My Work Is My Mental Health

A couple of weeks ago I started to realize that thanks to a large pile of external stressors, my mental health has been suffering this winter. Pretty normal. Even someone who didn’t have some vulnerabilities would probably be struggling right now. But as someone who does have vulnerabilities it became quite clear to me that for the next month or until things start to feel better, my job needs to be caring for my mental health.

I’ve heard people use that phrase before, but I don’t know that it’s always clear what it means. Particularly when you have an actual, literal job, and responsibilities, what does it mean to make your mental health a priority? Why do people choose the “job” or “work” metaphor when they’re talking about mental health? For people who haven’t been through the process of managing depression or anxiety before, the whole idea can be overwhelming, so I wanted to break down my process a little bit to show others how it can be manageable.

One of the main reasons I like the job metaphor is because it gives me a clear picture of how I can successfully approach being more mentally healthy. It’s easy to just say “I want to take care of myself” or “I want to deal with my depression”, but when you approach it like a job you recognize that you have to set concrete goals, that you have to work with other people to achieve those goals, that you break your goals down into steps, and that you might have to try a variety of different techniques to achieve the results you want.

For me, it helps to have something like a “workplan” so that I can know what concrete actions I’m taking and what I hope to get from those actions. For example I’m currently trying to decrease my stress and anxiety. To break that down, I have brainstormed with my therapist things that have helped in the past (being more social, working less, doing mindfulness exercises, being more physically active) and set goals for each of them (see friends 3x a week, do 10 minutes of mindfulness a day, go climbing 3x a week etc.). In a few weeks I can see how I’m doing at those tasks and if each task is helping.

I also find that when I think of it as a job, it becomes a priority. I write it on my to do list each day (and then I have to do it), which helps me to reprioritize, as well as remember to check in regularly and see what’s working and what isn’t. For me personally, including things on my written to do lists keeps it at the forefront of my mind because I am seeing it regularly. That to me is what it means when my mental health is my job: no matter what else I’m doing, my well being is always in my brain. I’m at work? Cool, I’m also doing deep breathing regularly. Out with friends? Great! Make sure you’re also eating enough and venting when you need to. No matter what else is happening, self care is taking priority. If something isn’t serving your long term well being, stop doing it.

Of course there are times where it becomes difficult to know if it’s helping or not. For example I am stressed due to a bunch of big expenses coming up. I’m worried about money. In order to deal with that stress I have been taking on more freelance work to build up a better savings account. Of course taking on more freelance work means that I have less down time and less time with friends, more work to do, and less flexibility in my life and schedule, leaving me with higher levels of stress. Which is more important right now…the money stress or the immediate scheduling stress? For me it’s easier to think of it as a business trade off: which will earn company Olivia more Joy in the long run? Can we outsource any of this work? In this case, it helped me realize I needed to talk to my fiance and family and see if there were alternatives to Olivia just dealing with it, which it turns out there are.

The metaphor might not work for everyone, and this might not be what everyone thinks of when they say “my mental health is my job right now.” But I find that it’s an appropriate metaphor because it restructures the way I approach things, and it makes me more serious about the real amounts of work it takes to take care of myself.

Do you have a different metaphor that works when you need to prioritize mental health? What helps you kick self care into high gear?

 

Getting to the Heart of Things: Am I Just Making It Up?

My therapist and I have recently been embarking on a long and poopy journey deep into the recesses of my brain to try to tease out some of the reasons my particular set of neuroses decided to express themselves through my body. Unsurprisingly, I find this a frustrating and unpleasant experience, as thinking at great length about the relationship between my emotions and my body makes me want to stick my tongue out and go “phooey. I just don’t like my body and that’s it.” But I am curious about what made it all circulate around my body. How did I go from needing control and perfection to needing control over food in particular and perfection in the form of an abnormally skinny body?

