2017 Was a Year of Mourning

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It’s the new year! Hey 2017. Good to see you.

I have a lot of friends who are not fans of 2016. I agree with them on many fronts about the dumpster fire of the last year. 2016 was objectively one of the hardest years I have ever had on a personal level. There was simply too much happening. Some of it was amazing, but some of it was truly horrible, and I cannot really process it all. For some people, 2016 was awful because of the election and celebrity deaths and large, communal events, things that didn’t appear to affect them personally but which they’ve reacted to anyway. Let’s talk about that. Let’s talk about what it’s like to have group experience that affect your perception of the world and the people around you.

I have seen some people shitting all over the idea that someone should be sad at the deaths of celebrities or at the election of Trump. These things don’t make an immediate impact. Other celebrities will die. Trump isn’t even president yet. 2017 will be worse. Just wait until their policies get enacted. Don’t complain, act! That’s not the RIGHT way to react to horrible things. 

I am not inclined to be particularly forgiving to anyone telling another person how to feel, but in this case, I think that naysayers have missed a major part of WHY others are reacting in the ways that they are and so I am particularly annoyed. One of the most common refrains that I’ve heard amounts to “get over it. It will just get worse so you need to toughen up and figure out how to deal with it.”

I have news for those naysayers: this communal outcry? The complaining, the jokes, the GIFs of a dumpster fire? That IS us getting used to it. It’s called grief and it’s a process, and 2016 was a year that was all about realizing that loss and cruelty are a part of our lives, then grieving for the reality we thought we knew. Grief happens in all kinds of ways. It’s not always rational, it’s not always clear, but it is necessary emotional work, and it will take time. People have to feel these emotions before they can move on to creating positive change.

I particularly want to focus on a brand of criticism that I’ve found frustrating and harmful. After Trump’s election a lot of people had a lot of feelings. Many people acted on those feelings in ways that made themselves feel more safe, or because they wanted to feel sure they would have birth control/be married/be able to get citizenship/whatever else they were worried about before Trump could make any changes. I have friends who moved up their wedding dates, people who invested in long term birth control, acquaintances who suddenly started volunteering and giving money at high levels. People are making changes. To some, this might appear rash. Trump isn’t going to take away marriage equality tomorrow, why are you having your wedding right now?

It’s true that in the sense of practical action, some of people’s behaviors aren’t necessary. People probably don’t need to worry about their healthcare disappearing the moment Trump gets sworn in, or about their marriages being annulled in a few weeks. Some of these behaviors might even be a little bit irrational in the strictest sense. I don’t really want to get in to a discussion of “how scared should people be”, because honestly it doesn’t even matter. These actions are serving a very important purpose that is completely separate from their existence as political actions.

People are doing things because they are sad and afraid. A world that they thought had existed is gone. They are mourning the loss of that world and the illusion of safety it had provided. Sometimes, when you are mourning, it is perfectly reasonable to do things just to make yourself feel better. You get to act irrationally, especially if it’s not hurting anyone and it makes you feel safer. You get to focus on yourself for a little bit.

When you understand people’s behaviors not necessarily as calculated political action but rather as personal grief, it makes a lot more sense, and hopefully can give us all a lot more patience with each other. Maybe things will stay as awful in 2017 as they felt in 2016. That’s certainly a possibility. But what I doubt will stay the same is the way people are behaving. Human beings require time to adjust to change, particularly unpleasant and difficult changes. 2016 was a year of realization for many people: the world is not what I thought it was. People are not who I thought they were. Death is a regular part of my life. Suffering cannot always be avoided.

2016 was a year of mourning those realizations and the loss of some hope and security that came from not believing those things. As we move into 2017, I hope we can start to grow from mourning to action. But I also want to recognize the people who are still coping, or still struggling to cope. Emotions move at their own pace. People feel and understand emotions differently from each other. None of us should be heaping shame and guilt on each other for the feelings we have about 2016.

