How we mistakenly label the mentally ill as toxic and inconveniences. by Amy Ouzoonian
Mental health awareness month started off feeling almost healthy this year. Even if you weren't following the hashtags #selfcare and #mentalhealthhacks, you were bound to see at least one mental health meme that showed love and support for people who experience anxiety and are treated for depression. More and more it seems that the world is having compassion for people who suffer from mental illness. So, I was surprised when my friend, beloved Phoenix-born and raised musician, Andy Warpigs, passed away suddenly on May 30th and the cause of his death was not made known immediately. The Phoenix New Times has done two feature articles talking about what a great influence Andy was. Andy was an amazing DIY folk punk musician and advocate for inclusion in the art scene. He was also my friend.
"And the only thing they cared about more than creativity was inclusion; they just wanted everyone to take equal part in the good time and have equal space in making it happen."
- Jeff Schaer-Moses Phoenix New Times 6/1/2021
All of what the friends, family, and online news articles say is true, but there was also another side to Warpigs that he would have wanted people to talk about as well, because he was not shy about sharing about his depression and drug use. I am pretty confident that if Warpigs was alive right now, he'd also let you all know exactly how he died and he wouldn't feel shame for it. He wouldn't say that it was a "supposed accidental overdose." Only he knows exactly what happened. I spoke with his mother, Lynn Johnson, recently and she shared with me that the reason for his death hasn't been confirmed yet and so she didn't want to share that yet. That makes sense, but often death by suicide or overdose isn't shared publicly. Why? Suicide and addiction are public health issues. So, why do we make people who are struggling with these issues feel like they should suffer in private?
Why do we as a society believe that there should be shame around drug addiction and depression? Is the fact that we don't feel comfortable about talking about these kinds of issues actually killing those who are affected by drug addiction and mental illness? In my experience, silence kills. Isolation kills. Community might not cure cancer, drug addiction, or depression but it is a cure for loneliness.
One of the things that I loved about Andy was that he was always honest about who he was down to his trauma, gender identity, and his drug use. I really think that sharing all of who he was removed the shame from what he was doing. It might have worried some friends and been a detraction for some. Sorting through the real friends gets easier when you are authentic. The ride or die people presented themselves to Andy because he was never faking for anyone's comfort and didn't expect anyone to do that for him. I don't know if I ever saw a post of his that started with TW or Trigger Warning, because if we're prepared for life then that's not really living.
I know that I haven't always been very honest and open about who I am and that has caused me some problems. I have been a yoga teacher for over ten years and my biggest enemy has always been the need to project perfection in all ways. From how I look to the poses I would share to the words and attitude and outlook in life. I had to be vegan, but also have compassion for non-vegan people. I had to look like a yoga goddess, but not be too full of ego. I had to have a consistent practice and overwork my body, but also make it look effortless and always fun.
This got harder after having a child and raising Maitri, my 4-year-old, without the help of her father. Facing this challenge alone has brought me to the place I am now, more myself than I ever have been at 42 and not always loving that person. Instead of giving myself a facial, I'd eat a piece of an edible and dance around to music by Bjork or Arcade Fire and then try to do a project that wasn't safe for a high person to do. Thus, the concussions. It's hard to love an injured person because they need so much love that it can feel exhausting and that's when the love of others can strengthen someone who is going through a difficult time.
So, when I realized that I was injured and needed help, I went to my community and asked for it. It wasn't easy because so many people were hurting from the recent loss of a friend in our Phoenix community. I was telling people in my life that I had a concussion and they were asking me questions and some got annoyed with me when I couldn't answer appropriately or when I was asking for support or assistance to do very basic things. I don't blame anyone for not understanding what was going on with me. We don't know what we don't know. I have become somewhat of an expert now on what to do and what not to do for a person who has a head injury and is recovering.
This was the third time that I had suffered from a concussion and had people in my life tell me to go fuck myself because I wasn't being well adjusted and was acting too needy, so this time I knew better and was more selective about who I talked with and how much I communicated. The brain is not the largest organ in the body, but it really is an important one for regulating everything that we do, so when a person suffers from a mental illness, it's like their whole being is sick, but much worse than that because it's in your head and everyone thinks you're faking it and can just turn this behavior off.
Often friends and family will say that the person is being selfish and is an asshole and not even make a connection with how their brain is possibly damaged and try to help. The thing that we need to remember is that when a person dies from drug addiction or even suicide, their death was not something that could have been prevented, anymore than a person who dies from cancer. You might say, well addiction and suicide are taboo subjects.
