Archive for mental health

Expectations of Genius

Posted in Ramblings, Rants with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 18, 2013 by KarenElizabeth

I stumbled across this story today in my ramblings around the Internet.

It bothers me how the media buys in to the stereotype of the “dumb blonde” and the idea that beautiful women cannot possibly be intelligent, too — I’ve talked about this before.  It’s hard to be judged as “stupid” before you’ve even opened your mouth, just because of how you look.  It’s hard to fight an uphill battle every day against the preconceived notion that if you’re pretty, you’ve had everything handed to you on a silver platter and have never had to work or to fight for what you have in your life.  It’s hard to stay positive when people attack you based on those assumptions, or avoid you entirely and refuse to get to know you.

But what actually struck me more, in reading this story, was the commentary surrounding how this girl is “wasting her potential”.  How she’s wasting valuable time, thought, and energy on a beauty routine that involves self-tanner and fake nails.  How she’s wasting her mind by watching trash TV shows.  How she’s wasting her thoughts and her potential on dreams of a future in performance.  The general disdain for beauty and so-called “superficial” pursuits is prevalent throughout the article, and even more so in the comments being left by readers.

This kind of pressure is commonly faced by those of us with higher-than-average intellects, and it can be absolutely crushing.  When everyone’s telling you how much you could do and pushing you to “live up to your full potential”, it feels as though the expectations placed upon you are almost impossible to live up to — as though nothing you do can ever possibly be good enough.  Any “wasted” time becomes a source of guilt, and whenever you can’t be in two places at once or do everything perfectly on the first try, you feel as though you’re letting everyone down and not doing as well as you “should” be.  And when you need to ask for help, you feel bad, as though you’re somehow failing by needing someone else to lend a hand or show you the way.  And it can feel incredibly unfair when you feel those expectations being put upon you, but not on anybody else:  I still feel a huge sense of injustice when my parents brush off my siblings’ lack of scholastic ability, when they spent so much time berating me for every “A minus” grade that I “could have done better” on, or when a well-meaning friend or relative criticizes my choice to pursue an arts career when I “could be” a doctor or a lawyer or a scientist or whatever other career they happen to think is more suitable.

This is a pressure that I’ve faced throughout my life, and I’m sure the girl in this story is feeling a huge wave of it right now.  And it’s completely unfair.

First of all, there’s the simple fact that just having a high IQ does not mean you’re good at every single subject.  You may be able to grasp unfamiliar concepts more quickly, remember things more readily, or assimilate information in a quick & easy fashion, but that doesn’t mean you’re good at everything you do.  I still have my subjects that I struggle in, and so does every other “genius” I’ve ever met.  I’ve needed extra help, from time to time, and it’s often frustratingly hard to get — it’s amazing how often people will say things like, “but you’re smart, why can’t you understand this?”, or dismiss your efforts as though you’re not even trying because “you’d get it if you just put your mind to it”.  But just being generally smart does not mean you’ve got a natural aptitude for everything.

And along with aptitude, there’s interest.  Different things catch different people’s attention, and we shouldn’t feel limited to only certain areas of study because those are traditionally seen as more “intellectual”.  So what if a smart person wants to apply their brains to an artistic field, or if they’d rather do a job that involves using their hands?  A person shouldn’t need to feel intellectually challenged by their work every single day (unless that’s what they themselves actually want).  And if a person decides to go into a field that’s not “intellectual”, they shouldn’t feel guilty because they “could” be doing something else.  I may be intelligent, but I wouldn’t be happy working in a lab — spending my life trying to cure cancer or blaze new legal trails would leave me feeling unhappy and unfulfilled, and ultimately I’d never have the sort of passion for the work that drives true innovation.

And then, of course, there’s the fact that IQ is only one measure of intelligence.  As we come to understand more and more about the way the human brain works, we’re beginning to place more important on things like the “emotional quotient” and on different learning styles and “types” of intelligence.  A person who has a relatively average IQ, but is very passionate about their subject, is likely to spend more time and energy working on it — and if they’re coming at it from a different angle or “learning style”, they may see things in it that a traditionally-intelligent, “booksmart”-type would not see.

There’s a high level of “burnout” among high-IQ individuals, and a lot of that is directly related to these pressures that we face.  We’re expected to be highly self-reliant and to need less teaching.  Our peers often rely on us to help them out when they are struggling with a topic (“hey, you’re smart, can you explain this?”), but who do the “smart kids” turn to when we’re in need of a little help?  If we choose to spend a few hours relaxing and playing a video game or watching TV, we face the criticism that we “should be” learning something instead, never mind that down-time and letting your brain shut off for a while is important for all people (“why aren’t you off curing cancer right now instead of watching that reality TV show?”).  And often our less-intellectual friends come to rely on us for things that aren’t even really our responsibility:  we’re the ones who are expected to remember every little detail, even if we’re not directly in charge (“well you should have known better”).  Sometimes the more you deliver, the more it seems people expect of you, until everything in life becomes a thankless struggle to keep up with the expectations that are being placed on you.

