You can care about social justice and care about your own happiness, too.

It feels strange to write a headline like this.

On the one hand, maybe it should be obvious — we all deserve to have joy, pursue meaningful connections and experiences, and invest in our own mental health. But somewhere along the way, I think I forgot what it meant to be happy just for the sake of it. And based on the burnout I’ve seen, I don’t think I’m the only one.

I was talking to my online therapist recently about how (yet again) a post about sexual assault on my Facebook feed had triggered my obsessive-compulsive disorder. When he gently suggested I take a deeper look at my social media usage, the conversation that ensued drudged up a lot of intense realizations about how I view happiness and self-care.

Namely, that I wasn’t giving myself permission to unplug, because I viewed that as betraying my values.

I realized through this process that very rarely do I do much of anything just for my own happiness. Blogging was an opportunity to support folks in my community. Self-care was a chance to “fix” my mental health so I could do more work. Most of my correspondences online had become me trying to support folks through crises or trauma. My social media was an endless stream of injustice and calls to action.

Every single thing that I did — what I read, what I watched, what I said, what I wrote — became an endless pursuit of doing better, doing more. 

If it wasn’t in service of other people, it simply didn’t have much value, and I didn’t prioritize it.

Last year, I noticed a number of things about myself. For one, I was lonely and burnt out. When I wasn’t working my day job at Everyday Feminism (which involved deep dives into the trauma of marginalized folks), I was either consumed by the news cycle, writing about social issues, opening my own wounds to educate others, or working really f*cking hard to support other folks in the community who were burning out for all the same reasons.

For a while, it was a running joke that I didn’t know how to have fun. “What’s fun?” I used to laugh.

Because when you understand the full extent of injustice in a system like this, fun can feel selfish, trivial, useless. It never seemed important enough. Meanwhile, I bounced in and out of intensive psychiatric programs, with my clinicians shouting after me, “Wait! Slow down? Maybe take more time?”

Even as I write this, I’m riddled with guilt. How many folks get the privilege of uplifting folks in their community on this kind of scale? How many folks get the chance to devote themselves to world-changing work? And most importantly, as an editor, I’ve had the privilege of holding space for so many experiences, stories, traumas… how could I take that for granted?

To be clear, I’ve found so much joy, meaning, and fulfillment in the work. But I have to wonder: When did I decide that my own happiness and wholeness — just for the sake of it, and just for myself — was too self-involved? When did I decide that taking care of myself was not just selfish, but unnecessary?

I’ve shared the “self-care isn’t selfish” memes countless times, and yet here I am, struggling to give myself permission to be happy.

After my second psychiatric hospitalization in the beginning of 2017, it became clear that my time working at Everyday Feminism was done. Walking away from that work was gut-wrenching. I had a lot of late night conversations with my partner, wondering how I could’ve “ruined” an opportunity like that.

Rather than listening to my body — which had been telling me for months, unequivocally, that the work wasn’t sustainable — I spiraled. I began questioning my dedication, questioning my investment, questioning my values. What kind of person has an opportunity to do such important work and, instead, loses their mind, drinks to excess, winds up institutionalized, and then walks away?

For a long time, I thought that my breakdown was my own fault, some kind of indication that I was ungrateful or selfish or incompetent, or that I wasn’t committed enough to my activism.

Here I had an opportunity to make an impact and I’d come undone. It was a dedication issue, I thought, I’m just not trying hard enough.

There’s a larger conversation to be had about the ways in which we fail to support folks doing this work. Structurally, so much social justice activism in underfunded, underpaid. And things like call-out culture can skirt the line, at times, between being necessary vehicles for accountability and being outright dehumanizing. This is all made worse with harassment and doxxing for those of us who primarily do this work online.

All of that makes it challenging to do this work and remain whole, to say the least.

But it also comes down to a very prevalent idea: that we must dedicate ourselves to this work at all times, and that joy is an afterthought, certainly not a priority.

There’s a level of perfectionism in the work that can be toxic. The reality is, there will always be more to do. There will always be more to read. There will always be more pain, more work, more need. And caring deeply about everything and everyone, you can get caught up in this unhealthy cycle of prioritizing everyone else at the expense of yourself.

This year it finally reached a point where I felt like digital activism was the only thing I really knew how to do. It eclipsed my entire identity, my entire self.

And when you determine that your only value is in what you can provide other people, you lose yourself.

After my hospitalization, I had to begin rebuilding my life. I started to wonder who I was in the absence of the work. What did I like? What did I enjoy? What interested me, excited me, energized me?

I have to wonder, how many of us working towards social justice don’t actually have answers to those questions outside of activism? Because my answers before would’ve all circled back to one thing: helping people. But if everything I do is for someone else, it can only be sustained for so long.

So I changed careers and found an unexpected joy in telling a different kind of story. I blogged when I felt called to, about what felt meaningful in the moment, instead of repeatedly opening my own wounds every week. I let myself blog about things that made me happy, too. I enlisted some help in managing my growing Facebook community, and gave myself permission to unplug.

And I started doing a heck of a lot of therapy. Because when we confuse total self-sacrifice for social justice, that’s a wound we immediately need to tend to.

I’ve started going outside. Drinking coffee. Laughing. Reading books. Letting myself get lost in articles about interior design and street style. I got a cat (he’s perfect). I meditate sometimes. I’ve started picking up the phone and calling friends. I completely overhauled my social media (I’ll write about how next week, if you’re wondering) to be a lot less triggering.

Through this process, I’ve realized that by abandoning my own happiness, I had also destroyed my capacity to meaningfully support others.

The reality is, social justice isn’t an all-or-nothing equation of either being committed or complicit, informed or uninformed. It’s all a process, and one that we can invest in while also investing in ourselves.

And if there’s no room for joy? It simply isn’t just. We all deserve to be well, to be whole. And if we don’t protect our own heart when we do this work, we deny ourselves the very thing we’re fighting for.

There are very good reasons to be angry. There are very good reasons to be furious, devastated, even unhinged in light of the world that we live in. But that makes it all the more pertinent, I think, to take care of ourselves, and to ensure that we’re prioritizing joy.

We can’t let injustice consume us to the point where we’ve lost everything that makes life meaningful and worth living.

Being joyful in the face of injustice is not a betrayal to the movement or to those who are struggling. It’s a loyalty to yourself, affirming your right — and by extension, everyone’s right — to wholeness.

Human beings need connection, fulfillment, and joy. So I ask you very sincerely: When’s the last time you gave that to yourself?

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7 Signs That Online Therapy Might Be Right For You

There wasn’t anything wrong, really, with my last therapist. He was smart as a whip, caring, and thoughtful. But after more than a year of working together, I had this nagging feeling that I wasn’t getting out of this what I needed to be. Something wasn’t clicking.

As someone with agoraphobia, it was already challenging to get to another city just for therapy. The financial impact of a copay, transportation there and back, and the time taken away from work had already added up. If I was already spending that money, why couldn’t I just sign up for online therapy, and get the care I needed without leaving my apartment?

