NEDA Week: Illness and Identity

Eating Disorder Awareness

A few days ago I heard a piece of this TED talk on NPR’s Ted Radio Hour. They often add additional tidbits and interviews to the talks, and without paying much attention consciously my brain grabbed on to this quote from an interview: “As long as you experience your condition as an illness it’s a prison and once you experience it as an identity it’s the source of your freedom”. The sentence blew me away.

My mother often asks me why I search for labels so often. I collect them, just like I collect facts and words. Something about the sentiment that Solomon expresses here suddenly clarified why. Before you put a label on something, it’s just a series of symptoms that make your life difficult. Labels are the first step in turning an illness into a community and an identity.

There have been some attempts in the past to create an identity around eating disorders. Primarily this seems to have happened in pro-ana communities. Unfortunately these appear to have focused on finding an identity in the behaviors associated with eating disorders rather than some of the underlying common experiences and traits that could be used positively, and have become really negative places instead.

In thinking about eating disorders, I don’t think that there’s any way we can deny that there is an element of illness to it. It causes pain and suffering, and reduces someone’s ability to keep their body healthy and functioning. But underlying those symptoms are certain ways of thinking and viewing the world that may in fact be part of an identity. Now many people may see these traits as inherently maladaptive, but most worldviews have some negatives and some positives. I’d argue that the underlying traits in eating disorders are the same. While perfectionism, black and white thinking, and ridiculous stubbornness may seem like bad things, there are instances where they can be used in the right ways to achieve some amazing things.

There is no way to force an identity to emerge out of an illness, and it’s a long road forward, but I do believe that we should spend some of our time thinking about how our illnesses have created a community, created common experiences, and led us to see things in a unique way that sets us apart. I believe we have rich experiences that can create a culture we can feel proud of, rather than an illness we are ashamed of.

None of this is to say that I think we should revel in something that hurts us, or that we should seek to hold on to our illness, but rather that the support of a community and the depth of a subculture can be wonderful things, and that creating them can help raise awareness and decrease stereotyping and stigma.

Any thoughts on what we can do to create identity where others see illness?

NEDA Week: Writing the Experience

Eating Disorder Awareness

One of the things that I have often noticed about those in the eating disorder community is that many of the people in it often have difficulties speaking or telling their experiences, and that often they are far more comfortable with writing as their chosen form of expression (art is also common). As I think about eating disorder awareness, I’m really struck by the ways in which we write down what it is to have an eating disorder, particularly those pieces we conveniently leave out.

In particular, writing is a very different medium from speaking in that we have a lot of time to edit and only put down carefully crafted words. Oftentimes stories change a great deal when they get written down: certain parts are deemed unimportant or not fit for mass consumption, some parts are changed as we retell and rewrite, and we feel the need to create a coherent narrative. Who wants to read a story that ends “I’m still living my life and things are much the same. I learned a few things but I haven’t learned all my lessons yet and I’m still working the way I was through the whole story”?

Even as many of us find it easier to write, coming clean about the experiences of an eating disorder is still incredibly difficult. While the stigma and stereotypes are slowly being eroded, very few people actually want to hear the nitty gritty details of being on the inside of an eating disorder. No one wants to know about the puke you get on all your clothes when you purge. No one wants to know about the bizarre digestive problems and the sheer boredom of anorexia. No one really wants to know all the horrible things you say to yourself when you’re on your own. It’s incredibly difficult to pin down how honest is honest enough but not oversharing, and perhaps even more it’s hard to know how to frame your experience.

Eating disorders are your life. For as long as you have one, it tends to define  you, to take up almost every minute of your day, to affect nearly every decision. Imagine trying to summarize your life for the last year, being honest and giving someone the best insight into what the internal experience is like. This is the experience of trying to write what it is to have an eating disorder. To write it is in its very essence to try to pin down an entire life, to cut some things out, to forget, to choose a focus that may not wholly encapsulate who you are and who you were.

It is impossible to ever be wholly honest when you choose to write a piece about an eating disorder. As hard as it is to describe each individual experience that makes up the moments of an eating disorder, it is literally impossible to ever explain all of them. So what does it mean then to try to write an eating disorder? How do we choose which pieces to leave out?

In part, you define what it is to have an eating disorder by the pieces you choose to write. But you also choose how you want the world to view eating disorders (because as a minority, each one of us of course has to speak for all of us). You decide how to humanize eating disorders. Writing the experience is not telling others what your life personally has been: it is giving others a template for how to understand others with eating disorders. This may seem like a lot of pressure, but unfortunately many people out there will only ever hear one story of eating disorders and it may be yours. Most of us who write our stories know on some level that we aren’t just telling a story, we’re creating a narrative for People With Eating Disorders. This is part of why it’s so hard.

