Tuesday, August 12, 2014

There is No 'Face' of Depression

Like many people, I am deeply saddened that Robin Williams has died by suicide. Not because he was an amazing actor, whose movies I grew up watching, and whom I remember from so young an age that the name “Robin Williams” was synonymous with “movie star,” but because he was a person, a person whose depression was unbearable.

When people say they are surprised by Robin Williams' death, and to learn that he suffered with depression, I think to myself, “what did you think depression looked like?”

People who say “why would you be depressed if you’re rich?” or “why would you be depressed if you’re an academy award winning actor?” don’t understand depression.

And I can’t blame them; depression is really hard to understand.

This is the story I’ve been trying to tell for 15 years. That’s more than half of my life.

I have eight years of university education and am a “writer” and I can barely explain what depression is, how it affects me, or what it feels like. I’ve been reading self-help books since my tweens. I’ve voraciously consumed everything that might give me the tools and language to articulate the experience. And yet I still often find myself more able to respond to and ease the struggles of others than to take care of myself. I’ve often been the person people turn to when they’re struggling with something.

I can’t precisely articulate what depression is but I can tell you that “I have it.”

I’m not ashamed to tell you that I have depression, because I don’t think depression is shameful.

I was not bullied in high school. I always had friends and boyfriends. I had endless activities and opportunities to feel good about myself. I won many awards and competitions. I was student of the year when graduating junior high, high school, and at convocation for my undergraduate degree.

But still, I had depression. And I have it today.

I recently told someone who doesn’t know me that well (like, on a deep human being level) very casually that I have depression and anxiety. They seemed very surprised. I guess I don’t look like the face of depression. And most people dont expect it to be a casual revelation but, for me, that's step 1 of breaking down stigma.

Mental health advocates often make comparisons to the more straightforwardly “physical” ailments to help people understand mental illness. No one claims to not understand how cancer or diabetes might affect one’s life.

As such, I recently thought of a way to describe my depression that makes sense to my partner, a non-depression-haver. He does, however, have asthma.

I explained how just as sometimes his asthma is bad and very irritating, and sometimes it is barely noticeable and doesn’t bother him, he still “has” it regardless of the symptoms. The asthma hasn’t healed or disappeared just because he’s had a good month of minimal symptoms.

That’s what depression and anxiety are like for me. They aren’t gone just because my symptoms are minor and my treatments and coping mechanisms effective.  Over time, as I’ve gotten older, the intensity of my experience of these things has naturally subsided, which doesn’t happen for everyone, unfortunately. In fact, I’ve often wondered if it might be "harder" (if you can qualify and evaluate that sort of thing) to develop major depression in adulthood.

I can have days, weeks, months, of feeling nothing that is linked to anything beyond the regular everyday issues and upsets, but I know I still “have it.”

I’m more comfortable saying I have depression than I am depressed – the latter is too finite for me. Because, well, I’m not always “depressed.” Sometimes I rarely am. But I still have depression.

The outpouring of reaction pieces to Williams’ death was immediate and vast. I read as many articles as I could, but a few stand out.

This one by James Rhodes provides a powerful description of depression that resonated with me, as well as this observation: 

“When we misuse words like ‘depressed’ something insidious and destructive happens. They become part of our vernacular, their meaning is diluted, it becomes much harder to give weight and necessary attention to those who really are suffering from depression.”

This led to a virtual discussion with some friends, during the course of which I realized and stated that there is not one way to be depressed. If we see suicide as the ultimate expression of an inability to cope, that doesn’t mean many people, people for whom suicide may never be a consideration, aren’t depressed and hurting. There are many people who experience depression but may never really show its impact.

They might not miss work, or stop being “productive,” or lose friendships and relationships. They might, rather, push themselves to do and be more in order to cope. Their depression may never (or rarely) manifest itself in a way that resembles an inability to function.

There is a long continuum between “functioning” and “non-functioning” and there’s no clear consensus on what constitutes either state of being. I want people to realize that there is no definitive way to experience, and thus show, being depressed.

This article by Tom Clempson astutely observes that Williams died from depression, not suicide: 

“But, just as a Pulmonary Embolism is a fatal symptom of cancer, suicide is a fatal symptom of Depression. Depression is an illness, not a choice of lifestyle.”

Thích Nhat Hạnh talks of cradling your sadness and pain like you would a newborn baby. The idea behind this is to care for and be gentle to this part of yourself. You may sometimes hate the part of yourself that causes you to experience mental illness, but you should take care of it. You deserve to show yourself that compassion.

There is no one face of depression, but many. I am one of those faces.

“Hope is important because it can make the present moment less difficult to bear. If we believe that tomorrow will be better, we can bear a hardship today.” 
― Thích Nhat Hạnh

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

"Women Against Feminism" Really Need Feminism

I expect that this blog entry is likely preaching to the choir (odd reference for me as an atheist?) because I don’t anticipate that this scenario is currently happening:

Woman who believes she doesn’t need feminism: “Hmm, maybe I’m misinformed or am misunderstanding what feminism is. Maybe I’ll look for some helpful resources.”


“Oh! Now I realize what feminism’s all about and I’m in!” *thumbs up*

Yeah, probably not. Feminist blogs and magazines (including this column by Jessica Valenti) have extensively covered reaction to the imagined absence of a need for feminism in 2014 as seen in the very upsetting tumblr Women Against Feminism and other anti-feminist or “post-feminist” proclamations.

I expect that anyone reading this is well aware of my implied conviction in the need for feminism, as I’m undertaking a Master’s degree in gender studies, write a feminist blog and for a feminist online magazine, and, more importantly still, attempt to be a feminist activist in my daily life. Still, with so much attention lately on the problem of not only men’s rights activists, but fellow female-identified people disputing feminism as valid or useful or good, I thought now might be a good opportunity to explicitly decry those sentiments.

You all need feminism, even if you don’t realize it.

As a point of entry, I’ll respond to a few against feminismsentiments I’ve come across online.

“I don’t need feminism because I don’t hate men.”

How is this misconception even still kicking around the cyber gutter? It’s disconcerting to realize that anyone – any women – is conflating feminism and women’s rights with a hatred of men. I don’t hate men either. I love them. Especially men who are also feminists :)

“I don’t need feminism because my husband is my best friend and he treats me like a queen.”

BENEVOLENT SEXISM ALERT. OK, so feeling loved and revered is great but does he treat you like a person? I, as a woman person, like to feel loved and treated well by my male partner, but his respect of my personhood is much more important to me. Another poster on this tumblr said she doesnt need feminism because she likes to treated like a lady by a gentleman. Yes, and feminism will strip you of your coveted ladyhood!

And who cares about all those other women who are abused, raped, and murdered.
“I don’t need feminism because it’s just another trend.”

BAHA! Trends don’t span centuries, continents, and cultures. Feminism doesn’t hibernate and then flare up a decade later like bellbottom jeans.

“I don’t need feminism because I want my boys to grow up knowing what TRUE equality is.”

Yeeeeeah that would be feminism. Equality is kinda the whole point.

“I don’t need feminism because I am the sum of my deeds not just my body.”

And yet eons of patriarchy has often reduced you to your body and perceived biological difference and completely erased any interest in your deeds!

“I don’t need feminism because my husband and I respect each other. And I’m the breadwinner.”

And the work of feminists and women’s rights advocates has made it possible for you to work outside the home at all! Not to mention vote and be a citizen.

“I don’t need feminism because they reject femininity but try to feminize men, and demand equality but ask for special treatment.”

I can’t even. Ok, if I must: There is no correlation between feminism and rejecting femininity. Feminism isn’t about whether or not to wear pink and like flowers (which is, in itself, an asinine reading of what it means to be “feminine”). There is not one way to be feminine and redefining and challenging notions of how femininity and masculinity are constructed and reinforced is part of the point of feminism. 

Recognizing the rights of and valuing the needs of oppressed groups is not the same as special treatment. Groups and persons that have been historically and systemically denied rights (because of the privileges of non-oppressed groups and persons) deserve to have their needs addressed. Taking action to address gender stratification and make up for the unnatural (socially constituted) subjugation of women isn’t special treatment…ya fool.

I could go on but there are hundreds of these and it’s a bit painful. My main point is that many women, whether it be a celebrity who denies she’s a feminist or a woman who submits to such a tumblr, don’t seem to be making the connection between their perceived rights, freedoms, and lived experiences and the work that feminism has done. 

As women, we’ll never know what our lives would be like in an alternate universe had history proceeded similarly but had what we now know as “feminism” never arisen, never taken root, never had an impact. It is ignorant and naive that these women – the very persons that feminism aims to make recognized as equal persons deserving of respect and dignity – are so unaware of what feminism means and how it has served them. This isn’t my way of saying “feminism helped you, be grateful” – it’s not a debt repayment thing. Although, I do often feel quite privileged to have been born into this era of life on planet Earth as opposed to others.

Unlike men’s rights activism and the like, women against feminism disturb me on a deeper level. I’m used to (some) men being completely unable to recognize that feminism is not about, in and of itself, being divisive and pushing men down so we can “rise up” (and take over!) That’s utterly foolish. 

Still, I want to make a call to action to my fellow female identified persons and feminists to stop being afraid of being perceived as radical.

For years, my own feminism as an ideology was passionate but diplomatic to a flaw, so concerned about avoiding alienating others that I avoided confrontation, kept some criticisms to myself, and silently mused condescending critiques of the sexists I encountered but avoided engaging with. I can’t truthfully say I always speak my mind today (that would be a constant and unrelenting diatribe!) or that I don’t, almost daily, let something slide because I’ve decided it’s not worth my personal discomfort. 

Still, daily, although I live a life that enjoys several locations of unearned privilege, I recognize the faint odors of sexism, misogyny, and patriarchy around me.

Now, to conclude, I’m sending a big virtual bouquet to the local women with the St. John’s Status of Women Council who made their own, excellent tumblr about why they need feminism.

Feminism is not done.Its not outdated and its not finished. And if you or someone you know is ever having trouble with the definition of feminism, remember: