Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Embodiment, interconnection and oppression: coming out as depressed and how Robin Williams death made me realize that mental illness is more than just a chemical imbalance.

Like many people, I am shocked and saddened by the suicide of Robin Williams. His suicide has fortunately or unfortunately been a catalyst for many conversations and articles about mental illness.  While I am glad that mental illness is being discussed in a mostly honest  and respectful way, I find most of the discussions to be somewhat lacking, despite the fact that they are also very  refreshing. Confused by my reactions, I am using this post to explore the thoughts behind  my feeling that the current discussion of mental illness is not enough.  I am not dismissing the necessity of addressing the stigma that surrounds mental illness and/or suicide I believe that  addressing this stigma can and will save lives.  However, I also believe that we must expand the current conversation on mental illness and suicide to include the topics of oppression, structural violence and discrimination. I believe that any other discussion on mental illness without addressing the impact of  these social forces on illnesses like depression, and access to treatment, may become  superficial and privileged. After all,  mental illness, like everything else in the world, does not exist within a vacuum.

 As always, I will use my own experience to exemplify and  further explore my claims. For example, I am a queer, white, physically disabled woman. My identity, as well as  my privilege  shape my  experience of mental illness every day. First, micro-aggressions, discrimination and internalized shame have fueled, at various times, feelings of  insecurity, hopelessness,  and depression. When I was 13, I was suicidal due mostly to how I processed   the shame that I internalized about my disablity. Even my very first encounter with the mental health system,  was rooted in both my early reactions to ableism, (My mother took me to a therapist as a child to help me accept my disability), and being the recipient of privilege that afforded me  access to therapeutic care.

 Furthermore, despite my privilege,  the marginalized parts of my identity can also  negatively affect my access to safe mental health treatment.   In the past, I have received therapy from some ableist, sexist, and/or homophobic men. From ages 13-16 I had a therapist who was openly homophobic and who encouraged me to come to the sessions wearing make up, so if I ran into  his male patients, I would look pretty. As I grew older, I was often confused about our therapy sessions and at times felt victimized. Then, at age 16, I came out as bisexual to a new therapist  He dismissed my sexuality by simply responding 'no you're not' and moving on. He was the first person that I came out to. Finally, I had a therapist in 2011  who was convinced that my episode of depression was caused exclusively by the fact that I was living with CP.  He refused to believe that my disability was no longer an issue of emotional distress for me and wouldn't address   any other areas of my life. I was left feeling resentful and silenced, and could not, at the time, get another therapist.   I believe that if I was a straight, able bodied, male, my experience in the mental health system  would  have been very different and even safer. Mental illness, therefore, must be discussed  in the same way that  we discuss gender, race, sexuality and class, as it is affected by all of  these factors, and like them, it is often an embodied and complex experience/ identity.

I urge people to think about mental illness on a level that is deeper than just talking about the diseases, or on a level that is deeper than how Robin Williams may have experienced it.  We have to ask ourselves why the dominant conversations around mental illness are led by the dominant group and how we as individuals are playing a part in this biased and privileged system. We have to even look at and discuss the way oppression affects how people with mental illness are treated in the disability community and also why many people  mental illness refuse to identify as  being disabled.  We have to wonder why there aren't mandatory trainings on undoing the isms in every mental health curriculum and  why it seems that most mental health treatment is designed specifically for white, upper class, able bodied, straight men. Why are we talking about mental illness without also talking about how  mental health is a  privilege?    Everything is interconnected. Let's use this awareness to start solving the problems in the mental health system. Everyone should at the very least get a chance to explore options other than suicide. I have depression, and I may always struggle with it, but it is more than just a chemical imbalance, in many ways,  it may be the way my brain reacts to  societal imbalances. Nothing exists in a vacuum.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Reclaiming my body: the relationship between soil and my crip identity.

Often, I feel like my body has never been my own. Since I was young, it has been treated like a collection of muscles that work the 'wrong way' and bones that may turn the 'wrong way' . To get through numerous medical appointments I perfected the art of being disconnected from my own body. Lost in my own nature.

