TO SIRI WITH LOVE: The Oppression of Neurodivergent and Marginalized Points of View

A book has just been published, entitled To Siri, With Love. The author is Judith Newman—a person we in the neurodivergent community call an “autism mommy”: that is, the non-autistic mother of an autistic child.To Siri

Ms. Newman is a great example of how neruodivergent points of view are commonly discounted, ignored, and subverted. Since neurodivergent people, by definition, think and see the world differently than the mainstream, we’re misunderstood. It’s like we’re speaking a different language, or like we come from a culture where all the gestures are different. Like, when I was in Nicaragua, and the “come hither” gesture looked to me like waving hello. Until I learned, every time someone told me to “come here”, I waved back…I wasn’t being nonsensical or thoughtless, I just had a different way of communicating.

This is how neurodivergent people feel, day in and day out. Since we don’t do or say the things people expect us to, they think we’re nonsensical, delusional, or thoughtless. This can lead our imprisonment, abuse, you name it. Because people don’t understand us, they think we’re dangerous, or unintelligent, or that our brains are “dead”. They think our lives aren’t worth living, and they treat us accordingly.

The author of To Siri, With Love is a perfect example of this mindset. Ms. Newman has stated that she doesn’t believe her son is capable of independent thought, or understanding others’ feelings. She publicly mocked his sexuality, telling the world what kind of porn he likes, and indicating she found the idea of him ever attempting sex to be silly and grotesque. This mother has stated outright, with impunity, that she doesn’t believe any girl[sic] will ever be interested in someone like him, and is planning to get a medical power of attorney so she can have him forcibly sterilized when he turns eighteen—because, in her words, “he can never be a real father.”

It probably comes as no surprise that the autism community is really scared, hurt and angry that this book has been published. It’s my understanding that the author has received death threats. I don’t agree with this, but that’s a view of how deeply the community is rattled. (If you want to see the quotes from the books and interviews, and community responses, check out the #BoycottToSiri hashtag on Twitter. Here is the thread of an activist who was included (and made fun of) in the book, without her permission, and here is my friend Kaelan Rhywol, live-tweeting her review of the book.

Full disclosure: I haven’t read this book yet. = I plan to, when I can get it at the library (I don’t want the author to have any of my money, or for her rankings to increase). [UPDATE: I’ve started reading it. Here’s my ongoing thread of tweets. I’ll be doing a full review when I’m done.] I feel the need to read it—even though chances are I’ll hate it—not only because her son sounds wonderful and I want to read about him, but because I want review the book, and I don’t review books I haven’t read. Rarely, I’ll review books I can’t finish, to be clear, but I never base a review on someone else’s opinion. They’ve already left that opinion, and if I can’t offer something new, there’s no point in saying anything.

However, in the case of this particular book, I wanted to review and speak out against its whole concept, and to things the author and her supporters have said and done, before I even deal with the particularities of the book. I think it’s important for me (and every other autistic person who can, and wants to) to make our voices heard on matters like these. Because allowing nothing about us without us is the only way neurodivergent people will ever gain their civil rights in this society. We need to show the world that we are thinking, feeling, intelligent individuals…because people literally think we aren’t, and that we shouldn’t have control over our own lives or narratives. Judith Newman is one of those people, and her viewpoint is popular enough that Harper Collins gave her a platform.

So, it’s time for me to dust of the old blogging fingers and write about one of my areas of expertise: points of view.

For those of you new to this blog, I’m a neurodivergent person. That means, my brain function is different than an average person’s. I am bipolar, autistic, and have PTSD. It’s caused me a lot of trouble and anguish in life, but it’s also pretty cool in other ways.

The first time I learned about point of view was when I had my first psychotic break, when I was about 14. I was wandering down the street screaming that I’d been poisoned and that I needed help. I wandered into a stranger’s house. They called the police.

Technically, I was breaking and entering (I didn’t actually break anything, I don’t believe, but still). Luckily, I wasn’t charged with it, because of the kindness of the police officer. But, from their point of view, I was a dangerous person.

I wasn’t dangerous. I was scared, and very upset.

Whose point of view was correct?

I can’t blame those people for being scared. They had no idea what was going on. However, if they’d been more knowledgeable about neurodivergence, they might not have been scared. They might have been able to offer me kindness and compassion, get me calmed down, and get me the help I needed. It would have been a less horrifying experience for all of us.

I still experience these divergence of points of view almost every day, even when I’m not in a psychotic break. For instance, I’ve been having a lot of problems with people shooting their guns on and near our property—hunting coyotes for the most part. This is a pretty heavily-populated area, all private property and it’s not legal to hunt here. The hunters’ bullets go astray, hit our outbuildings, scare the fuck out of my dog, my kid, and me. I went to my local Facebook group and posted a story of a woman in Wisconsin or somewhere who had been killed by just such an illegal hunter, and asked that people be more responsible with their guns.

Of course, cue a bunch of hunters to get pissed and tell me not to knock hunting.

When they said that, I freaked. The fuck. Out. They were basically saying it was okay to shoot at my house. I tried to reiterate the fact that it was illegal and wrong to hunt on my private property, or on other private property marked “NO HUNTING”, and have their bullets go astray and endanger my family and animals, but mostly I just called people idiots and pieces of shit.

I felt very threatened, is why.

I got banned, of course.

When I calmed down, I was able to see their point of view. They for the most part weren’t being directly threatening, they’d just—for no particular reason—thought I was bashing ALL hunters. And I had—wrongly, except for in the case of one commenter—felt like they were personally threatening me. Since I’m neurodivergent, (I have PTSD, and have had guns pulled on me, have been personally threatened with them), the way I felt and expressed my fear and anger was socially unacceptable. I’m working on it, but it’s difficult to control my reactions sometimes.

But, even if how I expressed myself was “wrong”, my fear and anger were understandable, right? All I wanted was for people not to shoot at my house, and for this, people called me “ignorant”. They said “People probably just don’t like you, libtard. That’s why they’re shooting at your house.”

Understandable or not, since I’m the neurodivergent one, I was immediately seen as the one being threatening. I was in the wrong, by mainstream standards.

The difference is, afterward, I can see where I went wrong. Those neurotypical people, in my experience, never will. I’m forced to live in their idea of mainstream reality, so I’m forced to constantly second-guess my point of view. They’re never forced to.

That’s neurotypical privilege: the privilege of living in mainstream reality, so to speak, and the ability to communicate one’s thoughts and feelings in mainstream ways.

The privilege of being, and feeling, “right”.

I see this type of divergence of point of view play out every day, in all aspects of life. Two completely different viewpoints, and each is completely unable to see the other’s. This happens between neurotypical folks, too, but it’s particularly bad for neurodivergent people, because—by nature—we think differently, and neurotypical people think our brains are wrong and defective.

Can you imagine what it would be like if people thought your brain was wrong and defective? If they immediately dismissed everything you said, always misinterpreted you, and misunderstood you to the point of becoming angry or even violent, when you had no idea what you were doing wrong? Can you imagine if your own mother was like that?

This is how Judith Newman treats her son Gus. It’s the treatment she describes in the book.

I believe it, because this is what it is like for neurodivergent people, every day.

That guy ranting on the street corner (or the girl wandering down the street, screaming about spirits and poison, or the woman freaking out and calling you an idiot on Facebook)—in our own mind, we make sense, just as much as you make sense to yourself. If you got to know us fully, we’d make sense even to you.

