[In the first installment of this series, I talked about my politics in general and how the connections between systems of oppression and my personal experience have become incredibly salient to me. Here I want to talk about how that awakening impacted my attitude towards my various disabilities and how I navigate the world with them.]
I’ve experienced the world in the way I do for as long as I can remember, but it wasn’t until I was fourteen that I was officially diagnosed with depression and later bipolar disorder (along with assorted goodies like dissociative identity disorder and panic disorder and PTSD and and and). I’m off psychiatric medication, and for the most part I don’t find my panoply of diagnoses useful anymore, but they were a part of my journey at one point.
It was also around this time–maybe a little before, maybe a little after, my memory of my childhood is hazy–that I was diagnosed with two other disabling conditions: irritable bowel syndrome and fibromyalgia. I’ve had digestive struggles since I was very young. I can recall missing a lot of school due to stomachaches that were almost certainly a result of internalized stress and trauma. The fibromyalgia did not manifest itself until I was in my teens, but it came on strong when it did. I needed to use a cane to walk for a long time. (Along with all this, I had extremely debilitating menstrual pain that seemed to take up a majority of the month, I developed PCOS as a consequence of being treated with valproic acid during puberty, and I had various other issues crop up–like sleep disorders and RLS–due to the psych meds.)
My teenage years were mental and physical hell, some of it a byproduct of my not possessing the framework to understand the societal underpinnings of why I was experiencing the things I was, some of it a direct result of my divergent mind and body. I was taught to blame my hellish existence solely on my mind and body. The treatments I was given focused on correcting supposed imbalances in my brain or building tolerance in my body to things I felt I shouldn’t have to tolerate. I eventually got balanced enough or good enough at pushing past the pain that I could get off disability and get a job and tolerate injustice for a paycheck. And I thought I was as close to cured as I could possibly be; I was approximating normal, at least.
When my life fell apart and I along with it, I again sought cure. I thought psychiatric medication was the reason for all my disability, and if I could just get that out of my system, cleanse my system with enough detox and healthy living, I wouldn’t be in constant pain, wouldn’t feel like I needed to curl up in bed after a couple hours awake, wouldn’t feel every single worry in my muscles and joints or every single piece of food pass through my digestive tract.
(That wasn’t the case, either. I’m still very much in pain, very much beholden to my body’s need to eliminate fully every morning before I’m able to comfortably start my day, and very much inhibited by overwhelming fatigue on most days.)
Here’s the thing: until 2017 or so, I’m pretty sure I saw my disability as something I could overcome. Much like all the other characteristics I talked about–my race, my gender, my body size–I saw my disability as something conquerable if I was just exceptional enough. I’m not saying I would have ever verbalized this, and I certainly didn’t think it about other folks. But internalization runs deep, is insidious. Uprooting hegemonic thought patterns takes a lifetime, because they are forever changing and adapting as you change and adapt.
It took withdrawing from psych meds and confronting the continual presence of my disabilities to force me to reckon with their permanence. This reckoning is ongoing. I still sometimes find myself looking back at some mythical time before I became disabled, or looking forward to a time when I might be some shade of healthy, that is to say, less sick. And when I envision me as my best self, too often it’s a vision of myself being productive and able-bodied enough to perform activities like running or cleaning my entire house. The goal is to get to a place where my best self isn’t molded by ableist values. I want to make plans for the future that don’t center on the pain abating or my moods stabilizing.
I’ve realized that up until recently, I was attempting to do one of three things to my disabilities: cure, control, or contain. When cure seemed out of the question, I sought containment through rebellion and self-destruction or control through meds and adopting abled culture; when containment and control became untenable, I set my sights on cure through withdrawing from psych meds and convincing myself my disability was an artifact of their effects. Cure, control, contain is the model for cancer treatment, deadly and alien as we know it, and I knew my disabilities similarly. I hadn’t considered that they were inseparable parts of me, and might have something to offer other than suffering and eventual death.
That these parts of me are disfavored by white supremacist imperialist capitalist patriarchy is not a reflection of their true worth. The parts of me that achieve academically or generate income or do sports aren’t better than the parts of me that were too depressed to finish an assignment on time or that were on SSI or that couldn’t walk without a cane. I don’t need to isolate and berate the so-called deficient parts of me to protect the virtuous parts. All together they make me who I am, and I am glorious because of my disability, not in spite of it.
Now I have the language, the frame through which to extricate the struggles I experience due to ableism and the struggles I experience due to physical or psychological pain. I no longer look at my mind and body as something to be overcome. I’m learning to interact with my bodymindsoul in a tender way, to listen and consider and ask for consent, and not to judge or reprimand when I can’t perform in some way that ableist society has demanded. I’m lowering my expectations, because I wasn’t put on this earth to be productive, and I don’t see the point in playing along. What society has to offer me in exchange for breaking myself at its feet isn’t worth the blood spilled.
My disabilities are foundational to how I navigate the world. Having limited energy shapes my view of what is truly necessary to spend one’s time on, and thus dictates my priorities–growing love and nourishing spirit. My mental illnesses have shaped my understanding of the nature of reality: the relative abundance of sorrow and the rarity of true joy, and how important it is to protect the latter when it crops up. If it weren’t for these supposed impediments, I would likely have spent my life pursuing goals set for me by society rather than building a life guided by transformative love principles and seeking pleasure.
I truly believe my disabilities have something to teach me about how to live wholly in this world, something precious. I need only agree to stop trying to fit them in an ableist box, stop trying to make them small or acceptable or part of an inspirational narrative of overcoming that ties up neat in a bow with me as the cured crazy person at the end.
This week Kanye West and Chance the Rapper’s manager and some other folks decided to share a few thoughts on mental illness and medications that were less than ringing endorsements of the latter. In the midst of a Twitter rant against two other artists, Kanye mentioned that he’s not taking medication anymore because he felt it hindered his creativity; seemingly as a response to the backlash against that statement, Chance’s manager tweeted that folks should try lifestyle changes before taking psychiatric medication and referred to his own experience becoming addicted to doctor-prescribed Xanax for anxiety.
At first I was just going to let it ride and not say anything, because it’s Kanye and I don’t particularly like him or what he has to say lately. On this point, though, I felt where he was coming from. In the 20 years before I began withdrawing from all my psych meds, I also felt my creativity drain away. Yes, it was eventually replaced with the ability to hold down a steady job and maintain some level of stability on my meds that didn’t require me going in to the hospital every year to have them readjusted. But I mourned that loss, and I had to learn to accept a reformulated version of myself: one who was not a prolific writer, who didn’t use writing as a form of creative expression but merely as a tool to document my mood states from day to day.
Anyway, I was going to let it ride until my timeline started to clog up with other folks with mental illness (I won’t call them crazy, since I’m not sure they would take kindly to the reclaiming of that label) exhorting other folks to take their meds and completely dismissing what Kanye said. And then when Chance’s manager said their piece, it ramped up even more. It became overwhelming, confrontive, all that stuff–especially when people started trying to pathologize Kanye’s reaction to meds as resulting from “medication resistance”, and his Twitter rant as being evidence of his “rapid cycling”. It just reminded me that as someone who still has a severe mental health diagnosis somewhere in the system, I won’t be taken seriously because I’m not taking psychiatric medication.
Which is absolutely wild to me, because for the first half of my life I wasn’t taken seriously because I was taking psych drugs.
Back in the 90s, when I first started writing about my mental illness in ‘zines and online, mental health awareness seemed to be at absolute zero. Barely anyone was really talking about it in any real way in popular culture, and those who were, were usually white and upper/middle class (a la Elizabeth Wurtzel and Susanna Kaysen). I was all about the personal being political, so I felt revolutionary being a Black girl talking about my crazy openly and without shame.
I opined about my broken brain’s inability to produce a “normal” level of serotonin or norepinephrine or dopamine. I wholeheartedly accepted the medical model and in fact, in one ‘zine I wrote when I was a teen, I took it to its logical extreme by comparing folks’ unwillingness to allow me to commit suicide with denying a terminally ill cancer patient access to euthanasia. I thought this was logical because the doctors were telling me I would have to take a med cocktail composed of dozens of meds for the rest of my life just to maintain my marginal existence.
I never guessed that I’d be on the other side nearly 25 years later, disagreeing with folks whose arguments are based in the same logic. Or AGREEING with motherfuckers who advocate lifestyle changes before starting on psych meds.
Now, that last part is way controversial and I don’t fuck with saying anything of the sort on social media because it requires over 280 characters to articulate my feelings on the matter. But I do think that in an ideal society doctors would try nondrug treatments for mental illness first, because those treatments don’t scramble your brain chemistry. And I think our belief that meds are the first line of defense is rooted in capitalism’s productivity edict (which necessitates that recovery from mental health crises be quick) and the decades-long project the psychiatric establishment has engaged in to promote the chemical imbalance myth (in order to convince the public their discipline is as scientific as others in the medical field).
