Why Depression is Not Romantic

When I was a teenager, maybe thirteen or fourteen, I read stories of girls with arms like mine. The girls with white lines drawn across their pale skin, carved there by blades and tainted by tears. Girls who caught the attention of the cute, sensitive boy in their class, the boy who saw her scars and knew what they meant. The boy who took her aside and kissed her scars and told her that she was beautiful regardless, that he would hold her close and take care of her, that he would never let her hurt again. The boy who loved her, not because there was more to her than her scars, but because he knew that she was sad and broken, and that he could protect her from the harsh world.

These stories were not the reason why I self-harmed, but they most certainly justified my doing so.

Just like when I was in my second year at university, studying literature because I wanted to be a great writer, and the professor made the statement to my class: “this poem is about depression, which is something that all great writers deal with. I don’t really think it’s possible to be a great writer without being broken.”

Well, that’s good news, I thought; I suppose I need to be broken then. Maybe this is just the price I pay to achieve my dreams.

I think, even at the time, I knew that what I was thinking was wrong.

Even then, I knew that the stories I wrote were not created in the black, ceaseless spirals of depression. They might have been inspired by it, from time to time, but no more than they were inspired by other aspects of my life. And, more importantly, they were written in those moments where I broke the surface, where I took in a gulp of air and thought that everything might be fine again, just before I sunk back below and lost all creative ability again.

Just like I knew that self-harm would not earn me love. No boy ever saw my scars and kissed them to make them better; now that I’m no longer thirteen years old, I don’t really think I’d want one to. All that my scars did was give me something to be ashamed of, something to pull my sleeves over and lie about when people asked me about them.

“I hope you don’t mind me asking, but what did you do to your arm?”

“Oh, I was playing with my cat, and, well, this happened.”

Please. Please, don’t notice that it looks nothing like a cat scratch.

But even still, despite the fact that depression was not my gateway to genius, despite the fact that self-harm brought me more shame than it did love, there was still something so romantic about both ideas. About being the tortured artist, the Sylvia Plath, the Van Gogh. Forget the fact that they both cut their stories off before they were finished; they were beloved and mysterious, deep and thoughtful. And all I had to do to become them was give into what was already inside me, right?

We romanticize mental illness all the time, present it as something mysterious and unknown and darkly beautiful, but it isn’t. The reality of mental illness is laying in bed all day because you just can’t find the motivation to get up. The reality of mental illness is wearing long sleeves in the summer because you don’t want to risk anyone, not even the cute, sensitive boy in your class, to know your secret (because it is, after all, a secret). The reality of mental illness is panic attacks that leave you exhausted, fear that keeps you its prisoner, suicidal thoughts that threaten to cut your story off too soon, if you just give into them.

And the problem with romanticizing all of this is that it then justifies people to give into it.

All of this isn’t to say that no good can ever come from a mental illness; it can. Personally speaking, I believe that coming to terms with my mental illness and fighting it has made me a much stronger person than I would have otherwise been, but that is exactly my point; I needed to fight it. Fighting gave me ability. Fighting gave me more stories to tell than depression ever could have. Fighting made me feel as though I deserved, not only love, but a love that was worthwhile, a love that would see me, not as the broken soul that needs to be fixed, but as a person, as an equal. Fighting is what brought me here, to this place, to this day.

I honestly don’t know who or where I’d be today if I hadn’t fought, but I know it wouldn’t be romantic. It would be pitiful, a tragic tale to tell. And I am not a tragedy.

So if we have to romanticize anything in regards to mental illness, let’s romanticize the fight. Let’s talk about how strong survivors are to reach out and get help for themselves. Let’s praise those who managed to overcome suicidal thoughts, even when it seemed next to impossible. Let’s celebrate the ones who self-harmed at one point, but managed to pull themselves through it and stop altogether. Because when we romanticize mental illness itself, we are helping no one; when we encourage people to seek treatment and get help, we have the opportunity to save lives.

And, personally, I am tired of romances that focus so much on how loveable or genius someone is only because they are depressed.

 

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Why We Cannot Force Labels on Others

I have discussed why labels are important in the past, and regardless of anything that you are about to read here, I still believe that they are. We do not exist in a society that is beyond labelling yet – identifying as queer or transgender or black or Muslim still affects the way that you go about your day, the way that people treat you and the way that you are viewed by society.

But that being said, there is another trend that I have noticed when it comes to labelling individuals that I think needs to be addressed.

If you have been following following celebrity news lately, you might have noticed headlines such as, “Sam Smith Comes Out As Gender-Nonbinary” or “Sam Smith Reveals He Identifies As Gender Nonbinary“. Now, for those of you who might not be aware what non-binary identities are, what this would essentially mean is that Sam Smith identifies as neither male nor female, but rather, as a third gender that exists (as you might expect) outside the binary. Many non-binary people prefer to be referred to with pronouns that are neither masculine nor feminine – in other words, they do not wish to be called “she, her” or “he, him”, but as “them, their”.

This is not what Sam Smith actually said in his interview with the Sunday Time.

What Sam Smith said was that he’s “as much woman as he is a man“, and he then proceeded to explain how he enjoys dressing up in women’s clothing and heels. The closest that Sam Smith came to identifying his gender was when he stated that he “[didn’t] know what the title would be”. He did not actually use the words “I am non-binary” in the interview, and he did not ask to be referred to using gender-neutral pronouns; more than anything, he seemed to express a desire not to be labelled at all. And yet, despite this, Sam Smith has been labelled by People and Vogue as non-binary.

Something similar has been happening to singer P!nk for years now as well. All over the internet, you can find people arguing about P!nk’s sexual orientation, and some, such as Perez Hilton, have even identified her as bisexual. Yet, P!nk has never made any active attempt to label herself at all. In a 2012 interview, P!nk discussed what dating was like for her (before she was married to a man), stating, “I wasn’t gay, but all my girlfriends were. So no, it wasn’t a big deal for me, but when (a tabloid) comes out and says, I just said I was bisexual, it’s like what? That wasn’t my truth, and I like truth. I like absolute truth.” And yet, regardless of this, you can still find her identified with the label ‘bisexual’.

Now, on the one hand, I understand why some people might want to identify Sam Smith as non-binary and P!nk as bisexual; both of these identities are seriously underrepresented in the media. So, as a result, people who do identify with these labels want to be able to see themselves in others, particularly in celebrities who they look up to and admire. It’s a bit easier to do this when the celebrity in question actually identifies with your label, and lives with all the same stigmas and experiences that you do as a result. It’s easier to know that your identity exists and has value when you can see someone who is loved and respected and powerful identifying with it as well.

But the problem with these two specific instances is that neither individual has claimed the label that is being put on them.

Choosing what label you identify with, particularly when it comes to gender and sexual orientation, is a very personal matter; nobody else can choose it for you. You need to decide what feels most natural for you, what you think best reflects your experience. And if you do not feel comfortable adopting a label, even if it does reflect your experience just fine, then you should not feel forced to adopt it.

Perhaps Sam Smith is non-binary, or the way that we might think of non-binary anyway, but even if he is, he should not feel forced to accept that label just because others think that he should. He should be allowed to come to the conclusion himself, to decide what he feels best reflects his own experience without anyone else telling him how to feel or identify.

And, meanwhile, for those of us on the outside, we should not try to decide what someone else should or should not identify with. If someone tells us that they identify as bisexual, or non-binary, or as no label at all, then even if we do not agree with their choice, it is not up to us to tell them how they should identify themselves. That is their decision to make, based on how they feel and how they wish to be perceived and understood.

And at the end of the day, you need to make the decision of what you’re comfortable with. Live your truth, whatever that might be, and don’t let anyone make you feel like you are any more or less valid because of the word that you use to describe your experience. Because, as much as labels are a useful tool in helping us to sum up and explain our experiences, at the end of the day, they are just words, with all of the limitations that that implies.

Why We Should Not Blame Gun Violence on Mental Illness

On November 5, 2017, Devin Kelley walked into a Texas church and killed twenty-six people with a gun.

