We Were Once Refugees, Too

Galway Bay by Mary Pat Kelly available for purchase here.

For most of my life, I didn’t feel the need for any identity more specific than “American”. I grew up in a Catholic neighborhood where the other kids had traditions, families, and faces that looked like mine. What need had I for anything beyond that?

Reading Galway Bay, a novelized version of the author’s great-grandmother’s sojourn from Ireland to America, was the beginning of an awakening on my part, that the heritage that extended beyond my grandparents was more significant than names and dates on a ledger in the archives of various city halls.

I read this book several years ago, and my realization was compounded by my first trip to Ireland last year. History was taken out of textbooks and became as vibrant and alive as myself. Pre-independence, the Irish were second-class citizens in their own country. Our language was outlawed, our religion demonized, and the governing forces painted us in the caricature of apes. When the only food we had that they didn’t see fit to steal rotted in the blight, they left us to starve. When American Choctaws sent money to ease our suffering, they stole that too.

Faced with slow, agonizing death, the Irish turned to the uncertainty of the ocean. Families were torn apart, never knowing if there would be a reunion of parent and child, brother and sister, ever again. No one knew if we would survive America, but we knew for damn sure we would die in Ireland. To this day, Irish Americans outnumber Irish nationals.

In America, we were still the poor and the pissed-on, but through resiliency and the support of others unloved by society (Native Americans, Black Americans, Jewish immigrants) we survived. We thrived. We even returned home to see where it all had started. By the time we were three generations deep, the children of Irish immigrants were indistinguishable from any other white Americans. We were assimilated.

We have, I think, assimilated too well. Too often, from the lips of family members, I’ve heard the same words and stereotypes that were once used to dehumanize our ancestors, being turned against other ethnic groups. We have lost sight of solidarity and adopted the aspect of our oppressors, much like the pigs in Animal Farm.

To be clear, Irish assimilation is not because we were more tenacious or intelligent than anyone else. It is the whiteness of our skin that led to our privileged place in modern society, and nothing more. Had Ireland been closer to the equator, we would never have put one of our own in the White House, and the stereotype of the drunken Irish would be a reason not to hire us instead of a mildly offensive joke.

White skin is armor, and Trump’s America is a battleground for the safekeeping of the rights and values this country was founded upon. On the same weekend we honor the victims of the Holocaust and tweet out #NeverAgain, Trump issued a ban prohibiting Muslims from given countries from entering the US, even as they flee certain death in their homelands–and too many of my fellow Irish-Americans support a policy that would’ve spelled our own doom if it had been enacted a century and a half ago.

The naysayers all have their reasons as to why “this time it’s different”. They had them in 1939 when we turned away the Jews. They had them when we were turning away the Chinese and Japanese in the early 1900’s and cut out whole swaths of the entire Asian continent in 1917. They have them now as we turn away green card holders and refugees, and hopefully this will be the last stand and we won’t ever have a cultural wave of apathy or antipathy towards those seeking safety ever again, but I doubt it. Hatred is hard to kill.

American values should not lie in the empty promises of politicians or solemn reflections on July 4th. No matter how much I value my Irish ancestry, I value my American nationality more, and being American means hitting the pavement to protect Black Lives, means protesting an oppressive government, and means making room for those who seek sanctuary on our shores.

We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among those are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. 

So get out there and act like it.

Philadelphia: Birthplace of the American Revolutions

My poorly shot panorama of the day’s speakers and organizers

On Sunday, January 15, 2017, the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and one day before the national day of recognition that honors him, writers and readers across the United States gathered in the spirit of Writers Resist, a movement born out of the need to protect democracy and the spirit of justice following the 2016 election.

I’m from Philadelphia, born and raised (cue obligatory recitation of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air). It stands to reason that I’m biased in favor of my hometown’s importance, but truly no city encapsulates America like Philly. We are the nation’s first capital, the birthplace of both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, the finish line of the Underground Railroad, a key battleground in the war for LGBTQ+ rights, a haven for writers and artists of all stripes. The America I love and seek to protect would not exist without Philadelphia.