I believe that we’ve reached a point in eating disorder awareness where it’s become really important for us to start telling the ugly pieces. We took the time to write the narratives that show we can be positive and hopeful, the narratives that inspire, the narratives that people can relate to. But now we have to write our difference. No one will be able to help us until we’re willing to show them how we are not like other people, how our minds function in terrible ways, how we can spend hours debating a single bite, the mundane and disgusting and stupid parts of having an eating disorder.

Stories like this: last week my boyfriend was horrifically sick. It was something flu-like. He couldn’t keep anything down, he was miserable, he couldn’t leave the house because there was stuff coming out of both ends…and I was jealous because I knew he would be losing weight and I couldn’t.

I want our narratives to be whole and complex because we are whole and complex.

NAMI Week: Tropes and Strength

Eating Disorder Awareness

This morning on my way to work I was listening to NPR and I heard an interview with a woman who was in remission from breast cancer. She’d written about her experience, but unlike many other breast cancer stories, hers wasn’t bedecked in pink, she wasn’t painfully upbeat, and she didn’t have a story about how grateful she was for the experience. Instead, she spoke honestly about the fact that she wasn’t a breast cancer “warrior”, that it wasn’t about being strong all the time, that it truly sucked and she felt disgusted sometimes when she saw herself without eyebrows or hair, and that in the end her life went on in much the same way as it had before the diagnosis.

As she spoke, I felt some resonance with the experiences I’ve had of talking about eating disorders and the tendency to demand that those in treatment always remain upbeat, to turn the disorder into something you fight, and to gloss over the real and difficult elements of treatment and recovery that absolutely suck. No one honestly tells you how it feels to see yourself gaining weight, or how it feels to eat that first meal in your treatment program, or the circles you go in round and round in your own mind trying to decide what is healthy and what is good and what is right.

There are certain tropes in the eating disorder community about the right way to recover and the right way to seek treatment. The right way is with a positive attitude, with a desire to recover, with a strong inner motivation that turns you into a warrior against the eating disorder mind. The right way is following your meal plan and with mantras and with finding the joy in your life again so that you have the strength to battle on. The right way is by finding your inner beauty, by struggling through mechanical eating until you find love again, by having the very best family ever that you always rely on and always open up to. The right way is by learning the world is huge and beautiful and you are too, by realizing you would never judge others the way you do yourself, by finding your authentic self.

The right way to recover is to hold on to your eating disorder until you’re hospitalized repeatedly and nearly die, realize the importance of your life and then throw yourself into treatment, never looking back despite how hard it is. The right way is with breakdowns on the shoulders of those you love and moments of clarity.

These things are great for some people and I would never tell someone that they can’t hold on to these tropes or strategies if it works for them. Unfortunately there are many, many, MANY people for whom these things just aren’t their reality. Many people get dragged into treatment kicking and screaming, but that doesn’t mean that treatment will always be 100% useless for them. Many people don’t hit that moment of rock bottom and get a burst of clarity and momentum to move forward. Many people don’t find new joy or fun in life again, they simply have to remember how to manage in a contented way as they used to. Many people slog through years of treatment under different programs and therapists without a clear sense of where they’re going until they’ve finally found they have many of the pieces they need to do better.

It can be a wonderful thing to hold onto something positive. It can be inspiring to see that someone else has made it through and is in a better place than they used to be. Many of these tropes seem to have grown out of the idea that we can be strong and we can come out the other side better, the idea that we are not less than others or weaker than others or in need of pity. These are wonderful things to hold on to. But just like anyone else in the world, we also must be allowed to have difficulties and struggles. We must be allowed to have the complex experiences of being human.

Just as it is cruel to deny people of a certain group hope or happiness, it is just as cruel to deny them the experiences of being afraid or anxious or hurt. Part of what I would like to see in the awareness of eating disorders is the portrayal of real and complex people who have eating disorders: people who are sometimes hopeful and sometimes broken, people who work through each day like anyone else but who happen to have a few more things on their mind, people whose lives and trajectories aren’t a straight line down and then a straight line up. 

True awareness is not statistics or cut and dry stories that end just so. True awareness is a conception of how eating disorders fit into the real and messy lives of real and imperfect people. It is listening to someone speaking openly of what it’s like in their life. It’s not leaving out the parts that are hard or scary, or painting the illness to recovery journey as one of black to white. I would love to see more of this awareness.

NAMI Week: What Can I Do?

Eating Disorder Awareness

Welcome to National Eating Disorder Awareness Week 2014! I’m going to try to spend this week blogging about issues surrounding eating disorders and eating disorder visibility as my own small part of eating disorder awareness.

