Definition

I used to run a writing club back in community college.  Every week, we met to read works, critique them, do some light editing and, most importantly, to write.  If we did nothing else that day, we would always do a writing prompt.  I was a founding member of this club, and hadn’t been in anything like it before.  So, many of these prompts were pulled directly out of my ass.

One that I’m particularly proud of, and which I find myself utilizing more and more these days both in- and outside of my writing, is a simple but particularly tricky one:  Take an object, person or event.  Describe it in poetry or prose.  Do this, however, by describing only what it is not.  Here is an example of a product which might come of this in about 20 minutes:

It’s not real.  horizonsIt’s something borrowed, something that isn’t mine.  It can’t be
mine.  My own.
It’s not nearly dull enough.  Not plain enough.  Not brown or gray or green.
These are the colors which suit me– not this.
It’s the strip of rawhide which hung on a peg by the door, the old farmhouse I thought I’d never escape.  It’s the dress I stole from my mother’s chest of drawers for the first time when I was eleven years old and spilled drinks on when I was sixteen.
Those are the pains I feel.  Those are real–
Not this aching in my chest, this good ache.
It’s not him.  It’s not me.
It’s not the glittering bright band on my unkind finger, the one I thought
would never see a ring.

Of course, the prompt isn’t limited in the way real life is.  In writing, we can say something isn’t a ring when it is.  We can say something is a strip of rawhide or a dress when it isn’t.  But in real life, trying to describe something by what it isn’t is a much more difficult – and more real – process.

Take, for example, a pencil.  What isn’t it?

  • Food.  You can’t eat it.  No matter how much you wish you could– no matter how much the state of education in America demands it.  How much easier life would be if we could only eat pencils.
  • Aquatic.  It doesn’t work underwater, although sometimes it can cause you to feel like you’re drowning, and sometimes it’s the only thing keeping you afloat.
  • Obsolete, somehow.  Even though we can take all our notes on computers now, even though we can write all our papers on them, we still elect to use pencils more often than not.  Why?

In this way, describing what something is not can force a person to realize what it truly is.  This exercise becomes even more complex when we turn it upon ourselves.

Myself, I know what I am.  I’m told what I am every day.  I’m a man; that comes with a whole slew of expectations and standards, and unpacking that bag will be a job for another day.  I’m a student.  I’m an adult (wow.  shivers).  I’m skinny, white, and gay.  There are also things which I’m told by myself – and others – less regularly.  I’m depressed.  I’m ugly.  I’m young, privileged, and extremely, extremely lazy.

These things are all, to varying degrees, true.  Together, they formulate a picture which is uncertain at best – at worst, one might expect that the person to whom all of these descriptors apply is doomed, and has no future.  I know I thought that once.

finnBut I am not defined by the things which I am.  I am defined by the things I am not – and one of those things is doomed.
I’m not a fighter.  I’m not scrappy, or courageous, or even particularly determined.  But I am not a failure, either.  Despite what some people might have told me, despite what I once even believed about myself, I am not a worthless existence.  I may be young, ugly, lazy and gay, but I’m not doomed, or without a place in this world.
These sentiments aren’t mutually exclusive, because one is what I am and the other is what I am not; by definition, they don’t conflict.  I can’t believe that I’m simultaneously an idiot and a genius, but I can know that while I may be an idiot, that doesn’t make me useless, hopeless or unworthy.

So try telling someone what they aren’t today.  You’ll find it hard.  You might look at your significant other, or your best friend, or your child, and think “you have so many great qualities; I admire all these things about you.”  But telling them that doesn’t mean anything to them – it’s a self-centered way of thinking which only tells them what they mean to you.

Tell someone you love what they don’t have.  Tell them you’re glad they don’t snore, or that they don’t like terrible music, or that they’re not a Republican.  Tell them you really notice and appreciate the little things about them; instead of saying “you look beautiful today,” say “you never look bad – even when you first wake up.”  It just means more.

And never forget to practice this exercise in yourself.  Recognize what you are not, for better or worse.  Know your weaknesses, and know that they don’t make you any less yourself.

And that’s the Unsolicited take.