But I also know that we don’t live in an ideal society, and people don’t always have the time or spoons or resources to engage in nondrug treatment. I want people to be able to relieve their suffering by whatever means they need, whether that’s via psychiatric drugs or therapy or recreational drugs or exercise or massage or sex or nothing at all. Life is hard, and everyone is different. That’s why I’m not out here demanding that we stop prescribing medication across the board. But I see way too many folks doing the opposite and demanding that talk of medication only be positive to avoid scaring people away from getting the help they need, and that isn’t realistic. People need to know what they’re getting into. They need to be able to make informed decisions. And dismissing those who’ve had negative side effects from meds (like a loss of creativity) isn’t facilitating informed consent among psychiatric consumers.
(I’m not even going to get into how many of us enter the mental health enterprise under coercive circumstances–as children and teens, as adults under 72-hour holds, etc.)
So yeah, I’ve been thinking about this a lot over the past few days, and I decided I’m gonna start trying to pitch some essays to outlets about this stuff*. Because I don’t see my experience represented in the current discourse on mental illness and I think it is a valuable one. There are so many others who were harmed by psychiatric meds, and who have written about this stuff for years with little mainstream recognition. I want to help bring attention to this. Not because I want everyone to give up their meds, but because I want to offer a counterpoint. I’m not speaking out of turn; this is and has been my life since I was a teen. If there’s one thing in this world I know, it’s what it’s like to be crazy. And what it’s like to survive, every day, a mind that wants me to die.
(P.S. – I didn’t cite anything here because this is just a quick blog, but do please Google stuff if you think I’m a conspiracy theorist or making things up about psychiatry or whatever. Eventually I want to upload a lot of the material I have on the sociology of mental illness, because I think everyone should have access to this stuff. But today is not that day. Sorry!)
* Edited December 23, 2018 to say: I’ve realized I probably don’t have the emotional energy to handle the amount of rejection this would (and already has) result(ed) in, and so I may or may not do this, after all. I gotta save my rejection spoons for fiction.
I come to this page with absolutely no idea how to say what I want to say. But I’m here, and I’m gonna try.
First: let me stop assuming that everyone who comes across my work is familiar with my backstory. I’ve realized of late that I write as if the reader has been on this journey with me; I make vague allusions to events but never really flesh them out except in my own head. To describe the journey I’ve been on for the past 9 years will require a lot more context than I’ve been inclined to provide in the past. This will be long, but maybe, satisfying. And aren’t those the best?
Second: let me stop being flip like I was right there. This is silt churning, catharsis. It needs a delicate hand and mind.
I’ve been “political” since I was a young femme. I first got into environmentalism when I was about six. I was heavy into whales and other sea life, and I loved plants and nature and nonhuman animals in general. (I loved human animals too, but I’m trying to highlight that humans are also just animals!) The ozone layer crisis (this was the early-to-mid 1980s) worried the hell out of me and I made my mom buy non-CFC hair spray that she hated because it took so long to wind up. I also put a brick in our toilet tank that I’m pretty sure was still there when we left that apartment.
I ended up starting an environmental club at school, and we brainstormed on what we could do to save the planet with our elementary selves. There was a bad drought here in California at the time and my mom’s bank was giving away these envelopes filled with stuff like water-storing crystals for plant soil and pink food coloring tablets to drop in your toilet so you’d know if it was running and wasting water. I took a TON of them (because no one was taking them anyway) and we handed them out on the street.
My awakening to other issues that impacted my identity took place in popcorn fashion: staggered, bursting into view. At eleven I read about riot grrrl through the Prodigy message boards, and I became a feminist. At thirteen I began learning about Black liberation struggle and our African heritage; and at fifteen I admitted to myself (and my mother) that I was queer. I had been fat, to various degrees, since I was six or so, but didn’t connect the way I was treated because of it to any larger oppression until I was around fifteen as well, because it was around this time that I circled back around to riot grrrl and feminism. Riot grrrl led me to punk, which exposed me to anticapitalist ideas (but it wasn’t until this year that I actually read Marx).
(It should be noted here, that troubling these upper layers of ideology was a dark undercurrent of “pathology”. When I was eight I was raped by an older classmate, and became a survivor. When I was fourteen I attempted suicide for the first time, and became a survivor of a different type. I found feminism for the first time because of my experience with rape, and I found it again because of my experience with craziness.)
Riot grrrl and punk were kind of tarnished for me in the late 90s and early 2000s, around the time I was awakened to trans folks’ struggles. I made a really precious friendship during that period with a white trans woman who had some questions on race and who offered to answer my questions about gender in exchange. I’m still friends with her and I am so appreciative for that experiential skill-share. She and other queer and trans friends of mine were involved in the Camp Trans protests of the Michigan Womyns Music Festival because of their “womyn-born-womyn” policy. They would go around to different artists’ shows who played MWMF and draw attention to the issue. I was still recovering from my second suicide attempt and in some intensive therapy to process a second rape that was inflicted on me in 1999, so I was never able to participate in the protests (and I still feel shitty about it). But I stopped buying the music of all the bands that supported MichFest, which included one of my favorite bands at the time: Le Tigre. Hence my disillusionment with riot grrrl; Kathleen Hanna was a real idol of mine when I was a teenager and seeing her support a space that deemed my friends unwelcome hit me hard.
By the time I was twenty-five (2005) I had finished intensive trauma processing and was looking ready to enter the workforce (again, after a brief stint from nineteen to twenty). Once I entered the workforce again, my politics started to slowly bleed out the window. The more it looked like I was going to be able to be a productive member of society, maybe be able to have a career and an investment portfolio or whatever, the less I cared about radical shit. I never became a conservative or anything, but I definitely was trying to be normative. I was trying to fit in with the folks at my office, who were all obsessed with the milestones of life, with meeting societal expectations, but they didn’t know it. And neither did I, because my political awareness never actually ran that deep. I hadn’t made all the connections. I hadn’t rooted my understanding of these systems and their impact inside myself. I still thought that if I just tried hard enough, I could overcome. Because I was exceptional. Or at least, I could be, if I got my shit together.
I lived in this way for about four years, striving, considering myself middle class, considering myself on my way to something: acceptability, or respectability, or maybe even prosperity. But my body began to protest again, straining under the pressure of normality, a reminder. In 2008 I had a reproductive health scare and a lot of associated pain; in March of 2009 a doctor’s negligence in not treating my hypothyroidism led to my gallbladder needing to be removed. To top it off, I was laid off from my job a few months later.
And then, because disruption loves to cluster, my marriage unraveled. I was left alone with myself and what I had accepted as my life. That pain catalyzed me to really begin the work of decolonizing my mind. In response to years of repression, I spent a few summers on unemployment being queer and fat and Black and loving it. I also started to reconsider a lot of things about myself, starting with the origin story of my crazy. I still wasn’t making the deep connections yet, though. I acted as if I loved myself, as if I had begun to fully embrace all of my being, but that was just the confidence of others flaking off onto me. Once I was still and alone, I didn’t really know who I was.
(A year or so after my ex left is also when I started withdrawing from all the psych meds I had been on. Having been unemployed for a couple years, and coming into a full realization of how fucked the health insurance system in the U.S. is, I was really worried about being so dependent on it. Meds aren’t cheap, and the doctor visits to refill the meds are even more expensive. Plus, I disputed that I actually needed them, to be honest. Part of my newly reborn radical consciousness thought my craziness was a product of the meds, and that I didn’t have any debilitating problems before that. That’s not the case, but I’ve already talked about that elsewhere.)
The generosity of the government started to run out, so I folded myself back into acceptability and went back to work. I was eating well because I was trying to support my body through the withdrawal, and my mom had gotten breast cancer so we both went vegan together. As a result of these changes (and my increased activity level because I took a lot of walks to quell boredom at work), I lost a bunch of weight from 2012-2013. I also met my current partner. In spring of 2014, I went back to college for computer science. Again, I was sure I was on my way to something. It wasn’t as much about respectability this time, but it was definitely about prosperity. I really thought I was going to be financially stable, wealthy even.
Nah. I just got laid off again. And I got pregnant, and got awful all-day morning sickness that made me drop another twenty pounds. By the time I got an abortion, I weighed as much as last I did when I was ten years old. So that was wild.
(I think, though, that getting laid off that time was the last boot out of respectability I’m gonna take. I’m really not trying to go back.)
I ended up going back to school full time after that and that’s where I’ve been since. I now live with my partner in an apartment, because the big house my mom and I got went into foreclosure and we had to split. Having to actually manage a two person household, make sure rent and lights are paid, etc. has definitely radicalized me. There’s so much I probably knew was bullshit, but didn’t have to navigate until the last 3 years. Going back to school also helped me make more connections and understand how oppressions are related and perpetuated in a much more native way. And, honestly, this motherfucker who is currently President of the U.S. made me realize a few things about how useless civility and conflict avoidance are, and how norms are kind of bullshit. (I wanna write about that, but later.)
