Lady Anger: A Radical Act?

I rarely get angry. Let me rephrase: I rarely get angry with people who aren’t myself. I get frustrated, I get annoyed, I get upset, I get hurt…but rarely do I get that special hot sensation that tells you someone has gone too far. Rarely do I feel like screaming or hitting something or storming off. And yet there have absolutely been times when it was appropriate and perhaps even necessary for me to feel anger. There are people who have treated me poorly, people who have insulted me, people who have seriously hurt me and breached my boundaries. And yet I cannot bring myself to feel anger.

 

When I do get the first glimmers of anger, I feel intense amounts of guilt. My first instinct is to then turn the anger in on myself: I should be angry at myself for being so horrible as to be angry with another person. Why is it that I feel anger is an inappropriate, dangerous, and harmful emotion?

 

Feeling anger while female, particularly while white and female, is a difficult task in America. While we are not necessarily trained in gender roles as actively as we might have been in the past, women who express anger are quickly branded as harpies, bitches, shrews, or just crazy. When we see our mothers get angry, the reactions from those around them illustrate that female anger is dangerous, out of control, unacceptable. When I see a woman who is angry, my first instinct is that she is hurting someone. I know that this is inappropriate and patently false, but I cannot help myself from feeling that first flash of hurt.

 

Anger is often viewed as the domain of men. Anger is associated with strength and with power. We view anger as something that acts upon the world, rather than a passive emotion that reacts (like sadness or fear). We still associate masculine things with action. Because of this association, women are rarely viewed as angry, and when women clearly try to act angrily they are seen as acting inappropriately in some fashion because they are acting contrary to the gender role we expect to see them in. Interestingly, all emotions are actually reactions to our interpretations of situations, and all emotions can lead to actions, however anger is associated with activity far more than most other emotions. Keeping women on the passive side of the gender dichotomy not only leaves them oppressed by society, but it leaves them oppressed by their own emotions.

 

In many cases, women change their anger into another emotion: fear, shame, guilt, or self-hatred. These emotions are incredibly difficult to then deal with because they are not truly linked to any event in the external world: they’re simply reactions to an internal emotion. When an emotion is logically linked to an external situation or event, there are ways to change, leave, or accept that situation. When an emotion is a tenuous secondary reaction to any situation that might make you feel angry, it’s much harder to resolve.

 

Cutting off an entire realm of emotions is never particularly good for any human mind. Our emotions are incredibly helpful: each one of them is designed to tell us something about a situation. Anger in a healthy and appropriate form will tell you that someone has crossed a boundary, that you or someone you care about is being hurt, or that a goal is being blocked. This is important and useful information for you to have. Anger also motivates us to action. If we refuse to get angry when things we care about truly are being taken from us, we’re telling ourselves that we don’t deserve those things, or that we don’t actually care about those things. It may even illustrate a lack of self-respect to not feel any anger in an appropriate situation. When we don’t have anger, we aren’t highly motivated to rectify the problem: if someone punches us and we simply don’t care, we aren’t likely to pursue legal action, tell them to stop, or get the hell out of there. Our very emotions aid in our oppression.

 

Lately, I’ve been practicing letting myself feel angry. When something happens that I don’t like, I let myself entertain feelings of anger, of wanting to explode. I even go so far as to tell people that I don’t accept the kind of behavior they just acted out. My anger helps me to recognize that I deserve things. Ladies…let’s feel angry?

Silently Invalidating

The concept of validation and the dangers of an “invalidating environment” are things that pop up in mental health treatment over and over. From what I’ve picked up over about four years of therapy, being invalidated is really bad for your mental health. In fact, in DBT the theory is that a predisposition to mental illness requires an invalidating environment to development into a full-fledged problem. Invalidation in that framework is actually one of the precipitating causes for mental illness.