So we’ve been talking about blurry, early childhood memories, or tenuous connections between what I know I feel and how those feelings express themselves in behaviors, or my early family relationships and lessons. A lot of it feels like looking through darkly tinted glasses: I can make out shapes, but I’m not entirely certain what I’m looking at. I’ll be sure there’s a connection between my feelings of uncertainty early in childhood and my eventual eating disorder, but teasing out that relationship and the catalysts later in life seems impossible. Any given issue, like my need for control, has about 15 different large elements that could have been an important “cause”. We’ll spend an hour delving into a particular relationship or incident, and by the end of the time there will be something like a narrative that offers an explanation.

It’s helpful in that knowing where something comes from helps me tailor my self care and my coping mechanisms. I’m a control freak because I grew up around some volatile people? I’ve surrounded myself with very stable folks who will listen when I tell them I’m scared they’ll get angry with me if I do x action. I seek reassurance that their feelings are stable. Understanding what needs are going unfulfilled helps me to meet those needs.

But on the other hand, I feel like I’m making things up. With so many possible explanations, all of which can be turned into neat narratives, how do I know which one is right? Even more worrisome is the fact that memory is so very fallible. There are many examples of people suddenly remembering things that never happened during therapy sessions, and even if it’s nothing quite that sinister, it’s easy to reinterpret or misremember the past (especially early life) to match your current interpretations. Is it really helpful to try to delve back so far? How much accuracy can I have when I’m partially relying on secondhand information from my parents about my early life, supplemented with fuzzy, emotional memories.

Here’s something that a very literal, black and white, absolute thinker like myself has trouble with: there is no correct answer to the how of my personality. A life cannot be reduced to a couple of simple equations that can be solved if you plug in the correct self care. There is no correct narrative about my life. I do not make sense and I never will. These are not judgmental statements. Ambiguity and randomness are facts of life. We just don’t like to admit that they apply to ourselves, especially when they end up creating pain in our lives.

So is there really any point in trying to make sense of all the billions of small factors that combined to give the world my current self?

I think there is. Each narrative contains some elements of the truth. This week I may focus on some of the difficulties my parents had when I was a child and the ways that it impacted my sense of stability. Next week I may focus on my natural tendency towards order and how it expressed itself as far back as I can remember. The week after I might think about the difficult relationship I had with my brother as a kid. Each of these things contributed something to the way I am right now. When I find answers, I like to hold on tight to them. This is how it is. I don’t get to do that with these kinds of answers. Each one is just a partial, flawed answer. I have to be gentle with them, or they will fall apart. Each time I try to grab onto one too hard and say “this is who I am, this is why I am,” it stops making sense.

The multitude of narratives also helps protect against all the bits that I don’t remember quite correctly. I have to fit competing narratives together, which means parts that don’t make sense get challenged. Any time I become completely convinced that one thing explains all of me, I have to remember how easy it is to tweak my memories to fit.

Of course trusting myself to figure it out in a reasonable manner is even harder as someone with anxiety and depression: I don’t trust my abilities and my brain. This is a hard task to begin with, but for those of us in therapy who really need to undertake it, it’s even harder. It’s easy to imagine that we’re lying to ourselves to make life easier or explain our behaviors away. I once again appreciate the importance of having a therapist I trust. I once again appreciate that this long term work of building a life that balances out my difficulties is impossible when I’m in crisis. I once again appreciate that nuance is necessary even if I hate it.

Posts like this leave me unsettled because there’s no conclusion. I do think that speaking openly about what therapy is like and how it can be difficult is important. I also want to recognize that therapy changes over time. I have been in therapy for almost 5 years straight now, and while ideally therapy is not unending, I have been working on distinct and distinctly important things throughout that time. This feels like it’s close to the end, and that’s exciting, even as I realize that there’s a strong possibility I’ll never be done with the work of accepting that I will never make sense of myself. So no, I’m not just making up stories to make myself feel better. There is some element of self creation in the narratives I choose to talk about, but the overlapping narratives give me some insight into the truth, as far as it exists. That may be the best I can do.

