Mental Illness, Autism, and Suffering

The other day, I read this excellent blog post by Mark Dominus. This post, Mental illness, attention deficit disorder, and suffering, is actually a response to another post. This original post is about how the author, Freddie DeBoer, believes that Today’s Kids™ think mental illness is too trendy. DeBoer posits that those with “mental illnesses” are becoming more and more proud of their conditions, and that this turn around is unhealthy, and ultimately unhelpful. Dominus offers a well thought out response, and states that some of what the original author calls “mental illnesses”, are only so to the extent that society defines them as such.

In this post, I’d like discuss, much like Dominus did, how the suffering of my “illness” is caused more so by extrinsic reasons, than it is by intrinsic ones.

Some Caveats

I’d like to start by saying that DeBoer does have some fair points. First and foremost, there definitely is a trend, in the statistical sense, that more and more people are “coming out” as neurodivergent (ND). I’m also inclined to agree that the subject of DeBoer’s article, Marianne Eloise, a well-off and privileged woman, is not the best role model for the ND community. Lastly, I’m of the opinion that not all “illnesses” are equal. Some truly are illnesses. As such, some of the illnesses that Ms. Eloise seems to suffer from are not ones that I would consider praise worthy. That said, while celebrating such illnesses may not be helpful, I do not believe that condemnation is entirely helpful either.

“Illnesses” And Illnesses

I would never make the bold claim that there are no mental illnesses. Of course there are conditions that cause intense intrinsic suffering. Bipolar disorders, schizophrenia, and depression, to name a few. But this post of mine intends on focusing on “illnesses”, here defined as; “conditions that cause society to treat ND people differently, or causes ND people to be affected by society differently.” Differently from whom, you might ask. From self-described “normal” people, of course. People who do not claim to have ADD, ADHD, Autism, BPD, OCD, chronic memory issues, etc.

I assign the term “illness” to things such as attention deficit issues, or autism, because it can often be the case that people “suffering” from these things feel no different from their peers, save for a different set of priorities. Why is it a “disorder” to be unable to focus on the same task for 8+ hours. I would ask, in what way is that behavior normal? Even 3+ hours on one task is too long, if you ask me. Does that mean I “suffer” from attention issues? No, I just like to do more things.

Autism And Me

Am I Autistic? I believe so. I’ve yet to obtain an official diagnosis, but I have no doubt that given the right doctor, I would be given one rather quickly! Furthermore, I don’t feel compelled to get an official diagnosis, because for me, it’d just be confirming what I already know.

Just by meeting me, though, say for an hour or so, you might not guess that I am autistic. I’ve worked hard over the years to make sure that I appear as “normal” as I can, but there are still tells. It wasn’t until my early 20’s that I finally learned how to make eye contact with those that I speak with. I can finally restrain myself from fidgeting with my fingers while I talk to people.

I do, though, still speak with rather rigid and formal sentence structures, or use words that have long left my peers’ lexicons, or stand with a stiff posture. In private, I like to make weird noises, or say the same words and phrase over and over, sometimes for hours. So what, though? Maybe I’m just weird.

I think what draws the line here between “weird, quirky guy”, and autistic, is compulsion. I don’t pontificate to act superior. I do it because my brain says to do it. I don’t over-explain the simplest of things because I’m an asshole. I do it because my brain says to do it. In many ways, I do not act the way I do, because I choose to, but rather because I am forced to.

Do I Suffer?

This question has been on my mind a lot lately, even before reading Mr. Dominus’ post. While I’m still figuring out in what ways, I would say that, yes, some days I do suffer. But, I don’t feel that I suffer because of my mannerisms, my posture, or my speech patterns. I feel that I suffer because I live in a world that doesn’t play by the same rules as I do.

Speaking in D&D terms, I would consider myself Lawful Neutral. I see life as being guided by a set of “laws”, and these laws are to be considered binding. Now, I don’t always agree with what laws are just, hence the “neutral”, but typically any laws which respects the right of an individual to live a happy and safe life are ones that I would consider good. Even ones that I don’t like, but ultimately serve my community, are just. Further, any laws that respect one’s personal space are good.

I suffer though, because it made clear to me every day that a significant portion of the population, at least my nation’s population, simply do not think the same. To me, the rules of the road are sacred. Go the speed limit. Use your turn signal. Do not cut other people off. These are all rules that we (should) all know. Yet I can’t drive two miles without seeing at least one of these rules being ignored, forgotten, or even worse, intentionally broken. America’s thought process for driving rewards breaking the laws, and this simply wears on me. Why do other people care so little for the safety of those around them? I do not understand, and this hurts me.