In the wake of this undeniable tragedy, many have been arguing about the best way to prevent it from happening again in the future. I mean, as many of us are probably aware, this is not the first time that there has been a shooting in the United States. In fact, according to the Gun Violence Archive, between January 1, 2017 to November 5, 2017 alone, there have been 307 mass shootings, averaging 7 mass shootings a week.

So, yeah, I think we all agree that this is a serious problem that needs to be stopped. But that begs the question: how do we do it?

Well, the answer for many people has been in creating stricter gun laws, something that has in fact worked for other countries (Americans are 10 times more likely to be killed by guns than people in other developed countries). And, personally (just to get any potential bias out of the way now), I agree with this approach. But guns are not the only thing receiving the blame following a shooting.

Following the Texas shooting, comedian Chelsea Handler tweeted: “Mental health issues without guns are people with mental health issues. With guns, they become murderers“.

Now, I’m sure that when Handler tweeted this, she did not mean to imply that, if you give any random person with mental illness a gun, they will immediately start shooting. I’m sure that she did not mean that any person with depression or generalized anxiety disorder or schizophrenia is just one gun away from murder. That would be an insane generalization to make. But, at the same time, it is very common for people to blame mental illness when mass shootings like these occur.

In fact, following the Texas shooting, Donald Trump did not even mention the issue of gun control, rather calling this a “mental health problem“. More than that, 63 percent of Americans believe that shootings have more to do with mental health problems than they do with gun control.

And, I mean, sure; why wouldn’t that be considered? It has been a common theme throughout many of these shootings. Devin Kelley, the Texas shooter, escaped from a mental health facility in 2012 and had a violent history. James Holmes, who killed 12 people and injured 70 more at a shooting in Aurora, was diagnosed with a schizophrenic disorder. Stephen Paddock, responsible for the 2017 Las Vegas shooting, was on anti-anxiety medication and said to be susceptible to bouts of depression. This does seem to be a theme that comes up, again and again, so why wouldn’t it be at least mentioned?

Well, one thing that I think should be stressed is that, of the three examples that I gave above, only one of those men was actually diagnosed with a mental illness. Stephen Paddock was never diagnosed with anything, and Devin Kelley, while having escaped from a mental health facility, was there due to his accusations of spousal abuse and violence. He was never actually diagnosed either. In fact, only 14.8 percent of shooters in the United States are diagnosed as psychotic.

And of people in the general population who are diagnosed with mental illness, rates of violence are surprisingly low. In fact, it is estimated that people with mental illness contribute to only three to five percent of all violent crimes in the United States. And of these three to five percent of violent acts, most of these do not involve guns.

In fact, a mentally ill person in America is more likely to be the victim of their own gun-related violence. In 2013, guns killed 33, 636 people, and nearly two-thirds of these were suicides.

The problem that needs to be addressed here is not mental illness. There are hundreds, thousands, of mentally ill people who go their whole lives without once wanting to kill anyone with a gun. I happen to be one of them. Saying that shootings are a problem of mental health contributes to this society that sees every person with dissociative identity disorder as Norman Bates, and every psychopath as Hannibal Lecter. It inspires fear against the mentally ill, fear that has contributed to the fact that those with mental illness are actually ten times more likely to be the victim of a violent crime than the general population. It also creates an environment that makes it that much harder for people with mental illness to actually seek help, because they know that if they do, then others would constantly fear what they are capable of. They do not want to be perceived as dangerous, and so they suffer in silence for society’s sake.

As Jeffrey Swanson, professor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University School of Medicine, said, “Imagine if [Trump] had said, ‘veteran’ – that this was a ‘veterans’ issue. He’d besmirch the whole community. Well, that’s what he’s doing with mental illness.”

We need to stop blaming violence on mentally ill people, because the fact is that we are not solely responsible for it. We need to stop stigmatizing individuals who need help, who should be made to feel safe and supported so that they can reach out. Nobody should have to deal with a mental illness alone, but that is exactly what this sort of conversation is causing.

And if you are someone who is dealing with a mental illness right now, I sincerely hope that you find love and support from your community. I hope that you find or have someone who you can talk to, who won’t judge you or look down on you, because you do not deserve any of that. You are a beautiful, wonderful, valid individual, and I sincerely hope you know that, even in the wake of all this mess.

