Five unhelpful things I wish people would stop saying to me

Our society is not very good at listening to neurodivergent folks. When we’re not being told we are lazy, the things we ask for are routinely ignored.

Sometimes the way that this happens is very subtle, and even the people who say they value accessibility sometimes say hurtful things when they are not paying attention. Here are some examples.

1. “You seem like you are okay” or “You seem normal” img031

This is a common reaction that I get when I disclose to someone that I have an invisible disability. Maybe people think they are being reassuring. It implies “don’t worry, you don’t seem like you’re crazy”, which I guess maybe should be comforting in a world where “crazy” is so stigmatized. But when someone says it, it feels like they’re not actually acknowledging what I’m telling them as truth. It feels like they’re not listening and they’re not interested in hearing what I have to say.

When people say “you seem normal”, it just sounds like they are afraid of neurodivergence and “crazy” people. It’s a veiled form of ableism.

“Normalcy” isn’t possible, and it’s not the goal, so trying to reassure me that I seem normal is really useless.

2. “Have you thought about seeing a therapist/counsellor/doctor/psychologist?”

On the surface this question seems like a legitimate reaction when someone talks about their mental illness. After all, therapists are supposed to be the people who can help with these kinds of situations, right?

The reality is, when people say this, they are usually stating the obvious. They are just making this suggestion because they don’t know what to say.

Before suggesting seeing a therapist or other mental health care professional, ask yourself two things: First, did this person ask for my advice? And second, is it likely that they haven’t thought of this already? If the answer is yes to both questions, then it is an appropriate thing to say.

The only other situation where it might be appropriate is with someone who is extremely close to you and that person is having trouble recognizing that they need more help than you can give them. Otherwise, just don’t.

If you literally don’t know what else to say, I would suggest learning some active listening skills. You should probably be asking, “is there anything I can do to help?”.

3. “The first step is to talk about it” or “it’s so important to be open about your feelings”

First off, I know that these are completely true statements and I agree with them. However, they have become the meaningless buzzwords (buzz phrases?) of mental health, and they reflect the short depth of understanding that most people have about the issue.

I talk and write about mental health a lot, and these phrases are often the response I get when I propose political solutions to mental health issues. I have also heard people say this as their only response to people with depression or anxiety talking about what they are going through and asking for what they need, which is an incredibly disrespectful way of ignoring what people are actually asking for. Too often, this is the only thing people know how to say about mental health.

People want to see mental health and disability as an individual problem that individuals have and should solve on their own. Talking is often the first step, but what about steps two through ten? When we constantly redirect back to step one, it’s because we’re avoiding the responsibility that we have for helping people, which may be more difficult than talking.

4. “Do you really think you have aspbergers/depression/bipolar/[insert label]?” or “Have you been diagnosed by an actual doctor?”

Our society has stereotypes about neurodivergent people. When someone discloses that they have one of these conditions, it’s common for our perceptions of the person to not match what the stereotype is, and that might be confusing.

It is often difficult for people to reconcile that someone they love might be both a fantastic and competent person and also neurodivergent or mentally ill.

Part of the problem is representation: people who have these conditions are very poorly represented in pop culture. Additionally, neurodivergent people are often the victims of othering. Mentally ill homeless people, drug addicts, and nonverbal autistics: our culture sees them as “other”. The default is to be scared of them, and to to associate with them with the people we like or love becomes needlessly scary.

Here’s the thing: the difference between the people in your life who are neurodivergent and the “other” people who are neurodivergent is probably only a matter of money and social supports.

I am one of those “competent” people with mental illness. I have a full time job and a home and a savings account. But I’m also ill and I’ve had serious crises in my life. Those crises were horrible and have had a lasting effect on me; I would not have gotten through them without the support and compassion of the people around me. Somebody else with similar issues but without access to money and social supports would easily end up on the street with nowhere to go. I am serious when I say that is the only difference, but our society perceives those “other” people a lot differently, as less deserving, than me.

Seriously, there is no need to be scared of the neurodivergent. We are generally not very dangerous.

