I often wonder if the developers of Facebook and Twitter ever foresaw just how much of their traffic would be made up of inspirational quotes. Day in day out, social media users are bombarded with quotes attributed to the Dalai Lama, twelve step recovery aphorisms and ersatz Native American wisdom. Of course there’s a special market in mental health maxims about how we are strong at our broken places, about how the darkest hour is always before the dawn, about how pain is going to teach us patience. I know from Twitter conversations that I’m not alone in finding many of these little bundles of advice irksome rather than supportive but now I’m in crisis I’m finding them unbearably trite. There are so many I could have chosen, but since I imagine you’ve better things to do that read a dissertation on inspiration, here are my top peeves.
1) This too shall pass. Well, yeah, because like everything passes, you know? WWI passed, it’s just that an estimated 10 million soldiers and a further seven million ordinary civilians died in the process. And then of course in case you were thinking that this was one of those dark, dark hours before the dawn, in 1918 possibly as many as 100 million people – five per cent of the global population – died from Spanish flu. Of course my days pass, my weeks pass, my episodes pass, but not without untold trauma. I might survive a very, very bad bit, yet my 29 years of living with bipolar teach me that there may still be worse to come. So unless you can tell me when my pain will ease, and for how long, I’m not tremendously interested.
2) We all have mental health. I get where this is coming from. I really do. We don’t want the general population to think that there are two groups of people, nice “us” over here with normal brains and then “them!” over there, another, much more sinister group of people with mental health difficulties. And I know many consider it problematic that “mental health” has actually become shorthand for “mental illness” (as in “mental health services” that only treat mental ill-health). But I have major, major issues with this phrase because there is an implication that if “we all have mental health”, if we are all “on the spectrum”, then all points on the spectrum are equal. Stress is as important as schizophrenia. Exam anxiety is as deserving of attention as eating disorders. In an attempt not to exclude, we gloss over the massive differences in diagnosis, duration and severity. It would seem disrespectful in the extreme for the physically well to assert that “we all have physical health” to patients whose physical wellbeing is so compromised by organ failure, by cancer, by motor neurone disease. Yes, they all have a degree of physical health, but it is so diminished that they have vastly reduced quality of life. So why do we not extend this same respect to people with severe and enduring mental health conditions?
3) You are more than your illness. Well, you see, this relates to point two. Someone with a mild condition may well feel that their condition is just one aspect of their life and identity. But me? Well, I am not more than my illness, actually. My condition and I are so intertwined I literally have no idea where it ends and I begin. My personality has been shaped by living with bipolar symptoms throughout my childhood and adolescence; I just don’t know who I am without it. And now that I am in crisis again there is nothing to me but my bipolar. My thoughts are consumed by it. My emotions are dominated by it. It dictates what I can and can’t do. I am it. It is me. Please don’t tell me otherwise.
4) No one can make you feel inferior without your consent. This line is generally attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt around 1935. Interestingly there seems to be little evidence of this being a direct quote (the Quote Investigator site suggests a possible origin) but I’m going to deal with the phrase as it’s generally circulated. It certainly seems a rather glib statement for someone born into a family of wealthy New York fin de siècle socialites and politicians, including the serving President, who went to finishing school in Europe, was then presented as a debutante at the Waldorf-Astoria and eventually became First Lady. Given her life, I’m going to take a wild guess here that Eleanor was in few situations where she was required to “withhold her consent” to being oppressed (unlike, for example, those across the Atlantic at the time who were presumably displaying their active consent to being thrown into the first concentration camps). What this quote is saying is that systems and services can only be oppressive if you allow them to oppress you. Society can only stigmatise you if you consent to being stigmatised. It is a denial of power structures that suggests that part of your suffering is your own fault – ironically, a message which is likely to make you feel pretty inferior for feeling inferior.
5) It’s OK not to be OK. Well, you see, that depends on what “not OK” means to someone. Context is everything. It strikes me as phrase very much geared to the less serious end of the mental health spectrum, where it may have considerable merit. Telling someone who is becoming depressed, becoming anxious or stressed, perhaps developing insomnia, that it is OK to admit to not being OK, that it is OK to take time out and regain equilibrium is a really useful preventative measure. However, when I say that I am “not OK” I am starting from a position of having a serious, lifelong, incurable mental illness. My “not OK” is shorthand for being suicidal, sometimes in agitated way, sometimes as a result of a deep depression. My “not OK” may mean having frightening delusional beliefs. My “not OK” usually means losing my ability to work, losing my ability to parent. It means resorting to ever higher doses of drugs to retain a tenuous hold on what it means to be human. And that is not OK with me. OK?
6) Illness is not a choice – recovery is. This is a particularly irritating meme that has been doing the rounds lately and appears to suggest there are two states of being in mental health: illness (BAD and NOT A CHOICE) and recovery (GOOD and A CHOICE). You have no power over whether you are ill, but you have power over whether you are well. There are so many incorrect assumptions in this, I hardly know where to start, but you know me, I’ll have a go.
- Firstly, yes illness can just strike out of the blue, but actually there are all kinds of behaviours a person might indulge in which can lead to illness or relapse (for people like me with bipolar that might include not sleeping, not taking prescribed meds, drinking too much, socialising too much and so forth). Sometimes I am just a victim of “illness” as this quote suggests; sometimes it’s the result of bad choices I made.
- Recovery is not a “state of being” you can choose to enter into. It is a process, and one which has become central to mental health discourse and treatment. There are many people who do not wish to participate in this process of “recovery” for a variety of reasons. They may not trust services. There may not be any effective services in their area. They may have tried everything on offer with no beneficial effect. They may disagree with the medical profession that there is anything “wrong” with them. They may feel that the recovery model itself is offensive with its emphasis on “functionality” and economic output. That is their choice. But it is a model or a process they are rejecting, not a state of being.
- Likewise, those who like me choose to work with services, the best that can be done is to participate in a process. I don’t get to choose to be in a state of “recovery” and – well, um, if I could just do that, wouldn’t the profession of psychiatry and the pharmaceutical industry disappear?
I understand the sentiment behind “inspiration”. Humans like to try to comfort other humans, to give them a degree of hope and a reason to survive. That’s a laudable aim. But surely we can do better than platitudes?