Mental Illness Awareness Week

In honor of the work NAMI does, the first full week of October (10/5-11) is “Mental Illness Awareness Week.” People are encouraged to wear green, there’s apparently a solid green ribbon, and depending on your location there may be various events to raise awareness. People are also encouraged to “Tell your story and help inspire others!” – just be aware that the submission guidelines give NAMI permission to add or delete information as they see fit.

The phrases "It's time," "Mental illness affects everyone," and "Go green for Mental Illness Awareness Week" on a green background. There is a solid green ribbon in the center of the image.

Image from; Visitors are encouraged to post this as their Facebook profile picture and another image from the site as the banner on their timeline.

I have to admit, I’m not feeling particularly “inspired.” I’m pretty sure my “story” would be rejected because I don’t want to try to spin it (or allow it to be spun) to be a “message of hope” for other people. Frankly, I don’t think we need to spread “hope,” we need people to understand the harsh realities we and our loved ones face: the stigma, the uncertainty, the pain of thinking we’re getting better just to have another horrible day, the difficulty accessing mental healthcare, the ways in which our illnesses impact our relationships, etc. – basically, the stuff mental health bloggers post about year-round! If people really want to raise awareness, they should link to us. (Note: NAMI prohibits links to personal blogs or websites in their “You Are Not Alone” submission guidelines … but there’s nothing to keep someone from posting whatever links they want on their own social media pages, etc.)

Some places to get started (besides this blog): A Canvas of the Minds, Blog for Mental Health, The Mental Health Writers’ Guild, and Broken Light: A Photography Collective. I’ve selected these sites to link to here because they in turn link to individual bloggers who write about a wide range of mental health related topics. I welcome additional suggestions in comments!

Understanding our experiences is a good start, but it isn’t enough. We need to work together to change them – which means changing social, cultural, and especially institutional norms to be healthier for people (especially children) so we don’t get mental illnesses in the first place. I think most if not all of the “stigma” around mental illness exists because talking about it ultimately requires us to question and challenge norms that form the cultural and more importantly financial foundations for our societies, including: valuing people for their economic success, unattainable standards of beauty, pressure to conform to gender roles from birth (particularly masculinity), various intersecting systems of privilege and oppression, etc. etc. etc.

When I told Fox I was uncomfortable sharing my story – because it’s not the after-the-fact, good depressive “success” story they want to hear – he said it’s the story people need to hear. The here-I-am-right-in-the-middle-of-the-storm story. The I-don’t-know-how-long-I-can-hold-on reality. The “actually, I’m the one who could use some hope, because a big part of my problem right now is that I don’t have any.”

I’ve had mental illnesses on the “mood disorder” and “anxiety” spectra for most of my life, and I’ve been consistently living with diagnosable symptoms for over 4 years. I don’t even know what my diagnosis is, and frankly, I’m inclined to think that’s for the better. It’s frustrating to be unsure what to even say I have, but it means I and the people trying to help me can focus on my individual needs and what I’ve found to be helpful (or unhelpful). It means we can move past labels to the underlying psychological structures and processes that may have been adaptive at one point in my life, but came at a cost I can’t afford to keep paying.

In a word, it means I can focus on my own personal growth.

I think it’s great that in addition to Mental Health Awareness Month in May, there is a week in October dedicated to, well, basically the same thing. I kind of wish they didn’t call it Mental Illness Awareness Week though – because an illness is something outside of or other than oneself that affects one (hopefully temporarily) and needs to be treated, if possible, cured. It’s very easy for people to say “Well, I don’t have this illness, so this issue isn’t relevant to me;” if someone they care about has one or more mental illnesses, they may not even be aware of it (unlike with a less-stigmatized condition, which people would probably talk about).

Additionally, I haven’t found it helpful to think of my previously-adaptive, now increasingly problematic patterns of thought and behavior as an “illness” that is separate from and/or imposed upon my self. If anything, I’ve found it to be harmful; it means there’s something “wrong” with me that needs to be “fixed” in order for me to “function” in society, and until that happens I’m worth less than “healthy” individuals.

These patterns of thought and behavior, whether I like them or not, are part of me. I created them to protect me. They’ve helped me meet the demands placed on me by parents, other family members, teachers, employers, etc. They’re part of how I learned skills I still find useful, that are necessary if I ever want to have a career and other things that people associate with “functioning” and having a “normal” and/or “meaningful” life. Getting rid of them wholesale as part of “curing” my “mental illness” would be a disaster.