I want to publicly witness your mourning. I want you to know that it’s ok. I want you to know that the fear and grief make sense. I want you to know that you aren’t alone. I want to recognize that there are moments in which communities collectively see and understand change, and that this isn’t just the same as usual, and maybe this is our new normal, but we take time to adjust to normal. It’s ok to feel like 2016 was a big and important year. Recognize those feelings. It’s the only way to move forward, and the only way to truly adjust to the world as it is. There’s no call for shaming each other.

The Right To Die and Mental Illness

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Assisted suicide and right to die advocacy are pretty hot topics right now. More and more states are making it legal for physicians to assist the terminally ill in ending their lives. For secular activists, it’s become fairly clear that being able to choose how and when you die is an important right, especially when the alternative is intense suffering and low quality of life.

Many people have started to recognize that simply being alive is not always inherently good if it involves too much bad stuff, and that we need to provide people with options if their lives are going to be miserable. Of course there is still debate on the issue, but the idea that terminally ill patients who are suffering have a right to die has become a common concept and for most people at least seems on the table as a possibility.

But there’s one set of illnesses that seem to be entirely off the table when it comes to questions of assisted suicide: mental illnesses. There do seem to be some pertinent differences between physical illnesses and mental illnesses: mental illnesses can often leave one vulnerable to manipulation or abuse, which would make it even more difficult to ensure that no one took advantage of the legality of assisted suicide. Often those who have mental illness feel guilt at being a burden, which might lead to a self-selecting kind of mini-genocide. And perhaps most importantly, there really isn’t such a thing as a “terminal” mental illness, one that will inevitably lead to the death of the individual afflicted.

But I’m not wholly convinced that these differences are the most pertinent elements of whether or not someone has the right to die, and the right to die with dignity.

The thing that is most pertinent in most of these cases is that an individual is in serious amounts of pain and distress, and it is highly unlikely that the situation will change. Also important is that an individual has decided that the pain is more than they can tolerate (no one else is allowed to make that choice for them). The vast majority of patients with terminal illnesses don’t seek out assisted suicide, but those who are in serious amounts of pain or suffering are more likely to. We’re all going to die eventually, so the simple fact that an individual has a more clear time frame of when that will happen doesn’t change the moral status of what it means to allow them to choose death sooner.

What is relevant is the suffering and loss of self that comes with some illnesses. Those concerns are just as relevant to mental illnesses as they are to physical illnesses. Of course mental illnesses might introduce some additional complications: it’s incredibly difficult to determine whether a mental illness will respond to treatment or whether someone will later recover. Many people who attempt suicide say that afterwards they are happy they failed, but there are also many people who make multiple attempts at suicide. We simply don’t know as much about mental illness as we do about physical illness, and so it might require more regulations and documentation of the long lasting nature of a problem before assisted suicide becomes a legitimate choice.

But the nitty gritty of what it means to practically put into place laws and regulations that ensure those who seek out assisted suicide are not taken advantage of or manipulated, are offered all available treatments, and are not pressured into any decisions are separate from the question of whether people have the right to die as they so choose.

It is inhumane to force someone to continue on in a situation that causes them unbearable pain. That is true even if the unbearable pain is an unremitting mental illness. The automatic way that people discount mental illness from the conversation when talking about the right to die seems to be another circumstance in which the severity of mental illnesses is downplayed, another case of “it’s all in your head” or “if you just try hard enough you’ll get better.” There is no recognition that sometimes treatments don’t work, just as they don’t for physical illnesses. The question of how much pain is too much pain is just as relevant for mental illnesses as it is for physical ones.

