I Am Not Ashamed of Identifying As Mentally Ill

Mentally ill, giving no fucks.

I’ve mostly steered clear of the controversy surrounding The Mighty, and I intend to continue doing so, but due to my job I end up reading quite a few things from The Mighty, and the other day I stumbled on to this post, that suggested people put “mental illness” low on their list of identities.

This is an attitude that I see in lots of places. People suggest that I don’t let my mental illness define me, or that I should focus on other things. Even more often I see people frustrated with the insistence I have on labels. “You’re more than the diagnosis,” or “one word can’t define you,” or my favorite “why are you letting people box you in?” It seems like a lot of people think that embracing your mental illness means living in negativity.

I don’t think it would surprise many people to know that one of the things I identify most strongly as is mentally ill. I bristle when people tell me that this means I’m limiting myself, being negative, or letting the mental illness “win” in some fashion. Here’s the truth: accepting and paying attention to an important fact about myself is not negative or limiting. My mental illness has a big impact on my life. To say that it isn’t an important and integral part of who I am is to lie.

But more than that, mental illness is not exclusively negative. Yeah, depression and anxiety have fuuucked me over more than once. But my anxiety makes me a truly badass worker. My depression makes me compassionate. My BPD makes me empathetic. To take away those elements of my personality isn’t just to take away things that hurt me but also to irreparably change me and the awesome person I am. This is a basic tenet of neurodiversity, and I strongly stand by the fact that if my brain wasn’t the weird place it is, I would not be depressed but I also wouldn’t be as badass as I am.

Beyond all of the philosophical stuff, there’s also the huge elephant in the room that in terms of things I have to pay attention to, my mental illness is bigger than any other element of me. Just as I would with any other chronic illness, I have to take my meds, I have to pay attention for changes, I have to see my doctor periodically, and I have to continually take care of myself with exercise, self care, socialization, and writing to keep my mood up and my brain in a place of rationality and stability. If there was another element of my life that took up hours every day of my life then maybe I would identify more strongly with that, but there isn’t, so mental illness it is because in reality it’s what affects me.

Understanding that a huge part of who I am involves the care I have to take with my own mind isn’t negative. It’s not giving in to anything. It’s not ignoring or downplaying the great things I do. It’s recognition of reality. Mental illness is a huge part of my life. It affects everything from how I dress (thanks eating disorder) to how I eat (seriously, thanks eating disorder) to how I exercise (jesus eating disorder) to how I think (phew, at least this one’s depression and anxiety) and how I feel (woohoo BPD!). It affects my relationships, it affects what I consider fun, it affects how I socialize. How is that not important? Why should I feel ashamed of an aspect of myself because it happens to be something that oftentimes is a challenge? I cannot think of a single other identity that affects all the elements of my self so strongly.

So yes, I will continue putting “mentally ill” at the top of my list of self identifiers, along with nerd, writer, and social justice warrior, because these are the things that I pay attention to each and every day. It is healthy and important for me to include my mental illness on that list. If I don’t pay attention to it, then there’s every likelihood that I will end up in the nastydepressed place that is truly dangerous. But more than that, I am not ashamed of it. I’m not going to pretend that it isn’t incredibly important because it’s supposedly negative, or involves stigma. THAT is letting the mental illness win.

My bio will continue to read Olivia, cryingface depressed sometimes, writer extraordinaire, weirdo. Can’t stop, won’t stop.

No One Is Coming For You: White Privilege and Equality

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I was listening to NPR today and there was a speaker talking about the current race situation in America. It was a white man. He talked about affirmative action, and he said “People ask me how I feel about affirmative action and I say it’s great. As a white, male Baby Boomer I benefited from the biggest affirmative action ever. My father came home from the war and through the GI bill got an education and a house. We became middle class. White vets got that. Black vets didn’t.” There’s something about the way that he said it that makes it sound like he should feel guilty for getting that benefit, that he had done something wrong, and that going forward only black people should get it. Now it’s true that some of affirmative action is making up for historical discrepancies like these. But what isn’t true is that the end goal of social justice and race conversations is to flip the positions of white and black, or to leave all people without the supports that white people have historically had.

There’s a fear that underlies all of the ways that white people talk about race and privilege, even white people who are trying to be allies. It’s a fear that they’re going to lose something, that in order to balance everything out they have to give something up in order to help those who need to get more. It’s the fear that you’ve done something wrong and need to change because you’re a bad person for having the comfortable life that you have. It’s the defensiveness that says “but I like what I have. Why are you trying to question it?”

