I Know This One: Identity and Object Permanence

Last week I did something exciting. Hold your breath, this one’s gonna blow you away.

My mom told me something about how I was as a child and I disagreed with her.

Yeah, let me give you a minute to pick your jaws up off the floor. Sarcasm aside, this was a big deal for me, although for many people it might just seem like a normal experience. Because I do not trust my memory, my perception, or my interpretations of events. I have struggled with this for a long time. I relied on grades to tell me that I was smart, because I didn’t believe it otherwise. I relied on friends and my parents to inform me that I was kind and interesting and caring.

And if someone said something negative about me, I was suddenly sure that they were right. I’m not sure where this comes from in my brain, but it’s almost as if I don’t have object permanence about myself or traits about myself. Facts slip away quickly, and I find myself uncertain about whether I’m rational and reasonable, thoughtful, needy, demanding, or something else I would never expect. When I get into an argument with someone else, I feel as if I’m losing my mind because suddenly all the things that I had thought so clearly a day or two days ago that were bothering me are gone the moment they say I’m wrong.

I think this is at the root of some of my inability to create a strong and stable identity. I have a hard time feeling secure and certain of myself and my abilities, of my worth in the world, because all those facts are like water in a sieve to me. Of course thanks to depression brain, my negative thoughts stick like burrs, but that means that any identity I have is based entirely on bad thoughts about myself. Then I’m told by family, friends, therapists, everyone to argue with those thoughts. It leaves me in a horrible situation of not knowing who to trust and not being able to trust myself, particularly because I start to question my own memories when someone tells me I should have interpreted things differently.

I don’t talk about this element of my mental health as often as I do some of the others. It’s one that I’ve only started to notice as a pattern recently. I don’t know how it fits in to diagnoses or labels. And more than any of that, it’s the one that puts me in the most vulnerable position, and makes me susceptible to manipulation or abuse, even unintentional. And this is the trait of my brain that leaves me feeling the most “crazy.” It does seem as if I’ve lost my mind, and can’t find any footing in reality. It seems to turn me into a stereotype that can’t fend for myself, and it makes me feel as if I can’t self advocate anymore because who will trust what I say when I can’t even trust my own experiences?

But if I’m committed to transparency about my mental health, and particularly as I start talking about positive milestones in my life, I have to talk about this. Because this moment of knowing with certainty that what someone said about me isn’t true is something I have never felt before. Not only that, but I managed to retain positive or neutral information about myself and then stick up for that piece of information, hold on to it as true even when someone disagreed.

Yes, later I did feel like I had to check in with other people who knew me when I was younger to make sure I hadn’t lost my mind. But it was still a step. It’s one piece that I can rely on and build from. I’m not entirely sure how I helped myself to this point, but I do know that I have been working endlessly on simple reminders. I have started to collect moments and facts. I write down everything that I get done and look back at it periodically. I mark out events in my brain, like the picture I took last year of me stuffing my face with a burrito when I finally felt “recovered” for the first time, or the feeling on Monday when I finally had enough work at work to last me a full day and then some (and it felt amazing), or the generosity I showed when I randomly get people gifts because I can and I want to.

I have made enough lists of my values that now I don’t have to look at them anymore, I just know them. And I know that I act on them whenever possible. I have thought so carefully about what I want my life to look like in order for me to feel comfortable and stable, that I can imagine it in full detail. And I know what I look like, because I simply fill in around the edges of myself until I see my shape.

I certainly don’t understand the world fully, but I think I’m beginning to understand MY world, which means that I know where I fit. As the incredibly cheesy DBT lingo would go, I’m starting to see what a life worth living would look like. That tells me more about myself than it does about anything else. I don’t have to please everyone else. I can do what fits my values instead. I don’t have to trust everyone else more than I trust myself

Which all means holding on to reality a little bit better. Which means I’m starting to remember better. Which I guess means that there’s hope, even when I do feel completely lost. Hope that I will be me someday. I don’t know how to end this because this is certainly not any sort of neat ending or conclusion. It’s the flicker of a beginning, something barely of note except that I didn’t realize what I’d been lacking for so long.