Embodiment

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Eating disorders are about bodies. Duh. They’re about fat and losing weight and body image and skinny models and photoshop. Wait, what? That’s not right. Eating disorders are about the experience of being in a body, the limitations and lack of control that being embodied necessitates. Much better. I’ve been wanting to write about this article at Science of EDs on embodiment for quite some time, but I haven’t known exactly what to contribute beyond “yeah, that!” The article looks at a study of embodiment in which participants rated how much they experienced their body externally, through the feedback and sight of others, through objective measures, or through physical ways of controlling their bodies. Unsurprisingly, high scores on these measures were correlated with eating disorders.

When I read this, I felt a resonance with these experiences and questions: yes, what drove my eating disorder was a feeling of discomfort with having a body, an inability to imagine how my “self” fit into that body, a confusion about how my body actually fit into people’s conceptions of me, and a kind of certainty that the only time I really was in my body was when I was doing something to it or with it. But embodiment has always meant more than that to me. Having a body means you will die. That’s a pretty basic fact at this point in time (although there is the potential that through technology we will change it). Having a body also comes with a variety of limitations: you can only be doing one thing at a time, be in one place at a time, you are bounded by temporality and space. Even if you’re a highly capable person who can probably accomplish nearly anything they try, your embodied nature says that you can only try a limited number of things.

Bodies, and particularly bodily functions (like eating) are a constant reminder of these facts. For much of my life, I have not been able to stand being present in my own body (aware of my senses, my location, my body) because it was so limited. Some people are able to accept these limitations without struggle. Some people don’t find that being in a body is a constant reminder of their miniscule nature in the entirety of reality. But many of the people that I have met who also have eating disorders are the kinds of people who have been told their whole lives that they can do whatever they put their mind to, that they can do so at a high level of accomplishment, and that they can change the world. The perfectionism that this breeds hates limits, even ones that are utterly reasonable (like not being able to live forever).

Some people have certainly wondered why those with a high drive for control and perfection choose their bodies as the realm on which to enact their personal battles. The experience of embodiment as mortality and limitation gives a good window into this connection. It might seem that the whole world is not within our control, but the most basic level at which we have no control is the fact that we are embodied, our bodies do things we don’t want them to, we can get sick and die, and having a physical presence inherently limits the ways that we can affect the world.

It’s quite possible that few other people with eating disorders are consciously aware of hating their body because it represents the fact that they cannot do everything they’ve been told they could; I cannot cure cancer and reconstruct Proto Indo-European and become a bestselling author and be a feminist/atheist activist and play taiko for a living and learn neuroscience and solve the problem of consciousness and star in an amazing TV show. I have to pick and choose, and knowing that I am giving up on some potential opportunity is painful. But even if others don’t consciously recognize that the reason they can’t do all this is because they are physical beings, on some level I suspect they feel it: it comes out in the guttural anger at the body and at the failings of the body, it comes out in the unrealistic expectations of perfection in every way, it comes out in the unnaturally high achievements and the insistence that slack is for other people.

Embodiment might be at the heart of all eating disorders, but not because of bad body image or a struggle to reconcile self-image with the perception of others. Somewhere in there, all of us want to be little gods, capable of anything. Bodies will always remind us that we never can be.

 

My Friends

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There are people in my life who challenge me. They make me aware of the things that I once thought and that still creep into my mind. I look at them and I see the lies float past and my only defense is to remind myself “this person is my friend. They are wonderful. I love them. Every person I think these thoughts of is a friend, wonderful, loved. Each person I think these thoughts of has the rich individual experience that I do.” These people teach me about the inner lives of difference.

 

I have a friend who’s severely overweight. I don’t see him often, and in my mind he loses weight. I bring him closer to what I view as normal, closer to everyone else I know. The other day a picture of him popped up on Facebook and I felt a flash-flood of disgust before the shame set in. This is my friend. How dare I change his body to fit my expectations? How dare I ask myself who he is to be Other? How dare I feel disgust at him, someone who feels and thinks and exists in all the complex ways that I do? How dare I reduce him to his body, to the intimate ways that he feels the world and fills the spaces around him, ignoring how his neurons fill that body and his mind is so intimately tied with its senses and he is his body?