So (shrug emoji) I decided to give Talkspace a try.

I chose Talkspace in particular because I knew from talking to other folks that they are especially mindful of their queer and transgender clients (of which I am both).

They didn’t ask me to review their services, or offer me any kind of incentive to talk about them. This is not a paid advertisement, friends, so you can trust that everything here is my honest opinion!

(This was actually an article requested and funded by my patrons, who were interested in online therapy and wanted my perspective. Hi there, patrons!)

If you’re intrigued by online therapy but not sure if it’s for you, I wanted to create this no-nonsense resource to help you decide.

While Talkspace is the platform that I use, this is advice that I suspect will apply to other platforms as well.

As with any therapy experience, you ultimately get out of it what you put in. That being said, there are definitely some signs to look for when deciding if online therapy could work for you:

1. Paying out of pocket isn’t prohibitively expensive for you.

Between my $15 copay and the Lyft ride to and from the office, paying for online therapy wasn’t actually that much more expensive for me. For $39 dollars a week, I can send unlimited messages to my therapist (text, audio, or video, as lengthy as I want) and get two thoughtful responses per day.

If I need a video call for a face-to-face experience, I can pay extra for that, either as part of my plan or on an as-needed basis.

But I want to acknowledge upfront that not everyone can afford this.

If you have insurance and your therapy is already sufficiently covered, online therapy will not be cheaper. However, if you have travel expenses and copayments (like me), or you’re already paying out of pocket, online therapy might actually be cheaper or at least fairly reasonable.

I still think this is the best $39 bucks I spend every week. But for folks who are low-income, this isn’t necessarily accessible to you.

2. You find yourself wishing you could process in the moment.

One of my biggest issues with face-to-face therapy is that, by the time my appointment rolled around, a lot of the more intense situations or emotions had already passed, or I couldn’t remember them once it was time to talk about it.

I often walked away from my sessions thinking, “Jeez, I wish I could just talk to my therapist when things came up, instead of having to wait until our next appointment.”

I felt like I was wasting time, like our appointments were basically me trying to remember what was bothering me or just filling up our time.

If this sounds familiar, online therapy might actually be an awesome option for you. With Talkspace, I’m able to write to my therapist at any moment, so when situations or emotions come up for me, I can articulate those things to my therapist in real time.

I’ve noticed a difference, too — we’re actually talking about the issues that are most present and important for me, instead of what I happened to remember during a scheduled time.

It’s important to note: If you are the sort of person that needs an immediate response, online therapy might not feel as gratifying at first. It took a period of adjustment to get comfortable with spilling my guts, knowing that I would have to wait to hear back from my therapist.

But I did get used to it! And it’s a format that’s working much better for me.

3. You know or suspect that writing is a great outlet for you.

A lot of my best emotional work happens through writing (this probably doesn’t come as a shock, seeing as I’m a blogger). Online therapy has been like having a diary that actually talks back, compassionately and competently guiding me through my process.

If you know that you’re the kind of person that finds it cathartic to write everything out, online therapy can be an awesome platform for you. There aren’t time constraints or character limits, so you’re given permission to take whatever space and time that you need.

If writing isn’t your thing, you can always just monologue with an audio or video recording. Sometimes you just need five minutes to ramble uninterrupted, and online therapy is great for that, too.

4. You find it easier to be emotionally vulnerable in digital spaces.

I grew up in the age of AOL Instant Messaging. Some of my deepest and most vulnerable connections have happened digitally. For whatever the reason — maybe it’s social anxiety, I’m not sure — I find it much easier to be vulnerable online.

I think online therapy is the best possible platform for folks like me, who simply find it easier to be honest when there’s the safety of a computer or phone screen between us and our therapists.

In just a couple of weeks, I disclosed more to my Talkspace therapist than I had with my previous therapist that I’d worked with for over a year. Being online helped me access emotions that I found it difficult to tap into in a face-to-face appointment.

(I think it helps, too, that this is therapy that can happen in the safety of my apartment, whenever I’m ready, while I’m hanging out in my pajamas and hugging my cat and eating nachos…)

5. You feel like you’re texting your friends a little too often.

I’m the kind of person that, when I’m overwhelmed with my life, I find myself texting or messaging my friends, sometimes with a frequency that makes me feel a little annoying.

And to be clear: It’s absolutely okay to reach out to someone when you’re struggling, as long as those boundaries are negotiated between you!

But what’s great about online therapy is that I now have a safe space to express myself at any moment, without the fear that you’re “too much” for that person.

If you’re an “external processor” like me, where nothing feels resolved until you’ve actually gotten it off your chest, online therapy is actually awesome.

I feel like there’s more balance in my relationships across the board, because every single day, I have an outlet for what I’m thinking or feeling that doesn’t rely exclusively on my friends and partners. That means I can be more thoughtful and intentional about who I reach out to and why.

6. You have other clinicians on your team that can help during a crisis.

A lot of reviews I’ve read talk about how online therapy isn’t designed for folks with severe mental illness. But I don’t actually agree with that — I just think that folks like us have to be mindful of what support systems we put in place, and when we use them.

Every person with severe mental illness should have a crisis plan. This is especially true for those of us who use online therapy, which means we won’t always get an immediate response when we’re in crisis.

I use online therapy to explore my trauma history, manage my OCD and depressive symptoms, and navigate the daily triggers and stressors in my life. However, I don’t use online therapy exclusively.

I also have a psychiatrist that I see regularly, support groups that I attend on an as-needed basis, and I can also contact my previous therapist if I’m suicidal and need to be referred to local crisis resources (like outpatient resources or hospitalization).

My Talkspace therapist knows that I have a history of suicidality and self-harm, and we’ve talked about what steps we would take if I were in crisis again.

I think online therapy can be a great option for folks with severe mental illness. (For me personally, I feel much more supported checking in with my therapist ten times a week online, as opposed to seeing them just once a week, if that.)

The key is that online therapy should never be the only option, and you and your therapist should work out a crisis plan upfront.

7. You have very specific therapeutic needs that you’re having trouble meeting.

My therapeutic needs were a bit… complicated.

I’m a queer and transgender person with a history of complex trauma, struggling with depression, OCD, and borderline disorder. I needed a therapist that can handle all of the above, but trying to find one who was up to the task was daunting, to say the least.

When I signed up for Talkspace, I first talked with a consultation therapist (kind of like a clinical matchmaker) who would help me find my ideal therapist. Upfront, I gave them as much information as I could, and they gave me three therapists to choose from.

One of them was a trauma-informed therapist who was also queer and transgender, who was well-versed in the disorders I was dealing with. We also came from a similar perspective, valuing a social justice-oriented and sex-positive approach.

Talk about a perfect match!

I think that one of the benefits of online therapy is that you have more options. Rather than searching for someone within a reasonable distance, you can connect with any therapist that’s licensed in your state. This widens the pool of available clinicians, and ideally connects you with a therapist that meets more of your needs.

