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Nov 28 2011

Some of my closest friends have mental issues

Mental health problems do not preclude genius.

The skeptical and atheist communities overlap significantly with a great many other social causes. The confrontational and the accomodationist have pressed into the northeast and southwest; feminists and male supremacists carved out chunks on each side of a great rift down the center; gun control advocates and self-proclaimed gun nuts both push toward the middle of our communities from opposite sides. Some communities advocating social change overlap ours by default, thanks to shared enemies — the LGBTQ communities are an excellent example. There are a scant few social causes that overlap so significantly with our goals of humanitarianism and evidence-based ethical frameworks that there is no counterpart pushing back against the cause keeping it from taking the community by storm — the only real obstacle to its widespread adoption as a cause amongst our community’s participants is the utter silence about the problem.

The nice thing is, breaking that sort of silence usually only takes one brave soul in a position to speak loudly enough to make their voice heard. Sometimes the conversation doesn’t start immediately, sometimes that tinder must be struck a number of times, but once the conversation that everyone so desperately needs has begun, it will sweep across our community like a wild fire.

JT Eberhard managed to light this fire. Thanks to his talk at Skepticon IV, a great many people coping with a wide variety of mental illnesses or neuro-atypical brains are seeing some measure of catharsis and getting support from our community by telling their stories, and as with atheism and skepticism in general, the very knowledge that you are not alone can be a balm to soothe the greatest difficulties.

Some of these stories are heart-rending. Stephanie Zvan’s, for instance. Despite being witty, charming, ferociously intelligent, successful in her personal and professional endeavours, and one of the best bloggers on the whole damn planet as far as I’m concerned, she occasionally experiences bouts of irrational suicidal impulses. She recognizes them as irrational, and she fights those impulses, because she knows that she is loved and that it would cause a great deal of pain to those around her even if it ends her own. I am among those who would suffer for losing her, and I do what I can to make sure she knows it. Making her suffer through those bouts for my selfishness, so I can get as much of her company as I can squeeze into my short lot on this mortal coil, pains me a little — but certainly not as much as never seeing her again.

Not everyone’s fortunate enough to have the ability to rationalize when they’re affected by the innumerable ways your brain’s functions can change your entire life. Dana Hunter’s mother, for instance, manages bipolar disorder with medication that occasionally simply stops working, embedding foreign and paranoid ideas into her head even when, I’m certain, she knows that the paranoia is irrational when she’s not on a manic swing.

Having your rationality completely stolen during bouts of atypical neural behaviour must be akin to simply having your entire you-ness replaced, with no indication that it’s only temporary, and it must be a scary and wholly unique experience. It is an experience with which I have precious little usable personal data to thoroughly empathize; though empathy is one of the chief hallmarks of our “reality-based” communities, so I at least find it rather easy to sympathize.

Some works explaining the ways in which your whole world can become inverted because something changed in your head are simply too dry and impartial and scientific to fully comprehend — we empathize best with personal anecdotes, after all. So while explanations of how wide a spectrum “normal” actually encompasses are valuable, sometimes the best resources for the neurotypical are personal anecdotes like Allie’s at Hyperbole and a Half. I honestly would never have understood what one of my close friends from university, who has long suffered with depression and had to manage it with various pharmaceuticals to achieve a level of normalcy, has been through if it weren’t for this post. While I’m sure their experiences are significantly different, I suspect there’s enough commonality that my newfound sense of understanding is not wholly unmerited.

Some members of our skeptical community have been lighting and relighting the tinder for a very long time, and it is good that this time around, they have a turn in the spotlight. DuWayne Brayton is a single father of two developmentally challenged children while coping with his own neuro-atypical mental functions, and I am proud to call him a friend and ally in our community. And the incomparable Juniper Shoemaker, who has taken me to the wood-shed any number of times on any number of topics, has blogged about mental health in the past as well.

To turn my back on this subject would be to turn my back on both of my close friends and community members, not to mention any of the above-mentioned Freethought Blogs bloggers, or the other bloggers through the rest of the blogosphere. A fellow Canadian and FtB commenter peicurmudgeon has been blogging about mental health for some time as well. And talking about this subject has brought forward more personal stories from frequent commenters than I can even begin to enumerate. All of these people are working to normalize mental illnesses and other forms of atypical neurology, and I am a big promoter of normalizing that which is made fringe by the walls of silence and active suppression that sometimes form around them.

As a neurotypical person surrounded by some of the most immensely talented and exceptional people, many of whom have turned out to be anything but neurotypical, I am tasked to support them all however I can manage. If this blog post is the best I can do as a start, at least it’s a start.

4 comments

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  1. 1
    Paul

    Thanks for this, Jason. These days, “neuro-atypicals” like myself are speaking up more and more to move away from the fringes of society. But a little bit of support from you “neuro-typicals” is even more precious in bringing us toward that goal.

    Much appreciated!

  2. 2
    Bryan

    Why then are you so quick to mock me for SSRI use?

    B

  3. 3
    Jason Thibeault

    Did I mock you, Dr. Pesta? I think I, in fact, commented on your frequent and public meltdowns over IQ and race. I don’t think I’ve even mentioned the fact that you’re on medication. You might want to consider that I am a different and unique entity from some of the others you’ve discussed on this topic.

    And I won’t brook you hijacking this particular topic into a paean to your particular bete noirs, by the way.

  4. 4
    Juniper Shoemaker

    Thank you, Jason.

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