Feminism Does Not Mean Strength, Success, or Power

Last night I decided to watch The Mask We Live In as it had just arrived on Netflix, and after finishing it I couldn’t help but go back and rewatch Miss Representation. It’s still a pretty good movie, that introduces a lot of basic concepts about feminism and media in a really accessible way. But I found that as I was watching it I started to get really anxious.

It was a kind of anxiety that I hadn’t felt so acutely in quite some time. “You’re missing your window of opportunity,” is what it said. “What will you become?” it asked. “Why doesn’t anyone look up to you?” it taunted. It was very talkative anxiety. I remembered the feeling that I used to have as a kid that my life could be the kind of thing that someone would talk about with a tone of awe. In Miss Representation, Condoleeza Rice talks about her friend Sally Ride and says that if Sally had waited to see a female astronaut before she decided to become one, Ride never would have gone to space. I wanted to be that story for someone. THAT was what a feminist looked like in my young eyes.

In a lot of the talk about feminism, I heard often about accomplishments. I heard about the wage gap. I heard about women not being in positions of power. I heard about the ways that women are held back by bias or harassment or lack of representation. I heard that women needed to be more active and powerful in politics and large corporations, that we needed more women like Marie Curie or Sheryl Sandberg or Ruth Bader Ginsberg. Women who fought for their right to a space at the table in the field that they loved. I heard about the importance of highly visible role models, and the way that feminism will never advance if we don’t have women in positions of power. I rarely heard about average people, my mom or her friends. I more often heard stories of individual, exceptional women.

And so I learned that feminism meant being successful. Successful enough that your name is still known today. Successful enough that you have power over other people, often power in a traditionally capitalistic sense of the word if not in the governmental sense. Successful enough that other people could see you and want to be you. So successful that you are in fact exceptional.

This belief has been incredibly damaging in my life, and so I want to identify it, identify what’s wrong with it and try to understand how we can do better.

Definitionally, not everyone can be exceptional. I firmly believe that everyone can be a feminist. The actions, thoughts, and attitudes of feminism are difficult, but they are things that everyone can strive for. But more than that, it takes away the societal responsibility for improving circumstances and says that some super women have to fix things.

More than that, it creates a nice, impossible standard for young women. It might be a very different kind of impossible standard than traditional beauty standards or expectations of submissiveness and passivity, but it is just as difficult to attain. I have found throughout my life that I hold myself to expectations of perfection in a conviction that that is the only way to make a difference and give my life meaning and purpose. Now partially that’s my own issue, but I see some direct parallels with a feminism that doesn’t allow for nuance. If the way to be a feminist is to somehow, through sheer will or awesomeness, break through barriers that no one else has ever been able to break, you’re going to have some high expectations for yourself. It’s easy to assume that individual effort and ability are what counts when it comes to being successful, but let’s not forget that there are so many other factors at play (family support, random chance or luck, connections, timing, all the wide variety of axes of privilege and oppression, etc.).

When we hold up individual women as responsible for the great strides of the past, we imply that individual women should become great enough, all on their own, to make great strides into the future. Of course the truth is that making the world a more just and equitable place takes all kinds, and changing the world requires lots of people working together and supporting each other. It takes luck and privilege and a lot of circumstances aligning in the right ways, just as much as it does the hard work and talent of the people involved. It’s damaging to any individual who wants to make a difference if they assume they have to do it on their own, or that they should ignore their own needs, circumstances, and preferences in order to live up to some idealized vision of the Feminist Woman.

I want to think about other kinds of feminist inspiration we can have for each other. Inspiration that doesn’t create a damaging picture of how much any individual should be capable of by themselves. Let’s try this on for size:

I have a friend who has serious social anxiety and agoraphobia. The other day she contacted me out of the blue and asked if I wanted to go to coffee over Facebook. This is bravery. This is creating connections that sustain us. This is using the technology available to make the world work for us.