(The great thing, too, is that switching therapists on apps like Talkspace is super easy — and those therapists will have access to your previous conversation logs, so you won’t feel like you’re starting all over again.)

If you’re a marginalized person that needs a therapist from your own community, your odds of finding the right therapist are much higher with online therapy. To me, this is by far the best part of the process.

There are definitely some valid criticisms to keep in mind, though.

I’ve loved my online therapy experience, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention these. Some of the common issues that people encounter with online therapy, summarized for quick reading:

  • You need to be 18 or older: As far as I know, for legal reasons, it’s not available to folks under the age of 18. Be sure to investigate this before signing up if this applies to you.
  • It’s a different pace: Responses are “asynchronous,” meaning your therapist responds when they’re able to — it’s a little more like email rather than instant message. For folks who like instant gratification, this will take some getting used to. If you’re in acute crisis, this shouldn’t be your primary support system.
  • There’s no body language: If you’re someone that is a little more withholding, and therefore you need a therapist to be able to “read” you, this can be an obstacle. If you’re someone that has difficulty interpreting emotion and tone through a text, this can also make things tricky. (Video calls and audio recordings are still options, though, so don’t hesitate to switch things up if you’re finding the text-only format to be tricky!)
  • You have to spell things out (literally): Your therapist won’t know if something isn’t working if you don’t tell them directly (they can’t exactly see if you’re uncomfortable, or bored, or annoyed, for example), so be ready to advocate for yourself if you aren’t getting what you need.

Alright, so what should I know before I get started?

Online therapy is really like any form of therapy, in that it only works if you show up. Here are some quick tips for the best possible online therapy experience:

  • Be as specific as possible when looking for a therapist: Better to tell your “matchmaker” too much about yourself than too little. The more you advocate for yourself, the better your matches will be.
  • Disclose, disclose, disclose: Be as open, vulnerable, invested, and honest as you can possibly be. You will only get out of the experience what you invest into it.
  • Talk about therapy in therapyTalk with your therapist about what’s working and isn’t working. If something is helpful, let them know. If something isn’t, be sure to say so. If something needs to change, it’s important that you communicate that to get the best possible experience!
  • Customize it: Online therapy has a little less structure, so be sure to talk with your therapist about how you can create accountability and a format that works for you. Whether it’s homework assignments, assigned readings (I like to share articles with my therapist on occasion), scheduled check-ins, or experimenting with formats (text, audio, video, etc), there are tons of different ways to “do” online therapy!
  • Set some goals: If you’re not sure what you want out of the experience, take some time to think about it. Creating goal posts can be helpful in guiding the process, both for you and your therapist.
  • Be safe: If you have a history of suicidality, substance abuse, or self-harm — or any kind of disordered behavior that could lead you to harm yourself or someone else — make sure your therapist knows this, so you can create a crisis plan together.
  • Anticipate an adjustment period: I felt weird about online therapy at first. It feels distinctly different, especially in the absence of body language and the delayed responses. Give yourself time to adjust, and if things feel off, be sure to let your therapist know.

So is online therapy a good option for you?

Obviously, not knowing you personally, I can’t say for sure! But I can say with certainty that there are definitely folks out there who have benefited from it, myself being one of them.

While I was skeptical at first, it turned out to be a great decision for my mental health, though I recognize its limitations. Like with any form of therapy, it largely relies on finding the right match, disclosing as much as you’re able to, and advocating for yourself throughout.

Hopefully this guide gives you all the right information to make a decision that’s right for you. I’d also encourage you to research more on your own (I am by no means the ultimate authority on therapy!). As the saying goes, knowledge is power!

Hey, fun fact (added some time after I published, once I found this out): If you sign up with Talkspace using this link, we both get $50 dollars off. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ If you’re on the fence, give it a whirl!

If you found this guide to be helpful, please hop on over to my Patreon and consider becoming a patron! Through donations, I’m able to create free and thorough resources like these based on your recommendations.

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4 Ways Mentally Ill People Are Blamed For Their Struggles

The first time I told someone that I was mentally ill, they reacted with disbelief.

“You?” they asked. “You don’t seem that sick to me. Be careful not to play the victim.”

The second time I told someone that I was mentally ill, they invalidated me.

“We all get depressed sometimes,” they replied. “You just have to power through it.”

Countless times, I’ve been made to feel like my mental illness is my fault. I wasn’t trying hard enough, I needed to change my perspective, I wasn’t looking at all of my options, I was exaggerating how much pain I was in, I was only looking for sympathy.

If I wasn’t mentally well, they implied, it was obviously an issue with me that had nothing to do with the systems that fail mentally ill people each and every day. My “failure” to live a functional and happy life had nothing to do with the biological, psychological, and sociological factors that contribute to mental health. Instead, it always seemed to circle back to me and an apparent lack of willpower that kept me down.

For a while, this kind of gaslighting – the denial of my struggles that made me question my own reality – had convinced me that my mental illness wasn’t valid or real, and what was intended to be “tough love” from the people around me only made things worse by leading me to blame myself instead of advocating for the kind of treatment I desperately needed.

Like many mentally ill folks, it was impossible for me to move forward in my recovery until I stopped blaming myself and started seeking out the right kind of support. But it can be impossible to do this when the people around you are convinced that you’re doing something wrong.

A culture that routinely traumatizes mentally ill people by interrogating the severity of our illnesses and the sincerity of our efforts – effectively blaming the victim – is a form of psychological violence that keeps us from accessing the care that we need.

And yet it’s the norm in this society. People seem to have a lot of opinions on the choices that mentally ill people are and aren’t making while staying silent about the systems that force us to make less than ideal choices in the first place.

Personally? I believe that any choice made in an effort to survive is not necessarily a “wrong” choice, and if we care about mentally ill people, it’s our job to expand those choices by increasing their efficacy and accessibility rather than punishing mentally ill folks for doing their best to navigate their illnesses in circumstances that will never allow them to thrive.

As a mentally ill person, I have struggled within a culture that compulsively critiques the choices that I’ve made rather than advocating for the availability of better choices. And these critiques leveled against me, perhaps with the intention of motivating me, have ultimately hurt me.

I want to unpack those criticisms. The reality is that they harm not just me, but the millions of people that grapple with these illnesses every day.

And unfortunately, it’s a conversation that is increasingly necessary as support and resources for psychiatrically disabled people are only disappearing under the new administration, fueled in part by these prevalent beliefs about mentally ill people.

Here are four ways mentally ill folks are blamed for what they’re going through and what we can learn from these harmful assumptions.

1. We’re Expected to Pull Ourselves Up By Our Bootstraps

I remember when my old therapist told me, “If your mental illnesses were just an attitude problem, wouldn’t you have changed it by now?”

When I hesitated, she added, “I don’t think you’d make yourself suffer this deeply and this much if the solution were that simple.”

And she was right. I was doing everything that I could. My struggles were not due to a lack of effort on my part. I would’ve done anything if it meant finally getting better.