When someone discloses to you a condition or illness, it’s none of your business what their doctor has said (or hasn’t said). What matters is your compassion and what you do to make sure their needs are met.

5. “Everyone experiences that”

This is a really important one. This is a response people give when I talk about specific symptoms. If I mention that my disability causes me to struggle with taking good notes in meetings, people will say “but everyone has trouble with that”.

Taking notes while simultaneously holding a conversation is a skill. Like any skill, some people find it easier than others, and practice will likely make you better at it. So yes, technically, everyone might have issues with that at some point. But I am exceptionally bad at it, especially considering how much practice I’ve had. I get by because I have a good memory for conversations, I write things down after meetings, and when I need to, I make an audio recording.

This is an excellent illustration of neurodivergence: everyone’s brains work differently, and everyone is better at some things than others. “Nonverbal learning disorder” is just a label for a particular set of pronounced strengths and weaknesses that I happen to have.

But it doesn’t mean that “everyone experiences that”. When I say I suck at taking notes, I mean I really suck at taking notes, and it’s not something I can just work on.

It’s similar to when someone says they are depressed and the response is about general sadness. There is a big difference between being sad and being depressed, and it’s very important not to confuse the two. Everyone has been sad at some point. Only some people have been depressed. Saying “everyone experiences that” is dismissive.

Posted in ableism, neurodivergence, nonverbal learning disorder | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Reflections on public pain and collective rage at the end of 2016

23874835704_b22c7c183a_oI’ve cried in public more times than I can count. I’ve cried openly on the bus after saying goodbye to a loved one, I’ve cried at parties, and I’ve cried at work. Yesterday I sat in a coffee shop and told a trusted friend about a bunch of shit that I’ve been going through lately, and cried with the pain and the release of a host of feelings I can barely describe.

I’ve lived with depression and anxiety for most of my life, and for me crying is a part of that. Crying in public has allowed me to get through my worst moments and release feelings that needed to be released. I don’t really care what strangers think, and I’ve been lucky enough to have  friends who are pretty supportive and non-judgemental.

But breaking down in public is a almost taboo for many people. Even in the age of “Bell Lets Talk”, when our society is — supposedly — breaking down mental health stigma, Not Being Okay in public is still a pretty big deal. Even if you’re just crying in a coffee shop, social norms dictate that you should dry your tears before going up to order something, never mind the stares and ignorance that you’ll get if you have a panic attack or a more serious mental health crisis in a public place. People also tend to get judgemental of folks who speak openly about their current emotional pain in public or on social media. Although talking about it in the past tense has been increasingly acceptable, those things are generally supposed to be relegated to the private sphere.

This reality pains me. Not only because it encourages people, especially men, to bottle up their pain, but also because it separates us humans from what is happening around us. Do we have any idea how our neighbours are feeling? Our community? How do we know truly know how people are impacted by political realities if we don’t know how anything about their emotions?

The taboo around public pain is part of how capitalism separates us from each other. Like the nuclear family, it encourages us only to look out for ourselves and our kin, and not to learn to care for others.

Jokes about celebrity deaths aside, 2016 has been a really difficult year, and I know lots of people who have been impacted by the political realities of our time. Not just the prospect of  Trump presidency and its potential consequences, but also neoliberal cuts to health care and social services that affect literally everyone, directly or indirectly. All these things are a cause of pain.

2016 has exacerbated mental illness for lots of us. I don’t have a strong statistical analysis to back that statement up, but when I look around at the people I know, I know that it’s true. We know that marginalized people (particularly disabled people, indigenous people, and queer and trans folks) are more likely to experience mood disorders, and so it is logical to conclude that oppression is a major cause of mental illness. While we are descending into late capitalism and the era of Trump, the issue is going to become larger.

I’m not generally a proponent of mental health stigma “awareness”, because I think the people who speak loudest about stigma often erase the structural causes of mental health. But to find the solutions, to find community support, we need to be able to be honest about how we’re doing, sometimes even with strangers. Can we do that? It’s very unsafe for many people, especially people of colour, to break down in public (in the worst cases, you can get apprehended by police), but I also think the only way to change cultural taboos is to break them. Openly, and over and over again.

