This discussion about madness & the Icarus Project on Feministe ended up getting shut down because people ended up talking past each other and there was a lot of anger and feelings ended up hurt. With all due respect – as I said over there before the comments were closed – how the hell do you avoid having a discussion about mental illness and what it means and doesn’t mean without people getting trampled on? Is that even possible?
I think there are fine engagement rules that can facilitate honest debate (or bury it, depending on which way the wind is blowing), but personally, I don’t exactly attempt to be careful about the emotions of those around me when it comes to discussing mental illness. There are statements I have patience for and statements I do not have any patience for, and there’s that. I’m more or less grimly amused when, for example, someone shows up on my blog and asks me how I can possibly consider having children after suffering from PTSD. On the other hand, I refuse to be told off by people who tell me to stop using the word “crazy” as an insult – because, guess what? I own that word as much as anyone who has ever had it used to dehumanize them does. And I happen to think it’s a great word that has a variety of connotations – both negative and positive. I will not have my language purged of it.
I’m OK with hosting a largely unmoderated discussion on mental illness here, especially since one of the things I saw wrong with the discussion on Feministe was all of the assumptions people made about each other in their defensiveness (coming from an intensely personal experience, that’s actually quite normal) – assumptions such as “you’re just one of those people who thinks it’s cool to go off their meds and torment others” or “you’re just one of those people who thinks it’s awesome to strap people into chairs and give them injections that can harm them.”
I think if people can bear with each other and talk it out, they realize that nothing as extreme is being proposed – at the very least, I didn’t see anything extreme going on at Feministe.
It isn’t surprising that saying “people should try to manage their conditions” is going to be interpreted as “x and y and z should be mandatory for all the crazies.” It is, however, frustrating, because having been on both sides of the fence, I don’t think that managing one’s condition automatically includes mandatory medication (how about mandatory therapy sessions?).
I think it certainly includes a discussion of various social arrangements, however – especially as this pertains to custody of children, visitation rights, restraining orders, emergency contacts, and other flotsam and jetsam of human relationships.
As I’ve mentioned before, several of my relatives are mired in this mess right now – with mental illness as a bonus on the side! I do believe that mental illness cannot be disregarded in these situations, because if you’ve known a person over the years, and seen how drastically they change when they cease to manage their condition, you will often find that it’s like communicating with a separate individual.
An abuser may be just an abuser, or an irresponsible human being an irresponsible human being regardless of their mental health status, but if we accept that certain conditions can influence behaviour and reasoning, we can see how and why mental illness is blamed. At a certain point in time, for example, a wife may have to tell her ex-husband that he can’t see their child anymore, because he has repeatedly pulled a Michael Jackson and dangled the child over a precipice. She might still love her ex. She might respect his right to do whatever he pleases with his body. But she can’t allow her relationship with him to remain on the same level. I think this is one of those areas wherein the entire idea of what it means to “manage a condition” deserves much closer scrutiny.
My philosophy is – all of us: sane, mentally ill, half and half, one and three quarters, et cetera, have a right to our autonomy. But autonomy does sometimes mean that we will suffer the consequences of our actions, whether voluntary or involuntary. I don’t think the wife in the (very real) scenario I am presenting has any right to tell her ex what he can and cannot do with himself, but she does have the right to cut him out of her life and the life of their underage child (their other child is an adult and can make her own decisions). Not only does she have the legal power to do it, I view it as a moral imperative as well. I have a feeling that if the husband ever gets the help he needs, he might look back on this time and see it as a moral imperative too – lots of people do, once they pick up the pieces.
You may say that this is simply a stereotypical attack on an already vulnerable group by someone with Stockholm Syndrome, but I think it goes to the heart of autonomy. As William mentioned on Feministe – most people with mental conditions are functional. So it should be hard to blame any specific act – be it an act of violence, abuse, etc. – on a mental condition. The problem lies in mental conditions being used to presuppose some sort of guilt or – something that is rarer but nevertheless a problem – a guilty person saying that they are not guilty because their mental condition got in the way, even if they were aware that what they did was wrong.
Notice I’m not talking about a court of law here, I am, once again, talking about human relationships. I hate having legal debates around these issues – probably because I am not qualified, and think someone else should be having them. But I think that there are definitely our own personal rules that we make up for ourselves – and stick to, sometimes in the interest of basic self-preservation. And I’m not just talking about highly functional people with no mental health problems whatsoever.
Consider this – say you are suffering from a problem that often makes you too scared for outside. You need your friends and loved ones to at least understand what’s happening to you. You don’t need someone who yells at you about taking a long time to get ready, for example, because they fail to appreciate your anxiety and the pain, both mental and physical.
At the very least, you have the right to make a decision to be close to those people who do not abuse you because of your problem. Autonomy doesn’t just exist for those of us in perfectly good health, after all. It’s a concept that is especially important to someone who has extra challenges when it comes to navigating life, society and friendships. Crazy folk have all sorts of do-gooders with messiah complexes foisting themselves on us – and an individual needs to be empowered to run like hell from people whose motives aren’t at all pure.
I don’t know if I’m down with “mad pride,” but then again, I’ve never considered myself “mad” – terrified and in pain at various points, sure, but the word “madness” I’ve associated with the happier moments in my life, the moments I was able to let go of terror and do something I’ve always wanted, such as my recent trip to Britain (which is sadly drawing to its conclusion). Perhaps there’s a lesson in there too, because what the Feministe discussion clearly shows is that there is no way that anyone who has lived with mental problems is going to be coming from the same place.
So telling someone “you just don’t know” is probably redundant. None of us really “know” most things that exist outside our skin. But this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t share our experiences, because maybe there is a person reading on the other end who might not feel so hopeless after hearing what one of us has to say. That’s pretty damn maudlin of me – but having been that silent, searching observer a few times in my life, I can’t help but wonder about it.
Thoughts? Rotten tomatoes? Etc.?