People, the Media and Mental Illness

If there’s one thing I can’t stand it’s the media on mental illness. What else I can’t stand? Drama swarms. That’s what’s occurring right now, just like it does every time a famous person falls to mental illness (of which substance abuse is part). This is the same nonsense that happened when Michael Jackson died, or any other celebrity who has passed away because of their sickness since then. Don’t get me wrong, I love Robin Williams. He was a wonderful actor, a fabulous comedian and a fucking amazing human being. But because he died due to mental illness, the noise surrounding his passing is pissing me off.

You see, the illness is overshadowing his death and the media is using that. They aren’t reporting on the tragedy of losing a wonderful man, they’re reporting, in dramatic fashion, how a mental illness killed him. In some sense they are preventing his family and his fans from rest and mourning because they’re blowing things up that don’t need to be lambasted all over everyone’s computers and televisions. Yes, he was ill, yes it was his illness that killed him, but they don’t make so much noise over cancer or heart disease. Report it the same way you would if he had died from cancer or heart disease, because you’re just taking advantage otherwise. You’re just being sensational and annoying.

What really strikes me though, is how the same old narrative comes up again and again every time this happens. The fake, shallow, disinterested and evanescent pity and sympathy. The cries and pleas to people to “get help” and “be brave” and “find support”. The moaning and groaning of the horrors of mental illness that don’t mean jack shit. It means nothing because it’s all a farce. Nobody cares. Nobody, fucking, cares. The media doesn’t, and plenty of people who reblog and retweet and instagram and pinterest and facebook all these bullshit memes about depression and mental illness and go on and on about how they want to see change and be supportive and yammer about how people should get help do not care. 

Wanna know how I know? Because in two weeks, if that, those same people, those same media outlets, won’t have anything more to say on it. Well, the media will, actually, but it’ll be how a mentally ill black man, or serviceman hurt someone, or a crazy bitch drowned her kids or sold them on craigslist for crack money. It’ll be about how “omg that white man was such a nice person how could he shoot all those kids?” And “those fucking immigrants are stealing our jobs and killing each other!”

It’s the same bs that happens over bullying and student-led school shootings. “This kid was severely bullied, that’s why he shot those kids, we should do something about bullying and gun control!” Ha, hahaha, yeah, ok, where are you the next day then? Where is your noble ideals (which are so myopic and vague as to be useless), your renewed dedication to helping these people and kids have better lives and healthier minds?

It’s all bullshit because they don’t live up to their promises, they aren’t there. They don’t fucking show up because they don’t fucking care. That’s what I hate about this. There are a ton of people I know who care, and why do they care? Why, because they’re sick of course! There are healthy people who care too, but you’d be amazed at how even the genuine ones can be so damaging and short-sighted.

I would rather people say go fuck yourself than harp on in their self-righteous statuses and tweets. Here’s the thing, mental illness is not simple. Even for people with the same diagnosis, no patient is the same, no one experiences the illness in the exact same way. My depression does not strike me down the same way it does to my best friend. My other friend’s bipolar disorder doesn’t present the same way my aunt’s does. The meds that work for my online friends don’t do shit for me, or make me feel worse. I know more people who have given up on therapy because they’ve tried every kind out there at least three times than I’ve ever met people who say it works for them. In fact, I don’t think I know anyone it’s worked for, and if I do, I definitely can count them on my fingers, probably one hand.

These pointless narratives that crop up every time a famous person’s disease is plastered all over the internet drive me insane. They mean nothing because no one is invested. And moreover, this seesaw of interest and disinterest is hurtful. It hurts people. It hurts causes, the same way that an idiot volunteering for something they don’t know anything about is hurtful. The same way lying about your credentials hurts people. Worse than that even, because lives are at stake. I don’t think people really get this point.

All this talking about how mental health care should be more important, and more available and how more people should seek it is empty. There isn’t any follow up to actually make these things more important, available and affordable. I need mental health care, but I cannot afford it, I cannot find it and what I can find and afford is low quality and therefore useless to me. On top of that, those same people telling their sick friends cheerfully and forcefully about how they’ll be there for them abandon them or mistreat them, all while thinking in their minds how cool they are for being “supportive”. And out the other side of their mouth begrudge the ill for their illness, sometimes to their sick friends’ faces.

It is difficult to trust the healthy, because they see with clear vision and think with clear minds. They see things as easy because they are not mired in the swamp and covered in fog. Moreover it is difficult to convey to them your suffering and what they learn from casual conversation is so ridiculously oversimplified and full of prejudice that it doesn’t help them understand. Gods forbid if they’re willfully ignorant. So they tell you go to the doctor, go see a therapist. They tell you about all the articles on facebook they read and the advice columns they’ve seen, articles and columns you’ve read already and tried. They keep bringing them because the genuine ones are trying to help, but they’re not listening and they aren’t understanding. And if they’re the shallow ones who shout at the top of their lungs how helpful they are and yell the loudest about the torment of mental illness but don’t do anything about it, well they’re just stroking their own egos if they deign to help poor, weak-minded you. Why, you just need to get out more, or stop listening to that music, or try this yoga class, or eat this food, or try this supplement, or go see a doctor for heaven’s sake otherwise you’re not feeling that bad are you?