I’ve spent a lot of time in grandiose ideas, morality, black and white ideals, instead of boring practicalities. These things seem appealing to me. Unfortunately what I need to hold on to are the basic, simple facts about who I am and what I do. Here’s to looking for boredom.

 

Tattoos and Reminders

Sometimes I have a hard time knowing who I am. This is pretty classic in Borderline Personality Disorder, and in that case it’s called Identity Disturbance. While I don’t have the same kind of flip flopping of actions, values, or thoughts that some people do, I often have a hard time figuring out what I care about, what I want, who I am, whether I’m good enough or not.

And sometimes it feels like I just forget myself, forget who I am or what I want. I flip flop between caring about my own health and wanting to self destruct. I forget my larger goals, or why I want to be healthy. I’ve gotten a little more stable, but there have been points in my life where I can flip from wanting to restrict for a week to feeling committed to putting food in my body in the course of a few hours.

In the movie Memento, the main character has amnesia and reminds himself of important facts about himself by tattooing them on himself. His name, phone numbers, facts about his life. All are branded on his skin as a way for him to learn about himself again each day, each time he comes back to consciousness with a blank slate.

Sometimes I feel like that’s how I remember who I am. My first tattoo was of music, a dotted sixteenth to remind me that I like to be unnecessarily different and a little offbeat. My second was the eating disorder recovery symbol, to remind me as often as possible that I am committed to recovery and that my health is important. My third was a compass to remind me that I can explore, but always find my way home. Each of these are things that I lose when I get too wrapped up in myself or stress or my to do lists. They’re things that I forget, or that I question, despite knowing that they’re important to me.

For people who easily have a strong sense of self it might seem ridiculous to brand your skin with your values or life choices. I know people who ask “but what if you don’t like it anymore in five years?” Well for your information I probably won’t like it in about five days, but that’s the point. The point is that I want to remember what it felt like when I got it, why I chose it, what was important to me in that moment so that I can come back to my values later in life, or later today, or whenever it is that I feel as if my mind has turned into a foreign influence that is pushing me in ways I don’t understand.

Sometimes I don’t know why I ever thought that being healthy was a good thing. I don’t remember that I did. It feels as if that was always some sort of outside influence that didn’t want what was best for me. Until I look at the tattoo of the recovery symbol on my hip. I chose to spend the time, money, and pain to have that inscribed on me. It was no one else’s decision but my own. I wanted to remind myself every day that recovery is one of my values.

It is proof that I thought differently, that I can think differently again. It’s proof that I have good days. It’s proof that I do value things that are not perfection or thinness or rules. The more reminders I have, the more stable I feel. It’s as if I’m building a new body for myself that tells me who I am.

The permanency is the point. It’s the only thing about me that seems to be permanent.

Assorted Thoughts on Demisexuality

On my Facebook feed in recent days there have been a number of conversations around demisexuality and whether or not it’s a real orientation/why we have the label. I’ve been extremely surprised to see some of the reactions and how negative many people were towards the orientation. I think some of the vitriol is representative of many of the miscommunications that happen about labels and orientations, so here are a few thoughts that (hopefully) will clarify things.

1. What is demisexuality?

Demisexuality is very simply not feeling sexually attracted to someone until you have a close emotional relationship. It’s not the same as choosing not to have sex with people unless you’re in a relationship, or being a prude, or not being able to get laid, or wanting to emotionally like the people you have sex with. It’s on the asexuality spectrum and is simply that you have no pants feels for someone until you have emotion feels for them.

Many people disagreed on this definition, despite those who identify as demisexual specifying what it meant. Lesson: when someone else tells you the definition of their sexuality, don’t correct them.

2. Demisexuality cheapens the label of queer for those of us who have real oppression.

The oppression Olympics are not helpful, but in addition to the fact that no one has to be oppressed in order to be queer (see: well off, white, gay men), not every orientation that exists wants to be included under the queer umbrella. Some people are not trying to be political about their orientation or sexuality, they simply want a word that describes how they feel and conduct themselves in their relationships, and find this one helpful. If you think someone wants in to the queer community, maybe wait until they ask and then have a discussion about whether they’re being helpful or not.