I suffer because people can’t drive “correctly”. I suffer because people dawdle around in a grocery store aisle, ignoring that people are trying to get by them. I suffer because people gladly take away others’ rights, and then pat themselves on the back for being “heroes”. I suffer because I am very aware the actions of those around me, and how it affects other, and those these keen observations may be because of my autism, I would argue that it is not the fault of the autism, but rather the fault of the actions of those around me.

I am not killed because my heart stopped. I am killed because my enemy has plunged their sword through my heart.

Who bends for whom?

[…] in fact the pain of mental illness reliably makes us more selfish, more self-pitying, more destructive, and more pathetic. To understand that and to accept it and to quietly go about life trying to maintain peace and dignity is, I think, the best possible path for those with mental illness to walk. Freddie DeBoer

Much like DeBoer, I actually do hold a self-flagellating view of my autism. I have long held the belief that, “I am different from everyone else. It is my job, and my job alone, to conform to society.” To this day, I do still largely stand by that principal. But, is it truly healthy?

Bending over backwards for society has served me well. I have a nice career going for me. I have friends at work with whom I can have “normal” conversations with. I have an apartment, and pay bills. All “normal” things, that I have worked hard to maintain. All “normal” things, that “normal” people can supposedly just do, and never think twice about.

I’ve been told before that it’s so impressive what all I’m capable of; how much I’m capable of keeping up with. But all of that is in despite of society. All of that is hard work that is made hard, not by myself, not by my own shortcomings, but by the world at large forcing me, and other ND people, to work harder than the rest.

Accountability and Stigmatization

I don’t think that DeBoer is wrong that there can be a conflation of accountability and stigmatization in some parts of the ND community, but I do think he all too readily discounts the calling out of stigmatizing behavior as simple whining.

I have known a handful of people in my short time on this planet who simply cannot remember some things. Be it facts about friends you might expect someone to remember, dates and places of upcoming events, or even facts about their own lives. No matter what effort they make, the information just leaves their heads shortly after hearing about it. Now, a key point is in whether they make an effort to remember. Whether you as an outside party can see this effort is not relevant. Only the individual can truly know how much effort they put into something. With that said, I would say that it is stigmatizing behavior to tease, scold, or otherwise belittle some such person for consistently forgetting things. I would argue that, after so many incidents, the onus is on you to know that this person will forget things.

I have also known people who may be a different person from day to day. Conditions such as bipolar disorders can cause people to have cycles where they may act significantly different than the person you met them as. Part of the reality is that these cycles may cause them to be very mean. Now, is the afflicted in control of this. No, not per se. That said, if they say or do hurtful things, they are still responsible for their actions. I would argue that it is not stigmatizing to say something like, “Hey, during this past cycle, you’ve been really abusive.” Further, I would not say it is not stigmatizing to leave your partner if they continually hurt you during cycles, and make no effort to right the wrongs they committed during said cycles.

It’s stigma, in other words, to treat those of us with mental illnesses as anything else than wayward children Freddie DeBoer

Yes, it is stigmatizing, because we aren’t “wayward children”! ND people are just as human as neurotypical people, and deserve the same respect. Patronizing, and infantilizing ND people does nothing to promote responsibility and accountability, but rather serves to ensure that none will be had. If you treat people like children, they will act like children, and then what right do you have to be upset with how they act.

The line in the sand

It is in my opinion that letting someone know that their actions affected you is not stigmatizing their condition, even if the condition is to blame. Holding someone accountable is not stigmatizing. What is stigmatizing, though, is to belittle and to berate someone for the actions caused by their condition.

Not Stigmatizing

  • “Your behavior that past few months has really made me question this relationship.”
  • “I’m very hurt you didn’t remember my graduation.”

Stigmatizing

  • “You always clap when you close the car door. That’s weird.”
  • “Why can’t you just do your homework? Are you stupid?”

Closing thoughts

Sometimes, people would prefer for you to think of their conditions as debilitating hindrances for which they may demand special dispensation. And sometimes they would like them to be seen as positive personality quirks that make them unique. Freddie DeBoer

I do not believe these two wishes to be mutually exclusive. Our “conditions” can be debilitating, but for many ND people, it’s only to the extent that everyone else makes it so. Our “conditions” can be nothing more than personality traits, but only if we, the individual, and we, as a society, allow them to be.

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