 

What is so negative about invalidation? Invalidation tells you that your emotions are wrong or fake, and thus undermines your identity and your confidence. It can lead you to distrust your emotions, feel ashamed or guilty, or even begin to think that you’re not in touch with reality. It asks you to ignore the very real messages your emotions send you, and tells you that your emotions are inappropriate. Unfortunately, emotions are always real and valid: the actions they cause may not be. The emotion may not fit the facts appropriately, but it is always real.

 

In my personal life, I have always found this a bit confusing. I haven’t seen my life as something that involves a great deal of invalidation. My parents never told me my feelings were wrong, my teachers have generally been intensely supportive of me, and I’ve had some fairly fantastic friends. There have been a few negative relationships in my life where I was told repeatedly that I had no right to feel the way I did, but overall other people have just let me feel how I feel. So how was it that I had ended up with mental illness without any invalidation at all? How did this apply to me?

 

I have recently come to realize that there are some incredibly insidious ways of invalidating another person that don’t look like invalidation right off the bat.

 

Imagine this: you are having the worst day of your life. Your depression is on high, your anxiety is through the roof, and you’re panicking every other minute. You feel overwhelmed, you feel sad, you feel lonely. You just want someone to give you a hug or listen for a minute, someone to tell you that you aren’t losing it completely. You’re sitting at school, and friends and acquaintances walk past. Some of them glance at you and smile, but keep walking. Some pay you no attention. No one notices that you look like you’re on the verge of tears, or if they do they say nothing. You begin to wonder if you really are crazy, if everything is just fine. Finally, someone stops and says hi, and you bravely smile back at them. You have a pleasant, brief conversation. Nothing of importance is said. They mention that a class is stressful and you agree that you’re really stressed out right now. They brush over what you said and say they have to run to class. Nothing has been said of the dark circles under your eyes or the fact that you can’t quite get your mouth to turn up properly. Now you’re convinced that you’re crazy. Your emotions can’t be right or real if no one else even notices them.

 

This is its own kind of invalidation. When people simply ignore your problems, they by default tell you that what you’re feeling isn’t real: it seems as if you’re hallucinating whatever is wrong because no one else will react to it, or even react to your reaction. It’s confusing. It leaves you less and less certain that you can even mention your problems, more trapped inside your own mind. There’s a reason that giving someone the silent treatment is considered mean.

 

Another example of this is one that happens with kids all the time. One technique that parents use fairly often if their kids are throwing a temper tantrum is to ignore them. When kids throw a tantrum what they’re looking for is attention, so don’t reward the negative behavior, right? Well this method works up to a point. It works to get the child to calm down. What it doesn’t do is then tell the child that their desire for attention is real and important, or that whatever was bothering them deserves attention and care. This kind of method for child-rearing may not seem invalidating, but it tells a child that even if they are bawling, their emotions aren’t worth anyone’s time. It’s important if we don’t want to reward someone’s negative attention seeking behaviors that we find a way to go back and invalidate their feelings, talk it out, or recognize their feelings. This can happen after the fact.

 

Being silent to someone who is in pain or who has strong emotions of any kind is really the fastest way to tell them that what they’re feeling or doing is wrong. Imagine when you’re extremely excited about something and you bounce up to a friend, eager to tell them all about it and they just stare at you. Nothing bursts your bubble faster.

 

It’s a terrifying and horrible feeling when you’re invalidated in that way, but it is understandable why many of us ignore others’ problems. It’s overwhelming and tiring to always be checking in with people, and listening to everyone. Unfortunately, this is part of being a friend or family member: you should be willing to validate the people you care about and you should expect validation in return. We rarely hear about ways to potentially prevent mental illness, but if all of us spends more time listening and validating the emotions of those around us, we could really do some good in the world.

Pay Attention

There is a fairly common trope that is directed towards people (primarily young, female, white people, often those who self-harm, attempt suicide, or have an eating disorder) who engage in unhealthy behaviors that they are only doing it for attention. You’ve heard it before. “She only hurts herself for attention, it’s no big deal,”. I’ve had this trope directed at me before, and absolutely seen it directed towards my friends. I don’t like it.