To start out the week, I want to try to make eating disorders a little less scary. Oftentimes when we try to shine a light on mental health issues, the average joe who does not have whatever condition we’re talking about gets overwhelmed. What am I supposed to do? If I see someone who seems like they might be dealing with this how do I help?

These are important questions because we are just scratching the surface of psychology and neuroscience, and for the most part we don’t have good understandings of the etiology of mental illnesses. It’s hard to tell someone what to do to help fight a particular illness when we don’t know what causes it. It isn’t like diabetes where we can promote healthier eating and more exercise. Eating disorders are complex beasts that can react negatively to almost anything you throw at them. So during this week of heightened awareness, what sorts of things can you commit to to improve relationships with bodies and fight against eating disorders?

To me, the best place to start is at home. We learn from each other and there are very few models of healthy body image and healthy eating. In a world filled with shitty messages about how you should treat your body and how you should relate to your body, the hard work of feeling at home in your skin is fairly radical.

Fight against Cartesian dualism and see if you can’t learn to see your body as an integral part of yourself. Practice less negative self-talk and judgments. Try engaging in activities that ask you to take up space, like dancing, and revel in taking up space. It may not seem like a lot, but your good mental health can be great for someone else. Some really concrete ways of doing this can be cutting out calorie talk. It’s one thing to say you want more protein and less sugar, but calories are actually really unhelpful at assessing the healthiness of a food and feed into diet culture.

Another thing to try to cut down on is “bad food” talk. Many people like to say things like “Oh I’m being so bad” when they eat something sugary or fatty. No, you’re not, you’re eating something tasty. There is no such thing as bad food and it is not a moral failing if you eat more fat or sugar than is maximally healthy. See if you can stop putting moral judgments on any food. It’s hard. You will see how ingrained size, food, and morality are. The more we can cut those ties the more we create a healthy environment.

But there’s a lot more to eating disorders than food and food discomfort. Obviously. So is there anything you can do to help create a positive environment that will help combat some of the underlying fears? YES! Something that I’ve noticed over and over with my friends and acquaintances who struggle with eating disorders is feelings of inadequacy, feelings that our emotions are bad and wrong, feelings that we will never be good enough or perfect enough.

A great thing to practice towards all people in your life is validation. Validation at its most basic is just letting someone know that what they’re feeling is real. It’s acknowledging their emotions and not passing judgment on those emotions. It can be as simple as saying “wow that sucks” when someone tells you they’re having a rough day. This can be done in conjunction with all sorts of other types of interactions like problem solving, but I’d suggest practicing validating all kinds of people for all kinds of things. You never know who needs it and it’s a good skill to get in the habit of doing. Your coworker says they’re swamped. Instead of one-upping or asking if you can help, start by simply saying “wow that sounds exhausting”. This may not seem like a lot but if you make a practice of it you can do a lot for other people by sending them the message that their feelings are valid, real, and acceptable.

Another good idea might be to educate yourself on some of the basics of mental illness. NAMI has some good resources. I would suggest in particular getting a basic understanding of depression since it’s one of the most common mental illnesses out there. A little bit of understanding can go a long way. Hand in hand with that it’s a good idea to keep your own mental house in order. If you’re struggling, be willing to see a therapist. Take some time to think about how you communicate and how you can improve your communication skills. Make sure you’re taking responsibility for your own emotions and learning about how to keep yourself stable and content. Tall orders yes, but the more we all work on these things the easier it is for people who have serious hurdles.

So say you’ve done all of this and made your best effort to keep yourself and your environment validating and fairly healthy. You’re paying attention to your friends and family, trying to be a helpful person, and you start to notice some of the signs of an eating disorder in a friend. They’ve suddenly become obsessed with food, they’ve started to isolate themselves, they avoid situations that involve food. They may have lost weight suddenly or just become secretive about their eating habits. You hear them making cruel remarks about their body. They start going to the gym ALL THE TIME, or eating huge amounts and then disappearing suddenly. You can tell their mood is down. What on earth do you do now that you’re faced with the real beast that is an eating disorder?

One of the most important things to remember in these kinds of situations is that you cannot fix your friend. It is not your responsibility nor is it possible. Hard to accept, but super important. It can be hard for someone who’s depressed or in the midst of an eating disorder to reach out for help. One good thing to do is offer yourself and your time. Ask them to hang out instead of waiting for an invitation (mustering up motivation and intention to do these things can be nearly impossible when depressed), make sure they know you’re available to talk to, offer to go for a walk with them or do something else you know appeals to them.

