Shit People Say to People Who Care About Shit

Or, an incomplete list of responses I get when I talk about the things I care about.

“Yeah, well, what did you expect?”

That’s an easy one to answer. I expect better.

“So what, are you surprised?”

I’m not surprised. I’m angry. Those are not the same emotion.

Often people seem to think that just because you “should have” expected something, you no longer have the right to be upset about it. This is false. First of all, guess what–people get to feel however they feel about things. Second, the fact that this is “just how the world is” does not–and should not–mean that we shouldn’t care anymore.

In fact, if something unjust happens so often that you think I don’t have the right to be surprised about it, doesn’t that make it much worse than a random, one-off act of injustice?

“You’ll never change that anyway.”

Man, people have said that to literally every activist, every group, every cause that’s ever existed.

Sure, some failed. But most of those have simply not succeeded yet.

Besides, when I’m old and my kids and grandkids ask me what I liked to do when I was young, I’d like to say that I did something other than make money, go to the gym, and go out drinking sometimes. I hope I’ll be equally proud of the failures as I am of the successes, because as disappointing as it is to fail–as an activist or as anything else–trying really is better than sitting on your ass.

“But that’s just human nature.”

People often say that social justice isn’t worthwhile because it’s “human nature” to create unjust institutions and societies. Humans are naturally biased, they are naturally tribalistic and selfish, and so on.

I’m not sure I agree that “human nature” can be defined, but even starting from that premise, I don’t see how it leads logically to “social justice is a waste of time.” Even if humans are “naturally” one way, wouldn’t it be interesting to see if we can shape our natures and societies into something different?

After all, it’s “natural” for rivers to occasionally flood, but we build levees. It’s “natural” for humans to have disputes that they need to resolve, but we have a court system to help them do that. It’s “natural” for fires to sometimes happen, but we have firefighters to help put them out. It’s “natural” for some climates to be inhospitable to humans, so we use technology to make it easier for people to live there. It’s “natural” for people to get sick, sometimes fatally, but we have doctors, surgeons, vaccines, antibiotics, painkillers, MRIs, and all sorts of ridiculously high-tech stuff I’ve never even heard of to help diagnose and treat them so that they can live longer and feel better.

There isn’t a single other domain of human life and society in which we’ve decided to just throw our hands up and let what is “natural” control our lives. So even if sexism, racism, and other forms of bigotry are “natural”—which is, again, a premise I do not accept—I don’t see a reason to let that stop us from finding ways to eradicate or circumvent them.

“You’re just gonna make yourself miserable!”

This is a red herring. If these people really cared about my mental health–or knew anything about it–they’d listen to me when I say that what really makes me miserable is doing nothing to work on the issues I care about. How do I know? Experience.

I think we all sometimes have difficulty imagining how or why someone would hate the things we love or love the things we hate, but people are different. I cannot imagine a life in which I find activism boring or depressing, and I’m sure some people can’t imagine a life in which they find it inspiring, meaningful, and fun. But if you’re one of those people, you’ll just have to trust us when we say that caring about things doesn’t make us miserable. It makes our lives worth living.

Disregarding that, though, I’m not sure why it’s anyone’s business whether or not activism makes me miserable (unless they’re someone who’s actually close to me, in which case they’d know that it doesn’t). Plenty of people are sometimes miserable because of what they do, and as long as they knowingly and willingly chose that path, I don’t see a problem with it. It’s when people have no choice but to be miserable that I see a problem.

“Why are you making such a big deal about it? X Issue is more important.”

It seems to be a common misconception that if someone’s advocating about a particular issue, it means that they think that that issue is The Most Important Issue Of Our Time or whatever. Actually, no. For instance, you might be surprised to know that I don’t consider gender inequality to be The Most Important Issue Of Our Time, and I don’t think mental illness is it, either. If I had to choose, I’d choose environmental degradation and climate change.

But I don’t advocate on those issues because, frankly, I’d be shit at it. I don’t have the educational background for it, and I can’t get it because I’m spending my time studying what I need to for my career. More importantly, I just don’t have the passion for it. I care, to be sure, but I’m not that interested in the specifics of biology, chemistry, and physics involved, and I can no more force myself to be more interested in them than I can force myself to lose my passion for psychology and sociology. Why do I have this set of interests and not that one? Hell if I know. But I do know that I’ll be the most effective activist in the areas for which I have the most passion. I do a lot of activism around social issues primarily because I’m intensely curious and perceptive about the way elements of societies and cultures fit together and produce our lived experiences.