 

This is one of my challenges.

 

I have a friend who is trans*. Most days I don’t think about his sexuality or his gender. Most days it doesn’t matter because he is my wonderful, sweet, perfect friend. But every now and then I find myself wondering, my mind probing at what he’s like, asking what his name used to be (I’M SO SORRY), and I know I’ve crossed the line when I remember that his body and what his body looks like is so much less than the whole of him. It is such a miniscule piece, one that is so unimportant to our relationship that I can’t fathom why I would wonder about it. He is so much more. His stories, his perspective, his experience: they transcend my questions about his genitalia (and let’s be honest, I really shouldn’t have those questions anyway).

 

This is one of my challenges.

 

There are so many of these people, people who are complex and interesting, people who are my token people. I wish they were not my token people. I wish I knew more of them (this is not helped by the fact that I am antisocial). I wish I could understand their lives in a deeper way, and my challenge is that I have only one and I must fight against making them a token in my life. They challenge me every time I recognize them as more  than an idea, more than their weight or their gender or their sex or their race. I know that they are more than that, and my training in this world has left me incapable of separating them from it. And so they challenge me.

 

I want to tell myself their stories. I want to be honest with myself when I see others like them and remind myself that they see the world each day through their own eyes, that they struggle and love and feel, that they wonder and feel hurt and imagine how I see them. I want to see them with full lives, with full minds, with full thoughts. And so my friends challenge me, and I thank them. They remind me that behind each pair of eyes, each face that I don’t understand, there are worlds I cannot imagine.

Sex is Disgusting

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I have recently been obsessed with disgust. Weird? Yes, but so am I. Disgust is an emotion that we don’t spend a whole lot of time thinking about and understanding. Very few people question where disgust comes from or why it exists. I’ve been doing a lot of reading around these topics, and in this reading I stumbled on a question that grabbed me: can something be sexy without an element of disgust?

I’m sure a lot of you at first glimpse will say “duh yes, I love my partner and find them very sexy and am not disgusted by them in the slightest”. But I think to get at the heart of this question we have to get at the roots of what disgust is: most current theories suggest that disgust is a reaction to things that remind us that we are animal and thus mortal. Obviously we have disgust towards things that might contaminate us: bodily fluids and the like (generally termed primary disgust), but most other things that cause us to feel disgust are things that remind us we’re fallible: gore, destruction of our bodily envelope, or things that make us feel someone is acting in an inhuman or bestial manner. For more on this theory of disgust, check out Paul Rozin or Martha Nussbaum. I’m not going to spend much time here arguing that this is the appropriate theory of disgust so if you want to hear more about it do some reading on your own (there are a good number of studies supporting it).

Behind this theory of disgust is the idea that we as human beings are afraid of our own mortality and that we cannot live every day with the full knowledge and awareness of our mortality. Realizing we are like animals (particularly animals that we see as fallible) reminds us that we are mortal. Reminders of birth also remind us of death. These things place us squarely in front of our own mortality, and so we try to shy away from them so that we don’t have to be confronted with them. One way that we as human beings often deal with our own mortality and animal nature is by creating a group that elicits disgust (e.g. Jews in Nazi Germany) and imbuing them with all the qualities of animals and ourselves that we find unacceptable. We then use them as a buffer zone between ourselves and our mortality. They are people who are not quite human but not quite animal: they are less than we are, and if we keep ourselves pure from them, then we are safe from the contamination of things that remind us of our animal nature.

Sex reminds us that we have bodies. Sex reminds us that our bodies are not all the way in our control, and is associated with the life and death cycle. So sex is disgusting on some level. It is inherently an animal act: it is something that we do that could contaminate us and that reminds us in an immediate way that we create life and we die and we are mortal. Don’t tell me it’s not disgusting. You know when you’re all finished and out of the moment you look around and you’re all sweaty and sticky you feel a little eensy bit grossed out. And if disgust is the feeling we get when we’re reminded that we’re animals, you sure as HELL feel a little disgusted after sex.