It’s important to remember that confronting someone about food is probably the least helpful thing you can do. The eating disorder will interpret this as a threat, double down, and make life hell for everyone. If you’re extremely close to the person you  might suggest that they see a therapist because their mood has been off or down and you’re worried about them, but food is a scary place for someone with an eating disorder. Provide them with options, make sure you’re eating enough and that you’re offering them opportunities to eat, and validate the hell out of them.

There is no one perfect answer to what you should do to support a friend or family member. These are some places to start, but there are also support groups available for friends and family members at some eating disorder clinics and that’s a great place to get yourself if you want some additional ideas and people to rely on. If you can spend some quality time with your loved one, try to listen to what’s really bothering them underneath the food. That may be the most helpful thing you can do.

What is Love?

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I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the nature of love and intimacy, the ways we express love, and how one can express love and intimacy without a strong reliance on physicality. This morning I had a moment that I realized expressed perfectly the kind of love that I want in my life and I have to admit I’m pretty damn grateful to have someone who would express this kind of love for me.

I’m currently out of town at a conference for work, about 2 hours north of where I live. I carpooled with a coworker and left my car behind. Without thinking I took my keys with me (because I wanted to be able to get into my house when I got home). However last night I realized that we’re slated to get a huge snowstorm tonight and that after huge snowstorms they typically call a snow emergency. That means you can park on one set of streets overnight and one during the day and if you’re on the wrong street you get towed. A very expensive tow in the range of $300.

So I started freaking out because I didn’t have a spare key at home and my car was likely going to get towed (for the second time this winter) and there was no way I could afford it. So I texted my boyfriend who was back home and told him what was going on. After some discussion of options and the best plan he drove two hours this morning to get to me and pick up my keys, then turn around and drive 2 more hours to get home before the storm. The most serious champion awesome pants in the world.

And after my wonderful, fantastic boyfriend had come and gone it hit me that I knew of almost no other people who would be willing to offer to do that without me even asking, get up at 4 in the morning to get here early enough, and not act in the least bit put out. It hit me that he had just expressed to me that he cared so much about me that he was willing to put his whole day on hold to make sure I was ok. This to me is love.

Since beginning to identify on the asexual spectrum I’ve had a few feelings nagging at me that I’m incapable of intimacy or of ever expressing my love in a way that my partner understands. I know that these feelings are probably mistaken, but I’ve wanted to try to identify how I can express my love and that has led me to thinking more about what love is. This moment crystallized it for me.

I don’t want to say that sacrifice is love or that putting the other person’s happiness before your own is love because those things are setups for abusive and horrible situations. But it seems to me that illustrating to someone that you care about their well-being, that you’re willing to work to help them, that you are a priority in how you divide your time and your life is a major way to illustrate love.

I hate the idea of a “love language” because each of us uses completely different gestures and words for the way we love. I would prefer to think of it as if we were each Prince and got to design our own symbol to replace the word love. Mine would be a rainbow dolphin riding a unicorn with kittens coming out of its butt. My Prince Love Symbol consists of things like reading poetry to my bf, including him in conversations that explore my emotions and thoughts on a deep level, trying foods that are new and scary (last weekend I tried both bone marrow and squab and he was ecstatic), being patient and interested when he needs to talk to me, spending as much time as possible with him, back massages, our secret handshake, staying up late to watch The Big Lebowski, finding the exact perfect Christmas present that speaks to him and what he loves.

Many of these things are not things that other couples have or do. These are my unique ways of expressing that I care and want to make him smile. That is intimacy. No one form of intimacy is necessary in my mind to show love (although basic respect is a definite must). It’s kind of awesome the particular patterns of intimacy that different couples or triads or whatever form in expressing affection and love.

Society tends to spend a lot of time looking at a few particular forms of intimacy: sex, money, cooking and cleaning, grand gestures. But none of these are really necessary to express your feelings for someone. For me, I couldn’t imagine my relationship without late night talks and good meals together and our sweet kitty babies and a bit of teasing. That doesn’t mean I expect that anyone else needs to express themselves in that way. And their methods of intimacy don’t delegitimize mine.

The problem is that no two individuals have the same constellation of expressions of intimacy and love. So you have to mesh two different methods of expression and it can be extremely difficult. One person might want a form of intimacy the other isn’t interested in. So part of intimacy is seeing what another person’s Prince Love Sign is and interpreting it to your own, thinking about what might appear to them to be love and doing it for them, and finding places where you overlap.

So maybe love is the process of translating intimacy. Maybe it’s caring enough to take the time to see what someone else loves and wants to bring to the table and reflecting it back to them. Maybe it’s the process of building up the little moments of intimacy, the moments that say “I am here with you completely, thinking of you, wanting you to be well”. Maybe it’s the willingness to speak someone else’s language for a bit. Or maybe it’s eating raw oysters then curling up together for a night of fantastic poetry and kitty cuddling.