I’m sure there are activists who do think that their niche is the only one that matters, just as there are probably those mythical feminists who hate men and those mythical vegans who shove veganism down people’s throats (whatever that means). I don’t think that these people are nearly prevalent or influential enough to generalize from.

So, I don’t really care which issues are more important and which are less, not that there’s any objective way to tell, anyway. I’m going to do whatever I’m most suited for based on my skills and interests, and I know that there are bright and passionate activists working on the causes that I can’t work on myself.

“You’re just looking for things to be upset about.”

I can see why people might think this way. The more privilege you have on various axes, the less injustice plays a role in your daily life. (Or, perhaps, injustice plays a huge role in your life but you don’t realize it because you’ve been taught to blame yourself.) In that case, for you to see injustice in the world really does require going out looking for it.

But for many people, it doesn’t. A person of color need only get followed around in a store or stopped by the cops for spurious reasons or avoided by passerby on the street to witness racism at work. A trans* person need only get yelled at or attacked for using the “wrong” bathroom. A woman need only find that her insurance plan won’t cover birth control while male reproductive needs get covered. Do any of these people really have to “look” for things to be upset about?

Besides, so what if we are?

Telling an activist that they’re “just looking” for things that are broken in society is like telling a computer security specialist that they’re “just looking” for vulnerabilities in a piece of software, or telling an editor that they’re “just looking” for writing errors, or telling a surgeon that they’re “just looking” for tumors. Of course they are! Looking for them is how you fix them.

But so great is the bias toward “looking on the bright side” and being “positive” that people pressure each other to avoid the sometimes-unpleasant but absolutely vital process of exposing the ways in which we fail each other and finding ways to fix those failures.

Ultimately, these responses, this shit people say to people who care about shit, are all really ways of saying the same thing: “I don’t care.” “Yes, but I don’t care.” “Ok, maybe that’s a problem, but I don’t care.” “I don’t know enough about this to really have an opinion, but I don’t care.” “You can’t change this anyway, so I don’t care.” “This is too hard to change, so I don’t care.” “You have compelling arguments, but I don’t care.”

I actually wish people were more willing to come right out and admit that they don’t care, because then they can put it either of two ways: “I don’t care; can you explain to me why I should?”, or “I don’t care, so you might as well stop wasting time talking to me.”

I can work with one of those.

Giving Thanks

This is a sappy personal post.

This is not your typical Thanksgiving post, so first of all, you should read this and understand what this day actually commemorates. Hint: it’s not a happy awesome feast with Pilgrims and Native Americans and all that.

However, I still celebrate it in my own way because I think it’s important to have a day set aside for giving thanks. And sure, I could do that any day of the year. But doing it on the same day as everyone else does it feels more meaningful.

It would be nice if someday we started a new tradition of giving thanks on a particular day without associating that day with genocide. However, for now we have this Thanksgiving Day, and I’m going to celebrate it.

First of all, I’m thankful for writing. I’m thankful for having had the privilege to learn how to do it well and to be able to make time for it. Writing has always been one of the few things that can lift me out of my own mind, if only for an hour or so. The urge to write is like a phoenix–it burns like a fire and just keeps resurrecting itself if extinguished.

Writing has always been a key part of my development as a person. I’ve kept journals since I was 11 or so–that’s more than a decade of constantly watching myself grow and reexperiencing my own life. Whenever I’m not sure if I’ve really gotten better at this whole life thing, I can reread my old writing and see that I have.

Writing for an audience is something I’m a bit newer to, but even that I’ve been doing since high school. First it was mostly poetry and fiction; then I switched to personal narratives (like the one that got me into college!) and fiery op-eds.

I’m thankful for the change I’ve already made with my writing. I’m thankful that others have benefitted from it. I’m thankful that this matters.

I’m thankful for the internet. Go ahead and laugh. I know, it’s terrible and keeps us from enjoying “Real Life” and spending time with our families and whatnot. For me, though, that hasn’t really been my experience of it. The Internet has brought most of the other good things in my life to me–friendship, love, knowledge, inspiration.

