Monthly Archives: September 2013

Hypocrisy

These past few months, I have learned I am a hypocrite. I say one set of things and I think another. And it’s not very pretty.

You see, I advocate for a better understanding of mental illness. I tell people that mental illnesses are just like physical illnesses. That you can’t think your way out of them. That they are potentially fatal illnesses, like cancer or diabetes, and they needed to be treated the same way, with some combination of medicines and lifestyle changes. I get angry at people that tell others to harden up, to snap out of it, to get it together. I guess I could be described as an advocate, except that I don’t have much of an audience to advocate to.

This round of depression has been a particularly bad one. I lay on the couch, reading to stop myself thinking, for more than two months. I don’t remember anything happening in that time. It’s just a dark fuzz. And this time around, my thinking was everything I hate about people judging the mentally ill.

There was a lot of ‘should’. I should just get up and do things. I should just stop being sick. I should just get over it. I should pull myself together. I should be looking after the kids and not relying on my partner. Myriads of ‘should’ statements that tore at me. I became a hypocrite, and I turned on myself. I still advocated for others to be treated well, but I did not extend that thinking to my own life.

There was a reason for the way I was thinking. It’s not the only reason, but it’s a big one. The reason is that the dismissive, cruel treatment of mental illness is so prevalent that it seeped into my subconscious, to be dragged out when I was vulnerable. It’s not the first time it’s happened, and it might not be the last, because I’ve internalised the message, both by experiencing it and by fighting it.

I am a hypocrite, but only toward myself. To you, and your loved ones, and everyone else in the world, I believe that you should be treated with dignity and not have to deal with stigma. In my head though, I don’t deserve such consideration.

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Sticks and Stones

A large part of the abuse I lived through was verbal and emotional, rather than physical. I’ve always felt that this made my experience less legitimate. No-one was beating me to within an inch of my life – it was just being slapped around a bit (I minimised the physical stuff as a kid, and I still do so, because I still live in the mindset of ‘it wasn’t that bad). I wasn’t sexually abused, I wasn’t burned or branded or stabbed. It wasn’t that bad.

New research, however, challenges my idea that it wasn’t so bad. The research says that people who were verbally abused, by peers or by parents, have permanent changes in their brain structure. These changes predispose the person to a range of mental illnesses.

Maybe my abuse left no visible scars, but ten years after escaping, I believe that there’s a good chance I’m suffering from the results of the mental scars. There is some history of mental illness in my family, but as far as I know I’m the first to suffer from whatever the hell I have. I was shaped by the experiences that I had, and the experiences were bad enough to damage me, badly.

There are probably plenty of people that lived with verbal abuse and walked away psychologically sound. I wish I was one, that I could just walk away from that part of my life. But it’s changed my opportunities and my functionality. It’s changed every part of my life. And I curse the woman who did this to me.

It Takes Too Many Deaths

Today’s NZ Herald carried an article that is both hope and despair for the mentally ill of this country. A coroner has referred the deaths of two Tauranga men on to the Law Commission because of his growing frustration with the failures of the mental health system. There’s hope that maybe this might begin a path to change for the system, but despair that it is taking so long, and fear that this will just disappear into the wasteland of bureaucracy.

The cases he highlights are pretty bad. The first is that of young husband and father Brad Milne. He was transitioning between two psych medications, and appears to have been under the care of just his GP rather than a specialist. Medication transitions can be messy and dangerous, and I contend that they should be done under the supervision of a psychiatric team. Knowing about and being able to trust the local crisis team is another thing that I see as important during a transition. His family believe that he had no-one to turn to when the crisis came, which suggests that he did not know of or feel able to use the services of the crisis team.

The second case was awful in different ways. Eighteen-year-old Brendan Russell became depressed, and ended up self-harming. He was referred to the crisis team after seeing his GP, but he refused to see them. He was worried about mental illness affecting his career opportunities, and about how it would look to others if he was hospitalised. That’s just heartbreaking. The stigma of mental illness stopped a very unwell young man from accepting help. During this time, he made contact with other young people, telling them that he was going to harm himself. Finally, after telling a counsellor he was going to kill himself and being told to buy a notebook to write his feelings down (what? He threatened suicide! Warning bells, people!) he took his life.

These two cases are representative of too many New Zealanders, particularly young ones. They highlight some of the worst failings of our system, and our culture. The system fails us. It is understaffed and underpaid. GPs are trying to deal with complex mental illnesses as best they can, while waiting on the resources they desperately need. Resources that are stretched far too thin. There are too few psychiatrists, working too few hours, and they need to shuttle people out of the service as quick as they can, back to the GPs. The system fails us because we underfund mental health care, and we watch as people die because of it. Mental illness can be fatal, but with good treatment it doesn’t have to be. We just don’t have enough good treatment.