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A rant, because I couldn’t stop thinking about it

A few weeks ago, I read an article which became extremely popular here on WordPress, entitled “10 ‘Harmless Things’ You Say That Hurt Me: Mental Health Awareness,” by Elizabeth Mosley-Banks.  I’ve been avoiding writing about it, because I don’t want to be agonistic.  I don’t want to start a fight, or call anyone out.  In fact, I tried to write another article completely, to focus on something else for a while, but my mind kept drifting back to those 10 “harmless things.”

My problem with this article is… everything.  The way what starts as an informative list slowly devolves into a rant; the way Mosley-Banks claims to have three separate disorders stacked on top of one another; the way she plays herself off as a martyr and quotes Dear Evan Hansen at the end.

Mosley-Banks makes a few disclaimers in her follow-up article, “10 Reassuring Things I Want to Hear You Say,” which are noticeably absent in “10 ‘Harmless Things.'”  First, she says, “every person is different,” and no two people living with mental illness have the same experience.  This is the one I missed the most in the first article, as Mosley-Banks appears to make herself, intentionally or otherwise, into a mouthpiece for all people with mental illness.  And before you say it, I have been there, and I do know what it’s like.  I’m writing this not because I don’t think Elizabeth Mosley-Banks’ experiences are valid, but because mine are too, and I want people to know that I’m not like her.

Mosley-Banks says that readers shouldn’t feel the need to apologize, and she doesn’t mean to offend or hurt anyone.  However, she says the reader is wrong, accuses them of causing her agony, belittles and guilt trips them in so many different ways it’s excruciating.  Even from the very beginning:

“Please, tell me, what is a bipolar person supposed to look like?  What is a depressed person supposed to look like?”

I can’t speak to the experiences of people with bipolar disorder, but I can tell you what a depressed person looks like:
Thin.  When you’re depressed, you lose the urge to eat.  You skip meals, alternating between feeling sick from hunger and being exhausted, having no energy since you didn’t eat.  Depressed people have bags under their eyes.  They sleep too little or too much, and it shows.  They’re unwashed, always late or spacing out, and their eyes might be red from crying because they had a breakdown right before showing up to class.

My little brother called this “hangover behavior” when I was in high school.  He didn’t know I was depressed; none of us did, myself included.  My whole family just thought I was a lazy slob, and I did, too.

So, I think it’s fair to say that I don’t look like a depressed person anymore.  But that doesn’t mean I’m not still living with depression.  I can recognize when I’m entering a depressive spiral and take steps to combat that, now; I can avoid “looking depressed.”  But I wouldn’t fault someone for telling me that.  In fact, if I’m in a good enough mood, I might take it as a compliment – thank you for telling me that I’m managing my depression well.  Thank you for drawing attention to the fact that I’ve pulled myself out of that part of my life, and become stronger for it.

Many of the “harmless things” on Mosley-Banks’ list are statements like this, which require only a slight attitude adjustment or a moment’s worth of consideration to perceive in an entirely different light.  For instance, “you just need a hobby.”

True, a hobby won’t cure mental illness.  No one would be stupid enough to believe that, which makes it all the more frustrating that Mosley-Banks seems to think that’s what people mean when they say it.  I’m sorry, Elizabeth – actually, can I call you Susan? – I’m sorry, Susan, that you haven’t found a hobby yet that helps decrease your anxiety or alleviates your symptoms of OCD.  However, many, many neurodivergent people have.  For the vast majority of people afflicted by mental disorders, a hobby such as knitting, hiking or yoga helps take their mind off of things and reduces stress in trying times.

Personally, I found digital art to be an extremely effective outlet in high school, and I even learned to recognize when I might be slipping into a depressive episode by tracking the contents of my art.  I also have a friend who learned to crochet in college because it did wonders for his anxiety.  Now, he makes the most beautiful scarves and hats.

So, maybe your response to the phrase, “you just need a hobby” shouldn’t be to immediately get pissed off and insult the offending party’s intelligence.  Maybe it should be something more along the lines of “you’re right, my hobby helps a lot, but it doesn’t completely erase my symptoms.”  Maybe it shouldn’t be “I tried to get involved in a comic book reading club once and had an anxiety attack,” but “I always have a great time reading, researching and analyzing comic books, and this alleviates my anxiety.”