I’m thankful for feminism, skepticism, and the rest of the ideologies I subscribe to. The reason I’m thankful is because it’s a personal thing. Feminism showed me how to find fulfillment in my relationships and taught me that I don’t have to take shit from anyone. Skepticism taught me not to automatically accept everything my brain tries to tell me, which is very useful when you have depression. Both helped me find a world beyond my own self.

I’m thankful for Chipotle, Red Bull, Diet Coke, Milanos, and Cheez-Its. Because I thought it’d be good to take a moment to appreciate the things that, for the most part, have sustained me this quarter.

And now, here comes the rainbowvomit part. Watch out…

To all the fellow activists I have met–I can’t even begin to explain how important this has been for me. I’ve met people who sued their schools when they were teenagers. I’ve also met people who are in their 30s, 40s, and beyond, and are still fighting for the changes they want to see in the world.

It’s that latter group of people that has particularly impacted me. For most of my adolescence and my college years, adults–by which I generally mean, people more than a decade older than me–were the people I dreaded interacting with. They were the people who rolled their eyes at me, told me to just wait till I’m older and working a shitty job and hating my boss. They said I’d “grow out of it.” They said it’d be different once I have my own kids. They said I’d stop caring. They crushed my dreams to such an extent that there was a period of time when I actually wanted to be a housewife–I thought that that’s how awful the world of work would be.

Now, I get that many young people are too flighty and idealistic and could probably benefit from being gently brought back down to earth once in a while. But as everyone who actually knows me ought to know, I am not such a person. After living with depression for nearly a decade, I have to fight to be optimistic and to see a purpose in life other than just making enough money to get by and popping out some children so that I’m not lonely in my old age.

That’s where meeting older people who still have that passion has really helped. The grown-up activists I know are wiser and more experienced than me, but they still value my ideas. More importantly, they’ve shown me that there is a way to be an adult while still being youthful.

To my partner–it’s weird writing this knowing that you’re going to read it, so I’ll just speak directly to you: thank you. I won’t say that life would be miserable without you, because that would be unhealthy (not to mention false). I was happy before you, and I’ll be happy after you—if there even is an after. I hope there won’t be.

But I will say that life with you is richer, sweeter, and more colorful. Thank you for the hug at Union Station; thank you for the phone call after that terrible date; thank you for those summer nights when we stayed up talking till 5 AM. Thank you for making me read The Fault in Our Stars (remember, if you don’t say the honest thing, it never becomes true). Thank you for that ridiculous night with the crappy wine. Thank you for making plans for the future. Thank you for worrying while I was in Israel. Thank you for asking me what you can do if the depression comes back. Thank you for making me make the first move. Thank you for refusing to own me and for never expecting me to shrink myself so that you can look taller standing next to me. Thank you for letting me be as independent as I need to be. You are the epitome of that timeless bit of advice: “If you love somebody, set them free.”

Yes, I just quoted a Sting song at you.

Deal with it, sweetheart.

And, finally, to my friends–I just don’t know where I would be without you. You are my proofreaders, my confidantes, my debate partners, my cheerleaders, my support system, my chosen family. Everywhere I go, physically and mentally, you go with me.

Things I learned from my (mostly) new friends: you can say, “Please stop that, it’s hurting me.” Feelings don’t have to make sense. Sometimes you need to be confrontational. There are worse things in the world than being a bit snarky. Just because someone didn’t mean to offend you doesn’t mean you can’t be upset about it. You don’t have to pretend to be okay.

Thank you for that. Thank you also for the Sunday night Google hangouts, the typos, and the hugs. Thank you not only for helping me, but for accepting my help in turn. Thank you for telling the rest of your friends about my blog. Thank you for showing me that going out and drinking and doing Young People Things doesn’t have to be uncomfortable and coercive. Thank you for helping me see that the people who say things like “Calm down” and “It’s not such a big deal” and “Stop complaining” are wrong and I don’t have to listen to them or keep them around in my life. Thank you for talking about me behind my back, because with you, unlike with anyone I’ve known before, I know that it’s going to be positive. And thank you, of course, for all of the <2.

Few of my friends live near me. They’re mostly scattered all over the country. People make fun of those of us who spend a lot of time online, but here’s the thing–not everyone has the privilege of being physically near the people they love. I never really found that at Northwestern. I found it through writing and activism.

And so, in writing if not in person, I thank the people who help keep me strong and passionate.

My Massive List of Social Justice Resources

Yo, remember that huge list of social justice resources I mentioned that I was working on?