Our culture also fails us. The ‘toughen up’ attitude is so common that it’s not surprising that some people risk death rather than exposure as a mental health patient. We’re stigmatised. We’re treated as less worthwhile than normal people. We’re discriminated against in the workplace because of the chance that we might get sick and need time off. Even if we are stable and well, we still don’t get an equal shot. This is the truth of mental illness, and Mr Russell was not being unreasonable in his fears.

Perhaps this one angry coroner can stand up and change some of this. Maybe if people like him keep standing up, then their voices can be heard.

Love The Sinner, Hate The Sin

The various flavours of Christianity have differing ways of treating LGBTQ people. They range from complete acceptance through to the mad supporters of Uganda’s ‘kill the gays’ law. My argument today lies with not just the crazy end of the scale, but also many of the ‘moderate’ views, views which are presented as oh-so-polite but hide a poisoned blade behind them.

This particular post was set off by the words of American Evangelical Bryan Fischer. He sits somewhere between the moderate Catholic viewpoint and the put-them-to-death extremists. His comments are not new. He insists that he loves gay people, but speaks of “the darkness and the perverseness of that lifestyle” (the ‘gay lifestyle’ is a rant for another day). He refers to gay people as deceived, and their sexual orientation as a disease. All deeply loving things to say, of course.

In reality, he loves gay people that are healed by the blood of Jesus and turn away from their evil lifestyle. Nothing short of complete denial of their sexual orientation will actually trigger love and acceptance from that crowd. Even then, it’s almost certain that your salvation from sin will become a testimony that they want you to share, over and over, because you’re a success for their closeted, close-minded doctrine.

What about the ones in the middle of the scale, who are trying a little harder to love the sinner while hating the sin? The Catholic Church is a good example of these people. They are very honest in that they try to accept and love people of every gender and sexual orientation, but they abhor the ‘homosexual act’. This is messed up in two ways (that I can think of right now).

First, the ‘homosexual act’. What the hell is that? Is it simply non-procreative sex? The Catholic Church added a ‘unitive’ function (bringing a couple closer together) to their definition of allowable sexual practices more than eighty years ago, so if the sexual practices are bringing a couple together, they should be ok . . . right? Is it sex outside of marriage? With the advent of marriage equality, that argument is shredded. Is it penetrative anal sex? There are far more sexual acts available to couples. And why the hell are the Church so bloody interested in the nature of the sexual acts of people who haven’t invited them in?

Second, passing judgement on the way people show their love for each other is only a shade different from passing judgement on the people themselves. Sexuality is an intrinsic part of a person, and condemning people for it is like condemning them for having red hair. Sure, you can shave it off or dye it, but you’re denying a core part of your being. Or perhaps more like condemning someone for being 5’2″. You didn’t choose it, and changing it is near impossible, but it’s who you are. Abhorring these intrinsic traits, or the way they are expressed, is as good as abhorring the person.

But, says the church, if they’re celibate then everything is fine! They’re not sinning, and we can fully accept them. And to that, I say Fuck You. Controlling people’s lives like that, defining who is acceptable by how well they resist their desires, is sick. I know that priests sign up for this, but it’s their choice. If you’re gay, well, sorry, you’re stuck with it. And that’s wrong.

LGBTQ people are (believe it or not) people. They deserve the same right to love and make love to the people that they desire. And churches need to brush up on human rights, or the need to butt out and keep their opinions firmly away from both the media and from anyone who might be hurt by their bigoted ideas. Join us in the 21st century, or be silent.

The Mentally Ill Person’s Dream

*disclaimer: this may not apply to all mentally ill people

You’ve heard about the American dream (a set of ideals in which freedom includes the opportunity for prosperity and success, and an upward social mobility achieved through hard work, according to Wikipedia) and the Kiwi dream (a quarter acre, a place to watch rugby, and plenty of beer). There are even people that live those dreams (probably a greater percentage of Kiwis than Americans, hard work doesn’t necessarily get you far). What might a mentally ill person’s dream look like? This is my take on it.

A medication regime that controls symptoms well, and doesn’t have a horrendous side effect profile. With any luck, that regime is also only a few drugs, because taking handfuls of medication isn’t much fun.

A sleep pattern that doesn’t interfere with everyday tasks and appointments. One that’s easy to manage without always needing medications to induce sleep, and the corresponding half litre of coffee the next morning to rejoin the land of the wakeful.

The ability to go about everyday tasks easily. No panic attacks, no brain wandering off to pick daisies, no uncontrollable emotions or actions.

Being well enough to realistically seek work or training, without the fear of mental illness taking the ability to work or study away.

Acceptance from other people. Friends that are supportive rather than judgemental. Colleagues that judge based on skill not stereotype.

The ability to interact with others without them instantly knowing something’s wrong, so there is a choice about whether to tell them.

The ability to feel and seem normal.

