20 December 2016

Let's Talk About PTSD and Coloring Books

Ten days ago, while I was curled up in bed writhing in pain from yet another Crohn's flare, Piers Morgan saw a tweet from CNN International about a story they were airing about Lady Gaga revealing publicly that she suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Here's his reaction:


You better goddamn believe I have something to say about this.

Just as Morgan and people like him have it in their minds that PTSD is exclusively endured by combat veterans, there's also a dangerous parallel problem facing sexual assault survivors, relevant here specifically because this is the source of Lady Gaga's PTSD. Two years ago, George Will took it upon himself to define what is and is not sexual assault in a particularly appalling column in the Washington Post. [I'm providing you a link here, but only so you can verify for yourself what he wrote, even though that translates into increased exposure for such loathsome writing.] Here are the opening two sentences, which set the tone for the entire diatribe:
Colleges and universities are being educated by Washington and are finding the experience excruciating. They are learning that when they say campus victimizations are ubiquitous (“micro-aggressions,” often not discernible to the untutored eye, are everywhere), and that when they make victimhood a coveted status that confers privileges, victims proliferate.
He even actually typed and submitted for publication the following sentence:
Consider the supposed campus epidemic of rape, a.k.a. “sexual assault.”
See, just as Piers Morgan has defined who can and cannot have PTSD (combat veterans only, thank you very much), George Will has defined who can and cannot be a sexual assault survivor. Between the two of them, there's allowance that what Lady Gaga has experienced even happened in the first place, but if it did, it wasn't really traumatizing.

The underlying problem here is ignorance, Dear Reader. Ignorance that exists for those who have been spared such things themselves, and whose formative years were lived during a time when those who weren't spared those things were intimidated into maintaining silence. That intimidation is still there -- Morgan and Will have provided the evidence I've documented here -- but people are no longer as acquiescent to "polite society" as they were in the past. PTSD sufferers and sexual assault survivors of yesteryear lived in agony, dismissed and erased even by their own families, but we no longer accept that twisted social contract.

I grew up under that social contract, and I just turned 38 a few weeks ago. I started having my first suicidal thoughts at age 9. I wasn't seen or treated for depression until I was in my 20's. Why? Because no matter how my mental health issues manifest themselves, I was just "moody". "Going through a phase." After all, I was "too young to have real problems." (Notice again that even when there's allowance that some hypothetical people may experience these things, you're not one of them.)

You may recall, Dear Reader, that I was hospitalized for a week last year in inpatient treatment for suicidal depression. It was my second inpatient stay in five years. We live in an era of fake news and people denying whatever doesn't suit the narrative they want, so here's my evidence. This is the first page of the crisis safety plan paperwork I had to complete. You'll note that the top line ("My diagnosis is...") is in different handwriting from the rest. I had to fill in everything else, but my diagnoses were added by the attending psychiatrist after I'd done my part. I've digitally erased some sensitive patient ID numbers and the names of contacts, but this is otherwise the real McCoy, right down to my own John Hancock at the bottom.


Again, I didn't even get to see the first line filled in when I had the page in front of me. They have you fill in this stuff during your intake process, and then review it when you're discharged. I had never been told until I was looking at this page that I had PTSD. Let me tell you, Dear Reader, that's a hell of a thing to learn about yourself. And the funny thing is, it wasn't one of those "That can't be right!" moments. It was instead one of those "Oh, well, duh!" moments. 

Last June, I shared in this blog about what I call "an incident" during my childhood. I refuse to describe the acts that took place; gawk at someone else, but frankly it's none of your business what specifically happened. All you need to know is that it did happen, and that it's affected me in the ways I shared in that post. Just so you don't think I'm fishing to boost my page view numbers (this blog isn't monetized, incidentally), I'll summarize.

I've been hyper-aware since I was 4 years old. Whenever I walk into a room, I immediately intuit where the places of entry/exit are. I can't even comfortably take off my shirt in public to go swimming because I feel that vulnerable and threatened. Notice I'm not using the past tense here. These are just some of the things that are still with me decades after "the incident". They'll be with me the rest of my life.

Which is why it's almost embarrassing that it never occurred to me that I might have PTSD. I mean, it's pretty damn obvious on paper. But when you've grown up being told time and again you're just moody and going through a phase and too young to have real problems, you stumble forward as best you can on your own because there's no meaningful help available to you. You don't meet the criteria written by Morgan & Will. Of course, as anyone who recognizes themselves in any of this already knows, you're still traumatized whether they confer upon you that "privileged status" or not.

And this brings me to the third antagonist in this post: Trump supporters. The Southern Poverty Law Center has documented 1,094 bias-related incidents just since the election was held six weeks ago. Bigots aren't merely writing unkind tweets. They're committing acts of violence, or at least threatening it to the point that their targets are in fear for their immediate safety.

Perhaps most heartbreaking is that the location where the most incidents have been documented are K-12 schools. Being picked on as a kid sucks in general. I should know; I endured that for several years. But I wasn't targeted because of my skin color or my ethnic heritage. I can't fathom what it must be like for the children and adolescents right now under siege from the bigots emboldened by Trump's election. My thoughts were dominated by suicidal urges at that age, and I could at least come home after school and none of it followed me there. These kids can't turn on a TV, log onto Facebook, or even overhear adults have a conversation without being reminded that a whole lot of their neighbors (figurative, but also literal) wish to see harm come to them.