People who haven’t experienced mental illness personally often buy into the idea that if you try hard enough, mental illness is something you can overcome. With one brushstroke, it’s depicted as a lack of willpower and a personal failing. Myths like this disempower mentally ill people because they take the focus away from creating resources to help us and instead place complete and total responsibility on the person who’s suffering to make solutions appear out of thin air.

But if we could single-handedly ease our suffering, wouldn’t we have already done it? It isn’t fun, and for many of us, it disrupts our lives in significant and even unbearable ways. In fact, it’s the leading cause of disability worldwide.

When you place the burden on mentally ill people rather than advocating for a system that supports us, you put our lives in danger. Not only are we less likely to seek out help if we’re expected to go it alone, but legislators won’t think twice about slashing funding if it’s treated as an attitude problem rather than a legitimate public health issue.

No one wins when we abandon mentally ill people.

2. It’s Assumed That Treatments Will Be Accessible, Quick, and Effective

It took me over a decade from when my symptoms first appeared to get the right treatment.

And that bears repeating: over 10 years.

My case is exceptional, too. Most people will take at least ten years just to seek out help for the first time, and many will never receive treatment at all. This gap in care can account for the significant rates of drop-outs, hospitalizations, imprisonment, and homelessness that are a staggering reality for people with mental illness in this country.

It is incorrectly assumed that if you’re struggling with mental illness, a good therapist and a pill or two can easily remedy the situation.

But that’s assuming:

  • The stigma and cultural norms have not discouraged you from seeking out help
  • You have geographically and financially accessible options
  • Treating neurodivergence as an illness is a framework that serves you OR alternatives that resonate with you can be accessed
  • You have adequate insurance OR access to resources designed for folks without it
  • You understand how to navigate these systems and can find what you need
  • You can safely take medications and you respond to the medications prescribed to you
  • You were accurately diagnosed
  • You have the necessary self-insight to recognize your triggers and symptoms and can convey them to a clinician
  • You have the stamina and time to endure years of testing out different treatments to figure out what works
  • You have trusting relationships with the clinicians directing your recovery

…which only happens after you are willing to sit on a waiting list for weeks and even months to see those clinicians in the first place or can seek out crisis services (like the emergency room) sooner.

Does it sound like a lot? That’s because it is. And this isn’t even a complete list by any stretch.

Of course, if you’re multiply-marginalized, forget it. You not only have to wait for a clinician to see you, but you need a culturally competent one that understands the context of your unique struggles.

This is damn near impossible for many of us, as psychiatry as a profession is still dominated by clinicians who hold a lot of privilege and can replicate these hierarchies in their work. Instead of addressing the laundry list of reasons why mentally ill people don’t get treatment, it’s just assumed we’re not trying hard enough or that we don’t want to get better. This is a fallacy designed to prevent us from accessing care and perpetuates a broken system that does not serve us adequately or compassionately.

3. We’re Not Allowed to Feel Discouraged or Defeated

Behind all of the pressure to “keep trying” and all the suggestions that we’re never quite doing “enough” to get better is the implicit message that mentally ill people are not allowed to feel defeated. We’re not allowed to momentarily give up, hang up our gloves and say, “This isn’t working, and I’m tired.”

If we aren’t constantly “on” and working at recovery, it’s suddenly our fault that things aren’t improving. If only we’d just put in the effort, things wouldn’t be this way. Never mind that we’re human beings, and sometimes it’s just too overwhelming or painful to keep going.

A culture that treats mental illness as a lack of effort is a culture that says mentally ill people aren’t allowed to be fully human and vulnerable. It dictates that the effort is our sole and constant responsibility, and that we aren’t allowed moments in which we can grieve, give in, or be afraid.

The expectation that mentally ill folks are doing something wrong if they aren’t constantly in motion is an unrealistic and unfair burden to place on us, especially because the level of dysfunction that mental illness can present can make it nearly impossible to advocate for ourselves in the first place.

Feeling discouraged is valid. Feeling afraid is valid. Feeling exhausted is valid. There is a full spectrum of emotion that comes with recovery, and part of humanizing mentally ill folks requires that we hold the space for those emotions.

Recovery is a discouraging, scary, and exhausting process that can wear down the most resilient among us. This has nothing to do with mentally ill people’s personal failings and everything to do with the fact that these illnesses can be difficult to live with.

If you blame us for not trying harder or trying enough – demonizing those moments when we feel most vulnerable or defeated – what you’re saying is that if we aren’t superhuman and invulnerable, our pain is deserved.

This is untrue. We don’t deserve this. And we certainly didn’t ask for it.

4. We’re Either Too Functional to be Sick or Too Dysfunctional to be Helped

Here’s one of those ways in which mentally ill folks can’t win: we’re either too “functional” by appearances and therefore making excuses for our shortcomings, or we’re too “dysfunctional” and we’re a burden on society that can’t be helped.

Either way, rather than acknowledging the impact mental illness has on us, people tell us that in both scenarios, the problem lies with us.

It personalizes our struggles in a way that is dehumanizing. We’re seen as either dishonest or insane, and in either case it’s our responsibility to deal with it rather than society’s collective responsibility and ethical obligation to set up systems that allow us to heal.

And as with all of the myths we’ve broken down in this article, this is how oppression operates at its most insidious level: by decentering the systemic origins of human suffering and instead placing the responsibility and blame on the individuals who are suffering. If we categorically write off mentally ill people by either invalidating the authenticity of their struggles, or pushing them off to the margins as irredeemably lost, we no longer have to be accountable for what happens when our systems fail them.

Though attitudes like these remain the status quo and might initially seem benign, they create a protective shield that obscures what’s really at play.

It’s ableism, plain and simple.

Victim-blaming folks with mental illness is not just a matter of stigma, though we can easily recognize it as such. It’s also a form of violence; it directly upholds a system that harms the psychiatrically disabled and deflects accountability for that harm.

We can all do better than this, and it starts by putting the blame where it really belongs – not with mentally ill folks who are only trying to survive, but with the systems that fail us, a society that gaslights us, and the violent attitudes that embolden them both.

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PLEASE CONSIDER DONATING AS LITTLE AS $1 PER MONTH TO MY PATREON CAMPAIGN TO HELP FUND MORE FREE RESOURCES LIKE THESE, AND ACCESS EXCLUSIVE CONTENT WHEN YOU DO!This piece that I wrote originally appeared at Unapologetic Feminism.

My Least Favorite Obsession: Am I Making My Mental Illness Up?

I can remember the first time I realized something wasn’t right. I couldn’t have been any older than seven or eight. I couldn’t sleep, and I was panicking and seething with guilt, though I don’t remember why.

What I do remember is that I’d gotten into a habit of holding my breath and counting when I felt stressed like this. More specifically, I’d hold my breath and count to ten. Sometimes it would help for a moment, until the anxiety started to pummel me again, my thoughts racing like a runaway train.

I’d repeat the process, then, until I fell asleep or couldn’t hold my breath anymore.