There are two elements to this fear. The first is the fear of changing your attitudes and behavior, which is actually hard. The second is the fear of the end goal of these discussions. From talking to a lot of white people about race, I get the distinct impression that many are afraid they will lose what they have. They might be afraid that they’ll be held to a higher standard than other people. They may wonder if their kids will have the same perks in life that they had, even if they believe they’ve earned those perks.

There is so much fear that our lives will get worse if we make yours better.

But the end goal isn’t for us all to be equal at the bottom. It’s to bring everyone’s quality of life up. The point is not for cops to shoot everyone with impunity or for everyone to struggle to get a job and an education or for everyone to have to go it on their own with no safety net or support from the government. The point is for everyone to get those nice things that you got, the things that you don’t even recognize that you had. Once you realize you HAVE privilege you don’t need to be afraid to lose it. You need to work for everyone to get it.

That is what checking your privilege is: recognizing that somewhere in your past or the past of your parents or grandparents, things were set up to benefit you in ways that they weren’t set up to benefit people of color. You got a GI Bill, or access to good schools, or a presumption of innocence in a trial that people of color didn’t get. That’s great! Those are all great things to get. No one is angry at you because your parents benefited from the GI Bill. They’re angry that they didn’t. They’re angry that often they were used so that you could get the benefits. They’re angry at people who pretend the differences don’t exist.

 

It’s easy for our conversations to forget what the end goal of conversations about race is. It’s easy to think it’s an us vs. them question, or that it’s people trying to take things from other people. It’s significantly harder to have the hard questions about the ways white people are benefiting right now while also keeping in mind that we want everyone to have those same benefits. There are lots of ways to work through the white guilt and defensiveness stage of privilege conversations, but here’s one that will hopefully help: what people are saying is that any “unearned” help you got is still something you deserve. It’s something everyone deserves. We just have to make sure everyone gets it.

Sexual Ethics 201

Photo by Brad Fults

It’s easy to say that the concept of consent is simple and easy to understand. Communicate clearly with your partner, if they say yes, continue. If they don’t say yes, then don’t continue.

Unfortunately nothing in life is ever quite so simple. This conception of consent is good when it comes to not raping people. But not raping people is a pretty low ethical bar. It’s basically the absolute base level we should be shooting for when it comes to our sexual ethics. But many people think about consent and sex and believe that if they didn’t force their partner to do something, or if they were open about what they wanted, then everything is fine. If the other person said yes, they’ve consented and everything is fine. Good to go, right?

Well, maybe not. Because even if you’re not sexually assaulting someone or pressuring them into sex or secretly springing things on them in the middle of sex, you can still be setting someone up for really bad decisions. You can put pressure on them without realizing it. You can ask for a lot and not give much in return. Your wants and needs can end up functioning as conditions for sex (e.g. I only want to have sex with people who will have sex with my partner as well because we are a couple).

Oftentimes these things happen when we are trying to be honest about what we do or do not want. That’s ok. One of the difficult things about being in relationships is that oftentimes just saying what we think or feel or want is not enough to make sure everyone comes out of an interaction feeling good.

Let’s think of consent like a contract, just as a hypothetical for a minute.

Sometimes people write really shitty contracts that put a lot more onus on one party than the other. It might be a job contract that works one party too hard for not enough money. They might provide all of the information about that contract to the other party, and make sure the other person isn’t intoxicated or manipulated into signing. But they still put the person into a bad situation by giving them an option forward that takes advantage of them. And especially if you’re entering into a contract with someone who cares about you, it’s easy for them to forget to make sure things are set up fairly. You might not be assaulting or violating someone by asking them to enter into an unfair or harmful agreement, but you’re still being a jackass. And when that person loves you, it’s far more likely that they’ll do it.

As my friend Miri said, “I think we need a more nuanced view than “if I didn’t force them it’s ok/if they technically consented it’s ok,” and part of that is acknowledging that shit can go kind of haywire when such strong rushes of emotion are involved and that if we care about each other, we should look out for each other. Not in a patronizing “let me decide for you because you’re not in your right mind” way, but in a caring “wow I am setting up a fucked-up choice for you to have to make, aren’t I” way.”

