There are two words that bother me greatly when I see, hear, or read them. They are: “Mental Illness”. Why does this wildly popular and acceptable term bother me so much? I’ll elaborate.
Quite a few of my friends are “mentally ill” at their own admittance, and those that aren’t, continue to use the phrase easily and without conviction. It’s just what people are known to be that have “mental problems”, right?
But who doesn’t have “mental problems”? Who hasn’t at some point broken down and cried? Who hasn’t felt afflicted spiritually, emotionally, psychologically, financially, health-wise or otherwise? How did it affect you as person? Did you feel defeated? Did you feel like giving up? Did you fret? Worry? Call people? Overeat? Not leave your house for the day? The week? Pace your floors? Cuss? Scream? Throw something? Drink? Drink more? (See where this is going?)
How do we differentiate between a person who is exhibiting (fatigue, duress, insomnia, depression and other) physiological manifestations; very natural responses to his or her sexual abuse or other traumas- combined with their chaotic environments, and a person who is exhibiting these signs when everything is hunky-dory?
One would be classified as appropriate behaviors given the circumstances, and the other would be classified as exhibiting psychological disorders. Both examples describe the same behaviors! But the environmental norms surrounding them separate the two.
If a person has been sexually abused and placed in a normal environment with siblings and other happy folks who have a swell life, there is no way the sexually abused person is going to behave in an expected manner. Who would behave at optimal performance in school, church, family gatherings, etc. after being sexually abused and having to “guard it” like Fort Knox gold? A person who tries to keep it together year after year will eventually break down while trying to process massive amounts of: guilt, anxiety, shame, anger, rage, confusion, blame, self-loathing, envy- the list is very long.
Given the circumstances, it’s actually very normal behavior to exhibit signs of distress, anxiety, anger, OCD-like tendencies, insomnia, night terrors, and other maladaptive behaviors that are associated with trauma. People who have not suffered these traumas do not understand and it is extremely unsettling for them that they do not have answers that they can file away, shelve, and dress things up with a tidy bow so that it’s sorted out in their heads.
But there needs to be an understanding in this area that these odd behaviors are very normal for sexual abuse survivors. What wouldn’t be normal is having suffered sexual abuse (especially as a child) and then sailing through life with little or no behavioral quirks. I dislike the word disorder because I challenge anybody to say that surviving sexual abuse is a disorder.
It is a triumph. Sexual abuse is a violation like no other and people give medals to those in wars who have been violated less and call them heroes. Sexual abuse survivors fight in the battlefields of life, and there’s no hero’s welcome. There’s no parade. No medals. We have to be our own heroes and rescue ourselves from the collective trenches of societal stigma and hate bombs that others throw at us and that we throw at ourselves.
Being a sexual abuse survivor is like being locked in a dark, dirty cell and given 5,000 keys: only one will unlock the door, and you have one hour to find the right one, or you could die! Doom. Doom doom doom! And lots of crying, worry, and fears that you will never find the right key in time.
But again, I reiterate that these horrible feelings are absolutely normal “given the circumstances”. We need to carefully select the words and labels we assign to people who have suffered such traumas. What if they believe you?!
God forbid I ever believe any labels that have been placed upon me in life. I would be the biggest mess in the world. But I have assigned healthier labels for myself: loving, compassionate, real, honest, valuable, happy. After all, I am the one who has to live with myself and why would I want to live with a pessimist?
The term “mental illness” came about in the 1800’s after various psychological perspectives disagreed on what actually defined a person to be mentally ill. Some believed that it was evil spirits. Some believed it was “psychogenic”, or psychologically induced, and others believed that it was somatogenic, or “of a biophysiological nature” (that’s a fancy way of saying “relating to your body” rather than your mental processes).