But it doesn’t seem super useful to me to say that if you’re not being beaten to death you have no place in the queer community. This is how asexuality gets knocked out of the queer tent, despite the fact that corrective rape is a thing for asexuals, and the fact that people on the spectrum get pressured into sex and sexuality at huge rates. Even the fact that many people ridicule you for using a word that you feel accurately describes yourself is pretty harmful and invalidating. There’s no reason to ignore those things just because someone else has it worse. No one has to prove that they count or that their pain is worth attention.

3. Demisexuality isn’t about who you’re attracted to, so it’s not an orientation.

Here is one of the complaints that seems to have some merit, but the problem isn’t with demisexuality it’s actually with the dearth of words for the variety of ways in which sexuality can vary. Many people think of sexual orientation as the people you’re attracted to. That means bisexuality, heterosexuality, homosexuality, pansexuality…all of those types of orientations make sense in this definition. But there are other axes about how people conduct their relationships, like what types of attraction you feel (the asexual–allosexual spectrum), number of partners (monogamy vs. polyamory or other variants), and what needs and connections really drive your sexuality and relationships.

I think this is where some of the issues with the term sapiosexual crop up. Many people believe that it’s just a word for liking your partner to be smart, which isn’t really an orientation or identity at all. But I suspect that it’s more about what mode you connect with your partner most deeply on: some people connect emotionally, others physically, and some people intellectually. It makes a lot of sense to me to have labels for those dominant forms of connection, just like it does to have labels about attraction and number of partners. However these might not be orientations. They might be something else, other axes that also affect who you’ll end up with and how you live your life. It could be really helpful to have other words or phrases to refer to these differences in people, especially words that don’t immediately call up questions of oppression and privilege. Some of these differences may just be normal human variation, but that doesn’t mean we can’t talk about them.

4. You’re all just prudes who are judging people who have casual sex.

Let’s all say this together: another person’s sexuality is not a commentary on your sexuality.

The fact that I am monogamous means nothing about my attitude towards people who are polyamorous. The fact that I am straight means nothing about whether or not I accept people who are gay. And the fact that I’m gray ace/demi means nothing about whether I am sex positive or not.

A lot of people have a hard time with this, but it is actually possible to accept that other people are different without including any judgment. Different things work for different people, and the irony of saying “I don’t accept your sexual orientation because your orientation is too judgmental of my orientation” is really just overwhelmingly painful.

I get to say I like chocolate without you jumping in to say “BUT WHY DO YOU HATE VANILLA??” Identifying my own preferences does not negate someone else’s preferences.

Related is the idea that people who are demi or ace simply can’t get laid, and so they’re bitter. This is really weird to me, since most people on these spectrums are really overjoyed when they realize they don’t have to have sex or feel pressured to have sex. Just because you can’t imagine not wanting sex doesn’t mean other people are lying when they say they’re not interested.

5. Demisexuality is just being normal. It doesn’t need a word.

Hmmm. Have you ever heard of being…STRAIGHT? Guess we don’t need words for the default because it’s just assumed. No need to make it clear that it’s not just “normal,” it’s actually an identity of its own. Nope, nope, nope.

So demisexuality probably is within the scope of “average,” but there are also tons of people who like casual sex, who get crushes on people based exclusively on appearance, who have celebrity crushes, or who see someone hot and think “yeah, I want to jump those bones.”

There are lots of the smaller identities that get scoffed off as basically normal, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be identified.

Demisexuality isn’t an attack, threat, or encroachment on anyone. It’s just some people who want a word to talk about the way they feel in relationships and sex.

Transhumanism, Gender, and Definitions

In the process of talking about things like transhumanism, I’ve started to hit a wall in my questions when it comes to identities, most particularly gender identities. It makes perfect sense why people should get to define their identities for themselves. It makes complete sense that there are more identities than male and female, that we need new words and new perspectives about how people can act and dress and talk. This is all new and exciting and I love the conversations about how we can make gender identities reflect the ways that people actually feel and identify.

But there’s been something hanging around at the back of my head that just came to light while reading this article about cyborg as gender (content note: the author has a really rudimentary understanding of trans issues that really detracts from the rest of what he’s saying). And then I realized: I no longer know what the heck gender is.