We are sentient beings, and have fully-formed minds, just like you.

But hardly anyone wants to get to know “people like that”—people like me, or like Gus—because they think we’re dangerous, or at the very least, pathetic and annoying.

The woman who wrote To Siri, With Love, states throughout the book how annoying and nonsensical her son is—she’s being lauded by neurotypical culture for her “honesty”.

The autistic community, however, isn’t. We’re crying out to her that her son isn’t thoughtless or unlovable; that we’re like him; that often our mothers also thought we were incapable of love or thought, but here we are: thinking, functioning, feeling human beings, some of us with careers and families, all of us with loves and interests and inner lives.

But the author and her supporters are incapable of seeing that point of view. The author sees the outcry in the autistic community as bullying. She can only see her own hurt feelings, and can’t see that she has hurt the feelings of thousands of others…including her own son (whom she states in the book did not give his permission to be used in this way, or have his private life mocked and outed. The mother states that she didn’t think he was capable of consent).

Everyone who is reading this: I hope you will recognize that her point of view is wrong, even though it is currently the mainstream one.

It is time to change your way of thinking about neurodivergent people. It is time for our point of view to come into its own.

Elizabeth Roderick is an author and freelance editor. She thinks trains are pretty cool, and wouldn’t mind if one played percussion in her band. You can find her on Amazon, and on TalesFromPurgatory.com

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Ableism in Literary Gatekeeping

I’ve been thinking about ableism/bigotry in literary gatekeepers again. My last post on this stirred up wank. I’d appreciate it if y’all kept that to subtweets if you must, because I’m through making room for that ableism in my world.

I’ve been writing as always, and forging ahead in this career of mine. I’m working on my 17th full-length novel, and I’ve been pitching agents with an own voices YA—the (*counts*) twelfth novel I finished, about a bipolar girl navigating high school, first love, and institutionalization (sounds cool, right? It is 😊) .

Right now, I’m not making a lot of money off of book sales; most of it comes from the freelance editing/writing/consulting work I do. Deep in my heart, I know I’ve been concentrating my efforts in the wrong areas, and avoiding the work I really need to do. Because, no matter how much I enjoy editing and the other stuff, my goal is to make the bulk of my money off my own books.

In order to make money off of books, however, you have to do THE “M” WORD.

(I mean marketing, not some more interesting “m” word.)

I have five titles already published. I’m proud of those books, and people who read them like them. I’m utter crap at marketing, which is why I’ve been looking for an agent: for guidance and handholding in my marketing efforts, more than my publisher can give. But even with an agent, I’d have to do a lot of that work myself. So what am I waiting for? Why am I not doing it?

Marketing my books is no easy task, however. To start with, they don’t fall easily into a niche (especially my Other Place series). If you were to ask me who my audience is, I would probably say…people? Who like books?

More typical marketing efforts haven’t worked well for me. My romance and other genre fic author friends often try to take me under their wing and get me involved in Instafreebie giveaways, takeovers, anthologies…that stuff is hella fun, and I get great comments about my little romance short stories and such that I write, but it never translates into a major boost in sales. That’s because my full-length books are pretty much in the “other” genre.

Just like me, according to the neurotypical world.

Strangely enough, the only marketing method that gives me a sales bump is when I appear in-person to give talks about my writing and neurodiversity. I sell out of books at events like these, then get an e-book bump, as well. I think this might be because I’m a five-foot-tall, snub-nosed white lady who, as some officers at a recent CIT session I spoke at so aptly put it, doesn’t “look crazy”. I’m non-threatening. I may fidget a lot, but I’m told I’m an eloquent and compelling speaker. At any rate, people just seem a lot more prepared to listen to me in person than they do online.

So, I decided, it’s time for me to do That Thing That I Hate So Much: contact people. Specifically, to try to get book signings.

There’s an indy bookstore in Seattle that a lot of my friends told me to contact, because it was easiest for them to get to. It’s a place a lot like other bookstores I’ve done well at, so I wrote them a little email. I introduced myself as a neurodiverse own voices writer, and said I was looking for a signing to showcase my Other Place series, which is the story of a woman dealing with homelessness and addiction, and a schizophrenic man trying to make it in the art world.

I got a response back: “Thank you for contacting us. We don’t feel your books would be a good fit for our venue, because our clientele aren’t generally interested in romantic suspense.”

Readers, I should have left it at that. But, sometimes I’m so fatigued by ableist what-the-fuckery that I dissolve into a big bucket of can’t-even.  I replied that the books aren’t at all romantic suspense (not adding that I fucking wish they were RS, because then I wouldn’t have to waste so much time talking to bitches like her, and could just do the Instafreebie and author takeover things that work well for RS authors). I tried to clarify what type of books they are…of course, I was just restating what I’d already made clear in the first email. And, of course, she didn’t reply.

I don’t know if literary gatekeepers (and others) even know how ableist they are. From the way they’ve said in the past that I’m “whining”, “bitter”, “delusional”, and that I “don’t know how publishing works” when I’ve spoken up about the ableism I encounter as a neurodiverse own voices writer, I’m hoping not. But, while I may not know marketing from the inside of my dog’s butt (I don’t know anything specific about the inside of my dog’s butt, for context), I do know ableism when I see it. I’m a goddamn expert on ableism. And gatekeepers: y’all are IT.

This events coordinator woman wanted to reject me, because of the visceral reaction people have when they hear someone is “mentally ill”, especially when that mental illness involves psychosis. She went looking for a reason to reject me. It wasn’t a reason that made sense, at all. I mean, the books aren’t by any logical yardstick romantic suspense, and also, how whacked-out do you think I am that I’d believe a bookstore could afford to alienate romance readers? You’re a BOOKSTORE. I don’t care how cultured you think you are: unless you’re a university store where students get their textbooks, romance of some sort is likely your bread and butter, or a good portion thereof. Additionally, even if the Other Place series was  romantic suspense, it would be own voices romantic suspense with neurodiverse characters. That’s not “just” romantic suspense: that’s something that *should* be interesting to a more…(educated? Pretentious? I can’t find the right word here. They’re all inappropriate and/or more insulting than I want them to be)…readership.

I’ll get a signing eventually, but it doesn’t mean that this experience was okay.

So, gatekeepers: y’all are ableist (and prejudiced in other ways). I’m not whining. I’m not bitter. I’m just throwing the God’s-honest truth at you. It doesn’t matter that you already have a book with a neurodiverse character, or by an own voices author, on your list or on your shelves. We’re not a trophy that you can hold up to prove you’re not bigoted. We’re not that “one friend” you have that means you’re compassionate and progressive. We’re authors, writing great books, and you’re shutting us out with your (sometimes unconscious) prejudice.

Get conscious of that shit, because y’all are assholes.

Elizabeth Roderick doesn’t think YOU are an asshole. You read her whole post. If you’d like to check out her books, she’d really appreciate it.

Don’t Assume You Understand Neurodiversity. You Don’t.

I’m going to write another bitchy blog post, because I’m organizing my thoughts. I invite all people to read, and comment if you want, but this is really a conversation that needs to happen within the neurodiverse community, without paying a lot of attention outside input.

I love the term neurodiversity (or neurodivergence*). When I first heard it,  a light came on in my mind. I finally had a word for something I’d felt my whole life: that “mentally ill” isn’t the right word for who I am, because I’m not ill. This is just my personality, and you can’t (nor should you want to) cure me of it. (Yes, I want/need some symptoms treated, but that’s a different discussion.)