1… 2… 3… 4… 5…

6… 7… 8… 9… 10.

(I always loved the number five and multiples of five.)

I remember how it struck me that, no matter how many sets of ten that I cycled through, it never seemed to truly help me. And I wondered why my efforts were failing. Take deep breaths, right? That’s what they said.

I didn’t understand my emotions, because my emotions didn’t behave the way I was told they would.

It wasn’t necessarily a surprise, then, when I was nine and planning the details of my funeral like I was assembling a grocery list (I distinctly remember wanting my stuffed animals to be in my casket, until I later thought it punishingly unfair to bury them with me, as I explained in my diary).

It wasn’t a surprise that when I was ten, I was so jarred by the attacks on 9/11 that I started reciting the pledge of allegiance every time it was 9:11 PM, just in case, to make sure that nothing bad would happen.

And it wasn’t a surprise, either, when I was thirteen and contemplating suicide. It wasn’t a surprise anymore, because I knew from a young age that my emotions had always had a mind of their own, one that I was helpless in the face of.

For as long as I could remember, my body — and my life, really — was just a vessel for some kind of unspeakable anxiety and, at times, depression. This has been a constant. And for something so constant, you’d think I would never question it.

But I’ve still spent the last month in a tailspin anyway, persistently worrying that I’ve invented all of this somehow.

Disbelief and invalidation were my first experiences when I shared my pain, and those first experiences have never left me. It’s a voice of doubt that I’ve internalized after years of practice, after plenty of time to rehearse and learn the role.

It was the well-meaning parent that said, “We all get sad sometimes.”

It was the so-called friend that said, “He’s just doing this for attention.”

It was the school counselor that looked at my self-inflicted wounds and said, “Oh, that’s not so bad.”

It was the uncaring psychiatrist that said, “If your grades are good, why are you here?”

It was the teacher that said, “You don’t seem depressed to me.”

That seed of doubt was planted long before I had any defenses against it.

When I first started sharing my pain, it was often followed by someone else’s doubts. Those doubts almost acted like an electric shock, training my brain to question myself whenever I was hurting. The outside world interrogated my reality often enough that I had eventually learned to do it myself.

My obsessive-compulsive disorder, of course, latched onto this persistent self-doubt like a parasite, thriving off of it.

I have OCD… or don’t I? What if it’s an excuse, a way to disguise my evil nature? What if it’s all fabricated? What if it’s a manipulative ploy, a way of harming the people I love by eliciting their concern? How would I know if I’m lying? What if it’s all unconscious? What if I don’t even realize it’s happening?

And then I’d desperately search for reassurance.

I’d repeatedly ask my friends and clinicians to tell me I wasn’t imagining it, I’d research my diagnoses to death, I’d take every quiz, I’d google every variation on “did I make up my mental illness.” And if you know a thing or two about OCD, you’d know that the compulsion to be reassured only makes the obsession worse.

I became obsessed with the idea that I might have some kind of factitious disorder, despite how little sense that really made.

This last week, I spent upwards of ten or more hours of my day, drowning in the fear that I could be unconsciously hurting other people, lying to them. That I was somehow dishonest. And because factitious disorders are largely unconscious, it would be impossible to prove the existence of something that, by nature, I wouldn’t be aware of.

In other words, it’s a total mindfuck.

I’ve often explained my OCD to people as being fixated on “the unicorn in the other room.” I can’t definitively prove there isn’t a unicorn in the other room, and the mountain of evidence to the contrary doesn’t offer total certainty. And for OCD, 99% certainty will never be enough; OCD thrives in the 1%.

OCD introduced an ethical dilemma that, at the time, felt very real to me: Every time I reached out for help, I questioned if it was an attempt to manipulate someone, or if it was “proof” that I only wanted attention.

The simple act of needing help became evidence of the very thing I feared most.

But the more I suffered, the more I desperately wanted to ask for help, fueling the anxiety. It got to the point where I was refusing to go to support groups, because I was afraid I would be “found out.”

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My journal is filled with messy charts like this.

That anxiety fed the compulsion to research (which is, in fact, a real compulsion), to repeatedly ask if friends believed I was ill or lying, or to ask my clinicians to remind me of my diagnoses (and some were totally unwilling to play this game, knowing it was a compulsion).

At one point, I was opening up my healthcare provider’s app dozens of times per day, just to look at my list of diagnoses in an attempt to self-soothe.

These mental compulsions, though subtle at first, started to escalate in frequency, until it eclipsed most, if not all of my day. I’m talking, thirty-texts-in-one-week-asking-my-friend-if-I-have-OCD kind of frequency (sorry about that, Chris). And the more I tried to stop thinking about it? The worse it got.

It took me far too long to recognize that these were behaviors stemming from OCD. Even now as I’m writing, there’s this compulsion to research just a little more, to take another OCD quiz (knowing that the results will always, always be the same), or to ask my partner for the millionth time, “Are you sure I have OCD?”

You know, just to be sure.

(And even now, there’s the fear that I’ll put this article out into the world, only to discover later that I’m not mentally ill at all. It’s not logical… but OCD isn’t logical, either.)

But given what I know about OCD, I’m probably not the only person that has been consumed by this fear.

And I’m definitely not the only mentally ill person to ever worry myself sick over whether or not I’m mentally ill enough, traumatized enough, suffering enough.

The very existence of this fear (which is so common, obviously to varying degrees) speaks to the kind of invalidating world we live in. Mentally ill people are practically groomed to gaslight themselves, and that kind of doubt doesn’t help or serve anyone.

So if you’re out there, maybe repeatedly googling “Am I making my mental illness up?” (like I have about five hundred times this week), I hope that this came up on your search results — and I’m glad that you’re here.

Because I’m going to say to you what I think is most important to hear right now:

No matter what you label your suffering, that pain is valid.

Mental illness or not, whatever framework you use to interpret or make sense of your pain… it’s still valid, and you deserve to be supported as you work through it.

If you are struggling, you deserve compassion and care. And as you struggle, you need to take care of yourself.

You have value. All people do. And you, just like anyone else, are worthy of happiness, health, and wholeness.

I’m giving you permission to create the circumstances needed for you to be well and thrive.

If that means asking for help, ask for help. No one should have to suffer alone, including you.

I can’t prove to myself that I do or don’t have OCD (or depression, C-PTSD, borderline, and whatever else ends up on my chart).

…And if you think about it, the nature of this whole “existence” thing is that there’s never complete certainty of anything — just hopefully enough certainty to get by.

My brain still isn’t satisfied with the quizzes, or the research, or the reminders from friends, or the diagnoses. I realize that now. The more I seek out the reassurance, the worse I feel.

And while I’m (mostly) okay right now, I might obsess about this all over again tomorrow, because that’s what this disorder does.

(Or maybe my mind will latch onto another fear, convincing me of some other way I might hurt someone or do something that I don’t actually want to do, inspiring the next great moral crisis for me to spend hours and hours consumed by. This is a very tedious, persistent disorder.)