Most of this is just speculation but I would love to hear others’ thoughts as I try to understand what it means to work someone into your life and how you can express the depth of your feelings for them.

What’s the Harm in Belief?

zeus-von-einem-anderen-planeten-sch-ne-bilder-und-fantasy-192075

Sometimes I get mail and the other day I got a Facebook message asking me about this post. Now first of all I have to say YAY I LOVE HEARING FROM YOU PLEASE TALK TO ME AND ASK ME THINGS.

But second I wanted to respond to this message because it asked some great questions and was wonderfully thought-provoking. If you’ll recall, that post in particular was about the fact that I find philosophical questions deeply important and that they are driving forces in my life, therefore I would appreciate it if others would not mock or deride people who care about those questions.

So here are the questions that were posed to me.

1. How is it that I have managed to care so deeply about philosophical questions and not fall into religion/supernatural/spiritual answers? Many other people who deeply explore the world and who are driven to find certainty and understanding look to god. Why didn’t I?

2. Would there be anything wrong with choosing to believe in the supernatural if it made me/a hypothetical person with the same intellectual drive as me feel better?

The first one of these is obviously personal so I’ll only touch on it briefly, but I think the second one is something that creates a fairly large rift between the religious and the non-religious. Many atheists have a lot of bitterness towards religion and sometimes that rubs off on their feelings towards any belief in the supernatural. Many people who do believe in the supernatural don’t think they’re hurting anyone and don’t get why anyone would want them to change if they get comfort from their beliefs. These are both valid points of view, but there are a few other elements that I’ll touch on.

So, question one.

There have been some times in my life where I wished I could just believe in a god because it would make everything so much simpler. I was raised in a Catholic school and for some time I thought that it was the right thing to do to believe in God, but I just really wasn’t convinced. I never felt any presence like other people talked about, and when I became old enough to dissect the logical arguments none of the reasons for God’s existence made any sense for me. I might have felt a yearning, but it seemed clear to me when I looked at the evidence that God didn’t exist.

I suppose I could liken it to daemons. In the Golden Compass series, everyone has a little animal companion who acts something like their conscience. When I first read the series I desperately and deeply wanted daemons to be real. I wished I could have one. It seriously caused me some loneliness because I so vividly imagined what it would be like while reading the book that it felt like someone had ripped my daemon away from me and left me empty and alone. But no matter how much I wished that daemons might be real, I knew they weren’t. God was exactly the same for me. I saw no evidence that he existed, no signs of his presence, no reason to believe he was there. I didn’t even want God as much as I wanted a daemon, I really just wanted some sort of certainty so I sought it out in logic, philosophy, and science instead.

I deeply want truth and in my mind I have already examined the hypothesis of God and found it wanting. Therefore it’s not truth and not what I want. That’s the best way I can explain my atheism and why spirituality didn’t do much for me.

So question 2: what might be wrong with choosing to believe in God if you think it would make you happier? I think this is a really good question. Some people believe that truth and accuracy is the most important value in the world. I disagree. I’ve mentioned before that I think truth is an instrumental value: there’s nothing about accurate perception in and of itself that’s really super great but truth and accuracy are extremely important when it comes to creating a happy life, to being healthy, to having good relationships, to being safe and secure…really any other value you can think of you can only achieve if you have an accurate perception of the relevant parts of the world.

So because I don’t value truth for itself, I do think that there might be some times and places where it’s ok to let yourself believe something that’s not true or to do something that goes against the facts you know, but generally under controlled circumstances wherein you’re fairly in control of the situation.

The problem with making yourself believe in God seems to me to be twofold. First, I don’t think it’s really possible to choose to believe in God in this way. It’s like trying to convince yourself that unicorns exist because it would be really a nice thing. You could surround yourself with unicorn believers and read unicorn scripture and avoid anything that questions unicorn existence and spend a lot of time trying to feel the unicorn presence each day. But when you get right down to it, there will probably be a part of you that never believes, that sees the evidence against unicorns, that is just waiting for someone to mention anti-unicorn arguments so that it can pull down your carefully built facade.

And that would suck. Losing belief is often a painful process. If you force yourself into belief it seems pretty likely someone could force you out again, and then you’ve lost your worldview and possibly a community and you have to start fresh, now with a loss of certainty just behind you. That hurts and it’s confusing and it’s frustrating. It also means you’ve spent a lot of wasted time arguing with yourself, trying to convince yourself of something you don’t believe, and trying to silence a part of yourself. Rarely if ever does telling a part of your mind to shut the fuck up make you feel happier.