Does this mean that everything associated with sex has some disgust associated with it? Can the fact that sex and disgust might be inherently linked tell us something about negative attitudes towards sex? Let’s explore further dear readers.

As a caveat, I have exactly 0 evidence for most of what I’m going to talk about next. This is primarily theoretical and is more an explanation of possible connections between ideas, emotions, and behaviors than a proposition of a fully fleshed out theory. I would love to hear reactions and feedback.

I suspect that in order for something to turn us on, it has to remind us that we have a body. While there are probably some people out there who get turned on exclusively by intellectual things (I won’t deny that I may or may not have masturbated while reading philosophy before), the moment you start to get turned on you have an immediate reminder of your body, your bodily fluids, and your animal nature. Your desires start to take over. It is an incredibly animalistic place to be. For something to be sexy, it has to be something that will give your body a reaction (I’m talking sexy in the very literal sexual sense, not “a sexy car”). Sexy is always and inherently related to your body, whether you’re turned on by a touch or a word or a thought or an idea.

If disgust is what we have made it out to be, this means that in all sexiness there is an element of disgust. I’m not sure if others have experienced this, but I often find myself shying away from the loss of control that comes with getting turned on, with the way my body pulls me to be present when I feel it reacting. When that first blush of “mmm, sexy” hits, I turn my mind away from it. That moving away or pushing away is the basic disgust reaction. It’s the desire to avoid contamination. Even if you do not have a moment of pulling away, you are still being reminded of your body. There is likely still some element of your brain that wants to remain “pure” and unaffected by the animal body.

Now this may not be true for people who are more at home with their mortality and their animal nature. I’m not sure if these people exist or not, but I will add that if you feel no worry about death or about being out of control or contaminated, then there is probably no element of disgust in sexiness for you. But for those of us who feel disgust, I suspect that there has to be some element of that revulsion with yourself and your body in order for something to be sexy. Likely it’s not a major element or you would shy away too hard, but some purely intellectual part of yourself that wants to be immortal is not down with the down and dirty.

However I would argue that disgust heightens sexiness for many people. Disgust is an extremely powerful reaction. It viscerally reminds you of your body. It can elicit physical reactions, like vomit or the hair standing up on your arms or the back of your neck. When it is paired with a desire to move towards the object of disgust, you can have an extremely powerful feeling. This is something that people interested in kink often play with.

Interestingly, disgust is a learned reaction. Small children are willing to touch or play with primary objects of disgust (feces, vomit, etc). Only after time do they learn to feel the deep revulsion towards these things (theorists suggest that there is still a biological component though, much like with language). In their youth they seem quite interested in and fascinated by them (children playing in mud, anyone? Bugs?). Perhaps this fascination comes back in our sexuality when we can go back to the innocence of being young and unaware of our own mortality. Perhaps the sexiest thing is intentionally embracing and forgetting mortality all at once. It seems that we do have a draw towards things that are “disgusting” and when we recognize this and move back towards a youthful point of view, we might have a stronger pull towards them.

But more often than not we cannot forget all the fears of our lives. They peek in here and there. Many of us try to sterilize sex: we turn off the lights so we can’t see each others’ bodies, we trim and clean ourselves so that we don’t smell or look animal, we try to keep the act controlled or only about intimacy and love. But no matter what, at the end of the day, sex reminds us that we’re animals. This is frightening for many people.

And here is where we find the connection to the taboo and to misogyny. For much of human history, women were deemed disgusting. Disgust is a reaction that asks us to distance ourselves from the object of disgust, to cast it out. However men’s sexuality and women’s sexiness makes this impossible. The proliferation of the species is a constant reminder to men that they will die and that they will not be in control. Sex is one area in which you are always and ever reminded that you are not in control of your body. And so perhaps turning the other into the object of disgust allows men to distance themselves from the disgust or contamination they might feel towards themselves in the sex act. Misogyny may in part stem from the fear that men feel towards their animal nature (I am in no way saying women don’t feel this too. I suspect the brute strength of men allowed them to enforce their disgust a bit better than women though. Also being the penetrative partner tends to make others think of you as disgusting. See: homosexuality).