The Writers Resist event in Philadelphia was hosted by the National Museum of American Jewish Heritage and organized by Alicia Askenase, Nathaniel Popkin, and Stephanie Feldman, and featured readings from some of Philadelphia’s most prolific writers, reading poetry, petitions, and speeches from some of history’s bravest and most iconic speakers, some who were famous, some who simply deserve to be.

Six of the 36 readings were first given in Philadelphia, including the Resolution for Declaration of Women’s Rights, given during the centennial by the National Woman Suffrage Association, read by Lise Funderburg, and FDR’s 1936 acceptance speech for renomination, read by Lori Tharpe.

Most stirring, for me, was Lauren Grodstein’s rendition of Jameson Fitzpatrick’s 2016 poem “I Woke Up”. There are two kinds of people in the world, those who recognize that our identities, our passions, our very existences are political, and those who have yet to realize it.

In being political, one of the most important things to realize is that not all of our political perceptions are the same, and the beautiful diversity showcased on Sunday illustrated such. Men spoke women’s words, white, Black, Latinx, and Asian voices co-mingled with each other’s wisdom, disabled people offered each other solidarity, queer people and their allies spoke their truths to a crowd 300 strong.

Words, of course, will not be enough going forward. There must be action and resistance if justice is to be both won and preserved. But words are the genesis of movement. Stories are our empathy, articles are our information, media is our ability to connect. Revolutions do not happen without writers, and writers do not have a voice without readers.

Learn more about the movement at WritersResist.com and see a full list of the readings at #WritersResistPHL*

*Before Joey Sweeney opened with the Bob Dylan song “Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”, he noted that the song selection was chosen BEFORE #UrineGate broke.

October and LGBTQ History




October, by dint of the plethora of pumpkin and apple treats available, lush fall foliage, and, of course, Halloween, a nationwide Comic-con, has been my favorite month since I was a weird little kid who took being called “witch” as a compliment. Twenty years later and nothing has changed, but October holds great importance for me and for women in general. It’s Breast Cancer Awareness Month and Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Month, both of which have made innumerable efforts in helping individuals and families heal.

October also holds the distinction of being the time of year that honors LGBTQIA+ history. We have our parades in June, we flaunt our flags and celebrate our milestones, but October is a time to reflect on the history that makes our celebration possible.

Throughout this past year I’ve read some extraordinary words from lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer women. Some I would’ve read anyway, some I discovered during this project, but all of them are voices we wouldn’t have without the efforts of civil rights leaders and pioneers who came before.

Jenny Lawson is a Texas-based writer whose daily life and musings provided enough fodder for not one, but two, bestselling memoirs. She’s created an online community for the support and care of people living with mental illness, and has learned (and taught others) how to laugh at life’s absurdities. Her book Furiously Happy was reviewed on June 14. Learn more about her at The Bloggess.

Noelle Stevenson is a writer, artist, and cartoonist who got her start as a fan artist. She created the cover art for Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl, and is the co-creator of Lumberjanes. Her graphic novel Nimona was reviewed on June 29. Learn more about her at Gingerhaze.

Janet Mock is a writer and TV personality from Honolulu. She also worked as a contributing editor for Marie Claire magazine and is a noted transgender rights activist who was name-checked on the Emmy-nominated webseries Her Story, which she also helped crowdfund. Her memoir Redefining Realness was reviewed on March 9. Learn more about her at JanetMock.com.

Molly Crabapple is a world-traveling journalist and artist who has covered the trials in Guatanamo Bay, Occupy Wall Street, and scenes from the Syrian War. She has contributed to VICE magazine and founded Dr. Sketchy’s Anti-Art School, with installations in MoMA. Her memoir Drawing Blood was reviewed on May 5. Learn more about her at The Art of Molly Crabapple.

