Intersectionality: Food Ethics and Mental Health

Something that has come up a great deal in my personal life recently has been people criticizing my choices in terms of eating and exercise. As you might imagine this is fairly difficult for me to hear as someone with an eating disorder, but it’s caused me to spend some time thinking about the intersections of mental health and food ethics. America as a culture does not spend a great deal of time focusing on how the way we eat and how we relate to food can affect our mood, mental health, and overall life quality. What we do spend a lot of time doing is shaming each other for our food choices: whether on the basis of health, ethics, or aesthetics. There are debates over vegetarianism and veganism, about health and obesity, and about whether people on food stamps deserve their food. What we don’t talk about is what we can do to make food an experience that enhances people’s lives.

Food is often an extremely emotional experience. It combines taste, smell, sight, and texture into what can be an extremely intense experience. However unlike most experiences that deeply engage our senses, it is something that is required of us every day. It’s easy to write it off because we spend so much time doing it. But truly good food experiences can change your life. Many people try to approach food simply as fuel for their bodies and nothing else, but food can be incredibly powerful.

Food has cultural connotations, and often it’s part of the glue that brings people together. Food can be an extremely important part of memory, and is often plays a role in memories that hold special meaning. We use it for celebrations and for rituals, as reward and punishment. For most of us, food is emotional, and for those who take all the emotion out of food, it can seem like it’s missing something. The emotions of food are part of friendships and families, and you can miss out on a lot (like a dessert with a sweetheart or a dinner with your family) if you try to excise emotion from food.

For some reason, these emotions often get ignored when we talk about how people should eat. If anything, we look on these emotions as negative: we make fun of people who “eat their feelings”. There appears to be a stereotype that having an emotional relationship with food is inherently negative. However there are absolutely healthy ways to feel emotional about food, and loving food does not mean being unhealthy. Too often we hear about health or ethical implications without any mention of the actual experiences of eating. This is not a culture that celebrates how fucking delicious it is to bite into a piece of warm chocolate cake, or how comforting it is to smell the scent of a childhood meal.

And when we’re looking at mental health, this is important because these internal experiences are often what sets someone with a mental illness apart from anyone else. When we talk about the ethics of food and the ethics of health, we often forget that the experience of food can be powerful, and that when someone has a mental illness, this is something extremely important to take into consideration. We ignore the potential emotional benefits we can gain from eating, and we ignore the potential harm that can appear when we guilt or shame someone or deprive them of food they love.

Now there’s one really obvious example which is eating disorders. When you’re trying to recover from an eating disorder, if you can eat a reasonable amount without feeling guilty, you do it. This is a matter of your health and potentially your life because every piece of food is a struggle. If a piece of bacon or a slice of cake is what entices you today, everyone better fuck off on telling you that you shouldn’t eat it because that piece of food could be the only thing you’re willing to eat today. This is not a choice, this is a jerkbrain doing things to you. If someone is trying to recover from an eating disorder and you try to tell them which foods are appropriate for them to eat or not to eat, all I can say to you is go fuck yourself. You’re asking that individual to put themselves in harm’s way by cutting out more food and creating new food rules. You’re asking them to prioritize something over their own safety and health. This is a clear place where food ethics need to be flexible to allow for someone’s health and happiness.

But there’s more to the intersectionality of mental health and food than just eating disorders. Because of the emotional nature of food, it can either be used as an incredibly helpful tool for managing emotions or as an intensely negative coping strategy that damages the individual. Now this is different from using food to hide from your problems, but as part of a larger program of dealing with the root causes, including good food and good food experiences in your treatment can be really useful.

I’m going to use an experience from my own life because it’s what I know best. I try my best to eat vegetarian, because ethically I feel it’s the right decision. For eating disordered reasons this isn’t always possible. However when I do eat meat I eat ethically raised meat. I have one exception to this rule. When my dad makes spaghetti sauce from his family recipe, he almost never uses ethically raised beef. I eat the spaghetti sauce anyway.

For a lot of people this looks like I’m selling out on my values. Many people have told me that it’s inappropriate and that there is no excuse for not being vegetarian or even vegan. It looks like I’m prioritizing my own enjoyment of food over the life of another being. But here’s the thing: one of the few times that I feel safe, comforted, whole, and welcomed is when I am with my family eating the same food we ate when I was little. From the perspective of someone in my position, this is far more important than you might think. My depression and anxiety are very real and very life-threatening, particularly because they come with a side-helping of self-harm. Finding moments in my life where I can qualitatively feel like an acceptable human being is extremely difficult, but very important. When I don’t have these moments I start to become dangerously depressed, sometimes to the point of suicidal ideation. Taking away my ability to share this experience with my family is taking away one of my best coping skills to keep myself from potentially putting myself into the hospital.