 

At first glance it seems fairly insightful, and provides a reason to not give the individual the attention they want: don’t want to reward bad behavior do we? Nobody likes an attention whore, and we absolutely don’t want to feed in to their need for attention. None of us particularly want to deal with negative, difficult situations, and if you can avoid them while telling yourself that your actions are positive, then all the better. But despite the first blush appearance of good advice, this kind of attitude relies on some extremely negative premises and is actually incredibly unhelpful to the individual struggling.

 

First and foremost, this trope rests on the idea that it’s not ok to want attention, or that you’re bad if you do something strictly because you want attention. It suggests that wanting attention is an inappropriate motive, and that it undermines the entirety of an act. This is straight up wrong. Pretty much every human being in the world wants attention. It’s part of what makes us social creatures. We want others to listen to us, to hear our troubles, to help us out, to be with us, to tell us stories. This is part of what confirms to us that others care. Mutual attention is how we form relationships. Wanting relationships is good right? So wanting attention is good.

 

Interestingly enough, when someone engages in what’s viewed as a positive behavior in order to gain attention, we often praise them and give them the attention they want. Imagine the star football player in high school: if someone were to become the quarterback because they liked the popularity, we wouldn’t think twice about it. Those individuals still get the support and attention of the school and their peers. We understand in many circumstances that trying to get attention is good. So why do we use it to undermine certain behaviors?

 

The second element of this trope that kicks into play even if we do accept that wanting attention is acceptable is the idea that we shouldn’t reward someone for negative behavior. We know from little kids that if you react to someone throwing a temper tantrum, they’re getting what they want and they continue to engage in that behavior. If you don’t want someone to hurt themselves, then you shouldn’t give them what they want when they hurt themselves, right?

 

There are two elements that can be important to remember here. The first is that even if someone is being ineffective or unhealthy in their behavior, that does not mean that their motivation is inappropriate or wrong. This is something we forget a lot about all sorts of emotions. Let’s take anger for example. Oftentimes when someone gets angry and yells or breaks something we tell them that they shouldn’t be angry. However there may actually be a perfectly good reason the individual is angry. What is not appropriate is the action they undertook with the anger. So while you may recognize that someone is doing something unhealthy or inappropriate with their need for attention, you can still recognize a very real need and true emotion that needs to be addressed.

 

In addition, you can address someone’s needs without promoting or validating what you view as a negative or unhealthy behavior. For example if someone is cutting and you believe it’s because they really want and need attention, the way to deal with it may not be by getting extremely upset with them or by focusing on the cutting. You can give them attention without connecting it to the negative action right away. Asking them how they’re doing, what’s going on in their life, or simply asking them to hang out are all good ways to give them the attention they might be seeking without indicating to them that you’re doing it just to get them to stop cutting. Of course at some point down the road you may want to bring up the self-harm, but only giving attention to stop the symptom is not a good way to go.

 

If someone is desperate enough to hurt themselves, to attempt suicide, to restrict food, to purge, to do drugs, to drink excessively etc. just to get someone to pay attention to them, then this is a fairly good sign that they really do need more attention than they’re getting or that something bad is happening in their life that they need help with. Many times these techniques may be the only way they can get someone to pay attention, and that indicates that they really do need something from those around them. If someone wants attention that badly, they truly do have a problem. When we blow off people’s negative actions by saying “she just wants attention”, we seem to be saying that the problems are not real if they were motivated by the desire for attention. We are telling individuals that those desires for attention invalidate all of the very real struggles that they might be going through. We tell them that their problems are fake, made up, or not worth our time and energy. It gives us an excuse not to do anything and it invalidates all of their feelings.

 

The motivation of attention does not make something trite or unimportant. It doesn’t turn a problem into a joke. In fact it’s a good indication that the problem is real and severe and requires attention. Let’s stop blowing off the very serious problems of people we just don’t want to deal with by casting aspersions on their motivations and step up to the plate to find a healthy way to give them the attention they clearly need.