Happy Valentines Day! Musings on the Nature of “Fetish”

Posted in Ramblings with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 14, 2013 by KarenElizabeth

I’m not a huge fan of Valentines Day (for all of the usual reasons) — so rather than taking one of my boys out to an overcrowded “romantic” restaurant on a date and spending a bunch of money on gifts (blargh, no thanks!), I’m spending the evening eating homemade pirogies while the cats fight about who gets to sit on my lap and beg for a piece of my bacon (haha, fat chance, kitties: the bacon is mine!)

Anywhos.  In honour of this overly-commercialized pseudo-holiday, I bring you a (gasp!) post about a sexual topic.  Fetishes!  What they are, why we have them, and a little bit of gender theory on the topic.

Collar & leash fetish (model: me; photographer: blurred photography)

As with a most sexual topics, there is a lot of confusion and misinformation and judgmental bullshit to be found floating around the Internet (and in real life, as well).  It’s hard to even find a decent definition of what constitutes a “fetish”, so I’ll start this post off with a little bit of a vocabulary list, and some discussion of the term itself.

There are a few different things that people mean when they call something a “fetish”.  They may mean fascination.  They may mean kink.  Or they may actually mean fetish — but I would further define the term into two distinct categories:  soft and hard fetishes.

Now, a fascination would be non-sexual in nature.  If something fascinates you, it grabs your attention.  It’s something that you think about — perhaps even obsess over — often and in great detail.  The word “fetish” is sometimes used to describe this behaviour, but it’s not what I’m referring to in this post.

kink, meanwhile, is something that interests you on a sexual level.  It’s fun, it’s exciting, and it falls outside the category of “straight” or “normal” sex (“normal” being, of course, a problematic term, since what is “normal” is culturally influenced and can be endlessly debated — but that’s neither here nor there to this post, really).  Anyone who has an active and happy sex life has probably had kinky sex at some point — whether you’ve brought a set of pink, fuzzy handcuffs into the bedroom, blindfolded your partner, whacked them with a riding crop, dressed like a sexy schoolgirl, licked ice cream off their nipples, tried re-enacting a scene from “50 Shades“, or gone full-blown “story of O” with one another, you’ve probably introduced some kink into the bedroom.  It may have been exciting, it may have been silly, it may have been a gigantic and horrific failure.  In any case, kink is pretty casual (and, yes, entirely “normal” — but that’s a whole other post right there).

In the “true” sense of the word, fetish has referred to a sense of sexual arousal derived from a specific object, situation, non-genital body part, etc. (genitals don’t count, because they’re “supposed” to arouse you).

Webster defines fetish as:

  • an object or bodily part whose real or fantasied presence is psychologically necessary for sexual gratification and that is an object of fixation to the extent that it may interfere with complete sexual expression

Other dictionary definitions include:

  • any object or nongenital part of the body that causes a habitual erotic response or fixation.
  • any object, activity, etc, to which one is excessively or irrationally devoted
  • Something, such as an object or a nonsexual part of the body, that arouses sexual desire and may become necessary for sexual gratification.
  • a form of sexual desire in which gratification depends to an abnormal degree on some object or item of clothing or part of the body

Obviously there’s some significant deviation between definitions. While Webster defines a fetish as something that is “psychologically necessary for sexual gratification”, other definitions only say that this may become necessary, while still others ignore that aspect entirely. Some definitions refer to the having of a fetish as “abnormal” or “irrational” (again, I must point out that “normal” is a somewhat subjective thing), while others refer only to a “habitual erotic response” and skip the judgmental language.

Added to the confusion is the fact that having a fetish is something that is often pathologised, with psychotherapy, counseling, and behaviour modification techniques being commonly recommended as ways of “curing” a fetishist.

For the purposes of this article, we’ll use the definition that I personally consider to be most correct.  In my definition, soft fetishes are those things which are non-sexual in and of themselves (so, not genitals or common erogenous zones) but which cause sexual arousal in the fetishist. Hard fetishes are when that normally non-sexual thing becomes necessary to the fetishist achieving orgasm (or even sexual pleasure of any sort).

Either a soft or a hard fetish may become a source of psychological distress, but neither is (in my non-medical opinion) a disorder all on its own. Having a fetish is not a bad thing, and I think it’s important to remove the negative and judgmental language that has so often surrounded the word.

So!  Now that we’ve defined the term, let’s talk a little bit about why, exactly, we have fetishes in the first place.