I truly hate the stigma around mental illness. Everyone has an opinion on it, but no one actually cares to learn about it. It’s weakness they say, it’s stupidity they say, it’s laziness, it’s attention whoring, it’s a personality flaw. You’re not feeling that bad if you don’t do xyz, you deserve it if you’ve ever done abc, if you would just blah blah blah then you wouldn’t be yadda yadda yadda. It’s easy to get rid of, it’s fake, there’s resources everywhere! Try harder! Oh my gods, your life isn’t that bad! There are happy kids starving in Africa, get over yourself! I know someone worse off than you who isn’t sick! I’m in just as bad or worse of a situation than you and I’m fine! Get a grip, pull yourself up by your bootstraps! Who do you think you are, having feelings, having sickness, losing strength? Who do you think you are, having difficulty? Who do you think you are, struggling? Who do you think you are, suffering?

Depression and mental illness are little demons that eat you. They eat your mind, your heart, your fucking soul. To use a concept from my religion, it is isfet, it is unmaking. These things are terrifying in their power to destroy, and they are not destroying to make room for growth. They are bombs, they are chemical fires, they are nuclear radiation. They are destroying in an attempt to crush, to vanquish, to wipe out. They are trying to make it impossible for things to ever grow again, and when things do manage to grow, because thankfully life is fantastically stubborn, they come back. And they are cruel in their working. They find the little bugs and weak seedlings, and crush them between fingers before pouring poison on the ground of your heart and mind.

And they keep coming back.

If you were alone in your house, and a gang came in with guns, knives, flamethrowers, rocket launchers and grenades, what would you do? You have weapons sure, but you’ll probably run out of ammo first, if your ammo is even useful. You might even have an army, you might be able to push them out and keep your house, but you’ll have problems. Your house is damaged, you might be injured. Things are broken, things are burned. You’re exhausted, you’ve used a lot of your ammo and your supporters are either dead or exhausted. But those bandits come back. Maybe it’s not the next day, maybe it’s not the next month even, or maybe it’s the next hour. But those motherfuckers are back, and they’ve got fresh bodies and more ammo than last time. You haven’t regained your strength and your ammo is either still low or just back to where it was before the first assault. Your house might be back in order, or it might not. Gods help you if you’re on the bad end of recovery. Let’s say you make it through that battle. Well now you’re even worse off. Guess what though? Those fuckers are coming back. Each time with new recruits, more and probably better ammo. Eventually you’re going to fucking lose.

Let’s say you go to your friends, family, coworkers for help right? Some of them will definitely help you. They grab their guns and are at your house within minutes. Some say they’ll come but never show. Some tell you no, at least they’re honest, and others ignore you. Still, after the second or third time, even the help you receive is going to be pointless. The commendable people who step up are going to get exhausted, and if they don’t, you’re all still too low on energy and ammo to hold the house. Well, maybe call for more back up? Those people who tell you no or ignore you are whatevers. There will always be people who just don’t care. But how about those who say they’ll show up? You have hope! You have reinforcements! And they don’t come. You call them again, and they might come up with some bullshit excuse, or tell you no. What was more hurtful? The people who said no or ignored you from the getgo? Or the hopeless disappointment from broken promises and careless betrayal?

Now we move on in this scenario. You keep reaching out. The bandits have your house, they’re hurting you and your supporters. But what do people say?

“You’re just full of it, those bandits aren’t that tough. You aren’t fighting hard enough.”

“Why don’t you just go get more weapons and ammo?”

“Why don’t you get used to it?”

“Why haven’t you called the Army?” (You have, they just can’t get to you. There are more important things for them to deal with. Or they expect some sort of compensation you can’t afford. Maybe they have a complicated process that makes trying to get their help pointless, or perhaps you just can’t get the right phone number. Maybe they’ve already come and only made things worse, or temporarily better).

“Have you thought maybe you attracted these bandits?”

“Your house is too cushy and well-guarded for you to be really suffering from such horrible bandits.”

“You just need to learn how to defend your house properly.”

What would you think? What would you do? These bandits aren’t going away. They’ve burned your house down. You’re hiding in the woods, trying to keep up guerrilla warfare. And oh gods, now they’ve got you. And they’ve locked you up in a cell. They know all the right ways to torture you. Maybe it’s drugging you, maybe it’s forcing you to suck down booze. Perhaps it’s throwing you into a dark pit, then suddenly turning on a hundred flood lights. Maybe they lock you in chains and then throw you on a roller coaster or strap you to a train. Or, it’s putting you in a tight closet, with just a match, for months.

Maybe they let you out every once in a while, or your supporters manage to break you out. It’s often a farce though, they know exactly where you are and they’ll come back for you. They’ll do even worse things then. Maybe they’re cruel enough to leave a little something for you. A gun with a single bullet, a belt, a bottle of pills with some water. A knife. Those drugs or booze they keep giving you. After a few more rounds of torture, maybe torture with a short lived freedom (which is its own kind of torture), those little things look better for yourself than the enemy. After all, a bullet won’t get you free of a house full of bandits. Nor will a belt or knife unless you’re James Bond or Jason Bourne.