Every time I have an open, honest conversation with my partner about consent, preferences, and sexuality, I am prioritizing my own needs and sexual health. That is feminism. I’m an inspiring bitch.

When I see a female friend get honestly angry with someone else and express their boundaries in a clear fashion, I am seeing feminism at work.

When my friends demand their proper pronouns, or someone politely asks about pronouns, I am witnessing change.

These are not grand narratives. They are everyday moments that are often uncomfortable and don’t have huge payouts. But every time you question your sexist relative, speak honestly of your own experience, engage in self care, or ask for what you want, you are being inspiring to me. Sure, we also need the big changemakers, the people who bulldoze barriers in a powerful way. But we need all the rest of us doing a thousand small things every day to make those changes stick. That’s just as inspiring to me.

Taking Anti Depressants Is Actually Really Hard

Last night I got drunk. Really, surprisingly drunk.

That in and of itself isn’t news, nor is it something much of anyone needs to know. It’s the why of it that’s important. You see I am not a heavy drinker and I don’t usually get drunk, definitely not on Wednesday nights. I just went out and had a couple ciders with a work contact. Normal.

Except that less than a week ago I doubled my dosage of my anti depressants. And so halfway through my second cider everything went swimmy and it was hard to focus on words and faces, and it was taking all my concentration just to nod at the right times in the conversation.It was completely unexpected, and entirely disorienting.

But more than that it meant I had to call my boyfriend for a ride home because I couldn’t drive, and cancel plans to see a family friend one last time before she flew home to Germany, and couldn’t do the last hour of work that I had intended to do that night. It interfered with my life to become suddenly, unexpectedly drunk.

Ok, so I’ll take full responsibility for the fact that I drank. I made that choice and I didn’t have to. But what’s difficult about meds that many people don’t always get unless they experience it is that your body will react to all kinds of things in unexpected ways. You can’t always predict how your body will react. There are side effects galore, and even if you find a med that works for you and whose side effects you can handle, it’s incredibly likely that after some amount of time you’ll need to adjust dose or type because brains adapt and change.

So that means that I will periodically not know what I can reasonably expect from my body most likely for the rest of my life. Sure, I can take precautions. But even as my medications make it possible for me to live my life with minimal intrusion from my mental illnesses, they leave me with different kinds of uncertainties. Will my sex drive dry up if I change meds? Will I start gaining weight? What happens if this one gives me side effects like Effexor, and leaves me shaky and weak for days if I miss a single pill?

One of the things that grates on my nerves in discussions of whether medications are the devil beast that’s ruining everyone or the godsend that’s curing all of mental illness is a serious lack of focus on the actual experiences of people who actually take psychiatric medications. Like most of life, it’s a mixed bag. It’s often confusing. And it often seems as if every time you find something that helps there’s some other effect hiding behind it. For me, meds have stabilized me enough that therapy works. But the downside is that they leave me even more out of touch with my body, and even less capable of predicting how basic things like sleep, food, and alcohol will affect me.

I would really love more discussions of what the actual experience of taking anti depressants is like. So here’s what it’s like for me: it’s incredibly helpful because it gives me some breathing room from overwhelming emotions. I don’t feel completely flooded on a regular basis when my meds are working. But it’s confusing and frustrating too. I’ve had meds with awful side effects, and even the meds with reasonable side effects are annoying. They make me sleepy and hungry, they mean I can only have a half a glass of wine before getting unreasonably buzzed, sometimes I can’t tell if my brain is fuzzy and hard to focus because of depression or because of the medication I take for my depression. It’s a confusing experience. You can never suss out exactly what things (good or bad) come from meds or just from life. But so far they’ve helped. And I’ll accept that.

Cooking and Grocery Shopping In Recovery

I recently saw an article of tips and tricks about grocery shopping when you have an eating disorder. Of course I clicked on the link, but I was surprised to find that almost everything on the list was exactly the opposite of how I prefer to approach food.