So the traditional definition of gender is the outward, cultural expression of your biological sex. Gender activists have pretty much blown that to smithereens, and the existence of intersex, trans, genderqueer, agender, bigender, and all sorts of other gendered people really complicates the idea that there is a one to one connection between sex and gender such that gender is an expression of sex. Really the fact that there are people who express the same sex differently (even people in the same culture or family) calls into question the idea that gender is the culture version of sex. The idea that gender is just an outward expression of the body parts you have is pretty outdated.

So what about other definitions? Some newer definitions include the idea that gender is how you feel or identify personally. If you feel like a woman you are a woman. That makes sense, but what does it mean to feel like a woman? Does it mean you’re more comfortable in the body typically assigned to women? No, because there are absolutely trans* or genderqueer people who prefer feminine pronouns and identify as femme but who don’t physically transition to a body assigned female. Does it mean to act stereotypically “feminine” or want people to treat you like a woman? No, there are butch trans women, and cis women who behave outside the norm, and tons of women of all stripes who are active feminists who want to change the way they’re treated.

Is it just about what feels comfortable? Does it feel comfortable to use certain pronouns or a certain name? That seems so far removed from the original definitions of gender that I’m not sure it makes sense to call them the same thing anymore. Perhaps it has to do with comfort in certain clothes or behaviors, but again, the labels that we give to gender seem to have little to no correlation to the outward expressions of gender. There are men who cross dress and women who buzz their hair, but we still recognize that if they identify as a certain thing they get to be that thing.

So when I say “I identify as a woman”, I’m not even sure what I’m saying anymore. When someone says that their gender is cyborg (which seems to make about as much sense as a lot of other gender identities: it’s a particular way of relating to your body and presenting your body to the world), what are they saying? I saw someone once write that they felt autism took the slot in their brain that people typically reserve for gender. They believed their gender was autistic. I’m starting to wonder if “gender” might not simply be a word for “first or basic identity”. Perhaps it’s the thing that we most strongly see ourselves as, and as we begin to create new gender categories, the old ones are becoming less and less helpful since they don’t actually point to a coherent category anymore (as anyone can fit into the categories of male and female. This isn’t a bad thing, it just means we need better categories that actually describe the ways people act and dress and speak without all the stupid baggage of the gender binary).

If that’s not the case, then it might be more helpful to break down the concept of gender into slightly smaller categories. There are already words for how you present (femme, butch, etc) that could be fleshed out to simply describe someone’s aesthetic. We might also need better words for the variety of things that “sex” encompasses (chromosomes, primary sex characteristics, secondary sex characteristics) to allow people to identify if they so choose based on their bodies. Maybe we also need more words for passive/assertive distinctions, or other personality differences separate from gender. But none of these seem to get at the question of core identity that many people view gender as. The problem seems to be that there are so many components to what a gender identity can look like that we’d need more words than anyone could possibly keep track of to label all the combinations that could exist.

None of this is to criticize anyone’s current gender identity. None of this is to invalidate the way people feel in relation to their bodies. It’s simply to question whether the words that we’ve inherited are the most useful in labeling the ways that we feel, or if we need to explore what we mean when we say them. It’s entirely possible that someone has already clarified a newer definition of gender that I was simply unable to find (if so, please link me), but I don’t think relying on words that imply a connection between sex and gender or between gender and the body is very useful when the ways that we understand gender today don’t rely on those connections.

I would love it if we could start to expand core identities beyond gender (which is the first category most people try to ascribe to people), so that people would allowed to identify as autistic or black or disabled first if they felt it was the most pertinent element of their identity. In order to do that, I think we need to start questioning what we mean when we say gender.

 

Identity and Anxiety: Struggles of Object Permanence

I had a realization this weekend. While I was prepping for a pub crawl with my boyfriend, I noticed that he kept wandering off to go grab things or do something else, and inevitably I would wander after him like a lost puppy. At some point he mentioned that I didn’t have to come with him everywhere, and jokingly I yelled “I don’t have any object permanence without you!”

Of course as is true with many of my jokes, there is a fair amount of truth hanging out in the middle of that statement. While it’s not true that I become worried about my own existence when I’m in a room alone, I do hang my sense of identity on other people’s validation and understanding of me far more often than is healthy. When I haven’t talked to anyone in too long, I start to wonder who I am and what I’m doing. Do I actually want to write all these things? Am I actually an empathetic person? Am I really intelligent or do I just fool people into thinking that?