The problem is, the term “neurodiverse” is a catch-all term for A LOT of different sorts of people. This is one of those “duh” statements, but I think we need to meditate on it. I hear a lot of people say “I’m neurodiverse, too,” (or, worse yet, “my aunt is neurodiverse”) as a precursor to statements indicating they think they understand what life is like for ALL neurodiverse people.

Ugh. Amirite?

I don’t want to stop using the term “neruodiverse”. I lurves it, and don’t want to complicate the language by having more and more terms, or just labeling ourselves with our diagnoses. “Neurodiverse” expresses an idea about all of us, that we’re not ill and are okay the way we are, and thus is a good catch-all term.

But we all need to check ourselves when we start thinking we understand what it’s like for all people under the neurodiverse umbrella. There’s a huge spectrum not only of different diagnoses under that umbrella, but also of levels of marginalization. Some of us struggle daily with the problems our neurodiversity causes us. It’s affects everything we do, and every conversation we have with others. Other people’s neurodiversity has only a minor effect on their lives.

If you have minor clinical depression, for instance, you’re neurodiverse in my opinion (unless you choose to not identify that way, of course). Depression is something I experience, and is super shitty. It can make you miss work, sabotage relationships, hurt yourself. But, in the case of minor depression, most people won’t know you have it unless you tell them.

mentalOn the other end of the spectrum is my partner, Phoenix. He has schizophrenia and can’t even walk silently into a room without people reacting to his neurodiversity: his strangeness radiates from him like a glow—a beautiful glow, in my opinion, but not in the opinions of most others. He’s one of the very best, coolest, smartest, kindest people I’ve ever met, but most folks will never know that because their reactions to him are almost uniformly negative. They avoid him, or have a (misguided) “protective” anger reaction (for instance, they call the cops on him for yelling and pacing in his yard. They beat the shit out of him for talking to himself, because they think he’s “talking shit” about them). At best, they pity him and don’t take anything he says seriously.

You can imagine the effect this sort of marginalization could have on a person. Phoenix is positive and confident, but he’s told me on various occasions that before I came along, he thought he’d be alone for his whole life.

I, for the sake of you knowing my viewpoint, fall somewhere in between that. I struggle daily with my bipolar and PTSD on an internal level, and it’s been a defining force of my entire life path. It’s destroyed more than one relationship, and caused me to seek out abusive and toxic ones. It’s landed me in prison. It’s made it extremely hard for me to maintain employment for more than a few years at a time, and has cost me many promotions because of latent bias (and no, I’m not being paranoid. I have direct evidence). The list goes on. But in my daily interactions, at least at times I’m not in crisis, people generally just think I’m a little bit eccentric or “off”. It certainly colors their reactions toward me, but they might not even guess at first blush that I’m neurodiverse. Plus, I have the advantage of not being one of those people that comes off as creepy. At least it doesn’t seem like it, usually, based on how I’m treated (I mean, I’m not creepy, right? Tell me if I am). So my neurodiversity doesn’t isolate me in that way (though it will cause me to self-isolate at times).

So, what I’m saying is, someone with minor depression can’t know what it’s like for people like me, or people like Phoenix. And I can’t know what it’s like for someone with Autism, or schizoaffective disorder, etc. But I can probably identify with what other neurodiverse people go through better than most neurotypical people can, and I will endeavor to listen and be accepting—to be a “safe space” for other neurodiverse people to express their feelings and experiences. I will never say neurodiverse people are “doing it for attention” or any of those other horrible, marginalizing things neurotypical (or self-hating neurodiverse) people say.

The reason we label ourselves as neurodiverse is to try to seek out people who understand what it’s like for us, and will listen and accept us for who we are. Thus, it’s very, very important to be careful of behaviors in the community that can cause us to marginalize and isolate our peers even more. We need to be there for one another. Let us remember to listen and be good allies, as well as good peers.

* I don’t like that this term as much, for the silly reason that I don’t like the novel Divergent. We all have our quirks.

Going Homeless for the Homeless

I’ve been inspired by the women who ran from NYC to DC to raise money for Planned Parenthood. I’ve had an idea, and I mentalwant to put out feelers to see what kind of support this idea would have, because it will be a difficult thing to do and I need to know it would have an effect before I set out to do it.

I would like to walk from here (Yakima, WA) to our state capital (Olympia, WA), a distance of around 180 miles. I would be living homeless, in order to raise awareness and money about the plight of the homeless and neurodiverse. I wouldn’t be accepting money directly for these causes – I would ask for pledges to charities like NAMI.

I’d like to know who would be willing to donate, and who would help me by amplifying my social media presence with regard to this. I would love to hear your thoughts, and would love it even more if you’d retweet, reblog, or share this post to see if any of your friends might be interested in supporting me one way or another on this journey.

If I got enough awareness, my next trip would be to DC.

And yes, I’d be living homeless, as authentically as possible, but I’d make it as safe as I could in ways I will brainstorm with you and discuss later.

Who’s with me?

A Stark Look at Neurodiversity and What it Takes to Be an Ally

It’s been a long time since I ranted at y’all. I can’t say I’ve been saving up things to rant about, because I’ve trained myself to let stuff go so that it doesn’t dissolve my brain in caustic acid. But this rant needs to happen.

This is going to be the most brutal window into what it’s like for me to live with mental illness that I’ve ever given you. I’ve decided that my entire recovery depends on me being emotionally honest with myself and others, and on not playing the victim by putting up with other people’s shit. My feelings are important, and it shouldn’t be okay to hurt me just because I act “crazy” sometimes.

If your life is too pretty, you might want to stop reading, because you probably won’t understand any of this.

Neurodiverse people put up with discrimination, both subtle and otherwise, constantly. So much, in fact, that a lot of us don’t even realize that it’s happening, and we end up being the ones to apologize when we’re the ones suffering from prejudice.

Neurodiversity comes in a lot of forms and levels, from nearly constant, full-blown psychosis to mild, periodic depression. There’s also autism, which I won’t speak to here because I’m no expert, though I have observed that autistic people suffer a lot of the same types of discrimination that “mentally ill” people do.

There is really only one all-encompassing way to describe all forms of neurodiversity. It’s an inability, at some level, to correctly play society’s game. I know most neurotypical people feel this applies to them, but they’re fundamentally misunderstanding what I mean. “Not being able to play society’s game” doesn’t mean you’re sometimes weird or awkward or say the wrong thing…as far as I can tell, that stuff is a big part of society’s game. Neurodiversity means that you act in ways that make you fundamentally incompatible with social norms, in ways that affect your ability to get along with others and be “functional”. This isn’t voluntary; it’s just the way we are.

I’ll clarify here that, while it can affect your ability to get along with people, neurodiversity is not a synonym for “asshole”. Yes, some neurodiverse people are assholes, or they act like assholes sometimes (like everyone else), but not all assholes are mentally ill. I’m really damn tired of people saying Trump is mentally ill, for instance. That’s an insult to mentally- ill people. Trump is just a self-involved, inconsiderate, manipulative, unintelligent fuckhead. NOT. THE SAME. THING. It seems like assholes do pretty damn well in society a lot of the time. By getting elected president of the U.S., for example.