Consent is Not Just Sexy

One of the favorite slogans of the sex positive crowd is that consent is sexy. Now in certain contexts this absolutely can be true (imagine someone screaming in ecstasy “Yes!”), but in other contexts wherein consent is not particularly sexy at all it can be just as important. Generally we relegate the concept of consent to sexual situations. However there are all sorts of situations in which people need our consent to use, touch, or otherwise interact with our bodies. Our time, our energy, our thoughts, our bodies: these things are our own, regardless of the context in which someone is asking for them. It doesn’t matter whether the context is sexual or not, we need to respect people’s rights to say no when we ask them for the use of their bodies.

 

This morning I read an article about swing dancing and consent. This is one community where people are encouraged to say yes all the time no matter what their reservations might be. Because it is not considered sexualized, it’s rude or unfriendly to say no to something. Well that’s just downright silly to me. Each of us has the right to do what we choose with our bodies at any time. Sometimes this may mean bursting another person’s bubble, but we still do not owe that individual anything.

 

Another area that this has been explored before is in the relationships between gay men and straight women. Fairly often, gay men feel entitled to the bodies of straight women, and brush away complaints about groping or touching with “I’m not attracted to you, it didn’t mean anything”. Other people have explained better than I have what’s wrong with this attitude, but suffice it to say that someone still has a right to their own space and autonomy regardless of their relationship with the person who is touching them.

 

Beyond these two areas, many people today get the message that it’s inappropriate to say no. You owe your time and energy to someone else if they ask for it. You owe them a handshake or a hug or a kiss because it’s the socially appropriate thing to do. If your friend wants to go out you should. If your dad wants you to help him paint the house, you should. However in all arenas of life, our time, our bodies, and our autonomy are our own. You get to say no. It is allowed. You don’t necessarily need a really good reason that the other person can readily understand.

 

Now many people are worried about being polite or kind. It’s easy to interpret this kind of advice as telling people to be a complete jerk and blow everybody off all the time because you want to be lazy and never give back. That is not what this reminder is. This is a reminder that at no point in your life are you obligated to give yourself in any way to another person. You may still want to choose to give people your time, energy, hugs, dances, or sexytimes because you care about them, you’d enjoy it, you want to help them out, or they’ve helped you in the past. In addition, it’s not generally conducive to relationships to never give any piece of yourself. So if you’re motivated to be social in any way, you will likely give some. But you never have to, even with your friends, even when social rules dictate it.

 

Consent is for all times. It’s not just sexy, it’s also respectful, it’s also necessary, it’s also affording each individual their rights to autonomy and choice in all walks of life. And consent is for anything that involves me changing around my body and life for you.

Fiction Free For All

From the day I was born, the right side of my body was broken. I was marked from the womb by an eye that would never see, bright and baneful. The right eye. For most, the left is the sinister side, but my right took that title. I am right handed, and yet my right has always let me down. My arm never throws the way it should. My right ankle gives out unexpectedly. I begin a dance step on the right and my foot falls out from under me. Last year I fell and twisted my right ankle. It has been swollen ever since, leaving me always imbalanced.

 

My right is branded by an eye that exploded into shards when it should have grown into sight.

 

This morning I changed my skin. My symbols are different now. I walked into the tattoo parlor, clutching the paper with two long curves. I pointed to my right hip, the place I began cutting. The place I had tried to rip off the curse of my right side.

 

My right leg still has red scars like little caterpillars crawling up it, but I knew I needed to start at the beginning. They took my picture and pressed it against my skin, leaving a dark imprint. I lay back in the chair and breathed deeply. The needles pressed into my body, a sharp, digging, pulling sensation that left me gritting my teeth. But I had chosen this pain. I had chosen to write over the scars until my skin was fully formed. This pain was the inscription of my own will upon my body. I was writing over the broken right side I had been born with and changing the words I saw there.

