“I do overshare, I think it’s my way of trying to understand myself” – Carry Fisher via Fresh Air on NPR
I’m always surprised when people do not know that Carrie Fisher was bi-polar. I know this because she was a recognized advocate of mental health issue awareness and mental health advocacy played a big role in her writing. This was not some obscure fact relegated to the personal life section of Wikipedia; it was a huge part of who she was a person. I belief that the real reason this is hardly discussed is because we live in a society that is not equipped and does not want to discuss mental health issues. It is also my belief that this is grounded in ignorance, shame and fear.
It is really no surprise how ignorant we can be about neurological or mental conditions. A lot of popular knowledge is informed by the narratives portrayed in the media whether it is schizophrenia in a Beautiful Mind or autism in Rain Man or depression in The Virgin Suicides, the list is long. Unfortunately, many of these characterizations tend to focus on certain aspects of these conditions for dramatic effect while greatly diminishing many of the nuances that come with being or having any of these conditions. Take for example the character of Sheldon Cooper in the Big Bang Theory. The character seems to be overwhelmingly based on a caricature of someone with what used to be called Asperger’s Syndrome. His fixations, awkwardness and social limitations are played for laughs. I doubt that there are many, if any, that watch the show that think about how these traits can be isolating factors for a real life Sheldon or how that isolation can lead to feelings of loneliness and depression. It’s not funny folks, no matter how much Jim Parsons makes it seem so.
In the world we live in, portrayals in popular culture inform how people see others. For mental health issues they create binary stereotypes which usually reduce a condition to a few characteristics. Unfortunately this can lead to people asking me if I am good with numbers, if I can count cards, and all sorts of weird shit. I’m sure schizophrenics get asked if they see things and people with depression might be asked if they can’t get out of bed in the mornings. Stereotypes are abundant and we are usually judged based on them and that is terrifying. I find that having a condition can lead to a lot of thinking about how it can be an obstacle for getting or keeping a job, finding a significant other, maintaining friends or just being happy in general. This is why many, if not most, people with these conditions will go to great lengths to hide them. It is well documented that people on the spectrum can also suffer from anxiety and depression; this is one of the many reasons why, trying to hide who you are all the time is exhausting. People should really avoid these comparisons and try getting to know the person like they would anybody else. In some instances this may require some patience, like with me, but I promise it can be very rewarding and eye opening.
The commoditization of mental health terms also makes these misunderstandings worse. Think of all the terms that are thrown around with little or no regard for what they mean to the people who have these conditions. Really think about it, how many times have you heard or said “oh man that guy is a total psycho” “wow that dude is nuts, like he’s bi-polar or something” “sorry I had a bit of an autistic moment there” not to mention the hundreds of times where people throw around the words depression or anxiety, severely diminishing these serious conditions. I think that the colloquial use of these words underscores our basic misunderstanding of neurological conditions and can perpetuate myths and stigmas about the people suffering these conditions.
Finally, there is no way to speak about ignorance without talking about how most people get their information today: the internet. When we want to know something we ask Google. Many times people will read whatever comes first and take it at face value. Because I have a research background I tend to question sources a lot. I usually try to get my information from sites that have legitimate credentials. Whatever I read, I read critically, especially if it is an opinion piece rather than research or science based. Unfortunately this is not the case for most. Some people will read articles in blogs about how autism is caused by vaccines and decide not to vaccinate their children (vaccines don’t cause autism by the way). Others may read an article with rigid descriptions of autism and think anyone on the spectrum is some sort of savant or robotic person, when in reality every autistic person is unique from every other one. Inform yourself properly or, you know, just talk to someone on the spectrum and learn what it is like from the source.
After I was diagnosed, I told someone very close to me of the diagnosis. This person rejected the notion that I could be on the spectrum because, as she said, there was nothing wrong with me. She went off and read some stuff online. Later she couldn’t reconcile what she read in a few blogs with who I told her I was. Then she found a very patronizing video that broke down what a person with Asperger’s is like in about 6 minutes. It featured an anti-social child that spoke with great difficulty, had absolutely no social skills and had to be treated differently to get by. She captioned the video with, this is not you. No, it’s not me. It’s someone on another point in the spectrum. I tried to explain to no avail. Watching a 6 minute video on Asperger’s does not make you a qualified person to understand or judge who I am. It is in no way a substitute for the hours I’ve spent reading on the topic, the hours of therapy I’ve gone to and the way I’ve experienced my life. This person still does not recognize my diagnosis and I’ve had to accept that I won’t change her mind anytime soon though it is sad considering it is my own family. The contrast between being close to my family yet having to hide or act like I’m not on the spectrum can be isolating and thus devastating. Therein lays the crux of why it is important to speak about it. Hiding my neurological condition to make myself sociably acceptable also means that I have to act like someone who I am not, an act which itself tells your own mind there is something that is not right with you.
Which brings us full circle back to Carry Fisher, I tend to over share yet it was Fisher’s quote that helped me understand why I like to do it. When I share something it forces me to reflect on it, to reinterpret it and to find a way of vocalizing for the person with whom I’m talking. In having to go through that process I get to know myself better and how the real me fits in this world that is not necessarily made for people like me. The more I know who I am, the more comfortable I am just being myself and the more comfortable I am sharing who I am. The more I share, the more people see Autism in a different light and hopefully it informs how other people approach their own mental health. It’s a virtuous cycle of awareness and pride that can be a way out of a vicious cycle of ignorance, shame and fear.