Malinda Lo is a noted YA novelist who has won awards for her work in expanding diversity among novels and authors for young adult works and her journalist contributions for AfterEllen.com. She attended Wellesley and has graduate degrees from Harvard and Stanford. Her novel Ash was reviewed on April 26. Learn more about her at MalindaLo.com.

Alison Bechdel is a noted cartoonist who is best known for her webcomic Dykes to Watch Out For. She’s also the creator of the ubiquitous Bechdel Test, used to gauge the nature of an individual film’s female roles. She grew up in her family’s funeral home in rural Pennsylvania. Her graphic memoir Fun Home was reviewed on July 7. Learn more about her at Dykes to Watch Out For.

Jennifer Finney Boylan is a novelist and college professor who has been featured on multiple platforms as a transgender rights activist. She is a contributing writer for Medium.com and serves on GLAAD’s national board of directors. Her memoir She’s Not There was reviewed on July 5. Learn more about her at There from Here.

Amanda Palmer is a performance artist and musician from Boston. She was half of the indie groups The Dresden Dolls and Evelyn Evelyn, as well as an established solo act. She’s a noted feminist and activist who lives in the artist’s collective the Cloud Club and who was recruited for a TED talk. Her memoir The Art of Asking was reviewed on June 24. Learn more about her at Amanda Palmer.

Sara Benincasa is an essayist and humorist. She is a former teacher with an MA in secondary education who has also worked as a radio/TV/web personality. She has brought national attention to the experiences of people living with mental illness. Her essay collection Real Artists Have Day Jobs was reviewed on August 26. Learn more about her at Sara Benincasa.

Kitty Shields is a recent MFA graduate from Philadelphia. She is a celebrated designer, artist, short story writer, and bookbinder. She’s currently at work on her first novel. Her short story “The Great Hunger” was reviewed on July 18. Learn more about her at KittyShields.com.

Tig Notaro is a stand-up comedian, radio host, writer and actress from Mississippi. She won a Grammy for her performance that detailed her experiences with chronic illness that coincided with the loss of her mother. She recently released an Amazon series based on her life. Her memoir I’m Just a Person was reviewed on September 14. Learn more about her at TigNation.

Laura Jane Grace is a musician and lead singer of punk group Against Me! She’s also a noted trans activist and blogger for Noisey who made headlines for burning her birth certificate in North Carolina to protest the discriminatory HB2 law. She was also the hostess of the Emmy-nominated webseries True Trans. Her memoir TRANNY is due November 15. Learn more about her at Mandatory Happiness.


“Embers” by K.B. Carle

Can be read here.

I’ve made the point before that my favorite storytelling medium is the short story. When well done, they have all the narrative strength of a novel, but their brevity packs a greater emotional punch. If that’s true, flash fiction is a bullet wound. And “Embers” is a powerful example of just that, detailing the rage, fear, dissociation, and hopelessness of a victim in the midst of an assault.

Carle’s victim is nameless, just as so many of real life victims are unknown, even as their attackers find themselves under the scrutiny of the spotlight. Brock Turner may be facing the righteous wrath of the social media masses, but where in all the public screes against his all-too-soon freedom, in the ring of protestors outside his house, is consideration for his victim? Out of both sight and mind.

What “Embers” does, in a story of few words but relentless image, is give a glimpse to the point of view of those who are glossed over and easily forgotten in pursuit of what we call justice. It serves as a reminder of what really matters in the face of violence.

Black Hair and Misogynoir


Women are accustomed to having our bodies policed and politicized. Our reproductive parts are legislated, our body hair used as a source of shame. Trans women’s bodies are used as an excuse for violence. We aren’t safe at parties, clubs, on the streets, or often in our very own homes. We don’t have many ways to stake out a claim for autonomy over our own bodies, but if you’re not a Black woman, the hair on your head is at least a non-controversial aspect of your appearance.

I’ve read a fair amount of books by Black women over the past year, and not one of them, not novels, memoirs, or essays, that don’t devote massive amounts of time and story space to the phenomenon of living in a white-privileging culture with natural Black hair.