It has long been supposed by psychoanalysts that fetishes are commonly formed through “imprinting” or “classical conditioning” — often in early childhood, although it can happen in adults as well. The basic theory is that which was illustrated by Pavlov: if, for example, a person who is first developing a sense of their sexuality always masturbates in the shower, they may begin to associate the feeling of an orgasm with the warm water, or with the particular scent of the soap they use, or with the feeling of a porcelain tub.

A particularly striking or traumatic incident may also “imprint” upon a person’s behaviour: if a person’s first sexual experience was particularly negative, for example, they may afterwards find themselves being aroused by shame or violence or pain — or by something much more specific, like the sound of your first lover’s derisive laughter. Non-sexual incidents may also leave their mark upon a person’s sexual desires: having been wrapped up in a blanket by an older sibling & scared by that as a child may result in a mummification fetish, while a person whose favourite babysitter wore a leather jacket may find themselves aroused by leather clothing or objects later in life.

Because the mind is such a complex thing, it’s hard to determine what will “imprint” (and how), and what will not. Two people may go through the exact same experience, and one will come out with a fetish while the other doesn’t, or each will come out with a completely different fetish. And since some of these events happen while we are young children, they’re not always remembered or reported by fetish-having adults.

Transitional objects and behaviours are also commonly thought to be a source of fetishes: a thumb-sucker may grow up to have a particular penchant for fellatio, while a child who clung to their teddy bear may fetishize the feeling of faux fur on their skin.

But there are other, more subtle (and less understood) factors at work, here. One widely publicized study indicates that there has historically been a rise in the popularity of foot fetishes during times of widespread outbreaks of STIs. Does something as abstract as a fear of disease encourage us to fetishize? Are we really that logical about it?

There’s also a theory out there that certain personality types are more prone to developing fetishes: introverts are more likely than extroverts because they are shy and tend to be more self-reliant (so they seek ways to find self-gratification, rather than seeking “normal” sexual relationships). And people of high intelligence are also supposed to be more prone to fetishizing, possibly because “normal” sex is not challenging enough (like the child who acts out in class because they are bored), or perhaps just because of a tendency to overthink and obsess over minute details.

As with many sexual topics, there is a somewhat depressing lack of information and scientific fact out there to be discussed: much data is self-reported, and many of the conclusions commonly presented are nothing more than untested hypotheses. It has been shown in a few studies that classical conditioning can work to produce a soft fetish response in men (women haven’t been studied), but that’s about as far as it has ever been taken.

Which brings me to my next point: gender.  Discussions about fetishes tend to be very gendered affairs:  there’s a perception out there that it’s men who primarily have fetishes (especially hard fetishes), while women are not prone to such things.  I don’t think that this is an accurate perception at all.

Or is it?

I think that the idea that fetishes (or even sex in general) are more of a “guy thing” is largely learned, not a hard-wired part of the “man-brain”.  A big part of this has to do with the difference in the way our society treats male and female pleasure.

From childhood, men are more encouraged to explore their sexuality. Self-gratification, masturbation, and exploration of kink & fetish are very taboo for young women, not as much so for young men (this has to do with the slut/stud divide: where men who are sexually aware & active are seen as virile and masculine, while females in the same situation are seen as dirty and deviant). So during those formative years when some of our base sexual desires are being discovered and wired into our brains, males are being encouraged (and even pressured) by their peers and by media and by society in general to explore and to touch themselves and to find their sexual side. Females, conversely, are being told that touching themselves is dirty, that sex is scary and dangerous, and that only bad people are interested in sex. This leads to males, as a general thing, having a greater variety of experiences during those formative years, because they feel a freedom that females do not. A young woman learning to touch and explore her body is likely to keep it very private, and unless she has a great deal of unsupervised freedom in her life she’ll be unlikely to introduce a lot of outside elements into her masturbation habits. Young males, on the other hand, are somewhat encouraged to just go ahead and stick their bits into anything with a hole of approximately the right size.

Psychologically, it’s much more likely that a hard fetish will develop young. So the greater prevalence of hard fetishes among males likely has a lot to do with the age at which sexual exploration begins to be encouraged.

