Over the next couple weeks, Define Functioning will be rolling out a few changes. Some are organization (e.g., the Current Reading list has been moved to the Reading Room, where it probably makes more sense). Some will be more content-oriented, aiming for new and continually improving discussions. At the end of that process the “Beta” notice on the uppermost part of the right column will disappear. So, as I execute the tweaks I’ve gathered during the Beta stage, any and all suggestions you may have are more than welcome!

Last May, Define Functioning ran a little experiment and asked what you want people to know about mental health and mental illness. The results were amazing. So amazing, in fact, that it has presented a small conundrum for the book that will compile the responses: We are just in between a “put it in your pocket” sized book and a “put it in your bag” sized book. And as these things go, it’s not really an option to be “in between.” (It’s actually too big for a pocket-sized book…and looks silly as something bigger right now.)

So, I’ve concocted a way to fix that: I’m extending submissions through 2011 in order to have a book finished and ready for Mental Health Awareness Month (May) in 2012. I’ll be adding a new Project page to the site to collect submissions (part of the aforementioned changes). Until then, please feel free to add comments to the previous discussion post or email them to me at definefunctioning [at] gmail [dot] com.

Last thing: I’ve been unforgivably negligent when it comes to providing any sort of imagery with recent posts. So, in some super lazy brainstorm, I thought I’d screen clip whatever happened when I googled any given phrase. The Universe seemed to smile down on this plan, because when I did she offered this:

After a bit of an extended period of inhumane travel schedules which managed to include only one (barely!) missed flight, your faithful moderator has (almost) returned to some state of normalcy. One more upcoming trip out of my city, but that will be short and not too far (no airplane necessary).

So, I have a back log of a few discussion topics and would love to catch up and hear what’s been on your minds in the last several weeks.  Anyone have a Community Contribution to throw at me? A Reading Response? As always, feel free to send something my way at definefunctioning [at] gmail [dot] com.

Feels good to be back.


As I’m pretty sure everyone who participates in this forum is already very well aware, May is Mental Health Awareness Month in the US. I did a little googling to find out what that means to different people and organizations. [Apologies for that link. It’s really the most efficient way to share what I found.] Following my brief search, which included a severe sense of disappointment in the less-than-thorough Wikipedia entry, I had some questions about awareness, advocacy, priorities, and PR. This post is a brainstorming session, aimed at generating ideas.

Given that Mental Health Awareness Month lasts for exactly one month, given that we have eleven other months to plan for it, given the notoriously short American attention span, given the many issues that could be addressed, given a basic assumption of who may be listening to the messages put out there, given the many different media outlets for discussion, and given the many wildly inappropriate misconceptions about mental illness…

What message would you prioritize? What venue(s) would you use? What do you want people to know? Which audience(s) do you think you could effectively reach? These questions include several implications, including whether we’re talking generally about mental health or more specifically about mental illness and what we might mean by “awareness” and its relationship to “understanding,” “tolerance,” “acceptance,” “prejudice,” and “stigma.” These questions ask you to consider whether a grassroots approach, an institution-based campaign, or some combination of the two, is more effective. At their core, these questions ask about the nature of advocacy, about what one person could do, about what one small group (that’s us) might accomplish…in one month.

There are twenty-six more days in this month. That’s enough time to get people talking.

ADDENDUM: I wrote this then started doing a little more thinking. While we do a lot of discussing in terms of relating to one another’s experiences, we also sometimes talk about misconceptions, stigma, and advocacy. So, I’ve reached out to my network, done a little research and numbers crunching, and decided that — in a proactive stance on DF’s first Mental Health Awareness Month — Define Functioning is going into the book-making game. The first DF book will be finished (hopefully) by the end of this very month based (almost) entirely on the discussion on this post. The tentative/working title of the book is [insert number here] things we’d like you to know about mental illness. It will be a collection of short entries (1-3 sentences each). Anyone who contributes to the collection will be acknowledged by their screen name unless I’m told otherwise. If you’d rather your acknowledgement be addressed to another name or if you’d like to contribute via email, shoot me something at definefunctioning [at] gmail [dot] com. So, very seriously this time: What do you want people to know?