Well, it’s up!

Feel free to use this for your own education, to refer newbies, and so on. Share it widely. Hopefully it’ll help people.

And, of course, it will be getting updated constantly and I’d love to get recommendations for articles, websites, books, and other stuff to add. Some of the sections are still woefully sparse, so if any of those are subjects that you particularly care about, please share your favorite resources.

Otherwise, there’s more explanation over on the linked post, so go read that if you’re interested.

Thanks!

What We Talk About When We Talk About College

It’s been rather quiet around here lately.

I’ve just started my senior year, and with that came a lot of reflection–what I want this last year to mean, how I can improve on the years that came before it, and, perhaps most importantly, why it is that my time at Northwestern has been so fucking painful?

I may never know the answer to that question, honestly. I have a few answers, but I don’t have the answer. The answers seem so banal when I list them, and they cannot do justice to my experience here: the depression, the social atmosphere, the pre-professional orientation, the year wasted in journalism school, the quarrels with the administration, the lack of adequate mental health services, and so on and so forth. None of these things, on their own or in any combination, can explain it.

I still remember the pervasive sense of loss I felt when I realized that I was never going to get what I came here for. That beautiful, glossy image of college that I’d been sold would never be my experience. Some days I love this school, but I will never be able to look at it with that fondness with which most older adults talk about their alma maters.

But the truth is that it’s not just me. This time is not universally wonderful. It is not the best time of everyone’s lives. For some people, it is a sad or boring or lackluster time. For some it isn’t really a big deal either way. For others, as we were reminded so horribly last week, it is a tragic time.

What we talk about when we talk about college matters. While I don’t think we should be unduly negative, we should not be unduly positive, either. Painting college as an unequivocally wonderful time–implying, therefore, that if you aren’t having a wonderful time, you are to blame–doesn’t do anybody any good, except perhaps for those who stand to gain from increased tuition revenues.

When we make college out to be the best four years of our lives and push all the unpleasant stuff under the rug, we let down students who are suffering. We let down those for whom the stress and loneliness triggered a mental illness. We let down those who suffer from substance abuse problems, and those who have been robbed, harassed, stalked, and assaulted. We let down those who can’t keep their grades up, who see their friends post Facebook statuses about their 4.0’s at the end of every quarter and think they are the only ones. We let down those who can barely afford to be here. We let down those who miss their families every day. We let down those who have been bullied or taunted because of their appearance or identity–because, yes, that happens, even on a “liberal” campus like ours.

Does this stuff suck? Yeah. Is it unpleasant to talk and read about? Yup. I don’t care.

Here are some things I went through while I’ve been at Northwestern. I’ve been depressed. I’ve been suicidal. I’ve cut myself. I’ve taken antidepressants. I’ve been so tired I couldn’t sit up. I’ve broken down crying in the garden by Tech. I’ve been harassed and assaulted. I’ve been bullied. I’ve been robbed. I’ve lost close friends. I’ve failed tests. I’ve had panic attacks. I’ve tried to starve. I’ve hated myself and the world and wanted to quit.

And then I got lucky, and I found a second family and figured out what to do with my life and got good at the things I love to do. I found feminism and atheism and activism. I got lucky. But I will not shut up about what college was really like for me, because to do so would be to abandon those who haven’t found what they need here yet, or won’t find it ever.

A few weeks ago, a writer for xoJane wrote a piece called “When College Isn’t Awesome.” She discussed her own decidedly not-awesome experience and then published the stories of others. When I read it, I found myself wishing that it had been written years ago, when I was a freshman. The author wrote:

While reflecting on my less-than-picture-perfect college adventure, I asked other folks to share their own stories of college-era emotional and psychological struggles. My hope is that some suffering student will see this post and feel less alone. Maybe she or he will even be more inclined to reach out to the student counseling center, friends, or other resources for help. Or maybe she or he will just feel less like a freak for wanting to stay in bed and cry while seemingly everyone else excitedly skips off to the football game.

That is exactly why I keep talking about how difficult these past three years have been for me. It’s not just because it’s a relief for me to share my own story rather than trying to keep it to myself. It’s also because I want others to know they’re not alone.

What we talk about when we talk about college matters.

Depression Personified

This is a work of fiction. Trigger warning for depression and abuse.

And again.

