Elliot Rodger, Mental Illness, and Othering

31 05 2014

I was at my DBT day program today waiting for groups to start and a video of Dzohkhar Tsarnaev came up on the news, playing over and over as though there was nothing else to talk about. (Seriously, who cares about this kid anymore? We know what he did, we know he’s probably going to be in prison for life. Let’s move on.) Naturally, my mind wandered, and on the subject of serial killers, let’s discuss Elliot Rodger.

The #YesAllWomen hashtag is wonderful (and if you haven’t read it, stop reading this post right now and open this link in a new tab: https://twitter.com/hashtag/YesAllWomen). What Rodgers did was — beyond any sort of argument — a hate crime infused with the moldy, antiquated marinade that is the Men’s Rights “movement”. That I’m sure we can all agree on, along with the fact that he was a rich, entitled kid whose problems went denied.

That said, I am not at all comfortable with the dialogue regarding mental illness surrounding Rodger.

Here’s the thing: when you say something was “the work of a madman”, you are attempting to distance yourself from the perpetrator, and this presents two problems:

1) You are othering people with mental illness.

2) Arguing that something is “madness” is denying that the thoughts and feelings leading to harmful behaviours are held by people who are not “mad”, which is dangerously not the case here when it comes to misogyny (apologies to Sparta).


Quick vocab lesson: “othering” is just determining that someone else is different from you with the implication that doing so is a negative action; you turn someone into the Other and distance yourself. It happens often to people in marginalised groups at the hands of people in power and more frequently than not is an escapist ploy so someone doesn’t have to challenge their privilege or some firmly-held conviction.

Elliot Rodger was indisputably mentally ill. We know he had medications and refused to take them, had seen multiple therapists, and had more than one welfare check occur in response to his disturbing rhetoric. (For my own sake, I’m not going to repost the videos, but they’re not hard to find if you’re really interested.) I’m not a doctor, but it walked and quacked like delusions of grandeur.

It is not appropriate or correct to draw the conclusion that all people suffering from psychosis are dangerous. Not only is it not true, but it’s shifting the blame from a culture that excuses misogyny to a heinous degree to one man’s self-absorption. In fact, people with mental illness — particularly disorders frequently featuring psychosis like schizophrenia — are many, many times more likely to be the victims of violence rather than the perpetrators:

– “Although studies suggest a link between mental illnesses and violence, the contribution of people with mental illnesses to overall rates of violence is small, and further, the magnitude of the relationship is greatly exaggerated in the minds of the general population (Institute of Medicine, 2006).”

– “…the vast majority of people who are violent do not suffer from mental illnesses (American Psychiatric Association, 1994).”

– “The absolute risk of violence among the mentally ill as a group is very small. . . only a small proportion of the violence in our society can be attributed to persons who are mentally ill (Mulvey, 1994).”

-“People with psychiatric disabilities are far more likely to be victims than perpetrators of violent crime (Appleby, et al., 2001). People with severe mental illnesses, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or psychosis, are 2 ½ times more likely to be attacked, raped or mugged than the general population (Hiday, et al.,1999).”

(Source: http://depts.washington.edu/mhreport/facts_violence.php and the referenced papers)

Slapping a demonising label like “violent” onto a very diverse group of people is destructive to both public perception of us — we who need the support of our communities more than most — as well as to our own self-images, which is ironic considering so many of us struggle with them already. Most of the time, if we are violent, it’s against ourselves. (Bipolar II sufferers have one of the highest suicide rates of any group.)

More importantly, it’s dismissive of the real issue, which is…


The communities Elliot Rodger took part in are part of the MRA and PUA movements (men’s rights activism and pick-up artist respectively). Both are known to be on the spectrum of somewhat unfriendly to outright vomiting hate speech when it comes to women. Many of them blame either feminism, women as a whole, or both for their problems. (Strangely, identity politics has produced a bizarro outcome where moderate MRAs and feminists end up working towards the same goals from different trajectories but neither will make any concessions because the other group is the Enemy™. I digress.)

Elliot Rodger was both a bigot himself and steeped in rhetoric that fed the flames of his anger. Most of the people he was engaging with are not mentally ill, they’re people espousing the extreme version of an ideology that is incredibly pervasive. Redirect your attention to #YesAllWomen until it makes sense — this is something all women experience. Attributing his actions to mental health makes the mentally ill the demons — his actions are significantly attributable to the hateful communities he was in.

You need look no further than the forums he posted on and the MRA subreddits to understand what I mean. There are men there calling him a hero, calling for more violence until women are “put in their places”.

The mentally ill are not your culprits — misogynists are. Misogynists are the ones espousing more violence.

And misogyny is the problem we need to solve.