Gardening is healing that disconnect.  Perhaps, my  learned conflict and unease with my own body is akin to the conflict and disconnect most people feel  with the earth, the soil and the food they consume. The more I garden, the more I learn how to breathe into my body and connect with it as a part of nature, and not a diagnosis. My body is part of an ecosystem and an atmosphere that sustains life on earth.I breathe in Oxygen and let out Carbon Monoxide, while  trees take in my CO2 and emit oxygen.  I am a functional part of nature, and no leg brace can change that.

However, have we all become consumerists in and of our own bodies? Are we as disconnected to our nature, as we are to the worker who constructs the material products we purchase? Has our sense of community and  self become so fractured that we have  willing turned our bodies into commodities bought  and sold by the medical industrial complex and the media?

I think every time I touch the soil I reclaim my body as my own. Every time I help build community, I reclaim my spirit as my own.  Perhaps,I am not a crip or a krip or any other label. Perhaps social labels, in general are just another way to turn identities into commodities; to divide and organize society. Isn't that how targeted advertisement works? Maybe, if I just strive to be a 'radical compassionalist',  to learn pride through practicing compassion and community, I will find the answers I seek.

How Martin Luther King saved my life

  I spent some time this past MLK day, reflecting on the healing powers of community and advocacy. The legacy of Martin Luther King has saved my life numerous times.  The first time I learned about Martin Luther King in elementary school, I saw a recording of his 'I have a Dream' speech and chills shot up my spine. As Dr. King spoke, I felt less like the "different" child that peers and teachers had to work to accept. His speech introduced me to three core  concepts that have been critical to my survival as a queer, disabled woman:

  •  I'm not responsible for the way society views and/or treats my body. Nothing is innately wrong with how I move, I am not ill; it is society's view of my body that is problematic.
  •   I am not the only person who is treated as 'different' or denied opportunities. 
  •  I am not as powerless as society would have me believe. I can create change. 

Of course, at 7 or 8 years old, the way I verbalized or understood the above concepts differed greatly from how I understand them today. However, my young age did not prevent a rudimentary awareness of oppression, community, and advocacy  to be  planted in my psyche. An awareness that would later support me in my internal struggles against learned and oppressive thoughts. Even as a young child,  I  accepted and internalized the various social "truths" told to me about my body on almost a daily basis. By 7 or 8 years old a hole began to grow in my soul, a hole that eventually grew so big, I no longer new myself separate from various forms of validation.  The social 'truths' I accepted had  effectively isolated me from my own body and community. One day, I asked my father if I spoke about the speech  when I came home from school that day. My father remembers that I told him           ' somebody understands me; I'm not alone'.  And that very true and transformative realization of community even in oppression, never left me.  And so the cycle of self - discovery and healing through justice  was able to  begin, even before I fully understood injustice .

 At sixteen years old, I decided that social justice wasmy purpose in life and if I helped future disabled or marginalized youth navigate life with happiness and pride along the way, I would be complete. However, I harbored hatred for my disabled body until my mid twenties. Throughout high school and periods of adulthood, I wouldn't even go out on dates when asked, because I was convinced people would eventually be embarrassed by me. It didn't matter what I knew intellectually about justice, I was still ruled by many learned and oppressive thoughts.Oppression (defined as the 'exercise of authority or power in a burdensome, cruel, or unjust manner'), when internalized can create such an isolating soul sickness.

Internalized oppression burned my soul and charred my bones, and as an advocate, I now, feel guilty that I still get wounded.  However even in my most shame full days,  Martin Luther King's legacy always  gave me hope  for change and justice. He taught me that I did not have to accept my marginalization in society, that I could speak truth to power, and  fight for a better life.  Friedrich Nietzsche said 'He who has a why to live can bear almost any how', and it was the ideology and advocacy of Martin Luther King gave me a 'why' to live.