Everything starts to swirl in my mind again, tears pool in my eyes. Everything about me is shit–my writing, my activism, my appearance, my personality. I cry everywhere–in the office, in the bathroom, on the train, in bed.

Just yesterday I had been able to see clearly. Now that haze is back and everything turns to grey because of it.

He has me by the wrist now, his long nails digging into my skin and leaving red half-moons, just like I used to do.

He jerks my hand towards him, makes me caress his face with it. His eyes seem as black as his hair in that moment. They pop against the smooth porcelain of his skin, cold under my unwilling fingers.

His thin lips twist into an ironic smile.

“You thought we were done,” he says in a low, throaty voice.

I don’t deny it.

“You told all your friends how happy you were to be through with me.”

Can’t deny that either.

He grabs me by the shoulders and pulls me in, putting both hands on my face and tilting it towards his. If you ignore my facial expression it would probably look romantic. But don’t be fooled.

When I’m with him I feel as black as his eyes. I see myself reflected in them. Looking into them is like looking into a cave or an abyss–you don’t know where they end.

I could probably wriggle out of his grip if I tried hard enough. He’s not even holding me that tightly. But I can’t find the will, and he knows.

His eyes narrow and I know he’s not done.

“Here’s the thing.”

I let out a sigh and try to look away, but he’s still holding my face in his hands, stronger than I thought.

“I decide when we’re through. Not you. Because I own you.”

I can never quite believe that someone so beautiful could be so cruel.

“I can come back for you whenever I want. I’ve been choosing not to because I thought you needed a little break. So let this be your reminder.”

He runs one hand through my hair, gathering it up into his fist. He tugs on it, not enough to hurt, but enough to keep me still. We stare each other down–him with his calmly brutal black eyes, me with my terrified, wet hazel ones.

Then suddenly he pulls me into an embrace that feels almost real, if not for its coldness. I’m taken aback. It’s one of the only times he’s shown me anything resembling care. Or love.

I keep shivering long after he’s gone, but gradually the fire relights in my heart.

Some people have real problems.

A Reflection on Three Years of Blogging

The way all good things begin.

Three years ago today, I inaugurated this blog with its first post. At one point in it, I explained that I’d moved to WordPress.com and started a new blog because of issues with my previous host, and I wrote this:

I thought about buying my own domain and not messing around with that stuff anymore, but then I thought, wait a minute. Nobody actually reads what I write, anyway. Why pay for the privilege of writing it?

Well. Three years later, I have my own domain name. I also have a modest following of both friends and strangers, and the blog now gets hundreds (sometimes thousands) of views a day.

A lot of other things have changed since then, and they’ve all impacted my writing. I started college, developed severe depression, got diagnosed, got treatment, and recovered. I did a political 180 and became a passionate progressive. I dropped journalism as a major, picked up psychology, and chose the field of mental healthcare as a career. I gained weight and cut my hair short. I left a serious relationship.

In general, there is very little in common between the person who wrote that first post and the person who is writing this one today.

I’ve learned a lot from writing this blog. I’ve become a better writer, obviously, but I’ve also learned how to argue better, how to take things with a grain of salt, and how to remove myself from the world when I need to.

I’ve learned that calm and careful writing fares better among the commentariat, but that there is a place for snark and anger. Sometimes I’m fucking angry. Sometimes I have the right to be.

I’ve learned that what they tell you about women who are both seen and heard isn’t true. The adults in my life warned me of all sorts of things–that people would dislike me, that men wouldn’t date me, that employers wouldn’t hire me–if I kept up this blog. I’ve certainly lost friends through my writing–well, I’ve lost “friends”–and it’s certainly made things awkward sometimes. I don’t really care.

But these days, most of my genuine friends are people I met through writing. Some of them knew my writing before they even knew me in person, which is interesting. I get messages all the time from friends and from people I barely know or not at all: “I read what you wrote about depression…can we talk?” “My boss keeps making sexist jokes. Do you have any advice?”

I’ve learned that doing what you love will set you free. In my case, it set me free from unhealthy friendships and relationships, from depression, from a terrible career path, and from the feeling of being powerless and insignificant. Three years ago I had no voice. Today, I do. And I use it meaningfully.

I’ve learned to do things for myself and for my own benefit. Not for friends and family, not for lovers, not for teachers–and not just for my resume, either. I write because it’s a joy. I write now for the same reasons I did when I was a kid–because I love to. (I wrote my first creative thing when I was three years old, and it was a song about cement trucks, which were my favorite vehicles at the time–clearly I never really did the whole girl thing properly.)