I've seen countless tweets over the last two days alone gloating about their candidate's victory. And ordinarily, I'd say that's perfectly fair to do. But the gloating isn't the kind that we're accustomed to in American politics. I'm not trying to whitewash anything here; I'm a liberal in Kentucky. I vividly recall the aftermath of the 2004 election, when even I kinda wanted my then-girlfriend to give in and remove the John Kerry bumper sticker from her car. I never said anything about it, because that's how I am, but I frequently became physically defensive going to or from that car at times just on account of that sticker.

There's one specific bit of trash talk that's particularly irked me, and it's partly because I've seen it from so many different tweeters that it can't be downplayed as just a few people saying it. Therapy tools have become a popular target for mockery, especially coloring books. I'll admit, when I first heard about adult coloring books and I found out they weren't, y'know adult coloring books, I shrugged it off as just another fad that wasn't for me.

But then, Dear Reader, I was hospitalized last year. And there I saw firsthand the power that something so seemingly trivial had for some patients. Patients with diagnoses and backgrounds like mine. Even George Will might have had a hard time denying a few of them their privileged status as survivors (though I'm sure he'd have tried his damnedest). After a week of inpatient treatment, I was stepped back down to outpatient.

The last new patient to join my group was a man older than me.  I can still remember the look on his face when he came into the room that first morning. I was the only one already there. I greeted him and did my best to answer any questions he had. It was clear that he was nervous. It turned out that he was a combat veteran. He'd done twelve deployments, including five to Afghanistan. And he told me, and then later our group once assembled, that the scariest thing he'd ever done in his entire life was walk through the door that morning.

Let that sink in.

Why was it less scary for him to be sent into twelve different war zones than to set foot inside a mental health hospital? Because it was a complete unknown to him. Not because he hadn't already been a patient before; at one time, he hadn't been a soldier before, either. But because the Piers Morgans and the George Wills have so ardently maintained their ideological definitions of who is and is not traumatized, depressed, a sexual assault survivor, etc., that even now it's that intimidating to broach, even for people who recognize that they need that kind of help.

And that brings me back to Lady Gaga.

No, Piers Morgan, it isn't her who is "vain-glorious". It's you. What she's doing is trying to divert the spotlight already on her to a subject where you and your ilk have cast darkness because it satisfies your egocentricity. I understand completely why she chose to share what she did, and I understand it because it's the same reason I share what I share: to try to reach others in ways that no one was there to reach us when we needed it. To be a voice competing with yours saying, "Quit seeking attention" with ours saying, "Please seek the help you need and deserve." And hopefully, to model for those people how it can be to go through all this and come through it in better shape.

I don't just share my experiences in this blog, which is probably for the best since I've been too demoralized about writing to do much with it over the last few years. I've become active in my local chapter of the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance. There are meetings in a few different places throughout the week. I attend group meetings on Tuesday and Thursday, when my physical health permits. I've missed five consecutive meetings now, spanning three weeks. I've even become a regular group facilitator (again, as my physical health permits). I've met probably two hundred different people in my time as a member there. Some only come once or twice. Some come and go in streaks, dropping back in when they see they need some boosting. One of the DBSA mission statements is that we "accept racial, cultural, linguistic, and ethnic diversity and promote their acceptance." It would be bad form for me to share anything that's shared in our group meetings, but I will let you in on one thing we all have in common.

We all needed our own Lady Gaga at one point or another, and we all try to be someone else's when we can.

Mine was Wagatwe Wanjuki. I can't even remember how she first came to my attention, but I'm sure it was through Twitter. She's a prominent figure in the fight against rape culture in general, and in particular, campus sexual violence. A survivor herself, she understands firsthand how devastating it can be. She's done a great deal of admirable work, including being part of the ED Act Now leadership whose tireless campaigning prompted President Obama to create the White House Task Force to Protect Students From Sexual Assault. You can learn more about her advocacy resume on her website, but the important thing to know is that she's directly responsible for why I was able to come forward about "the incident" after keeping it secret from my inner circle all these years, and never even discussing it with my family.

I would never have written that blog post in the first place if not for her. I damn sure would never have published it if not for her. Not every survivor will want to share their experiences, and more importantly, not a single one should have to. I can only say that I found "putting it out there" has been empowering for me in ways I couldn't have imagined as a child. How could I have imagined it, when the directive seemed to be to never speak of it again?

I'm proud and grateful to count Wagatwe among my friends, and those whom I do call friends can tell you that's probably the only "f" word I use sparingly. I'm incredibly fortunate, to be honest, in that I have so many friendships. I've said often that if I've only ever done one thing right, it's been to surround myself with wonderful people. If you recall the beginning of all this, Dear Reader, I noted that in the scan of my paperwork, I'd digitally erased the names of contacts. Those were for question #7, where I was to name "Supportive friends/family member I can call" during a crisis. I had names written from left to right on both lines, and I could have kept going for several more.

Many, maybe even most, people aren't as fortunate as I am in that respect. I'm not talking about all this to impress you, Dear Reader, or to suck up to my friends (they don't need it). I'm getting to my final point in all this, which is that I know how hard all of this has been on me, and I have this kind of support system. I was too browbeaten by the Piers Morgans and George Wills to reach out to them about such things for entirely too long. So when I read that Lady Gaga has put herself out there the way she did and then Morgan berates her for it, yeah, that upset me a whole hell of a lot. Because I know for a fact there are people out there for whom she's all the role model they have to even realize they can take ownership over their experiences somehow. They may not have a friend in every time zone who might be awake whenever they're overcome by anxiety or despair, but they do have Lady Gaga. Never underestimate what anyone may find empowering, whether it's a celebrity sharing their experiences on CNN International or a coloring book.

And you damn sure better not undermine what anyone finds empowering around me.

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