NEW FEATURE! So, our dear friend Alan Smithee has brought a little gem of Internet journalism to my attention, and it gave me an idea for a new kind of (faster) post for our discussions. I’m calling them “Reactions.” So, if you find some quick piece of reading out there on the Information Superhighway that you’d like to offer up for the forum’s reaction, please email and I will post. These will be super fast posts (i.e.,  I’ll get them up as soon as I get back to my desk and won’t hold up the whole process by finding/making an image or considering my own thoughts). First up:

Last week The Independent put out this piece entitled “Is depression actually good for you?” Please follow the link and give it a quick read. Come back and let us know what you think. I’m guessing most regular forum members can guess where this article put me (mind-space-wise), but I will wait and throw my reaction into the comments.

image created from the Free Hugs Campaign International's Flickr page

Upfront Disclaimer: You’ll have to forgive me if this post is a little mushy.

On a personal note, the last two months have been amazing for me. Not really in the MI sorta way and not really in the I’ve-gotten-oh-so-much-work-accomplished sorta way. It’s been amazing because of the development of this forum. In the comments and in my email, I’ve gotten quite a bit of feedback recently, and now I think a little status update is in order.

With your help, I’ve started learning what issues people really want to discuss. I’m getting more Community Contribution posts than I can quickly post. I’m receiving more volunteered contributions to the Current Reading than I had hoped for. The conversations happening in the comments are leading to more and better From the Comments posts than expected. (To be honest, the From the Comments topics weren’t even originally planned out, but the discussions have proven thorough enough to need them.)

While my need for a pseudonym means I’ve done almost zero promotion of the site, we continue to grow. To be clear, I’ve never hoped this site would be too large for productive conversation. Still, I’m happy to see new participation from those who find it useful. I’m happy to see that it’s useful at all.

In the last two months, we’ve started addressing how the needs of the so-called “high-functioning” differ from the needs of others not given that label. We’ve started talking about how some needs are no different at all. We’ve talked seriously on many different ways stigma affects our decisions and our lives. And we’ve challenged the definition of “functioning” more times than I can count — each time revealing a little more about how we see ourselves and each other and a little more about how the MI community, including professionals, and the world might see us — each time revealing a little more about what it is about that label that might be unproductive.

While DF is still technically in its Baby Beta stage, I already know it’s more than I had hoped. For that, I just want to take a moment to thank you. Thank you for your help. Thank you for spreading the word that this forum is here for those who don’t find what they are looking for at their local support groups. Thank you for your contributions, your honesty, your willingness to share and relate and discuss. Thank you for reminding me and the rest of the forum that, while many of us may hide in different parts of our lives, we are not alone.

Now a moment to look forward: The next couple months are about to be super busy for me. In an effort to plan ahead and not let our momentum slow, I’d like to start building a back log of discussion topics to post at regular intervals. This is an Open Call for topics. (OK, I know there’s a permanent Open Call for topics, but now would be awesome.) If you’ve been thinking about something  you’d like to put forward for discussion, please send it my way via email. It can be anything from a couple sentences or questions to a fully written post.

Again, You Guys Rock.

just some of the work from a short life

Today would have been David Foster Wallace’s forty-ninth birthday, a day worth commemorating on this site. With Wallace’s suicide, I began asking the questions that eventually became this forum. Today, I’d like to dedicate DefineFunctioning to his memory.

Wallace dealt with depression for the length of his adult life. He fiercely hid his diagnosis, and today I regard him as the utmost example of this world’s (mis)understanding of the high-functioning mentally ill. He gave us literature unlike what we’d read before. His was a once-in-a-generation voice. He was a genius and had a MacArthur Fellowship to prove it. Since my first reading of Infinite Jest, I’ve read everything he published in his short life. He showed me what this language could be. He gave me and many more thought-provoking joy. He took his life in September 2008. I wept and wondered.

