27 December 2016

In Memoriam: Carrie Fisher

I took myself to a matinee of Rogue One this afternoon. It leads up to the first scene of the original Star Wars movie, with a motion-capture recreation of Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia in the final shot. A rebel hands her a data disc containing the stolen plans to the Death Star, and asks her what it is. "Hope," she answers. Cut to credits.

That was the memory of Carrie Fisher I was able to form before learning that while I was at the theater, news had spread that she had died. In fact, it was my therapist who told me about it at my appointment a few hours after the movie. If there's a more Carrie Fisher way to find out about something like this than from your therapist, I don't know what it would be.

I didn't grow up with Star Wars. I knew it existed, but there was no one in my life to see to it that I was exposed to it, so I didn't get around to watching the movies until I decided to rent them on VHS in 1992. So despite being from the generation I'm from, I can't share tales of watching Princess Leia save the galaxy shaping my childhood.

What I can share, though, is how reading Carrie Fisher interviews has shaped my ability to discuss my mental health.

Being a geek, I read various geek-centric magazines long before I finally gave in and explored Star Wars. There's no telling when I first read an interview with Fisher, or in which magazine, or what she even talked about in it. It doesn't make much difference, though, because as anyone who has ever read pretty much any interview she ever gave knows, invariably she would have touched on her mental health in one way or another.

I remember feeling confused and even a bit put off by the way she talked about having bipolar disorder. Her sense of humor made me question if she took it seriously, and if she didn't, why should anyone else? I didn't know anything about bipolar disorder aside from it being a volatile mental illness. It sounded scary. How could it be scary if she was making jokes about it?

Of course, this was all before I was ever given my own diagnoses and began to really learn about mental health. I didn't know the term "stigma", but I intuited that it existed. Things like bipolar disorder were unfit for polite society. They were embarrassing for the people who had it and they made everyone else uncomfortable. And then there was Carrie Fisher, who seemed incapable of being embarrassed.

I didn't understand it at the time, but what was actually taking place was I was reading an interview that some magazine decided to run because their readers loved Star Wars (even if it was ostensibly about some other film of hers, it was always really about Star Wars) and what Carrie Fisher was doing was showing us how to actually acknowledge and discuss mental health at a time when so few others seemed comfortable even trying. I was learning from her that it's okay to talk about it at all, for one thing, but I was also learning from her the ways that one can talk about it.

If I had to characterize Carrie Fisher in a single word, I'd go with "shameless". Ordinarily, we use that word to indicate someone who is brazen and defies manners. But here I mean that she rejected the very concept of shame when it came to her mental health and life experiences. I was already learning from David Letterman how to make oneself into a punch line, but this was something different. Every time she acknowledged that she had bipolar disorder, Carrie Fisher was effectively declaring, "I will not be shamed into silence about this."

Over the years, I came to better understand and appreciate the value of finding levity and making light of one's mental illness. I learned that, yes, you can make jokes and still take it seriously -- and expect others to also take it seriously, even as they chuckle along with your quips. It would be going too far to say that my sense of humor about my mental health came from Carrie Fisher; our styles of humor are fairly different in general. But it is 100% accurate to say that it was Carrie Fisher who gave me permission to have a sense of humor about my mental health, and for that I am eternally grateful. It's given me my most relied-upon tool to use against depression and anxiety. And as I'm sure you know, Dear Reader, having something that powerful to fall back on gives us something else, too:

Hope.

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.

14 December 2016

Post-Election Helplessness: The Beginning of the End

I haven't written much about the 2016 presidential campaign at all, and nothing since the election itself was held more than a month ago. A little while ago, I found this Facebook post by Robert Reich, wherein he identifies four "syndromes" people have experienced since the election. Go on and click the link and read it. I'll wait.

I have the fourth syndrome (helpless). Reich says there's lots to be done, and he's right about that. What's actually doable that can have a legitimate chance at success, though, seems to be far beyond my ability to affect. Call my legislators? Who? I'm a Kentuckian. Who am I going to call? Mitch McConnell, whose wife is one of Trump's cabinet picks? (I did call McConnell's office right after the Steve Bannon announcement, incidentally, asking him to convince Trump to rescind that appointment. If he's remotely inclined to even care, he surely hasn't done anything to indicate it.)

I've tried making people aware of things. I've tried challenging talking points. I'd have better luck throwing messages in bottles into the sea. At least those messages might somehow be found by people who give a damn. And I'm afraid my high-minded idealists are going to find that seeking a reasonable dialogue is impossible. The very thrust of the Trump movement was built on rejecting reason, cooperation, or anything resembling civilized behavior. These are people who seek to run roughshod over everyone different from them, or whom they just have it in mind to target because they can.

While I'm at it, I'm disgusted at this point by the "wait to see what he actually does" timidity. We're ALREADY SEEING what he's doing. People are already suffering because of the things he's said and done and encouraged others to say and do. Quit acting like these things somehow don't count because he hasn't been sworn in yet. THEY FUCKING COUNT. The women who have been assaulted on subways, the Muslims whose hijabs have been torn from their heads, the Hispanic students taunted by their white classmates that they're going to be deported; these injuries aren't scrimmages.

I remain hopeful that we collectively will weather this storm, that we will find ways to subvert, to challenge, to protect one another, to push back against the ugliness that threatens us all. But that doesn't mean I naively believe that all of us as individuals will make it to then. We won't. People are going to die, whether murdered by the white supremacists who see this as their time to act with impunity, made too vulnerable by the gutting of protection and assistance agencies pledged by Trump and his incoming cabinet, or those who simply become inconsolably overwhelmed and end their own lives.

I already know I won't live to see the end of this. I've voted in my last election. I've celebrated my last birthday. My death won't change anything, and I'm not under any illusions that it will. This isn't about some kind of martyr fantasy. This is simply about me recognizing my own vulnerabilities.

When I first started blogging, I didn't really have a direction for it. As I've admitted before, I think I was basically just trying to mimic journalism. It's pretty embarrassing to think about my feeble attempts at writing movie and CD reviews! Along the way, though, I came to see this blog as my legacy. It's what I'll leave behind when I'm gone. Stories I like to tell, mostly, but sometimes I've used it just as a way to make a sort of record of what was going on with me at the time.

Now? Now I don't even know how long this blog can realistically be expected to remain up. I've thought at times about having a book printed, collecting specific posts. There are several different printing services out there for just such a project. I'd certainly like to hear any suggestions for posts that I've written that you, Dear Reader, think ought to be "preserved" in tangible book form!