Perhaps this is where much sexualized violence stems from: it is an attempt for some people to distance themselves from the sexuality that disgusts them. We tend to kill or hurt the things that disgust us. That is the most control we can have over them, and the most distance we can put between them and ourselves. When we combine violence with our sexuality, we may be able to fool ourselves into taking the disgust out of the act by putting all of it onto the other person and only feeling the power and anger of the violence. Foisting the disgust of being human onto someone else protects you, particularly if your disgust is only for women, because it makes you different from the mortal, the animalistic, and the disgusting. But female sexuality and the boners it causes in the menfolks are a constant reminder to men that they cannot control their bodies and that even if they try to foist the disgust of sexuality onto women, some of it remains in them.

In addition, this may be where some of the fear of sexuality and the desire for purity comes from. Sex and death have long been associated in many cultures (The French word for orgasm means “little death”), and it’s fairly clear that the desire for sexual purity seems to come with a fear. But a fear of what? Some people might suggest God’s judgment, but I suspect that the disgust that comes with sex is the larger motivation. Many people think that sex is nothing to be disgusted by, but if we break down what elicits disgust, it may actually be an appropriate reaction. Perhaps this is why purity culture is still so strong. Sex is a reminder that we are not Godly or perfect, in control, immortal, or clean. For those people who dream of being this way (which tends to be the religious), sex is the ultimate reminder that they cannot be purely spiritual beings without bodies that will die. It is the ultimate fear: it reminds us of the oblivion after

However simply because something elicits disgust does not mean we should legislate against it or judge it morally. We cannot avoid reminders of our mortality forever, and simply because something “grosses us out” doesn’t mean it’s actually bad or wrong. Disgust is not an appropriate emotion on which to base moral judgment. Martha Nussbaum argues quite persuasively in her book Hiding From Humanity that disgust does not tell us whether an action has harmed another person, it simply tells us something about our fear of death or about how we perceive something as animalistic. If we take a rational approach to morality, we should look at what harms others, and disgusting things do not harm others (I am excluding things like nuisance laws here in which you inflict something disgusting on another person or primary disgust that is aimed at something which might actually contaminate you or bear disease). Just because something may elicit disgust does not mean it’s bad or wrong. We are all free to do as many potentially disgusting things as we want, and perhaps it’s time to start embracing some of the disgusting things we do: we’re human, we will die, and we need to accept that.

In other realms we’re willing to temporarily suspend disgust. We sometimes play in the mud like little kids and we get great joy out of it. Why is sex any different?

So perhaps sex is disgusting. Perhaps it’s disgusting to be sexy. And maybe, just maybe, that shouldn’t be a negative judgment of sex.

Why Do They Do It?

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Trigger Warning: suicide

Disclaimer: none of these comments are meant to say anything about my current frame of mind or alert anyone that I am feeling suicidal. I’m interested in discussing how we talk about suicide, and how that talk can affect individuals who are feeling suicidal. I hope we can all be adult and sensitive while still being honest about a taboo subject to try to understand how our talk affects each other.

There has been a lot of writing about and coverage of suicide recently, as Stephen Fry recently opened up about a suicide attempt in his past. It’s gotten me thinking. I have never attempted suicide, but I have absolutely been in a state where I have considered it and been tempted by it. There have been some extremely intelligent and important things said about the subject recently, particularly that there is often no necessary rhyme or reason to it, but I want to get to something that I think is the biggest fear of many friends, family members, and loved ones, something that is extremely important to me, and something that comes up a lot when we talk about the ethics of suicide.

