A Response To Countless Online Comments

Dear stranger on the internet,

You don’t know me, but I saw what you wrote about me today.
You wrote that you believe somebody should take me from my home against my will and lock me away, solely because I have a health condition.
You weren’t writing about me personally. It was much worse than that. You were writing about an entire group of people that I happen to be a part of. This group of people is estimated to include roughly 1 out of every 5 people in the United States, if not more.
You wrote this because you read an article about a man who did something terrible, and that man may have had a mental health condition. You seem to believe that mental health conditions cause violence, but that’s not true.

I don’t have much to say to you, but I wanted you to know that I saw what you wrote. I wanted to let you know that every time you say something like this, someone like me probably hears you. I wanted you to realize that this group of people you believe should be imprisoned almost certainly includes some of your friends, coworkers, and loved ones.

I hope someday you change your belief. I hope someday people like me can live freely, without having to fear being put on lists or locked up or forcibly drugged because of your fears. I hope someday we can talk openly about our health conditions without risking the loss of friends, employment, or educational opportunity. I hope someday we can all seek and have access to any and all the healthcare we might need, without having to worry about what kind of stigma might come with it.

Reminder: It’s Not About Mental Illness.

An overwhelmingly common reaction to violent tragedies, especially mass shootings, is to blame mental illness. There is an apparent belief that mental illness causes violence, and as a result conversations about the causes of violence and ways to prevent it end up centering on mental health care. There is a very big problem with this: mental illness does not cause violence, and perpetuating the myth that it does is actively harmful to people with mental health conditions.

Many people believe it is only possible to do such a thing if you are mentally ill. Committing violence, according to them, by definition makes you “insane.” However, mental illnesses are not defined by singular actions – they are actual real illnesses. We can observe their effects on levels of biochemicals. We can see evidence of them on brain scans. They are tangibly, physically real and are not just behaviors or thoughts. Furthermore, not everyone who commits a terrible atrocity has one of these illnesses; the overwhelming majority of violent crimes are committed by people who are not mentally ill, and the overwhelming majority of people with mental health conditions are not violent and are not any more likely than anyone else to commit a violent act.

Can mental health problems play a role in things like this? Sure. Do we need better, more accessible mental health care? Absolutely. Do mental health conditions cause acts of violence? Nope.

It doesn’t seem to matter how many times I explain that mentally ill people are far more likely to be victims of violent crimes than perpetrators, or that the majority of people with mental illnesses are no more likely to be violent than people without mental illnesses, or that the vast majority of people who are violent do not have a mental illness, or how much evidence I provide; many of the people I know still insist that mental illness is to blame. When I try to talk about how untrue this is and how hurtful it is to me personally, I’m often told that I’m “being too sensitive” and am generally dismissed. At times like this it often feels like people see me as less than fully human, or think that I am a violent outburst waiting to happen – just because I have an illness – and over the course of these discussions, I often hear suggestions that mentally ill people should be locked up, forcibly medicated, put on lists, or forbidden from having children (hi thereeugenics), and I find myself feeling not only emotionally wounded but deeply afraid for my own freedom.

On top of being hurt emotionally, I’m frustrated by the way blaming mental illness for violence in society seems to be somewhat disingenuous and little more than scapegoating. Assuming they were being sincere, you would expect people to follow up blaming such violence on mental illness with demands for better and more accessible mental health care – which we desperately need, and I would be thrilled to see happen – but nothing seems to happen after the finger has been pointed. While organizations and politicians are busy blaming mental illness for crime and violence, mental health care remains unafforablebudgets are often reducedclinics are often closed, and patients are often dumped – and this is hardly acknowledged when the next tragedy occurs and the finger pointing begins again. The people who are quick to blame mental illness for violence are usually nowhere to be found between tragedies and show very little interest in funding treatment or research, engaging in mental health advocacy and activism, or volunteering for mental health related organizations or treatment facilities. Honestly, they rarely seem interested in even showing care and support for the mentally ill people in their own lives.

