National Mental Health Awareness Month and the Importance of Language

Every month is Mental Health Awareness Month here at a day with depression, and I’m glad to have the support of President Barack Obama’s proclamation for one month each year.

Among the topics he discusses – care for veterans, reduction of stigma, that “taking action to help yourself is a sign of strength,” etc. – I personally am most grateful for the Affordable Care Act. As a result of this legislation, Fox and I have health insurance that enables us to receive the medication and marriage counseling we need. Around this time last year I felt like our marriage was falling apart. Now we’re working together and supporting each other. Fox has held down a job for 6 months (and counting!). I am less than a week away from completing the last two classes I need for my Master’s degree; after nailing my piano final last night(!) I feel like I’m ready for internship and will be an awesome music therapist.

I have a bone to pick with President Obama, though. His proclamation begins:

This year, approximately one in five American adults — our friends, colleagues, and loved ones — will experience a diagnosable mental health condition […] and many others will be troubled by significant emotional and psychological distress, especially in times of difficulty.  For most of these people, treatment can be effective and recovery is possible.

(emphasis mine)

I wish he would use more inclusive language; that would be a great way to reduce the stigma around mental health issues. The language in this proclamation suggests that mental health issues affect other people, even if “they” are the people “we” interact with every day. It seems like the President is trying to distance himself from the people who live and struggle and sometimes even thrive with these issues. He’s practically saying: “this thing exists and we need to be aware of it – and just to be clear it doesn’t affect me, and I don’t think it affects you.” IMHO, that contributes to the stigma.

I imagine that we’re all in a room, and Mr. Obama is on the stage giving a speech, and I’m in the front row because hey, I’m the one imagining it. He’s talking to me… about me, as though I’m not sitting right in front of him and can’t hear him. I’m probably one of the people who are the happiest to be there listening to him, and yet he’s not really talking to me. I think maybe he’s talking to the person sitting next to me.

However, more than 20% of the people in this room are the population he’s talking about (as though we’re not there listening to him – probably filling the front-and-center seats). The person sitting next to me might feel the same way I do; they probably think I am a member of the President’s intended audience. But neither of us will admit it, because then we’d be marking ourselves as “other” – as not really belonging in that room where “normal” people go to become more aware of us. (How ironic is that?) Instead of connecting with each other, we each go home feeling more isolated than ever. (And the “normal” people go home unaware that we were literally sitting right in front of them.)

What about us? I wish someone would say: “This year, approximately one in five of us will experience a diagnosable mental health condition and many more of us will experience significant emotional and psychological distress, especially in times of difficulty. For most of us, treatment can be effective and recovery is possible.”

That wording makes it sound like mental health issues affect everyone, and needing help with them is normal. If I attended a speech and the speaker said that, I would feel like I belonged in that room. Isn’t that what reducing stigma is all about?

You don’t have to be one of the “one in five” – or the “many more” – to use this language. You just have to be willing to admit – to yourself and everyone else – that you could be. If you’re brave enough to do that, you can help us feel safe admitting that we are. That’s how you let us know we’re “not alone.”

The Forge

A video recently showed up on my Facebook feed; it is a message from Eric Lim (whose sister committed suicide) to anyone who’s hurting – essentially, to stay strong. Its central message is to use the pain as a source of strength, to turn “destruction into creation.” My initial impression was that it was too violent, and I didn’t like the message that the hits would never stop, nor that I should let myself be forged into something.

But the second time I watched it I could see past my emotional responses and appreciate how realistic a portrayal of emotional suffering – particularly from guilt – it is. I want someone to wave a magic wand and make it all go away, so I’ll be happy and healthy and whole again. But that’s not reality, and claiming that it is really wouldn’t help anyone. Pain and suffering are a part of life; some of us seem to have more of it than others. The point is that we’re not alone, and we don’t have to let it break us, and we’re not “abnormal” or “crazy.” As much as it sucks, my pain and the depths of my emotions and my ability to live with them are my greatest strength. My depression symptoms are actually the worst when I’m struggling not to feel.

I’m going to post two links to the video. The first is the initial context I viewed it in: a page on Upworthy. I really don’t like the way they portray it because their focus is on how heroic Eric is; they call him “superhuman.” They separate him from the rest of us, those who really struggle to see our pain this way, those who don’t feel like we can fight the monster. Good for him, but I’m the scum of the earth, what can I possibly do? I don’t want to be forged into something that can “hit back” – does that make me a horrible person? Clearly I don’t deserve the help offered near the end of the video.

Upworthy: "Put a cape on this guy, because the way he fights this monster is superhuman."

links to the video on Upworthy.com

The title of the Upworthy page creates a dichotomy: man vs. monster. The monster at least seems to be Eric’s sister’s suicide, a choice she made, an action she committed in a time of crisis. Some of us, who have at least considered and may have attempted suicide, may get the message that we are the monster the superhuman hero is fighting.

In other words, it pits the loved ones of those who lose their struggle with suicide against the people who actually contemplate, attempt, and/or “successfully” commit suicide. We are the monster. We are the thing that makes the people who “survive” us superhuman. The antagonist whose only purpose is to highlight the awesomeness of the hero.

I really don’t think that’s what Eric meant to do. I think he needed to work through his own pain and wanted to send a message of hope to us, the people contemplating suicide because we don’t think we can take any more hits from the monster. He speaks directly to us. The first thing he says at 1:00 is, “I love you,” and at 3:00 he says the core of his message for anybody hurting – I’ll let it speak for itself.

the Forge; two figures fighting in fire

links to foranybodyhurting.com

I’ll admit, as great as it is that Eric Lim was able to reach out to us through his own pain, I still feel like this is by and for people who are concerned about and/or affected by others committing suicide. So much – practically all – of the information and perspectives you find about suicide is from the perspective of outsiders, people who aren’t contemplating it for themselves and may have never contemplated it for themselves. Medical experts. Professionals. “Survivors.” I feel like I’m an exhibit at the zoo. All the information about me is by and for people outside the cage of suicidal ideation, who are looking in, studying me, and trying to figure out how to prevent me from exhibiting a certain behavior.

But my voice never gets heard. And more importantly, I never get to hear directly from other people like me. I tried searching for information on suicide from the perspective of people who have contemplated it, are contemplating it, and/or have attempted it. It is, at best, extremely hard to come by.

There’s an article in Health Sociology Review Vol 22 Issue 3 that looks promising, but I haven’t been able to access its full text because it’s too recent. I had to put in an inter-library loan request with my school library to gain access to an article, published in 1990, about feminist perspectives on studying suicide. I’m also struggling with two obstacles: 1) I’m sensitive about this topic, so I find it more difficult and more frustrating than usual to try and sort through potential (primarily online) sources of information, and 2) I often have trouble determining which search terms to use to get the most relevant results.

I also have another gripe about language. At Relay for Life, which raises money for the fight against cancer, very specific terms are used. A person becomes a “Survivor” the moment they are diagnosed with cancer and stays one, regardless of whether they are in remission, receiving treatment, or terminally ill but still breathing. Those of us who love people who currently have, or once had, or died from cancer are called “Caregivers.” We’re respected, but we leave the limelight to the people who actually have/had cancer.

Suicide (prevention) Land is a whole different story. For some reason people who might not have even known their loved one was contemplating suicide until it happened are called “survivors.” People have suicidal ideation. People attempt suicide. People commit suicide. People try to prevent suicide. But are there any clear terms to refer to all these people? Would such terms even be helpful?

I’m not even sure what terminology would apply to me. I know I don’t want to die anytime soon and I don’t have a plan, but sometimes I think and feel like dying is the best/only option and “I should kill myself.” I struggle with it almost every day. AND I’m still alive.

Fuck this shit. I’m a Suicide Survivor. A person who struggles with thoughts about suicide and/or self-harm and guess what? “I’m not dead yet!” I truly feel for people who have lost a loved one to suicide, it must be really horrible. I don’t mean to discount their pain. But until they’ve had to live from day to day with being the biggest danger to their own well-being – and all the stigma that comes with it! – they are not “Survivors.” No more than I am a Cancer Survivor, having never had cancer myself, just because I went through the agony of powerlessly watching while multiple loved ones died of it, in part due to patterns of behavior they enacted upon themselves (i.e. smoking cigarettes).