On another level, male gratification is seen in mainstream media (and thus by society in general) as the ultimate goal of sexual activity. It’s rare to see any portrayal of sex where the man does not “get off” — and it’s rare to see portrayals of sex where the activity continues after his orgasm has been achieved. The “male gaze” is also a factor, here: since we are almost always intended to identify with a white, hetero, male protagonist, we are most concerned with seeing him get what he wants. And that attitude is reinforced even in places that are more sex-positive for females: women’s magazines may tout the newest vibrator as the best way to achieve your own pleasure, but they still carry articles about how to “please your man” in overwhelming abundance (even though most men report being happy with their sex lives). Women exist in supporting roles. Women are taught that achieving orgasm is difficult & rare, that it’s okay to “fake it”, and that it’s expected (and even virtuous – gross!) for a female to not enjoy sex as much as a male does (or at all). What this means is that a man who has a hard fetish (or even a soft fetish that makes achieving arousal easier) will continue to explore that, because erection and ejaculation are seen as being very important elements of masculinity. A man who cannot orgasm is “broken”: there is something terribly wrong with him. The stigma against erectile dysfunction and the fear of being “unmanned” will likely overcome any shame that might arise from unusual masturbatory habits. Women, on the other hand, may discover a fetishistic behaviour at some point in their journey of sexual exploration, only to shun and deny it as “shameful” and “deviant” (see earlier comment on the “slut/stud divide”). It’s less likely to become part of a normal masturbatory routine (and, of course, repeating the same fetishistic behaviour on a regular basis is one of the things that can turn a soft fetish into a hard one). It may remain as an occasional “guilty pleasure”, but it’s likely something that she’ll keep limited and private.

And that leads me into my next point: it’s easier for women to hide a fetish. Because males are expected to achieve erection and ejaculation during a sexual encounter, while women are permitted (and sometimes even expected) to just “lie still and think of England”, a man can’t hide it if he has a hard fetish. If he can’t get it up without a particular object being involved, he’ll have to share that information with his partner, or face being the guy who can’t please a woman and isn’t a “real man”. A woman might be seen as “frigid” if she doesn’t respond to sexual activity, but that’s not nearly as much of a negative thing.

Men are also traditionally seen as the “leaders” in heterosexual sex. Men are supposed to “take the reins” and be “dominant” and “assertive” about what they want in bed. Since femininity is associated with passivity and being quiet and all of that nonsense, men are likely to feel more freedom in bringing up a fetish (even a soft one), because they feel “in charge” of the situation and are used to asking for what they want. Women have to deal with a much greater fear of rejection in this sort of a situation, and are under some pressure to not appear “sluttish” by demanding things that will please them in bed.

As a final thing, I’d like to talk a little bit about how and why fetishes — both soft and hard — are so often seen as a negative thing.


Like many sexual activities, proclivities, and preferences, fetishes have spent a lot of time being demonized. It is only very recently that fetishes and paraphilias have begun to be redefined. Until the last decade, simply having a fetish of any sort was enough for a person to be defined as mentally ill!  Of course, it was only in the mid 70s that homosexuality was taken off the list of mental illnesses, so this is a problem that extends way beyond just the fetish and kink worlds.  Our understanding of human psychology is overall kind of crappy, and we need to work on that.

But back to the topic at hand.  Society’s general disdain for sexual acts (especially those which are not a part of the status quo) is only partially to blame, here, because even within the kink community there is something of a negative stigma attached to certain fetishes — and to hard fetishes in particular.

What it boils down to is that fetishes have an inherent selfishness to them — especially if it’s a fetish that your partner does not share. If you must involve (for example) shoes in some way in order to get off, it limits your sex life in some regard and puts a burden on your partner(s) with regards to how they can express their own sexuality. Depending on how generous you are as a lover (are you willing to put aside your fetish on some days and forgo your own pleasure just so that they don’t need to worry about it?), this can quickly put a strain on a couple’s sex life.

Soft fetishes are somewhat less problematic, because they don’t need to be dealt with in all sexual activities, but there is still a “you want me to do what?” factor. Some generosity on the part of a non-fetish-having lover is required, or the fetish-haver will likely feel unfulfilled and unhappy that their fetish is never acknowledged or appreciated.  But the fetish-haver must be understanding as well — they have to recognize that their partner doesn’t share this desire and that it might seem “icky” or off-putting.

Depending on the fetish, it may be something that comes up only occasionally, or it may be something that is constantly being brought up as a factor.  Having a fetish for boys in dresses, for example, is something that you can explore occasionally and then put back into the closet in-between times, to be brought out at your convenience.  You’re not going to encounter boys in dresses very often in your day-to-day life (or in your regularly scheduled sex life), so it’s something that can be, at least sometimes, ignored.  A shoe fetish, though:  almost everybody wears shoes.  You’re going to see those all the time, on all sorts of people.  It can become something distracting and can cause jealousy — if your partner knows about your fetish, they may find themselves second-guessing the relationship every time you compliment a friend’s footwear.  And a foot fetish can be even worse:  it’s not like your partner can leave their feet out of it when you’re having sexy-times together, so it’s easy for them to start feeling as though you focus WAY too much on their feet and not enough on the rest of them.  Unless you are a very sensitive and communicative person, it’s easy to leave someone feeling objectified and undervalued in this situation.

