If you’re one of the few people who might be reading this, perhaps you’ve noticed that I’ve been away for a while. I wasn’t really abducted by aliens — that would have been all over the tabloids, right? — but I often feel as if I get transported to a place where I inexplicably lose time and all memory of what I was supposed to be doing.
It’s hard to know how to dive into this post, not because I don’t know what to write, but because others, especially Jenny Lawson and Wil Wheaton, have already said it better than I ever shall.
You know what would help? If you would read Mr. Wheaton’s speech to the Ohio branch of NAMI (the National Alliance on Mental Illness). Go ahead; I’ll wait. You can find the speech here: http://wilwheaton.net/2018/05/my-name-is-wil-wheaton-i-live-with-chronic-depression-and-i-am-not-ashamed/.
You’re back? Great. That was a pretty awesome speech, wasn’t it? OK: here we go.
I am Ruth Feiertag, and I live with Chronic Depression.
In many ways, my life has been very different from Mr. Wheaton’s. I rank among the least famous people on the planet. I do love Star Trek, but I never even got to be a neon-skinned alien with tentacles or antennae lurking, uncredited, in the background. But he and I do have some things in common. In my own way, I also have been fortunate. I have always had a place to live, enough to eat, clothes to wear, access to health care and decent schools, and almost all the books I wanted: you know, the basic necessities. I grew up in a stable home with parents and siblings who loved me. I went on to create a family of my own. Pretty damn lucky.
But like Wil Wheaton, I live with chronic depression and anxiety, what he aptly calls “the tag team champions of the World Wrestling With Mental Illness Federation.” (I also have myalgic encephalomyelitis, the condition formerly known as chronic fatigue, and a couple other door-prizes I’ve discovered or picked up along the way.) I’m offering up my story, in part, to add to my voice to the chorus1 of those trying to defuse the stigma around mental illness and, in part, to explain what happened to my Inktober tale.
Again like Mr. Wheaton, I got the message early and clearly that mental illness was a shameful character flaw, one that would redound to my family’s shame. My mother was particularly expressive on this subject. Over the years, even well into my adulthood, Mom told me that psychologists only mess people up, that they always blame the mothers (thank you, Dr. Freud), that they take children away from their parents — a prospect that frightened me horribly. People who have mental problems, my mom would say, need to be tough and get past to whatever they might be attributing their depression. Mom made it plain that if we ever sought help for mental issues, she would be the one to suffer.
To be fair, my mother’s fears were not entirely unfounded. She did have some damaging experiences, especially with school counselors who were quick to fault my mother for things beyond her control. It was not Mom’s fault that I was (am) shy and socially inept, tom-boyish and gawky, just as it was not her “fault” that I used to be tall for my age, liked books, and was good at catching lizards. My hair-cut, though — that was ENTIRELY Mom’s fault.
My anxiety manifested young. I got kicked out of nursery school for being so shy and anxious that I couldn’t make friends or interact with the other children. I remember standing on the margins of the playground, hoping equally that no one would notice me and that one of the other children would ask me to come play. I think I was there about three weeks before the teachers told Mom to keep me home. Mom attributed my behaviour to selfishness. There was a baby, and Mom said that I didn’t want to let her have time with him.
Grammar school was a little better. After all, public schools can’t kick out students for being socially awkward. I spent a lot of recesses tucked away in odd corners, reading. But my anxiety was still powerful enough to give me stomach aches. There was a day in first grade when I my stomach was cramping up painfully, but Mom insisted that I go to school anyway. She did tell me, however, to let my teacher know that if I didn’t feel better after a while, the teacher should let me call home.
Mrs. Persons was one of those firm teachers with high expectations and her opinion was immensely important to me. I was so shakingly nervous about conveying Mom’s message to her that I immediately burst into tears and couldn’t speak with any coherency. Mrs. Persons sent me to the nurse, the nurse called Mom, and Mom came to get me, and she was not amused.
Even worse, when I went back to school the next day, Mrs. Persons shamed me during circle time in front of the other students, chastising me for my “crocodile tears” and accusing me of lying about feeling ill. (That wasn’t even what I had been trying to tell her. I’d been trying to say that if I still felt ill later, then, Mom had said, I should get to call home.) Other than that one instance, Mrs. Persons was a wonderful teacher who encouraged me and celebrated my intelligence, but I realized that she felt I had been dishonest and, on some level, that I had made her look bad, and I was disappointed with myself, verging on being ashamed, for letting her down. I had been bad, not in need of understanding.
By junior high, I was talking with friends about whether I might be crazy. In high school, I would regularly miss a couple weeks of school due to a mysterious lethargy that my parents finally decided was caused by my allergies.
