Trigger warning for discussion of mental illness. If you have any conditions (OCD, depression, anxiety) that are triggered when you’re reading descriptions, you might like to avoid this post.
I’m at the tail end of a sudden fit of depression, so I thought, perhaps maybe, I’d try to put it into words for neurotypical people.
I can’t speak for everyone who IDs as ND, of course. This is me, writing as me. But it’s not a voice that’s easy to find in the mainstream media, wherein every person with a mental condition is either demonised or infantilised. And it’s not easy to write this, but I’m going to go ahead and share, anyway.
The thing about invisible disabilities of the psychological/mental sort is that they’re invisible. You can’t tell who has them, and they don’t always manifest. So, rule number one when you 对待 (treat with) us? Don’t assume that someone is — to use the common term — sane. Don’t make that your default. It’s something that’s been said so many times, in the discourse over so many oppressions — don’t assume that race = white, gender = cismale, sexuality = hetero, whatever. Don’t make assumptions about someone’s ability or ableness, either.
It’s worse, definitely, to identify as female and to have a condition like this. Not inherently worse, I don’t believe that; but in the social model of disability? When women are often dismissed as ‘crazy’, or ‘hysterical’, or ‘just PMSing’ — dismissed in a joking way, even? Yeah, that makes us even more invisible. We don’t exist. We’re a figure of fun. The feminine neurosis was, and is, used to institutionalise women, to disenfranchise and disempower them. This is something else you have to remember.
For me, I have several issues (I don’t want to call them problems, because they are issues that I am managing — not just when they flare up, but all the time, consciously aware of them).
I have an obsessive streak a mile wide. No, that doesn’t mean (put away your Monk DVDs) that I sterilise my hands with ethanol all the time, or that my affaires are arranged very neatly. In fact, I am terrible about organisation; my table, bed, room, everything, are always in a state of clutter or disarray. Please don’t generalise OCD. For me, OCD tends to be more pronounced when I am stressed, and what happens is that I tend to do things like rewrite a sentence over and over until I am satisfied with my handwriting, with the crease (or lack of creases) on the paper, with everything. And if you interrupt me, I am liable to freak out because it affects me, badly. I think the best word for it is panic. I panic. Disrupting my routine makes me panic. And it doesn’t help to tell someone to ‘Get over it’, because what is happening, in that moment, is that I am struggling to regain control. Telling someone flailing in the water that they need to ‘Try harder!’, without making any movement toward a lifebuoy or flotation device, is a sufficient analogy for standing next to a person in the midst of the breakdown and telling them ‘Just snap out of it’.
Depression/bipolarity is something else. In the past, mental illness was often stigmatised as the result of supernatural evil, like demonic possession, and I actually find the comparison quite apt. Because living with this is like having something inside of you, that’s sometimes lurking and sometimes clawing its way to the forefront of your mind. The result? I tend to police your thoughts: Is this me? Am I alright? Is there another episode or attack on its way? I become hyperaware of my emotions, which sometimes ends up in a negative feedback cycle (I know — not helpful! When that happens I usually try to avoid the depressive episode before it hits, though sometimes it’s too late. Hey, time for another analogy — periods! Sometimes you can change your pad or tampon in time, and sometimes it stains — that’s life!). And depression has a cruel sense of humour. Often it comes in pairs for me. For example, yesterday I was quite sugared up and manic; today, I knew from the moment I woke up that it would be an off day, and I spent the day just waiting for the attack to come and then break off. Or, as I realised, it’s as the saying goes: yesterday I borrowed today’s spoons, and today I am out of spoons.