Queer Representation in Children’s Media

When I was a little girl, one of my absolute favourite things in the whole wide world was Harry Potter. (Oh, who am I kidding? That’s still true today.) The books. The movies. Everything. I loved it. I ate it up like a proverbial fat kid eats cake.

Now, I don’t know how familiar you, the reader, are with Harry Potter. Maybe you’ve never seen the movies or read the books, and you just have a basic understanding of it being about wizards or some shit like that. Maybe you’re more like me, and have the entire text of the books tattooed onto your soul. But I’m just going to assume that you’re a little closer to the former, just for safety’s sake, because I want to draw your attention toward a brief, seemingly unimportant scene in the third movie, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (which was released when I was nine years old. Trust me; that bit will become important later).

Near the end of this movie, two male characters are revealed to have a close friendship (if I’m spoiling anything for you here, too bad, the movie’s been out nearly fourteen years now). These characters in question are Remus Lupin, a werewolf, and Sirius Black, not a werewolf. At one point, shortly after a reunion scene between the two of them that involved close hugging, the moon comes out from behind a cloud, and Lupin begins to turn into a werewolf. At this point, Sirius grabs hold of Lupin and tries to get through to him, saying things like, “this heart is where you belong, this heart!” indicating Lupin’s own chest.

Now, what about any of this matters, you might be asking? This is just a meaningless, nothing little scene that establishes nothing besides the fact that Lupin is turning into a werewolf, right? Well… yes. Yes it is. But at the age of nine years old, when I first saw this scene, something got confused along the way in my head. I think it might have been something about Sirius screaming about hearts as he held Lupin close. What I’m trying to say is, when I was nine years old, I seriously, genuinely thought that Sirius and Lupin were a couple in the context of the movies. And I’m not talking about “shipping” them (for those of you who aren’t familiar with the lingo, that’s geek-talk for thinking that two characters would make an amazing couple, even if they are not actually romantically or sexually involved in the actual text). I mean that I actually believed that they were “together”.

This wasn’t an isolated incident either. In the Disney movie “Mulan” (which came out when I was three years old; I don’t remember how old I was when I first saw it, but it was probably around then), there is a character simply called “the Matchmaker”, and I was completely convinced that that character was a drag queen. Maybe it was the heavy make-up combined with the fact that she accidentally draws a goatee on herself later on in the movie. Maybe I just didn’t catch onto the fact that it was a goatee made of ink, not hair. I don’t know, for some reason, when I was a kid, I was simply convinced that children’s movies were much more progressive than they actually were.

It wasn’t until I was in my late teens did I discover that Lupin and Sirius are not actually a couple in the context of the story, they’re just good friends, or that the Matchmaker was actually intended to be interpreted as a cis-gendered woman.

Now, the reason why I interpreted these characters this way could be manifold. It could simply because my parents did not try to hide the existence of other sexualities and genders from me as a kid, and so it simply made sense to me that, if these people existed, they would exist in my media as well. Or maybe it all has something to do with the fact that I personally grew up to be bisexual; maybe whatever it is that has hardwired me to be queer automatically made me search for role models in my media as early as three years old. I don’t know what the reason is, all I know is that I can now make people laugh with the funny “I genuinely thought Lupin and Sirius were a couple” story now.

But, personally, I think that the fact that I thought this way as young as I did is important to a discussion that we have been having in our media lately: namely, is it okay for children to be exposed to queer characters in media?

Actual queer characters (not just the ones I’ve made up in my head) have been confirmed in some children’s media lately, possibly the most famous example being LeFou in Disney’s live action remake of Beauty and the Beast. Yet, LeFou sort of ended up being a disappointment to both sides of the argument. Parents who disagreed with queer representation in children’s media refused to take their children to this movie because they didn’t want them exposed to a message that they thought could potentially be harmful. Meanwhile, audience members who wanted to see explicit queer representation got little more than a split-second dance scene between two men, hardly confirming or denying anything (after all, even as a nine-year-old, I would have known that two men can dance together without being in love with each other).