Being white, I’ve never thought about my hair outside the parameters of my own personal preferences. It’s long and layered because I like it that way, it’s red because that’s the color I landed on this time, and it’s straight because curling takes too much time. If I cut it off it would be a pixie cut, if I dyed it pink it’d be “quirky”. But it wouldn’t be a statement about anyone or anything but me.

Black women’s hair has been admired on white women while scorned on Black women. It’s been called unprofessional in the work place merely for growing. If a Black woman dyes her hair pink it’s “ghetto”, if she shaves it or grows it naturally it’s a political statement, if she straightens it she’s assimilating. In Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie details the scalp singeing ways women relax their natural curls into an approximation of white hair, not because white hair is naturally more beautiful, but because society prizes it as such.

Black hair is only the tip of the iceberg (forgive me). The more closely Black women resemble white, the more beautiful we consider them. It’s why the internet felt so comfortable saying vile things about adorable Blue Ivy Carter, who played dress-up with her mommy Beyoncé at the VMAs, because Blue Ivy looks more like her father. She’s a four year old little girl, by the way.

Nothing I’m saying is new in anyway, of course. This is merely an observation made after reading the words of the wise and wonderful women directly impacted by our Eurocentric beauty standards. We see this subject on dozens of think pieces as we scroll through social media, and it would be easy to dismiss the issue as having little importance–hair is small potatoes compared to the issues of racism and sexism our society struggles with. But reading Adichie, or bell hooks, Misty Copeland, Issa Rae, Kaitlyn Greenidge, or Angela Flournoy gives shape to the insidious ways misogynoir, that unholy confluence of racial and sexual hate targeting Black women, take root. Hair is the symptom, these women and their words are the cure.

The Benefits of Chick Lit and Other “Girly” Things

How to be a Modern Woman: Wine, complaints about men, yoga pants

So, despite the fact that in the intro to this blog declared that all the books I’m reading for the year must be written by women–no other qualifiers, not genre, length, pedigree, etc.–a friend expressed surprise at some of the fluffier entries on my list. “I thought you were reading feminist fiction,” said Friend. And I realize I set a high bar with Austen and Adichie, as well as important sociological entries detailing feminist theory, but a well-balanced literary diet requires some measure of lighter fare.

We all remember Amy Dunne’s epic takedown of the “Cool Girl” from Gone Girl, right? The “Cool Girl” has all the mannerisms and interests of a typical guy: she loves sports, comic books, beer, and pizza, but she’s also svelte and effortlessly hot. She’s better than a girly girl, who loves shopping, fashion mags, wine, and kale. Except Amy–and Gillian Flynn, the author behind Gone Girlexcoriate the “Cool Girls” for being disingenuous and capitulating to male fantasy. So women can’t have any interests ever, at all, no matter how gendered or neutral said interests are perceived to be.

In the realm of entertainment, so long as it’s harmless, no depth is required of an activity other than bringing some joy or pleasure for people who engage with it. Regardless of how society would prioritize stereotypically masculine interests over feminine ones, there’s no inherent value in watching a football game over an episode of Keeping Up with the Kardashians, and yet, a man’s intelligence won’t be questioned for the former while a woman doing the latter is immediately pinged as vacuous.

So, yes, chick lit, which is implicitly formulaic and has the heft and substance of birthday cake, will be showing up on this blog, so long as the author behind it identifies as a woman. Spy novels and political thrillers are treated with a due amount of reverence despite being as by the numbers and implausibly trope-filled as the pinker, more pastel section of the bookstore. Because we value masculine interests over feminine ones, being unabashedly girly is a feminist act.

Sexism in America by Barbara J. Berg

Available for purchase here.

Berg’s piece examines the postfeminist society that the mainstream patriarchy likes to claim we live in, but she sheds light on how women are still being held back in both professional and public spaces. It speaks to not only the achievements of second wave feminism but the pervasive undermining of such since their inception.