But the second problem is that you’ve built your whole life around a lie. I’m not even going to touch on some of the moral problems of organized religion, so let’s assume for now that you don’t join an organized church. But let’s just think about creating a whole set of morals, values, beliefs, and knowledge around something you don’t actually think exists. This seems like it would be pretty ineffective and would probably collapse at some point. Trying to incorporate one premise into an already created worldview also seems like it would require some mental gymnastics.

As an example, I’m pretty much a materialist. I suspect that there’s probably a physical and scientific reason for just about everything, and I’ve built most of my life around that viewpoint. Imagine trying to stuff a god into that. How would it function? What would it do? The paradigm would probably have lots of inconsistencies and would require me to change other things that I hold as true or else hold a lot of cognitive dissonance. And if I changed things, that would lead to other problems, like the fact that I was now acting based on lies I tell myself in order to support my believe in God.

Particularly when it comes to moral questions, I would hope that everyone in the world attempts to be as truthful as possible with themselves when it comes to creating their moral system. Generally a god comes with a morality built in or affects your morality in some way, as metaphysics and ethics are pretty closely linked. If there’s an afterlife it will change how you act in this life, if everyone is interconnected in some way, it will affect how you act in this life, if things are supposed to be the way they are, it will affect how you act in this life. That means god affects morality. If you’ve lied your way into a god, then you’ve built a lie into your morality. This seems deeply bad to me.

This is not to say that every religious moral system is deeply bad because it includes god, but rather that if you don’t actually believe the foundation of a moral system it seems that it would be vulnerable to adjustments that are not actually very moral and that it would likely not actually be the most moral system available.

In addition, I think there would also be a lot of cognitive dissonance. If you had come to the conclusion that God doesn’t exist in your life already, there would probably be reminders of that everywhere, things that don’t fit into a religious worldview for you, evidence in your mind of the materialistic nature of the world.

The person who posed this question included gods like Poseidon as a fanciful example of something that might make you feel more comfortable to believe. I’m going to go along with that theme and look at Zeus. So imagine convincing yourself of the existence of Zeus, the all powerful god and creator of lightning and stuff, and then going out in a thunderstorm. You look up and see lightning. “Evidence of Zeus!” you exclaim, but in the back of your mind you can’t help but think of the fact that you know scientifically how lightning works and that it is not in fact caused by Zeus. Imagine all the time and energy you’d spend fighting with yourself and trying to convince yourself and probably feeling kind of crappy that you can’t actually make yourself believe. Cognitive dissonance is a horrible feeling. It’s confusing and frustrating. It’s almost maddening. I would not want to make choices that increase my cognitive dissonance.

I would also worry that it would make you more likely to accept other falsehoods, perhaps more dangerous ones, in the future. This is a bit of a slippery slope argument and on its own I don’t think it would be enough to discourage people, but in conjunction with some of the frustration of the other reasons, I would suggest it would lead to a decrease in good behavior and in happiness. Think about the process of constantly reteaching your brain to believe something that you think isn’t actually true. This is a skill, and the more you do it, the better you become at it. Think about making a choice to believe a lie in order to feel good. These two things combined seem like they might get a little bit engrained and would lead you to keep convincing yourself that your comfort and happiness is more important than external reality. This might be an extreme portrayal and I doubt anyone would just abandon all morality, but I wouldn’t want to set the precedent of choosing lies.

Now it’s possible that some people manage to convince themselves to believe in God and not have any of these problems, never experience any cognitive dissonance, have a really sound and fantabulous moral system, and never let themselves believe anything else that they actually know not to be true. It’s possible that there would never be those stabs of doubt that make you really miserable, or a moment that it all falls down and leaves you feeling even worse than if you had never believed in the first place. It’s possible you wouldn’t waste any time retraining your brain. If that is the case I can’t really see anything wrong with choosing to believe in a God you don’t actually think exists in order to satiate a deep desire for certainty and understanding. I just suspect that practically speaking it wouldn’t work and would really leave you feeling more confused and frustrated than you started out.

Medicalizing Difference: A Study in Oppressive Language

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I was perusing the asexual blogosphere the other day and ran across this fairly disturbing post that looked at an abnormal psych paper. This paper was proposing a potential new diagnosis to be added to the DSM, which they term “Nonsexual Personality Disorder”. While this is the first I’ve heard of someone literally terming asexuality as a disease, it is not uncommon for people to medicalize it or treat it as something which needs to be fixed.