Hardly anyone would say that they hate neurodiverse people. It’s just like hardly anyone would say they’re racist, but it doesn’t stop them from doing/saying racist things. With neurodiversity, others don’t really understand what it is or what it looks like, so they end up punishing and demeaning us, even on an institutional level, for behavior we can’t easily control, or can’t control at all. They’re discriminating against us for being who we are.

I can understand why that is, though. Sometimes, neurodiverse behavior isn’t pretty. Neurotypical behavior isn’t pretty sometimes, either, but the neurodiverse have the disadvantage of having more overblown reactions to “triggers” (and I shouldn’t put quotes around this word, because it’s the correct use of a word that is used incorrectly so often) than neurotypical people do, and also of not usually being able to wait until they’re behind closed doors to have those reactions. So, we’re often the ones that get called the asshole for having an episode, when others either don’t know the context (didn’t see what led up to us acting that way), or don’t even understand what set us off.

Unfortunately, in the case of those who know us well, these triggers become a really good way to intentionally or subliminally manipulate and abuse us. They say or do something they know will set us off, and then point to us and say, “See? She’s the bad one.”

Neurodiverse people can be hard for others to love. We get rejected and isolated, some of us on a daily basis, sometimes in just about every interaction. This contributes to the progression of our illness, and becomes sort of a feedback loop. What neurotypical people don’t realize is that y’all are just the same as us. We’re no more threatening, toxic, or hard to deal with than you are, on average, though there are jerkwipes on both sides of the line. We’re just different. We express our emotions differently, because our emotions can take us over more powerfully than they do neurotypical people, but that doesn’t mean we’re dangerous. It just means y’all have to give us a minute, and we’ll be back with you shortly.

And, when we come back, it will probably with an apology—though we rarely get one in return from you guys, because you rarely see what it was you did that was insulting/abusive/discriminatory, while we’re trained from birth to think that we’re in the wrong, because we don’t fit social norms.

In order to be a true ally of the neurodiverse community, you have to understand the above, and accept it, instead of chiding us or being derisive about our behavior. Accepting us goes far beyond language policing or treating us like children who need coddled and taken care of, and then ignored when we’re having a fit. We’re adults— valid, wonderful human beings just like you guys—and should be treated as such. Doesn’t mean you have to like what we do, but it’d be nice if you’d understand and forgive us, and take a look at yourself, as well.

I’m going to give an example of what subtle discrimination looks like, and then an example of what pure acceptance looks like.

I’m not doing this to call anyone out. This is a true attempt to educate, because educating people about this sort of stuff is part and parcel of my survival in this society—I don’t have a chance in hell of ever being “normal”, so my only hope is to try to get people to accept me (and hopefully others) on our own terms. Besides, in the following examples, I’m calling myself out more than anyone, because I was also in the wrong.

Even though my shrink tells me my PTSD is more symptomatic lately (I was recently assaulted), I don’t always realize that I’m freaking out. Believe me, I’m working on it. I’m the only one who can control my behavior. I have a harder time with it than neurotypical people do, but I will get stable again, because I’m a pretty tough lady.

The only way I’m going to get better is by being emotionally honest with myself. Similarly, the only way neurotypical people are going to be good allies of the neurodiverse community is to be honest with themselves, and aware of their own behavior toward us.

So, my PTSD is from abuse. As a young teenager, I was physically/emotionally/sexually abused for a long period of time. This abuse has colored the progression of my entire life. It was a huge cause of the end of my last marriage, because when my husband said something insulting, I would have an overblown reaction, which would cause him to become more insulting, and so on.

I’m in a fairly unstable state now, so whenever someone says something that I perceive to be abusive or insulting, I freak out. Maybe not as much as when I’m unmedicated, but still.

There was a large amount of wank on my personal Facebook page, and a local group page, a couple of days ago because of a couple dogs that killed some of my chickens. I won’t go into the whole story; if you want it, I didn’t delete or alter the thread. It’s on my FB feed.

Long story short, this one dude ended up telling me I’m naïve, and that the dogs should have killed my chickens because they had as much right to eat as I did. Garden variety asshole, right? Except I actually need those eggs to eat since I’m living on a tight budget since my divorce, not to mention the chickens were my pets. The guy knew that. So this statement felt a lot like things my ex used to say to me about me being immature and worthless. I got really agitated, and I reacted without really thinking. I told him, “If you think you have every bit a right to eat as a dog does, kill yourself and make yourself into dog food for rescue dogs.”

This was a horrible word choice, but in my mind at the time, I was turning the tables and re-stating what he’d just said to me. I realized later that it was a poor word choice, but at least it got the guy to shut the fuck up, so I thought it was no big deal. Except it’s the internet, where everything is a big deal.

Another lady came back days later, and read only my statement. She admitted she didn’t read the context, or anything he’d said. All she saw was me freaking out. So, I was the one that got all the blame. “I know you care about people with mental illness, so I just wanted you to be aware that what you said is wrong.”

I apologized for what I’d said, but I also pointed out the irony to her. She didn’t call the other guy out for being abusive and demeaning. Be aware, I said, that my reaction is what mental illness—a PTSD trigger—looks like. That’s what true “awareness” of mental illness is.

She never responded. This is typical. We get rejected as not worth listening to, as hysterical, as an asshole. Rejection is another trigger for me, like it is for a lot of us. Instead of going off on that lady, I figured it would be healthier to go off on a blog piece, in the faint hope of educating someone.

Now, let me call myself out even more by showing you what true acceptance of mental illness looks like. I’ll give a trigger warning, though I don’t think trigger warnings are healthy when we’re dealing with real-life events. We can only heal by facing our triggers. But, anyhow, this is a pretty graphic description of physical violence and verbal…I won’t call it abuse in this case. But in another context it would be.

If you are my mom/dad, I suggest you stop reading now.

A certain friend of mine and I were having ourselves a fun white trash evening recently. Long story short, he was goofing around and called me a “dirty whore”.

I knew he was goofing around, but this brought me to a standstill. “Don’t call me that.”

He, though, didn’t see what the big deal was: he was just joking, and I knew it. So, he called me a dirty whore again.

I reacted before I knew what was happening. It was like watching myself from the outside. I punched him. Not hard, but in the exact same place he’d been punched another time, which had broken his tooth and ultimately put him in a coma for three days.

So, he (who is neurodiverse, also) had the same reaction. He punched me in the eye. Again, not hard, but it was enough to bring me to my senses.

We were both blasted off into PTSD land. He was alternating between threatening to call the cops if I didn’t give him money, and gently examining my eye and saying, “Oh, my God Liz, are you okay?” Then yelling at me for making him hit a girl. I for my part, was sobbing and apologizing my ass off and begging him to not leave or call the cops. See? Good ol’ white trash fun all around.

We calmed down eventually and talked. “Someone called you a dirty whore before, right?” he said, and I nodded. “I’m sorry, I didn’t know,” he said.

“I’m sorry I punched you, especially right where that other guy did.”

And we spoke no more of it. Neither of us needed an explanation. Neither of us judged or even pitied the other. We understood one another. To us, it wasn’t that big a deal. Just a couple people overreacting like the freaks we are. Neither of us had so much as a bruise, to be clear.

That’s what it takes to accept people like us. Most of you won’t be able to do that, because our behavior is so easy to point at and say, “wrong”. Most of you, having read this, will be horrified, and will unfriend me/never talk to me again, because you don’t want to be associated with toxic people like me. But your behavior is just as wrong sometimes, it just takes longer to explain why because the abuse is emotional, and/or you do it behind closed doors so it’s harder to call you out on it.

