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(Please Don't) Be Inspired

June 2018

I've been caught off guard a few times now, by people revealing that they find me somewhat inspiring. I haven't (yet) completed any amazing works of art or anything like that. They mean the fact that I live with suicidal ideation and have not only survived thus far, but openly talk about it with the intent of breaking down stigma and barriers for other people living with mental illness.

Living with BPD I have an innate sensitivity to human interaction - to words, gestures, looks - and I have to spend a lot of time working on naming the emotions that arise within me as a result, and working out why. Being thought of as 'inspiring' makes me uncomfortable, and I feel it is important to share the insights as to why, which come from years of research on the subject of intersectional mental health equality.

Inspiration comes from separation. From being so far apart from something you can barely understand it. I find the Sistine chapel inspiring, and circus contortionists too, because I would never want to spend years of my life staring at the ceiling, after many more spent mastering painting - nor exhorting my body to fit into a suitcase for the fleeting entertainment of others. The fact people do so makes me, in that moment, feel smaller somehow, but in a beautiful way - I guess I'm describing a sense of awe. But at least these are choices that have been made freely, with the aim of exploring the limits of beauty, of the human body and mind. That is inspiration.

Disability is not inspiring

There are some things that are well known in disability circles. A big one is that it is ableist to find wheelchair users innately inspiring, simply for existing and getting on with their lives. Or for racing in marathons. Or for anything else that abled people do routinely. To think so is an acknowledgement of 'otherness', that you see disabled people as different, 'less-than'. 'Inspired' in this sense means, 'if they can do that, what can I do?'

I should add that many of us acknowledge the word 'Disabled' to mean disabled by a society that could accommodate us but simply chooses not to. The opposite of this, abled, refers to people who benefit from normalisation and privilege because of the way society is constructed - this includes neurotypical people. An example of this privilege would be a cheerful-presenting person getting a job over someone who does not present that way. A cheerful demeanour is not actually necessary for the vast majority of jobs and yet they will stipulate it anyway - this is ableist discrimination against neurodiverse people.

It shouldn't be inspiring for disabled people to do the same things as abled people do, because it shouldn't be more difficult in the first place.

Why I speak out

I didn't choose to be this way; it happened to me. BPD is caused by emotional neglect and emotional abuse in childhood, and, as these things are far more common than BPD itself, it is thought that this combines with certain biological emotional sensitivity or genetic traits which reduce resilience. Too many years of unnoticed, untreated depression and anxiety seem to have rewired my brain into survival mode - which simultaneously keeps me alive but almost wholly unable to experience the joy that other people seem to bring about with ease. This is known as anhedonia, but there are many other symptoms too, which I shall not go into this time. Is experiencing a needlessly joyless existence inspiring? because It doesn't feel it should be.

So, not only am I saddled with a wholly preventable mental illness, but I have to constantly fight against the stigma and discrimination of a PD label. Perhaps this is what is inspiring? MH equality activism is a lonely battle, and far behind other movements. There is no #CrazyLivesMatter, no Mad Pride. I simply don't have the option of not doing it, so how is it inspiring?

Ah, I see now. Being open about mental illness it itself a taboo, with huge social penalties. I've been told i'm brave for speaking out. But I don't have a 'hidden' mental illness, I don't have the luxury of being neurotypical-passing. I shouldn't really deem any mental illness 'luxurious', especially as passing as neurotypical requires expending huge amounts of mental energy, which itself contributes to mental distress. However it also passes the stigma onto people unable to present as 'normal'. The choice to 'come out' is a personal one, with so much at stake. I already pay the ultimate social penalty, and I don't have anything left to lose. Is this inspiring too?

What I mean is that you can see my crazy, on my arms, in my eyes, in my interaction. If you think it's difficult having a hidden mental illness, how about a visible one? One stigmatised so much even within the medical community that you are unable to access treatment at all? Because your kind are deemed not valuable enough to waste resources on? One where you lose your friends, your family, your employment, your entire self, everything? Where you are strapped down, tied up, injected, locked up, criminalised, abused by the state, simply for being unwell? And then declared fit for work anyway, and spend time in hidden homelessness? Where you spent over a decade trying to access treatment and remain untreated to this day? Does this inspire you? How can something so needless be inspiring in any way?

Don't get inspired, get active

I am reminded of a book (which I highly recommend) by psychologist Viktor Frankl, who survived Auchwitz and other concentration camps, and created a new type of meaning-based therapy as a result. The book, 'Man's Search for Meaning' explores mental distress and suffering. It argues that suffering itself can have meaning, and that with meaning, mental distress can be overcome - but only if the suffering is entirely unavoidable, and all steps have been taken to prevent suffering in the first place.

Most mental illness is a symptom of an unequal, unjust society - not an innate flaw in character, not 'just a chemical imbalance in the brain'. It is avoidable, and living with avoidable suffering is not inspiring. It has no meaning, it just 'is'.

I don't want you to find me inspiring for what I've survived. It implies it is somehow worth it. I want you to get angry about what I've been forced to endure, and what millions more people endure every day. I want you to channel that anger into action. I want neurotypical people to become aware of, and to break down, the barriers that they create for the neurodiverse. I want those hiding their mental illness to be able to free themselves from their heavy mask. I want everyone to fight for MH equality, not just the most vulnerable and the least likely to be heard.


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