People’s strategies for recovery are as widely varied as they themselves are, and different people find different approaches to meal planning, shopping, and cooking helpful. So I thought I might throw out some of what’s helped me become more comfortable with the process of getting food from the store to inside my belly in the hope that others might find something useful in it.

I’d also love to hear other people’s tactics. The more we can share with each other what’s helped us, the less alone and confused anyone has to feel. So here are my strategies for the actual shopping and cooking processes while in recovery.

  1. Plan ahead. I never ever go into a store without a list of everything that I need, and I try very hard not to buy anything that isn’t on the list (unless I look at it and realize I meant to put it on the list). This helps me to feel less out of control while I’m in the store, it ensures that my grocery trips take less time, and it means I can focus on crossing things off of the list instead of on all the food around me.
  2. Buy in bulk. Some people really don’t like this one, and I understand. There are times that it’s overwhelming to me to have too much food in my house. But I really prefer to have fewer trips to the store, and so I buy lots of frozen veggies, grains that don’t go bad, and other things that can last me up to a month so I don’t have to venture back to the store for as long as possible. Again, your mileage may vary on this one, and if you feel really overwhelmed with having too much at once then it can be really helpful to start with a smaller store rather than a Cub or a Rainbow.
  3. Produce and other things that go bad: approach with care. For a long time I wouldn’t buy anything that would go bad because it felt like too much pressure to eat it right this instant. If you have worries about things going bad then it’s actually possible to buy mostly long term things (frozen is your friend). My strategy has been to slowly introduce more perishables. I started with milk (because I need it for my mac and cheese) and have now worked up to such amazing buys as spinach. You don’t have to get a lot of any of these, or even a wide variety of perishables. You can make your basic diet one that doesn’t spoil and add on fresh things for more nutrients as you feel comfortable.
  4. Recipes aren’t necessary but they can be helpful to come up with fast and easy things. You in no way need to follow recipes exactly, especially if there are more ingredients than you want to deal with. I recommend doing some brainstorming before going to the store for things that will be as easy and fast as possible. I find the longer I have to commit to cooking, the less likely I am to get my meals in.
  5. Cooking in bulk can be great! I love to make extra pasta or rice so that I have a couple additional meals and don’t have to worry about cooking for a few days. Decreases stress, increases ease.
  6. Eat things that taste good to you. I don’t buy frozen meals even though in many ways they would seem ideal for me. I don’t like how they taste. Instead I try to get things that I want to eat because that will increase my motivation to cook them and put them in my stomach.
  7. With that said, also be aware of things that feel too anxiety provoking. I try not to have chips around too much because I eat them mindlessly and it causes me a lot of stress. That doesn’t mean cutting those foods out entirely, but rather being careful around them so that you can eat them with minimal stress (I only buy one bag of chips at my monthly grocery run so that I don’t feel overwhelmed).
  8. If you’re going to go grocery shopping with someone else, communicate how you shop and what they can do to support you. There are lots of people out there who like to wander and browse in the grocery store, so don’t assume that everyone wants a list or can be in and out quickly.
  9. I prefer to buy things that are not pre-portioned so that I can decide how much I am hungry for.
  10. Eat before you go! Shopping when hungry means everything will look good and it can get overwhelming really fast. I also try to build in some downtime post shopping trips so that I can calm any stress that might have built up.
  11. I prefer to have a few standbys for cooking that are as easy as possible and feel completely possible no matter how bad of a day I’m having. I always keep those around. For me it’s ramen noodles, mac and cheese, and chic’n nuggets.
  12. I also try to make my cooking in general simple. I like to do variations on the same theme. Most of my food comes in the form of grain+veg+sauce all mixed together. That means I only have to figure out three choices for any given meal, but also allows me all kinds of different flavors.
  13. When adding new things, don’t try to do too much at once. I never have enough protein in my diet, so I’ve been working on that, but I don’t try to do many things at once. This week I added protein smoothies to my diet. A few months ago I started adding fake meats to my basic meal template. One at a time is easier to keep track of, less stressful, easier to adjust if it starts stressing you out, and easier to grow accustomed to.
  14. There is no need to be a perfectionist. For a long time I didn’t want to cook because I didn’t feel confident about it and I hate not being perfect. But my food doesn’t have to turn out like the food on Iron Chef. It just has to turn out like something I want to eat. It can be ugly, I can make mistakes, and I can experiment without being some kind of failure.
  15. Spend money on food. I know that sounds privileged and stupid, but it’s an important shift of mindset for many people with eating disorders. For a long time I refused to budget any money for food because I didn’t see it as a necessity. But eating becomes much easier if you like the way your food tastes and if you can buy things that you enjoy, which means putting food as high on your budget priorities can go a long way. This is also part of why I allow myself to eat out more often than I probably should. My health is worth the money.