Berg makes some excellent points, but she examines Sexism in America from an extremely mainstream feminist viewpoint. Much is made of the glass ceiling and the importance of women in the workplace, the hypersexualization of women and girls, the pinkwashing of anything deemed feminine, and other problems faced by women who are straight, cisgender, abled, educated, and white. I personally fall into most of those categories, and I see the echoes of my own privilege in almost every discussion of feminism–and I’m painfully aware of how the narrative excludes me from the category that doesn’t apply.

We obviously can’t fit every story into every book, but the importance of women excelling in patriarchal power structures is vastly overrated. If we assimilate into the same systemic structure we claim to be fighting, we’re just putting a prettier, pinker package on patriarchy.

Some pages are devoted to women of color and queer women, but always framed by how their experience differs from that of straight, white women. It’s a false dichotomy, and defines people by what they are not.

Berg raises many salient points in her work, well documented sources that should not be dismissed. But intersectionality is not only missing from the text, it would go a long way towards remedying many of the problems she sheds light on.

‘Orange is the New Black’ Season 4

I took a break from reading and writing (and sleeping and eating and wearing clothes that aren’t sweatpants) so I could binge-watch Orange is the New Black, which, to be fair, was only 13 hours. The rest of the time was needed to process my emotional reaction to the sucker punch of a season. 

I’m a bad bookworm. I’ve never read Orange is the New Black by Piper Kerman, the memoir upon which the show is based. But since it’s a show based on a woman’s memoir, run by a woman, staffed by women writers, and starring one of the most diverse groups of women ever (young women! old women! middle-aged women! fat women! butch women! Black women! Latinx women! queer women playing queer characters! a trans* woman playing a trans* character!) this seemed an appropriate place to highlight the feminist ups and downs of the season.

Spoilers ahead.

So many spoilers.

Seriously with the spoilers.

Stop reading.

Apart from the first season, which focused on author expy Piper Chapman navigating a minimum security federal prison as a wealthy, well-educated, white (oh yes that’s important) woman who got busted on a decade-old minor drug trafficking charge, Orange is the New Black has spent each season peeling back the layers of social structures through the microcosm of prison life.

The prison is segregated by race, even when it comes to bunk assignments. For the most part, the inmates get along, until outside forces (prison privatization and overcrowding) stoke the latent fires of “us vs. them” mentalities to a boiling point. When Piper starts a prison business, mostly out of boredom, the inmates she employs are almost to a one destitute, desperate, and without options once their sentences are filled. So when the Latinx crew starts a rival business (selling used panties, for the record), Piper uses her privilege (white, pretty, upper class) to muscle in on their territory, an incident that escalates into a full-on race war.

Orange is the New Black is better when it’s subtle. A minor plot point involves established character, Black Cindy, who recently converted to Judaism, struggling to maintain control over her space when her new bunkmate, Alison, a devout Muslim, arrives and immediately asserts her right to take up space in her new, grim, home. The two women engage in both direct confrontation and escalating pranks to assert dominance, with true escalation averted at the last minute when they discover how much they have in common.

Contrast with the over the top speech given by one of the white supremacists, who claims she doesn’t read and launches into a detailed description of how reading encourages empathy and expresses multiple points of view, an argument too articulate and reasonable to come from a real life skinhead.

OitNB‘s ambitions frequently exceed its abilities, and in such cases the point being made has the subtlety of a sledgehammer. In this season alone, the show tackles the problems of corporate profit taking the hard line over inmate safety, abuses of power, white privilege, the core difference between systemic and personal racism, the “luxury” of menstruation, and the failure of the mental health system all in thirteen hours.

Some of the better done storylines involve Judy King, a fictional domestic doyenne in the vein of Martha Stewart and Paula Deen. A celebrity, she is given special treatment without asking, such as a private bunk while the remaining women are stuffed four deep, or the power to reassign prison staff on a whim. These privileges are extended to her without so much as a request on her part, but how does Judy, who could change the prison dynamic with a phone call, use that gift? To get soft sheets and a roll in the hay. She dispenses little pellets of generosity among her fellows–a seltzer machine, some legal assistance, public displays of favor–but not once does it occur to her that she should use her power to affect change.