So rather than resisting the doubt, I’m choosing to live with it. I’m choosing to do my very best to accept it — to accept doubt as one of the preconditions to being human in this very messy, confusing world.

I don’t know much for certain, but I do know this: I can take care of myself today. I can try my best to be kind to myself.

That’s what I’m going to do tonight. And I hope you will, too.

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5 Ways to Lovingly Support Someone With C-PTSD

I was watching Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame when I felt myself starting to panic.

Right from the start, seeing Quasimodo be the recipient of so much gaslighting – being told that the world wasn’t safe, that he would never be accepted or loved, that Frollo had only his best interest at heart – struck a jarring but familiar chord with me.

Quasimodo’s isolation in the bell tower, unable to leave or connect with the outside world, eerily mirrored the control and entrapment I’d experienced years before.

“Hey,” my partner said softly, pausing the film. “Sam, you’re safe. It’s okay. But if this is too much, I’m more than happy to watch something else.”

In the midst of an emotional flashback, my fears were disrupted by my partner’s tender assurances. I could only nod. Without another word, my partner put on Steven Universe – my go-to show, having watched every episode at least three or four times, its familiarity and charm never failing to calm me down.

And I breathed (slowly and deeply) as I was lulled back into a sense of calm, my partner sitting quietly beside me. Sometimes seemingly “little things” can stir up something in survivors that becomes difficult to process in the moment.

But if I’ve learned anything over the years, it’s that sometimes our greatest healing can happen when we allow ourselves to love and be loved.

When my therapist told me that he believed I was struggling with C-PTSD, countless pieces of the puzzle rapidly clicked into place for me. The flashbacks, the fear of abandonment, the hypervigilance, the distrust, the dissociation, the deep and abiding emotional pain that I could swear I was born with – with one diagnosis, all of it seemed to make so much more sense.

Complex trauma, while not officially listed in the DSM-5, is still widely recognized by clinicians and survivors alike as a form of PTSD that occurs due to prolonged exposure to trauma – particularly interpersonal trauma, in which there was abuse and/or neglect that led to a significant imbalance of power.

Many culturally competent clinicians and survivors alike extend this framework to include the oppression that marginalized folks face, which can so often be traumatic.

My understanding of C-PTSD is largely influenced by the work of Pete Walker, a psychotherapist and survivor of complex trauma, whose words and affirmations helped bolster my own recovery (his book on complex trauma in childhood is a must-read).

While I am in a much better place with my trauma history, my loved ones – especially close partners who don’t share this kind of history – sometimes struggle to know how best to support me. I’ve had time to read, engage in trauma-informed therapy, and connect with community around these issues, but my loved ones haven’t necessarily done that work.

Friends and family of folks with C-PTSD don’t always have the same level of education and understanding that survivors do. That’s why I wanted to create this quick resource – to serve as a jumping off point to how to better support trauma survivors.

If you aren’t sure how to support a loved one with complex PTSD, here are some suggestions to start with.

1. Recognize That We Don’t Always Know Our Triggers, Either

Whenever I disclose to someone that I have C-PTSD, they often try to support me by asking, “What are the triggers I should know about?” I think this is a great question to ask if a survivor is aware of what can cause a flashback, but the reality is that many of us can be triggered on a level we aren’t even aware of.

That’s why it’s good to not only ask what triggers us but to ask what you can do if we find ourselves triggered.

What does your loved one find helpful? Is there something you can say, a kind of safe touch they want from you, or something else that’s comforting?

I use this guide to manage my flashbacks, and I think it’s a good point of reference for anyone who wants to help someone work through a particular episode. Give it a read, and invite your loved one to share what’s useful to them and what isn’t – assuming that this person is ready and able to have the conversation with you.

2. Encourage Us to Express Our Grief and Anger

A lot of trauma-informed therapists will say that survivors have a difficult time grieving the trauma they endured, and sometimes have difficulty expressing anger.

One of the best things a loved one can do is hold the space, then, for survivors to experience these emotions and express them in healthy ways.

Not sure how to do it? Here are some suggestions:

  • “I noticed that this conversation is bringing up a lot of anger for you. Do you want to share why?”
  • “What happened to you is absolutely unfair and unjust, and I’m open to hearing more if you want to talk about it.”
  • “If you need to cry, that’s okay. I can stay with you or I can leave if you need privacy. Just let me know.”
  • “Your feelings about this are absolutely valid. I hope you know that you’re safe now, and you’re allowed to feel those feelings.”

The key here is to (1) validate those emotions as real and understandable, and (2) open up a space in which those emotions can be felt and expressed more deeply.

Sometimes these conversations will happen when the trauma is referenced directly. Other times, a seemingly unrelated event can trigger a flashback. In both cases, it’s important to give survivors the space to navigate their feelings without judgment.

3. Let Us Vent Without Trying to Fix Things

One of the biggest mistakes that my loved ones made was that every time I tried to process aloud what I had been through, they would interrupt with advice on how to “fix” things.

In my recovery, I’ve found that coping with C-PTSD is not so much about fixing something. For me, a big part of the work has been about breaking through the denial of what I’d been through, and learning to love and protect myself in a way that I’d never believed I could.

I didn’t need to change or “fix” my relationship with the people who’d hurt me – more than anything, I needed to work through the ways I internalized that harm so I could, in turn, address the ways I’d been hurting myself.

More than anything, I’ve needed to be able to talk about what happened and feel seen when I did, so that I could begin to process what I’d been through and treat myself with more compassion.

And while every survivor’s recovery will look different, remember that when we want advice, we’ll ask for it – but what we need more than anything is your compassion.

4. Give Us Permission to Be Imperfect

For a lot of us with complex trauma, we struggle with perfectionism. Pete Walker calls this the “inner critic,” which so many survivors grapple with in recovery.

For some of us, perfectionism was a coping mechanism run amok, in which we desperately tried to better ourselves to “earn” the love or attachment that we lacked by correcting our supposed shortcomings. (Spoiler alert: No amount of perfecting ever changed this, but we continued trying anyway)

This “inner critic” can also be the voice we internalized, like when “you’re a bad child” suddenly becomes “I’m a bad child.” The external criticisms or neglect we endured suddenly became the mantras we took on as we were further and further traumatized.

Which is to say, a lot of survivors who are dealing with complex trauma really struggle with being imperfect.

For me personally, I believed for a long time that if people truly got to know me, they wouldn’t be able to love me. So I spent a good amount of time trying to make myself “better,” with the hopes that I would someday be “good enough” for the people in my life.

I think this is why it’s powerful when our loved ones give us permission to be imperfect. Some examples:

  • “You don’t have to be perfect for me or for anyone else. I’m going to be in your corner no matter what.”
  • “It’s true that you make mistakes. But you always work hard to make things right, and that’s what matters.”
  • “In my eyes, you’re already lovable and you’re already worthy.”
  • “Trust me. If something’s wrong, I’m going to tell you, and I promise we’ll work through it.”