Abuse Enablers That Want To Be Friends

When I was fifteen, I ran away from home. I refused to go to church one Sunday, packed a little backpack, and left. It wasn’t a great day, and I ended up going to the house of some people I trusted. I poured out the story of what home was like, and why it made me run. The youngest daughter of the household has also experienced the nasty side of my stepmother, having been verbally abused and pushed down the stairs when we were looking after her after school so she wouldn’t be home alone. I thought these people might understand.

They turned me back over to my father.

This family knew what was going on, and they didn’t do anything to help. I suspect that perhaps some ‘counseling’ was done within the church, and my stepmother probably prayed for forgiveness (well, maybe) and patience (because everyone knows that abuse happens because children just try your patience so much). That’s the way it was done in my church. You were also supposed to get the forgiveness of the one you wronged, but that couldn’t be checked up on. So, in all likelihood, she got her divine atonement, Jesus’ blood covered it, and she was off again. The abuse would continue for another six months or so, until she threw me out.

This family betrayed my trust. They sentenced me to continue in an abusive home. They enabled my stepmother to go on as she had. And they stayed as ‘close friends’ of my family. The way they treated us didn’t change even though they knew what was going on.

To be fair, I look back on what I knew of them and realised that there was probably a good dollop of abuse going on there as well, mind games and overly harsh punishments. Perhaps I went to the wrong place to look for help.

A week or so ago, I get a friend alert on Facebook. The father of that family wanted to be Facebook friends with me. And it plunged me into a world of pain and confusion. All I could think of was how they didn’t help me when I needed them. Eventually I resurfaced, and began to think on what this all meant to me.

I haven’t spoken to him for more than ten years. I have become an outspoken atheist, a supporter of equal rights and abortion access. I am the polar opposite of what he still is – a ‘man of god’ who fasts and prays, and whose Facebook posts always start with a bible quote. I have absolutely no commonalities with him any more. The feelings he stirred up in me belong to the past, and I do not like the way that he managed to stir them up.

He is the second person from that church to add me in the last few months. I want nothing to do with that part of my past, and every time someone requests friendship, it takes me back to those memories.

What does being Facebook friends with someone who hurt you in the past mean? I guess it means either that you have forgiven them, or you have another motive for it – revenge? masochism? I don’t know.

I declined the request. I want nothing to do with that world any more.

Crime and Punishment

I read a short article today detailing some of the crimes of a pastor from Iowa. His crimes were ugly – having sex with young men, one of whom was only fourteen, and claiming that it was to help them become sexually pure in the eyes of God. There are plenty of anti-gay groups out there, and they’re all wrong, but having homosexual relations with kids in order to cure them of homosexuality is way out in front of the ‘harmful ways to try and change an inherent part of a person’ pack.

What the man did was vile. He raped teenagers repeatedly under the guise of helping them, using and abusing their trust and his position of power. It’s sick. I could throw adjectives at this for a long time, and then it would be time to create new words for it. It was incredibly wrong. But that’s not what I want to talk about.

The article had a comments section, and the commenters were asked what punishment they think would be appropriate if the man was convicted. The comments were not as ugly as the crime, but they were still distasteful.

Send him to a prison with people that will rape him! . . . That makes us no better than him. That makes us in favour of rape if we don’t like the victim for whatever reason. The Geneva Convention makes rape in the course of war a war crime. Rape in the course of Justice is just as bad. Rape is bad. Fullstop. No exceptions.

Castrate him! Without anaesthetic, preferably! . . . what kind of monsters do we want to be, that we would subject a man to that kind of pain? Yes, what he did was sick, and I can even understand the idea of chemical castration for sex offenders. But taking a blade to a man’s most sensitive parts is barbaric.

Crucify him! It was good enough for Jesus! . . . Do we really and to get into the business of death for sex offenders? It’s far too easy to execute an innocent man. I understand some of the thinking around the death penalty, and I understand that it would be cheaper economically to execute the worst criminals. Even if it was decided that the death penalty was to be the sentence for this type of crime, do we want to emulate one of the most tortuous methods of execution in the ancient world? ‘Barbaric’ starts to be an understatement. We have moved on from those bloodthirsty times.

He should be drawn and quartered, with a fifth rope added for his penis! . . . You call this man sick, and then you come up with this?! Just because it’s in the name of Justice, doesn’t make it any less abhorrent. This ‘punishment’ makes the punishers worse than the criminal.

Justice is hard. Matching a crime to a punishment is hard, especially when the only options open are fines, community service, jail, or death. Are we trying for punishment, deterrent, or rehabilitation? It’s difficult to choose rightly.

There are always complaints that the judicial system is corrupt, biased, or too gentle on serious offenders. But it’s there for a very good reason, a reason these comments show. People can be cruel and bloodthirsty, and mob justice is rightly feared. We need a judicial system to help us not fall into barbarity.