This is where understanding the emotional and internal experiences of food can go a long way towards understanding intersectionality and towards having compassion towards people who don’t have your privileges. It may seem insane to someone who does not have a mental illness to consider the idea that a delicious mocha could be part of combatting suicide. But when you’re in the experience, you understand that the little things are the most important. The danger of mental illness is real. Mental illnesses do lead to death, injury, and pain. When we ignore the intersectionality of mental illness and food, we go a long way towards removing some of the most basic resources that the mentally ill have.

For people not in these situations it might seem selfish to prioritize your enjoyment of a steak over the life of a cow. However one of the messages that’s incredibly difficult for those with mental illness to internalize is that our own self-care is important, and often integral to our health. Allowing ourselves to make the choice to eat something that nourishes us mentally as well as physically can be a huge step, and when we’re told to cut out many parts of our diet, we lose out on the ability to easily do this. Asking us to give up simple pleasures, or criticizing the arenas in which we can find joy is asking us to prioritize other things over our own ability to function or even our own life depending on our disease.

When you live with a mental illness, often your entire life becomes about survival. This means that choices which seem to be easy or low cost for others are choices about self-defense for us. Every time we choose something that brings us joy, support, or a feeling of safety, we are choosing our own life. When you tell a mentally ill individual that they should abandon something that helps them feel good, that they should feel guilty for eating something that makes them happy, it reinforces to us that we don’t deserve good things.

Food is incredibly personal and incredibly emotional. It can be used in intensely positive ways and intensely negative ways, and we don’t always get a choice in what foods bring up what emotions for us. For the mentally ill, this can mean that shame and guilt around food is even more damaging than it might be for any other individual, and can have serious consequences.

While many of us want to make our society better and healthier by encouraging good eating, ethical food choices, and positive food culture, it would do us good to remember that these conversations may have different consequences for someone struggling with a mental illness than for anyone else.

My Blog Is a Risk

I’ve recently been applying for jobs, many of them revolving around social media and communications, many of which want to see examples of my previous work. As I’m working to get a job, I’m realizing that the things that I post on this blog absolutely could spell the end of my candidacy at any job to which I apply. Knowing this, I’ve continued to write openly about my mental health, about taboo subjects like self-harm, and about issues that are sensitive and personal. I was asked last night why I keep doing it even though I know that it could harm my job chances in the future.

First and foremost I keep writing about these things because I don’t think I could stop. Whether I did this privately or publicly, I would still be writing and reflecting on all of the issues that I write about here because writing is how I cope, release, and reflect. Writing is just how I express myself. While I”m perfectly capable of having in person discussion and I do enjoy those, my first impulse is always to pick up a pen and paper and let out my thoughts. Writing is what I care about and what I want to do, so I continue to write for my own benefit.

But in addition, there are some reasons that I write publicly about these things. The biggest issue for me is that I don’t want to hide who I am and what I’ve been through. There are a few reasons for this. First, I’ve tried to do that and it feels horrible. It is time consuming, energy draining, unpleasant, and isolating. I don’t like it and I just don’t want to do it. Second, I have found some of the best support and the best discussion from those online. I have found communities that I care about and who care about me. I want to be open with them. Third, I know that there is stigma against mental illness. In my opinion, the only way to reduce this stigma is to make mental illness visible. If people know that their friends, family members, coworkers and the like are mentally ill and coping and successful and relatively normal, they can stop associating mental illness with violence and “otherness”.

Now when I mentioned this to my mom, she asked me why I had to do this. Did I have to fight this battle? Now there is no particular logical reason why I need to fight this battle. However I have known for my whole life that if I can make this world a better place that is something that I want to do, perhaps even something that I need to do. For my own quality of life and for the quality of life of those around me who suffer from similar problems, I can’t help but try to make changes. I don’t want to sit back and let other people dictate the cultural climate around me. I want to be active, and advocate for the things I care about through my own life, and through my activism. While I realize that it’s important to balance my own needs with the needs of the larger community, I know that it is possible to get a job while being open, and I’m willing to deal with the difficulties that posting openly here poses if it means that I can give back in some way.