That’s what works for me at least. I hope some of it is helpful, and remember: if these things don’t sound useful for you then you don’t need to do them. Do what works for you.

 

Creating a Sensory Diet: Lessons from Autism

After my recent post about similarities between ASD and BPD (so many acronyms), I’ve started to wonder about the usefulness of making these comparisons. Sure, it’s interesting to speculate and helpful to see the ways that people are similar, as well as understand where diagnoses can go wrong, but as a total layperson my contributions might have to be a little smaller than all that.

So here’s what I’m going to do for myself, as well as some suggestions for how other folks can learn from the parallels between borderline and autism.

I am a highly sensitive person. I don’t mean emotionally, although that’s also true, but I’m talking about physical senses. I love roller coasters, climbing, and other moving fast/adrenaline style adventures. I’m highly light sensitive and averse. I have lots of issues with textures (this is why I don’t eat tofu). Most perfumes and scents make me sneeze. I hardly have it as bad as some people, but I’m definitely on the “strong senses” end of the spectrum.

It’s extremely common for kids on the spectrum to have sensory difficulties, whether extreme sensitivity or under sensitivity or a mix of the two in various senses. And since it’s so common for those with autism, one of the more common elements of treatment is a sensory diet, or another way to help a kid or adult regulate and organize their sensory experience.

So what I’m going to try to do for myself is create a sensory diet. Once again, I’m finding that the curb cut effect is in full force. Sensory diets are probably great for just about anyone who finds that they’re not getting sensory needs met. I’m not diagnosable, but I definitely need more movement, tactile input, and help with my internal regulation (hunger, temp). After looking at some of the resources for folks with autism, I found a starting list that sounds like it will be helpful to me:

-emotion cards

-notebook and pen

-fidgets

-fuzzy socks

-candles

-be a burrito

-climbing/monkey bars/proprioception

-hammock or rocking chair

-be upside down

-piano

-go outside: water sounds

-exercise

-swimming!

That’s just for a start, but you get the idea. The bonus? I’m also using these sensory regulation tools for self soothing when my anxiety starts to go off the rails. I find it incredibly helpful to focus on very concrete, very basic things like the senses when I’m trying to combat anxiety. I can argue with just about anything else, but sensory input gets to the heart of the matter. So instead of making a self soothing box with affirmations or art work, which has never felt useful to me, I’m creating a sensory box with soft things and fidget and reminders of how to move my body effectively.

 As a side note, I would like to invite anyone with autism to let me know if this is appropriative at all, but my understanding of neurodiversity and its tenets is that stimming/sensory needs/other things autistics speak out about are often needed by lots of people, and the more we can integrate them into society at large the better.

On the flip side, I also think there are elements of the most common BPD therapy, DBT, that could be incredibly helpful to those who struggle to communicate or identify feelings, those who don’t find socializing super easy, or those who aren’t great at self soothing. DBT gives strategies like concrete and easy steps to set a boundary, and encourages patients to identify their values and needs. It suggests that people think about how physically different emotions feel to them so that they can use the physical reactions of their body to identify and communicate an emotion when it’s happening. It suggest methods to combat black and white thinking, like making pro and con lists, or writing out/reviewing facts about what is happening. While some of these things might require adaptation for people with autism, they could enrich that therapeutic experience.

