Mental Health is a Privilege

Pic: Christian R. Linder (CC)

First, before anyone gets into a tizzy because of the use of the word “privilege,” let me excerpt from the introduction to the Checklist of Neurotypical Privilege Sarah Langston refers to in her piece:

… For those who find themselves feeling defensive upon reading, you are not alone. For most of us, this is a necessary part of the process of acknowledging and understanding privilege. Here are a few basic things to remember about privilege:

Privilege is not your fault. It is an artifact of systems that favor some people over others, systems that have evolved naturally to meet the needs of the majority, but have failed to provide adequate accommodations for those outside it. For more information on understanding and confronting privilege, please see this link.

Privilege is not, in itself, a terrible thing. Having any form of privilege does not make you a bad person. Just about everyone has some form of privilege. No, that doesn’t mean it all somehow “balances out.” A person can have, for example, white privilege, male privilege, class privilege, and heterosexual privilege, while still lacking neurotypical privilege. Likewise, not all autistic people have had the same experiences; other forms of privilege can act as a cushion against many of the harsher realities endured by those who belong to multiple disenfranchised groups.

The statement that privilege exists is not an accusation or attempt to blame. It is an invitation to see your experiences and the experiences of others in a new light. It is not an admonition to change the world, but a simple tool with which to begin considering if, possibly, some changes might be worth working toward.

That said, Langston writes at the Scavenger:

Dotted around the internet are privilege checklists covering an array of characteristics. Race, class, ethnicity, religion, sex and/or gender – almost every conceivable arena of identity is covered. These lists are designed as a discussion portal for folk who inhabit spheres of power in our society. Most of us could straddle more than one. I, for instance, possess white class privilege in spades.

Rather than listing forms of discrimination, these lists cleverly invert rhetoric so you instead read how the world favours you because of the way you are. From access to healthcare, to education, to the behaviour of others and more, privilege checklists force us to engage with the specifics of how the world is more accessible and liveable for us and not others.

Today I stumbled across a checklist for neurotypical privilege. Published on the autism blog Square 8, the list works through fifty ways in which life is easier if your brain is wired in a way that physicians would consider “normal”. That is, if you exist without any kind of neural distinction such as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, autism, aspergers syndrome, depression, attention deficit disorder and so on.

As I read through the Square 8 list, I felt myself getting choked up. Included were points like item #30 – “ No one speculates about whether I am competent to raise children based solely on my neurology”, and item #17 – “I can reveal my neurology to my boss and co-workers without fear of losing my job.” Here for the first time was an expression of what it has been like to stand on my tiptoes, peering through the looking glass at a life less vexed.

Living a non-neurotypical life

At the age of 19, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. I was born this way – I like to to think of myself as ‘neurologically distinct’. At the time I didn’t quite understand that this thing I ‘had’ was permanent, and wielded the power to destabilise every facet of my existence and even end it. I will soon turn 27, meaning I have been treatment compliant for eight years. I am still what would be termed ‘ill’ by many physicians and probably always will be to some degree.

Two weeks ago I made concrete plans to end my life, very narrowly averted by a parent. In the midst of a severe depressive episode, triggered by the emotional stress of a divorce, I grew frustrated and found myself exhausted. But by what?

For those of us with a ‘mental illness’ or a set of behaviours that are classed as atypical, navigating everyday life is tiring. In my case, the combination of orientation and treatment makes my life an often treacherous and arduous task to execute.

This is because I cycle frequently between a state known as hypomania and acute depressions, with co-morbid anxiety disorder. Sometimes these depressions hum at a moderate level but last for months, or they can be fast, hard and life-threatening. It is rare that I get a substantial plateau between the two.

Hypomania for me is characterised by periods of extreme exuberance, mental confusion, heightened senses, indiscriminate hyper-sexuality and inappropriate behaviour, ill advised spending, racing and intrusive thoughts, insomnia, rapid talking, body pains and shakes, muscular tension and spasms, grandiose plans, rash decision making and abuse of substances (particularly alcohol).