We know that “civilized”, “rational” arguments are not winning us any kind of socialist utopia anytime soon. Much of the post-election analysis of Trump seems to have come to a consensus that fact-checking will not stop fascism. Maybe it’s time to start using the “irrational”. Maybe forcing others to see our feelings and to understand the effects of what this society is doing to us will help us turn the tides and make people understand.

Yoda said that “fear leads to anger”, and he meant us to be cautious about fear, but if we’re going to fight the Donal Trumps of this world, we need to turn our fears and our pain into collective rage. We need anger — public, collective anger — against the system that’s trying to tear us down. And we need to channel our rage into work against capitalism.

As I said, it’s not safe for everyone to be open about their mental illnesses and their pain. But for those of us who can, we need to be open, and we need to learn to listen and to create the space for others to be open, too.

Do you have a loved one with depression or anxiety? It can be overwhelming to figure out how to help. Ask me about a sliding scale consultation.

Photo by Daniella Urdinlaiz is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

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Sophie Grégoire Trudeau needs to stop talking about mental health

Sophie Grégoire Trudeau calls herself “an activist for women’s empowerment and gender equality” and has spoken out a number of times about her struggles with bulimia and anorexia. Most recently she spoke at an event called “Girlfriend’s Guide to Mental Health” in Ottawa.

While I’m sure her “philosophy of promoting strong mental health for girls and women of all ages” is appealing to some wealthy women with self-esteem issues, all I could do when I read about it was roll my eyes.

Trudeau’s approach is completely individualist, over-simplistic and useless for most of us who struggle with anxiety, depression, and trauma. It’s also not new.

Based on what is reported in the media, Trudeau has never proposed anything beyond “talking” as a solution. While basic communication is obviously important, and talking through feelings can help people process them, it is not a solution to mood disorders in and of itself. If it was, we would all be a lot healthier.

People with mood disorders usually need stable housing, professional counselling, fair wages, appropriate health care (physical and mental), disability accommodations, and a guarantee that their safety will not be taken from them if and when they can’t work. Not to mention an end to systemic homophobia, transphobia, ableism, racism, and other common sources of trauma.

These kinds of systemic solutions are continually erased by politicians and by campaigns like “Bell Let’s Talk”, putting the onus on the individual to find the solution for themselves through asking for help and talking about it openly with friends. This is  usually just another form of “just get over it” that doesn’t work for mental illness, just like it wouldn’t work for the flu.

A systemic problem requires systemic solutions.

And no wonder that a person like Trudeau, who can afford nannies and wears designer clothes, can’t possibly understand the struggles of people who suffer the most from mental illness.

The Ottawa Citizen reported that “As a mother of three and the wife to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Grégoire Trudeau has also had a front-row seat to the challenges and struggles facing families living with someone who suffers from a mental illness.”

This is completely absurd. How does being the Prime Minister’s wife give insight into people with mental illness? Mental illness disproportionately affects people of colour, indigenous people, queer and trans folks, and people with disabilities. Trudeau has no authority to speak for any of those people.

Of course it is okay for Trudeau to talk about her own experience, but she’s being treated by the Ottawa Citizen and the Huffington Post like she’s Canada’s representative for mental health, while her experiences are anything but representative. And given how unoriginal her ideas are, there’s no way the media would be interested in hearing from her if she wasn’t the Prime Minister’s wife.

It is also telling that while Trudeau loves talking about talking, her husband’s government is not listening to those who have been asking for concrete solutions. They love to talk about mental health, but true solutions will not come without systemic change to our economic system — something the Liberals are obviously not interested in.

Trudeau’s “activism” makes it appear that there is a response. It makes Liberal voters feel good about who they’ve put in power.

But talking about self-esteem is not a solution. We need people to listen to us, to hear the diversity of experience that is living with mental illness, to respect the wealth and complexity of the knowledge that we have, and to provide us with real support for our mental and physical well-being.

Our lives depend on it.