So visibility is important to me. I am a relatively successful and well-adjusted individual. I want others to see that someone they might view as extremely put together actually has a mental illness. But perhaps most important to me, more than any of these other things, I want to be a voice that other people in similar situations can hear and talk to. If I can help one other individual understand their illness better, be inspired to get help, gain the confidence to talk to me, feel more comforted that they can get better, or find something of help in my posts, then it will be worth it. If I can in any way diminish the suffering of another person, or help someone head off their illness before it gets too serious, then holy shit will I be proud of myself. My potential job prospects are nothing in comparison to what this could do for other people.

From my personal experience, I know that finding others who are struggling, finding others who will be honest and open, and who won’t bullshit about the real reasons they’re trying to get better and why they were struggling in the first place, is the best way to feel stronger and more inspired myself. I don’t pretend that I know I can do this for others, but I can hope. The best way to foster dialogue and to help others feel they can be open and share their experiences is by doing it myself.

So all in all, yes, this blog is a risk. But I feel I can contribute in a very meaningful and intentional way both to my life and to my community by writing openly and frankly about my life. So I’m going to keep doing it.

What’s the Harm in Self Harm?

MAJOR TRIGGER WARNING: self-harm and suicide

 

My dear friend Elly/Lux/awesomepants mcgee posted a really interesting question on Facebook earlier today, and I was of course compelled to answer and then blog about it. She asked “This might just be due to my fucked up brain, but am I the only one who doesn’t see non-suicidal self-harm as an entirely bad thing?”

 

And oh my do I have Thoughts about this one.  Most people shudder and get extremely freaked out by the thought of self-harm. That’s completely understandable, as it goes against our most basic instincts: stay alive as long as possible and avoid pain. It’s confusing and sick to many people why someone would want to hurt themselves. However there are some good reasons why some people self-harm. Self-harm is a coping device. It can help you to feel in control again when the world feels out of control, it can numb pain or provide the only sensations when you are feeling numb, it can be a form of self-punishment when you’re feeling guilty and assuages those feelings, it can be a release when you’re feeling too much to handle, it can help you feel more clarity, it can relax you and relieve anxiety…there are all sorts of reasons why someone might want to hurt themselves, and the end goal of pain and injury is rarely the root cause.

 

So self-harm serves a purpose. It can be very helpful for people who are struggling. It can be what gets them through the day. If the injury that they cause to themselves isn’t serious, what’s the problem? We wouldn’t be getting this upset if they tripped and scraped themselves up. The person isn’t in danger, they aren’t damaging themselves, most of the time the cuts won’t result in any sort of health risk, they aren’t impacting their own quality of life (in fact they’re likely trying to improve their quality of life), so what’s the downside?

 

Well there are a few things to consider as the downsides of self-harm, and that would impact your health and quality of life.

 

1. It makes relationships hard. People who care about you don’t want to see you hurting. Generally if you’re using cutting or self-harm as a coping strategy, it means there’s something that needs to be coped with, and so the people around you become worried and anxious about how you’re doing. They want to help and solve the problem, but they’re also hurt by the fact that you’re hurting. This generally means that you get secretive about it. It can lead to lying or hiding, and you also tend to isolate when you self-harm because you think you have your problem under control and don’t want anyone to take away your coping mechanism. People can become very defensive when they think someone might take away their ability to self-harm, and they also feel judged. Overall this leads to a loss of communication, a loss of openness, and a loss of relationships.

2. There is ALWAYS the potential to do more damage than you intend. No matter how careful you are, no matter where you cut, there is always the potential that your hand slips or something happens and you land yourself in the hospital. When you self-harm, you are always putting yourself at risk in an extremely direct way. You are literally trying to get as close as possible to serious injury or death without quite moving past the line. Now many things in life involve risk, but generally we see things in a cost/benefit analysis way and weigh the risks with the benefits. It’s very possible that there are less risky ways to get the same benefits.

3. It rarely deals with the root of whatever you’re trying to cope with. It’s more of a band-aid than a fix, because it doesn’t teach you the skills to solve your problems. Whatever situation is making you feel like you need to hurt yourself will not go away because you hurt yourself. In many ways, it might exacerbate the problem because it allows you to tolerate for a longer period of time instead of changing the bad situation that you’re in. It’s a strategy that allows you to handle whatever is going on without working on whatever is going on. If you need a fix to get you through something you can’t change, then it might be very effective, but in the long run it’s not.

