooks and journals fill my old room.

Nearly half a year ago my depression suddenly remitted. Before that, coming home was a treasure. It wasn’t “home” back then; it really was home. I lived for those school breaks. I daydreamed about them in class, at the gym, while I took walks. Nothing felt better than dropping my bags at the bottom of the stairs and taking that first tour of the house, playing the “What’s Different?” game.

After the depression was over, everything changed. Home doesn’t feel like home anymore. It’s merely “home” now.

Now coming “home” feels like being ripped out of my skin and put into another one. Sometimes it triggers a brief depressive episode; the rest of the time it just feels numb. Every object in the house seems to tell me stories about impermanence and decay, even as the house is gleaming and beautiful as ever.

I don’t understand the girl who once lived here. I don’t even want to. But sometimes, what I wouldn’t give to be her for just one more day.

The more this happens the less I want to come “home,” and the more the guilt builds and builds. My mom saw me crying and assumed it was about my finals (as it had been earlier), and I didn’t have the heart to tell her that it’s because I have no home anymore and I don’t belong anywhere and no matter where I go I just can’t come home.

It’s like everything comes at a price. This seems to be the price I pay to be free–mostly–of depression in my day-to-day life. Religious folks might say, “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away.” I say, sometimes shit happens. Sometimes this is just how brains work.

And, sometimes, people grow up. Some people will always cherish returning to their childhood homes and swimming through those memories. But I, it seems, just can’t do that. I love this house and the people in it so dearly but it’s not home anymore. That breaks my heart.

Now I know that if I ever want to come home again, I can’t go back. I can only go forward.