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If a cyclist yells at a driver, it’s because they’re afraid they’re going to die.

On Friday morning, I biked to work. This summer I have cycled about two or three times a week. It’s about 15 minutes to bike from my house, most of it down a six-lane major street that is busy by Winnipeg standards but would seem relatively calm to anyone from Vancouver, Ottawa or Toronto. 113009943_b3f865ac39_o

Friday was different, because I was still reflecting on the death of a cyclist in Ottawa on Thursday. Nusrat Jahan was 23 and killed while cycling in a bike lane, only two blocks from her home.

As I was thinking about this, a car passed me to my left, way too close for comfort. At first it sounded like it was right behind me, then I realized it was squeezing past me, only about two feet from my back tire. A small deviation on my part of the car, and I knew I was done. It was incredibly scary, and I swore loudly while trying to keep my bike very straight so as to not get in the car’s way.

About five seconds later, I found myself stopped at a red light, right behind the car that had just passed me.Without pausing to think, I pulled up between the car and the curb. “Hey!” I yelled. “You can’t do that here”. I was having trouble expressing myself, partly being out of breath (a strong prairie wind was working against me that day) and partly out of anger and fear.

“You can’t do that in Manitoba”, I said, as a woman in the passenger seat rolled down her window. She looked at me like she thought I was crazy. “he was just going around you”.

If you’ve ever genuinely feared for your life, you might know the anger I was feeling.

“You have to leave a meter of space” I yelled. “You can get fined for that. It’s extremely dangerous.”

I swore again as I backed up my bicycle behind the car. The light turned green and I made it to work without getting hurt.

I wear a helmet. I follow the rules, except occasionally when I bike on the sidewalk for safety reasons (and when I do that, I slow down so that I’m not a threat to pedestrians).

The thing is, cars don’t follow the rules. In Manitoba when you pass a bicycle, you are required to give them a full meter of space between you. If you can’t, then you shouldn’t be passing. And yet it happens at least two or three times every time bike to work.

I know that drivers want to get to work quickly, and getting stuck behind me might be annoying. But here’s the thing: my life is worth more than shaving ten seconds off your commute. If that driver had waited for a couple of blocks, he could have passed me safely and easily.

My worst fear as a cyclist in Winnipeg is swerving around a pothole at the wrong moment. If there’s a car behind me in the wrong spot, I could die. A small mistake by me or the driver and I wouldn’t be writing this today.

Drivers, apparently, mostly think cyclists are rude and badly behaved. They’re probably right, to a degree. Cyclists aren’t as worried about drivers’ manners. We’re more concerned that drivers will kill us.

Progressives advocate for more bike infrastructure, and that’s great – I’ve even complained to my city counsellor about the pitiful stretch of bike path that suddenly appears in the last five blocks of my route to work. But Nusrat Jahan was killed in a bike lane. Clearly, infrastructure is not enough. Drivers need to take some responsibility for the amount of power they have; the fact that their negligence could so easily cause deaths. We need an attitude shift. We need drivers to look out for our safety.

I will keep cycling. If I yell at a few people, so be it. My safety is more important than the speed of someone else’s commute.

Photo by redjar is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

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Calling Trump “crazy” is lazy, ableist and counterproductive

There are so many ways to describe Donald Trump. Entitled. White. Wealthy. Hateful. Ignorant. An asshole.

None of those facts make him “crazy”. Unfortunately, “insanity” of some kind seems to be the only explanation that the mainstream media can find for the phenomenon that is Donald Trump.

This is going to sound repetitive for anyone who read my last blog post, but throwing around language about mental illness like this, without evidence, is not okay. Not ever. And when it’s about someone like Donald Trump, it carries even more power and potential to do harm, even when our intentions are good.

Trump’s ideas and behaviour are based in ignorance, selfishness, scapegoating, and most of all hatred. This is not mental illness, it’s just an extreme version of hatred that is seen in the U.S. (and elsewhere) every day.

Take, for instance, his racist, anti-muslim and anti-immigrant policies (if they can be called policies). Trump uses these to fire up the emotions of white supporters who are angry at the system and looking for someone to blame.