 

If someone commits suicide it is not about you. If someone attempts suicide it is not about you. If someone thinks about suicide it is not about you. When I have talked about suicide and the ethics of suicide in the past, the thing that comes up most often is the harm that it does to those around the individual: it leaves them hurt, lonely, and confused. Many people cite their family or friends as the only reason they won’t go through with suicide-they’re too afraid of who would find them, or of what it would do to their mother/lover/child/etc. More often than not, someone with mental illness thinks long and hard about what their actions are doing and will do to the people around them. But despite how much thought goes into the family and friends, the action is still not about them.

 

I can say with a fair amount of certainty that the vast majority of the time, the feelings of unhappiness, depression, and suicidality are not your fault, nor are they about you. Of course there are some exceptions to this, but for the most part, if your loved one is struggling, they are more likely to be worried about letting you down than they are about you ruining their life. So the action is not caused by you, or motivated by your actions. It’s caused by an internal battle and an internal desire.

 

In addition, the action is rarely taken with the intention to leave you alone, abandon you, or hurt you. Rarely does someone who is feeling suicidal take the pain felt by you lightly. Their struggle really has nothing to do with you though. Whatever feelings may be driving them towards suicide are their own: their own mental illness, their own life, their own circumstances that are leaving them helpless, frustrated, or unhappy. They are struggling with demons in their own mind. You may have some influence on their life: you may have helped some, you may have hurt some. You may have done both. But at the end of the day, no one can make another person depressed or safe another person (I’m going to except abusive situations here because that absolutely can make a person depressed). So they were not motivated by you being bad, nor were they motivated by a desire to leave you.

 

This doesn’t necessarily mean that they did it with the intention of ignoring you, or taking your struggle lightly, but that they are so wrapped up in what is troubling them that they can’t necessarily prioritize taking care of your emotions. When I have been in bad places, the unhappiness clouds out everything else. There are people I love and care about, but the hopelessness and pointlessness of my life are all I see and all I feel. To be perfectly honest, those are the times I generally pay little to no attention to anyone else. I isolate. I’m not too interested in what anyone else has to say. And that’s because I’m too busy fighting the battle in my own mind. Other people feel peripheral.

 

When they intrude, it’s mostly to remind me that I don’t want to hurt them. But if I ever were to have gone through with something, the only thing I would have wanted to tell people was that I didn’t want to hurt them, I wasn’t trying to leave them, it wasn’t their fault, and in no way did I mean for it to be about them. If I could have I would have just winked out of existence without ever having been there so that no one would have to experience it. The pain in a suicidal person’s life often outweighs the struggle that they feel to protect those around them. But asking them to think about you and not put you through that can put even more pressure on them, and talking about the survivors afterwards can leave other people in similar situations feeling as if they’re doing something wrong and bad by even contemplating it. Adding guilt to the situation of someone who’s already struggling is unnecessary.

 

Suicide is intensely personal. It’s about an individual’s relationship with themself and the world. It’s about self-identity. It’s about individual experience. But it is NOT about you. When we’re talking about suicide, I would love to see less of how much it hurts others, and more about the experience of the individual who is in so much pain.

Empathy for the Neurotypical

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Note: for the purposes of this post I’m using “neurotypical” in a more inclusive way than usual. Generally it’s used to contrast with Autism Spectrum Disorders. In this case I’m going to use it to refer to anyone without a diagnosis of a mental illness or disorder.

I have to admit something: I am not always a person who has a lot of sympathy for others. School comes easily to me, so when I hear someone say “I had to study for TEN HOURS for that test”, I have a hard time replying “That sounds horrible” instead of rolling my eyes and saying “Why the hell did you waste all that time? I didn’t study at all and I got an A.” I’ve spent a lot of time trying to teach myself the empathy required to understand that I’m highly privileged in that regard. But the area that’s actually the MOST difficult for me to be sympathetic is one in which I am highly underprivileged: depression, sadness, and difficult life situations.