I think one huge barrier when it comes to clear consent is when the two partners have different ideas of what constitutes sex. It might be about the progression of intimacy. Many people assume that if you start making out, you’re going to progress to taking clothes off, and if you progress to taking clothes off, then you’re going to end up having penetrative sex. None of those things HAVE to be true, and it’s very possible and often very comfortable for someone to only want one of those things. I personally have had situations where I felt this pressure (if I do x, partner will want y) and have chosen to only consent to x when I am also willing to do y. But that doesn’t always mean that I’m very excited about y. It ends up creating a lot of bitterness in the relationship because I cannot consent to just the act I want to do, and while I can do the internal work of figuring out what I want, sometimes it just feels confusing.

Part of being a good partner is that when you are asking someone else for something, especially something that tends to prioritize your wants or desires over your partner’s, you need to be very good about communicating to them what it is that you’re thinking of, but ALSO that it’s alright for them to ask for adjustments to your request. If you’re asking your partner to try out a new kink that involves getting tied up and spanked, you’re actually asking them two things: do you want to get tied up and do you want to get spanked. They may have interest in one, but not the other. It’s good to pull apart the pieces of a request and make it easy to say no to any of them. The more work you put on your partner to figure out what you’re asking for and what they are allowed to negotiate, the harder it is for them to set and keep their own boundaries.

The other element that makes things muddy is when you put unknowing pressure on a partner. Telling them just how much you really, really want sex is providing them with true information, but it also means that if they care about you they may feel as if they should have sex with you. We all need to be aware that if we’re with someone who loves us or is infatuated with us, they may do things to please us. We need to take that into account when we’re asking for things and make sure we give them the space and time to take their own needs into account. And it’s ESPECIALLY important when you’re in a long term relationship to recognize that sometimes you force “consequences” on your partner when they don’t say yes. It isn’t really forcing them, but if your partner knows that you’ll be hurt and bitter or annoyed at them after they say no, you are putting pressure on them. If they love you, they’re also imbibing the strong drug of caretaking, and that can easily outweigh their own needs. This is one of the places that we need to be very explicit about taking responsibility for our own emotions. The script “yes, I’ll be disappointed, but that’s not a problem. I can handle it,” is a really important one.

So what does that actually look like?

The best thing a partner ever did for my confidence in saying no was say no to me. That might sound odd, but it normalized the whole process of saying no to me, and made me feel as if I wasn’t the gatekeeper for all things sex. It helped remind me that it might feel kinda bad for a little bit, but that I could get over it, and so could they. It helped to actually hear someone say out loud “I’m not interested right now,” so that I could copy that script.

I also find that it helps to ask a lot of questions. Especially if you’re trying something new or entering into a new kind of relationship, spend a lot of time talking to the other person about what they want and why. If nothing else, you then know your partner better. But there is a possibility that together you’ll tease out some different dynamics. It gives them some time to process their own wants and needs. It gives you time to ask yourself if your wants are going to be really tough on them. If you foresee a place where they might be sacrificing for your wants, ask them about it.

It’s also good to pay attention to your partner’s body language. If they say yes but are shying away or not really responding to your overtures, you can always check in. Ask what sounds nice to them. See if they want to talk for a little bit before you move into other things. There’s no rush.

Finally, if your partner has a lot of anxiety about saying no, reassurance is really helpful. It’s good to hear “thank you for being honest and telling me your boundary,” after you’ve said no to something. Positive reinforcement does wonders, so if someone says no or feels uncomfortable, it really helps to do something that feels positive afterwards to help remind everyone that you haven’t been pushed apart and no one has done anything wrong.

Now a lot of people out there might be getting defensive. This sounds like a lot of work. You’re right, it is a lot of work. A lot of people might say that this is going too far, that they shouldn’t have to do all of this. And you’re probably right, you could conduct your sexual life without assaulting or raping anyone without doing any of this. You could be pretty ok to your partners without paying attention to this.

But I at least want to do more. I want to be better than pretty ok. I want to work hard to make sure my partners feel good about what I bring into their lives. Sex has the potential to be really damaging to other people, which means that I want to take a lot of care to make it a positive experience for my partners. There is a lot more to sexual ethics than just rape. All of the things that we think about when it comes to healthy relationships apply to sex as well. It’s time to start talking about all the nuance of healthy and unhealthy actions when it comes to sex.