People in America are right to be angry at the system. The wealth gap is wider than ever. Good jobs are disappearing, and household debt has soared. This is the result of capitalism and decades of neoliberal policy by successive governments, both Democrat and Republican.

(While I obviously don’t support him, Trump is doing a way better job than the Democratic establishment of tapping into emotion and recognizing that the U.S. has real problems that need to be fixed)

Since the beginning of capitalism, the capitalists have incited hatred against people of colour so that white people will blame them instead of the system. It’s an age-old tactic to divide and conquer: convince the white people that the black people are the reason for their problems, and watch them fight each other instead of the system.*

Donald TrumpDon’t believe me? Remember that just a few months ago, one of Nixon’s advisors admitted that the war on drugs was invented to stifle black people and “hippies” who were fighting for equality.

Trump has just taken this to a new level. He’s feeding off the previously-quieter racism of white America. It’s a divide-and-conquer tactic: the anger of white americans is directed at people of colour instead of at the wealthy and the system.

Trump has very clearly and obviously incited violence, not just in passing but as a central part of his campaign strategy.

Then there is his “erratic” behaviour. His behaviour is not the behaviour of a person with mental illness. His behaviour is a lot more like an extreme case of a man-child who has always gotten his own way, never learned self-awareness, and never cared about other people.

Sure, he could be a sociopath, but even sociopaths can be raised to be pretty decent humans under normal circumstances. Given Trump’s self-centered attitude and privileged upbringing it’s a lot more likely that he was simply never taught to think about anyone but himself. That’s not a mental illness, it’s the natural (and terrifying) result of patriarchy, entitlement and privilege.

When we call Trump “crazy”, or speculate that he might be mentally ill, particularly in public, we gloss over all of this. We take the very real problems of our world – racism, capitalism, patriarchy – and scapegoat an illness.

When we call him crazy, we ignore the real issue, and we refuse responsibility for ridding the world of hatred.

But more than that, when the word “crazy” gets thrown around, we create stigma. We conflate illness with hatred and violence.

When the word “crazy” gets thrown around, we even risk inciting violence ourselves, by making it okay to hate people with mental illness. People with mental illnesses are at a greater risk of being shot and murdered by police others, in part because there is a huge misunderstanding of mental illness and intellectual disability in our society. Anyone who misuses any language around mental illness is guilty of contributing to this problem.

This is the reason that activists have been saying for years that it’s time to stop casually throwing around the words “crazy”, “insane”, “lunatic” and countless others. There are better ways to use language that do not marginalize people who have mental illness. The only people who should be using the word “crazy” is people who have mental illnesses when they describe themselves.

And frankly, it’s lazy to talk about insanity instead of hatred. The world is in crisis. There are not enough options on the table for the governance of this continent. There are better ways to go about this, and calling one powerful man a lunatic doesn’t help anything.

We have a responsibility to talk about what got us here, to this place in history. Not just if you live in the U.S., but everywhere. Why do people like Trump come to power? Because good people refused to have the hard conversations.

*To learn more about the connection between capitalism and the scapegoating of people of colour, I highly recommend the books Caliban and the Witch by Sylvia Federici and Dixie be Damned by Neal Shirley and Saralee Stafford.

Are you interested in learning more about how to combat mental illness stigma in your community? Consult with me

Photo by Gage Skidmore is licensed under CC BY 2.0.


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Your pro gun control rhetoric is dangerous for people like me

Last week, I read this column by Aziz Ansari in the New York Times about how Donald Trump makes him scared for his family. It’s an important message: people like Trump (and plenty who are less obvious and less powerful than him) make the U.S. more violent and less safe when they make it socially acceptable to be racist. It may not be safe to be a muslim in the U.S. right now, and that’s something that deserves a lot more attention than it’s getting.

And then I got to this part:

One way to decrease the risk of terrorism is clear: Keep military-grade weaponry out of the hands of mentally unstable people, those with a history of violence, and those on F.B.I. watch lists.

“Keep the guns away from the mentally unstable people.”