In fact, the amount of defensive Mosley-Banks gets when anyone says anything she perceives as questioning her mental disorder is slightly… suspicious?

As for myself, my depression doesn’t come up a lot in conversation, but it’s not like I’m trying to hide it.  I don’t say, “excuse you, I have depression,” whenever someone tells me they’re feeling down, but when they say they’re jealous of how thin I am, I do have to set them straight, for their own good.  I don’t get offended when someone says these things to me, because I understand that they don’t have the experiences I do.  They don’t know certain things about mental health because they are lived experiences, and they haven’t lived through them.  And that’s great for them!

Mosley-Banks doesn’t seem to understand this concept of putting herself in someone else’s shoes, which either makes her extraordinarily inconsiderate… or neurotypical.  She says at the beginning of her article that she has “worked to conceal [her mental health] for a long time,” but at the end that she “[doesn’t] mind talking about mental health.”  This reads a lot like someone who talks a lot about their mental state while acting like it never comes up at all.  I’ve known people like that, and they were always either one of two things: pretending to be sick, or 12.

Her point about “your life is perfect, you have nothing to be depressed about” was what really hit me sideways and got me thinking about this.  She rattles off a list of people who have supposedly “perfect” lives, but have contracted various disorders and diseases despite this (and somehow misses Robin Williams, which is just tragic).  To a neurotypical person, this might seem like a valid argument; if a shining example of perfect happiness like Supergirl can get depression, anyone can.  However, to neurodivergent folks everywhere, this line of reasoning is just insulting.  In what way is my experience with depression less valid than that of Melissa Benoist?  How does Robin Williams contracting a mental illness somehow make it okay for me to have it, too?

Moreover, it’s rude to the people she adds to the list.  Carrie Fisher’s parents were each divorced several times, and her relationship troubles later in life reflected that.  She struggled with addiction, underwent electroconvulsive therapy and once woke up with a dead man in her bed; to say she lived a “perfect” life is glossing over the trials and tribulations that she and many others who live in the limelight sweep under the rug in order to maintain a celebrity persona.  Also, adding “Lady Gaga has fibromyalgia” to the list does nothing to break the stigma surrounding mental disorder.

Mosley-Banks is also extremely insensitive to the physically disabled in her section on “at least there’s nothing physically wrong with you.”  She’s right that it’s a truly awful thing to say, but for none of the reasons she presents.  She talks about the problem words in this phrase being “wrong with you” and “physically,” but doesn’t ever mention the worst part: “at least.”

The struggles of the physically disabled are in no way worse than those of people with mental disorders.  Mosley-Banks does begin to explore an important concept here, when she says “there’s nothing ‘wrong with me,'” but barely elaborates.  For physically disabled people, learning to accept their bodies can be an arduous process.  When you say that “at least there’s nothing physically wrong with you,” you imply that being physically disabled is the worst-case scenario; that no matter how debilitating your mental illness is, you can never be as crippled as a physically disabled person.
How degrading is that?  Can you put yourself in the shoes of someone with dwarfism, or a paralyzed person, or someone born under the effects of thalidomide and imagine, for a moment, being compared to a person with severe, late-stage schizophrenia, whose mind is so broken they can’t even eat or use the bathroom without assistance anymore.  Now imagine being deemed “worse off” than that.
Imagine being compared to someone who compulsively picks at their hands.  Imagine being unable to do something like that even if you wanted to, because you can’t move your body below the neck, or you have no arms.  Imagine that person just said their struggle was in any way equivalent to yours.

Look at Stephen Hawking, one of the brightest minds this world has ever known, and tell me that there was anything “wrong” with him.  His disease motivated him to work harder, to produce new theories and test new experiments faster, because he was working with a more limited time frame than other people.  Some say that God made him ill because if left to his own devices, he would have discovered things mankind wasn’t ready for yet.
Now tell me that “at least” you don’t have a physical disability.  You say the word “wrong” is unfair to disabled people, but you don’t even understand why.