They locked “mentally ill” people up on psych wards and in chains where they were beaten and starved, or placed in a metal contraption that rendered them motionless for hours and days at a time. When the patients in these asylums exhibited paranoia, fear, depression, sleeplessness, excessive anxiety and other abuse-related behaviors (as a direct result of the abuse), their friends and families sadly accepted what the doctor had prescribed them all: mental illness.
Many of these patients were exhibiting very normal responses to being held against their wills and physically and psychologically abused. People were quick to swallow the ideology of “mental illness” because it satisfied their need to classify and understand what was happening to their family member.
In other words, people created the term “mental illness” to be able to better control individuals, societies, groups, and religious wars were often the fuel that kept this controversial fire burning. With the classification of mental illness: the acts of physical and emotional abuse on those who “broke society’s norms” were not only unpunishable, but sanctioned, approved, and rewarded!
Just as toxic as any sexual abuse is the belief by the victim that he or she is mentally ill, because somebody said so. This is such a powerful weapon of self-destruction, and only the act of sexual abuse itself is stronger.
We need to start tossing out terms like “mental illness”: those two words alone are TOXIC.
I will never accept terms like “mental illness” and “disorder”. Those are conceptual words made up by people who do not understand what it is like to live in a world with wild, technicolor vision. How about that?
How about, “I have a family member or friend who
is mentally ill has really been through it, but they have still been able to [insert accomplishments here] despite their obstacles.”
It’s all about perception and presentation, and I think we owe one another a sum of decency in how we present each other.
I wrote this post so that other sexual abuse survivors might gather strength and comfort; know that there are others who have suffered the same things in life, but refuse to be labeled! You are what you believe you are.
You have to believe yourself into something positive, constructive, hopeful, and be fearless in your conquests! Be bold in who you are, and acknowledge that you are a survivor rather than a victim. And when you learn that, teach others that too. Choose positivity rather than negativity.
Those 5,000 keys?
They all open the door.
[based on a true story]
For Sean, because I know you understand. xo
We March Like Soldiers
We march like soldiers
Invisible chains rattling
That only we can hear
All crammed together
In that box
We jiggle a little
I keep my eyes on the numbers
In that crammed elevator and imagine
That death awaits me at the bottom
Like a gas chamber
Waiting to spit out its last breath
Down we go
To meet a collection of many tables
And glue and sparkly things
I don’t die
There is an exercise bike
And a fat woman rides
The piano makes me sad
I remember other things
And better days
Before I flew
Out of my mind
But down I sit
My fingers stumble like a bad lover
And I play the song of my life
Wanting only to cry
The crazy people look at me
They are smiling
I smile too- at what
I do not know
But on with the show!
I do not understand
How I got here
I march outside and watch the worker
Water the flowers
In the burning heat
A man walks in circles
And circles and circles
He is pleased to be talking
Round and round he goes
A curious machine
A heavy verdict
Heaven and hell
Another jumps up and kicks the wall
Is he real?
Is he an angel? A devil?
Did he come up from a pit?
Did I see bats?
Are they birds?
I watch them fly away
Up and out of the high walls that surround
All of us here on lock down
The sunny workers in the flowered pajamas
Are careful to say lovely things
So we know
I swing and swing
On that damn bench
That never goes anywhere
Up we go
Back to the halls and walls that are plastered with rules
That we’re supposed to understand
There are smiley faces
That tell us
We are people too
Here on this safe floor with no lighters or sharp metal things
And we wait
Watching the new ones march in
I am uncertain
If I am dead or alive
I go to the bathroom
Shut the door
And try to cry
The night brings another solemn gathering
Of people standing in line
For the third time
And snacks too
I am a wild animal in these glass-windowed walls
I do not know how to get out
My eyes are black as mud inside
And my tears have been taken
By terror (the mirror does not lie)
Out I shuffle
With bare feet and no socks
In my spotted gown
And we all
March like soldiers
And stand in a sad line
To get our pills
Which make us feel
At least for a little while
Like we are sleeping
As we lie awake in this place
Flying out of our minds
– B. Lindsey
Written on 10/28/13