I’ve learned that, to put it mildly, haters gonna hate. There have been people who seem to be offended by the mere existence of this blog. There have also been people who find everything I write here to be a personal insult to them, and yet they continue reading it day in and day out. This is something I have yet to understand about people. Why not just leave?

I’ve learned that apathy doesn’t get you anywhere. It’s so fashionable and the pressure to cultivate it (or at least learn to fake it) is so high, but nothing good has ever come to me through not giving a fuck. I care deeply about things, people, ideas. I think that’s my strength as a writer and as a person.

I used to be so quiet. I used to tread so carefully. Not much scares me anymore, and the opinions of others matter little.

Blogging gave me an identity, and the whole process is a joy–from the first spark of an idea to getting to a computer, wringing it all out, checking the facts, linking to the sources, reading everything over, giving it a title, pressing “Publish,” taking a break, doing it all over again.

Hopefully for many more years.

When I Knew It Was Over

When I was a little kid, my favorite dreams were the ones in which I got something new–a toy I’d been wanting, some really cool gadget. (Kids are acquisitive that way.) I would wake up grasping for my new possession and feeling a tremendous sense of injustice at the fact that I couldn’t keep it after the dream was over.

Right now, I’m still dreaming the dream, hoping I never wake up and lose what I’ve just gotten.

My depression kind of has its own saga. I’ve had it since I was 12. It got much worse when I went to college. I got diagnosed and started taking anti-depressants and it got better. Then it got worse again despite the anti-depressants. Then I said fuck it to the anti-depressants and went off of them. There were a few good days in there in spite of that, to be sure, but it was always there.

That is, until a few days ago.

It’s well-known that depression can spontaneously remit sometimes, but I wasn’t expecting it to happen to me. Just a few short weeks ago I was strongly considering going back on anti-depressants and dreading the long, lonely summer ahead. I’d had many bad episodes recently, too many.

But then they started decreasing in frequency. I didn’t even notice what had happened until, ironically, an evening when I was sad. I had put on some sad music and was sitting around lamenting the uselessness of one of my romantic endeavors. There’s no chance in hell it’ll go anywhere, but I really like the person in question, and this sucks.

And then it suddenly hit me–I was sad like normal people are sad. I wasn’t crying, I wasn’t wondering why I’m such a failure in life and why everybody hates me and why I’m so ugly and useless. I wasn’t planning a lifetime alone and lonely. I wasn’t going down the list of every single person I’ve spoken to recently, analyzing our last conversation, and scanning it for clues showing that they actually secretly hate me.

I was just sitting around, kind of blue, listening to sad music, regretting the fact that this Thing isn’t going to work out, but hoping that someone else will come along soon. Like a normal person. A healthy person.

And that’s when I knew it was over.

The weekend after that–this past weekend–felt entirely new to me. All the colors were brighter, my senses were sharper. Little hurts rolled right off of my skin like water. I woke up in the morning looking forward to the day, whereas for the past year and a half, I’ve woken up every day thinking, “Fuck, another day.”

I could be happy sometimes when I was depressed, but only if I had a concrete, immediate reason. Now I don’t need one. I can be happy just because, sometimes. I can be happy just because I’m alive.

There are a few reasons why this might’ve happened now. Summer started and the academic stress went away. The weather is good. I can be outside now, go to the beach, take walks, explore the city, have a life outside of my tiny room. My friends freed up, too, and suddenly I started having plans with them all the time. It became possible to text someone in a moment when I was feeling down and have plans an hour later.

Besides that, I fell for someone for the first time in ages. Although that person is completely unavailable to me in more ways than one, it was a reminder that there really are people out there with whom I can feel a connection, despite my cynicism about these things. Nothing’s going to happen here, but I’ve already learned more from one unrequited crush than I have from the past year and a half of dating.

The final thing is that I started writing again. By which I mean, really writing–writing fiction–and not just these blog posts and the various other expository pieces that I do. I restarted a novel that I thought up two years ago but then stopped writing because I thought I wasn’t mature enough to write it. It’s a lofty project; its themes include grief, depression, suicide, marital discord, friendship, betrayal, love, and figuring out what the hell to do with your life. It doesn’t seem like an uplifting thing to write, but it is, and writing it once again has made all the difference.