So, if you want to be our allies, be patient with us, listen, and try to understand. It will require putting up with some bullshit, yes. But it will be worth it. We’re wonderful people, and you’ll also find a lot of us more willing to put up with YOUR bullshit than most, because we know what it’s like to do things we’re not proud of, and be rejected.

Renovating and Building my Tiny House

When I first opened up the door to my old cabin, it was even worse than I’d anticipated. The grime-encrusted detritus of my old life was strewn everywhere. Mouse shit piled in tall drifts on the shelves, where I’d abandoned full bags of cornmeal and raisins. I had no recollection why I’d left underwear dangling from the rafters or felt the need to keep a quart jar full of dried rose petals and Christmas lights. In the cabinets, though, the photo albums and letters were remarkably well preserved; painful reminders of my abusive and long-dead first husband, and my beloved grandmother who had died only months before.

Worse even than the memories was the extensive black mold in the drywall. If I’d hoped for a quick, cheap, and easy renovation, I’d hoped in vain.

At that point, I was really unstable. I’d attempted suicide before I left California, and I landed more than once in the mental health crisis center after reaching Washington. I needed a place where I felt safe and that I could call my own. I needed a home that was inexpensive enough so I could devote all my time to building my writing and editing career. More than that, I needed something to be proud of, something to raise my self-esteem and make me feel like a whole, capable person: when I’d told my husband I was moving back into my tiny house, he said it was a shithole and that I’d never be able to fix it up on my own. He said that, if I’d had an ounce of respect for my daughter and myself, I’d get a real job and a real apartment.

So, no matter how completely disgusting and unmanageable the job looked, I was determined to fix up my tiny house with my own hands, and I’d make it comfortable and beautiful. I’d make it my home.

I squared my shoulders and got to work.

img_1454I didn’t take any “before” pictures: I was afraid that I’d never be able to sleep there if I had a reminder of how absolutely horrifying it was. I regret it now, because it would be nice to look back and see how much I’ve accomplished. The “before” pictures I do have were taken after I’d already filled a gigantic trash hopper with garbage and debris, ripped out all the drywall and insulation (which was even harder than it should have been, because I couldn’t see with my face mask steaming up my goggles), swept it clean, and scrubbed it several times with bleach. But I guess you can get an idea.img_1455

After I gutted it I put up new insulation, my mom helped me reroof it, put up new drywall and replace one of the windows (the original window had been stolen since I’d last lived there—don’t ask). I had to do dig out and repair the water line, do some minor plumbing on the indoor sink and replace the faucet.

img_2081When the house was done, my mom helped me build a little bathroom next to it, using reclaimed wood she’d kept after doing some demo on the property. I set it up with a composting toilet, and a shower with a propane-fueled, in-line heating unit. I created a rudimentary greywater system for the indoor sink and the shower; they currently drain into the flower garden in front of my house. I have plans to expand or improve that system in the future.img_2080

My mom really loves to do home-improvement stuff, and I loved working with her. It was kind of one of those “bonding” experiences people always talk about. Plus, it made me feel like she wasn’t just tolerating me, but actually liked me being there. Plus, I felt like she loved my tiny house almost as much as I did. She didn’t seem to think I was living in “a van down by the river” because I was too immature and lazy to get a real job and an apartment. She knew that I was choosing to live this way, and she seemed to understand why I would. And that felt good.

img_2083All told, the renovation and construction only cost about $1,500.00, including the toilet and shower…most of that money, in fact, went toward the toilet. I was able to do the job pretty cheaply, and to pay for it all out of savings.img_2086

So, I moved into my tiny house and started my new life.

 

Next episode, I’ll talk about how I’ve set up my space, and how I think it might be better utilized. If you have questions about my experience with tiny house living, or if you have an issue you’d like me to address in my blog, I’d love to hear from you.

Why I Decided to Live in a Tiny House

It has been suggested to me that I blog about my experience living in a tiny house. I’m going to do that, not only because I’m having a lot of fun figuring out how to live this way, but also because I need to shift the focus of my blog for a while.

I currently live in an 11 x 14 cabin that I renovated myself, along with a 6 x 6 bathroom addition that I built mostly out of reclaimed wood. I live very cheaply, growing and preserving most of my own food. I’m not yet making perfect use of my space or my situation, but I enjoy the (constant) work in progress, and I’m having a lot of fun living this way.

This first blog post is going to detail how I came to live in a tiny house. My future blog posts will get into the nitty-gritty of my daily life: how I arrange and utilize my space; how I grow, process, and cook my food (this is mostly an excuse to take pictures of my beautiful canned goods and share my recipes); how I budget; and probably a bunch of other random stuff and off-topic tirades.

This isn’t the first time I’ve lived in a little house; in fact, it isn’t the first time I’ve lived in THIS house. Tiny house living is something I can honestly say I did before it was cool.

The year was 1998. I was finishing up my bachelor’s at The Evergreen State College in Olympia Washington, which is some sort of weirdo clown college where you can “design your own education”. This means you can write a “independent study” proposal saying you want to explore the possibility of cat telepathy. The college will undoubtedly approve this proposal, so then you can spend the whole quarter lying in bed staring at your cat, write a report on the experience, and the college will give you 16 credits as long as you pay your tuition. They don’t have to pay a professor, and you don’t have to listen to one. It’s a win-win.

So, anyway, I spent the last two quarters of my senior year doing one of those independent study contracts. I moved back to my hometown in Eastern Washington State and helped my mom start a small organic farming business.

My parents live on a beautiful ten-acre fruit orchard, which is where I grew up. It’s also where my dad grew up—my grandparents owned 40 acres back then, but sold off 30 of it. It’s been a working farm for way over a hundred years, so whenever you dig in the dirt or explore the rafters of the old outbuildings you find some pretty bomb-ass stuff, like those glass beads white people used to trade to the Native Americans; and boxes of 1950s porno, which is mostly just boobs.

One of the old outbuildings is a little eleven-by-fourteen cabin built in the ‘30’s by the Civilian Conservation Corps, which was one of the Depression-era programs started by FDR. When I moved back home for the farming gig, I decided I’d restore it and live there.

It was a cute cabin, made of indestructible redwood, but it had been used over the years as a chicken coop and skeevy teenager hangout and a bunch of other things that involved a lot of grodyness that I had to scrape out. It also had one of those old wood-burning stoves—the kind people used to actually cook and bake—which was awesome, but it was all rusted out and no longer fire-friendly, so I had to haul that heavy metal bitch out of there and into one of the outbuildings. Then, because there is EVERY THING IMAGINABLE somewhere on my parents’ property, I found another wood stove—a cast-iron potbelly—and hauled THAT heavy metal bitch INTO the cabin.

After that, though I’d never done anything of the sort before, I reroofed it, put in insulation, drywall, plumbing (a sink with cold water only), a skylight, etc. etc. My boyfriend’s dad built me a bed that sat about four feet off the ground and had a built-in dresser and storage underneath. It was really cool.

I lived there for a couple of years. It was peaceful and beautiful, and I loved it.