What I need, as mentioned earlier, is to grow. Part of that is letting go of the things that are hurting me or aren’t helping me any more. A lot of it is changing things that are adaptive in some ways, harmful in others. For example, my perfectionism: I place a very high value on creating the very best product I possibly can – such as well-written, relatable, informative blog posts. I put a lot of effort into accomplishing this, and gain a lot of satisfaction from doing so. Great. When I apply it to academic papers, the result is usually a grade of A. Fantastic. But I need to stop allowing my desire to produce the best quality product to keep me from starting the process, or to cause me to neglect my other needs and responsibilities during the process. I need to stop basing my self-esteem on how others respond (or don’t respond) to my work. I need to develop an inherent sense of self-worth, a concept I frankly don’t understand because it’s never been an intrinsic part of how I understand myself or the world; it’s not part of how I was raised or the society I was raised in. We value and celebrate people based on what they do, and deny people access to basic needs – never mind “rights” – because we don’t see them doing enough to “earn” it. The closest I can come to understanding inherent self-worth is to try to apply my belief that other people deserve to have their basic needs met no matter what to myself.

If there’s anything to be aware of during Mental Illness Awareness Week, I think it’s actually the message from NAMI that yes, it affects everyone. Everyone has to develop some unhealthy patterns of thought and behavior to survive in a society that was built by the privileged and wealthy to continue benefiting themselves at the expense of everyone else. These patterns influence how we treat each other and raise our kids and perceive ourselves. Some of us just show it more; we become the mirror no one wants to look at because they when they do, they see what they don’t want to know about themselves. I wish I could say something like “It’s not that scary,” but to be honest I still find it very difficult. I guess all I can ask is for people to pick up the mirror and pass it around, so we all have the opportunity to look. Wear green and post a selfie. Send out the message that this is important.

Ending a Life

I was starting to get tired of the patriarch of my The Sims 3 family, so I ended his life. He was an elder, a grandfather, he’d already accomplished his lifelong goal, and he wasn’t playing a useful role in my game anymore. It was simply time for him to go. All I had to do was use the “testingcheatsenabled true” cheat code, shift-click on him, and select “trigger age transition” to make him die of old age (earlier than he would have if I’d left it up to the game).

He went peacefully. He greeted, shook hands with, and even smiled at Death – literally. This sim was as ready to go as I was to get rid of him.

Alexander III greets Death happily, ready to move on, while his wife Elaine watches.

Alexander III greets Death happily, ready to move on, while his wife Elaine watches.

I could have moved on to the vacation I’ve been planning for rest of the family, if it were not for their (entirely understandable and quite realistic) reaction to the patriarch’s passing. The look on Elaine’s face in the above picture says it all. She is so hurt and terrified as she gazes at Death – and at her own future. Not only will she have to spend the rest of her life without her lifelong partner, but she will probably follow in his footsteps soon.

The elder couple’s adult son and daughter-in-law, both of whom were at work when Alexander III died, came home as soon as they found out, too distraught to be much use. Considering he is a substitute teacher and she is a medical intern, it makes a lot of sense for them to take off from work and avoid having a negative impact on their vulnerable students and patients, respectively. (Not to mention, you know, tending to their own and Elaine’s emotional needs. I almost left that part out!)

The two children in the household, however, remained in school and even attended their after-school activities, both oblivious to the patriarch’s death until they arrived home at the normal time. I’m not sure whether this is how most families would handle the situation, or whether it is truly congruent with my own experience. Maybe it’s what I wish I could have done or tried to do: postpone dealing with the truth and my emotions for as long as possible by focusing on school. Somehow I have the perception that adults – at least in the Sims 3 universe – think this is how best to help children cope with death. All the surviving adults have an automatic memory: “Alexander III Died” – but the children never received it.

Elaine spent the next day sleeping, while her son (Alexander IV – creative, I know!) and daughter-in-law (Li-Ying) took off from work. The children had to go to school because there is no option to call out sick or otherwise get permission to take off, and the grade consequence for missing a day is fairly dire.

They had a funeral that evening. It was as simple a gathering as one can have when a good portion of the first floor of one’s house is a giant banquet hall; Elaine served absolutely fantastic spaghetti and tomato sauce (and, in the process of making it, reached the maximum skill level in Cooking). Originally I was just going to post a couple of pictures to give a basic idea of what the funeral looked like, but then I realized something:

Every sim’s reaction to the patriarch’s death, as I chose to represent it, is an aspect of my own reaction to the deaths in my family – particularly the death of my father.

Alexander IV cries on Li-Ying's shoulder, mourning his father.

Alexander IV cries on Li-Ying’s shoulder, mourning his father.

First, you have the obvious: the Mourning Son, who cries on his wife’s shoulder. What do we have, if we can’t lean on the people we love, and who love us?