4. It usually escalates. Like anything else that gives you a kind of a high, you begin to get numb to it. Whatever adrenaline you might have gotten from a few scratches before dulls as your body gets used to it, and now you need to cut more or deeper in order to get the same relief. And the more you escalate, the higher your risk of serious injury or suicide is. Just like drugs or alcohol or whatever, you go further and further, and I think that for many people it does become addictive or obsessive. I know some people who can’t fathom going a day without cutting. When you can’t live without your coping mechanism, it probably is not actually helping you cope anymore. When it has lost its function, it’s simply unnecessary risk.

 

So there are clear benefits to self-harm. You get calm or relief from it, it helps manage emotions, and it can be a way to get through a difficult situation without breaking down. However there are also a lot of risks and downsides to it, like potential serious injury and lack of long-term effectiveness. Given these pros and cons, I think that each individual should be left to their own devices to decide if the pros outweigh the cons for them (up until the point it becomes seriously dangerous). What doesn’t make entire sense to me is the out of proportion reaction that many people have to self-harm. There are all sorts of hobbies that are risky and dangerous. Take rock climbing for example, which is also something I do and love. It’s probably at least as dangerous as self-harm, and doesn’t directly provide benefits in the same way that self-harm does (I mean it is good exercise and good stress relief, but it’s not nearly as effective as self-harm). There is no logical reason why people should see self-harm as inherently worse than other potentially dangerous hobbies and practices, but there is a huge stigma against it. Despite the fact that there are downsides to self-harm, they don’t warrant the panic that seems to appear at the mere mention of self-harm. It’s not inherently worse than any other injury or risk simply because it’s self-inflicted.

Suicide Rates Up: Why?

Over at Mint Press News, there’s a story up about the increase in suicides over the last decade or so. The statistics are pretty grim: in some demographics suicide has risen by as much as 30% from 1999 to 2010. The article goes into a further breakdown of who is committing suicide and posits that the economic downturn could be related: when people are feeling depressed, they just can’t handle the economic stress of being unemployed or underemployed.

As a theory, this makes a great deal of sense, and probably is contributing to the rise in suicides, but as with any trend, this is likely a great deal more complicated than a simple cause and effect between economics and mental health trends. The article does mention that public access to mental health services has gone down in recent years, but does not go into a great deal of depth about that.

First and foremost, we are severely lacking in adequate mental health care in the United States, and attitudes towards mental illness are suspicious at best. While in the past there has not been a great deal of support for mental healthcare access, or even much by way of understanding of mental illness, today it is highly stigmatized and viewed as a sign of someone who is dangerous or unstable. In the past, suicide was often not considered an option: religious beliefs told many individuals that they would not go to heaven if they committed suicide, or that it was selfish and proud to commit suicide. In essence, suicide was considered one of the worst sins because it was considered playing God with your own life. While the negative attitudes towards suicide are still prevalent, many of these religious beliefs have lost some of their hold. So while we still are lacking in mental healthcare, we no longer have the attitude that suicide is never the answer.

Another large difference between modern health and health in the past is that we are living longer: our physical health gets a great deal of attention throughout our lives, but at no time is our mental health given the same consideration. While in the past, if someone tended towards depression they may have had to stay strong for a shorter period of time, longer lives may make it harder to fight off suicidal feelings. When staying alive past infancy is a struggle, and when you’re likely to lose your life to any number of diseases or violent actions, the idea of taking your own life becomes less pressing.

In addition, quality of life when we age is not ideal: suicide among the elderly has also gone up, and mental health problems for those who are elderly and losing their ability to live their lives as they desire are common. Depression can’t be treated in the same ways among the elderly (a recent study suggested that while exercise is often helpful for depression, it is ineffective for those in long-term care situations), and assisted suicide is also on the rise. The boomers have been committing suicide at extremely high rates, and their attitudes towards suicide are far more lax than other demographics.

I have personally heard friends say before that they would rather commit suicide than live past 70. The attitude that life in and of itself is something we should be grateful for has started to subside and we as human beings have begun to demand more: fulfillment, health, and satisfaction. We absolutely cannot ignore the fact that many of these rises in suicide rates are happening in first world countries where our lives are lasting longer, but the quality is not necessarily improving.