Since then, we’ve had character after character in children’s media (including Valkyrie from Thor: Ragnarok and Yellow Ranger Trini from the Power Rangers movie) either hint at potential queerness, or be marketed to the audience as a queer character, while never actually coming right out and saying, “hello, yes, I am actual queer character, pleased to meet you!”

In other words, this media can bring in an audience that desperately wants to see actual, confirmed queer representation in mainstream, children’s media, while simultaneously appeasing the parents who don’t want their children exposed to that gross, gay stuff.

But, end of day, really, what’s wrong with exposing children to the existence of queer individuals?

I know that I’m probably not a convincing example of someone who grew up exposed to this in my media and turned out fine, considering the fact that one of the major fears of including these characters in these movies is that it will somehow turn their kids gay. But at the same time, to that, I say two things: 1) I don’t think that I “became bisexual” the moment that I heard Gary Oldman screaming “this heart is where you belong” to David Thewlis. I sort of think that being bisexual was somewhere in my genetic code long before that. And, 2) at the time, when I was a young, pre-pubescent nerd wearing a lightning bolt scar drawn onto my forehead with eyeliner, I actually didn’t think anything of this quote-unquote ‘relationship’. I didn’t think that it was weird that Sirius and Lupin “were a couple”. I mean, yeah, at the time I decided that they were my favourite couple in the series, but that was mostly because this was movie three and the only other couples that I had to choose from were all parents (which, to a nine year old girl, was gross).

You know those stories that you hear of a little kid asking, “what are gay people?” and the parents explains it calmly, to which the kid goes, “oh. Can I go play now?” Yeah, that was pretty much just my reaction to these movies. I didn’t linger on it. I didn’t hate it or think it was gross, or even really decide that I was going to grow up to be in a same-sex relationship, just like Lupin and Sirius. I just saw it, thought it was kind of romantic, the way that Sirius tried to pull Lupin back from being a monster just like some sort of Beauty and the Beast, and then I moved onto the awesome werewolf fight scene and the flying broomsticks and the supposed devil worship. Truth be told, if this wasn’t an argument that we were having now, and if I hadn’t been wrong in my interpretation of the film, I might never have thought about any of it ever again.

So when people nowadays discuss the potential “dangers” of including queer characters in children’s media, I always go back to that nine year old girl who thought nothing of the possibility that two wizards were also a couple, or that the Matchmaker was openly a drag queen in ancient China. None of this bothered me as a kid, none of it even phased me. Perhaps it would have if I had told the adults in my life how I had interpreted these characters and they had laughed at me or told me that I was wrong, but no one ever did that to me. No one ever told me that queer characters didn’t belong in my media, and so I simply assumed that queer people belonged everywhere. Being informed on these matters, being allowed to think about them and interpret them freely, made me more open-minded and accepting, not only of queer characters, but of queer people in real life, and eventually, of my own queerness as well.

It wasn’t until I grew up did I discover that others disagreed with me. And, to this day, I still don’t think I understand why.

The Monsters in My Head

In my head, there live two monsters.

The first calls itself Depression, and it is a mass of shadows, dark and lazy and heavy, oh so heavy. Sometimes it goes to sleep, and it stays there for weeks, months even. Sometimes I think Depression has moved out, moved on, realized that there are better things for it to do than sit in my head all the damn time. Then it wakes up. It wakes up, and it sits there, weighing a ton, and it never shuts. The fuck. Up.

“Why are you doing that? I mean, why do you bother? You aren’t even all that good. Nobody cares.”

“Why are you even saying that? It isn’t like you have any friends. Nobody will respond. Nobody really likes you.”

“Oh. My. God. Did you really just say that? God, it’s no wonder all your friends left you and you’ve been single since the dawn of time.”

“Maybe it would just be better for everyone if you would just give up, you know?”

Opposite Depression, there exists its roommate: Anxiety. Depression and Anxiety don’t like each other much, but they’ve learned to coexist. While Depression sits on the couch all day, eating potato chips out of the bag and binge-watching a show it really doesn’t care for all that much, Anxiety is poised, ready to strike at a giving moment. Depression is still, but Anxiety vibrates with energy, excited and scared all at the same time.