One would think that with all my colorful and varied experiences of depression and mental illness, I would be the perfect person to talk to when you’re having a rough day. I’ve been there. I understand. I get that feeling. When I’m talking to someone else with mental illness, I”m fairly good at this (except when I can recognize stupid behaviors that I’ve done in the past like emotional manipulation or passive aggression or compliment fishing). But this week I had a neurotypical friend who is generally very happy and who has had a fairly easy emotional life get hit with something really hard and I’ve been trying my absolute best to be there for him. And I’ve found that my patience dwindles a lot more quickly than I would have expected.

Because here’s the thing: I have spent the last four years of my life spending the vast majority of my days in the emotional state that this friend is in. For the most part I’ve kept quiet about it to him and the majority of those in my life. I’ve worked and worked and worked to even survive to where I am right now. For the most part, my friends have been kind, but they haven’t particularly wanted to hear about how I hate myself. Getting through a week of depression is every week for me. And so when someone says they don’t know how they’ll survive because they’ve spent four days hurting I just want to scream back “THIS IS MY LIFE EVERY FUCKING DAY. EXCUSE ME IF I DON’T ROLL OVER AND ASK WHAT I CAN DO TO FIX YOUR WEEK.” I realize that it makes no sense to compare suffering. Just because my base level of suffering is higher and I’ve learned to handle it doesn’t mean that what my friend is feeling is any less of a major life crisis for him.

But when you see someone have their privilege taken away and they’re landed in the same boat you’re in all the time, it’s hard to work yourself up over it. So for those of us who do not have privilege and who spend all of our lives battling in a way that’s invisible to the privileged, we might have to practice empathy in a new way. We are totally familiar with these experiences and feelings. But we have to have the empathy of remembering or imagining what it’s like to experience them for the first time, to get hit with that wave of depression and anxiety without knowing what it is or whether it will end and how to get through it. We have to remember that we’ve built up skills and resistances, that we have had an education in emotional regulation simply by existing with our mental illness, and that those around us don’t necessarily have that education.

Very rarely do I suggest that the un-privileged take a lot of time out of their day to practice empathy towards the privileged. But when the privileged get knocked off their pedestal, they’re left in a place that those of us who live down here have never experienced, a place that’s scary and lonely and neither privileged nor un-privileged. It is often an eye-opening experience for those people, and if we can bring ourselves to see that they’re experiencing something we don’t have to experience every day, we can help them take some good lessons from that experience. Hopefully it can help us create a situation in which the neurotypical is left with a greater understanding of what it’s like to have a mental illness, and the neurodiverse person is left feeling like they have been compassionate and kind, and gained a stronger friend or ally from the experience, as well as helped stop a cycle of oppression.

And for the neurotypical among us, let me just say that your behavior towards your neurodiverse peeps when you’re doing ok can have a big impact on how much empathy they’re willing to have when you’re in a rough spot. If you never give them the benefit of empathy or of listening to their experiences or of accepting that their experience of the world is radically different from yours, they’re not likely to try to do the same for you. If you tell them they should just change their attitude, or that nothing’s really wrong and it’ll all be ok, or that you just don’t get why they’re unhappy or how they can be so introverted because it makes no sense, they’re not likely to spend the time understanding the nuance of your problems. Empathy goes both ways.

All of that said, no matter what the situation, taking care of self comes first (ESPECIALLY WHEN YOU HAVE A MENTAL ILLNESS). You don’t have to practice empathy at the expense of your own mental health. If you’re having a low spoons day and your friend is breaking down about not getting a job, you get to beg out of being the shoulder they cry on because you never have to give out of what you don’t have. If the difficulties your friend is experiencing and word-vomiting everywhere are triggering to you? You get to tell them to tone it down or stop.  Relationships are always about finding the balance between your own needs and the needs of the other.