Mosley-Banks’ attempt at describing depression is at least not bad, for someone who hasn’t experienced it.  It’s not the total emptiness of emotion, though; people can’t even begin to function that way.  Depression is a state that a person lives in, where they still experience the full human range of emotions, just some more strongly than others.  For example, her description would suggest that I would get no joy out of playing videogames while in a depressive state, because I could feel nothing at all.  However, I actually fell deep in the videogame hole when I was depressed, because it was one of the few things that could bring me any semblance of happiness.  Some turn to drugs in their depression, and further compound the issue with addiction; some turn to Netflix, writing dark poetry or having a lot of sex.  We all cling to whatever keeps us from being alone with our thoughts.

It makes me wonder, also, about Mosley-Banks’ description of a manic episode; it rings, to me, with that same “90% accuracy” vibe.  Again, I can’t speak to the experiences of people with bipolar disorder because I don’t claim to have it, but accounts such as this one by Mara Robinson seem to have much tighter scientific backing, and resonate a bit more closely with my own experience of mental disorder in general.  Where Mosley-Banks describes her manic episodes as “completely illogical… aimlessly running around in an unrealistic fashion,” Robinson details how she became, in stark contrast, hyper-logical, as if fixating on everything at once.  She reads, from the perspective of herself in the middle of a manic episode:

“It’s been a long day. I’m finally at the psych ward. Doctors and nurses in white are milling about all around me. The lights are so bright. Doors open and close, open and close constantly. They give me a snack: peanut butter crackers. More dry, flavorless food. They up my dosage of bipolar medication and send me to bed. Will I be able to sleep at all?”

While it’s true mental disorders do not affect everyone the same way, we must remember that Mosley-Banks did not say this anywhere in her article, inadvertently portraying herself as an example of a “typical” case for manic disorders.  Her experience is not universal, but she presents it as if it is, which is another reason the article appears condescending and accusatory to readers.

Lastly, her dialogue on “everybody gets sad/stressed sometimes” is probably the most irritating from the standpoint of belittling and guilt-tripping the reader.  If she would only put herself in the their shoes for a moment, she would realize this:  “Phases” are a common myth surrounding mental health anomalies, and it’s completely understandable for anybody, even a person who’s been diagnosed a with mental illness, to believe in them.  If it appears that someone doesn’t take mental health seriously because of this, it’s only because they don’t know better… which is great for them, because they probably aren’t sick!

It also grants those of us who have lived through the experience necessary to disprove myths like this an opportunity to educate, which is a rare and powerful blessing.  Any opportunity you have to change a person’s mind should not be taken lightly; do not spurn your audience, calling them “senseless and uneducated”; do not chastise them, saying they should know better.  Teach them.  Refusing to do this is like declining to vote in a critical election and expecting that you will still have a hand in the outcome.

So, Susan, I’m sorry to break this to you, I truly am – but I don’t think you’re ready to be a mother, and it has nothing to do with your disorder(s).  You have no sense of empathy; you allow your struggles to define you rather than your victories, and you look down on the ignorant so that you can’t teach them how to be better.  You’re also ableist, a pessimist, and a hypocrite.

But of course, I don’t mean to call you out.  Don’t feel pressured to apologize.  Allow me to leave you with an excerpt from a Broadway musical:

Careful the things you say,
Children will listen.
Careful the things you do,
Children will see.
And learn.

Children may not obey,
But children will listen.
Children will look to you
For which way to turn,
To learn what to be.

Careful before you say,
“Listen to me.”

 – Into the Woods, finale

And that’s the Unsolicited take.

Considering the Considerer

 “It’s hard to recognize that your whole being, your soul doesn’t move at the speed of your cognition. That it could take you a year to really know something that you intellectually believe in a second.”

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—Eve Sedgwick, The Reeducation of a Queer Theorist

Considering this quote I stumbled upon earlier  today, I found it odd, because it certainly doesn’t seem to me that such a thing should be difficult to recognize at all.  In particular, I think it should be rather simple for Eve Sedgwick, a prolific literary critic and founding mother of queer theory, to recognize the lag-time between one’s emotional and intellectual centers, the heart and the brain.

When I read this quote for the first time, my mind immediately placed it into the context of grief.  Upon hearing the news, one knows right away that someone they love has died.  But, do they really know?  It’s not until days, weeks, or even years after the fact that the realization finally catches up with them.  For a time, they suspend their disbelief, as if reading a story, or dreaming; their heart refuses to acknowledge what their brain knows.  When it becomes clear that this dream has become the reality, the grieving process can finally move forward.