Anxiety speaks just as often as Depression does.

“Why are we sitting still right now? There are things we have to do! Come on! Move it! Move it! Move it!”

“In case you haven’t realized, you don’t have any friends, so what you need to do is talk to that person! Go! Say something! What do you say? I have no fucking clue, just say something, because if you don’t, you won’t ever make any friends and you’re going to die alone, having contributed nothing to the world! Do you want that? Do you really fucking want that?”

“Oh no! You said the wrong thing! Well, now they hate you. You aren’t going to be alone now; you’re going to be a social pariah. Have fun with that!”

Sometimes, Depression and Anxiety speak together.

Depression: I don’t feel like doing anything today. I’m tired. I think I’m just going to stay here all day.

Anxiety: No! No, we can’t do that! We have things to do, goddamnit! And if we don’t do them, then we’re going to lose our fucking job, and have no fucking money, and not be able to do anything, so we’re just going to die alone and mean nothing.

Depression: So what? We already mean nothing. It’s not like getting up is going to change any of that.

Anxiety: Well, we have to try, don’t we? We have to do something? Get up, get up, get up! Move, move, move! Why aren’t you moving? Fuck!

Depression: Because we’re worthless. We’re lazy and stupid and nothing we ever do matters.

Anxiety: Not with that attitude, it doesn’t!

Depression: I’m tired. You’re making me tired. Can’t we just go to bed?

Anxiety: If you do, then I swear to god, I will nag you until you get up again!

Depression: That’s fine. This is fine. I’ll just lay here then.

I don’t know when they moved it. I don’t remember ever letting them in; I just discovered them one day, both living in my head. By that time, they had already wrecked the place, leaving me to do the clean-up. I despised them for that. I wanted to kick them out. I wanted them gone. I told them: get the fuck out of my head! I told them I didn’t want them, I tried to chase them out with pills. They responded differently. Depression would hide, going back to the shadows and remaining there until precisely the right time when it could return again, and I wouldn’t even notice. Anxiety would try to bribe me with new promises: “you can’t kick me out; you need me! I am what makes you brilliant! Without me, what would you be? How would you get anything done? I am your motivation, your muse! You can’t deny that, can you?”

But as time went on, I began to learn more about these annoying little tenants in my head. For one, I learned that I couldn’t just kick them out; it wasn’t as simple as all that. And I learned that they were both filthy liars who would say anything to get my attention.

I learned that they were different from one another, that Depression preyed upon insecurities so that it would be easier to ignore, but end of day, there was still nothing to prove that it was correct. Depression said that I wasn’t good at what I did, and yet I received compliments. Depression told me that they were making it up, and yet logic pointed out that that didn’t make any fucking sense. Depression could sit in my head for weeks, and I could have a hard time ignoring its drivel, but eventually, I did learn that that was all it was: drivel. The ramblings made up by some terrible tenant in my head, bent on my pain and destruction because that was what it thrived on. When I gave in, Depression won.

Anxiety, on the other hand, could never be satisfied. It lived on the idea of moremore work, more friends, more success, more more more. There was never enough. I was never enough, and Depression was quick to agree on that point. And when I really sat down and thought about it, I decided that I didn’t like the way that Anxiety thought. I wanted to be good, yes, great even, but I wanted to be satisfied. I wanted to be comfortable and open and happy, but Anxiety could never be any of that. And when Anxiety realized that I was pulling away, it would say anything it needed to draw me back, like any abusive partner would. It needed me much more than I needed it, because without me, it could not live.

Depression and Anxiety continue to live in my head together. They continue to chatter, on and off, and I know now that they will never leave, but their voices are quieter now, easier to ignore, because while they still prey off of insecurities, I recognize now that the things they say are a lie. And I do not want to listen to them. I set up the rules, I put them back in their place when I can, and when I can’t, I try to remind myself that it is not for the reasons that they give; I am not weak or worthless or unable to deal with them. I am strong, but I am struggling, as all those who are strong do. And when I need help, I will ask for help, because that is precisely what Depression and Anxiety do not want me to do. And if I am going to best them, I do not want them to be comfortable.