My depressive episodes are characterised by mental confusion, inability to cope with stress, “brain fog”, clumsiness, weepiness, acute feelings of insoluble distress and despair, self injury, inability to focus, a radically increased need for sleep, bone-deep fatigue, slowed physical movements, substance abuse, a non-existent libido and suicidal plans and attempts.

Anxiety disorder looks as it sounds – when it peaks, I find it incredibly difficult to leave the house, answer the phone, fill out forms, or function in social settings. I have panic attacks that pin me to the bed, paralysed, like a heart attack thundering through me.

Read more here.

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  • Calypso_1

    I’m inclined to think that many forms of neuro-atypicality are a privilege.

    • http://hormeticminds.blogspot.com/ Chaorder Gradient

      Hell yes. (but certainly not all of them)

    • TennesseeCyberian

      All of my brains are great balls of fire in the sky rockets in flight of the navigator see ya later.

      • Calypso_1

        How often have you been probed?

  • Syndicatalyst

    The description of your condition is so eerily close to my own it would depress the hell out of me were I not manic today. 

  • DeepCough

    Eugenics is as old as civilization, because civilization is eugenics. You don’t act a certain way, then you clearly are not fit to be a part of the body politic or social group at large, since there is something clearly “genetically deficient” about you. I find it sad that the 21st century gives more and more credence to the concepts of mental hygiene and behavioral health, because these philosophies are damnably fascist and patently racist by their very origins, and to this day, psychiatric labels like “bipolar disorder” don’t have any concrete scientific model which is scientifically reproducible under ideal conditions. The author of this article most definitely should be saddened by Square 8′s “Neurotypical Privilege” checklist, because I stared dumb-fucking-struck just at the first 12 points of this dogmatic mantra masquerading as credo of edification in the name of self-esteem. If you’re not secreting enough happy thoughts on a given day for some reason, or if you’re not doing well in a given environment, granted it’s not exactly your fault–it could be a lot of things–but I don’t see how someone’s “neurology” could be the problem without some definitive proof for such a claim. The author has made it quite clear that her “atypical neurology” is her religion, not a medical problem with a definitive medical solution, and I can’t help but fault that with current physicians, who would still claim someone as “ill” without taking even five minutes to even consider what is causing such a condition. The author isn’t doing herself or the “neurologically distinct” community any favors by writing this puke-enducing catharsis of an editorial by claiming promoting “neurotypes” as a status label when such a thing is DIAGNOSTICALLY UNVERIFIABLE.

    • Maunch

      Really great stuff DeepCough. You’ve got hold of important ideas. Only, “puke-enducing”  should be “puke-inducing.” My atypical neurology hates solecisms of any kind.

  • Obnubulator

    This smells like another NIMH scam: state the obvious in pedantic prose and hope the grant-money priests take a shine to your drivel. Want mental health? Get enough sleep, eat right, don’t fight with your mother too much. And, above all, respect the wise principle of GIGO (garbage in, garbage out) make sure the inputs you mentally digest are of high quality. No “Dukes Of Hazard” rerun marathons! Maybe a dip into the prose of Andrew Marvell and his coy mistress . . .

  • Ted Heistman

    Here is another useful definition:

    “Guilt tripping: A special kind of intimidation tactic. A manipulator suggests to the conscientious
    victim that he or she does not care enough, is too selfish or has it
    easy. This usually results in the victim feeling bad, keeping them in a self-doubting, anxious and submissive position.”

    from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Psychological_manipulation

  • Ted Heistman

    If I were you I would get off the drugs, and stop painting yourself as a victim. I was diagnosed with ADHD and have always been completely “non compliant” I refused ritalin after taking it for one day at age 8. I have a history of mental illness on both sides of my family. Schizophrenia, autism, Bipolar disorder, clinical depression you name it. Also a lot of really bright people. I think it kind of goes together.