What brought all this up for me was that recently I started wearing sleeveless stuff again. Before this summer, I hadn’t worn anything sleeveless since 2011 or so. Back then I was writing about fat a lot, which led to me hanging out with a lot of amazing fat femmes. I felt bolstered by their beauty, and like I said before, their confidence was contagious. If you asked me in 2011 why I was wearing sleeveless shirts I’m sure I would have answered with something that was proudly body-positive, something quotable. It was a veneer, because I didn’t really know in my soul why. I’ve worked so long and hard to subjugate this body and contort it into proportions that society deems appropriate. I’ve done it as a punishment for my perceived fault in being raped, I’ve done it as a form of self-harm in order to soothe, and I’ve done it under the guise of health. Why would I not consent to hiding the evidence of my failure?
I told myself it was because my the skin on my arms is all wrinkly and crepey and hanging now since losing and regaining so much weight. I told myself I should have learned to love myself earlier so I wouldn’t have fucked up my skin with dieting. I told myself all the things that would convince me that this was my problem, that it was my fault, and I should take the L and wrap up my arms and probably my whole body and also just drop off the face of the planet because I was never meant to survive anyway.
But this summer is so fucking hot. And THAT is not totally my fault. In fact, I have spent my whole goddamned life ringing the alarm bell about environmental shit. That’s one thing I’ve never lost sight of. And the heat finally drove me to connect the dots and uncover my body again. I realized that if these capitalist motherfuckers are going to burn down the planet in their own quest for prosperity, I’m not going to consent to covering up my fat in this blinding heat, sweating it out in penance for not meeting a standard of beauty. That realization opened the literal floodgates. I’d already been spending the last year or so thinking about all the fuckshit I do to myself that makes my life worse in exchange for upholding the status quo. But my body hate and shame is deep rooted, entwined with shame about being a survivor of multiple rapes and assaults and as a result being sexually dysfunctional for the majority of my life, placing others’ pleasure and comfort ahead of my own. It took being off the meds for an extended time, I think, to catalyze this for me. Being able to think a bit more clearly, and also the benefit of age, has seared the connections between the way I treat myself and systems of oppression/social control into my mind. I can never go back.
Y’all, can I just say that I hope the rest of the world wakes up faster than I did? How I be around this stuff, writing about this stuff, but not actually knowing this stuff in the core of my being? I still, still don’t feel like I have this wholehearted embrace of every part of my body, but I am resolute in my intention to sit with my discomfort. I have a reason, now. I know why I’m doing this. I’m a child of god and I deserve to live my life without the fetters that humanity has laid on me. I am glorious, even if I can’t see it through the blinders of socialization into white supremacist capitalist imperialist cisheteropatriarchy.
I invite you to join me as I work through this process of self-reflection & transformation. Next up: breaking down my attitudes about my disabilities & divesting from a cure/control/contain model.
1c. & maybe i could shift my reality so i’m living in a world where i can do anything. i can act as if all this shit is available to me.
but what happens when my reality collides with consensus reality? how do i overcome that? & what does that do to my reality?
[it changes in some way; forces an identity reformulation.]
(then wouldn’t i be constantly having to confront the fragility of my own reality? what’s to prevent me from lashing out when my status is threatened? [see: whites in USA today])
1d. so much of advice for artists/writers/entrepreneurs/etc is based on a normative white model.
2. when i allow myself to feel even a teensy bit special, or to have any desire for success, i run up against individuality vs. collectivity.
2a. i’m pretty convinced Western individualistic culture is fucking up the world & i identify a desire for individual achievement as rooted in this culture.
i feel like the idea that you have to: “make something” of yourself, or have a meaningful impact on the world (even if that impact is positive or centered on helping others), or leave a “mark” is a facet of individualism
2b. when i get excited about writing this novel because i might get it published, or when i dream about having conversations with people i admire on podcasts, i identify it as a function of being raised in an individualistic culture
& thus it’s a problem
& so i beat myself up for wanting those things
3. then i decide my motivation for writing will be changing the world for the better, in collaboration with other artists writers activists etc. my contribution will be cultural, i tell myself. i’ll be working to shift the dialogue through my art, nothing more. no pressure. i’m one of many.
(it’s not about being famous or successful. it’s about making the world a better place, eliminating oppression, blah blah)
3a. but to do that i still have to be a singular person out here trying to market my writing. i have to believe my shit is just a bit better than the average writer because i’m asking you to spend your few coins on it in this time of scarcity/uncertainty. i at least have to believe it’s as good as the average writer.
3b. what if it isn’t good? (it definitely isn’t) then i’m just some shill out here duping unsuspecting people out of their hard-earned money, constantly looking over my shoulder.
3c. what if it is good, but i can’t get anyone to read it because i don’t have the energy/confidence/money/followers/x to get anyone’s attention?
3d. and even though i’m doing this to help better the world, and i’m not doing it alone, isn’t the belief that i can have an impact at all still individualistic at its core?
3e. um, what if i get financially secure/rich/famous and i sell out?
(don’t worry fam, you’re never going to be financially secure)
3f. …say you live the good life, you stay true to your principles, you make art, you publish it
choose your outcome:
maybe your words touch the hearts of billions and spark some kind of cultural shift
maybe your words touch the hearts of a few hundred, a few thousand, or a few hundred thousand. you lay a foundation, but nothing changes in your lifetime. so isn’t that still succumbing to individualism in the end?
maybe you sell a bunch of books but still struggle to make ends meet, and end up dying young from oppression and depression and stress
4. anyway, in 3 billion years the universe will die & no one will ever remember any of this happened. so why bother with it? why not just end it now?
4a. you have agency, you have choice.
you don’t think suicide is a sin
you know the world will not be losing some irreplaceable voice if yours is silenced
you know you are insignificant in context
you know death is only the companion to life, that it comes to us all, & is nothing to fear
you are in physical and mental pain
(so why not just die?)
4b. your people love you. your people would be emotionally devastated if you die. maybe it’s not the world, but they’re your world. don’t destroy them
4c. everything is suffering. maybe death is no more peaceful than life, just different. what if you are who you are even in death? what if you spend eternity ruminating over how pointless incorporeal existence is given the impending heat death of the universe?
4d. inertia is always less effort than changing course.
you know where these rapids lead. you know once you go over the falls you’ll get to spend some time in tranquil waters. let yourself go over. cry.
4e. maybe, eventually, it will get better.
4f. and if it doesn’t, don’t worry, you’ll probably die young —
* “Perhaps the clearest evidence for the benefits of illusions comes from the study of depressive cognitions. Independent work by several investigators has shown that relative to depressives, normals … are more prone to an illusion of control—that is, the perception that they can control objectively uncontrollable outcomes…” SE Taylor, Adjustment to threatening events: A theory of cognitive adaptation, American Psychologist (November 1983)
I made a decision recently to extricate myself from a couple projects that I took on while I was on an upswing, and no longer have the energy to be a part of. When I did this, I knew I was doing what was necessary given my recent struggles. Still, I’ve been ruminating over the decision, flogging myself for having not lived up to some external ideal of productivity, and for having let people down in some way with my departures. Depression feeds off rumination, especially rumination over the manifold ways in which I am not free—and by indulging this rumination, I realized I am allowing myself to get uncomfortably close to the abyss. I decided that I needed to shift my focus away from society and consider my role as personal master, jailer, and oppressor.
This is not to say that I’m now dismissing the ways in which society binds me; rather, I want to embrace the ways in which I can free myself. I want to live as freely as possible, within the scope of my current ability, and I want to reject ideas that stifle freedom. I can’t ask more of the Universe than I’m willing to do. If I can’t cultivate freedom within myself, how can I help birth it into the world?
This is a proclamation of my intention to work towards self-emancipation. These statements counter messages I am told by society; messages I have internalized and let take residence in my psyche, that now manifest as insecurities. Now I bring those messages into the light, refute them, and start the slow process of rooting out my subconscious acceptance of them. In this process I’m speaking mainly to myself, but I also want to reach out to anyone else who might need a nudge towards freedom in one of these areas.
I am free to be wrong
Even if I should know the answer, sometimes I don’t. That’s fine. It’s fine to forget in the moment, to remember five minutes later, to never remember. It’s fine to have never known. Only by being wrong can I test the limits of my knowledge and expand them. It’s also fine to be wrong in my actions or speech towards someone else or towards myself, as long as I recognize my wrongness and make amends. Just avoid being loud and wrong if at all possible. No one is free to be loud and wrong.
Our/my fear of being wrong is probably ableist, anyway. Subconsciously I’m probably recoiling from looking foolish, or feeble, or intellectually weak. Freedom is a place where being wrong—but being honest about it and open to learning within your capabilities—is encouraged.