For the first time in a while, I can be at ease alone. Whereas before I hated myself so much that I dreaded being left alone with myself for more than an hour or two, now my mind is a welcome presence. It writes stories for me, it promises me a bright and happy future. It points out birds and clouds and other things I used to ignore. It steers me towards my cheerful playlists, not my brooding ones.

I’m writing this now not just to share it with others, but because, as with coveted toys of my childhood dreams, I’m trying desperately to hold onto this feeling before the dream ends. Because it will. It always does. And when it does, I’ll no longer be able to understand how I could’ve ever written this.

And I’ll reread it and try to understand. I’ll remember to see my friends and to write more and to stay open to the possibility that someone will come along and change my entire life.

I’ll read this and remember.

So goodbye, depression. Until next time.

In Defense of Cynicism

I’ve been thinking about cynicism a lot lately, for no particular reason aside from the fact that I am a cynic.

According to the actual definition, a cynic is either an adherent of the Greek philosophical school of cynicism, and/or simply a person who believes that human actions are motivated by selfishness (or rational self-interest, to put it more euphemistically).

While I do happen to believe that, I think the word “cynic” has taken on a slightly different, more general meaning, and that is the one that I usually think of when I call myself that. This general definition is that a cynic is a person who sees the faults in things more clearly than most.

Obviously, this entire blog is an expression of that particular trait of mine, and that’s why people seem to either love it or hate it–for the most part, you either “get” cynicism or you don’t.

I think, though, that at least when it comes to politics and social justice, cynicism isn’t nearly as miserable and self-defeating as people think it is. Most intelligent people, if pressed, will admit that there are some serious problems in our society. However, they will tell you that none of this will ever change, that it’s depressing to even think about, and that it’s best to focus your attention on friends, family, work, hobbies.

But we “cynics,” who point out all these problems and analyze them so enthusiastically, seem to actually enjoy the process of unearthing trouble, even if the things we find often disgust and dismay us. The reason the process is so rewarding is because we know that we’re crawling along towards change, and that the more people we urge to care with our commentary, the faster that crawl will go.

So who’s the real cynic?

Of course, there are certainly people out there who cannot remain informed about societal problems while still holding on to their mental health. To such people, I would obviously say to take care of yourself first.

But I think that most people who protest that being critical is “depressing” are selling themselves short. What’s truly depressing is to feel like you have to deceive yourself into believing that everything’s just awesome because you can’t change it anyway.

Cynicism may not be the right word for my approach, but I don’t think there really is one. For instance, calling myself a “critical” person sends an equally distorted message, because it makes it sound like I criticize things for the sake of criticizing them. I don’t. I criticize them because they need to be criticized, and because we all stand to gain from criticizing them.

Instead, I like to call my philosophy “optimistic cynicism.” Or, you know–hope.

Anonymity and Mental Illness

The stigma of mental illness has many negative consequences, such as decreased access to employment and housing, barriers to seeking treatment, and many broken friendships and relationships.

What it also does, unfortunately, is make it much harder for people who’ve suffered from mental illness to speak about it publicly, using their real names.

I’ve been thinking about this because North by Northwestern, our campus magazine, ran a feature in its spring issue about mental illness at Northwestern. Overall, the piece was great and discussed how our academic system may be contributing to unhealthy levels of stress. The author of the piece interviewed two students who spoke about their experiences with depression and anxiety.

But both of the students’ names were changed for the article, and it bothered me.

For the record, I would never begrudge an individual for choosing to speak about his or her mental illness under a pseudonym. We all have different priorities, and not everyone has decided to spend their life advocating for those with mental illnesses (as, for instance, I have). Even those who do may decide that using a pseudonym is in their best interest–for instance, this blogger whom I greatly respect.

The magazine, however, could have chosen to find sources who would be willing to let their real names be printed. I know it could’ve, because those people exist on our campus. I’m one of them. Many of my friends are, too.

This is important for several reasons, some short-term and some long-term.

The short-term reason is that seeing fellow students speak publicly about their experiences with mental illness can make a huge difference in the life of someone who’s just starting to acknowledge and deal with their own illness. It lets them know they’re not alone and gives them hope for the future.