A bunch of yadda-yadda happens here. I moved out, started working as a paralegal (a job I hated desperately) got married about sixty billion times, and had a kid. I lived a lot of places, and owned a couple of houses that I really liked, but I always missed my cabin. Whenever I went back to my parents’ house to visit, I’d walk by there…but I’d never open the door. I hate moving, so when I moved out, I left it a wreck, with food still on the shelves and clothes and weird shit you don’t want to know about all over the place. The fact that I’d left my peaceful little house in that state really bugged me. In fact, I had frequently-recurring dreams about having to clean it out, except it always had more rooms than I’d remembered, and a labyrinthine basement full of mummies and evil rodents and rotten sandwiches, but I knew if I could just get it all cleaned up and in order my whole life would fall into place and be peaceful and beautiful like it had been before. (Though, let’s be honest, it never truly had been…but my cabin had been a safe place that made me feel it was.)

Even more yadda-yadda happens now, which I won’t rant about here, since I’ve spent about 906 blog posts rehashing it already. Long story short, my marriage fell apart in a blaze of glory. We had moved to California for his job, so when he served me divorce papers, I was in this weird place with like ZERO emotional resources to call upon. I mean that literally. I’m bipolar, and I was stressed out enough that I was not taking care of myself whatsoever. I was drinking almost every day, having psychotic episodes, and attempting suicide.

I didn’t know what to do with myself and my kid. All I knew is that I wanted to keep writing books. It was something I loved to do more than anything else, and something that helped me emotionally and psychologically. Plus, my husband had told me I wasn’t capable of making a living at it, and that I was wrong to want to write in the first place: that I was selfish and immature to have that dream.

I wouldn’t allow his spirit to rise up from the grave of our marriage and force me into a bitter, hopeless life working a job I hated and that I was ill-suited for. I didn’t want him to win. I wanted to be my own woman, on my own terms.

Of course, life never works out that neatly. I wasn’t able to spring triumphant from the ashes of my old life, valiant and stable and perfect. By the time my husband served me divorce papers, I had one book published, and a contract on two more, but I wasn’t making any sort of royalties. I had editing skills and was capable of setting up a freelance business to bring in some cash, but in order to make ends meet that way (at least at first) I’d have to live cheaply. Really cheaply.

I’m lucky enough to have extremely supportive parents with a beautiful 10-acre farm, and they were hinting pretty strongly that my psychotic, suicidal, rock-bottom ass needed to come back home like six months ago, along with their beautiful granddaughter.

I love my parents, and I love the farm, but I knew I couldn’t live long-term in their house. I’m a person who very much needs to have her own space. So, it was time to finally open the door of my old cabin and start mucking out the mummies and evil rodents and rotten sandwiches. It was time to finally get my life together.

Mental Illness is Not Weakness

A few days ago while addressing a group of veterans, Donald Trump said that strong people can handle trauma without getting PTSD. In effect, he was stating that only the weak are susceptible to mental health issues after they experience trauma.

I myself suffer* from PTSD. My case arises not from wartime trauma, but from physical, mental, and sexual abuse. The idea that people with PTSD—and really, people with any mental health issue—are somehow too weak to deal with the fact that life sucks sometimes, and that we need to buck up, get over ourselves, and move on, is prevalent in society. In my case, it’s a belief that hinders my recovery.

I was diagnosed with PTSD about a decade back. At the time, I didn’t really know what the diagnosis meant. I thought PTSD was something ONLY combat veterans had, and thus I thought my doctor was joking. I’d never had to experience the horrors of dodging bombs and watching my buddies get blown apart. What kind of whiney bitch did my doctor think I was, that I would be as traumatized by my own experiences as a combat veteran would be by theirs?

I dismissed the diagnosis and refused treatment of any kind. I didn’t even investigate what PTSD was, or how it might affect my actions. I even went so far as to have that—and my other diagnosis of bipolar—removed from my medical records. I didn’t want to suffer the stigma. I didn’t want people to think I was weak or attention-seeking.

Then, a few years ago, I went through a period of very high stress in my life. The stress coincided with, or perhaps triggered, a severe manic episode, and I started writing obsessively and behaving a little oddly. My husband at the time became pretty snide about it. His behavior triggered something in me that sent me over the edge, I guess because it in some ways mirrored the behavior of a person from my past. He started to smell like this person, and sound like him. Whenever he would say something unkind to me, my emotions became uncontrollable: I’d get really, really angry, or hurt, or hysterical. I began avoiding him, disappearing for weeks on road trips.

The situation became a sort of feedback loop: the more emotional and erratic I became, the more critical my husband became of me. He told me I was an immature loser and that he was done with me, and kicked me out of the house on a couple occasions. For my part, I was drinking heavily and, eventually, cheating on him.

I wanted to either act “right”, or leave, but I literally couldn’t bring myself to do either. I was terrified to be alone, yet incapable of pulling myself together the way my husband wanted me to. I would watch myself do incredibly self-destructive things and be absolutely powerless to stop.

It’s hard for me to say that: absolutely powerless to stop. After all, lack of self-control is the ultimate weakness. I told myself, day in and day out, that my marriage and my life were in shambles because I was too weak to fix them. If I’d had any control over my emotions and behavior, I would have been able to make my husband love me again.

I was already in a severe depressive episode when my husband finally served me with divorce papers, on the day after Valentine’s Day. I had a suicide attempt (a fairly halfhearted one, since the means at hand were poor), and finally ended up in a mental health crisis center where they said, no really, you have PTSD and bipolar disorder, and we’re going to help you with them.

I’d never been able to stay on medication before. I thought the whole point of pills was to dull your brain and render you inert, so you wouldn’t cause problems for yourself or those around you. I thought they’d kill my creativity and prevent me from going manic; that I’d never have fun or feel any real feelings anymore. After all, pills couldn’t fix what was wrong with me, because they couldn’t cure weakness or repair personality flaws.

But I stuck with treatment this time, because I was tired of my life being unstable, and I had a kid to stay alive for. I didn’t know what else to do. I had to try something.

After trying a lot of different horrible meds, I was finally put on a combination that didn’t make me feel like a disjointed, sleepy puppet from the dream dimensions. It actually made me feel better.

The first time I realized they were working correctly was when I got into a very stressful situation. I’d been in the same situation before, when I was unmedicated, and I’d reacted very badly. My anxiety, self-loathing, and other distress had swelled up in me until I couldn’t see; the only thing left in me were those feelings, and so they were all I had that could inform my actions. When you feel like that, you can’t behave in healthy ways. You want to destroy yourself so that you don’t feel like that anymore. However, with the medication, I was in control, and not my emotions. I was still upset, yes, but my feelings didn’t send me skidding into the walls off-kilter.

That’s when I realized I’d never actually lacked self-control. My brain just worked differently than most people’s, and pretty much anyone would have acted the same way if they’d felt like I had when I’d done those self-destructive things. This was probably the most amazing self-realization of my life.

Some people might still think I’m weak—Donald Trump maybe thinks he’d be able to go through what I’ve gone through, and still be his pompous, egotistical self. And maybe I am more susceptible to PTSD than others, because of my bipolar, or for some other reason. I don’t know.

I was in the supermarket once and saw a young woman with no arms, using her bare feet to grab cups of yogurt from the cooler and put them in her cart. I tried not to stare, but it was pretty amazing to me. I’m sure it wasn’t amazing to her, though: it was just what she had to do, because she had no arms. No one with any scrap of insight would call that woman weak. I would even make the claim that nothing was wrong with her whatsoever. If she broke her ankle, it would probably affect her life more than it would someone who had arms, but that still doesn’t mean she’s weak. She’d just have to cope in different ways.