I am free to fuck up
Of course I’m going to try not to make mistakes, but I will. If I didn’t, that would mean I was habitually doing things I had done way too many times before. I am human. I make mistakes. I just try to learn from them. Sometimes I don’t, and that’s valid too. I enact and embody my freedom by rejecting our individualistic, achievement-obsessed culture’s devaluation of “stupid questions”, mistakes, and failure.
I am free to take too long
This is more on nonlinear time; I’m also thinking about nonlinear/nontraditional life trajectories and “nontraditional” brains here. I might take too long to get out of the house because I was crazy in the morning and so I’m late to school. I might take too long to get through school because I was crazy for a decade and so I’m late to graduation.
I am free to say no
By saying no to opportunities I feel lukewarm about, I dodge roadblocks that might impede my ability to make room within time to accomplish things I feel passionate about. By saying no to participating in actions I’d rather not, I reinforce my boundaries and solidify my sense of purpose. Too many of us do not have the ability to say “no” in manifold arenas of our lives. Where we can, we must. “No” is a freedom word. The word “no”, when propelled from the mouth at a right angle, vibrates at the exact same frequency as Harriet Tubman’s soul. Or so I’ve heard.
I am free to change my mind
Yes, I said “yes.” But I’m saying “no” now. Absent guilt. This, too, is an embodiment of freedom.
I am free to define my own values, and I am free to reject values that aren’t mine
I no longer have to play enforcer of societal standards and values. I can keep the values I agree with, discard those I don’t, and adopt a multitude that aren’t important to the society I live in. Because it’s in the interest of white supremacy and capitalism and patriarchy that I flog myself—
for not living up to an ideal of financial stability and respectability,
not being hyper-productive,
not being ashamed of my fatness, my queerness, my craziness, and my blackness,
not being willing to work twice as hard to get half as much,
not being willing to perpetually starve myself to obtain a socially acceptable body,
not being willing to humble my desire for a collectivist world at the feet of my need for long-term security,
not being willing to transfer the pain of seeing the world as it is into a misguided defense of the status quo
—and that is precisely why I can’t engage in it. Values derived from a white supremacist imperialist capitalist patriarchy have traceable ties to my bondage, past present and future.
I am free to think of myself first as long as that doesn’t result in irreparable harm to someone else
Discomfort is going to occur for other people when I insist on firm boundaries or when I reclaim my energy and time. Discomfort is not irreparable harm, though. I have to recognize that although it is uncomfortable for both myself and whoever is on the other end of my self-protective act, ultimately I have to power through our discomfort and take the action that is best for me in the moment. No one is served by a miserable martyr.
I am free to survive thrive by whatever means are available to me in the current system
I want to live my best life, by any means necessary, and avoid hurting others in the process (at least as much as is possible in this world). Since I’ve rejected cultural values that aren’t mine, that also means I’ve rejected cultural values about what I am allowed to have access to as an oppressed person and how I’m expected to obtain material items. Corporations are now people, right?—and corporations are allowed to be financially irresponsible with no moral penalty. So I’m appropriating the right to financial amorality corporations enjoy.
I am free to make art that is shit
Without stabbing myself in the gut every time I look at it. Without wishing I had never made it. If I don’t make shit I’ll never make anything worthwhile, because I won’t know worthwhile from shit.
I am free to do something that someone else has already done as long as what I make is mine
Derivativity has to be authorized. My fear of retreading ground has killed so much inspiration. I know I have already written about things hundreds of people have written about, yet I use potential derivativity as an excuse to shoot down ideas. I should allow ideas to live their lives, give them shape, and see how they evolve. I can’t judge their originality until after they have matured. And even if I did make something completely derivative, that doesn’t discount its worth as an expression of creativity, only as an embodiment of originality. In my view, as long as what I create has honestly been synthesized in my own head, then it is creative, it is art. It might not be good, but I’m already free on that axis.
I am free to meander through life and not have a clear plan at all times
“Meander” isn’t necessarily a good way to describe why my life trajectory is skewed, but I feel like it’s describing my behavior recently. I made a shift in my plans for after I finish at UCLA, and I’ve been shaming myself for it occasionally, even though I know it’s in my best interest. The shift is further away from a guaranteed source of high income, and so I find myself reinforcing capitalist ideas about my self-worth being tied to my ability to generate profit for someone else (and in turn, generate some level of financial security for myself). Carving out a way to follow my passion is necessary for me to continue to exist in this world on any meaningful level—this I know. And I know the guilt I feel for taking so long to find my path is not intrinsic to me. It has wormed its way into my subconscious, but it isn’t my own.
I am free to be a “late bloomer”
Our culture, my culture at least, is obsessed with early achievement. We laud child prodigies and the “30 under 30” types. This has to be connected in some way with our culture’s inability to think long-term, our attitude towards our survival that sees burning out as preferable to fading away—or to constraining our consumption so that neither occurs. Briefly, I had a glimpse of prodigiousness as a child, and then it was gone, and it was just darkness for years. I’m coming back into the light, wary of its power but eager to take in its warmth. I cannot allow the sweetness of this moment to be soured by social expectations of age-appropriate achievement that aren’t even based in reality.
Even before I stopped taking medication, I stopped going to therapy. I didn’t have a therapist through most of the withdrawal process; only at the very beginning did I seek out a psychologist because I thought it would be safe. But I just found myself arguing with her, as we had such different worldviews and experiences. I could never get her to understand that given my history and my positionality, my extreme emotions were rational and evidence-based. I know there are radical therapists out there, but I just don’t have the time to find one by trial and error, and my insurance situation is such that I can only go to Medi-Cal approved providers or UCLA doctors. I did go to a psychiatrist and a psychiatric nurse practitioner while I was going through withdrawal because I still needed that script and because I figured they might have some knowledge worth sharing. Once I was done with the meds, though, I found no help in continuing to visit a mental health provider. I know therapy is, maybe, supposed to be a place to have your views challenged, but I don’t think therapy should be a place where your essential humanity is challenged. Most therapists are viewing me through the medical model or a similar paradigm, and likely have varying degrees of allegiance to the status quo. This is evident in their disbelief of my experience.
Before I went back to school, my desire to disengage from the mental health enterprise was not an issue. I didn’t see myself needing to verify for anyone that I’ve got the crazy. I figured that in a work scenario, I would continue to—like most people–use clever little white lies to get the breathing room I needed for myself. When I first started back at community college, I dodged needing to request accommodations for my crazy when it came to assignments, accessing services, and the like by leaning on financial and temporal support from my mom and my boyfriend. Their help allowed me to arrange my life as such that I could focus solely on school. That combined with my school being on the semester system rather than the quarter system (meaning we had 16 weeks to complete one course rather than 10) provided me enough cushion time to perform my self-care activities and fall apart when necessary, but still do the homework, meet deadlines, and get high marks.
I first realized I would have to notify the system that I was, indeed, a person who has historically been labeled “mentally ill” by practitioners at the end of last spring, when I was investigating how to get to UCLA. For some reason, simply living off-campus doesn’t entitle you to the ability to buy a parking permit. You have to go through this bureaucratic process that involves applying for the permit several months prior to the start of the quarter—with the potential to not be approved—and paying for it regardless of whether or not financial aid has disbursed. At community college, permits were cheap and plentiful; they issued them without regard for lot capacity. I spent a lot of time circling, but at least I didn’t feel like I had to fight to get a permit at all.
To get a permit the “normal” way for fall quarter last year, I would have had to apply for the permit in May or June and pay for it in August. I didn’t even know for sure that I would be driving there alone (rather than carpooling or using the vanpool) until August, because I wasn’t able to register for classes and thus couldn’t know what my schedule would be. And I sure didn’t have almost $300 in August, since that’s the month Rob doesn’t get paid and I don’t get any financial aid until the end of September. For a couple months, I was wracked with anxiety over the prospect of having no way to get to school, and I realized that I shouldn’t have to deal with this. No one should have to deal with this. No one should be going through this big step, going from community college to university—a step notorious for being a stumbling block for many students—and also having to deal with uncertainty on such a huge issue as transportation. Living 30 miles away should get you access to a permit, period. So, I decided to use the fact that my anxiety has been labeled pathological to make my life a bit easier. I got a letter from my last doctor vouching for my disability, and I applied for a permit via the Center for Accessible Education (CAE). CAE allows you to get a pre-approved application pretty much anytime during the quarter, so as long as you can get the money together, you can get a permit. But, I had to consent to be labeled in order to secure this luxury for myself. I had to admit on paper that I couldn’t navigate the obstacles the school erected in my path without an unacceptable level of suffering.