Typically, in Western culture (and perhaps others), it is expected that a man will be stoic, that he will not cry. If he does cry, either he is weak, or something truly horrible has happened. This sim has the Disciplined personality trait, suggesting that he usually has good control over his emotions. For him to cry … Clearly, he is in a lot of pain.

I think, in my own life, it has generally been my role to be the eye of the storm – the semblance of calm sanity in the midst of chaos.

In my darkest hour, I couldn’t cry. When I’m feeling the most vulnerable, I do everything in my power to keep from feeling and expressing my emotions. So, I see crying as a sign of great strength. Something horrible has happened, and this sim has the strength and courage to be completely honest about it – with himself, and with his wife.

He is also in a place where it is safe for him to cry. That’s something I don’t always feel I have; I wonder whether / to what degree men (and women, and folk who don’t identify as either) can relate?

Li-Ying comforts her husband; though sad herself, she thinks she can only imagine what he must be feeling.

Li-Ying comforts her husband; though sad herself, she thinks she can only imagine what he must be feeling.

At the funeral, Li-Ying is finally able to cry on the shoulder of someone who does not need her support: a friend from work.

At the funeral, Li-Ying is finally able to cry on the shoulder of someone who does not need her support: a friend from work.

Next, there is the Comforter: the person whose shoulder is cried on. Whatever she may be feeling, whatever she may need, whatever support she may (hope to?) receive later, in this moment, her role is to support someone else. She sets her needs aside and holds the other person – whose need to cry she perceives as greater and/or more important than her own.

There is definitely a sense of hierarchy in this role, and of being at or near the bottom of the totem pole. The daughter-in-law is in a particularly difficult position. She was close enough with the patriarch to feel a great deal of pain at his passing, but her relationship with him was not as significant as the relationship between father and son. It would not be appropriate for her to lean on her husband, who has enough pain of his own, or on her child, whom she feels obligated to protect. Even though she has known the patriarch longer, she feels her child has even more of a right to mourn than she herself does – after all, it was the child’s grandfather who died!

The comforter may not receive support until there is someone present with less of a relationship to the deceased than herself: in this case, one of her friends from work who came to the funeral to support her emotionally. At the funeral, the appropriate behavior is to be sad and to cry. The comforter is finally free to be comforted by the guests who came to give the whole family their condolences.

Surrounded by the guests at the funeral, Elaine is completely unable to connect with them. All she can feel or think about is her sorrow.

Surrounded by the guests at the funeral, Elaine is completely unable to connect with them. All she can feel or think about is her sorrow.

The Ghost: Elaine stands in the middle of the party, surrounded by everyone she invited to celebrate her husband’s life and mourn his passing. People are enjoying the delicious food she cooked. They are talking. They are even dancing! The whole room around her is so full of life …

But she sees, hears, and feels none of it. All she knows is the pain she feels; how much she misses him; how devastated she is to have to go on without him. She feels like her life is over; none of this has any meaning for her anymore.

And worst, they seem oblivious to her plight, almost as though she is invisible. She can imagine them walking right through her. Clearly, they can go on living their lives without her. She can just fade away into the shadows. “From dust, to dust you shall return.” Their lives will go on; you will not be missed.

I was thinking of having her be the next to die, through the same means as the patriarch. This is intended to be a kid-friendly game, so we’ll say she died of a combination of old age and “heartache.”

This is the part of myself I have to fight, more frequently than I care to admit, to stay alive.

Ruth pours drinks for the guests to enjoy, feeling detached from "their" sorrow.

Ruth pours drinks for the guests to enjoy, feeling detached from “their” sorrow.

The Servant: So far, I have gone out of my way to avoid mentioning this character. But then I thought: “she is my voice in this narrative.”

Ruth – the resident “cleaning specialist” – is the one who feels sad because the people around her are hurting, but is not particularly sad about the patriarch’s departure herself. (She is my voice in the narrative because I chose to end the patriarch’s life, but am saddened by the realistic – if exaggerated – expressions of sorrow by the sims.)

She would not even be at the funeral – or involved with the family at all – if it were not her job. She goes through the motions out of respect – and fear – but she finds no meaning in them.

The secret she holds near to her heart, and will never admit to anyone, is that she is actually happy that the patriarch – her employer – has “moved on.” She is now free from his authority. When the Servant looks at her future following the patriarch’s death, she sees less constraint in every aspect of her life. She sees herself able to let her guard down a bit, able to be more spontaneous, possibly even able to prioritize her own wants, needs, and values.