Those of us with neurodiversity and mental illness are not weak. We just have to learn to cope differently than other people. I actually think that my experiences have given me more self-knowledge, depth of character, compassion, and insight into the human condition than someone like Donald Trump will ever have. And that isn’t a disability: it’s a beautiful thing.

*I use the word “suffer” intentionally here. I would not use this word with any other sort of neurodiversity (and whether PTSD is truly a neurodiversity, I will leave others to argue, because I think each individual can choose for themselves how they want to identify). However, PTSD is unlike bipolar, ASD, schizophrenia, and other diagnoses that are an organic part of the brain. PTSD is caused by trauma, is preventable and, unlike those other diagnoses, has no component to it that I would call desirable (and yes, I think that neurodiversity can be a good thing, though there are some struggles that definitely go along with it).

Elizabeth Roderick is an author. Many of her books deal with neurodiversity and abuse issues.

Pitch Wars #PimpMyBio: “Coming Out” About My #OwnVoices Book

I’m late to the Pitch Wars #Pimpmybio party, which is odd, because I usually have a bad habit of showing up way too early at most parties.

I just this morning resolved to enter the contest. This will be my third time entering Pitch Wars, and I’ve entered with a different manuscript each time. The first time, I entered the very first novel I’d ever completed, the first in a series of seven YA urban fantasy novels. I’ve since put that series on the back burner; it needs serious editing with my now-more-trained eye before I pitch it again.

The novel I entered last year, The Other Place, is an upper YA/NA contemporary magical realism novel. It’s about a young man with schizophrenia trying to make it as an artist, find love, and find his place in the world. This book was released by Limitless Publishing on 7/5/16.

Yes, I know. I’m a published author, and so I feel a little shy entering Pitch Wars. I know (from experience, unfortunately) that some other contestants are likely giving me the stink-eye, wishing I’d step aside to give the less fortunate a chance. But I don’t have an agent, and really want one; my books are getting great reviews, but I’m a marketing doofus and I think I could get wider exposure if I had an agent on my side, holding my hand and cheering me on.

This competition brings in some of the best aspiring authors in the English-speaking world, and I know I don’t have any more talent or chance of being selected than a lot of the unpublished entrants. The fact I’m published and others aren’t, isn’t a measure purely of talent, but also of hard work and persistence. In fact, no matter how awesome I think my manuscript is, I don’t have a ton of hope it will be chosen. That isn’t the real reason I’m entering this contest. I’m entering because, in past years, I’ve made so many great friends in the Pitch Wars feed, and I’d love to make some more. I’m also entering because I’ve had so much going on in my life lately, both good and bad, so I’ve not been doing much querying. Pitch Wars will make me focus on trying to find this book a home.

The book I’m entering this year is entitled True Story. It’s a diverse YA romance. The main character is a seventeen-year-old Native American foster girl with the unusual name of Mike Charley. She isn’t trans; she was named after her grandfather by her bipolar mother, who thought Mike was his reincarnation.
This is an #ownvoices book. I’m not Native (though I have family in the same tribe Mike’s mother was from), but Mike has bipolar disorder with episodes of psychosis, like her mother did…and like I do.
I’ve been hesitant about pitching True Story as an #ownvoices book, though I know it might make some people more curious about it. I only recently “came out” about my neurodiversity, and it has definitely been a mixed bag. I’m lucky that my diversity isn’t visible; most days, I seem like a perfectly normal, if maybe somewhat eccentric, person, so not a lot of people knew about my neurodiversity. Since I opened up about it, I’ve gotten such a wonderful outpouring of support, but I’ve also suffered a lot of negative and hurtful comments.
Bipolar is a condition that comes with many misconceptions. People either think you’re a howling nutjob, or that you’re being attention-seeking: “I get mood swings, too, and you don’t see me crying about it.” I’m not a howling nutjob on most days, nor am I particularly attention-seeking. These stereotypes are hurtful.
When I wrote True Story, it wasn’t my intention to “educate” the world about bipolar disorder. I was just telling a cool story about a wonderful girl. But now that the book is written and edited, and steaming up the windows in its boisterous urge to get on the road, I really do want to find a wide audience for it, to show one insider’s perspective on living with bipolar.
I also think it’s important to have YA novels with bipolar and otherwise neurodiverse main characters. After my first episode of psychosis when I was 15, I was terrified. I thought my brain would completely desert me; that I might lose control of myself and hurt people. That’s what most people think “psychos” are, after all: homicidal maniacs. Most books reflect these misconceptions, and portray psychotic characters as killers or otherwise evil antagonists. At best, characters with psychosis are often complete wastes of space, objects of nothing more than pity and contempt, and are there only to be somehow “saved” by a neurotypical character.
Because I’d swallowed all those stereotypes, it was decades before I had the courage to admit even to a doctor that I’d suffered psychotic episodes. Instead, I got pretty good at managing them myself. I tried to avoid the situations that might trigger them, and I self-medicated. A lot. When I was in my late teens, I discovered that heroin made my brain chill out, and eased my crushing episodes of (sometimes suicidal) depression. It took me years and a trip to prison to kick that habit, but I eventually found healthier ways to deal with my symptoms.
But those ways don’t always work, especially when you’re like me and don’t even try to control your episodes of mania.
I love being manic. My last manic episode started in the summer of 2013. That’s when I first started writing in earnest: I finished seven novels in a year, and another five in the year after that. However, the episode coincided with a huge shift in my marriage dynamics and caused it even more strain. My husband became very insulting about my inability to “grow up and act right”. His behavior felt very abusive to me, which triggered both my bipolar disorder and my PTSD and made my behavior even more erratic. I ended up having a psychotic break last summer (my first one in more than a decade), and a few close brushes with suicide, before the relationship finally ended for good.
My dream with regard to True Story, and my other books (and other authors’ books) with neurodiverse characters, is that people will read them and be less afraid to talk about their own experiences with neurodiversity. I want people with mental illness to know that they aren’t “less” than neurotypical people; they’re not dangerous or creepy, or in any other way unfit to take their rightful place in society. Then maybe they won’t have to go through some of the stuff I’ve gone through.
So I’m standing up (with somewhat trembly knees) and proudly declaring that True Story is an #ownvoices book. I know my admission that I have a serious mental condition might make some agents leery of working with me, but I console myself that they might not be a good match for my work anyway. When I finally do get an agent, that person will see my value, and will believe in me and my writing. They won’t buy into the negative stereotypes about bipolar disorder or PTSD. They’ll know people like me can be productive, professional, intelligent, and easy to work with.
So, that’s why I’m entering Pitch Wars: because I deserve to; because I believe in my books; and because I believe in myself and others like me.
Thank you for reading this. I’d love to hear your comments and get links to your blogs, as well. Like I said, making new friends is one of my main goals in entering Pitch Wars.
Good luck to everyone!

Owning the Label of “Mentally Ill”

I wanted to talk about something that’s been on my mind a lot lately: how we, and those around us, deal with mental health issues, along with the stigma and complications that label brings. It’s a subject I’ve been exploring in my own life, as well as in my book The Other Place (which has a schizophrenic main character, and came out TODAY!!)

Background on me, for those new to my blog: I’m a neurodiverse person. Every time I go into the psych doc, it seems like they diagnose me with a new letter of the alphabet. Pretty soon they’re going to have to make up new letters, just to diagnose me with them. My main diagnoses are PTSD and Bipolar I (or II, depending on whom you ask, but since I sometimes go totes whackadoodle, I’d probably say I).