Of course it makes sense for treatments to be individualized based on the diagnosis present, but I always wonder why there isn’t more cross pollination between diagnoses. Some of the techniques used for feeding therapies could be useful for eating disorders, DBT is useful for bipolar and eating disorders, autism treatments might be helpful for lots of people who feel quickly overwhelmed. I would love to see more communication between communities within the larger mental illness umbrella.

Whiplash, Monuments Men, Great Art, and Happiness

A few nights ago I saw the movie Whiplash. As many people have said, the acting was superb and overall it was a quality made movie. But what pulled me in was not the plotline, but rather the assumptions of the characters and the varied interpretations of the people with whom I saw the movie regarding what makes a life worth living.

Andrew, the main character of Whiplash, wants to be the best. In one conversation with his family, when they ask him why he doesn’t have any friends, he says that they would just get in the way. He wants to be remembered, like Charlie Parker was remembered. He wants to be great. His dad looks at him and says that Charlie Parker died at 35, that’s not success.

But Andrew is unswayed, and continues to engage with his abusive band teacher in order to force himself to be better, to win, to prove that he is the great person he could be. He refuses to be broken by the abuse that the teacher doles out, even if that means trying to play while his hand is broken and he’s bleeding.

The end of the movie is ambiguous. Andrew plays an amazing solo. He plays to his own tempo instead of listening to the conductor. But he does it all because he was abused. He becomes great through the horrific methods that left another student dead from suicide.

Underneath the success, the amazing performance, the smile that Andrew finally gets from Mr. Fletcher, there’s the dark knowledge that if he keeps doing what he’s doing, he as well will probably end up dead. If nothing else, he will be alone, anxious, depressed, and constantly feeling that he isn’t living up to his own potential. He requires greatness of himself, because he sees how much the greatness of one person can affect others.

As Mr. Fletcher says, it’s unacceptable to deprive the world of the next Charlie Parker.

But is it really? Is great art more important than actual human lives? Or even one single human life that gets extinguished after short years that are filled with unhappiness?

Let’s talk about another movie for a moment. Monuments Men is for the most part a rompy kind of action movie, but somewhere in it is a question. The Monuments Men take resources that the army could have been using to save human lives and direct those resources towards saving art instead. Great, amazing art, but art nonetheless. Is it ethical for the army to do that?

I tend to think no. Art is beautiful and enriching, but there is always new art being made. People continue to create meaning, beauty, connection, and discussion through art in almost every circumstance they are placed in. Art is not a finite resource that we will run out of. There is no perfect painting or drum solo or play that is out there waiting to be created. We create what we need, what is meaningful to us, and we get the meaning that we need out of the art available to us.

I’m not one to value an empty or unhappy life simply for the sake of life, but I’m also not one to value art without any end. Art is valuable insofar as it enriches human lives, and when it takes away from the human ability to be fulfilled and content, or when it takes away resources from keeping people alive, art starts to lose value. I think that’s true of any human endeavor. No goal is more important than its consequences.

So back to Andrew and Charlie Parker. Why does Andrew think that being great is a better goal than any immediate happiness? Clearly he wants to be remembered, but he also seems to think that he’s doing something good and enriching for the world (just as Mr. Fletcher does) by creating something great.

I am so afraid of that rhetoric.

While talking with friends after the movie, I found that I was the only one who really resonated with that intense drive and need to always be better, the all-consuming, obsessive perfectionism. I can vouch that in my life it has been an extremely damaging influence. But those around me didn’t feel like the movie was in danger of portraying that obsession in a positive light because they had never felt it, never been in a place where they thought that it was the best way to be.