CAE also offers other services—and professors will grant you accommodations like more assignment time—if you submit to their more in-depth application process. At first, I thought I would just need the parking, but lately, I’m wondering if I shouldn’t make it easier on myself and just allow my diagnosis to serve me. UCLA is on the quarter system, so everything is accelerated, and it’s far, so getting there and back drains my soul. I’ve found that here, circumstances are such that I need to leverage my diagnosis to secure breathing room and refuge from unrealistic demands. The idea of expending valuable energy on the application process and potentially having to defend my choice not to take medication is intensely unappealing, however. What I really wish is that universities would stop simply accepting the inequality in society and perpetuating it, and start modeling what a better world could look like. Part of this might involve not forcing differently abled/neurodivergent/neuroatypical etc. people to engage with or submit to the medical system in order to prove their suffering would be increased without accommodations, especially when doctors are the source of that suffering for so many. A better path would be to simply disengage from capitalism and the culture of individual achievement and hyper-productivity it has produced. But since universities themselves are metamorphosing into profit-making enterprises, I suppose that might be asking too much. What’s really frustrating, and borders on gaslighting, is that the rhetoric the administration and faculty deploy around being more inclusive and supportive of nontraditional and historically underrepresented students does not reflect the structural reality. From jump, I have noticed obstacles that make it more difficult for students who don’t live on campus, who have jobs or kids or just the desire to not completely destroy their health over trying to meet the extracurricular and academic demands of being a “successful student”.
Part of me wants to try to change this system while I’m in it, to help whoever comes after me. I realize, though, that I just don’t have the energy to expend changing an institution I’m not even sure needs to exist in the first place. I don’t know that these sites of formal education are the best way of disseminating knowledge through a populace. I don’t think they are; I don’t feel like they are, but I’m willing to be wrong. As mechanisms for producing more individuals to fill socially acceptable occupations, universities don’t have a place in my ideal world. In my experience, formalized education processes out creativity and true contemplation in favor of a kind of diversified groupthink that passes for critical thinking. I would like to see a much more individualized educational system that allows learning to happen naturally. I don’t think we all need to know the same things. I do think we should all know certain things—a true history of world societies, economics, and exploitation for example—but I don’t think we’re currently teaching those things in school when we need to be, which is at the elementary level. In any case, my survival strategy for the remainder of my stay in the educational system has to be conservation of energy. I will leverage my diagnosis when need be to counter any structural obstacles both at the institutional and the social level that cause me unneeded suffering, but I won’t seek to transform the institution itself.
These are the trade-offs we make every day as revolutionary-minded crazy folk. We consciously choose when we engage with labeling and when we disengage; we decide when to deploy it in order to mitigate some of the harm structural inequality and access barriers cause, and when to reject it when it degrades our humanity. Hell, these are the trade-offs we make every day as black women, as queer and trans people, as people of color and other oppressed folks. Systems of oppression all have release spouts, features that allow oppressed people within them to use the system against itself in small ways. For example, as a queer femme cis woman, I could potentially leverage sexism and patriarchy to get a free meal on a first date if I was broke and starving (and single!). But no one should be starving in a world of abundance. My pseudo-privilege doesn’t negate the immense and disproportionate harm patriarchy does to cis women versus cis men, and it doesn’t negate the fact that the harm I would be attempting to mitigate was inflicted by an unjust social structure. I see the “accommodations” I can access similarly, in that I am addressing a harm that derives from our society’s embrace of hyper-productivity and white supremacist capitalism. It doesn’t negate that harm, but it makes it just a little bit easier to live with.
Time is a major fuel for my crazy—I worry about how much I have left in my life, how much we have left as a society, and how much we have left on this earth. Most often, though, my anxiety around time is centered on how little of it I have in each day that I can truly call my own. Being in school means my time is fragmented; although I only have to commute to campus two days out of the week, the rest of my time is primarily occupied with reading, writing, and adulting*. I have these competing demands for my “free time” at home, and it generates anxiety because I feel like I can’t get everything done, like there’s not enough time.
One day, I was doing dishes late, past my bedtime. I felt that familiar temporal anxiety creeping up my sternum, into my throat. I failed at time management yet again, it was 11:30 pm or whenever and I still hadn’t finished these damn dishes.
I said to myself,
[Why is a robot not doing my dishes yet?]
I know, right? No, actually, I said:
I never have enough time
And I realized two things.
1. Time is not mine to possess; and
2. Time is infinite, I merely move within it.
Since then, I have tried to use “time is infinite; I move within it” as a mantra when I feel the temporal anxiety rising up again. I also connected this concept to my experience of time as nonlinear in some ways, how I often live in past/present/future simultaneously and how that shapes my perception and interaction with the world. Often this manifests via my crazy. When I recall past events, if I remove the protective filter I have learned to construct around my memories, I feel acutely, as if the events were occurring in the present. I feel events I imagine will happen in the future similarly. So I believe time is not actually linear, it is only consciously perceived to be by many people.
I think our society’s ideas about linear time—about what activities are worth our time and what aren’t, about whose time is worth more than others and who is worth our time, about what free time is and who deserves it, and the classist/sexist/racist/colonialist/capitalist/etc. nature of those ideas—are oppressive. I want to reclaim time for all of us, since it ultimately belongs to none of us. Linearity is associated with scarcity, in my mind. Living in nonlinear time is living in abundance.
This is all fine and good, but in the society I’m at, they still use linear time and the 24 hour clock and all that racket.
– Me, 2018
Yeah, I know. I know this is abstract. But it helps me, honestly, to think of myself as moving through time fluidly, choosing what I want to experience and making space for those experiences within time, rather than thinking of myself as a temporal miser, a fourth dimensional Scrooge always worried about how much time she has, greedily trying to grub up enough to watch Deep Space 9. This is part of being kind to myself and others, trying to live in the future now by modeling what I think future social relations could look like. I think a remodeled conception of time might have an impact on our conception of the world. What if time was determined subjectively? What if you went in to your “job” (I put this in quotes because in my ideal world every day you would spend the majority of it doing whatever you felt called to do, so I don’t think it could be considered an actual job) not at the start of business hours, but whenever you felt ready enough in the morning to face the day with a clear head and open heart? What if your ability to be present—or your need to be absent—dictated what time it was?
These are the possibilities I think a world without linearity has to offer, honestly. But, I’m just dreaming and using that dream as a salve for my crazy. I’ve added this tool, this vision of a world without linear time, to my repertoire. I’m on an upswing now, so it’s hard to say how it will work when I’m in the dark. So far, though, I’m finding it soothing. I like the idea of swimming through time, like a temporal mermaid, so I try to envision that along with saying the mantra.
Hopefully, I can learn to permanently drop the scarcity complex when it comes to time, and live in the abundance.
I’m about to head into my third quarter at UCLA and I wanted to make time to write an update on how things are going with my mental health. This is a conversation with my past self—I’m quoting my previous essay on withdrawing from psych meds in order to note where my experience so far has now proven my beliefs to be either true or false. On the whole, my mental health has declined over the last 11 months, and I realize the theory I hatched about my crazy being limited to depression and anxiety was wrong. But I’m still relatively stable, and although I go through it sometimes (all of the time), I always come back out (I exist simultaneously in it and outside it).
Let’s get into dialogue with my ancestral self, shall we?
After a re-read, my previous post seems glossy. I’m talking like I’ve got rose colored glasses on, like this is the actual end of the journey (even though I seem to recognize that it isn’t by appending a “part 1” to the title) and I’m eulogizing my dead crazy. I mean, I lead with
For the last 5 weeks, I have been psych med free. I’m kind of ecstatic.
and I wax poetic about all the good I want to do in the world like I’m riding off into the sunset. Looking back on this particular period (last spring), I realize I was not a normal level of happy. I hate to use medical/biopsychiatric terminology, but I was varying degrees of manic, basically. It was that way for a while, and then I evened out. During the summer, I had a weird feverish depression/anxiety complex. The world seemed irreparably fucked, I was about to start UCLA, I was suspicious that my crazy was winding up for a knockout, and I was absolutely terrified that I would spiral out of control and be forced back onto meds. But I couldn’t be vulnerable enough to share all that publicly at that time. I was wrapped up in the idea of myself as triumphant conqueror of demons, and admitting that I still felt distressingly at their mercy was too raw. I had the sense that I was holding something wild and ferocious at bay, and if I acknowledged its presence, I risked lending it the energy it needed to overtake me.
In early autumn, I went without sleep for four nights in a row because I was so wound up over how things were going to go at school. I wasn’t enjoyably manic, it was more like a “mixed episode”, which manifested as a few of the worst aspects of both depression and mania. I had quit smoking weed over the summer to get ready for school, but on the 5th day with no sleep, after a reluctant but desperate visit to the campus psychological clinic, and facing the specter of being hospitalized and put on benzodiazepines or worse, I decided I needed to just get high. I slept like an absolute baby that night (and I haven’t slept that well since). I also haven’t stopped smoking weed every night (and sometimes afternoon). I still have a high GPA, so I’m now less worried about what smoking weed might do to my intellectual ability. But because I realize that 1) that worry was tied to my concern over being competitive with other students and getting into grad school, the former being part of a useless capitalist ideal and the latter potentially not being conducive to my health or future goals; and 2) grades are just an arbitrary measure of academic performance that is not reflective of whether or not I possess a deep understanding of the material, I am willing to sacrifice my GPA to preserve my health and facilitate my future goals if necessary. Perfection is overrated, anyway. So far, though, my self-care practices haven’t really affected my grades.