It also disturbs me that it would be so easy for so many people to dismiss my second amendment rights while fervently defending those rights for themselves; if you are willing to say the second amendment doesn’t apply to me, what other constitutional rights and legal protections would you be willing to deny me? This especially troubles me because one of the primary arguments against gun control is the use of firearms for self defense – and mentally ill people are exponentially more likely than the general population to be the victims of crimes. The need to defend ourselves, in addition to the fear of being stigmatized or forcibly hospitalized, is another reason why mentally ill people may be further discouraged from seeking treatment by this rhetoric (and any laws based based on this premise) – especially when you consider that police often do not believe mentally ill people when they report crimes and frequently end up shooting the mentally ill people they come into contact with, especially if they are in crisis. I wholeheartedly believe it is possible to create reasonable regulations on gun ownership which may consider mental health status, but if we are going to discuss preventing mentally ill people from owning firearms we need to avoid making sweeping, stigmatizing generalizations, and we need to have this conversation with care. These other problems must be effectively addressed, we should be extremely careful about the precedents we set in the process, and we need to be aware that such restrictions will not solve the problem of gun violence in general.

Facing the reality that people who are not mentally ill, people who are largely “normal,” are capable of extreme violence can be difficult, but we need to face that truth. It can be comforting to believe that, with the exception of mental illness, humans are rational creatures – but we’re not. It can be frightening for people who do not have a mental health condition to imagine experiencing things typically associated with mental illness, like hallucinations – but many do – and those experiences do not make them dangerous or violent either.  Believing in a wall that clearly separates “crazy” from “not crazy,” and then blaming the people on the “crazy” side for violence, makes violence seem predictable and makes possible solutions to such violence seem rather simple (although often horrible), and this can restore the feeling of order and sense in the universe which extreme violence steals from us – but this is an entirely false sense of security. Tearing down that wall means giving up these inaccurate beliefs, accepting that you too may be more “crazy” than you’d like to admit, recognizing that that all people (not just mentally ill people) have some capacity for violence and that mental illness is not a sufficient explanation, and then considering new possible solutions – and that can be overwhelming, but it is the crucial first step towards truly solving the problem of widespread violence.

The fact of the matter is that there is no one single cause of violence, the underlying causes of violence are complicated, and reducing violence is going to be a long-term challenge. There is not going to be a simple solution. But the good news is there are already people working on discovering and studying the factors which can lead to violence and preparing the way for possible solutions. Some of those factors include the “frustrated entitled,” “toxic masculinity,” exposure to violence, and substance abuse. As we let go of our misconceptions about the causes of violence and improve our understanding of factors which are currently contributing to violence improves, we will get better at mitigating their effects and protecting future generations from them, and violence will continue declining.

While we’re at, hopefully we can work on reducing the stigma around mental illness by ceasing to perpetuate myths about mental illness and violence as well as improving representations of mentally ill people in media, and we can improve our mental health care system and encourage and support people in seeking treatment.

[This post is a partially a mashup/rewrite of my previous posts, Yes All Women and Why I Avoid Social Media After Tragedies.]

Yes All Women

A couple days ago, I made a Twitter to see how I was getting traffic here from Twitter (thank you for your support, Homeschoolers Anonymous; it genuinely made me feel like my voice actually matters, and I deeply appreciate it).
I had no idea I would be actually using Twitter, let alone that I would be using it so much, so soon, while crying my eyes out the whole time.

I’m not very good at this limited character thing, so I figured I’d take a break to gather my thoughts.
By now, you should have heard about the shooting in Santa Barbara.

Most of what I think needs to be said most has already been said on The Belle Jar. I’d especially like to highlight:

“We don’t know if Elliot Rodger was mentally ill. We don’t know if he was a “madman.” We do know that he was desperately lonely and unhappy, and that the Men’s Rights Movement convinced him that his loneliness and unhappiness was intentionally caused by women. Because this is what the Men’s Rights Movement does: it spreads misogyny, it spreads violence, and most of all it spreads a sense of entitlement towards women’s bodies. Pretending that this is the a rare act perpetrated by a “crazy” person is disingenuous and also does nothing to address the threat of violence that women face every day. We can’t just write this one off – we need to talk about all of the fucked up parts of our culture, especially the movements that teach men that they have the right to dominate and intimidate and violate women, that lead to this, and we need to change things. Because if we don’t, I guarantee that this will happen again. And again. And again.”

I’ve learned over the last year to avoid Facebook in the wake of these tragedies, because an overwhelming amount of people respond by immediately blaming mental illness. You see, according to some of these people, it is only possible to do such a thing if you are mentally ill. Committing violence, according to them, by definition makes you “insane.”
Look, I can’t actually explain how wrong and completely untrue that is right now. I just can’t even.  Maybe in a future post, but for now, I just want to say that it hurts. It hurts so much to see things like that and be left to wonder if these people, people I admire and people I care about and people I thought loved me, think that I am just violent outburst waiting to happen, just because I have an illness. It doesn’t matter how many times I explain that mentally ill people are far more likely to be victims of violent crimes than perpetrators, or that the majority of people with mental illnesses are no more likely to be violent than people without mental illnesses, or that the vast majority of people who are violent do not have a mental illness. It doesn’t seem to matter how much evidence I provide; they still insist that mental illness is blame. Then they suggest that mentally ill people should be locked up, or put on lists, or forbidden from having children (eugenics much?), and I find myself feeling not only emotionally wounded but deeply afraid for my own freedom.

I had already had kind of a rough day. You see, I got these text messages – the guy said it was a “wrong number,” but then kept texting because he was “bored, waiting for a friend.” Maybe this is weird, but I’ve actually had quite a few conversations with “wrong numbers,” so I didn’t really think too much of it and kept texting. Unsurprisingly, after revealing my first name (which is an extremely common woman’s name), he asked for “pics.” Not in the mood to attempt to educate a stranger on how this sort of thing can make people extremely uncomfortable, I simply politely declined and expected the conversation to end. Instead, he asked if I “wanted to make some money” and then offered me $700 to go shopping with him.
If you’re familiar with how sex trafficking tends to go down in the U.S., this is a giant bloody red flag. My inner alarm bells were screaming. And it occurred to me that this may not have been a “wrong number” at all – he may have seen my picture somewhere and tracked down my number, or he might simply be texting random numbers until he gets a response that seems promising. I imagined a younger, less informed person getting the same messages – say, an underage girl from a low-income family who knows her parents would never allow her to meet this person, but sees the chance to go on a shopping spree like she couldn’t even imagine, and who thinks this person just sounds friendly and generous. I imagined some girl who has no idea what she’s being lured into falling for this, and ending up in this guy’s car, and never coming home.
I won’t go into all the thoughts I had, all the possible courses of action I considered, from just calling 911 to just doing nothing and praying he was just a lonely guy with a lot of cash. I don’t have the energy at the moment to explain all the reasons why this was a complicated decision for me (maybe in a future post, when I’m not writing primarily for the purpose of processing my own emotions), but in the end I decided to contact the Polaris Project.

Then I wrote a post about it on Facebook, thinking my friends and family near the person’s area code should probably know somebody near them is doing this so they’re prepared if (God forbid) one of them or their friends or family members gets a similar series of messages. So that had been my day so far – my thoughts were already fixed on the particular dangers faced by women and girls and the ways in which we are devalued by society and the complexities of trying to solve this problem, and when I returned to my news feed after posting, the news of the shooting had hit. It felt like those texts had been some sort of sick inverted sort of synchronicity, like the universe was trying to warn me that the ugliness and awfulness was surging and about to hit.
I am shaken to the core of my being by this shooting.

One of the things that got to me most was this quote: “I will slaughter every single spoiled, stuck-up blond slut I see inside there.” When I read that, I thought of one of my best friends from high school. We were roommates for two years, and lived together for a time after graduating. She was in my wedding. When we met in high school, I was welcomed into her family’s home, spent holidays with them, and was shown genuine love and kindness by them that very few people have ever shown me. She has five younger sisters. All six of them are tall, thin, blond-haired, and blue-eyed. I tried not to picture it, I tried so hard, but in my mind’s eye they appeared, all standing in a row like they were at her wedding, and I pictured them in Santa Barbara as Rodger walked up. They are some of the kindest, loveliest people I have ever known – and I can’t bring myself to type what he likely would’ve done if they had been there, just because they were born into female bodies. I just can’t.

This is something I have been afraid was on the horizon for quite a while now, and I desperately wanted to be wrong. I am afraid that this is going to be just the first in a string of many mass shootings motivated by misogyny. I am afraid for my own safety – I will not let that fear silence me or keep me indoors or prevent me from living as I choose, because to do so would be to simply give up and give the people who would hurt me simply because of my gender what they want, and I cannot and will not do that – but I am deeply, deeply afraid. I feel like we are already living in The Handmaid’s Tale, or maybe The Screwfly Solution, or maybe both mixed together.

So I’m going back to Twitter, to read some more #YesAllWomen, because in the wake of this tragedy, in the wake of this violence which was explicitly designed to threaten and harm all of us and to destroy as many of us possible, I don’t know what else to do right now. All I know is that standing together and refusing to be silenced gives me some kind of hope. It gives me hope that we will keep fighting, and that somehow, we will find a way to survive this, and to end it. It gives me the hope that we will find a way to change this, because it must change. It must.

Sex Work and Suicide

Trigger Warning: Suicide, Online harassment, Victim blaming
If you are viewing this page on a desktop, you should be able to see a little worm on a hook to the left (with the current theme, at time of posting). If you continue reading and reach a point which is triggering for you, clicking the worm will take you back to the top of the page.

Perhaps you’ve heard about the death of Alyssa Funke.

It disturbs me that her death was framed as consequence of sex work, and that the harassment she faced is being dismissed by so many as an acceptable consequence of her work (three pages I follow on Facebook have shared this story; in all three threads, which are all on fairly feminist pages, people have commented saying “she could have just blocked them” and “she shouldn’t have been ‘bragging’ about being a porn star online if she didn’t want people to talk about it”).

Sex workers of any kind do not deserve to be harassed. If you don’t like what sex workers do, don’t use their services (no porn for you!) and leave them alone. It’s that simple. This victim blaming crap is garbage. Saying awful things about people is an awful thing to do, and if you say awful things about someone, you are being an awful person. What the person you are talking about has or has not done is irrelevant. Taking the time and expending the effort to bombard the person with your awfulness on social media makes you not just a normal awful person, but a consciously malicious and hurtful awful person.

It disturbs me further that the story of her death is being used as a platform by some people to condemn sex work and sex workers at large. Had Funke expressed a problem with the work she had done, this might be relevant – but to the best of our knowledge, she didn’t. She expressed a problem with the harassment she was subjected to, and further stigmatizing the field encourages this harassment. Don’t use her death to encourage the people who seemed to want her dead.
If you believe that sex work exists exclusively as the result of coercion, work to end that coercion and hold the people doing it responsible, and leave the workers alone. Don’t yell over them, don’t patronize them, don’t accuse the sex workers who speak out to say they love their work of lying or being unable to think for themselves – just focus on solving the problem you see, and leave them alone. Meanwhile, that’s not what this story as about, and derailing conversation about this tragedy to condemn the world of sex work does nothing for the deceased young woman and the people who love her.

What disturbs me most, and gets to me on a deeply personal level, is the willingness of people to dismiss all other aspects of Funke’s situation to focus solely on the fact that she suffered from depression. It’s as if suicide is seen as the expected outcome for people with depression, and worse, as if this outcome is simply accepted. Depression absolutely can lead to suicide – but the overwhelming majority of the time it doesn’t, so why are people (including the Stillwater PD) so quick to point at her depression as the singular explanation in this case, despite her parents insisting otherwise?
Depression alone does not automatically cause suicide. Depression feeds on all of the ugliness in your life and the world around you and fixes your attention on it until it feels like there is no goodness left and it feels certain that things will never change, and that hopelessness drives some people to suicide – but not everyone who commits suicide is depressed, and not everyone with depression commits suicide. Whatever other reasons Funke may have had to feel suicidal do not absolve the people who contributed to that feeling of their responsibility for causing her emotional harm.
It would be different if people were using the story of her death to highlight the importance of accessible mental health care and using this tragedy as an example of what can happen without access to adequate care, or to emphasize the importance of being considerate of the invisible illnesses that anyone around us could be suffering from at any time, but that’s not what I’m seeing. I’m seeing very little empathy for the suffering that Alyssa must have been going through, and very little discussion of what can be done to help those still living among us who are experiencing the pain of depression and other suicideality-inducing illnesses. I’m seeing a lot of people attempting to use her illness as a means of dismissing important discussion about the harm caused by online harassment or the harm caused by the stigma against sex workers. If these people actually cared about the suffering caused by depression and other mental illnesses, they would be talking about that suffering and those illnesses and the people like me dealing with them and the stigma that we face – but for the most part, they’re not. Because most of them don’t actually care. They’re just making excuses, and justifying the horrible behavior of a bunch of young people who apparently lack empathy and have a problem with women who embrace their bodies and sexuality, and avoiding their own responsibility for doing nothing to help her and all of the people like her who are still out there.
If you’re just going to yell “DEPRESSION!” without offering any help to the millions of people struggling with this illness or any comfort to the family and friends of this young woman, and then attempt to shut down our conversation and interrupt the process of mourning the loss of this beautiful life, please just go away. Just go back to ignoring us like you usually do. Meanwhile, we have stigma to fight and care to provide and lots of other important work to do. If anything, her having depression aught to make the torment she suffered at the hands of online harassers even more despicable. Emotionally beating on someone who cannot emotionally protect themselves due to an illness is essentially the same as physically beating someone who cannot physically defend themselves due to a physical disability. It’s despicable, and awful, and to use her illness to excuse the people who psychologically tormented her is disgusting.