from the comments

A few topics ago, Jen brilliantly suggested that we start a discussion about making friends. Last spring we had a rather good conversation on this topic (here)* but not quite in the context that it was recently presented. Among other insightful things, Jen said

The friends I do have I don’t feel really know me well because they don’t know the truth about my life and what I deal with. And for most of them, except for the few who do know, I don’t think they care to understand it. So I do understand that feeling of “Why bother?” I don’t have an easy answer for this.

And so we ask: Why bother? More specifically, perhaps, What do we gain from sharing our MI stories with friends? Are you able to consider those who don’t know “friends” at all? What are the consequences of, both, sharing and not sharing — consequences for them, consequences for the friendship, and mostly consequences for yourself? And then (it has to be asked), If you are ever lonely, what’s the relationship between your MI and that loneliness?

I just called my mother. I asked if there was ever a time that I enjoyed playing in a sandbox. Without hesitation, she confirmed my suspicion with an unequivocal “No.” I didn’t think so.

There’s been talk in the discussions recently on socializing, sociability, making friends, and losing friends. While there are other instances, I’m going to call out two from this discussion.

From Jen:

I don’t have a lot of friends, but the close friends I’ve had in recent years were people without intellectual interests and we had nothing in common really other than we all had mental illnesses. I’ve found that there is a void in such relationships. I have this close friend, and because I can’t relate to her about anything other than craziness, I don’t even know why we’re friends anymore. And I have these other people I know through an activist group of women I’m involved with, and they all have advanced degrees, for the most part, and careers or previous careers. I find that I can’t make friends with any of them, because I feel so inadequate.

From bipolartude:

One of my closest friends, whom I’ve known for 20 years (went to school together), moved 1500 miles to be in my city…At first supportive, my friend told me after it didn’t “clear up” that it was too much for her to handle.

So, the questions: Can you relate to either or both of these friend-based problems? Do you feel you can make new meaningful friendships? Have you lost once-meaningful friendships due to your MI? With either new friends or old ones, how do you explain? Do you even try? This is a particularly close topic to my heart right now, one I cried over just last night. My responses will be in the discussion.

In the last discussion on positive and negative effects of the various mental illness labels, a few comments came together on a tangential topic that truly deserves its own conversation. In response to the “high-functioning” label, Jen said,

“I don’t call myself “high functioning”, because I think it’s a bit of an elitist term, but I do understand why it’s used and that there has to be some name for what that term means that we can use to describe people who are able to, well, function, despite being seriously ill.”

I want to pause here on the idea of elitism in some labels. I thought for a while before responding with “I agree that it is often elitist — at the very least, it sounds elitist. Those who aren’t ‘high-functioning’ probably find it elitist (I would). In truth, I don’t think there’s anything truly elitist in being able to ‘pass.'” I believe the elitism heard in the “high-functioning” label is a direct result of the way the term is defined and the connotations that come with it. It is double-edged in that it has one set of connotations within the mental health community (including professionals and supporters) and another set of connotations within the general public. The latter includes the idea that the high-functioning mentally ill have particular talents resulting from their diagnoses. (No specific links here necessary, I think. Just google “Mental Illness Creativity.”) To wholesale excerpt some (just some) of my thoughts on this point:

“Without exaggeration or hyperbole, I HATE…the fetishistic and romanticized* view of the so-called ‘high-functioning mentally ill.’…What really makes us “high-functioning” is that other people think we’re not mentally ill. What’s worse…is the seemingly universal tendency to attribute whatever exceptional behavior might be exhibited to the peculiarities of the [diagnosis]. Nash is a genius who suffers schizophrenia — he is not a genius because he’s schizophrenic… If Van Gogh was mentally ill, he was an amazing painter as well — His illness did not paint; He did. Same with Woolf and Plath and Wallace and god knows how many others…And while I am no fucking genius, I know that the things I can do are done by me — Not By My Disorder. I know this because my disorder is debilitating, and I don’t produce solidly when sick. I think this is the most damaging part of the high-functioning label in the general public. Not only is our accountability taken away when we’re given the ‘mentally ill’ label (‘Oh, she’s not really responsible for her actions right now.’), but we lose credit for those things we work really fucking hard to do (‘Well, I could do that too if I were crazy.’).”

While we’ve already had a few comments on this, I’d like to return the conversation specifically to Jen’s comment on elitism. Not to single anything out, but for the sake of discussion, I’m also pulling a comment from Natalie to the fore:

“…our higher than average intelligence, penchant for thinking outside the box, creativity, passion, etc. has everything to do with our particular diagnoses.”

Partially because it is out of context and partially because of the nature of the post, what is not clear is whether this comment is speaking of the “high-functioning” or anyone with a mental health diagnosis. I’m inclined to believe it is the former because the implications of the latter are just cruel. That being said, the former lays out a specific definition of “high-functioning” that has not yet been discussed on this site — one that feeds elistism, one that I see as oppressive in the exoticization* it leads to, one that I see as infantilizing in how it strips away accountability and credit. I personally see this definition and connotation of the “high-functioning” label as perpetuating the stigma surrounding MI matters by simply finding yet another way to extend the labels of abnormality and otherness.