[I have to add a slight caveat to this statement, because my GPA actually went down over the last 2 days as the final GPA from winter quarter was calculated. UCLA is different than my community college, because they have this—heretofore inexplicable to me—plus/minus grading system. So it’s possible to get an A plus or a D minus. In fall quarter I got all A plusses and my GPA was 4.0. I didn’t get the value of the plus/minus since an A+ didn’t get me a GPA higher than a 4.0. It was basically the same as getting all As in community college, so I assumed that within the range of “A”, the value of the grade was the same. This last quarter, I got one A, one A plus and one A minus, and my GPA is now 3.952. Apparently A minuses are worth less than As! So my GPA did go down. It isn’t lower than it was in community college, but it is lower than it was my first quarter here. At first I was kind of mad, I’m not gonna lie. But I had to laugh at how funny it is that we feel the need to distinguish between As at all. I realize GPA is important for grad school admissions, but honestly, I’m not sure I’m even going to grad school at this point. I am, however, sure that I have to continue living on this earth, and I need to take care of my bodymindsoul more than I need to satisfy our hyper-competitive, hyper-productive capitalist society’s appetite for seeing oppressed people break themselves to meet its standards.]
My origin story explaining why my crazy is situated the way it is has changed a bit as a result of my experience over the past 11 months. Previously, I attributed my “mania” entirely to the introduction of SSRIs into my neurochemistry:
I no longer put much stock in psychiatric diagnoses, but for context, mine at the time I started withdrawal was bipolar I with psychotic features and an anxiety disorder not otherwise specified. Although personally, I think I was probably just clinically depressed rather than bipolar, and that the symptoms I exhibited which led to my expanded diagnosis were triggered by SSRIs.
I took a sociology of mental illness course last quarter (the worthless A+, naturally), so I now put even less stock in psychiatric diagnoses than I did when I wrote that. But by revealing the limits of sociological theories of mental illness, the course also furthered the process that my ongoing decline in mental health initiated—forcing me to confront the fact that it is partially some kind of flaw in my psychological functioning that causes the chaos, and that flaw hasn’t gone away. My moods do fluctuate beyond the range of “normal”, and whether or not this would have manifested in me without external stimuli in the form of SSRIs, I will never be able to say. But this madness is here, now, and although it is sometimes debilitating, it is actually manageable without the pharmaceuticals I was on previously. That is the one constant so far, that I do not feel the need to go back on any form of psychiatric medication. Weed has much milder side effects, in my opinion, and the worst side effects are usually controllable if I just don’t smoke so damn much, and take detox breaks. I also use other herbs like passionflower, scullcap, and lemon balm, but I’m just barely standing at the precipice of knowledge on plant magic tailored to my crazy. More on that later (briefly!).
The sociology of mental illness course awakened me to the reality that symptoms resembling what Western societies call “mental illness” occur in all societies, both precapitalist and capitalist. This had a twofold effect on my thinking regarding my crazy: one, it tied me to a group of “mad people” that span time and space but are linked by their response to human societies, and two, it illuminated the role my own psyche plays in generating extreme emotional states. I had kind of been operating on the assumption that if I could somehow be transported back to a precapitalist time, my crazy might be assuaged. Now, I’ve come to believe there are probably just certain people who are sensitive to the dysfunctions inherent in all human societies due to some vulnerability (gift?) they possess. I mention the “gift” concept because if there was a mainstream social role in U.S. society for empaths, psychics, mystics, etc., I do believe certain people who are currently labeled “mentally ill” in societies dominated by the biopsychiatric model of mental illness might escape that label. I don’t intend to invoke the culturally appropriative and simplistic idea that all crazy folks in Western societies are just shamans in disguise. But I do want to point out that in our highly rationalized, sexist society, mysticism is gendered, stigmatized and marginalized. Feeling in general is gendered, stigmatized, and marginalized—and those of us who feel humans’ inhumanity to humans’ so deeply that it impacts our functioning, who sometimes speak to those who are not there, who see things others cannot see, and who sometimes cannot function in this society because of it, are popularly characterized as lazy, weak, and incompetent.
But I digress. This isn’t a rant about structural theories of mental illness, it’s a conversation with myself. So let’s get back to it. Not everything has been proven wrong:
I’ll never be able to prove that my so-called mental illness was induced by drugs, but given that I’ve come off them successfully, I definitely think I’ve proven that the severity of my illness was greatly exaggerated.
I agree; this is still objectively true. I’m able to function relatively successfully in society, despite constantly questioning and railing against the metrics for success. Even if I were to use the same normative metrics that my adolescent psychiatrist was likely operating off of when he deemed me destined for institutionalization by 18, I would say that I’ve done okay. I held down several jobs, I went back to school, and I haven’t descended into unremitting psychosis without neuroleptics. Yes, I do have some extreme emotional states that are similar to symptoms doctors described as psychosis when I was a teen. But I have learned to live with them, sit with them, and to some extent appreciate them and harness them as coping tools. I think with time, my ability to harness them will improve and I will gain new insight into why I have these capabilities.
Probably the most debilitating aspect of my crazy remains the depression/anxiety complex. I’ve started calling it a complex because the symptoms are inseparable from each other much of the time—one too often precipitates or girds the other. Of course, this is the case with so many physical and psychic maladies.
[NOTE: I realize this is late, but, I want to explain my alternating usage of medical model terminology for emotional states and colloquial/subversive terminology for emotional states. I like to refer to what under the medical/biopsychiatric model would be considered mental illness as “my crazy”, or “my kind of crazy”, and the symptoms of such as “extreme emotional states”, but I do find it useful to sometimes use shorthand terms like “depression” and “anxiety” to describe emotional states, despite their medical connotations. As far as psychotic-type symptoms, I think each individual should characterize their own experience. I don’t think we need to categorize all forms of human experience for them to be valid and non-pathological. But it is true that sometimes we gotta use the master’s tools to at least draw his house.]
Part of my recognizing that I really do bear some of the responsibility for my crazy, in that it is not wholly a product of being forced to live in capitalist society, is recognizing that I need to nurture my spiritual self. It is this self that I have neglected in favor of pursuing financial and intellectual gain, and I have deep-rooted spiritual pain that manifests through my crazy. By strengthening this self, I know I will not cure my crazy, as it is not an illness. But I will learn to successfully navigate this world (and the next) with an open heart, while also protecting its tenderness. To accomplish this, I’m partially utilizing magickal practices and herbalism. I turned to my experience with herbs when I began withdrawing from psych meds and started that drift towards health I talked about:
But that drift towards health was permanent. The mindset change — from accepting a lifelong identity as a permanently mentally ill individual, to actively shedding that identity and embracing a new identity as someone who might have some mental challenges but has learned to work around them — was permanent.
I have realized that it was definitely only a drift towards health. It is a course correction that requires constant maintenance. Over the past 3 years I’ve lost a bit of the health I gained due to shifting socioeconomic circumstances in my life, and the effect of coming off the psych meds. I realize that I was impacted by being on them more than I initially allowed myself to consider. Many of the health complaints I’ve developed over the past few years could, in hindsight, be related to the withdrawal process (the story of the person behind Beyond Meds should have taught me this, but I chose to ignore it until now, apparently). I’ve only gone 11 months without any psych meds in my system, but I was on so many, for such a long time (almost 20 years), and during such a formative time in my life (adolescence/early adulthood), that it would be arrogant to think that I have been completely reconstructed in their absence. The healing and restructuring of my body/psyche will take years, I’m sure. I have a lot of mourning and growing and struggling and eventually some healing to do, and that process has to continue with as little obstruction as possible. But I have definitely shed the “mentally ill” label that I was given, and in turn gained a new reverence for its power to shape subjectivities.
In my growth process, I am using the traits and tools I described previously, in a judicious manner:
My tendency to analyze, my love of thinking, and my deep concern for the environment and human society are traits that led to my being diagnosed as mentally ill. Not because the psychiatric establishment is out to suppress free thought or something, but because those traits, left untrained and unchecked, can lead you to depression.
I say in a judicious manner because that statement remains true, too much thinking about the state of both yourself and society, as an empath, can make you depressed. And I am not as trained as I thought I was when I made that statement. I felt pretty trained at the time, because I was higher than high on life, and I was in denial about how effective these tools had been. Honestly, I am pretty sure my “mania” was partially a response to political/social events (I’m looking at you, 2016 U.S. election and its aftermath), and partially a response to personal events. And that brings me to the last comment I have for my ancestral self:
The withdrawal process forced me to create a framework where those traits that led to my diagnosis could also get me out of it. My love of thinking was employed in the service of self-reflection and improvement.