 

This is mine. This is beautiful. This is right. I will protect this space. I am not broken when I choose my own signs.

 

Drabble: Purple

She was sitting on his floor in her underpants and one of his old tshirts, her legs splayed unabashedly in front of her like a child. She was surrounded by mess of angry creation. Oil pastels had split in half under her pressing hands, and when she looked up at him, her hands innocently forward, they were coated in oily color. The page had bled purple on the floor and stood out harsh against her pale skin.

In contrast to the childish scene, her face looked old.

“I wish I could feel the colors” she said as her wrists dripped.

 

Winter

The shape of the world changes when the snow falls, my mother used to say. As we drove through the park near our house she’d call it a fairy world. I could see what she meant, with the snow clinging to each branch, outlining the dead in a delicate white. We used to build new worlds, my mother and I. We would pile snow high into magical forts, or create men and women out of the blankets of white. The shape of the world has changed again, and winter does not seem so beautiful anymore. My mother cannot speak anymore.

 

Support Is a Two Way Street

Over the weekend I was on a panel for FtBCON about supporting individuals with mental illness. It was really fun to participate in, and I feel like I got some good insight from others, as well as solidified some of my own feelings about what’s helpful and what’s not, but there’s one thing that I feel is extremely important about supporting someone with mental illness that we didn’t touch on at all (it was a one hour panel, there’s only so much we can do). But I think that this topic is something that we need to talk about because it will make life easier for support people, it will reduce some of the guilt and shame for people with MI, and generally it will strengthen and solidify relationships to last beyond the end of an MI.

 

Support is a two way street.

 

Ok, obvious thing is obvious, but many people, particularly support people, forget this. Any relationship you’re in requires a give and take of support and being supported. This is true EVEN if the person you’re in a relationship with has a mental or physical illness and needs more support than the average bear. A lot of the time support people think that they can’t burden their friend/family member/lover with any more troubles, and so they keep all their own difficulties to themselves. They want to protect their loved one. They think it’s showing that they care: they will take care of you through anything, but they won’t ask anything in return.

 

Unfortunately this tactic will make both parties feel like shit. First and foremost, a relationship with someone with an MI is a relationship, and any time you have massive inequalities in a relationship, that relationship is likely to not work or to lead to unhappiness. In very few other circumstances would it be considered acceptable to treat one party like a child and expect to be able to have an adult relationship.

 

If you try to protect the other person and you don’t allow them to offer support, both people will end up hurt in some fashion. It will make the support person resentful, afraid, and give them feelings of complete responsibility for the other person. It leads to lots of burnout and means that in the long run your relationship is likely to fall apart because the only thing sustaining it is sympathy or “fixing”. And from the perspective of the person with the disease, it feels incredibly condescending, isolating, and lonely. You never really get to hear about the other person. You don’t get to feel useful. You feel like you’re less than the other person or a drain on them. You feel like you’re ruining their life, or like they don’t actually want to be around you but they feel obligated. You feel like they don’t trust you to be adult or helpful or positive. It’s horrible.

 

Support people: you are allowed to make requests, set boundaries, and ask for support with someone who has a mental illness. Not only are you allowed, but you should. Being a support person is HARD work and if you aren’t willing to take care of yourself and be open and communicative about how you need to take care of yourself, it will not work. If the other person repeatedly makes demands that are too much for you or that you feel are enabling them, you are allowed to say no. If you’re having a horrible day, you’re allowed to call them and ask if you can vent or hang out or go to the movies. However just like any other relationship, you need to remember that when you do these things you should be gentle and validating of the other person.

 

People with mental illness: your mental illness is not a get out of jail free card. I know that sometimes it feels like you can’t add any more onto your plate. That’s ok. That’s when you get to set your own boundaries. But you have to step up for your friends and family when you can and how you can. All of us have something that we can give to others. All of you have something about you that draws your loved ones to you. Remember that and remember that if you want to maintain a strong and healthy relationship with someone then you owe honesty, support, and respect to them.