An important thing to remember is that you’re responsible to your loved one, but not for your loved one – so their perfectionism, self-esteem issues, and unresolved trauma aren’t yours to fix.

Instead, support your loved one as they do the work to untangle those issues for themselves. That begins with simply letting them be human – creating the kind of space where you can both show up as yourselves, without the “all or nothing” expectation that the only people worthy of love are perfect people.

5. Educate Yourself About C-PTSD

Not sure where to go? A great place to start is this FAQ about complex trauma. While it’s written with survivors in mind, it’s still extremely useful for loved ones who aren’t sure what this C-PTSD stuff is all about.

I also think that this Wikipedia article on C-PTSD is one of the better online resources, along with this book that I mentioned earlier on in this piece.

Ask your loved one if there’s a particular resource that they’d like you to familiarize yourself with, or if they’re open to having a conversation about how complex trauma affects their life and relationships. If they’re interested in a conversation, make sure that you’re committed to holding the space for whatever emotions might arise, and that your approach is validating and compassionate.

Pete Walker also has a great resource on the concept of “co-counseling,” which offers a nice structure on how to have these conversations in a productive and safe way. I’d highly recommend it. You can also reach out to a therapist to facilitate this conversation between you if more guidance would be helpful.

Part of supporting a survivor is being open to learning and realizing that this learning is an ongoing process, rather than a single event. There’s no singular article or resource that will give you the expertise needed to support someone – rather, in the process of building trust between you, you’ll teach each other how to create a mutually safe and supportive space.

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When my partner paused The Hunchback of Notre Dame, it was a simple but important gesture that said to me, “Your trauma is not a burden. I’m here to support you.”

More than anything, I think survivors withhold a lot of what they’re going through for fear of being “too much” – but when invited, we can find the kind of safety necessary to open up and allow our relationships to truly grow.

If you’re looking to support a survivor, it can be as simple as noticing. As simple as validating us. As simple as saying, “I believe you.”

All I really wanted was someone to believe me. And every time someone does, I can feel a part of me learning to trust again, learning to love with abandon and without fear.

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What I Wish My Loved Ones Understood When I’m Suicidal

My mother hit the nail on the head when she said that I didn’t come with an instruction manual.

If I did, I’d request that it include at least one chapter on suicide – because none of us, including me, were prepared for how to deal with suicidal thoughts and actions. As it turns out, mental illness would drive me to the end of my rope on more than one occasion.

The truth is that no one prepares you for that phone call, the one when your loved one is on the other end of the line saying, “I just can’t do this anymore.”

No one prepares you for that moment when they hang up abruptly, and you have to make a quick decision that might save their life.

I’ve been the person who both got the call and made the call – suicidee and suicidal, if you will – and I know what it feels like to be both on the ledge and the one trying to talk someone down.

But if you’ve only ever been the one on the ground, you might not understand what it looks like from way up there. It’s difficult to understand and even more difficult to empathize with a person who is suicidal, having never been there before.

And while I can’t give you an instruction manual, I can tell you what it feels like to be there.

Here’s what I wish you knew:

1. Please don’t pretend to understand what it’s like if you don’t actually get it.

I know that you’re just trying to connect with me, but I can see through the nonsense from a mile away. I know when you can’t actually relate to what I’m going through. I know when you’re just pretending.

In this moment, I just want you to be here for me. I want you to hold space for me to be vulnerable, to feel pain, to be afraid. Let me know that you’re here with me. Remind me that I have options, and ask me if I want to talk through them. Give me the chance to unpack what’s been hurting me. Remind me that you’re here.

Listen and don’t judge.

If you haven’t been suicidal before or if you haven’t experienced depression like this, that’s okay. I don’t actually need you to have some kind of insider knowledge. I don’t need you to be able to relate to everything I’m saying and feeling.

I just need you to be here with me right now. I called you, of all the people I could’ve called, for a reason.

2. I don’t need you to fix this.

If I’m at rock bottom, the reality is that my situation is one that won’t be fixed in a single night. Crises like these aren’t about fixing things – it’s about being my support, helping me to hang in there when it seems like there’s nothing worth holding on for.

By all means, offer resources and coping strategies with me, and be sure to ask if that’s helpful for me. But if you enter into this conversation with the expectation that you can fix all of my problems, it’s just going to create a whole lot of stress for us both.

If there were some kind of immediate solution to my crisis, believe me, I would’ve chosen that before I ever considered suicide. The reality is, it’s going to take a lot to pull through.

Rather than promising a solution, promise me that I won’t have to go through this alone — and mean that when you say it.

3. The fact that I told you what I’m feeling is a really huge deal.

Being suicidal is one of the most vulnerable positions a human being can be in. It’s also one of the most difficult things you can endure. It took a lot of courage to talk about what I’m going through. Honor that courage.

And remember: I chose you. Of all the people I could call in this moment, I trusted you. That means something.

Instead of ending my life, I called on you. You mattered enough to be the person that I picked up the phone for. You mattered enough to be the face that I looked for in my darkest hour. You mattered enough to be the voice that I wanted to hear.

Being suicidal doesn’t mean I don’t care enough about you to stay — the fact that I’m including you now means that I care very deeply about you. Please don’t forget that.

4. Take me seriously.

I wish I didn’t have to say this, but you need to take everything I’m saying very seriously. I need you to operate from a place of belief — believe that I’m in pain, believe that I’m in danger, and believe that this is urgent and requires your attention.

I say this for a few reasons.

For one, suicidal people can sound detached. They can sound resigned. There isn’t always desperation or urgency in their voice. We don’t always respond emotionally in the ways you might expect. That doesn’t mean this experience is less real or sincere.

Instead, ask questions, and pay attention to these factors: Is there a plan? Are there means to carry out that plan? Is there an intended time to carry out that plan? And do they intend to take their own life?

(This guide is a pretty important resource for understanding how to respond to someone who is suicidal. I wish all my loved ones had read it before I made that call.)

The other reason that I ask that you take me seriously is because, sadly, many people assume that when someone shares that they’re suicidal, they’re only doing so for attention. But the reality is, a person in this much pain needs attention.

When the mere suggestion of someone taking their own life comes into play, there’s no question of how seriously you should take them. Take me seriously, because this is serious.

5. Telling me that there’s hope when I feel hopeless isn’t always helpful.

Do tell me about concrete alternatives, resources, and options that I have in my position. But don’t give me empty promises of how beautiful life is or other poetic ideas that you think will inspire me to keep on living.

If I could comprehend that kind of optimism right now, I probably wouldn’t be in this position.

Remember: My depression doesn’t just affect my mood — it affects my thoughts. Sometimes, I’m just not capable of seeing the big picture, or I’m in too much pain for that big picture to matter.

I don’t want to hear about how great life is. Because for me, in this moment, it’s anything but. And you reminding me of what I can’t feel and understand will only make me feel more alienated and more alone.

6. My feeling this way isn’t your fault.

Please, please, please don’t blame yourself for how I’m feeling in this moment. Could’ve, should’ve, and would’ve scenarios will only make us both feel worse. Instead, focus on the here and now, and how to get us through this.

