Project I am Not Ashamed

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If you have a mental illness, you know stigma. There’s stigma in the shame you feel if you say you have a mental illness. There’s stigma in the way people react if you say you have a mental illness. There’s stigma in the way mental health coverage is still something that needs to be fought for. There’s stigma in the way people blame you for your illness as no one would ever blame you for any other illness. When people with mental illness are blamed for every bad thing we can’t do anything about, you know there’s stigma.

We know a lot now about how to overcome stigma. We can see the way people who are gay, for instance, once stigmatized, are now more accepted. When I was a kid I thought homosexual people were strange and unnatural. I didn’t think I knew any. As I got older, and Gay people came out of the closet, I recognized homosexuality was really quite common. I knew dozens and, in knowing this about them, I discovered they weren’t strange or unnatural at all.

The same thing could happen with mental illness if mental illness came out of the closet, if the people who were mentally ill could be brave enough to say, this is a part of me. Then we could see how common mental illness is. We would see that people with mental illness are not raving lunatics, or scary gun-toting maniacs, but ordinary people with struggles. What person doesn’t have struggles? This is just a particular kind.

It is not my job to out anyone, nor is it to reassure you if you are afraid to out yourself. It’s a brave, brave thing to come out of the closet. It some circumstances, it may be dangerous and foolhardy. It may actually be crazy to say you’re crazy. But, for some people, it may be the right thing to do and the only way they can overcome their own shame and self-loathing.

That, apparently, is the case for Ross, a 38-year-old mental health advocate with Borderline Personality Disorder. Ross has come out of the closet to some extent (we, on the web, don’t know his last name). He has a plan to end stigma. Here’s his plan:

On Saturday, August 18th, 2018, we will go to the streets of our own community for 4 hours with a sign that simply reads “I have (your mental illness) and I am not ashamed. Break the Stigma #ProjectIAmNotAshamed.”

This is unquestionably the right thing to do for our society, but you’ll have to answer for yourself whether it’s the right thing to do for you. If you would lose your job, custody of your kids, or suffer any of a hundred other consequences of coming out of the closet, then please don’t do it. Other’s can blaze this trail. But, if the only thing that stopping you is fear or shame, then consider setting that fear and shame aside for a few hours on August 18th. It’ll be good for you.

If you don’t have a mental health diagnosis, but care about those who do, you can help, too. In the same way that family and friends helped to fight the stigma of homosexuality  by admitting they were connected, you too can come out of the closet. Just don’t violate the privacy of the person you’re trying to support.

As Ross says:

This event is not limited to those with mental illness. If you are not afflicted, your sign can read “I am a supporter of those with mental illness and I am not ashamed.”

For more information, go to Project I am Not Ashamed

 

How Big is the Brain?

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The Brain—is wider than the Sky—

For—put them side by side—

The one the other will contain

With ease—and You—beside—

 

The Brain is deeper than the sea—

For—hold them—Blue to Blue—

The one the other will absorb—

As Sponges—Buckets—do—

 

The Brain is just the weight of God—

For—Heft them—Pound for Pound—

And they will differ—if they do—

As Syllable from Sound—

 

Emily Dickenson wrote this. She had a big imagination, even though she lived a very restricted life, rarely leaving her bedroom in her parent’s house in a small town in Western Massachusetts.

To read more poems by Emily Dickenson, click here.

 

Reading for the Plot

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What do the flashbacks and nightmares of trauma victims have to do with the way we experience pleasure? Peter Brooks makes these unexpected connections in his essay, Freud’s Master Plot, within his book, Reading for the Plot.

A professor of literature at Yale, Brooks wanted to know why stories are a certain length. Why don’t we go directly from the beginning to the end and skip all the twists and turns along the way? Why is it necessary to have a plot? Brooks believes that he can explain with some help from Freud.

In Beyond the Pleasure Principle. Freud noted that, in their dreams, flashbacks, and patterns of behavior, trauma victims compulsively repeated their horrible experiences as if they were happening in the present, rather than remembering them as events of the past. If you believe in the pleasure principle, namely that people do whatever is pleasurable, you would not expect this. Freud developed his idea of the death drive in an effort to explain.

This is how the death drive works. Death, you see, awaits you. You prefer not to think about it, but it forces itself into your consciousness when you have a close call; a trauma, in other words. Your trauma made you experience something close to death, before you have had a chance to live life fully. You wish you had the sufficient vigilance to ward it off.

Having a death drive doesn’t mean that you want to die. Far from it. You know that you will die, but you want to do so on your terms. You attempt to master the inevitability of death by compulsively repeating the event that brought it to your awareness. This compulsion to repeat the trauma is to keep up the kind of vigilance which you think you failed to have in the past. You can’t take your eyes off of it, no matter how much you’d like, because of the threat it poses and the significance it has to your story. Flashbacks, then, are rehearsals.

Here’s where Brooks advances Freud and further develops the death drive. The moment you have a desire, you seek to extinguish the desire. When you crave chocolate, you mentally rehearse the eating of chocolate in the same way that trauma victims rehearse, or “remember forward”, their death. All desire, says Brooks, naturally heads towards quiescence, and all life heads towards death.

Turning to Brooks’ interest in reading: when you pick up a book, you soon find that the hero in the story has a desire. The boy desires the girl, the detective desires to solve the crime, the vampire desires blood. If the book hooks you, you soon have a desire, too: to keep reading until the book is done. A good ending achieves a sense of boundedness when all desires are resolved and all the loose ends tied up.

But there’s more, and this is why novels are long: not too long, not too short, but of a certain length. When you crave chocolate, you know it’s not that enjoyable to just cram it into your mouth at once. The craving can be enjoyable, too. If you look forward to the chocolate, delay your gratification; if you lick it, savor it before consuming it, then you enjoy it more.

This process is what Freud calls binding. The more you tease yourself with the desire, the more you rehearse its satisfaction, the more you tightly bind yourself to it. In addition to its original importance, the desire, once it’s bound, becomes invested with all the energies generated by delay.

When you read, you want the hero to be successful, but only after having adventures, suffering setbacks, and acquiring helpers. First, there’s the hero’s desire that drives the plot forward. Then, there’s the delay, the detour, the arabesque, the refusal of closure, the making of bad choices. This is what fills the pages in the middles of literary plots. Subplots, with their own system of desires, setbacks, and resolutions, contribute to the delay. A satisfying story, by teasing you with the ending, binds all of these elements together. In a good book, everything is there for a reason.

In summary, in real life, just as in fiction, whether there has been trauma in it, or not; life moves toward death. You know you’re going to die, but you want to die on your own terms, after having had a full life. A full life consists of the very same desires, setbacks, adventures, and delay we find in fiction. It is enriched by the subplots provided by our associates. An awareness of death adds a great deal to the story by bringing to mind what’s at stake. Trauma adds drama. The pleasure principle and the death drive coexist and cooperate in the developing and enriching of the good life, as it does in the developing and enriching of the good plot.

The ACE Study

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It makes no sense, but one of the most remarkable and important findings in recent psychological research hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves and still has not had much impact on the practice of psychotherapy. I’m talking about the ACE Study.

In the 1990’s, the CDC and the health care giant, Kaiser Permanente, teamed up to recruit more than 17,000 adult research subjects, who filled out a short questionnaire, asking about their adverse childhood experiences. That’s what ACE stands for: adverse childhood experiences. They then compared their answers to a list of common ailments. They found a very strong correlation between the degree of adverse childhood experiences and a decline in both physical and mental health for the person later in life. Continue reading