I began to wonder what it really means to be “high-functioning.” Perhaps because it was the death of a semantic phenomenon, I began to wonder about the definition of the words themselves. To be high-functioning does not mean to be better, cured, fixed, or even in remission. It doesn’t mean to have figured out how to live with one’s illness. In many ways, the high-functioning internalize their illness differently and sometimes more severely. Trapped in a Cartesian vortex, the high-functioning’s ability to reflect may only damage the efficacy of treatment. “I think [with a broken brain], therefore I am [what?]” The will to trust the one thing I know — my brain and its thoughts — turns on me. And without that trust, I devolve into desperate anomie.

Almost daily, I redefine what it means for me to function. Almost daily, I reject yesterday’s definition. Almost daily, I wonder again if the high-functioning are, in fact, defined by a will to think just to spite the brokenness of the mind. Almost daily, I reconsider that we are no different save for how others think of us.

It is impossible to choose a single passage that might mean enough to encapsulate the work and its author. I wear a pin on my bag that reads “Te occidere possunt sed te edere non possunt nefas est.” I occasionally tweet that line in defiance against adversity. Still, it’s worth it to try. So, in honor of DFW’s birthday, I offer you this from pages 12 and 13 of a game-changing book over 1,000 pages long:

“‘But it transcends the mechanics. I’m not a machine. I feel and believe. I have opinions.’ … ‘I’m not just a creatus, manufactured, conditioned, bred for a function.’

I open my eyes. ‘Please don’t think I don’t care.'”

“‘There is nothing wrong,’ I say slowly to the floor. ‘I’m in here.’

I’m raised by the crutches of my underarms, shaken toward what he must see as calm by a purple-faced Director: ‘Get a grip, son!’

DeLint at the big man’s arm: ‘Stop it!’

‘I am not what you see and hear.’

Distant sirens. A crude half nelson. Forms at the door. A young Hispanic woman holds her palm against her mouth, looking.

‘I’m not,’ I say.”

Hey! New thing for Define Functioning! A Bulletin Board! As many of you know, I’m neurotically opposed to blindly endorsing or suggesting anything. (This is why I read everything I put in the Reading Room.) That’s precisely why I’m calling this a “bulletin board.” In these posts, I’ll send out an announcement for events and the like that may spur some discussion here for us, but that have not been thoroughly vetted by me (which is basically impossible because the events haven’t happened yet). If you have something to post on the Bulletin Board, shoot me an email at definefunctioning [at] gmail [dot] com.

Yesterday I received an email about an event in Portland, Oregon, called “Rethinking Psychiatry/Moving Mental Health Recovery Forward: A Community Forum.” I was sent the email because I am currently reading Robert Whitaker’s Anatomy of an Epidemic: Magic Bullets, Psychiatric Drugs, and the Astonishing Rise of  Mental Illness in America. Whitaker, along with five others, comprise a panel “who will share their perspectives and plans to create a more compassionate mental health system in Oregon and across the nation” (emphasis in original, quoted from the event website).

The event is Thursday, 10 February 2011.  If you live in or around the Portland area, you can find all the details you need here. If you do not live in or around the Portland area, I’ve been promised video of the event in a couple weeks. I’ll post a link so we can see what they said…and talk about it if we want to.

As for the Reading Response to Whitaker’s book. If you’re reading along with me, you know that this is a challenging work in more than one way. I’m going to break my habit of writing as I read in order to see where this is going. The story he is telling is, thus far, linear — suggesting it would be imprudent for me to comment until I know how or where it ends. I’m a little more than 100 pages (of a 300+ page book) into it and need to see what conclusions are drawn before I know what to think. If you’re not reading along with me, I can so far tell you that it’s worth a read…at the very least as food for thought. However (Fair Warning), if you’ve been told the things I’ve been told about the causes for your mental illness, the first hundred pages are difficult. I mean, the kind of difficult that you’ll need to discuss with your psychiatrist.