7. My pain is valid.

You may not understand my pain, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t valid. Don’t tell me that I don’t have a reason to be depressed or suicidal. Don’t tell me my life is too good to throw away. Don’t tell me that there are people out there with worse problems than mine.

I don’t deserve to be punished or made to feel guilty just because I’m having a difficult time in my life.

Validate my pain. Acknowledge my suffering. And know that, for me, it’s very real. Real enough to make me contemplate suicide.

8. I may not be ready for what you have to say (right now), but it could mean everything to me later on.

Talking to a suicidal person can sometimes feel like talking to a brick wall. The truth is, I’m not always ready to hear what you have to say. Your messages of support, love, and warmth may go right over my head. I’m in a dark place and I can’t always see the light from where I’m at.

But I’ll tell you what: I remember the people who talked me off the ledge years and years ago. I remember what they said to me to this day. And even though, in that moment, I couldn’t really grasp what they told me, it came back to me.

I remembered it in therapy. I remembered it the next time I was hurting. I remembered it in recovery. And those words that, at first, meant nothing to me eventually came to mean everything.

What you’re saying to me is never in vain. Because while it may not resonate at the time, it could be the affirmation that I cling to weeks, months, years down the line. Sometimes it takes a while before the message really sinks in.

Give me time. I’ll thank you later.

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Have a suicidal loved one and not sure what to do? Read this guide from the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or, if you need immediate assistance, give them a call at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

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A much shorter version of this piece that I wrote originally appeared at Ravishly.

My Beautiful, Borderline Mind

Not too long ago, I wrote an article about the misconceptions around borderline personality disorder.

“I reject the idea that people with BPD aren’t deserving of competent care and compassion that would allow them to thrive,” I wrote, “and if we dismiss them as being irredeemable, that support becomes more difficult to access.”

Writing that piece was painful. Recalling the ways that people misconstrue my struggles was a deeply emotional process for me.

It also brought to light the very real stigma that still exists around BPD.

I started getting emails.

“My husband has borderline, but he’s horrible,” someone writes. “How can I get him to be more self-aware like you?” (This is almost, word-for-word, a message I received.)

“My partner with BPD is crazy, she’s too much,” someone explains. “What pills are you taking? Do you think that they’ll make her normal?”

This wasn’t the first time I was being held up as some kind of psychiatric achievement. Sometimes even my clinicians viewed me this way. “Most people with borderline aren’t like you,” a clinician told me recently. When I asked what that meant, he told me, “Most of them are just… flailing around, deeply unstable.”

Flailing around. That’s what most people think. Even our clinicians believe we’re chaos embodied, helpless, disturbed.

And thus I was propped up as an ideal. I was the repentant borderline, the good borderline. The more I was perceived as distancing myself from the disorder, the more people applauded me.

This is because the borderline that the world likes the most is the “reformed” borderline — the one that will apologize for being too much, will cut themselves down to be accepted, be neurotic in “acceptable” and small doses, and most of all, disavow any and all traces of the disorder.

In other words, the self-hating borderline is the one that the world loves the most.

It’s an uncomfortable truth, then, when I tell people that I don’t really hate my borderline mind. For all the hell it’s given me — and by extension, the folks who’ve supported me in my recovery — BPD has given me a beautiful intensity that I appreciate.

The world asks me to reject my borderline mind, looking for some symbolic gesture to demonstrate that I hate myself as much as they hate people like me.

In me, they see the redemption of their “crazy” spouse, their unhinged mother, their unruly child.

Every time I apologize for my existence, they are comforted knowing that they don’t have to learn to love someone with borderline — they can wait for the day when their loved one with borderline finally hates themselves enough to be someone else, or hates themselves enough to die.

But there are parts of me that I so deeply love — parts of me that wouldn’t exist if BPD weren’t a part of me, too.

And so long as we view people with borderline in such a reductive way, we fail to appreciate what’s possible for people with BPD. We demand that they erase themselves or punish themselves, rather than coming into their own, realizing themselves fully, and perhaps even learning to love themselves.

It’s devastating to think that, as we characterize people with BPD as abusers that need to repent or as irredeemably lost, we create a culture that denies people with BPD the possibility of authentic healing and self-love.

In the process of my own healing, I’ve realized that BPD is not just a source of trauma, but in some ways, it’s been a source of unique strength.

That’s the conversation that’s missing. That’s the conversation I’m longing for, waiting for.

The love that I’m capable of feeling for others, when it’s no longer fueled by fear, is a remarkable thing. My capacity for seeing the best in others, my ability to love deeply and fully, my sense of connectedness to the folks that I care about — these are things I would never change, so long as it comes from a healthy and secure place.

While I can be reactive, my sensitivity allows me to tune in deeply to the feelings of others. My firsthand experiences of pain allow me to make intense and empathic connections to others who might be suffering. And knowing what it’s like to be left behind, the loyalty that I possess makes me a reliable and caring friend.

What people with BPD need isn’t the greatest possible distance from themselves and from their disorder. What they need is security, healthy attachments, support, and genuine safety, so that they can become someone that they’re happy to be.

My borderline mind can be frightening and self-destructive. Ask anyone who was along for the ride this last year (when I was hospitalized not once but twice) and they’ll tell you as much.

But this mind also has a capacity for intense love, connection, and empathy — a potential that’s so often ignored or missed in people with BPD because of a stigma that leaves no room for us to grow.

For me personally, living with borderline has been retraining my brain to recognize when I am safe, after having lived for many years without protection in the face of complex trauma and PTSD. It’s been a process, too, to create the safety that I lacked for so long, and to trust in it when I have it.

It’s also been important to understand that safety doesn’t have to come in the form of support from others — it’s safety I can create for myself.

But that’s a realization I never would’ve come to if I’d listened to the stigma that told me that having BPD meant I was inherently bad, spiteful, or dangerous, teaching me to fear myself rather than be kind to myself.

Nothing about this process has been “flailing around,” as a clinician once said — it’s been a desperate search to regain the safety I’d been denied. And nothing about that process has been “manipulative,” either. Any misdirection to meet my needs, especially during a struggle I wasn’t prepared for and never asked for, was an act of survival, however flawed or unskillful.

My borderline mind has embedded in it a propensity for chaos that I won’t deny, but just the same, it gives me an incomparable ability to love and be loved. I have a sensitivity that keeps me deeply engaged with my world, a vulnerability that gives me immense integrity and strength, and an intensity that makes me creative and dynamic and alive.

And with the right support, I’ve been able to nurture that empathy and depth in incredible, unexpected ways.

I don’t believe that a diagnosis of borderline personality disorder is a statement of finality, of futility, of hopelessness, and I resent any suggestion that it is. I think for many, it can be an opportunity — a chance to grow, and to take everything we were taught to fear, and find the strengths hiding just underneath.

I wouldn’t be who I am without BPD. And I’m tired of the world demanding that I be anybody else.

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