The Servant is the part of me that believes the deaths that have occurred in my family – particularly the death of my father – have actually had a positive effect on my life. I don’t know what kind of person I’d be if he were still alive to influence and possibly constrain my decisions. But I do know that I’ve been able to determine my own beliefs and values – and live by them more genuinely – since he died; his death caused my links to members of that family, as well as to traditional patriarchal religion, to be severed.

It is important to note that Ruth is a Black woman of lower socioeconomic status than the wealthy, predominantly White family she serves. This observation is not meant to cast judgment upon any individuals or groups, but to reflect the intersecting systems of racism, sexism, and class-ism that still:

  • privilege white people, while oppressing people of color
  • privilege cis men, while oppressing trans men, cis women, trans women, and people who don’t fit into any of these categories
  • privilege the wealthy, while oppressing those who are impoverished by the former’s wealth

and so on … to do justice to this topic would go very far beyond the scope of this post. I’ll just ask this one question: Why should the needs, wants, and values of wealthy white male society take precedence over the needs, wants, and values anyone else might have?

It’s so tempting to just end the post here, but I … I need to say this:

Brandi enjoys the delicious food served at the funeral, paying little attention to what is going on around her.

Brandi enjoys the delicious food served at the funeral, paying little attention to what is going on around her.

Sometimes, “I’m just here for the food” – or, rather, I (frequently) use food to manage difficult emotions.

For example, when I finish typing this sentence, I’m going to go grab myself a snack …

Sometimes the difficult emotions come from within me: just now, I needed something to distract from the anxiety I feel about revealing these deep, inner, hidden parts of myself – coherently, in writing! Not only do I have to look at them a lot more closely than I’d like, but I also have to show them to you. I’m afraid of what you might think about them, and what the consequences will be for me. I can’t even be sure I’m portraying them accurately.

I often overeat at social events in my efforts to manage my anxiety about interacting with multiple people, many of whom I might not know well.

Other times, the difficult emotions (at least seem to) come from other people. It might be from the general chaos of multiple conversations going on at once, or it might be more sinister.

Funerals are particularly difficult because everyone is (probably) struggling with much if not all of the range of responses I’ve been describing, plus others: anger, guilt, sadness, feeling abandoned, denial, etc. After a while – sometimes sooner than others – it becomes too much. Like Brandi (Ruth’s daughter) I just need to focus on an extremely satisfying sensory experience and block everything else out.

Yuan cannot even bear to be present at her grandfather's funeral. She escapes to the kitchen and plays with her imaginary friend instead.

Yuan cannot even bear to be present at her grandfather’s funeral. She escapes to the kitchen and plays with her imaginary friend instead.

Last, but not least, there is the Deserter.

(not to be confused with the desserter – that’s Brandi)

I’m inclined to argue that this is the least healthy part of myself – even more dangerous than the Ghost.

So far, I have been dealing with the Ghost effectively. It hasn’t always been easy – often, I’ve felt unsuccessful – but I have been able to do it.

My proof? I’m still here.

The Deserter, in contrast, regularly wins our confrontations and has the potential to destroy my life. It operates on so many levels, where do I even begin?

The Deserter is when I spend multiple entire days playing The Sims 3. It is escapism. The danger? I neglect everything else: all my other obligations, even important aspects of my physical and especially mental health.

But it goes deeper than that: It tries to sabotage my interpersonal relationships. It tests people, tries to push them away by making my behavior unbearable. It breaks promises. It shows up late – or not at all.

It convinces me that I am not like them; I cannot trust them; I don’t deserve them.

But it goes deeper than that: It severs me from myself.

I feel detached from my emotions. I have loud, verbally abusive arguments with myself (in my mind). I question myself, criticize myself harshly.

I have trouble perceiving and accepting that I am a person: a unique, individual, embodied being in this world that others can perceive, interact with, respond to, and maybe even like. I don’t know what I think I am … maybe that’s the problem.

Maybe I think I’m not.

Sometimes reality is so painful that I don’t want to be real. I’d rather write stories about one or more fictional characters, or play out a story someone else has written. I can’t identify with or even see (accurately) the person everyone else around me is interacting with, and through which I’m trying to have some connection with the outside world …

Speaking of stories, there is hope for Elaine. As I said, I was planning to “trigger age transition” to make her die of old age early, too. But then, something remarkable happened:

I had her bring her husband’s remains to the graveyard, where she found a nice open area for him. After she had mourned him, she got a new Wish: to learn the Writing skill.

She could write about her experiences and emotions and possibly influence other sims. There was still room for her to learn new things and to grow; she had not stagnated.

Elaine begins writing her first book, a reflection on her recent experiences titled: "To Lose the One You Love."

Elaine begins work on her first book – a reflection on her recent experiences titled: “To Lose the One You Love.”

She can leave her own unique legacy through her words.