Why? Should they be?
If the same person were to pass away from losing their battle with cancer, why is that considered more honorable than the person who loses their battle with PTSD, or Manic Depression, or drug addiction? Sadly, as progressive as we might see ourselves, we still live in a society that refuses to regard a suicidal person or drug addict as someone who is deserving of love and support. We think of that person as being someone who needs to get their act together.
We set our boundaries and tell all of our friends that the person we're no longer on speaking terms with is "toxic" and throw words around like sociopath and narcissist (suddenly we become trained therapists handing out psychological diagnoses). We block and ghost and will come around after the dust has settled to cry RIP and curse at someone for responding in a very human way.
What am I talking about?
The opposite of fear is love. You can't do both. If you're afraid of something, you can't love it and vice versa. Fear says, "you don't have time for this person. They are a psychological vampire. They are toxic. Get away from that."
Love says, "There's a human being in there who is just like you. We're all doing the best we can."
When you're in a crisis and hurting, which do you want to hear? Be that person who you would want to help you if you were in need. Love is not weak. Love makes you stronger. If a person is draining you, ask for help. There is a big community out there. Here are some suggestions for alternative ways to deal with a person who is not acting the way you want them to and is asking for help.
Let them know that they are deserving of help and offer some people or numbers that they can call to get the help they need, if you are not able to help them. If you don't like them, don't tell them that. You don't have to say that you don't like someone who wants to hurt themselves. They are already hurting. Instead, offer alternative mental health resources so that they can get help.
If a person has suffered a head injury and is in need of help, maybe offer to brain storm resources or make a phone call to get them help. A person who has suffered a brain injury or is sick from an overdose might not feel very good about calling people and talking. Concussions and other brain injuries make communication very difficult and in many cases is painful.
If a person has told you that they have a concussion, is afraid from an overdose, or mental illness, they are not using excuses and they don't need for you to use that challenge as a weapon against them. They can't just snap out of it. If you can't hold space for that, find someone who can and ask them to help.
Don't talk about a person who is suffering from a mental illness or head injury behind their back. People can be easily convinced and hop on the hating bandwagon and once that gets out of control, it's hard to stop it. Instead, let the person who you're concerned about know that you are bothered by some behaviors they are exhibiting and that you care about them and want to help them. Maybe have a friend mediate. Remember that you are dealing with someone who is experiencing trauma and that it is not their fault.
If someone starts gossiping to you about a person being "crazy" or "toxic" and you know that they are suffering from trauma, you would be right to tell that person talking to stop kicking a wounded horse.
No one is unworthy of love. Hating on someone doesn't make them become a better person and makes the hater a bigger asshole than the one who is accused of being an asshole in the first place.
Technology has brought people together, but it's also made people justify cruelty and given a free pass to bullies. Social media is a place where we are our authentic selves with Cover Girl to brighten up the dark spots. We're afraid of even burdening ourselves and will try to cry in the shower if we have to, to avoid puffy eyes.
Human beings are supposed to feel and express their feelings. Asking a person to stop expressing their feelings because it's making you feel uncomfortable, is like telling a person to stop being human. Also, ask yourself, would I give ultimatums to a person with cancer?
Cancer isn't convenient, but if you're the kind of person who does abuse cancer patients then you probably aren't going to get the rest of what I'm saying here.
Still, isn't it interesting that a person doesn't have to lie about being cancer free, but that if you bring up your past battle with depression, you better have slain that beast. No one wants to read your LinkedIn post about #mentalhealthawareness if you are still struggling with depression and abusing Ritalin. Yeah, I am saying that your wife, husband, brother, sister, mother, father, aunt, uncle who is suffering from mental illness is hurting and even if their pain is caused by their drug/shopping/sex/etc. addiction, cutting them off from any love is actually going to kill them faster.
There is a tremendous stigmatism still against people who are suffering from head injuries, addiction and mental illness ranging from depression to racism (yeah, white supremacy is a mental illness). Being labeled as "crazy" or "toxic" or other words that aren't worth writing because all of the hurtful labels just simply are not true. Canceling isn't going to help anyone either.
Again, I know that I am not a health professional like the quality therapists you'd find on Cerebral Online Mental Health Care. I am a yoga teacher, healer, and I genuinely want to improve my skills that help people to heal. I wrote this because I feel like these ideas need to be shared with others. If you have any thoughts or suggestions that you feel can contribute to supporting and creating an inclusive society that holds space for people who live with addiction, mental illness and traumatic brain injuries, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org and thanks for reading.