Of course, a part of the problem comes from the fact that fetishes have been marginalized for so long.  There’s a lack of information, and a lot of the information that is readily available (especially with the Internet) is not particularly accurate (like with most things to do with sex, porn is almost never the place to look for an accurate depiction).  Until we start accepting that fetishes can be a part of a “normal”, healthy sex life, they’re always going to be viewed with disgust and distrust.  The recent changes to the psychological definitions of fetishes have been a step in the right direction, and therapists (especially those who specialize in sexual issues) are becoming more knowledgeable about the subject, but that knowledge has yet to filter down to the general public.  Finding out that your partner has a fetish can be intimidating, and we’ve not yet developed many resources for helping with that.  But hopefully my blog post adds something to the discussion!

If you are looking for resources & support with regards to fetishes (your own or a partner’s), here are some links that might be helpful — or just leave a comment below and I’m happy to offer whatever advice I can!

Public Tragedies and How to Move Forwards: the Sandy Hook Shooting

Posted in Ramblings, Rants with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 17, 2012 by KarenElizabeth

Like most everyone else, I’ve been reading the news the last few days with a mix of shock and horror and deep sadness as the details of exactly what happened at Sandy Hook elementary school emerge, and the public responses to the event occur.

There are some terribly hard questions to be asked when tragic events like this take place.  Why did it happen?  Why did no one see it coming?  Who is at fault, and what could we have done differently?  In the midst of grief and shock and horror, we have a tendency to point fingers and assign blame, desperate to have it be someone’s fault.  Because if there’s not a clear, easily-defined reason for the tragedy, then we don’t know when or where or how or why it might happen again, which is (of course) the most terrifying thing of all.  The unknown.  The fact that if there’s no one directly at fault, there might be nothing we can do.  And then we might be the ones at fault.  Terrifying.  So we point fingers, assign blame, aim to punish the “guilty” and the “wicked” for the salving of our own consciences.

But all this rapid-fire blame-flinging (some of it blatantly self-serving, some just misguided and being hurled out of fear and ignorance) does little to help the situation, either.  We can rail against violent video games just because of a suggestion that the shooter might have enjoyed the odd LAN party.  We can rail against the NRA because the shooter lived in a home where guns were owned.  We can rail against the shooter himself for being “troubled”, or his mother for raising him wrong.  We can rail against the mental health care system for not “fixing” the shooter.  We can rail against feminists and pro-choice activists for “denying God” and allowing evil to take place in the world.  We can rail against the police for not showing up faster, the school for not being locked down in an armored and guarded complex, or the victims for not learning to duck.  None of it helps.  What has taken place is in the past, and what we now need to do is face up to it like mature, rational people, and find ways of moving forwards and addressing what has occurred.  Instead we get mired down in yelling at each other, in blaming one group or another, instead of asking “what can I do to help?”

First of all, you can stop sensationalizing and romanticizing murder.  Like the quote in the above image says, you’re just planting the seeds for another attention-starved person to plan a copycat killing, without honouring the dead or those who are suffering right now.  Don’t focus on the killer, focus on the victims.  Focus on efforts to help the bereaved families, to rebuild a shattered community.  Focus on ways to help your own community and family deal with what has happened.  Focus on love, and the heroes who gave their lives to save the lives of others, and all of the positive things that have been done and are being done.  Focus on remembering the names of the victims.

Do not insert yourself into the tragedy.  Do not make this, somehow, about you and your struggles.  It isn’t the time.

Be loving.  Share with other people.  Include other people in your grief, rather than hiding away from the world.  Because if you include other people, if you talk and communicate and share and give and love?  You’re creating a support network that can help victims and protect from further harm.

Resist the temptation to point fingers and blame. No matter what your personal feelings on issues like gun control, this is not the time to air your personal grievances.  There are others with deeper griefs just now.  This isn’t to say that we can’t use this event as a lens through which to view issues like gun control, mental health care, security measures in schools, and the like — it’s important to analyze and dissect things from a political perspective — but when you do so, separate it from the emotionally charged language of the tragedy.  Focus on facts, statistics, numbers:  things that are quantifiable.  Avoid speculation and unsubstantiated rumours.  The more logic that we can bring to bear on the situation, the better and more well-founded our conclusions will be.

This is a logical time for people to be questioning gun control regulations and whether there need to be changes made.  This is a logical time for people to be looking at whether the shooter could have been helped by a differently organized mental health care system.  This is a logical time for people to be looking at how security in public schools is equipped (or not equipped) to deal with these sorts of events.  We should be talking about these things, and many others.  But no one has an absolute answer that will “fix” the problem, and anyone shouting that they do is just pushing an agenda.  There hasn’t been enough time to assimilate all of the information and dissect it carefully & thoroughly.

Be as logical as you can be.  Because irrational, emotional responses?  Those only cause more harm, in more far-reaching ways that you can possibly imagine.