It can also give them a specific person to reach out to. After I started writing about depression, friends, acquaintances, and even strangers started writing to me, sharing their stories, and asking for advice. I heard from friends that I knew were struggling and friends who seemed to have everything together. I heard from a guy who’d told me once that he’d had depression briefly but pulled himself out of it on his own. I felt humbled to know the truth.

A friend of mine who spoke in a panel about her eating disorder once told me that she had the same experience. She was quoted in an article about the panel, and afterwards people reached out to her about it.

There’s a bigger picture, though, as well. Every time someone “goes public” about a mental illness, they chip away at the culture of secrecy that surrounds it. And the more of us do it, the harder it’ll be to deny us jobs, cut off friendships with us, continue believing that we’re weak and lazy, and be ashamed of us.

I’m glad those two students spoke to NBN, and I know it was hard for them to do even knowing that their names would not be in print. But NBN had a chance to do something really important, and they missed that chance.

As I was writing this post, I found out that there’s someone pretty powerful who recently took that chance. During his speech for people who have lost family members in the military, Vice President Biden talked about the deaths of his wife and daughter in 1972. Then, he said, “I probably shouldn’t say this with the press here, but it’s more important–you’re more important.” Then he went on:

For the first time in my life, I understood how someone could consciously decide to commit suicide. Not because they were deranged, not because they were nuts, but because they had been to the top of the mountain and they just knew in their heart they’d never get there again.

Biden’s not the only one, of course. Plenty of well-known people have spoken about mental illness, such as Rachel Maddow, William Styron, and Demi Lovato.

In his seminal book on depression, The Noonday Demon (which I have coincidentally just finished reading), Andrew Solomon intentionally avoids using pseudonyms whenever possible. On the first page of the book, he writes,

I asked my subjects to allow me to use their actual names, because real names lend authority to real stories. In a book one of the aims of which is to remove the burden of stigma from mental illness, it is important not to play to that stigma by hiding the identities of depressed people.

I believe that when writing about mental illness, one must be cautious of the status quo. With regards to mental illness, as with regards to just about everything else, the status quo can be a dangerous thing. You cannot think and write about the tragedy of mental illness without also acknowledging the tragedy of stigma, which pushes so many of us to stay silent for too long. In my case, it was eight years. For others, it’s a lifetime.

Accepting the use of pseudonyms in one’s work just because that’s what’s always been done, or because finding interview subjects who are willing to use their real names might be difficult, does an injustice to everyone who suffers from the continuing presence of stigma.

Setting the Record Straight

Note: On April 24, the Daily Northwestern published an opinion column that included a backhanded and (in my opinion) unfair reference to me and my blog–namely, to my Markwell post. I wrote the following letter to the editor in response.

To the editor:

In his Tuesday column, Peter Larson discussed the response to Cru’s Markwell campaign and mentioned one particular “fire and brimstone” blogger whose “gripes” caused him to roll his eyes. Since Larson used a female pronoun and, to my knowledge, I am the only female writer to have written a blog post critical of the Markwell campaign, I can only assume that he was referring to me. I’d like to set the record straight.

First of all, I disagree that there was anything “fire and brimstone” about my blog post. Although I do have strong opinions, as do many bloggers and newspaper columnists, I believe that my post was reasoned and well thought-out. In fact, while Larson may dismiss my opinion, one Cru member chose to engage with it by writing a public Facebook note in response. Rather than inserting a snarky, oblique reference to me into his note, he referred to me by name.

Second, Larson seems to have conflated writers like me with anonymous commenters who troll North by Northwestern. There is absolutely nothing wrong with respectfully stating your opinion, as I did and as Larson has done in his column. While rolling one’s eyes in a “decaffeinated haze” might well be the best response to trolls, it’s an unfair response to someone who has taken the time to write a coherent blog post. Larson did not offer up any actual criticisms of my post, and, in fact, made it very clear that he didn’t really read it. Perhaps if he reread my post after having drunk his morning coffee, he would be able to actually criticize it.

Finally, the ironic twist here is that, in summarily dismissing a fellow writer with his snarky commentary, Larson has done exactly what he criticized in his column. My blog post led to many engaging discussions–and, yes, plenty of disagreement–among my friends and acquaintances. Our discussion at the University Christian Ministry on Tuesday night lasted for three hours. We’ve dived right in to the difficult issues that the Markwell campaign has raised and have learned a lot about each other in the process. To dismiss those of us who want to think about and comment on issues like these as having a “shortage” of intelligence is absolutely uncalled for.