It turns out using “my love of thinking…in the service of self-reflection and improvement” was only so effective while I felt like the world was generally on a positive trajectory. When Obama was in office—despite such contrary evidence as the furthering of U.S. imperialist activities abroad, the promotion of neoliberal capitalist economic policies, the continued deportation of U.S. migrants, and the continued extrajudicial state-sponsored killings of black folks by police—I was able to convince myself that society was at least getting incrementally better, that working within the system held value beyond its use in a palliative, harm-reduction model to relieve immediate suffering for oppressed folks. After November 2016, my lack of a framework to deal with the emotional burden of living in society was starkly revealed.
This is not to say that the dude from The Apprentice is necessarily more of a clear and present danger to the future of the world than some past presidents. I have come to realize that it is so much more important to imagine and build futures today than it is to worry about partisan politics. What I mean by that is that as long as a political party or candidate is supporting the current system, they are supporting white supremacist imperialist capitalist patriarchy and I’m not going to vote for them. Democrat, Republican, whatever. I no longer feel the need to use voting as a palliative because I understand the system is not designed for voting to be a mechanism to initiate transformative change. I am no longer interested in working within the system except where needed to survive and ensure the survival of those who I love and those who are oppressed. Similarly, I am not interested in using the metrics for success, happiness, and personal value that institutions and individuals within the current system have centered. I am, however, interested in sharing knowledge on how to exploit and subvert the system to secure resources, breathing room, etc. for myself and other oppressed people—and I want to talk about that, but later, like maybe in a post about navigating gatekeepers in the educational system who demand you present medical proof of your crazy to be able to use it as an excuse to get accommodations like more time on assignments (note please that I don’t think being crazy means you should get special treatment in an ideal world because honestly if you are noncrazy and just have a really bad day I think you should just get an extra day to turn things in, but that’s related to my feelings about hyper-productivity and capitalism and academic knowledge production requirements in general so therefore tangential).
The theme of the past 11 months has definitely been one of upheaval, ideologically and spiritually. I have been forced to confront my assumptions about myself, society, and the nature of the universe (so, I mean, basically everything). Some of my previous beliefs endured and were strengthened, while some of them were discarded in the face of new experience or evidence. My beliefs surrounding my crazy turned out to be no different. It’s been enlightening—for me at least, I can’t speak for y’all— to have this conversation with my ancestral self, to see where our ideas about our self diverge, and consider where new growth occurred in the space between their divergence, as I (we) prepare to move forward with the next year.
I am a child of the Internet: I first started using my dad’s Apple IIe when I was about 6, and two years later I was firing up ye olde 2600 baud modem on my mom’s new Packard Bell 386 to try out Prodigy for DOS. It was 1988, before the WWW was even invented, so my Internet usage was initially limited to the aforementioned Prodigy service, BBSes, and other janky services like AOL and Compuserve. I’ve been an online creature ever since. This bout of mild nostalgia is meant to provide some context so you know I’m not a complete Luddite. My beef with social media is more a matter of preserving my mental health than a problem with technology in general.
But I do have kind of a beef with social media, at least when it comes to its effect on my mindstate and productivity. I became heavily engaged in social media in late 2009-early 2010 while my marriage was kind of crumbling. My nascent blogging career was just beginning, and everything I read about being a writer online said building a brand was crucial to success. Did I mention I had also just been laid off? Oh yeah, I just lost my job, so I had a ton of free time. Excessive amounts of free time combined with what amounted to a directive to use social media led to to my being on Twitter and Facebook like, all the time. Was I using them effectively? No, not at all, bruh. But I told myself I was Promoting My Brand and launching a career as a freelance writer. The problem was, I ended up spending my time using social media way more than I spent it actually writing anything, which is, of course, absolutely essential to actually having a career as a writer. At the time, I was going through a lot of deep emotions, so I just kind of ultimately didn’t give a fuck. Being a freelance writer wasn’t as fun and distracting as being a freelance social media user, and although the latter paid exactly $0, the former wasn’t a guaranteed paycheck either (especially when you’re not writing/pitching regularly). So I was really whatever about the productivity hit I took from using social media. My writing career was more of an ill-conceived-and-executed pipe dream at the time anyway (which is another post in and of itself).
I ended up getting a regular job after a couple years of being on unemployment and unsuccessfully trying to support myself via writing. Having less free time definitely curtailed my social media use, but I was still on Twitter every night when I got home. And yeah, I was sometimes a bit extra salty after a night spent frequently checking my feeds, but I didn’t think anything of it. After all, I met my current boo in these tweets, so Twitter can’t be all bad. Later, though, when I started to come off my psych meds and closely monitoring my mindstate became a matter of survival, I began to consider that social media could be affecting my mood significantly.
While I was in the throes of withdrawal, I noticed that when my usage of social media was the heaviest, my mood took a similarly heavy nosedive. Without knowing the exact reasons behind its effect on me, I decided to basically abstain from social media for an extended period of time. My absence allowed me the space to consider why I was on social media in the first place, and whether or not it was really crucial for me to participate in the online milieu on a regular basis. It also spurred me to look at the deeper reasons why social media had such a negative impact on my mood.
DISCLAIMER: These are my reasons for limiting my social media engagement, and are not intended to be a large-scale indictment of social media as a technological tool. I’m not trying to shade any particular platform (except Facebook, which is a total trash fire to me) or its users. I just gotta be honest about my own weaknesses and how social media preys on them. So, here we go.
1. Social media quickly devolves into social comparison for me.
Because social media promotes a kind of interaction that’s based on superficialities, it’s easier for me to see people as abstract entities rather than multifaceted individuals that have good days and bad days. Everyone seems perfect because we’re interacting virtually, so I don’t get to experience the mutual awkwardness that occurs during in-person interactions. I don’t see any humanizing flaws that can reassure me that I’m speaking with an average human being and not some kind of god of self-confidence. I also tend to be easily fooled by curation, and what’s available of people online tends to be either really amazing or really horrible. These extremes kind of encourage my tendency to black-and-white thinking, which is a depression/anxiety trigger. Although I can tell myself that @insertrandomhere doesn’t necessarily have a better life than I do, and that they might not even be truly happy, it’s astonishingly easy for me to fall into the pit of comparing myself to other people. Since I live with myself every minute of every day, I can’t measure up. I’ve seen/experienced myself at all my worst moments, but I probably haven’t seen these people at even 1/256th their worst.
And I’m not innocent of the desire to curate. I know I feel uncomfortable being vulnerable on social media, which leads to my own curation efforts. I would rather not lock all my content, but I am very much conscious of the “public square” aspect of social media and the fact that the Internet is forever.
2. Social media becomes a huge time suck for me when I get too involved in it.
Like I said, social media basically offers the ability to be the best version of yourself at all times, and interact with others from that basis. That makes it super tempting for me to ignore my “real life” in favor of an online life. It’s not that I’m compelled to spend ALL my time online, but when I should be doing things like homework or chores or writing or pretty much anything that’s constructive but requires a bit of effort, social media is a distraction. I don’t have a lot of energy after I’m done with school, homework, and whatever housework I have to do. Any energy I do have would optimally be put towards doing something that actually improves my life. I can’t afford to expend too much of it on something that could potentially lead to a bout of depression or anxiety that then shrinks the pool of energy available for the task of living.
I also easily fall into the outrage cycle online, which saps my energy further. There’s a whole lot of injustice out there, and you will find almost all of it on social media. For some people, this is energizing and inspiring and they do a lot with social media activism. For me, it’s just draining in large doses. I tend to become obsessed with following developments in every horrible event that occurs, so I have to engage with social media in a somewhat removed way in order to maintain my sanity–especially during periods where Black death is being shared incessantly or some political fuckshit is going down. I know the injustice is still there when I put down the phone, but becoming overloaded and depressed isn’t helping me combat it at all.
3. Social media brings out the worst in me.
Because social media adds a layer of abstraction over interpersonal interactions, it tends to bring out the best and the worst in people. Strangers on social media care about other strangers and even help them financially and emotionally during a hard time. The organizing that folks do on various platforms is impressive, and so much of the current agitation around police violence was greatly assisted by connections made on social media. This is the best of humanity, for sure. But for me, social media is more likely to bring out the worst. I hear the siren song of allowing one’s vanity and hypocrisy to run free and it sounds like sweet relief, because I work daily on quarantining those qualities in my own personality. For the reasons I mentioned earlier, both vanity and hypocrisy blossom and are rewarded on social media, and I don’t particularly want to make myself feel like that’s ever okay.
There’s also this mob justice mentality for some on social media that is unappealing to me. Right now I have a pretty low follower count on my platforms of choice (Twitter & Instagram), so that limits the liability associated with engagement. Still, there are always those who just have to try to find something wrong with any tweet that gets some RTs. Although I prefer it to Facebook, the brevity of Twitter unfortunately leads to a lot of people making statements that initially lack nuance but are later clarified after the first tweet gets RTed a million times and their mentions are in shambles. Facebook, of course, with its lack of character limit, is just rife with long-form unchecked ignorance. I guess I picked my poison, and I chose lack of nuance over manifestos of ignorance.