 

One good example of this is something that is really hard for everyone: opening a dialogue and asking for more information. Support people often find themselves a little lost and confused about what’s going on in the mind of the person they love. In this case, they need something. They need more information to feel some certainty, some understanding, and to be able to help more effectively. Lots of people are afraid of doing this because they feel it might set something off. However just like the person with the MI, the support person needs to listen to their own emotion of confusion and plan out strategies for how to ask for something. In this case, they should probably alert the other person ahead of time, ask without accusation, and try to maintain a curiosity about what’s happening with the other person.

 

Oftentimes we forget that the person with the MI is learning a great deal through therapy or skills training or simply dealing with their day to day life. They pick up on lots of skills and coping mechanisms. These often involve ways to take care of themselves, particularly in a relationship. However these are skills that are generally good for everyone. Learning how to be kind and giving, learning how to hold to your values, learning how to request something, learning how to set a boundary: these are all things that we should be taught clearly as children but most of us aren’t. And so just like the individual with the illness has to learn new things, so do the support people so that they can be more effective both for themselves and for the person they’re in a relationship with. People with MI want to be able to support and help others. It helps us remember we’re not useless. Giving us clear ways to give back does a lot for us, and it will do a lot for you.

Intersectionality: Food Ethics and Mental Health

Something that has come up a great deal in my personal life recently has been people criticizing my choices in terms of eating and exercise. As you might imagine this is fairly difficult for me to hear as someone with an eating disorder, but it’s caused me to spend some time thinking about the intersections of mental health and food ethics. America as a culture does not spend a great deal of time focusing on how the way we eat and how we relate to food can affect our mood, mental health, and overall life quality. What we do spend a lot of time doing is shaming each other for our food choices: whether on the basis of health, ethics, or aesthetics. There are debates over vegetarianism and veganism, about health and obesity, and about whether people on food stamps deserve their food. What we don’t talk about is what we can do to make food an experience that enhances people’s lives.

Food is often an extremely emotional experience. It combines taste, smell, sight, and texture into what can be an extremely intense experience. However unlike most experiences that deeply engage our senses, it is something that is required of us every day. It’s easy to write it off because we spend so much time doing it. But truly good food experiences can change your life. Many people try to approach food simply as fuel for their bodies and nothing else, but food can be incredibly powerful.

Food has cultural connotations, and often it’s part of the glue that brings people together. Food can be an extremely important part of memory, and is often plays a role in memories that hold special meaning. We use it for celebrations and for rituals, as reward and punishment. For most of us, food is emotional, and for those who take all the emotion out of food, it can seem like it’s missing something. The emotions of food are part of friendships and families, and you can miss out on a lot (like a dessert with a sweetheart or a dinner with your family) if you try to excise emotion from food.

For some reason, these emotions often get ignored when we talk about how people should eat. If anything, we look on these emotions as negative: we make fun of people who “eat their feelings”. There appears to be a stereotype that having an emotional relationship with food is inherently negative. However there are absolutely healthy ways to feel emotional about food, and loving food does not mean being unhealthy. Too often we hear about health or ethical implications without any mention of the actual experiences of eating. This is not a culture that celebrates how fucking delicious it is to bite into a piece of warm chocolate cake, or how comforting it is to smell the scent of a childhood meal.

And when we’re looking at mental health, this is important because these internal experiences are often what sets someone with a mental illness apart from anyone else. When we talk about the ethics of food and the ethics of health, we often forget that the experience of food can be powerful, and that when someone has a mental illness, this is something extremely important to take into consideration. We ignore the potential emotional benefits we can gain from eating, and we ignore the potential harm that can appear when we guilt or shame someone or deprive them of food they love.