It’s only recently I’ve discovered that I don’t have to call myself “mentally ill” (or “nutball” or “whackadoodle”)—I can call myself “neurodiverse”. I think that term fits a lot better, and feels better. Illness is bad, but diversity is something we should be proud of.

The problem is that we as a society don’t typically see neurodiversity in the same light as we see other types of diversity. Neurodiversity is something to be hidden or cured. It’s something to “rise above” and “be successful in spite of” (indeed, some people still see racial, cultural, religious and sexual diversity in the same light, but we should try our hardest to forget those sorts of people, at least for a few blissful moments before Trump opens his mouth again). And sure, there are certain symptoms that go along with being a neurodiverse person that most of us in that category do want some help dealing with or rising above. But, mostly, the impetus should be on society to realize that neurodiverse people aren’t going to change, and shouldn’t have to change.

I’ve spent a lot of my life denying and trying to escape my diagnoses, along with the stigma, danger, and (often) horrible and ineffective treatments that come with them. It’s only recently I’ve realized that there isn’t really something “wrong” with me, and that perhaps it’s society that needs to change in some ways, and not me.

Society has a long way to go with regard to understanding mental illness. Having certain diagnoses on your record can prevent you from getting certain jobs (or any jobs, if you’re open about it like I am online, because employers tend to stalk you before hiring). A record of mental illness can cause you trouble with the law, can affect the quality of your medical treatment even for conditions unrelated to mental health, and a bunch of other things.

Letting myself be diagnosed didn’t really seem worthwhile, because, let’s face it: a lot of treatments for mental health conditions aren’t very effective, and not much progress has been made in making them so in the last few decades. A lot of the treatments don’t make me feel better; sometimes they actually make me feel worse, at least in the short-term, and/or can have long-term negative health effects. It’s always a trade-off, and it sometimes doesn’t seem like a net benefit. So, every time a doctor has tried to slap a label on me, shower me with shitty pills, or put me in therapy, I’ve gone to another doctor or just quit treatment altogether.

I recently had a pretty big breakdown, though, so I’m back in treatment again. I’m struggling to make it work this time, for a couple big reasons. One is that I’ve finally gotten to the point where I can see what effect my mental health was having on my life, and that perhaps I could do better if I took care of myself. Another reason is that I’m ready to accept my diagnoses, and deal with all the fallout that happens from owning the label of “mentally ill”.

What made me ready to own the label was meeting my friend Phoenix, who has schizophrenia. He is hands-down one of the most beautiful, intelligent, and interesting people I’ve ever met. If he can be so incredibly awesome, then I figured maybe I wasn’t so bad, either. Maybe it is society that has the problem, and not us.

I’m also ready to accept the label of “mentally ill” out of a sense of obligation. I can pass for reasonably sane on good days. I can speak fairly coherently about my experiences with psychosis and mental illness in general. But Phoenix, as awesome as he is, doesn’t have much of a voice in society at large. I understand the turn of his mind, but a lot of people just think he’s a ranting lunatic and don’t stick around to find out he’s not. They’re angered or frightened by his behavior. They think he’s on drugs. They abuse, exploit, and ignore him. He’s been beaten into a coma for trying to be friendly (seriously), and has been arrested for standing in his own yard yelling about cow-worshiping vegans (long story). He was almost shot by police during a psychotic break, even though he was unarmed. And he and I have gotten kicked out of so many places just for being unobtrusively weird.

So, I feel the need to speak up and be proud, not just for myself, but for him, and for people like us everywhere.

It’s not easy to be proud a lot of the time, though. Having a mental health diagnosis hits you in two ways: it changes how you look at yourself, and it changes how society sees you. Those two things can also affect each other, so it becomes sort of a feedback loop.

Getting the correct diagnosis can help you to understand yourself better, and why you feel and react in certain ways. That can lift some of your heavy burden of guilt, shame, and self-recrimination, so that you can go about changing or dealing with those behaviors in a more constructive way. Having a diagnosis can also help those close to you recognize your behaviors for what they are, and respond to them in a healthier and more appropriate manner.

However, a diagnosis can also bring a new level of shame, and cause a different kind of inappropriate and unhealthy backlash from society.

People are more open about their mental health problems now than they were in the past, so you can find some very supportive friends if you start talking about your experiences. You also get a lot of pity, though. Pity isn’t what most people are looking for when they talk about their mental problems: they’re looking for understanding, for a way that they can fit into society and be accepted.

Pity, however, is better than the fear, anger, or condescension a lot of people display if you talk about your diagnosis.

Like I said before, I usually pass for reasonably sane. Sometimes, though, I don’t. I don’t usually realize it when it’s happening, but I behave pretty oddly sometimes. I’ve lost friends and loved ones because of it. I’ve been told to “just stop acting that way”, to “get over myself”, and to “grow up.” I’ve been told I’m attention-seeking. I’ve had people say, “Everyone’s crazy, but most of us don’t have to put it on full display.”

Here’s my answer to that: everyone is an ignorant dickhole in some ways, but most of us try not to put it on full display.

Sanity is definitely a spectrum. I have a pretty wide view of sanity, because pretty much everyone has some pretty kooky habits, paranoias, anxieties and beliefs. But I have intimate experience with that ethereal border over which be mental dragons; the line which, once crossed, puts you in the territory of bona-fide insane. I’ve been there, and I’ve witnessed others in that place. It’s not a place most of us choose to go. It can be terrifying, frightening, embarrassing and dangerous, not just because psychotic people are sometimes apt to hurt themselves, but because others tend to misunderstand us, take us for dangerous, and hurt us because of it. I’m lucky I get to spend the majority of my time on the sane side of that line. Others aren’t so lucky.

Most of us probably can agree that the lunatic ranting on the street corner didn’t get that way by poor life choices, right? Unfortunately, a lot of people don’t see it that way. People really do say things like, “Get a job, you lousy bum!” Seriously. I’ve seen it.

But for people like me, who maybe are a little bit there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I with regard to becoming a ranting hobo on the street corner, but probably won’t go there because we’re more stable and functional, it’s more difficult to sort out what part of our behavior is intentional on some level and can be changed, and what part is just who we are. It’s even difficult for me to sort out, with regard to my own behavior. So when people get frustrated or angry with me for doing certain things, and give me the “straighten up and fly right/get a job you lousy bum”-type lecture, it really hits home.

I’ve spent a lot of time struggling with myself and beating up on myself for being certain ways. I end up walking this tightrope; on one side is things about myself that I can’t change, and just need to learn how to deal with; and on the other side is behavior that I could change, and would be copping out if I blamed it on my mental health issues. Everyone else has their own opinions about which side of that tightrope certain behaviors fall, which makes it even harder to sort out for myself.

And then there’s the added stigma that a lot of people think I’m being attention-seeking or trying to be a “special snowflake” for even talking about these issues publicly. Since I’ve seen even POC and other diverse individuals get that brand of bullshit, though, I try not to let it bug me too much. I’m talking about these issues for the same reasons any diverse person talks about the issues related to their diversity: to understand it myself and to garner more understanding from others, so that someday maybe people like me will have a comfortable place in society where we don’t suffer discrimination, abuse, violence, and misunderstanding.

I hope that by writing these blog posts and books like The Other Place, I make some headway in that regard.