Let’s break this down.

First of all, I completely agree that keeping military-grade weapons out of the hands of people who might do violence makes sense. Buy why name the “mentally unstable”?

I mean, who really needs military-grade weapons anyway? Nobody needs them, unless you’re planning to commit murder. So why are they being sold at all? I don’t think I need to explain that further, because I think my readers (and Aziz Ansari) understand this argument.

So why say “mentally unstable”?

This idea gets thrown around all. the. time.  If you read the news at all, you should be familiar with the theory that mental disorders cause mass shootings, and if we just do keep the guns away from people with a history of mental health issues, the shootingss will stop.  But we know that is not actually true.  It doesn’t work that way.

Mental illness has become a scapegoat for systemic violence.”Mentally unstable” is not a diagnosis, or a medical term at all. “Mental disorder” is understood as a category, but it is so broad it’s almost meaningless, because it includes everything from anxiety to autism to psychosis, schizophrenia, and borderline personality disorder – all incredibly different, and all having different relationships with violence.

I believe that people talk about violence this way because they are looking for a simple and logical explanation for horrific events like the Orlando shooting. The problem with blaming the mentally ill, apart from the fact that it’s factually wrong, is that it distracts from the real problem.

In most cases, hatred is the real cause of violence. In the case of the Orlando shootings, it’s pretty obvious that homophobia played a big role. Of course, talking about homophobia and hatred is harder than blaming an illness, because homophobia is such a difficult thing to tackle, and it’s easier to blame an individual who is “sick”.

This scapegoating represents a misunderstanding of what mental illness is, and contributes to stigma. As one researcher said:

the distortion is leading to a stigmatization of people with mental illness, sometimes preventing them from seeking treatment or even becoming victims of housing and employment discrimination, which in turn often perpetuates the problem.

This is a direct cause of stigma. When we throw around the word “mentally unstable”, speaking as if it is inherently violent and worthy of trembling in fear, we are directly creating stigma.

This is the reason we are still afraid to tell our friends and family what we are really dealing with and what our real needs are. We are scared to ask for support through our real illnesses. This is the reason that so many kids are afraid to talk about their issues.

Just like it’s not okay to blame all muslims for the actions of a few, it’s also not okay to pin the actions of some  criminals on all of us who live with mental illness. Doing so makes us less safe.

I absolutely believe that guns should not exist except in some specific situations, and military-grade weapons shouldn’t exist at all. Of course, this is a tough sell, and it’s easier to just say “let’s not give weapons to people who are mentally ill”, than to have a complex conversation about hatred and violence in our society.

But equating mental illness with violence in the eyes of the law is a dangerous road. When we equate mental illness with being violent or dangerous, I’m afraid of what’s going to happen, of how mental illness could be further criminalized. I’m afraid that background checks, which are supposed to keep violent people from certain jobs, will hurt people who have no history of violence at all. That people with depression or autism won’t be allowed to cross borders, buy hunting rifles, or work with kids.

If I had a chance to speak with Aziz Ansari, I would let him know that if you’re going to write about mental illness, you need to know what you are talking about, and be specific. You need to think what you are saying and what kind of impact it’s going to have on people.

Learn to know the difference between mental illness and pure hatred, and what role they each play in society.

Otherwise you risk putting us in danger.

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A free resource on disability & the bible

The Student Christian Movement of Canada, a radical left-wing, political and inclusive organization of young christians, wants to think through disability, and wants to encourage Christians to do so too. So when they asked if I would help them create a resource on disability and the bible, I was only too happy to do so.

Click here to download a free copy of the booklet (some assembly required). It has seven days worth of short bible studies and discussion questions on disability and ableism. It is a great resource for church leaders looking for a theme or creating a bible study, or for groups who want to think about how their churches can be more accessible.  I think it is worth doing on your own, too, if you just want to think about the questions or journal on them. If you are using it, I’d love to hear about how.

The SCM also has a number of similar resources on different themes, including migrant justice, feminism, and peace and nonviolence. You can check them out here.

Happy reading!


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