Now there’s one really obvious example which is eating disorders. When you’re trying to recover from an eating disorder, if you can eat a reasonable amount without feeling guilty, you do it. This is a matter of your health and potentially your life because every piece of food is a struggle. If a piece of bacon or a slice of cake is what entices you today, everyone better fuck off on telling you that you shouldn’t eat it because that piece of food could be the only thing you’re willing to eat today. This is not a choice, this is a jerkbrain doing things to you. If someone is trying to recover from an eating disorder and you try to tell them which foods are appropriate for them to eat or not to eat, all I can say to you is go fuck yourself. You’re asking that individual to put themselves in harm’s way by cutting out more food and creating new food rules. You’re asking them to prioritize something over their own safety and health. This is a clear place where food ethics need to be flexible to allow for someone’s health and happiness.

But there’s more to the intersectionality of mental health and food than just eating disorders. Because of the emotional nature of food, it can either be used as an incredibly helpful tool for managing emotions or as an intensely negative coping strategy that damages the individual. Now this is different from using food to hide from your problems, but as part of a larger program of dealing with the root causes, including good food and good food experiences in your treatment can be really useful.

I’m going to use an experience from my own life because it’s what I know best. I try my best to eat vegetarian, because ethically I feel it’s the right decision. For eating disordered reasons this isn’t always possible. However when I do eat meat I eat ethically raised meat. I have one exception to this rule. When my dad makes spaghetti sauce from his family recipe, he almost never uses ethically raised beef. I eat the spaghetti sauce anyway.

For a lot of people this looks like I’m selling out on my values. Many people have told me that it’s inappropriate and that there is no excuse for not being vegetarian or even vegan. It looks like I’m prioritizing my own enjoyment of food over the life of another being. But here’s the thing: one of the few times that I feel safe, comforted, whole, and welcomed is when I am with my family eating the same food we ate when I was little. From the perspective of someone in my position, this is far more important than you might think. My depression and anxiety are very real and very life-threatening, particularly because they come with a side-helping of self-harm. Finding moments in my life where I can qualitatively feel like an acceptable human being is extremely difficult, but very important. When I don’t have these moments I start to become dangerously depressed, sometimes to the point of suicidal ideation. Taking away my ability to share this experience with my family is taking away one of my best coping skills to keep myself from potentially putting myself into the hospital.

This is where understanding the emotional and internal experiences of food can go a long way towards understanding intersectionality and towards having compassion towards people who don’t have your privileges. It may seem insane to someone who does not have a mental illness to consider the idea that a delicious mocha could be part of combatting suicide. But when you’re in the experience, you understand that the little things are the most important. The danger of mental illness is real. Mental illnesses do lead to death, injury, and pain. When we ignore the intersectionality of mental illness and food, we go a long way towards removing some of the most basic resources that the mentally ill have.

For people not in these situations it might seem selfish to prioritize your enjoyment of a steak over the life of a cow. However one of the messages that’s incredibly difficult for those with mental illness to internalize is that our own self-care is important, and often integral to our health. Allowing ourselves to make the choice to eat something that nourishes us mentally as well as physically can be a huge step, and when we’re told to cut out many parts of our diet, we lose out on the ability to easily do this. Asking us to give up simple pleasures, or criticizing the arenas in which we can find joy is asking us to prioritize other things over our own ability to function or even our own life depending on our disease.

When you live with a mental illness, often your entire life becomes about survival. This means that choices which seem to be easy or low cost for others are choices about self-defense for us. Every time we choose something that brings us joy, support, or a feeling of safety, we are choosing our own life. When you tell a mentally ill individual that they should abandon something that helps them feel good, that they should feel guilty for eating something that makes them happy, it reinforces to us that we don’t deserve good things.

Food is incredibly personal and incredibly emotional. It can be used in intensely positive ways and intensely negative ways, and we don’t always get a choice in what foods bring up what emotions for us. For the mentally ill, this can mean that shame and guilt around food is even more damaging than it might be for any other individual, and can have serious consequences.

While many of us want to make our society better and healthier by encouraging good eating, ethical food choices, and positive food culture, it would do us good to remember that these conversations may have different consequences for someone struggling with a mental illness than for anyone else.