It wasn’t until after the birth of my first child that I saw a therapist. The beautiful cherub we brought home from the hospital turned out to be an adorable demon who didn’t — and as an adult, still doesn’t — need much sleep. For a year, I thought that my low mood was due to an exhaustion that would go away about the time our sleepless wonder went to college. All I had to do was hold up for another seventeen years…
Then, at the children’s used-clothing store up the street, I picked up a local parents’ newspaper that had an article on postpartum depression and I realized that sleep deprivation might not be my only problem.
This was back before health insurance had to offer behavioural health benefits and before we had money to spare for luxuries like counselling, so it was lucky that the article also listed organizations that would help new mothers find the support they needed. The local United Way found me a therapist and sent someone around to check on me every week or so until I regained my balance. It took only a few months, that time, for me to feel like myself again and to start to re-build my hopes and ambitions, and then to work to start bringing them about.
Over the next few years, I had bouts of melancholy that would come and go, but eventually the depression came to stay. I have now spent about a quarter-century living with the sadness, the self-doubt, and other emotional accessories that come with the second skin of melancholy.2
Because here’s what Mr. Wheaton’s speech doesn’t say: about a third of us who suffer from chronic depression are stuck with it. The drugs don’t work — all the ones I’ve tried had side-effects that made me worse, sometimes trip-to-the-ER worse — and counselling doesn’t scare away the depression either. (I have a brilliant therapist. While she hasn’t been able to disappear the depression, she does keep me from living under my covers.) And even those who do get relief from drugs or therapy usually find what some people call the Black Dog (not Sirius Black. This is a different black dog. Sirius Black would be cool) padding along beside them at times throughout their lives.
When my depression and fatigue become rampant, sometimes my mind walls off sections in an arbitrary fashion. And that’s what happened with my Inktober project. I kept up with writing the prompts, but not with typing up my ramblings and posting them. I have, slowly, over the past many weeks, gotten my Inktoberings into shape, and will start posting them, one every couple of days.3
So that’s where I’ve been, sorting out my mom’s estate (a Work In Progress) and living in my head (another WIP). But if you’d rather think I was abducted by aliens, go ahead. That would be a better story. Maybe I was aboard a UFO with aliens who found my Inktober efforts sufficiently amusing to let me bring my notebook and pens. Maybe the depression is just a cover story planted in my brain to account for my absence. Maybe I’m still on the ship and don’t know it, though I’d expect space-travelling aliens to have better WiFi than what we have at our house…
1. Mr. Wheaton, in addition to his NAMI speech, blogs about his depression (and other matters). Sarah Marsh, in the NAMI newsletter, tells us that “Mental Illness Should Not Be A Secret” in a story much like Mr. Wheaton’s. In one of the Rumpus’ Letters in the Mail, Rion Amilcar Scott discusses the depression-troll that sits on his shoulder and has become a companion. And the Queen of Mental Illness, Jenny Lawson, thebloggess, writes about her own struggles on her blog and in her hysterically funny book, Furiously Happy. (I was going to quote something pertinent from the appendix in the middle of her book, but I couldn’t choose just one.)
2. I do have moments of joy, especially when my children come home, but also after a trip to the bookstore, or during an outing with friends.
3. I saddled poor Hannah with my chronic fatigue, sadness, and self-doubt, mostly to give a plausible reason for the days I couldn’t think up a plot-point.
A few days ago, Lydia Schoch put up a post on her blog, “What I Would Do with a Million Dollars.” Her plans are eminently sensible and I applaud her foresight. After all, one never knows: someone might just hand her a fortune someday, so it is important to plan ahead.
But lately, I’ve found myself wondering what I would do if I happened to have 5.7 billion dollars to spend. I’m pretty sure some of it would end up at our local bookstore. I’d probably buy that cool fountain pen I’ve been eyeing. In a moment of unbridled reasonableness, I might even set up retirement funds for myself and my family.
But what to do with the other 5.6 billion? Would I build a border wall that could be easily breached, one that would have an enormous, deleterious effect on the environment, that would divide towns, deprive people of their homes, augment the crisis at the border, and be an eye-sore to boot?
No, I don’t think I would.
I think I’d be inclined to spend it on children, on the generations coming after me.* Maybe I’d give kids books and fountain pens. Or better schools with reasonable class sizes and teachers who are paid so well that our best and brightest would vie to spend their days with boisterous kindergartners and surly, adolescent, high-school students.
Maybe I’d find a way to help social services around the country staff their offices with social workers who would have only a few cases apiece so that children in desperate situations wouldn’t get lost in and abused by the system. And maybe, like teachers, I could pay these workers well enough that bright and caring people would be eager to be hired for these positions, especially if there were money left over to provide them with the training and support they would need to deal with heart-breaking family situations.
I might spend the money on research to reverse global warming so that our children will have a planet on which they can live or donate the funds to NASA in hopes that they’ll find new worlds for new generations — and ways for them to live on these planets without destroying them. (See WALL-E.)