My brain functions in comparisons. What does it mean to be smart? It means being able to understand more than other people, reach conclusions faster and better, speak more clearly or convincingly, or know more about more things than others. What if there are no others around? Then I would have no idea if I was smart or not. I assume that my experience of the world is the same as anyone else’s and the only times I know that there’s something good about me is when someone tells me that I’m different than others in some fashion: kinder, more compassionate, smarter. And so I crave those validations more than anything else. Without them I have no idea who or what I am.

One of the symptoms of Borderline Personality Disorder is a lack of self identity, an inability to solidly ground your sense of self without help from others. It can be one of the most difficult elements of the disorder to combat because it requires a fundamental reframing of who you are and how you exist in relation to others. When your identity is a comparison or a response to others, who you are is wholly dependent on them. In some ways, you cease to exist autonomously, because when the people around you stop talking to you or paying attention to you, you stop knowing who you are or what you should do.

In some ways, for me, this difficulty stems from a deep desire for objectivity. I am a perfectionist and I want deeply to be right about everything. That means that if I call myself intelligent, I want some sort of absolutely certain standard to which I can point. Comparisons are the only standard I’ve got. It’s my uneasy truce with the fact that in the grand scheme of the universe, “I am intelligent” is a meaningless statement. It may not be true that others with BPD crave this certainty the way I do, or that they use external validation because they’ve come to the conclusion that all meaning and knowledge is relative and self-made. But there are lots of parallels between my huge, existential temper tantrums and the concrete confusions of those who are struggling to define themselves independently.

So here are some of the conclusions I’ve come to about how to build a sense of self when all you want is for someone else to tell you who and what you are.

1. Stop asking. Seriously. It’s enabling. If you’re starting to feel uncomfortable about something (am I mean? am I stupid? am I annoying?) first try checking in with yourself and looking at some facts instead of getting someone else to give you the answer. Other people aren’t always around and other people can leave and sometimes you have to be ok on your own. So before you ask for reassurance, reassure yourself. Learn how to use facts and experiences to build up a sense of self. Am I annoying? Well, I have a lot of people who seek out my company, so probably not.*

2. Think about your values. Consciously. Constantly. Remind yourself what actually FEELS important to you. A great litmus test on this is to check in with yourself when you start feeling guilty or ashamed about something. Why are you feeling this way? Is it because someone else has told you that your behavior is horribly wrong, or do you think you’ve actually done a bad thing? If option 2, this is pointing towards one of your values that you have violated.

3. Practice uncertainty. Seek out circumstances in which you won’t have a concrete answer or label for something and just be with it. Get used to feeling like you don’t have a clear answer. It may never feel awesome, but you can start to desensitize yourself to it and get through the rough patches by knowing that there will be times that you feel confident and clear about who you are (protip: these are often times when you have just accomplished something, made a big decision, or spent time with people you’re comfortable around).

4. Labels can be really helpful. Sometimes it’s too hard to come up with a complicated self definition when you’re in a moment of uncertainty or fear or need. Having a list of go to’s can be helpful. “I’m a writer” is one that I rely on often, not only because it is so deeply true that I cannot imagine ever being anything else, but also because it gives me a path forward to start to figure out other elements of myself: writing them down. The label gives you something to rely on when you’re struggling. They don’t have to define you forever, but they can be a helpful stepping stone towards identity if you just want something simple.

5. Talk or write about it. It’s easy to get lost in your own head, but if you have to put words to who you think you are, it can clarify what’s actually important to you and how you think of yourself. You can also start to compare versions of yourself if you have a record (whether in writing or through a friend’s memory), and figure out either how those versions fit together or whether there’s one that doesn’t fit as well as the other. It can help you prioritize the elements of yourself and keep them in balance. That might sound super woo woo but all I really mean is “how much time and energy do I want to put into this interest/value, and how much weight do I want to give those concerns?”

6. Start building identities instead of identity. When there’s only one way you define yourself, it’s easy for it to be fragile. That identity has to hold all of you, be flexible enough to explain you in different contexts, and be 100% right all the time. Multiple identities lets you account for the fact that we’re different in different circumstances and no one identity is objectively you all the time. It gives you more flexibility and space to be and do different things.