In addition, there are a myriad of other potential factors in an increase in suicide rates. One that may not often come up is that particularly in America, nearly everyone operates on a sleep deficit. Lack of sleep can severely impact mental health and quality of life, however almost no one looks at it as related to mental health statistics. Access to firearms, dangerous chemicals, or other methods of suicide could be related (we know that men, who use firearms more often than women, are statistically far more likely to have successful suicide attempts). We also see that bullying has been linked to suicide in young people recently, particularly with the advent of online bullying, which allows bullies to infiltrate every aspect of their victims’ lives.

So while economics probably does play a large role in the uptick in suicide, I would hesitate to point to a cause/effect relationship between the two, because mental health is a hugely complex issue with a wide variety of factors playing a role. These are just a few potential elements that could be contributing, but I believe that we should explore as many of them as possible to help improve the lives of those who might be in danger of suicide.

The Moral Value of Truth

This is part 2 of a 3 part series addressing why I get extremely pissed off at certain commenters/tropes in the skeptical community. Part 1 can be found here.

A common trope in the skeptical community is that we have a moral imperative towards truth: there is a value in truth that trumps all other values, and the pursuit of truth is the most important thing we can do. Many of us believe that this is what separates us from religious communities, or what will make us happier, more effective human beings. Others of us might believe that this is the definition of “skeptic”: the ruthless pursuit of truth. I believe that this moral imperative towards truth is harmful and unnecessary.

To explain: truth is an instrumental, not an innate value. Whether something is true or not does not tell us whether it is useful or will make us happy or anything else. Perhaps some people might argue that truth in and of itself is a value, because they pursue it for its own sake (I am often among these people because I value curiosity and learning), but for the most part, we view happiness, contentedness, equality, fairness, and other quality of life things as innate values. These are what we strive for. Why? Because we know that they make our own life better, and in order to be consistent, we must understand that they make other people’s lives better as well. Now we could get into a very nuanced debate here about values, the objectivity of values, and the point of values, but I think that most of us will agree that we should strive to improve the quality of as many human lives as possible. I’m going to be working from that assumption for the rest of this post, and I’m really not interested in a debate about where morals come from.

Truth often can contribute to our happiness. It is hard to be happy if we are basing our happiness on a lie or on delusion, because those things can fall apart and leave us incredibly unhappy. However this does not mean that we need to ruthlessly pursue truth. It means that in the important aspects of our lives, we should try to base our values and actions on truth. Truth can also make us incredibly unhappy, as can the search for truth. I know many people, myself included, who are almost haunted by the need for certainty and truth, and who are truly disturbed by the lack of purpose in our lives. If I look at all the facts, that is the most true conclusion that I find: that there is no purpose in my life. This has led to some serious emotional and mental problems for me. The idea that it’s more important for me to be close to that truth and hold that truth than it is for me to deal with my depression or recover from my eating disorder is ridiculous to me. Whether I have a certain purpose or not doesn’t truly affect how I should act and the efficacy of my actions in the here and now. It is pursuing truth too far, to the point where it becomes removed from my life and simply becomes an intellectual exercise that is causing me misery. So for now, I choose to ignore that truth and focus on different truths.

Truth is certainly a part of morality and a part of happiness. Being true with other people has to do with trust, which is an important part of relationships. Not ignoring or deluding yourself about something that affects your life, or something that could change your behavior is extremely important because it keeps your happiness grounded in the way things actually are: a much more stable happiness than it would be otherwise. But desperately pushing for truth, and acting as though truth is more important than human well-being is harmful. We do not have a moral imperative to seek out every kind of truth, every piece of truth. It’s impossible for any human being to find the whole truth, and we always need to recognize the subjective perspective from which we are pursuing truth. When we forget those things in our pursuit of truth, we end up letting curiosity or a need to know drive us past any recognizable point of usefulness. Yes, knowledge for knowledge’s sake can be useful and beautiful and exciting, but if it stops being those things, we have absolutely no reason to continue pursuing it. We are allowed to be content in not knowing, or in not caring about something. If an individual doesn’t care whether there’s a god or not, and proceeds to live their life in a kind and fulfilled way, why should we care if they are not actively trying to find out? We shouldn’t. There is no reason they should need to. The pursuit of truth serves us. We are not slaves to a quest for truth. We are constrained by the facts of situations, and those are the times when it does become imperative for us to pursue truth. My mental health and emotional well being are more important to me than the objective “truth” of a situation. Does this make me a wishful thinker? Maybe. I don’t really care. Because being right isn’t all important to me.