I, however, started this forum to hear multiple perspectives. What, if any, are the relationships between mental illness and creative ability? What, if any, are the relationships between these abilities and levels of functioning? I’d like to posit here that our personal definitions of “functioning” are at the core of this topic.

*For the record, the hurried nature of the comments means I wrote “fetishizing and romanticized.” While both are true in my opinion, a more appropriate term for what goes on is “exoticization.”

[Note on the image accompanying this post. I draw and write and do other creative-ish and sometimes sorta-smarty things. I believe I would do these things without my disorder. Being able to do these things is what push me forward.]

It has come to my attention that, for the sake of productive discussion, I should make a few things explicitly clear. It is not always easy to be both moderator and participant in this forum. The moderator asks the questions I usually make bold in the discussion topic. The participant gives her opinion in these posts as a way to start the discussion and to give forum members something to respond to. These are simply my opinions, and I thoroughly expect and hope for disagreement. I do write with conviction because, like all of us, these are issues in which I have a great deal invested. While maintaining that conviction, I strive to meet the expectations set forth in the spirit of the Terminology page. I ask that we all do the same.

Giorgio de Chirico. Gare Montparnasse (1914)

My favorite things about this site are when I get to post “From the Comments” (bringing things said in the comments of another post to the front of the discussion) and “Community Contributions” (discussion topics sent to me by readers).

In response to my last discussion topic on the media’s representation and speculation regarding Charlie Sheen, commenter Jen had this (among other things) to say:

The intense media focus fails to include any adequate and educational information about mental illnesses such as Bipolar Disorder, which is the least you could hope for if they’re going to put on celebrity “doctors” telling us the guy is obviously manic. If he is manic, why the hell don’t they take this opportunity to talk about how hellish it is to experience mania and the following depression, how many people with mental illnesses die by suicide every year, how little federal or state or local funding there is for mental health treatment in these great United States, how little funding there is for research into mental illnesses and adequate treatments that don’t include severe obesity as a side effect that affects the majority of the people taking the drug so they get to experience Diabetes and heart disease in addition to mental illness???

There isn’t much more to add to her thorough question. All I can do is start this off with my thoughts: Like it or not, our popular media is the moderator, mediator, and forum for public discussion. The television, the Internet, and even radio (well, satellite radio mostly) constitute our public sphere. While I could rant for literally hours on the responsibility implied in assuming that role and the incredible shirking of said responsibility (not actually) excused by the importance of profit generation, I’m going to limit myself here to mental health awareness matters. In light of the Charlie Sheen Omnimedia Extravaganza, I’m appalled at the squandered opportunity for public education. I’m shocked daily by the highly educated and generally tolerant and sensitive people I know posting unbelievable mockery on their Facebook pages and Twitter feeds. I know that this is the case because public discourse does not include education. I know this is the case because our public sphere is a collection of disjointed masses of choirs listening to their chosen preachers. I know this is the case because “public discourse” has become anachronistic. [OK. The last two sentences are cultural criticism for another time and place.] I know this is the case because we (the MI community) are not part of the public…yet.

Thank you Jen.


The Worst Flow Chart Ever Made: an illustration of feedback


In a comment on a recent post, forum member Alan Smithee commented something I thought should be brought to the front of the discussion. The comment included the following sentences:

I do not like the idea of ‘functioning.’ I do not like the idea of being on meds for the rest of my life. I do not like just getting by.” (Follow  the link above to read its full context.)

This forum’s very name asks that we challenge what it means to “function,” but perhaps we should also challenge the implications and rhetoric of “functioning.” Briefly, the term itself comes to English from Latin via Middle French. Despite any contemporary connotations toward mechanistic working, etymologically speaking it implies an evaluation of performance and execution of a given task at hand, usually involved in fulfilling some purpose.

Here’s where I start spouting off, expecting no one to agree with me but eager to read your opinions and interpretations: We, in the mental illness community, whether to our faces or not, are classified in terms of how well we perform in society. (The ramifications of this classification system are immense and often tragic.) I interpret my diagnosis with both sides of an individual-versus-collective coin. On one side, I was diagnosed because I was destroying myself (that’s the individual side of the coin). On the other (collective) side, I was diagnosed because I run with scissors and don’t play well with others. I didn’t function (i.e. perform or fulfill my social purpose) well. I would like to define “functioning” for myself, because I find this social performance criterion destructive. How well I execute the task of being one among many does not correlate with how well I execute the task of being the healthiest, happiest version of me.

So, I’m bringing Alan’s comment to the front hoping it presents an opportunity to assert some individual control over the “idea of ‘functioning’.” Although this probably repeats themes I’ve touched on before, might there be definitions, criteria, metrics, ideas, or expectations, that operate without pandering to external judgments of performance? Might there be ways to reclaim the language of “functioning” with respect and sensitivity and specificity? Might “functioning” be synonymous with “thriving” rather than “just getting by?” Or might this post be semantic esoteric bullshit without pragmatic application?