I’ve spent a fair amount of time with DSM definitions and looked at a lot of problems with the ways we currently define mental illness, but even one glance at what this person proposes as the definition of Nonsexual Personality Disorder tells me that this is a horrible definition for many reasons. At its root, it says that this is different from normal and thus it’s bad without actually taking into consideration whether or not the difference is harmful to anyone. This is the same thing that happens to people who are gay, people who are extremely sexual or kinky, or all sorts of things that constitute “different”, generally from the privileged and well off majority.

Looking closely at the definition, we can pull apart what’s wrong with it and see how medical language is often used to oppress difference. This particular case is a doozy as it manages to pack in all kinds of oppressive tendencies that happen to many different people, so this should be fun.

Let’s start at the beginning shall we?

“A.  A marked inability to experience sexual attraction, beginning in early adulthood and indicated by 5 or more:”

As far as I’m aware there is no other diagnosis in the DSM that hinges exclusively on the lack of one experience. Oftentimes an inability to feel certain things are part of a diagnosis, but rarely are they the whole diagnosis because the whole point of the diagnoses in the DSM is to have a way to treat something that is causing harm or lack of functioning in someone’s life. There is no need for sexuality to be able to live a happy and fulfilled life and this whole diagnosis rests on the idea that if you do not have sexuality in your life then there is something empty or unhappy about your life.

Moving on:

“Inability to interpret sexual signals”

Now there are all kinds of symptoms listed in the DSM that people who are not mentally ill have but that only become signs of mental illness when they move into a realm where they seriously inhibit someone’s functioning or lead to high distress. Now I can imagine how you might get into some awkward situations if you can’t interpret sexual signals, but overall it doesn’t seem like the sort of thing that should be medicalized: it’s pretty damn normal and unless the other party involved also has some difficulties with reading emotions it should just mean that you don’t get into sexual situations. Oh no. How horrible.

Another way this sort of symptom was used in the past was in medicalizing lesbians. If you can’t interpret or don’t respond to a romantic overture, there’s something wrong with you. If you can’t follow the scripts that have been laid down, there’s something wrong with you, something that needs to be treated. In reality, it may simply be that you follow your own script or no script at all and that’s totally ok.

“Uncomfortable in intimate situations with a partner”

So I have a serious problem with this particular criterion because this whole disorder is circulated around an inability to feel sexual attraction. That implies that the intimate situation here is sexual. That’s a whole lot of assuming that the only intimate situations you’d ever be in would be sexual. There are all sorts of intimacies and personally I think it’s a bit gross to eliminate them all because SEX. There are also many, many people who are uncomfortable in sexual situations with partners for a variety of reasons and this criteria doesn’t touch on ANY of them (including abuse, PTSD, different priorities, etc). It also doesn’t specify frequency of discomfort, which seems important as probably everyone has felt uncomfortable in intimate situations at one point or another.

Generally discomfort at a situation is only diagnosable when you need to be able to function in that situation in order to have a complete and fulfilled life. I think there are many people out there who could attest that sex is not necessary for a complete and fulfilled life with intimate relationships, which makes this criterion really bizarre. There’s really nothing wrong about having discomfort or preferences against some stuff, and saying that we all need to be comfortable in the same settings is really a set up to oppress some people. Yes, being uncomfortable in all social settings or all settings outside of the house might be something that really interferes with your life, but sexual situations are specific, private, intimate, and unnecessary for day to day functioning.

If you’re really not interested in something and another person tries to get you to do it, it is 100% reasonable to feel uncomfortable. Generally we only want to label something as mental illness if the emotions or reactions are far outside of reasonable or logical.

“Avoidance of situations in which sexual activity may occur”

Um…so if you’re a priest you have symptoms of mental illness? If you choose to be celibate? Lots of people can make it through their lives without sexual activity. In other news, not feeling sexual attraction does not imply that you have to avoid sex. Unrelated! Crazy! Throwing these symptoms together is just illustrating a complete misunderstanding of what it’s like to be asexual.

“Lack of attraction to the opposite or same sex”

This is extremely sloppily written. What kind of attraction? What about non-binary people? Do friend urges count? If they don’t then we’re really looking at something far more akin to antisocial personality disorder. I think it’s implied that those are not the kinds of attraction that the author is thinking of but rather sexual attraction. What is wrong with not feeling sexual attraction if there’s nothing about it that hurts you or anyone else? It’s not like a lack of empathy that leads you to undertake cruel behaviors, it simply leads you to seek out different relationships for yourself. I’m really failing to see the problem.

At its heart this criterion says there’s one way to be human and that’s a sexual way, not because asexual people say they’re unhappy but because the author can’t imagine a different way. Why is this any less discriminatory than making it an illness to have a lack of attraction to the opposite sex?