Truly, I can think of so very many ways to spend 5.6 (or even 5.7) billion dollars, and none of them include a border wall. Anybody have some other suggestions? What would you do if you had 5.7 billion dollars burning a hole in your pocket?
As for me: bring on the next windmill…
*Possibly in both senses of the phrase.
I started writing this piece a few months ago. I have struggled with the conviction that what I say will have no impact beyond, perhaps, attracting malicious responses. But with the mid-term elections here, I decided to finish the essay and post it. And as I was filling in the remaining gaps today, I saw that there was another shooting, this time in a synagogue in Philadelphia.
I am a Jew. Perhaps that shouldn’t matter, and I don’t find that I am more appalled at this rampage than I have been at all the many, many others. But I confess this one shook me. These were my people. I may not have known any of the congregants or victims, but this killing is still personal, and it brought to the surface not just what has become my usual fury, but also a core of fear that I wish I could deny I carry with me. So now I publish this essay not just in hopes of effecting some ripple of change, but also in defiance of that fear and of the people, like today’s killer, who have installed it in my heart and in my mind.
It has been over nineteen years since the slaughter at Columbine High School, nineteen years since we saw what destruction of lives, of dreams, of potential could be wrought by the proliferation of guns in our country. In those nineteen years, we have seen with growing frequency how gun violence does not just end the lives of people, of children who should have lived, but also how such violence leaves victims bewildered,1parents’ hearts shattered, siblings missing brothers and sisters and wondering whether their parents will ever be happy again. Friends and classmates are left with memories of carnage, memories that shape them for the rest of their lives. And we rarely hear about the children who are picked off one by one every day —an average of nineteen shot each day, three or four of whom will die.2 And those of us who want to prevent these rending losses with gun-law reform are branded as unpatriotic, our ability to understand the Second Amendment derided, our intentions attributed to a desire for some kind of self-serving political gain. Like Cassandra, we see clearly but seem fated to be dismissed.
It has been a little more than eight months since the Parkland murders, eight months since the survivors of that horror transformed their anger into a movement that (should have) shamed us all. The students spoke and marched and insisted — rightly — that such shootings should never happen again. Their demands were sensible and moderate, yet they were denigrated and ignored by many, especially by those in power who could have brought about changes that would have lessened the violence. And these young people continue to persevere by turning their March for Our Lives movement into a Vote for Our Lives endeavour, by travelling the country and encouraging other young people (and not so young ones too) to register and cast their ballots. They give me hope.3
And then there was another shooting, this time in Texas. And what was shocking was the lack of shock. It was Santa Fe student Paige Curry who, when asked by Foti Kallergis of ABC-13if there was part of her that had thought such a shooting couldn’t happen at her school, baldly replied
“No,” she said, without looking directly at Kallergis. “There wasn’t.”
“It’s been happening everywhere,” she said with a shrug. “I’ve always kind of felt like eventually it was going to happen here, too.”4
I find it unspeakably abhorrent that we have allowed, by refusing to implement sane regulations on guns, this expectation to become normal, that we have become comfortable with our children’s knowing we find their slaughter an acceptable alternative to regulating weapons in America.
The community of Santa Fe is still, as they should be, reeling and mourning.5 And yesterday, The New York Times reported that
Kentucky State Police foiled a man’s plan to attack a high school after they received a tip from a New Jersey woman who said he had sent her a racist message on Facebook, the authorities said.
The police traced the message to Dylan Jarrell, 21, of Lawrenceburg, Ky., and then discovered after searching his phone that he had been plotting to attack local schools.6
School shootings continue to be the signature villainy of our time, continue to be the salient point around which our arguments and fears coalesce. My husband is a teacher; he doesn’t know what to tell his students.
I continue to think about guns in our culture, about the people who do use them safely, and about those with opinions different than mine who are willing to engage in civil discourse on this topic. So I asked someone I respect, someone who grew up shooting guns, who could shoot from the back of a horse and the back of a truck, what she thinks we should do about guns. She told me that her local city newspaper recently ran a cartoon of a police department with guards all around it, and a hospital with guards, and a school that’s completely open. She thinks we must set guards around our schools, have our kids walk through metal detectors to get into their schools and be searched upon entry to the school building.
I know there are other thoughtful persons who agree with this view. But it is untenable. No school district has the money to post such security forces nor to purchase detectors and hire still more security to search our children. We are not even willing to pay the majority of our teachers a living wage.