     Despite your disclaimers, I think whole “you’re priviledged” approach is wrong and is just emotional manipulation basically. I think a lot of gifted Artists, writers and musicians were/ are bi-polar.

    Basically to be creative you need some kind of edge to get past normal conditioned thinking. Many Artists turn to hallucinogens. I think people that are not considered “neuro-typical” have a natural edge. I think its better to just own it, make it work for you rather than point out that other people have it better.

    Normal is boring. Its not better. Or maybe I am just being a Dick and I really should feel sorry for you, and take a moment to consider just how priveledged i am to not be Bi-polar.

    …nah.

    • Calypso_1

      Kay Jamison wrote a pretty good book on bipolar illness and artists called Touched with Fire
      But for every person that has creative output from the disease there are dozens that don’t and the suffering is horrid.  Life span is shortened (even once you remove suicide from the stats) and despite some other’s opinions on the subject it can be diagnosed using a number of techniques that are currently only used at a research level.  However, like many more ‘physical’ ailments where there are no lab tests or scans you are treated based largely on the manifestations of the disorder and its response to medications. 
      And yes, despite any romantic notions of what parts of the human experience this disorder gives access to, you should at least be the smallest bit grateful not to be bipolar.

      • TedHeistman

        Unless, I am. Which is possible. Listening to her descriptions.

  • DeepCough

    So what is your atypical neurology again? I sincerely hope it’s not Assburger’s Syndrome. :-|

  • http://buzzcoastin.posterous.com BuzzCoastin

    What we call ‘normal’ in psychology
    is really a psychopathology of the average,
    so undramatic and so widely spread
    that we don’t even notice it ordinarily.

    Abraham Maslow

  • Ceausescu

    This is the comment that I wrote on the original site. It didn’t appear yet, as it is “checked” by the administrators.

    “You said that the current society promotes conformity and punishes difference. But you don’t include the traditional medical system into your view.

     In my view, especially in the case of mental health issues, I think that traditional medicine, along with other institutions, authorities, and culture play a primordial role in sustaining this punishment of difference.

    Another thing that stroke me was the fact that you consider yourself different, but you still try to fit in this society that promotes conformity and punishes difference. That doesn’t make sense at all to me. And I’m sure it doesn’t make sense to you either. I think you trying to conform is a determinant in your anxiety.

    I don’t know if you’ve ever heard about cognitive dissonance. It’s when you have 2 paradoxical thoughts. In the example from above, it’s clear that it’s a cognitive dissonance. First thought: “This society punishes me for being different and rewards people that conform”. Second thought: “I have to try to fit this society because I don’t want to be poor and single”.

    And cognitive dissonance gives anxiety. Usually, people try to balance out their cognitive dissonance by modelling one of the 2 paradoxical thoughts. In your case, you probably don’t really get to a balanced view, because of the mood swings.

    I don’t want you to feel judged, but I think that your health “issues” are largely due to external factors and inability to adapt to the current society.

    I don’t like the values that this society promotes either. And I sometimes get instances of cognitive dissonance which make me anxious and sometimes depressed.

    Actually, before using drugs such as Cannabis ( almost daily ) and Magic Mushrooms ( once a month ), I had many mood swings including depression, mild hypomania and many other behaviors that traditional medicine would consider mental troubles.

    I can only imagine that if I were diagnosed with bi-polar disorder when I was 18-19, my ability to cope with myself and the environment would have escalated.

    However, I was lucky, as you said, and I met a girl who changed my perspective on life when I was 21. We’re still together now ( I’m 24 )

    And drugs too have given me a new perspective on life. Cannabis, for example, works as a regulator of neurotransmitters in the brain. It can also “expand” your mind by giving you different perspectives. Compared to magic mushrooms or Ayahuasca ( plant based brew made by shamans in the Amazon indigenous tribes ), it is a mild psychoactive drug. But any person reacts differently to it, so I wouldn’t be surprised if even Cannabis would help you.

    With regards to a “heroic” dose of mushrooms ( 7 grams ) or an Ayahuasca brew, I bet my life that it would help you.