My solution to all this is to engage in a limited way with social media. I don’t use the platforms that I hate–although I have been informed that when I get to UCLA in the fall I’m going to have to start using Facebook because that’s where everyone posts pertinent info, which sucks. But yeah, I don’t use Facebook; I mainly just stick to Twitter, Instagram, and the occasional journey down a Pinterest hole. During school, I rarely check my feeds because I’m so busy, but on breaks I tend to spend more time engaging. I don’t care too much about follower count; although having more followers means more interaction and more people to amplify your work (which may or may not be a good thing), it comes with a set of tradeoffs that I understand can really complicate and degrade your experience, and I’m not sure I’m ready for all that. There’s a lot I love about social media, but for me, it’s kind of like smoking weed: I can’t just do it all day if I hope to get anything productive done. For some folks, using social media is productive in and of itself, but I ain’t reached that level yet. Here’s hoping one day I do.
For the last 5 weeks, I have been psych med free. I’m kind of ecstatic.
I’ve been on some kind of psychiatric medication since I was 14 years old. I’m 37 now. For nearly 23 years of my life – the majority – I’ve lived under a kind of haze. At one point, I was on 13 different medications. When I started this withdrawal process almost 6 years ago, I was down to 6. I was told by various doctors throughout the time I was on meds that I wouldn’t be able to live without even one of my medications, that I would surely spiral out of control and become depressed or manic and have to be permanently hospitalized. Yet the last 5 years have contained some of the most objectively stressful events of my life, and I’ve managed to maintain my stability with a decreasing amount of meds in my system. One of the things that helped me greatly was to read sites about the withdrawal experience, like Beyond Meds and Surviving Antidepressants. So, I wanted to talk about my withdrawal process here, in the hopes that my story can help someone else, too.
First, though, I want to give a bit of background to why I was on meds in the first place. I no longer put much stock in psychiatric diagnoses, but for context, mine at the time I started withdrawal was bipolar I with psychotic features and an anxiety disorder not otherwise specified. Although personally, I think I was probably just clinically depressed rather than bipolar, and that the symptoms I exhibited which led to my expanded diagnosis were triggered by SSRIs. I am a sexual assault survivor, and due to unresolved trauma, when I was 14 I attempted suicide. This led to my entry into the psychiatric system, and it led to the introduction of psychotropic drugs into my brain chemistry. I developed both manic symptoms and psychotic symptoms after being put on Zoloft as an inpatient. However, rather than discontinue the medication, my doctor put me on additional medication because he saw the symptoms as an endogenous illness rather than an iatrogenic effect. I’ll never be able to prove that my so-called mental illness was induced by drugs, but given that I’ve come off them successfully, I definitely think I’ve proven that the severity of my illness was greatly exaggerated.
Fast forward to September of 2011. After an adjustment to one of my medications, I started having mixed episodes. For those who haven’t had the pleasure of becoming intimately acquainted with the psychiatric descriptors for various emotional states, a “mixed episode” is symptoms of mania mixed with symptoms of depression. Me having a mixed episode wouldn’t be that big of a deal if it hadn’t occurred right after the med adjustment, and if it hadn’t been followed by my psychiatrist recommending we add yet another med to my regimen to counter this new side effect. With that recommendation, something clicked in me. Maybe I was primed to be open to change because I was going through a divorce and I had been underemployed for 2 years and shit was pretty hard right then. Who knows. But I knew it was utterly ridiculous to take another medication to counteract side effects from raising a dosage, rather than just lowering the dosage. And after a bit of reflection, I recalled that every medication I was put on, besides the Zoloft, was basically prescribed according to the same logic. Therefore, the only way to figure out what my actual problem was would be to completely withdraw from all the medication I was on. So I told my doctor this, basically, because I was cool with him and I always spoke plainly to him. I told him I wanted to come off my medication, I told him why, and I asked for his advice on tapering. I knew you shouldn’t just cold turkey psych meds, and I knew the longer you were on a med, the longer you should take to withdraw. I wanted to start with the Geodon I was on, because tardive dyskinesia terrifies me, and I was sure I was a ticking time bomb what with having been on neuroleptics for over 20 years. His suggestion? Switch to Seroquel, then taper over a period of a month.
I was shocked. Seriously, bruh? Do you want me to get TD?
At that point, I knew I needed to find another doctor, because he wasn’t going to be able to give me any real guidance through the process. I figured I’d be doing a lot of the research myself on what was best, but I wanted to work with someone who at least understood that slower is better. After shopping around (and encountering one naysayer who refused to take me as a patient and said he doubted I’d be able to come off the meds successfully), I found a doctor who was willing to help. He gave me a special compounding pharmacy prescription for liquid Geodon so I could taper with tiny doses. I felt that going very slowly would give my brain time to recover and not develop a dopamine hypersensitivity. I had reduced my Geodon on my own while I was looking for a new doctor, and I eventually developed some neurological symptoms (twitching, tremors, muscle spasms) that fall under the broad umbrella of tardive dyskinesia. I was scared shitless. I was so sure that it would eventually progress into something obvious, that my life would be ruined. And I had to deal with that very real depression and anxiety while my neurotransmitters were going absolutely haywire.
The panic I experienced over the possibility of being disfigured forced me to develop strategies for dealing with anxiety about the future, and learn how to avoid catastrophizing. Those strategies helped me deal with later crises in a productive way, when I had even less medication to bolster me. I never ended up getting full-blown TD, but I still have twitches and tremors and various mild neurological problems. I have to avoid things like coffee and excess sugar (tea is okay for me, presumably because of the l-theanine), because the twitching is exacerbated by stimulants. I also have to wear a sleep mask at night because my eyes have trouble staying closed if they can sense any light.
I’m not going to go into a ton of detail about what I did to support my withdrawal because it lasted for like, 5 years, and a bunch of other stuff happened in my life that’s somewhat unrelated. Maybe a post dedicated to all the minutia of withdrawal will materialize in time, but until then, here’s the meat of my survival strategy. In the beginning, I journaled every day so I had a record of any slow descent into madness. I ate well, slept for at least 7 hours a night, exercised, and managed my stress. In addition to quitting coffee and excess sugar, I quit smoking weed. I didn’t start smoking weed again until I had been free of Geodon for almost a year. I already didn’t like drinking, so I had no problem avoiding alcohol. In general, I tried to give my brain the tools it needed to repair itself, and abstain from any additional chemical interference. Eventually I felt comfortable making periodic exceptions, particularly after the Geodon withdrawal was over and it was clear I wasn’t going to be permanently disfigured or disabled. But that drift towards health was permanent. The mindset change — from accepting a lifelong identity as a permanently mentally ill individual, to actively shedding that identity and embracing a new identity as someone who might have some mental challenges but has learned to work around them — was permanent.
My tendency to analyze, my love of thinking, and my deep concern for the environment and human society are traits that led to my being diagnosed as mentally ill. Not because the psychiatric establishment is out to suppress free thought or something, but because those traits, left untrained and unchecked, can lead you to depression. Combined with the trauma of being sexually assaulted as a child and the intellectually oppressive nature of the Christian school I attended for elementary, I was doomed without some kind of intervention. The withdrawal process forced me to create a framework where those traits that led to my diagnosis could also get me out of it. My love of thinking was employed in the service of self-reflection and improvement. My tendency to analyze was focused on analyzing my habits and actions and deciding what needed to be changed or eliminated to improve my mental health. And I realized that in order to support my mental health, I needed to take actions that were in sync with my deep concern for the environment and human society. I needed to live in accordance with my values, because when I did things that were counter to them, I felt discontent.
So, I set about determining what my values were and how I could best live up to them. I started a vegetable garden because I found that a connection with nature and the food I eat is essential to my psychological and physical well-being. Gardening led me to consider how learning to work with nature to feed yourself could improve the lives of oppressed people who have so often been forcefully disconnected from nature. I became passionate about food justice, access to green space, agricultural self-sufficiency for minority neighborhoods, and other issues that combine environmental preservation and conservation with social justice. And I changed my major to sociology because I decided that I wanted to get a degree that would help me further my dream of a better society rather than just help me make more money.
Despite the detour my life took as a result of having been put on psych meds, I don’t advocate the abolition of psychiatry, and I’m not evangelizing against all meds. I think pharmaceuticals have a place, and that sometimes people might need meds to help them out of a tough situation. I just think that choice should be an informed one, and I think meds should probably be a last resort. Kids and adolescents should not be put on drugs if at all possible because their bodies and minds are still developing. I’m lucky I was able to emerge from the other side of my experience relatively unscathed, against the odds. Not everyone is so fortunate. Now, I’m looking forward to living the rest of my life unencumbered by meds, rediscovering my mind and experimenting with different ways of managing difficult emotions without pharmaceuticals.