While Judy spends privilege like a right, Sophia Burset, who was sent to solitary at the end of season three after she was the target of a transphobic hate crime, needs the combined machinations of herself, her wife, two fellow inmates, a former prison corporate bigwig turned whistleblower, and the morally conflicted warden just to be returned to the general population. Black, trans, and a face among many, her rights are treated like privileges she hasn’t yet earned.

Meanwhile, the old guard are changed for a crew of combat veterans that was almost to a man, surely dishonorably discharged (never established except through my own head canon), and they use their authority to enact petty power plays against the inmates for perceived slights and minor infractions, with heavy doses of racial profiling, that by season’s end has amounted to cruel and unusual punishment.

When the inmates engage in peaceful protest to get the captain of the guard, the cruelest and most calculating of the bunch, deposed, Suzanne (Crazy Eyes), an inmate who has long needed psychiatric treatment, whose crimes in backstory are due to her lack of understanding and supervision, becomes overwhelmed by the escalating tension when a timid guard tries to redirect her to her room, and turns violent. When her friend Poussey tries to intervene, the guard, an ill-trained novice cowed by his superiors, becomes panicked and distracted, an incident that ends with him inadvertently crushing the tiny Poussey to death.

Poussey, a fan favorite, was the brightest, cutest, most moral character in the span of the show. One of few characters with a somewhat bright future–she had a supportive father, a highly stamped passport, and was well-educated–Poussey spent the season falling in love and securing a job from the aforementioned Judy King, which made her death hit all the harder.

In real life, Poussey’s death echoed those of Eric Garner (suffocated by an LEO while saying she couldn’t breathe) and Sandra Bland (a black woman who died in custody and has her name and dignity sacrificed in the interest of protecting the prison’s legal interests). It’s a chilling moment, not only for the implications but because the fans have spent four years falling in love with Poussey–her friendship with fellow inmate Taystee provided much of the show’s heart and comic relief, and she was as beloved in-universe as out.

Of course, this is the point. Sandra Bland and Eric Garner were not news headlines, at least, not until they died. They were people with friends, families, hobbies, bad habits, quirks, even favorite tv shows, identities that have since been subsumed by the media, where everyone weighs in except the people who matter. And, like Poussey, the tragedy of their deaths is compounded by the fact that the responsible parties will not be held accountable, because they were individuals victimized by unjust power structures. 

Unless, of course, we who do hold privilege do something about it.

Orange is the New Black by Piper Kerman

Money Plot Points in Fiction

I’ve noticed a trend in some of the fiction I’ve been reading in the past few months, specifically The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney, Shelter by Jung Yun, Me Before You by Jojo Moyes, and my current read Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff, (see here to purchase) where a major arching plot or subplot concerns money: specifically, the absence of money.

The problem with these narratives, all of which are gorgeously written if nothing else, is that the characters are all incredibly well-off, well-educated, and well-poised to subsume the perceived loss of income or investments. The “adjustments” the wealthy characters will have to make involve moving into smaller houses, sending their children to public schools/universities, and generally downgrading their lifestyles from extravagant to merely comfortable.

From a narrative standpoint, the tension created from loss of cash is routinely cheapened by the resolution. Wealthy friends offer stable jobs, wealthy relatives wipe out debts, an inheritance is diminished but still substantive. In terms of craft, it hews a little too close to deus ex machina.

In terms of storytelling and development, it’s hard to empathize with characters whose reduced circumstances would still be enviable to the majority of readers. In Linda Tirado’s illuminating Hand to Mouth, the true value of a dollar is examined through the lens of people who can’t afford gum as an impulse purchase, and while it’s the opposite extreme end of the spectrum of wealth, Tirado’s real-life circumstances are more relatable to readers who are almost always a couple of paychecks away from homelessness, hunger, or lack of necessities.