Stigma and Shame

28 05 2014

I’ve done a lot of talking recently about the stigma behind mental illness. It’s (relatively) common knowledge that I voluntarily went to McLean Hospital for a brief inpatient stay after losing my job and am now in a two-week partial hospital program involving intensive dialectical behaviour therapy. (The short version is that my doctor and I agreed that it would be a good idea to be able to get onto a good path to be able to appropriately cope with the high levels of stress.)

My parents were naturally a bit concerned that I was so open about my battle against my own brain — the stigma is still horrific — and while we’ve certainly made strides in accepting people who struggle with mental illness, we are far from “there yet”. My father gently cautioned me and said it has the potential to come back and bite me later on. Of course it does. Lots of things do, but this more than most, so his concern is well-placed.

That said, I have bigger fish to fry.

Today I received a diagnosis of bipolar II. For those unaware, bipolar type II is the form where one or more hypomanic or mixed episodes are present as well as depressive phases, but no manic episodes have ever happened, so it’s closer to the depressive end of the spectrum rather than the manic end. Bipolar disorder is usually poorly understood by people not well read on it, so I invite you to read more about it here: http://www.webmd.com/bipolar-disorder/guide/bipolar-2-disorder

If you’re neurotypical, this is me-in-relation-to-you in a nutshell: I’m moody when I’m off my meds or not coping well. That’s it. My moods will shift around seemingly for no reason at all — to give you an example, I was up in Maine for a training weekend and someone said the word “objective”, which is a word related to my now-former job but otherwise contextually irrelevant, and I spent about an hour upset. I wasn’t even upset about my job — hell, I’m actually at peace with the fact that I don’t have it anymore for a number of reasons, primarily that it was a relatively amicable parting — but that’s how I shift. That was before I started a mood stabilizer, and while it’s not a wonder drug, the change has been dramatic and I’ve not felt this well in over a decade.

And yet the specter of what-if still hangs over me, insisting that this will follow me forever and curse me to a life of unemployability.

Of course it will follow me — it’s my brain. This is most likely never going to completely go away. I will always have difficult feelings and always need to use the tools I have to be able to appropriately respond to them. I’ve also found that others being aware that a shift in mood is a quirk of mine is extremely helpful in terms of understanding how to work with and be friends with me and that me going from happy to upset in under 3 seconds is not necessarily a reflection on them, it’s my brain working differently.

The sentiment I’ve received the most of, though, is that the people around me are proud of me for speaking up. And I’ve decided to continue with that. I am still a person of value and quite capable. I have recognised my problems and I have asked for help. I have owned my strengths and shortcomings and worked damn hard to get to where I am today, and I refuse to entertain the possibility of shutting up about it.

An estimated 21 million people worldwide have some form of bipolar spectrum disorder, not to mention the millions of other people who have some other form of mental illness. A significant portion of these people suffer in silence, ironically being that they are some of the people who need love, support, and community the most. The people at the highest risk of suicide are the people who are left poor and isolated the most, and even the ones who have sought help are labelled ‘crazy’ and seen as less-than — seen as the ephemeral Other.

I will not be one of those people. As one of my contact people at McLean said during a wonderful conversation, “the change has to come from the patients”. I am a psychiatric patient and I am getting well. I am taking charge of the most difficult thing I will ever experience. Ending stigma needs all the help it can get and I intend to commit at least some portion of my life to giving people with conditions like mine a voice.

I have bipolar II. I am a person with skills, intelligence, and value. I will not suffer in silence, I will not walk this treacherous path alone, and I am not ashamed.

Lilies, Part 2

15 02 2014

The lily is dead.

Despite the care, the bloom came lackluster and lonely and died one night in the snow, flakes melting cruelly as the roots froze below.

There is not much to write about a dead flower that hasn’t already been said; water has no use and it would be yet more pointless to gild such a thing after its death.

As for me, I will have no more bouquets. My business has always been in fur and steel, and to fur and steel I will return joyfully. I will pull the lily’s roots and frame them as a reminder of the fragility of flowers.

And, and — to return to my own roots.

Empathy for the Devil

27 01 2014

I think one of the hardest things to do in life is to empathise with people who have actively wronged you.

There is someone whose very presence in my social circles has tormented me for the better part of a year. This person more or less stomped my and my partner’s faces into the dirt for absurd reasons — mine for the better part of the year previous — and then sliced us out of their life as though we were a step below offal. Don’t get me wrong; it was the liverwurst of relationships while it existed, but even so, I shared a very vulnerable part of myself with this person only to have it tossed out when the person decided it no longer served their interests.

The point here being that my revulsion is, in some ways, justified.

And I have a hard time empathising with them because they did something that, by my metrics, is almost unforgivable.

But I found myself reading their blog after having encountered them at a party and wondering what was going on in their life — like you do — and came across a post detailing their struggles with depression and suicidal ideation.

And I couldn’t help but find myself thinking: Yeah. I’ve been there. I feel you. I know that place.

