[content warning: suicidal ideation]
A lot of times, the narrative about mental illness is a narrative of recovery.
A person has a mental health problem— alcoholism, depression, social phobia, an eating disorder. They hurt themselves and other people around them. Eventually, they “hit bottom.” With the help of medications and a therapist, they pull themselves out of the pit they’d sunk into, and right now are indistinguishable from a neurotypical.
And… that isn’t me. I may eventually stop meeting criteria for borderline personality disorder, but I am never going to have emotions as weak as a neurotypical’s. And I am never going to get the chance to stop thinking about it. To skip exercise without paying the price in depression later in the week. To not have to work into my planning that I might not be able to leave the house. To have a basic, bedrock foundation for intimacy other than “I trust you to deal with me when I can’t deal with myself.”
A lot of narratives about neurodivergence depict it as a place you visit. For me, it’s a place I live. People who are visiting get to spend all their time looking at train schedules trying to figure out when’s the soonest they can get out. Me, I have to make the best of it. I have to put up some nice curtains, set up a ramp so I don’t have to step on the rotten stoop, and think “well, at least it’s walking distance from the beach.”
It’s different to live inside crazy than to visit there. There are advantages. I have to pay sufficiently many Weird Points to continue alive and vaguely functional that it costs me almost nothing to defend suicide rights on Facebook or get my fiance to change his last name to mine. And it is often a spur to be wildly ambitious. As a friend says: if starting your own company is only a little more terrifying than working a nine-to-five job, why not start your own company?
Eliezer talks about sacred values, values it’s unacceptable to trade off against. I think a lot of people treat suicidality and panic attacks and so on as a sacred value: if something makes you want to kill yourself, you shouldn’t do it. That’s all very well if you’re visiting crazy, if all you’re looking at is a few years of avoiding crowds and work and romance, but I’m going to live here for the rest of my life. Suicidality is something that I have to take coldly into my cost-benefit analysis. Sometimes it’s not worth it; sometimes I’ll look at a little thing, something people do every day, and go “can’t do it, sorry.” And sometimes I will look at my emails and go “I would rather kill myself than answer these damn things”, and then I will take a deep breath and answer them anyway, because answering emails is always always always going to make me want to die and it has to be done anyway.
I’ve seen a lot of disability rights advocates say things like “being normal is not the same as being functional”; for me, it seems rather more like they’re opposites. Today I can’t leave the house unless someone is walking me to the street, and it’s stupid and dumb but my other choice is not leaving the house at all. I can make eye contact or I can have a friendship where I care about something other than keeping you from hurting me, those are the choices, and of course I’m going to stare at the ground. What else could I do?
The problem is that people don’t realize these differences exist, they assume that ther kind of crazy is the only kind of crazy. Many a person with treatment-resistant depression– who has tried the first-line treatments for depression, then the second-line treatments, than the third-line, then things some asshole swears by on Longecity; who has gone through an acronym soup of different therapies; who is seriously considering going to a Pentecostal church in the hopes a faith healer will help– will encounter a person who says “oh! Have you considered yoga? It cleared my depression right up!” While I do not condone murder, I don’t think a jury in the world would convict.
I don’t mean to say that visiting crazy is better or, god forbid, “more privileged” than living there. In some ways it’s worse. You’re more likely to be freaked out by things. You haven’t gotten used to it. You have high expectations for yourself that have come crashing down, rather than lower expectations you can reasonably fulfill. I’m not disappointed in myself. That’s not nothing.
I have a lot of trouble thinking of myself as “sick”.
Because… I’ve been borderline my entire life. Some of my earliest memories are about thinking I should be dead because of the evil I had committed– and, you know, six-year-olds are not really capable of much evil, so it was mostly that I bit my nails and kept accidentally knocking over water glasses.
I know that there are diseases one has at birth, so being born this way doesn’t mean I’m not sick, but it’s different when the diseased organ is your mind.
To say that I’m sick is to say that my personality is a symptom, that everything I’ve said and done and thought and wanted is tarnished by my illness, and that the best thing I can hope for is to someday transform myself into someone completely unrecognizable, the neurotypical I should have been.
And, you know, that sounds an awful lot like the voice of my self-hate. It’s true I have one, maybe two, neurodivergences that make you bad at this “shades of gray” business, but I don’t understand why when I say I’m diseased down to my core it’s delusional and when a doctor does it it’s medicine.
(I think this is why so many of us flinch away from casual discussion of cures, even though in reality “cure” means “eugenics” fifty percent of the time and “a pill you take daily and which is trivially easy for a non-institutionalized adult to avoid taking” the other fifty percent. It is hard to hear people, often people who love you, say that you should be killed, and replaced with another person with your same memories, and that this would be the kind and merciful thing to do, and not even understand what they are saying.)
So: I’m not sick. I’m not broken. I’m just different.
I’m not good at being different. Partially, this is because being my kind of different is harder than being normal; it is hard enough to do things when you don’t have a part of your brain saying “hey, why don’t you destroy everything you’ve worked for?” Partially, this is because no one took me aside and said “look, when you’re feeling suicidal, it’s time to turn on some loud music and start cleaning the house, and you’ll feel better by the time you’re halfway through scrubbing the tub”, and now I have to pay truly mindboggling sums for classes that teach me this shit.
But… that’s a kind of hope, isn’t it? The fact that I was never taught how to be good at being borderline means I can learn. It means I can be stronger and tougher and happier and better; but, crucially, that I will be a stronger and tougher and happier and better version of myself. That everyone has flaws and everyone has to learn and grow and become better, and just because my flaws are larger and less common doesn’t make them qualitatively different from anybody else’s. That I don’t have to stop loving intensely or crying often or having spiritual experiences or being filled with the giddy joy of existence, that there is continuity between my past selves and my future selves, that there are things which are good about me right now and I get to value them and keep them and when I become the best version of me that person will have those things too.