More disturbing is the psychological effect that asking our students to go to schools that are set up like prisons will have. It is strange and upsetting that so many people, so many lawmakers are willing to ignore the effect sending children to fortresses every day will have but are eager to use the mentally ill as scapegoats. While some killers are indeed in need of psychiatric intervention, not all are cognitively or emotionally dysfunctional. The Las Vegas shooter had no mental illness. Too often the logic is that because a person, almost always male, picked up some guns and used them to kill more than four people, then that person is crazy, an aberrant statistic about which we can do nothing. But if we adhere to that argument, how can we hold any killer accountable? How do we calculate the amount of damage that we will define as insanity? Shooting four people isn’t much worse than killing three, or two, or one. And we can keep going from there. If killing a single person is madness, what about beating someone? Raping teens? Slapping a guy who got fresh at a bar? Calling the nerdy kid at school names? Pretty soon we would have to acknowledge that any act of harm against others, intentional or careless, willful, planned, or spontaneous is a sign of incompetence and illness, and that only the saints are sane.
We need to stop calling to our past, to our history as an excuse to maintain the status quo and to acknowledge that our present time has different needs. When our country was born, as Garrett Epps explains in The Atlantic7 more cogently than I can,
To much of the revolutionary generation, a standing army was the mortal enemy of freedom and self-government. Those ratifying the Constitution had vivid memories of red-clad professional soldiers—some speaking German—swarming ashore to enforce British tax laws, and then to try to crush the Revolution.
Despite that fear, the United States has established a federal military and invested the president with the powers and responsibilities of Commander in Chief. We have done away with state militias and bearing arms has never been a constitutionally unlimited right. It is long, long past time for the majority of us to stand up and say, “No more. Pass laws that will drastically reduce the number of guns in our country.”
America has always wrestled with the competing rights of various groups and individuals. We have, in the past, prided ourselves on our ideal (to which we may not always live up as well as we should) of protecting the less powerful from those in a position to oppress them. Those who argue for the “right” of all of us to own arsenals of whatever weaponry strikes our fancy are not preserving our freedom; they are refusing to see that the great American experiment with flooding the country with guns has notmade us or our children safer; it has turned us into a society that tolerates killers and the terror that our children carry with them to school and into life.
As we go to the polls, we should remember that the Second Amendment was meant as a safeguard against tyranny. It is a sickening and dishonourable shame that it has now become itself an instrument of tyranny.
https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/05/opinion/sunday/emma-gonzalez-parkland.html?rref=collection%2Ftimestopic%2FSchool Shootings and Violence&action=click&contentCollection=timestopics®ion=stream&module=stream_unit&version=latest&contentPlacement=7&h
If you’re thinking about not voting, please think again.
To the under-thirty crowd: check out former president Obama’s PSA. Prove wrong everyone who says you’re apathetic, that you don’t care enough to be aware of what’s going on or to cast a ballot. I don’t think that’s true of your generation. I think you do care and want to make a difference. Perhaps some of you don’t think your vote can bring about change, but it can. Voting is an act that is at once a right, a privilege, and a responsibility. Take advantage of living in a country where you get to vote. Vote now so you can retain that right.
To everyone: If you think you can’t lose the right to vote, think again.1 Thousands and thousands of people are being disenfranchised by voter suppression laws and regulations. Vote for the American Indians in North Dakota; vote for the tens of thousands of voters being denied a ballot in Georgia because there’s an extra space between their names. Vote for the immigrants in Garden City, Kansas, where the only polling place has been moved out of town, a mile away from the nearest bus stop. Vote to help ensure every eligible citizen gets to cast a ballot.
Vote because families are still separated, because children have forgotten their parents, because the president wants to reinstate this policy of separating even nursing infants from their parents,2 a policy that causes life-lasting trauma and because he now has a Supreme Court that will support this cruelty. Vote because children of both immigrants and citizens need protection.
Vote because women have the right to control their lives and destinies and need access to trustworthy health care, to birth control, and to safe abortions. Vote because we all need access to quality health care and we won’t get it from this Congress.3 Vote because our judiciary is becoming dangerously unbalanced. Vote to restore judges who represent the majority of people, not the fringes.
Vote because every child needs an education in a school without guns and with decently paid, dedicated, capable teachers. Vote because children die every day from a gun, because adults are shot every day as well. According to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, eight children die each day from gun violence; ninety-six people of all ages are killed by a gun — each day. And then there are the thousands (over fourteen thousand children; close to ninety thousand people total) who are shot every year but survive to live with the trauma and the often lasting disabilities and the expenses of having been shot.4 There was an op-ed piece in the Washington Post about how people are afraid to make their opinions known to others because our national discourse has become so uncivil, volatile, and threatening that speaking up can be dangerous.5 I understand that fear — in fact, I share it. But voting provides us a powerful means of participating in the conversation, of having our say safely, of making our voice be heard.
If you’re thinking about not voting, think again. Many of our recent elections have been close; your votes truly can turn a tide. Don’t let anyone say you didn’t put out the effort and missed your chance to have your say; don’t let others decide your fate.