Of course in the movie, Andrew is supposed to be sort of screwed up but only develop clear mental illness symptoms after Mr. Fletcher starts pushing him. But I don’t think that obsession of this level is something that one can just learn. It’s something that you have to spend your whole life fighting if it’s in you to begin with. And while the movie clearly criticizes Fletcher’s methods, it does not clearly criticize the art that comes out of it. It does seem to imply that the art that comes from the abusive, obsessive methods is better than what would have come about if Andrew had a sane teacher, made some friends, stayed with his girlfriend, and tried to temper his obsession with drums by being a healthy person mentally.

So the movie seems to imply that there is some sort of trade off here, that we could get some amazing art, something important or meaningful out of this kind of drive, and that while it’s unhealthy, it is amazing.

And sure there are real life examples of these types. Sylvia Plath or Kurt Cobain, people who used their mental illness to fuel their art and whose dark art touched and was important to thousands upon thousands of people.

And there is never any guarantee that the depression makes your art better. More often than not it makes it worse because you can’t think clearly, your mind is trailing in circles, you have no energy. More often than not you create work that is indulgent rather than transcendent. Of course some people who recover choose never to truly engage with the dark emotions again, and that hardly creates good art, but it is possible to continue to think deeply while in a healthy place. Some of the best art is art that comes from a place of self-respect rather than depression, fear, and uncertainty.

And there’s more than one life that gets hurt when someone wallows in their mental illness. Everyone they interact with gets hurt. Despite the fact that they aren’t trying, most people who are incredibly depressed, anxious, obsessive, and perfectionistic, are not very nice and are certainly not able to have healthy relationships because they themselves aren’t healthy.

But of course the people that I was watching Whiplash with didn’t see it as glorifying this kind of obsession. I’m not sure what it is that made me think it was condoning at least part of the obsession, but perhaps it’s that I expect discussions of (what clearly seems to me to be) mental illness to not simply portray the behaviors because just showing the behaviors can feel like condoning when you’re in a bad place. If I had watched this movie 5 years ago I would have seen it as validation of my choices. I would have watched it and seen a young person overcome everything to pursue perfection and then achieve perfection. I would have seen that it was possible.

And so I wouldn’t have stopped.

I do wonder about our portrayals of obsession and whether we treat those behaviors in a way that says “this is not healthy” or whether we do some glossing over of the truth. How did the film actually treat questions of obsession? Did it say that there were benefits? Of course no one would see it as condoning the behavior of Andrew, but it did seem to make him into a hero, or possibly an anti-hero, something even more attractive to many (especially young) people.

I can’t predict how other people might react to this film, and the people that I watched it with didn’t seem to see it as any kind of validation, but it did focus on a young person overcoming obstacles to reach his goal, even if there were huge sacrifices along the way. Many people would see that as a positive. Continuing the stereotype of disturbed genius isn’t really helpful to anyone, and while the movie criticized the choice to embrace that life, it didn’t do anything to dismantle the stereotype that exists in the first place, leading to many people seeing artistry and greatness as something that necessarily comes with insanity.

This might lead many people to frame questions of dedication to art as whether they want to be happy or whether they want to be great, when in fact they can be both.

So let’s hop back to Monuments Men. Is any piece of art worth ruining your life over? Probably not, especially when we can create art without the intense depression that the movie portrays. Of course every individual has the right to make the choice in their own life, but it’s important to create messages that say it doesn’t have to be that way. You can be amazing without being pushed in cruel and awful ways. Oftentimes greatness comes with support, love, and self-empathy. Especially in today’s world where the cruel actions of famous people get broadcast to the world immediately over the internet, people are becoming less and less tolerant of brilliant assholes, and instead expect their geniuses to give back in some way.

There are many other facets to the reactions to this movie. I see more women feeling driven to prove that they deserve to be on this earth by being great, leading me to worry about the effects of portrayals of greatness on young women. How do we portray negative things in a responsible fashion is a concern that has never been properly answered (no Plato, we don’t just not portray them). And how healthy can obsession ever be?

But I do think it’s important to pull apart the association between greatness and depression. It’s not necessary.