I remember when Columbine happened.  I was in the 6th grade, and I was what was defined as a “troubled” kid.  I had few friends, was considered “antisocial” by my teachers.  I dressed differently from other kids, listened to loud music, and yes, I owned a long trenchcoat-style jacket.  In the weeks and months following, I had everyone from fellow students to teachers to my own mother express concerns that I might be “just like those Columbine shooters”.  I was treated like a dangerous menace, a ticking time bomb, because of the media hype surrounding how the Columbine shooters wore trenchcoats and listened to metal and were outcasts without many friends.

The media hype surrounding that event almost drove me to suicide, because I was so afraid of what might be “wrong” with me.  I’d been profiled as a killer, lumped in with people who’d done something so awful that my mind couldn’t even totally comprehend it.  And I still feel a lot of that same anxiety as an adult, when I see murders blamed on people’s mental health issues or their turbulent relationships with their mothers or their introverted natures.


It took me years to realize that people’s reactions to that event, and to me in its aftermath, were the product of fear.  They wanted, desperately, to have some sort of control over an event that had seemed utterly unfathomable right up until the moment when it occurred.  They grasped at straws, seeking to connect the dots in any possible way, hoping to protect themselves and instead furthering a witch-hunt that unfairly categorized not only me, but thousands of other kids like me, as dangerous and scary.  And instead of reaching out to people like me, instead of making us feel more included, more loved, less like outcasts in the first place?  They drove us further away.  The people who made me feel so awful, so worthless, were not asking “what can I do?”  They were asking, “who’s fault is this?” and pointing blame at the people like me.

Don’t let that happen.  Don’t give in to that temptation.  Live with love, not with fear, and see how much farther that will take you.

“Sticking it in the Crazy” – Thoughts on Sex, Dating, and Mental Illness

Posted in Ramblings, Rants with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 29, 2012 by KarenElizabeth

Mental Illness

Mental illness is, of course, a topic near and dear to my heart — and my mind, since I myself am clinically bipolar and have suffered throughout all of my remembered life from alternating periods of moderate-to-severe depression and anxiety.  I am the “one in five”, that statistic that gets tossed around so much (although of course there are legitimate concerns with the metrics used to measure such statistics — not least that they require self-reporting, which many people will not do, fearing the stigma of “craziness”).

And, of course, I’m not the only person in my life who suffers from this sort of thing — I have friends, lovers, and family members who’ve been diagnosed, at one time or another, with disorders ranging from seasonal depression to borderline personality disorder.  Each deals with it in their own way:  some are more private than others with the details of their lives and struggles, and some are more successful than others at blending in and appearing “normal” in everyday society.  But they are unavoidably present, in all of our lives.  You can’t just completely avoid 20% of the population, so we’ve all got a few “crazies” in our inner circles.

The Dating Question

One of the hardest things about being open and honest with the world regarding my own mental illness is dating.  Just saying, “I’m bipolar” to a potential romantic interest can be enough to send some people running for the hills, wailing “why are all the hot ones crazy?” and shielding their genitals as though bipolar were an STI and could be caught from me.  “Don’t stick your dick in crazy” (or the less gendered, “don’t stick it in crazy”, if you prefer), has become a well-known Internet meme and gets bandied about alongside so many other offensive little tidbits of “advice”.

Nevermind that I’m a very intelligent and self-aware person who works hard to manage and control my particular disorder; nevermind that I’ve spent years analyzing my own wants and needs when it comes to relationships and learning to compensate for my shortcomings at interpersonal interaction.  No matter how hard I work at it, to some I’m still just a “crazy chick”, and that renders me completely undateable (or even outright untouchable).  I’ve been told on multiple occasions that I have to “fix myself” before I should even consider a relationship — nevermind that bipolar disorder isn’t like a cold or a broken bone that can be “healed” with just a little time and attention, and that I’m going to be “crazy” for the rest of the foreseeable future.

I’m attractive, talented, intelligent, fun — a lot of very desirable traits.  And those are all supposed to be overshadowed by a psychological diagnosis?  No thank you.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t challenges associated with dating the mentally ill.  Especially when you get two of us together (and some of the most significant relationships in my life have been with other mentally ill individuals), it can be incredibly difficult, at times, to manage the extremes of anxiety, depression, post-traumatic flashbacks, dissociative periods — and then there’s the many unhealthy coping mechanisms that many of us may resort to in difficult times, such as substance abuse, self-harm, and reckless behaviours.

But these challenges do not have to be deal-breakers.  People with mental illnesses, even severe ones, should not be relegated to a loveless existence or avoided like the plague.  Because yes, there are challenges to be overcome, but there are challenges in every relationship.  There are always going to be ways in which two personalities will not perfectly mesh, and topics or situations where one partner has very different feelings from the other.  And being mentally ill does not make a person any less functional, intelligent, mature, or self-aware (actually I’d argue that the mentally ill among us are often the most self-aware, since we have to spend so much of our time analyzing and controlling our own behaviours).