These won’t solve any serious identity crises (for which I would suggest some therapy), but they are good ways to keep up a practice of strong self-identity if you struggle with your sense of self.

*of course sometimes it’s to the benefit of a relationship to check in and make sure the other person isn’t actually trying to send you signals that mean you’re horrible and they hate you, just for clarity’s sake

Can You Tell Me What I Am?

One of the most common questions that I get when I blog or talk about sexuality is “I think I might be demisexual/asexual/whatever, how do I know?” I’m certainly not the absolute expert on how to figure out your sexuality, and I’m still in the process of coming to an understanding with my own (we have an uneasy truce at the moment). But I have spent a great deal of time and energy trying to understand my sexuality, and so I thought I’d share some of the things that I’ve found helpful to keep in mind or to try when trying to figure out what the heck your sexuality is.

There are a few guiding principles that most people who talk about sexuality all suggest as good places to start when you’re thinking about sexuality. The first and probably most frustrating of these is that no one else can tell you what your sexuality is. At the end of the day, you are the one who knows yourself best and who will understand what identity feels right to you. This means a lot more work for you, but it also means that no one else gets to police your identity or demand certain performances from you in order to “count” as your chosen identity. It’s better that way, I promise.

Relatedly, there is no “right” answer about what your sexuality is. Sexuality is a fluid thing. What feels right for a while might change with new experiences, and your understanding of yourself absolutely changes. You can change how you identify. But there’s also no identity that will be exactly you in every nuance and stereotype. You don’t have to check off every body of “homosexual experiences” or “asexual identifiers” in order to identify as those things. People are complicated, and if you think that your overall experience falls into a particular identity, then that’s probably you. It doesn’t have to be perfect, it just has to work for you.

On that note, keep in mind that identity terms exist to help you. You don’t owe anyone anything when it comes to figuring out your identity. They’re there to help you understand yourself and communicate yourself to other people quickly. You don’t have to follow some sort of dictates in order to carry out your identity, you don’t have to stick with one once you start identifying, you don’t even have to identify as anything if you don’t find it helpful. Identity terms are useful to give us different potential templates of sexuality. “Oh hey, there are people out there who experience sexuality in x way and I also have y element of that, that’s nice to know. I wonder if they have any experiences or suggestions for how to successfully navigate dating?” Keeping this in mind can take some of the pressure off. This is something you’re trying to understand so you feel more comfortable and happy and maybe have more tools and support to figure out how you want to relate to other people. If it’s not helping, you don’t have to do it.

So with these guiding principles in mind, here are a few things to try. First, research! What are some of the labels that are out there? Here’s a good list to get you started with some basic definitions. It’s one of the most complete I could find, but if something sounds like it might be you spend some more time Googling see if it leads to anything else. One of my favorite resources for asexuality is AVEN. If anyone in comments has suggestions for resources about other sexualities (I’m not horribly well versed in most queer resources), please leave them in comments!

It can also be helpful to talk to close friends. They can’t tell you what you are, but bouncing ideas off of someone and hearing their perspective on what they’ve seen you do in the past can help clarify things that might have seemed muddy before. If you’re going to ask someone who’s more of an “expert”, it can be useful to have specific questions, e.g. I thought I didn’t want sex because of my upbringing, but now I’m not sure. Is it possible to be asexual if you have a history of conservative sexual messages? Someone who doesn’t know you can’t speak to your personal situation, so asking about facts that require their expertise is probably a better way to utilize their help.

It can also be useful to “try on” different labels. This can mean different things to different people. I’ve been “trying on” asexuality for a while now. I started by thinking of myself that way privately, then mentioning it to a few close people, then openly using it as a template for my relationships. Over time, I’m not sure how well it’s fitting with my experiences, so I might end up trying something else on instead. That’s ok. Sometimes you realize something doesn’t fit you when you first start trying to think of yourself with that term, and that’s ok too. Take whatever time you do (or don’t) need. There is no penalty for “I don’t have it figured out yet”.

One thing that I’ve found incredibly helpful is reading narratives/blogs/stories from people with a variety of different identities. It gave me a better feel for what the subjective experience of different sexualities was like, rather than a colder “definition”. It can be easier to empathize or imagine yourself in a narrative than in a definition.