And then, anxiety. This actually goes hand-in-hand with my OCD, but I saved it till last because anxiety is always in me. It’s like a low-grade tension that can’t be switched off. It’s ambient noise, background lighting, all that jazz. Sometimes it’s mild — I tense at loud sounds, I fret over keeping to a routine — and sometimes I’m in the middle of a crowd, sitting in a corner sobbing hysterically. Social anxiety is the worst, because sometimes I haven’t the spoons to cope on my own, but I simply cannot take being among other people. It’s not being antisocial, for fuck’s sake, really. (A pet peeve of mine, friends, if you couldn’t tell.) It’s about, quite literally, being terrified at the very thought of being around others. I end up saturated with negative thoughts, and the presence of others just reinforces them (Act normal, says a part of me; All the noise! says another part of me, as my senses become hyperaware and then freak out; and You’re worthless, nowhere as good as them, says another part).
Alright, now that I’ve tried my best to put into easily understood words the experience of living with multiple issues, I think ti’d also be useful to talk about coping. I don’t want pity, my God, but I don’t much enjoy being an Interesting Textbook Case either.
When I talk about myself, I use words, often, like ‘crazy’ and ‘insane’ — there are, of course, many other neuroatypical people who don’t, and who find those terms offensive, ableist and pejorative.
NOTE: If you are genuinely reading this post with an honest desire to understand neurodivergence and be an ally, respect everyone’s chosen self-identifiers and the language they use. Really. This shouldn’t even be said, but I thought it’d be better than risking somebody saying, ‘Oh, crazy is totally fine, that Wednesday chick uses it.’ Don’t go blundering into other people’s safe spaces and then act horrified when you’re thrown out, friend.
So, even though I myself use these words, there’s an amazing piece by the amazing s.e. smith called ‘Who Defines (and Controls) “Normal”?’, which you should read for a comprehensive perspective about how words have been and are used to hurt people with disabilities.
Managing, or coping, goes very closely with living. Life is a balancing act, for everybody, regardless of ability. We just manage in different ways. What I do is listen to my consciousness about my mood. I try to get myself to a safe place before a breakdown, if I can sense it’s particularly stubborn and inevitable, and I wait for it to pass. Otherwise, I do my best to distract myself, to move away from the feeling by doing something else. Sometimes it delays (postpones) an episode, sometimes it prevents it. It’s not foolproof, but it’s the best I’ve got, and it helps. Or else I try to avoid triggery situations — or if they’re scenarios which are necessary, such as presenting at conferences or attending mass gatherings/events, I have a safety plan (I will inform a few close friends beforehand, so they know to keep an eye on me, and I will also make plans to remove myself from the location if the sense of panic gets too strong to keep down). Or I leave as soon as I can and then have a breakdown thereafter (see point on getting to a safe space). This doesn’t always work, because the world isn’t made for access-win, but it’s how I deal, and it helps.
(Note also that not everyone who has disabilities is comfortable with medical intervention. In cases where there is no direct, severe or life-threatening harm being caused to anyone, please respect their position on the matter. I expect I may seek professional help in the future, but for now I am comfortable with self-management. I also do not intend to medicate — I am not against anyone else doing so, but I don’t feel right with altering the chemicals in my brain even further.)
There has been debate about whether or not there is class privilege inherent in having the option of claiming disability as an identity. I myself am torn on this issue. On the one hand, disability is part of me. I have grown up knowing that I was different (‘weird’, or ‘unusual’, or ‘abnormal’ — reclamation when I use it for myself, but painful when thrust upon me as a label — like ‘slut’, or ‘bitch’, or ‘queer’, if you need parallels to understand this — and, again, respect each individual’s identifiers because there are also those who find those words oppressive). On the other, disability is What It Says On The Tin. It makes life difficult, sometimes beyond the social model. In this respect it’s a little less like being queer and a little more like being female-bodied. You see things in a different way when you’re ND, just like you experience life differently with a body that has properties that aren’t the same as body that is differently-sexed. (And just as men are different from women and different from other men too, the same goes for being neurodivergent and neurotypical.)
What I do know is that, identity aside, being disabled is part of lived experience. And it’s something that will always be intrinsic to me. Something that is part of me, inside me, that makes me who I am. Acknowledging it makes me both strong in myself and vulnerable to others. But then that’s what a lot of life is like.