Of course, not every mentally ill person is at a place in their life where they are ready to be dating — but then, not every supposedly “normal” person is at that place in their life, either.  Plenty of relationships fall apart for reasons other than, “s/he’s crazy!”

Atypical Relationships and Desires

Another challenge that I often have to face in the dating world, independent from my diagnosis, is that the relationships I’m looking for are not “typical” ones.  As someone who identifies as polyamorous, bisexual, and kinky, it can be very difficult to add “bipolar” to that list.  Polyamory is already seen by many people as an indication of a “fear of commitment”, or even as a sign of mental illness in and of itself (people who keep multiple partners are quickly labeled as “nymphos” and “sex addicts”, whether or not the definition really fits).  Bisexuality itself has often been characterized as a pathology, and (along with other non-normative sexualities) has been in the past something which was criminalized and punished.  Kink is especially complicated, since it can be very difficult to explain to people the difference between self-harm and consensual BDSM, and within the kink community itself there is a strong prejudice against “crazy people”, who are often characterized as being “unsafe” to play with.

Many people are quick to blame my atypical desires on my bipolar disorder, as though my “craziness” is the perfect explanation for why I don’t want a husband, kids, and a house in the suburbs.  “You like tying your partners to the bed and dripping hot wax all over their naked bodies?  Ugh, that must be because you’re insane”.  But this is an incredibly unhelpful (not to mention inaccurate) conclusion:  by assuming that all kinky people are “insane” and that all “insane” people like doing weird things in bed, you unfairly stigmatize both groups.

This isn’t to say that my bipolar disorder doesn’t play some part in my desires and choices with regards to relationships — but it’s certainly not the only factor, nor even the most defining one.  I prefer to seek casual, “friends-with-benefits” type relationships at this point in my life partially because I am not professionally settled, but also because I don’t feel emotionally ready for a connection of that sort, and my diagnosis is a factor in that choice.  But this is not an unhealthy attitude to take: I’m being honest with myself and with my partners as to my desires and the reasons for them, and this makes for relationships that are open, honest, and very rewarding.  And by exploring and indulging my sexuality, I’m learning more about myself (and how to deal with any potential future relationships that may be more “serious”) in a safe, consensual, and fun manner.

It’s not like I’d learn to be “more healthy” by just shutting myself away and being entirely celibate, after all.  If we don’t push and challenge ourselves, we stagnate and fall into bad habits.

The Bad Stuff

I’m not going to pretend that there aren’t difficulties in my relationships — especially in those with other mentally ill people.  In the past, especially when I was much younger and didn’t yet know very well how to deal with my own issues, I’ve dealt with abuse (emotional and physical), being raped by a partner, abandonment, self-harm (by myself and by two partners), suicide threats and attempts (by a mentally ill partner), trying to manage being on medication (my own and three partners), breakdowns (mine and theirs), fights, spats, irrational displays, and many, many, many tearful encounters.  I’ve ended a relationship because I didn’t feel he was dealing well with his mental illness and I was having too much trouble with trying to help.  And I’ve been left for being “crazy”.

At the moment I have casual (or casual-ish) relationships with four people, three of whom have a diagnosis of some sort.  And we’ve had conflicts — they’re inevitable.  But we’re also learning to be giving and honest, and how to deal with those conflicts and problems when they arise.  Because a relationship is not defined by whether or not you have issues (let’s face it: we all do), but by how you deal with those issues.

My Advice

So … what have I learned from more than 10 years of being (and dating) “crazy”?

Know yourself.  The more time that you spend getting to know yourself (and your diagnosis), the more books you read on psychology, the more time you spend with a therapist, the more work you put into making yourself a better person, the better you’ll be as a partner.  This is true whether or not you’re mentally ill, but is especially important if you are.  Understanding what triggers your “bad” periods, what emotional stimuli are difficult for you, the places where you have difficulty understanding “normal” people … this will all help you to deal better with the times when you’re just not quite “yourself”, and make it easier for your partner to love and deal with you.

Know your partner.  If your partner has a mental illness, get to know everything you can about it.  Ask them questions.  Read books.  Seek support groups.  Learn all that you can, so that when the rough patches hit?  You can understand what they’re going through, empathize with them, and help, rather than just being confused and afraid.  Even if your partner is “normal”, you should spend time talking to them and getting to know them and figuring out what makes them tick, because it will help when you have conflicts — knowing how they react to, for example, a difficult emotional situation (grief, anger, etc) will help you to deal with and assist them when those situations arise.