This is mental illness. This is what you’re telling your loved one or friend or colleague to suck up, or what you’re trying to tell them to get rid of with sunshine and fake smiles and yoga and whatever else is the popular one-size fixes all thing. Sure, some of those things help, sometimes, but by themselves, especially for someone in the very depths of pain and sickness, they mean nothing but another thing to fail at and despair over. It’s shallow advice that doesn’t care. It is advice that does not care and is totally blind to the destruction of their hearts. It is simple to the point of being asinine and useless. It is myopic to the  point of being able to see your nose. You cannot just think away, or eat away, or exercise away, mental illness and for fuck’s sake stop telling people to do it.

Then there’s a little psychological phenomenon called learned helplessness. You see, when creatures are tormented and can’t escape, they learn there isn’t any point and stop trying to get away. The psychologist Martin Seligman first studied this phenomenon with dogs. He chained them inside a box where the floor delivered electric shocks (although some accounts say they were locked in a cage that did the same thing) and noticed that eventually the dogs stopped trying to escape. Even when they were unchained (or the door was opened) they didn’t move and wouldn’t move. They had to be dragged out and shown that now they could escape the situation.

People with mental illness experience learned helplessness. It is a chicken and egg case here, because sometimes it is the learned helplessness that contributes or causes the mental illness and sometimes it is the other way around. It doesn’t matter, people with this particular syndrome (and any sickness) need to be shown with love, compassion, sincerity and patience that there is a way out. But the way out needs to be clear, well informed and tailor made. Good intentions are not good enough. Anything less is insulting and damaging. Sometimes the way out is simply being the one who actually shows up when they say they will. It might not mean putting on your armor and grabbing your M-16 and C4, it might mean being the shield, it might mean bringing the food. It might mean just saying “I’m fucking here, no matter what happens.” You don’t have to try to fix everything, most times we don’t want you to, mainly because you can’t. You can make things better, but the problem, the broken program, the house being overrun by bandits, is in our heads, so you can’t directly fix it. We don’t need you to fix the problem, but we do need you to fix the IT center that handles our calls, we can’t just turn it off and back on again. We need you to fix the Army that should come and help us kick the bandits out of our house and keep them away. We need you to be there to back us up, to break us out, to bring the rations, the ammo, the shield, the attitude and dedication that you’re not leaving us stranded and broken no matter what. You don’t have to bring us everything at once, you don’t need to give us the newest shiny “cure” or suggestion. You just need to love us, to be compassionate to us, to be patient, to be sincere. You just need to do your damndest to understand and to listen.

What we need is love, not this loud and empty yelling to your ego. Not this pointless, hopeless charade that people call “helping” and “supporting.” What we definitely don’t need is yet another clueless asshole inflating and insulting the death of a person in a two-faced narcissism contest. What we don’t need is another person yelling at us to go get help when we have tried so hard to get help and simply can’t because the help doesn’t exist or doesn’t work. We don’t need another person telling us we’re frauds or fools or weak because we’re supposedly not listening to them. We don’t need people who will twirl their wands to make it look like they’re doing something and then walking away as soon as the shininess wears off, or turning around and slapping us in the face for asking them to make good on their promise to be there, or help or make help more available.

 

Something that many writers will tell you is that characters often take a life of their own. I have one character, a little girl named Elizabeth. She’s gutsy and sweet and way too honest as most kids are, and her dad is a recovered addict who suffers anxiety and depression. She asked her father what an addict was.

“An addict is a sick person who uses medicine the wrong way and for the wrong reasons.”

“Why would they do that?” She asks.

“Well, it’s because for a lot of them, they’re in pain. But, not just physical pain, like your arm hurting, but emotional and mental pain too.”

She ponders for a moment and climbs into his lap. “So, it’s like love pain?”

Now her father is laughing. “Love pain?”

“Yeah, like, not getting enough love hurts right? It hurts you all over, in your head and your chest and stuff.”

“Yes, it does.”

“So they’re hurting because they need more love. They have love pain!”

Chuckling. “Yes, I suppose many of them do have love pain.”

“Why do they stay addicts when they get more love?”

“Sometimes they can’t feel it. Being an addict makes you sick. You can’t smell when you have a cold right? So how would you know something is tasty?”

“Well you would tell me!”

“But, you still can’t smell it or really taste it yourself. You have to get better first.”

“Is it hard to get better from love sickness?”

“Haha, yes, it’s hard to get better from that, in both senses of the phrase, even when you’re getting lots of love and attention and good medicine.”

“You got better.”

“It took me a while, but lucky for me, a pretty little girl with more love than anyone was given to me. Even then, I still needed lots of help and love from others. I’m still sick, but not as much.”

“Well then I’ll just have to give you more love!”

We need more love, not more hype.