At my book club yesterday, I mentioned that I read the protagonist of The Blazing World as mentally ill. Another person said, “Oh no, angry women are always dismissed as crazy!” (Legitimate point.) My face got hot and when I replied my voice was sharp. It was scary, but I had to explain: “As someone who is personally mentally ill, I related to her.”
Photo via Abbey Bookshop Paris.
Admitting something stigmatized, like, “I’m bipolar,” or “I used to be suicidal,” is really hard. You never know how people are going to react. It’s also just… painful. Mental illness is painful before it is anything else, and talking about intense emotional suffering is hard. Whenever I talk about mental illness I’m on the defensive, quick to snap at anyone who disagrees with my ideas. I hate feeling so angry and afraid, backed into a corner like a pursued animal.
So what do we do about this? We strive to create a world where mental illness is just as “normal” as, well, normality. We create a world where it’s okay to talk about mental illness, whether casually or publicly. The pain of uncovering your wounds probably won’t ever go away, but maybe the fear of being criticized or condemned can be alleviated. Luckily, all we have to do to make this happen is keep talking about our feelings. Us girls are supposed to be good at that, right? We’re not the only ones:
Photo via Disney/ABC Television Group.
At the Oscars on Sunday, writer Graham Moore won Best Adapted Screenplay for The Imitation Game, a biopic about Alan Turing. Turing was a brilliant mathematician who solved Nazi cryptography, helping to win World War II, and pioneered computer science. After all these accomplishments, Turing committed suicide, largely because he was persecuted for being gay. The screenwriter who told Turing’s story took a step toward the better world that I described, using his acceptance speech:
“When I was sixteen years old, I tried to kill myself. Um, because I felt weird, and I felt different, and I felt like I did not belong. And now I’m standing here, and, so, I would like for this moment to be for that kid out there who feels like she’s weird, or she’s different, or she doesn’t fit in anywhere. Yes you do. I promise you do. You do. Stay weird, stay different, and then when it’s your turn, and you’re standing on this stage, please pass the same message to the next person who comes along. Thank you so much!”
The Chicago Tribune reported that Moore’s stepfather had a touching reaction to his son’s speech: “I was so proud of him, using that act of speaking to make his words meaningful to others who have suffered that which he suffered. That is transcendent.”
Photo by DieselDemon.
It is transcendent. I hope all the kids in the audience were listening, especially the kids who struggle with depression or anxiety, the ones who hear voices or have delusions. Mental illness will not necessarily ruin your life. Many successful, creative people, people whose lives are full of love, also suffer from mental illness.
Unfortunately, “it gets better” doesn’t always mean a whole lot when you’re in despair. The idea that the future will be okay isn’t super comforting when the present sucks. Leelah Alcorn’s suicide note demonstrates this. But: “it gets better” is better than nothing. “It gets better” is better than “there’s no future for people like you”. Graham Moore showed millions of viewers that there is a future for people who suffer from mental illness.
After reflecting on Moore’s bravery and openness, I feel glad that I spoke up at book club. It was a trivial thing, but I had to say what I felt, to be honest about my experiences. The discussion didn’t turn into an argument, and we each got to “speak our truth”, to quote Mike Robbins. I was nervous to say, “I have personal experience with mental illness,” but it wasn’t that big of a deal. I wasn’t ostracized. No one even flinched. Being crazy is becoming normal, and I hope we keep making it more so.