Because as much as I want to hate them, vilify them for everything I had to put up with, spit vengeful venom, I can’t do it in the face of that. I have been down that road. I have been in the dark, windowless room that is hopelessness. I’ve been in that place, and I can’t hate someone who is in there. At the most callous, it’s like ambushing someone who is unarmed. There’s no worth in it; it’s ugly and speaks infinite incriminating tomes about your shallowness of character. In a kinder world, it’s kicking someone while they’re down.

Ideally I will never speak to or see this person again, but I can’t help but empathise with their plight, because in some ways, it’s my plight too.

And this is hard. It’s hard to let go of something that my lizardbrain cries out is protecting me. There’s nothing to protect myself from anymore. It’s hard to turn the other cheek.

I suppose these little growth spurts come most often when I stop trying.

I Who Is Not I

5 12 2013

The I who is not I is perfect stealth because of the faces she wears. Her hair is blue like mine but her face is painted at will, and sometimes she has no face at all when she wears the silvery suits. The I who is not I slinks in cotton and lace, cinches her waist, and moves with a grace dissimilar. The I who is not I peers over her spectacles smirking in the mirror and dreams of social subterfuge (contrast I, specters of simulation stripped). Yet underneath her false velvet is I who is I, made of steel.


27 11 2013

Today is the first time I have felt brave enough to write about him in anything other than brief mentions of profound sorrow.

At first we were light, playful, nakedly startled at our mutual discovery of the other. Tumbling over each other and ourselves came naturally, both with our words and with our bodies. We giggled over geeky tropes and conspired to climb mountains. We grabbed each other’s hands, seeing who could run faster, out of breath because we’d chain smoked so we’d have an excuse to keep talking.

His marriage initially made things uncomfortable, but as a powerful friendship developed, we chalked it up to growing pains. She and I are of similar minds, and we eventually commiserated passionately on everything and nothing at all. He spent hours pounding metal and came up with a lily in aluminum and copper. He smiled as proudly as it shimmered when I told him the defects didn’t matter — it was experimental like I was, and there will be no other like it. We made plans and mistakes, patching up the bruises lovingly, trying to squeeze into something that fit and noting when something broke in fits of excitement. The first time love spilled from our lips, I thought the moment peerless.

But even lilies wilt.

The storms that plague my head slowly flooded him, and our words were sharp like thunder and as volatile. Slowly the landscape around us burned, unnoticed by we who tried to protect the lone flower. I shivered against the rain, never realising that the lily was left dry and slowly withering. All I had to do was look down and water the lily, but I was busy looking up and cursing the rain.

We sat on his front steps on a brisk evening and he told me nothing was left. I, ever the atrociously-timed optimist, insisted it wasn’t so, and that I loved him and could improve. My heart broke at his doubt. Three weeks later, trying forlornly to talk about something, I plucked the blossom, saying that trying to save it now was futile.

We have only spoken passingly and awkwardly since.

I do not know if it will bloom again. Lilies are perennials and hardier than succumbing to a wayward kick, yet all flowers are delicate, and the roots have gone long neglected. Perhaps it will. But while the winter endures, I will hold the shriveled petals in my hands with nothing but regret for company.

Learning to Help Myself

19 11 2013

I talk an awful lot about mental health. I swear, I do other things, but the grisly specter of depression and the airless crush of anxiety are constantly with me and colour everything I do.

This time it’s at work. My productivity is, again, slipping. Alas.

My boss being someone I have a good working relationship with, though, and also an incredibly nice person, noticed and was as gentle as he could be about it while also making it clear what would happen if it wasn’t fixed. This is what happened at my last job, and I didn’t disclose nearly soon enough and didn’t advocate for myself at all. I have decided that whatever the outcome, I am not going to make that mistake again.

Yet my new company is much bigger and as such has a process for doing these things, which will probably require me to advocate for myself to my boss’s boss as well as his boss. For someone with an anxiety disorder with social triggers, it’s hard to describe the terror inherent in this. Both because I have to discuss some very personal issues with some very-higher-ups, but also because I am semi-publicly admitting that my brain does not work the way that others’ brains do and that I need to have something different to get me up to snuff.

Especially for a woman, when for us the response is often “she’s just overemotional” behind our backs, and especially in a male-dominated industry, asking for a special accommodation feels like admitting that I am less. I am not as able as my coworkers. I am not neurotypical. I need to try doing things differently, and the difference in this case will be conspicuous.

But the alternative is unemployment, and I cannot fall back on anyone now, neither for advice nor for pecuniary support. No one I know has done this before and no one I know can provide anything other than encouraging words. My boss is tremendously supportive of my needs, but he admits his knowledge of the situation pales in comparison to mine. The only person who can help and advocate for me is me, and this is new ground. I am afraid, but giving up is not an option, and I have to learn to be strong in the face of being my own worst enemy.

I have to learn to be able to help myself, and in this case, I have to learn to say my piece articulately and without shame. If I do that, I have done the very best I can.