Money, is of course, an emblematic trope in fiction to provide conflict. It’s easily identifiable and eminently desirable. Pursuit makes monsters of saints, loss of it turns lovers into lockhorns. We can all understand the permutations of character that’s associated with money, and it’s a classic in terms of storytelling, but without high stakes it falls flat.

Part of reading is escapism, so it makes sense that these books, all bestsellers and well received by critics, never hew too close to reality to swerve into truly disheartening territory. Another part is representation, and those of us who have no wealthy benefactors to eradicate our hardships have to search to see a representation of our struggles that relates to the lives we lead.

Contrast The Turner House by Angela Flournoy, which contains many of the same conflicts as The Nest (sibling inheritance creates discord, complicated family history affects the current generation), but set amid a working class family where not only are the stakes greater (homelessness, unemployment), but represents the fifty-plus year span from the rise of an American city to the racial politics that led to its fall, and the recession that boosted its modern day renaissance. Modern authors should take note.

M is for Mental Health

In December of 2012 I took a job at the local inpatient mental health facility, where I spent the next three years unlearning everything I knew about mental illness, depression, and anxiety.

Mental illness may well be the most misunderstood and stigmatized health condition to have in the modern world. This country has a collective puritanical belief that mental illness is a character flaw, a moral failing. It is one of the few illnesses that people are perceived to “deserve”. People with mental illness are lazy. Ungrateful. Spoiled. Don’t know how good they’ve got it. Seeking attention.

To that last point: seeking attention is not an inherently bad thing. If you are seeking attention, it’s because you need it, but aren’t getting it.

There is an attempt on the part of well meaning activists trying to normalize mental illness by comparing it to other illnesses. A depressed person can no more produce the necessary neurotransmitters in the right ratio than can a diabetic person magically create the appropriate levels of insulin without medical intervention. On one level, this helps frame mental illness in a more neutral context. It helps people empathize where before they would’ve condemned.

In another sense, mental illness is much more difficult to navigate. Even when a physical illness has unknown causes or can’t be quantified into a singular diagnosis, it’s a fairly straightforward process from symptom to diagnosis. Body part hurts/underperforms–>Brain thinks, “This isn’t good.”–>Steps are taken to correct the problem. Mental illness is one of the hardest things to recognize in oneself because the thing that tells you something is wrong is the something that is wrong.

There are so many benign reasons why we can feel the symptoms of depression. Exhausted? You work so hard. Stressed? Money is tight. Avoiding people? You’re just an introvert. Someone healthy can recognize when these things are products of circumstance. Someone with mental illness experiences their symptoms, looks for a cause, gets a reasonable sounding explanation, and continues. Because the illness is their normal.

Once you’ve accepted that you are, in fact, mentally ill, the question arises of when to deal with it. It becomes an identity crisis–who are you independent of your illness? Is your illness the source of your creativity? Your intelligence? Your perseverance? The answers are rarely black and white. Will medication make you worse before you get better? Probably. Dosage is a tricky thing, and rarely static. Are there times and places that will undo whatever progress you make in treatment? Yes. Getting better is a Sisyphean journey, not a utopian destination.

Recognizing that you’re ill has its benefits, though. When the darkness descends (and it will), knowing that its just a valley on the roller coaster ride of your mind, that you’ve been here before and you know the way out, is a relief. Giving it a voice is second only to hearing the voices of others. With a label comes community. We are alone in the void, but we can hear the others shouting, guiding us to the light at the end.

Our mental health system, like our health system in general, is fucked. Hospitals are run like corporations, and the doctors, nurses, and patients have to prove to the administration that something is worth pursuing. Administration is supposed to facilitate things like healthcare and education, but we have reached a point where it stifles the very institutions it once served.

We need to push aside the outdated modes of treatment. We are not passive victims enslaved by our diagnoses, we are survivors asserting our control over our own lives, and that means we have the right to say how we’re going to tackle our issues. We have the right to have depression and anxiety without being had by them. We have the right to community.

Suggested reading: Let’s Pretend This Never Happened and Furiously Happy, both by Jenny Lawson, Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh