VOCAL Youth Create Wholeness is excited to feature two songs by Jay Jackson.
I’m not young anymore. I have accepted this—mostly. I mean, I do involuntarily tell cashiers “Bless your heart” when they (so infrequently) card me, and I creak like an old wooden table when I get up off the floor now. It’s obvious that I’m creeping up to the top of the proverbial hill, though according to friends, I’m “young at heart.” That’s just a nice way of saying I act my shoe size instead of my age, but I’ll take it. The point is that I’m older than someone you might expect to contribute to such a blog, which is intended to get the voices of the young with mental health disabilities out there. Well, mental health issues I have in spades and have had them for quite a length of time now, since I was young in fact, if I can ever be said to have truly felt young. This is why I decided to contribute: it occurs to me that as a youth with mental health issues, there can be very little room to actually feel or be young.
At almost 17, I finally came out to myself and decided that I was not going to Hell
because I am gay. Shortly after this, I was outed to the general high school population, creating a whole new set of problems, but this initial personal acceptance came on the heels of at least five years of intense and damaging issues stemming from a very specific type of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder called scrupulosity. (Basically, it is a form of OCD that is centered in religion, and though some mistake it as simply hyper-piety, it is much more serious.) From around age 12, when I discovered my burgeoning lesbianism, I had attempted to “pray away the gay” and scourge the “evil” out of my adolescent soul with extremely structured and controlled schedules, constant prayer and scripture reading, and what I like to call being the terminally redeemed. I probably could have won some sort of award for the number of altar calls I answered in those years. I shudder to think at the rate I was saved. I got very little if any sleep, as dreams offered too much opportunity for slippage into that pit of sin. I almost drove a very dear (and very out) friend absolutely bonkers trying to save him as well. There were several pathetic and unsuccessful suicide “attempts,” and to this day, I’m not sure anyone really knew what was going on as OCD sufferers learn early on to conceal, conceal, conceal. As you can see, my teenage years were tumultuous at best and torturous for the most part; add in the family drama, clinical depression, and manic depression, and well, you get the point. But that isn’t really what I meant to talk about here.
In the midst of all this, I was a teenager. According to young adult novels, I should have been most worried about when my period was going to show up or whether the cute boy three rows over in math was looking at me or not. I was not, from all accounts, supposed to be doing the math on how many pills would kill me but not make me throw them back up. I was also not supposed to be rocking back and forth at 3 am clutching a Youth Bible, but I was doing all these things and so much more. I did not have time to feel or be young in between scriptures and prayer and your basic freaking out. Had anyone—parents or otherwise—realized what was happening at the time and gotten me some help, it’s likely that I could have enjoyed my youth more—or actually had one. However, I can remember very clearly overhearing the hushed tones of discussing someone who had (horrors) seen a psychiatrist or started taking meds of some kind. I would never have thought of saying to my mother, “I’m suicidal.” or “I can’t breathe if my papers are out of order.” or “If I don’t read that page 77 times without an error, my baby brother will die or get sick.” There was (and still is) too much attached to that idea of being “crazy” or damaged in some way.
For someone young, the stigma can be even worse, not just because let’s face it, high school is an evil place a lot of the time, but for so many, any problem can be dismissed as “oh, they’re a teenager.” or “It’s just their hormones.” Youth are not taken seriously, and by extension, their problems are not taken seriously either. So, you have 12-year-olds who are forced to deal with problems for which 30-year-olds have to seek professional help. There’s no possibility of a childhood or feeling young. This next statement dates me horribly, but if I had had access to the web communities and blogs around now back then, I might have had a very different experience. The ability to name and discuss one’s “insanity” makes all the difference in the world. So, I make it a point to say now what I could never say then: I have problems, world. Serious problems that are not a result of hormonal imbalances or my age. Help would be nice, but a sympathetic ear is even better. Peace.
by Dawn. Dawn blogs at The Askew Police.
When I first started working with VOCAL, one of the first things I asked was “How do you involve people with many different kinds of disabilities? Do you do cross-disability advocacy?” For me, “cross-disability” is more than a buzzword or a form of activism – it is my life. In addition to mental health disabilities, I also have physical and developmental disabilities that affect my mobility and concentration, among other things. One of the things I have learned in meeting other people with disabilities is that I am definitely not alone. Many people deal with multiple kinds of disabilities and people with mental health disabilities face additional challenges when getting treatment or support for their other disabilities, just as people with physical, developmental, and other kinds of disabilities face additional challenges in mental health recovery.
In activist and advocacy movements, we are often asked to leave all of our other identities behind. If we are working in mental health movement spaces, when we bring up issues relevant to our other identities – like discrimination against people with physical disabilities, or sexism, racism, ageism, or any other kind of discrimination – we are often told that we are ‘diluting the message.’ The same thing happens in other kinds of disability movement spaces when we bring up discrimination against people with mental health disabilities and various other kinds of discrimination. And yet – if we really want to transform ourselves and our communities, we have to acknowledge that we are not neat little boxes. We are wonderfully messy beings with all different kinds of identities that make up who we are, and we can’t neatly extract any one piece of ourselves and just be that. Especially when discrimination against us makes us reluctant to speak out in movement spaces. We are silenced and erased enough as it is.
There is a particular history of tension among mental health communities and other disability communities, especially the developmental and intellectual disability communities. The voices of people with mental health disabilities are often othered with labels like ‘insane,’ ‘crazy,’ ‘lunatic,’ ‘addict,’ etc. and to build solidarity with the mental health disability community is seen as risking legitimacy for other kinds of disability movements. Many people with disabilities say things like ‘we aren’t crazy!’ to differentiate themselves from people with mental health disabilities as though having a mental health disability is a bad thing. Mental health disability history and information is often left out of disability studies and disability theory. While many people are beginning to understand physical, intellectual, developmental, and other kinds of disabilities as simply different ways of being in the world rather than as problems or as something broken that needs to be fixed, mental health disabilities are often left out of discussions and analyses around the social model of disability.
Likewise, mental health disability communities sometimes go to great lengths to differentiate mental health from other kinds of disabilities, saying things like, ‘having a mental health disability does not mean you are retarded or crippled!’ People with developmental and intellectual disabilities have gone to great lengths to educate on how hurtful the use of the word ‘retard’ is, and we are working very hard to have it removed from official language on disability. ‘Crippled’ is also a word that is often used to bully people with physical and developmental disabilities, and when used in this way – to differentiate between disabilities – it implies a value judgment than mental health disability is somehow better than other kinds of disability. Many people with other kinds of disabilities face barriers of accessibility in mental health disability movement spaces. An unqualified or single-model emphasis on recovery in mental health disability communities can be alienating for people who were born with a disability or who have a lifelong disability.
And yet – while we spend a lot of time attempting to differentiate our communities from one another, there are SO many challenges that we face in common, things like
- Employment discrimination
- Lack of access to education, or being marginalized and pushed out of the education system because we learn in different ways or at a different pace
- Lack of access to spaces that are only set up for people who are ‘able-bodied’ and ‘able-minded’
- Discrimination because of how we appear, are perceived, act, and interact
- Increased rates of homelessness and poverty
- Being subjected to harsh, painful, and unnecessary medical tests and treatments, sometimes against our will
- Being told we are broken and in need of fixing
- Being told we will never be ‘normal’ and that ‘normal’ is the only acceptable way to be
- Being told we cannot make our own decisions and have no say in our lives
- Being institutionalized and told we cannot live independently or that we cannot participate in our communities
- Increased likelihood of being sexually abused, sexually assaulted, and physically abused
- Denied agency
- Denied the ability to fully express ourselves
- Denied the ability to have safe, consensual, and fulfilling romantic and sexual relationships
- Being infantilized/being treated as though we are children no matter our actual age
- Having our bodies and minds viewed only as medical objects rather than as human
- Being told we cannot be beautiful, attractive, or desirable
- Being dehumanized
To me, “creating wholeness” is about integrating all of our identities and being in the world fully as ourselves – not having to hide or partition ourselves to participate in our communities. Obviously every movement cannot tackle every single issue relevant to other specific identities – so it is not the job of mental health activists to do the work of other kinds of disability activists, or vice versa. But in order to transform ourselves and our world to break down the issues I listed above and all the other problems we face, we must make our movement spaces and ALL of our spaces safe and hopefully life-affirming and empowering for everyone. That is what it means to create wholeness.
What does creating wholeness mean to you? What things do you think people with mental health disabilities and other people with disabilities have in common? When and how can we work together to bridge the gap in our communities?