I respect the difference between feeling pain while loving someone with the disease, and being the person who has it. People talking about suicide / suicide prevention should do the same.

Re: How to Clear One’s Mind

I would like to let all the lovely web bots and lonely souls who post spam comments to my blog know that, even if I don’t allow the comments to become visible to the public, I do read every one of them. I’m very touched by the high esteem in which you hold my writing, though you might want to try and make it seem a bit more like you actually read the blog post on which you are commenting. Today I received a particularly interesting comment that I would actually like to respond to:

First of all I would like to say wonderful blog! I had a quick question in which I’d like to ask if you don’t mind.
I was curious to know how you center yourself and clear your thoughts prior
to writing. I have had a hard time clearing my mind
in getting my ideas out. I truly do enjoy writing however it just seems like the first
10 to 15 minutes tend to be lost just trying to
figure out how to begin. Any ideas or hints? Thanks!

This comment happened to be in response to my recent post, PANIC!!!, in which I hope I conveyed a sense of, well, panic in the tone of my writing. In the case of that particular post – as well as most of the ones about my actual life experiences, dilemmas, and emotions – writing the post was my process of centering myself and clearing my mind.

I often begin my posts with a strong sense of what I want to express in writing, but no idea what words I’ll use or where the post might go. I pretty much just start typing. I like to write because it forces the thoughts to “get in line;” only one can come out at a time and first they have to form themselves into remotely-coherent English sentences. Writing is the process through which I get the jumbled mess of nebulous thoughts and conflicting emotions out into a form where I can literally look at them. It’s like looking in the mirror, except that instead of freaking out over a new zit I can enable my rational mind to process all the important information my emotional self is trying but failing to communicate to it.

I read and re-read each post several times during the process of writing. I edit as I read – I catch and have the opportunity to fix typos and grammatical errors that way. I also take the opportunity to re-word sentences so they will be easier to read and understand, and so they can more accurately convey whatever I’m trying to express through them.

The reading and re-reading of the post as I’m writing also serves to center my thoughts – again, as I’m writing. It’s part anxiety management, part a reminder of what I’ve written so far and where I’m going, part how I make sure that the post is coherent. I’ve re-read this post several times, now, so I know that it’s been about my writing process and not about, say, cheese. I also have a strong sense of the tone I’ve been using, so I can continue to use it for the remainder of the post.

My experience of written language is almost identical to my experience of spoken language, the only real difference being that with written language I have to see the words with my eyes before I get to “hear” them in my head. Similarly, while I am writing, I hear the words in my head instead of with my ears and move my fingers instead of my mouth to share them with the world. The biggest difference between spoken and written language is that it’s easier to remember what I wrote – I can read it! – and I have a chance to edit it before anyone else gets to read it. Once the spoken words are said they’ve been said, they can’t be taken back, and we might disagree on what they were.

I believe that the way I experience written language gives me a significant advantage when it comes to reading – and especially writing. Both processes come very naturally to me; sometimes they are actually easier than spoken conversation! (If nothing else, interruptions are less likely to mean I never get to make my real point.)

That said, I do also find it helpful to read the post aloud. Reading a post aloud helps make its content feel more real to me and to center my thoughts around the topic. I also find I can express my emotions better through the inflection of my voice. Sometimes I even become more aware of my emotions when I hear myself: “Wow, I sound really angry! I must be angry! Who knew?”

The process is a bit different if I’m writing on a more academic subject, whether for school or in a post like The Complexities of Language, Gender, and Identity. Then I need to do research – to learn what others have written about the topic, organize all the different ideas, think critically, and respond to them.

I tend to organize my own thoughts through – not prior to – writing. That said, it helps to start with a clearer sense of what points I want to make, what information backs them up, and where I got that information. I like to start papers – such as the one I’m procrastinating by writing this post instead – by creating the Works Cited / References page. That makes it easier to keep track of what sources I’m using and to cite them in the actual paper because I already have a handy list, complete with the authors’ last names. Sometimes I’ll make an outline, even if it’s just a basic list of topics to cover. In the case of “Complexities” (link above), I actually wrote a first draft. If an assignment for school requires a clear thesis, I might wait to write it and/or the introductory paragraph until after I’ve used the process of writing the rest of the paper to fully organize my thoughts.

Finally, popcorn works wonders. Settle in with a nice large bag – or three! – and start munching. Just try not to get too much grease (or crumbs) on the keyboard.

The Complexities of Language, Gender, and Identity

gender

I’ve been finding that the diverse language already available to describe one’s gender identity still doesn’t quite fit with how I perceive and wish to express myself. Even the very concept of gender identity is a bit uncomfortable for me because gender is a power hierarchy. It places men above women, and people who successfully conform to the gender binary above those who cannot or will not do so. I can acknowledge where I fall in the hierarchy – I believe doing so is a first step toward changing the system to be more egalitarian – but I feel disinclined to identify with “my place” in it. How can I do that, when I believe it shouldn’t even exist? (I suppose the same differentiation can be applied to other social/power hierarchies such as class and race.)

The term “gender identity” also assumes that it is possible for one to have an innate sense of oneself that is not shaped by outside forces (i.e. culture). We identify with what we know, and what we know is our culture. Ozy Frantz argues that many people simply identify the way they are raised, allowing their self-perception to be shaped by culture and never questioning it.

girl-or-boy-predictions

The child hasn’t even been born yet and is already being put in a box!

I would argue that even someone who does not identify the way hir culture dictates ze should builds some part of hir identity upon not conforming. If I say I am queer or gender-fluid, I am saying that I do not fit into the gender binary – a concept of myself I would not even need to have if it were not for the influence of culture: people treating and expecting me to behave a certain way based on their perception of my biological sex. Someone who is transgendered and/or transsexual might not identify as trans (e.g. trans-woman), but hir self-perception is shaped by cultural norms for the gender/sex ze identifies as (e.g. woman).

300px-Woman_Montage_(1)

multicultural images of women

Speaking of the term, “woman,” what does it refer to, anyway? Is a woman:

  • a person who was born with ovaries, fallopian tubes, a uterus, a vagina, labia, a clitoris, and mammary glands capable of developing and lactating if/when she becomes pregnant?
  • a person who menstruates?
  • a person who perceives her body as female and believes it should have some or all of the above parts, whether she was born with them or not?
  • a person who values and actively conforms to the norms associated with females in her culture?
  • a person whom others perceive as female, treat accordingly, and expect to behave a certain way?
  • a person who is or wants to become a mother?
  • a person who falls lower on the gender hierarchy (than a man)?

Of course, I’ve had to rely on other culturally-laden terms in order to compose the above definitions. The term “female” is part of another cultural binary – sex – which assumes human bodies generally take one of two forms, complete with specific anatomical features, hormones, chromosomes, etc. The term “mother” is also complex and becomes even more so when one considers reproductive technologies. picasso_mother_and_child_1905_Is a mother:

  • the person whose egg is fertilized to create a new human?
  • the person who becomes pregnant with and gives birth to this new human?
  • the person who provides and cares for this new human?

Of course, for both “woman” and “mother,” the answer can be any or all of the above (or something else); these definitions need not be exclusive. We don’t even need to agree on which definitions to include! That’s actually the point I’m trying to make here: these terms are so complex, they can be applied to a wide range of individuals who are more different from each other than they are similar. For many if not most cases, only some of the definitions will be accurate.

A similar analysis can be applied to the terms “man” and “father” as well. Conflicting concepts of masculinity add to the complexity of such an analysis.

Creating A New Vocabulary

I have come to the conclusion that the best way for me to be able to explain my understanding of myself (as an embodied individual whose body has cultural meaning and socioeconomic repercussions) is to make up new words and define them precisely the way I want to.

Noun or Adjective?

One thing I find interesting about the terms above – “woman,” “mother,” “man,” and “father” – is that they are all nouns. Terms used to classify people along other aspects of identity such as race, class, age, ethnicity, sexual orientation, ability/disability, education level, etc. are often adjectives – or, one has the option of using either an adjective or a noun. When it comes to gender, the terms are nouns – except that “woman” is sometimes used as an adjective, e.g. “woman president;” you would never hear of someone being called a “man president.”

Using a noun to classify someone seems to imply that that dimension of hir self is more important, innate, or central than the other dimensions. Your race, age, etc. might describe you, but your gender defines you. Frankly, I see no reason why gender should be any more important than any other aspect of someone’s identity, or where ze falls in various socioeconomic/power hierarchies. For many people, it’s not.

My New Adjectives

  • mamutva reproductive system

    mamuva reproductive system

    mamuva – naturally possessing functional mammary glands, a uterus, a vagina, ovaries, etc.; may or may not menstruate (depending on age, weight, etc.)

  • mamuva’ididentifies as mamuva, whether hir body conforms to the definition or not
  • mamvanormal – values and actively conforms to the norms associated with being mamuva and/or mamuva’id in hir culture, including dress, mannerisms, etc.
  • mamvaseen – perceived by others as mamuva; treated, addressed, described, and expected to behave according to the relevant cultural norms
  • pentestum reproductive system

    pentestum reproductive system

    pentestum – naturally possessing a penis, testes, scrotum, etc.

  • pentestum’ididentifies as pentestum, whether hir body conforms to the definition or not
  • pentumnormal – values and actively conforms to the norms associated with being pentestum and/or pentestum’id in hir culture, including dress, mannerisms, etc.
  • pentumseen – perceived by others as pentestum; treated, addressed, described, and expected to behave according to the relevant cultural norms

Describing Myself

Now that I have some new adjectives to use, I can better describe myself. I am a person who happens to be mamuva and is usually mamuva’id; I am happy with my body the way it is and take pleasure in it – both through currently-available experiences and when thinking about its potential to grow and nurture another human being. Sometimes I feel pentestum’id and wish I could (temporarily) morph my body to match. I do not consider myself to be particularly mamvanormal or pentumnormal. Perhaps I am somewhere in between, choosing which norms I’m comfortable with at a given moment and attempting to ignore the rest.

If I experience gender-related dysphoria, it is not because of my body. It is my response to being mamvaseen and particularly to the expectation that I am or should be mamvanormal. I actively reject many if not most of the norms associated with being mamuva in my culture because they would limit me to a decorative, nurturing, and supportive role in society – while also making it easier for me to fall victim to predators and to believe I deserved to be victimized. No thank you!

sexism-picture

legs on display, unprotected, in high heels that make it difficult to run away – all part of the daily grind

I would much rather be seen as a person, an equal, someone who can do whatever ze wishes with hir life. I refuse to be placed in a subordinate position in a hierarchy that should not even exist in the first place.

Which brings us to the term “woman” one last time. I do not identify with that term as a means of describing a person physically, psychologically, or hierarchically. But I can identify with women as a political group – a group of people who have been systematically oppressed, devalued, etc. in diverse cultures for millenia. They have not been passive victims by any means – they have always worked to live the most personally-fulfilling, meaningful, and at times world-shaping lives possible within the constraints placed on them by society. And we continue to do so, building on the progress toward equality made by our mothers (and fathers), grandmothers (and grandfathers), great-grandmothers (and great-grandfathers), etc.

A1SGQ7DCEAAy-Mq.jpg large

sometimes we have to make the same progress over and over and over again

Moving Forward

The adjectives I created are intended to be mutually-inclusive; you can combine them with each other and with other adjectives (e.g. intersex, queer, etc.) however you see fit. That said, the list is nowhere near exhaustive. If you think of an adjective that should be on the list but isn’t, please let me know in comments!

How would you use these terms and others to describe yourself? I’d love to read about it in comments. Or, if you’re inspired to write your own post about it, please link back to this one. The pingback will allow me and other readers to go read and comment on your post. I hope we can spark a conversation about this topic that can go far beyond my blog.