    The only advice I could give you, based on my personal experience and knowledge, is that you should these “different” drugs. Natural drugs, to be more exact.

    I’d see Ayahuasca ( DMT brew made by shamans in the Amazon’s indigenous tribes ) or magic mushrooms as potential replacements for your current drugs.

    But you could first try Cannabis and see how it works if you never tried it, or haven’t tried it for a long time. It might amaze you.

    Even if you already tried Cannabis a long time ago and it didn’t help you, try it again with different expectations.

    And don’t conform. The urge to somehow conform and manage to live in this society is your smooth criminal.

    If I were you, I’d move to the Amazon forests for a period of time and live with the indigenous people from there. “Medicate” with Ayahuascas and learn basic survival.

    I wrote a wall of text so I’ll stop here.

    Conclusion is: you couldn’t adapt/conform to the current society/environment like the majority. The society then, with its culture and values, escalated your inability to adapt/conform.

    So:

    - don’t try to conform in any way, unless it seems natural and doesn’t create anxiety, haziness and all the symptoms that you described

    - try replacing your current drugs given by the traditional medical system with natural, psychoactive drugs such as cannabis, magic mushrooms or Ayahuasca

    - this society harmed you, so you might as well try live for a period of time in a different society with a different culture, values etc. The tribes from the Amazon’s forests are a good example.

    I wish to you cognitive balance.

    Andrei.

    P.S. Don’t feel as I judged you or something like that. My purpose was to bring you a different perspective and, hopefully, help you somehow.

    And please don’t denigrate my perspective. Even if you’re against natural plant based drugs.

    This denigration would be a defense mechanism in order to keep your current view of the world.

    • Ted Heistman

       Sage advice, take a shitload of hallucinogens when you are feeling isolated and alone and suicidal.

      • Calypso_1

        I did, but I wouldn’t recommend it for the gen pop. 

      • Ceausescu

        What’s the worst that could happen in your opinion ?

        • Calypso_1

          Carrying out a suicidal act – I know of several such cases.

          • Ceausescu

            Oh well. I thought you can’t really kill yourself if you’re paralyzed and tripping.

            But some are probably really strong :D

            However, I agree with both of you and I should’ve specified that such drugs should be taken under the surveillance of someone experienced.

        • Ted Heistman

           Ripping your friends heart and tongue out while he’s still alive? Of course, I don’t know if that guy was depressed, maybe he was just violent and weird. I dunno what the answer is. But I think Being labeled as mentally ill is bad, but then once people get on drugs they can’t always get off right away. But still its a self defeating mental construct for a lot of people and then it becomes there identity, But my sense is maybe they aren’t as bad off as they’ve been led to believe.

          But I fully endorse people taking responsibility for their own health/mental health. But it’s nice to have some friends guide you through things so you don’t have a horrible trip all by yourself. I took fake weed once when I was depressed and had a horrible experience.

          • Calypso_1

            “Ripping your friends heart and tongue out while he’s still alive”
            You know that was just some kink gone wrong.

    • Ted Heistman

       Yeah, maybe she could contact “Survival International” and live among the Yanomami. I’m sure that would help her with her mood swings.

      • Ceausescu

        Apparently, the Yanomami were well and alive. This is what a recent report says anyway.

    • Andrew

      > I don’t know if you’ve ever heard about cognitive dissonance. It’s when
      you have 2 paradoxical thoughts. In the example from above, it’s clear
      that it’s a cognitive dissonance. First thought: “This society punishes
      me for being different and rewards people that conform”. Second thought:
      “I have to try to fit this society because I don’t want to be poor and
      single”.

      I don’t see any contradiction between those two thoughts.

      • Ceausescu

         Maybe I should’ve been more clear.

        The first thought makes you dislike the society.

        The second thought makes you want to adapt anyway because you see no other alternative.

        Is it not contradicting to dislike something, and yet to do it ?

  • Waxcheese2

    Die cis scum