A little research later, I discovered Sedgwick’s claim to fame, the “queer lens,” and another context became clear.  When a pubescent child, say a young man, begins to realize his sexuality, it can be difficult at first to accept—or even to identify.  He has never felt sexual feelings before, and doesn’t know what to expect; he has heard tell of “phases,” but the changes his body is undergoing don’t quite match up with the textbook.  It’s a strange time when nothing is certain.  Right away, he knows something, but doesn’t know what it is.

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His heart or his brain:  Which is the first to realize that he is gay?

However, neither is the true context for this quote.  What Sedgwick is actually referring to is her own experience with therapy.

Academia can be a harsh place.  After years of struggling to continually prove herself intellectually to her colleagues and defend her radical theories again and again, Sedgwick may have become a bit of a monster.  She was so wrapped up in her own head, one mind against the world, that she couldn’t see outside her tiny academic bubble.  Then, with a terminal cancer diagnosis and the resurgence of her previously remised depression, she was suddenly forced to reexamine herself.

In her 1999 book, A Dialogue on Love, Sedgwick describes the process of getting back in touch with the real world through therapy.  The book walks readers through her initial denial of the therapist’s words, her fury at his suggestions, and eventual acceptance of his advice.  So, what Sedgwick intends for the quote in question to mean is that, despite knowing something about oneself, deep down, it is difficult to bring about correctional change. conss

… However, her words still ring a bit hollow to me.  Even if she meant it in a different sense, how could she claim to have difficulty recognizing the lag-time between the heart and mind?  As a queer theorist and a person afflicted with depression, this should be a concept she is intimately familiar with.  While Sedgwick implies this quote is directly relevant to her experience with therapy, perhaps its context is actually more closely centered elsewhere.  If we take a look at the when and where of the very first appearance of this quote, we find it published by Salon magazine in 1999, in an interview with Sedgwick about the newly released A Dialogue on Love.  This rings eerily similar to the way modern-day actors make rounds on various news channels each time a movie of theirs comes out, or how musicians release just one or two singles from their new album on the radio.

Sedgwick, in short, is selling herself.  At this time, she is widely discredited in academic circles and massively controversial in the public eye.  Much of the reasoning behind both of these things is her blending of personal identity with academic research—two things which, like church and state, should always be kept separate.  From a business perspective, she has branded herself much like a performer who sells herself offstage; therefore, the quickest way to eliminate contention is to amend her image.

In A Dialogue on Love, Sedgwick changes, not suddenly but surely, from a self-proclaimed “sexual pervert” to having strictly “hygienic ‘vanilla’ sex,” as paraphrased in the interview from Salon.  She goes from hinting that she might in actuality be a transgender gay man to finding “the reality of her own body… the most natural thing in the world.”  It’s almost as if she’s simply confirming all the things which nay-saying conservative researchers believed about her all along—throwing them a bone, if you will.  Gnaw on that for a while, she says.  I’ll be back and better than ever.

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Note that she never says the recognition of the lag-time between brain and heart, from our initial quote, is necessarily difficult for her.  Naturally, it wouldn’t be, as it has been a primary feature of her studies for many years.  The quote is a projection—on the surface, it appears to illustrate a story of admittance, acceptance, and growth.  And that is the story Sedgwick is selling; however, the growth she wishes to see here isn’t her own, but that of the academic community and the general populace.  She doesn’t believe she was ever wrong; she just wants everyone else to see that she’s right.

Here’s what I think:  Eve Sedgwick was a pioneer of radical literary theory and an outspoken LGBT ally, but her methods were controversial at best.  It’s difficult to determine what kind of a woman she was from her works, being a skilled rhetorician who operated with a keen understanding of the political and academic spheres.  She was smart, and knew it—so there’s no way her loud, unapologetic, “outsider” character and mentality would suddenly do a 180 in therapy.  No, Sedgwick stood to gain from appearing to have changed… but in actuality, she didn’t have to, and never did.

And that’s the Unsolicited take.