If anyone else has suggestions or tips that they found helpful while trying to understand their sexuality, please leave in comments.

The Body As Evidence

I’ve written before about the frustrations of having a mental illness that leaves visual signs on my body, and that it can often feel as if my body is betraying me with its scars or its size. I’ve recently noticed what appears to be a corollary to this and it’s something that gets under my skin (pun intended). For those of us who have mental disorders that result in a physical change, our bodies are used far more often than our own words or mental state to gauge whether we’re ok or not.

This is something that has been criticized for some time now. We’ve heard that “you can’t see whether someone has an eating disorder by their size”. Many people are still convinced that size and weight loss are the indicators of eating disorders. Others are certain that depressed people probably look like vagabonds and don’t wash or take care of themselves. I would hope that we all have enough evidence by now that people of every shape and size can have a mental illness and most of the time it’s utterly invisible.

But there’s another layer of looking at bodies as evidence for mental illness, and this one is more subtle and more insidious. This is the one that comes when someone knows that you have a mental illness and really wants to know how you’re doing. So they pick apart your physical appearance for signs: are there dark circles under your eyes? Have you lost weight? Gained weight? Is there a scar or a cut that indicates symptom usage?

Now of course if you’re nervous or worried for someone it makes sense to try to find evidence of how they’re doing. Where this turns into a problem is when bodies are used as evidence against the person whose body it is. Often, when someone with a mental illness says that they’re doing ok, their body is scrutinized to see if they’re right or not. The individual can’t be trusted to know their own mental state or to truthfully express it to others.

In many ways, I think this plays into the idea that people with mental illness are manipulative or disconnected from reality. For most people, if they said that they were feeling ok, or doing better, or their mood was up, they would be trusted unless there was some glaring evidence to the contrary (muttering, monosyllables, glowering face). Particularly with physical illness, if someone has an injury but says that they feel fine, most people take them at their word. We’ve all experienced having a particularly nasty looking scratch that doesn’t actually hurt and reassuring others that we’re fine. For the most part, they trust us to know whether we’re in pain or not. Even with illness, if someone has some symptoms but reassure us that they’re feeling much better, we smile and tell them we’re happy for that.

Obviously all of us use our common sense to determine whether we think someone is lying to us about their internal conditions, but for some reason those with mental illness are held to a far higher bar than others. Any evidence of symptoms is often construed as evidence that our  mood cannot and is not ok, or that things are going downwards. Particularly for things like purging or self-harm, there is a guttural response of disgust and fear to the symptoms that means outsiders are often convinced that it’s impossible for an individual to be doing ok and still engaging in those behaviors (never ever nuh uh). That means any evidence of symptom use is held up as evidence that things are not ok and if the individual says they are it is a lie.

Maree Burns in Eating Like An Ox says “In cultures where identities are read off the surface of the body, one’s physical state is understood to represent both moral and mental health”. There are intersections here with numerous other oppressions: fatphobia, racism, sexism, slut-shaming, ableism (as well as many others I’m sure I’m forgetting at this moment). The problem with assuming that a body is an identity is that no one can ever convince you you are wrong because they must be lying. There is an odd tension in American culture in which we partially dismiss the importance of bodies (we assert that focusing on looks is shallow, we eat horribly and don’t take care of ourselves, we shame people for having sex, and we typically subscribe to a Cartesian dualism that suggests our mind is our self while our body is just a nice carrying case), but at the same time we are convinced that we can read identity and selfhood off of bodies. Fat people can’t control themselves, people with disabilities are lazy, people of color are Other (scary or dangerous).

We don’t see bodies as selves, but we see them as books on which selves are written, clearly and unequivocally. The tension between the fact that we don’t see our bodies as our selves and the fact that we think our selves are clearly reflected in our bodies can make self-identity a serious challenge, but it also serves to undermine the self that an individual might seek to portray or express to others through means that are not the body. And this of course always impacts those who are already oppressed because we are more easily assumed liars.

My body cannot tell you things about my self, my well-being, or my identity. I may have scars, but I am ok. Someday I will openly wear my scars and smile and laugh and be a walking advertisement for the fact that mental health is not visible. Until then, I will just repeat over and over: I’m ok.