“Complete lack of sexual thoughts”

My biggest problem with this is that I don’t think it exists unless you’ve got a hormonal imbalance, which is not related to mental illness but simple physical health. There are absolutely people that don’t feel sexual thoughts towards anyone or who rarely have sexual thoughts, but our bodies are filled with hormones that give us certain reactions and that doesn’t stop happening just because of your orientation. As an analogy, if a gay man is given a blowjob by a woman, oftentimes his body will react even if he doesn’t feel an attraction or particularly want the blowjob. It is possible to orgasm during rape. Our bodies react to things.

The other problem is that things like age can also play a role here. Hormones change with age, and some people’s testosterone and other happy sexy hormones just go down as they age. And then they stop thinking sexual things. It’s actually super normal and healthy. So why the compulsory sexuality?

“Touch aversion”

Ok so this is one of the criteria that I think has a little bit of merit in that there is a fair amount of research that shows that human contact is really good for your mental health. People who get hugs or hold hands or what have you tend to be happier. But there is also a lot of evidence that people simply exist on a spectrum of sensory sensitivity and for those who are extremely sensitive touch can be overwhelming. That’s a simple fact about the way their bodies process touch. Perhaps it has something to do with a medical condition (physical), but probably it’s just like different pain thresholds. We have them and for people with high pain thresholds it’s kind of a nuisance but you adapt.

I am one of those people who is fairly touch averse. I am not a hugging type person. I am not a kissing type person. I generally like my space. I cannot cuddle through the night (except with a cat). But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t times that I feel incredibly comforted by touch with someone I trust and care about. It doesn’t mean that I’m broken, just that I need touch in a different way. It really hasn’t been a big deal in a lot of my relationships except that I yell “STOP TICKLING ME!” fairly often when the other person is not intending to tickle me at all. People get their boundaries, move on.

“Inability to experience romantic relationships”

This is unrelated to sexual attraction. Sex and romance are not the same. Romantic relationships are possible without sex. Not feeling romance is also not a super big deal. Someone needs to read asexuality 101. I really have no more ways to say “it is possible to have a fulfilled and happy way full of great relationships without sex and romance”. These symptoms are basically saying “I prioritize romance so much that the only way I could imagine not having it is if I was crazy”.

“Social isolation”

Where did this come from?? Especially because later in the definition it specifies that you would be capable of holding down close personal relationships of a nonsexual or romantic nature, so it contradicts itself. Not dating is not the same as social isolation. Saying that it is is basically telling everyone there’s one way to have a family or be around other people and if you don’t do it that way you’re sick.

“Inability to become sexually aroused”

This is seriously not on par with nor related to a lack of sexual attraction. The symptoms that they give as evidence of “lack of sexual attraction” for the most part have nothing to do with sexual attraction. The ability to become aroused is 100% biological: does your body respond to certain stimuli. Attraction has to do with feelings towards someone. If you can’t become sexually aroused at all and you have a problem with it, it’s probably a question for your medical doctor not your psychologist. But of course none of these symptoms can be the result of something medical as per criterion b.

“It would manifest as something similar to schizoid PD, in which the individual is rather socially detached. However, unlike schizoid PD, this person would take enjoyment in other types of close relationships, such as with family or platonic friends. Additionally, they would not exhibit flattened affect, excepting in sexual situations. In this dimension, this individual does not possess the skills to understand or interpret social cues. A person may develop this due to either a predisposition to a schizotypal-like PD, lack or disregulation of hormones, or a lack of physical contact in childhood.”

So basically nothing would be wrong with this person except that they don’t want to have sex. Oh no! How horrible! Their life must be empty! The basic take home message is that if someone is not feeling a desire for sex then they must be unhappy or wrong. This is a pretty common feeling among a lot of people: if you’re not having or wanting sex, there must be something wrong with you and you should probably fix it. But simply having different desires, priorities, ways of relating, or ways of expressing intimacy doesn’t mean anything about your ability to live a good life. Throughout history psychology and medicine have turned difference into illness so that they have a legitimate way of trying to eradicate it. You’re a woman who likes sex a lot? Medicate. You’re gay? Stamp it out, it’s a disease. You’re a kinkster? Better see your doc.

Many of the symptoms presented above boil down to “you don’t feel the way that I’m used to people feeling”, or tie together something painful but unrelated with the different way of feeling. Many of them point at things that are often a sign of illness (lack of sex drive) and say that they are ALWAYS a sign of illness. Together, these allow a doctor to say that difference is actually a problem because it causes unhappiness. In reality the unhappiness is more likely caused by stigma and oppression.

So if you’re thinking about introducing a new medical definition let’s think about whether the symptoms are actually causing pain in someone’s life rather than just are something that doesn’t make sense to you, shall we?