Stop hiding.  We spend too much time fearing the stigmas of mental illness.  20% of the population is going through something very similar.  You are never, ever alone.  By hiding away, you’re hiding from your support networks.  You’re closing yourself off.  You’re making yourself harder to connect to and to love.  Saying “I’m bipolar” to people at an early stage in getting to know them might scare a few away, but it will make just as many people open up and welcome you all the more strongly, because they understand what you’re going through.  And those are the ones you WANT to let in, so don’t hide from them.

Be honest.  We all like to seem as though we’re in control, all of the time.  But sometimes we’re not.  And we need to acknowledge the times when we’re not having it easy, when we’re going through a rough patch or a “down” period.  Because if we don’t recognize those times, we can’t fix them or deal with them properly.

Forgive more easily.  It’s easy to take things personally, to see every conflict or difference of opinion or random happenstance in life as being directed specifically to hurt you.  Stepping back, taking a breath, and choosing to act with love and forgiveness, goes a long way, because in 95% of cases?  People aren’t acting deliberately to do harm.  And even if they are, they probably have a reason that you don’t see.  We can choose to live with more love, and we should do so.

Never, EVER, dismiss something or someone as “crazy”.  Because there’s probably a very good reason for it, and you’re just not seeing it.  And “crazy” isn’t irrelevant, or unimportant, or unlovable.  “Crazy” is just as beautiful and wonderful as “sane”.

We All Die Alone, and Other Stories

Posted in Ramblings with tags , , , , , , , on February 12, 2012 by KarenElizabeth

I’m not a person who follows the news very closely.  I browse around the Internet, pick up a newspaper from time to time, and while I’m at work the local news channel is usually playing on one or more of the TVs in the restaurant — but I don’t make a point of checking up on these sorts of things every day.

Today, though, was a slow day at work, and so I ended up watching quite a bit of the day’s TV news coverage — much of which was, of course, concerning the death of Whitney Houston.

I can’t say I know much at all about Ms. Houston. I recognize her songs from radio and such, of course, and know that she was in The Bodyguard and a few other movies, but that’s about the extent of my knowledge.  Watching the news today, though, got me thinking a lot about death, mental health issues, and addiction, and how we react to such things as a society.

Now, I’ll preface this by saying that I’m not speaking specifically about Whitney Houston:  I know next to nothing about her, those around her, or the circumstances surrounding her death.  It was just the topic of the day on the news, and what got me thinking along these lines.

There have been a few high-profile celebrity deaths in recent years that have also brought up these same topics.  Michael Jackson.  Amy Winehouse.  And the story’s the same every time:  once they’re gone, there’s this huge and incredibly public outpouring of love, and appreciation, and support for this person.  Friends and family members are on every news outlet.  People who may not have even spoken to the deceased in years — who may have not even thought of them at all in recent times — are suddenly in high demand for interviews, reminiscing about what used to be.  And everybody says what a tragedy it is.  How awful.  How much they wish it hadn’t happened.

Where were these people six months ago?  One month ago?  A week ago?  Where was this outpouring of love and support when this person was alive, and clearly in need of it?  Why did they have to struggle, and suffer, and ultimately die, completely alone?  It’s all well and good to go on TV after they’re gone and lament the tragedy, but why weren’t you there before they died, helping them to deal with what was hurting them?

There are hundreds of answers, of course, and many of them are quite valid.  Life is tough, and full of things that take our time and our thoughts and our attention.  We’re all too busy to spend all our time watching out for somebody else’s problems:  we have our own problems to deal with, and our own personal demons to fight.  And even if we do take the time to help another, it’s draining.  It’s emotionally exhausting to spend time holding up another human being, pulling them away from the chasms of depression and self-destruction, and no one can possibly keep at it for very long, no matter how much you love the one who is suffering.

The factor that scares me, though; the thing that makes me sad and concerned for the state of humanity in general, is that so many people are simply afraid to confront things like addiction and depression.  They deny the problem, or they simply ignore it, no matter how obvious it may become.  And this is the thing that, I think, needs so urgently to change.  We as a society need to become more concerned for other people’s suffering.  We need to learn not to turn away when we see the signs that another is going through a bad time — because even just a kind word, or a friendly shoulder to cry on, for just a short time, can mean so much.  It can, quite literally, be the difference between life and death for someone who’s on the edge.  And if we all do this, if we all come to the aid and support of a person who’s suffering, then the burden on each one person is lightened, and it’s not so hard to pull that person back from the edge, away from their desperation and back into something healthy.

So while we’re all busy paying so much attention to the untimely death of one celebrity, I think it’s important that we take the time to think as well of those in our own lives who are struggling with demons.  Addiction and mental health issues affect so much of the population; we all have people in our lives who have been touched by these problems.  And we need to reach out to them more often.  To remind them that they are not alone, that they are loved, and that we are there for them.

Because being there for them now is so much better than being on stage at their funeral.