Coming Out In a Dangerous World

Irish novelist Marian Keyes recently came out about her depression and just published an update for her fans. The decision to openly discuss her depression is being widely covered in a lot of circles, as any disclosure of mental illness by a prominent figure tends to attract attention. Stephen Fry is also a public figure who has written about depression and discussed it publicly. Carrie Fisher is another example.

Something that often gets said about disability and mental illness in particular is that if people just came out, the stigma would go away. That people have an obligation to come out, to talk about their conditions with others, to educate, to dispel myths. This insistence that people, especially public figures, somehow owe it to the world to talk about their personal lives is really frustrating and it illustrates a profound lack of understanding.

It’s true that coming out may, over time, erode stigma, but at a great cost to the people who come out. It places the burden squarely on people who are experiencing oppression, not on the society that creates that oppression. It is not up to individuals to fight stigma and ableism, using their own bodies as a battleground. It is up to society to hold the mirror to itself and to examine its own complicity in the development and perpetuation of stigma.

The case of Marian Keyes is of particular interest to me because, as Meg at fiction_theory points out, there is a great deal of ableism in the publishing industry. There’s a pervasive myth that writers in particular are often mentally ill, that mental illness and creativity are linked, yet, at the same time, being openly mentally ill and working in publishing is a highly stigmatised position to be in. Editors and publishing professionals routinely belittle mental illness, making it no small wonder that writers would be reluctant to openly discuss mental illness. Aside from the obvious desire to not openly attract abuse, disclosures can kill a publishing career.

There’s also a lot of internalised ableism that expresses itself in how people deal with public disclosure of mental illness. Keyes wrote:

I know I’ll be criticised for saying all this, I know it sounds horribly selfish, when life is such a precious gift and many people desperately want to be alive and are denied it, but honestly, I’ve had no control over it.

I have no doubt that her fears of being criticised for being open about mental illness were well grounded, but there’s also a certain amount of self defeat between the lines. It almost seems like she feels like she needs to be guilty about her depression. This thread is consistent throughout her update; she constantly reminds us that she feels bad about not appreciating her life more, as though she bears some personal responsibility for her depression and should just try harder. Even as she’s telling us that these attitudes are not productive, she’s reinforcing them.

I’m well aware that I have an enviable life and there are bound to be people who think, “What the hell has she got to be depressed about?” But whatever has been wrong with me isn’t fixable by an attitude shift. Believe me I’ve tried (Mindfulness, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, gratitude lists…)

This speaks to a lot of social attitudes. Ideas about who is ‘allowed’ to experience depression, about how people should just snap out of it. At the end of her piece, she says:

I hope you’re all well and if you’re not – and some of you may not be, one of the things I’ve learnt is that this sort of headspace is far more widespread than is openly acknowledged, so many of us are hanging on, almost overwhelmed with desperation and feeling like it’s our fault, that what’s wrong with us is just self-pity or negative thinking or innate defectiveness…

Yet, she concludes with a note of feeling guilty. Surely, someone with such a privileged life can’t be allowed to be depressed!

There are layers within layers here. If there wasn’t such a stigma, coming out wouldn’t be such a loaded act. If society wasn’t so ableist, Keyes might not have internalised so many attitudes. If the publishing industry wasn’t so judgmental, perhaps Keyes might be able to neutrally state that she has depression, to thank her readers for their support, and not have to feel like she needs to justify it, or apologise for it.

And if society wasn’t so determined to place the burden of fighting oppression on the oppressed, Keyes’ admission wouldn’t have been a political act.

About s.e. smith

s.e. smith is a recalcitrant, grumpy person with disabilities who enjoys riling people up, talking about language, tearing apart poor science reporting, and chasing cats around the house with squeaky mice in hand. Ou personal website can be found at this ain't livin'.

4 thoughts on “Coming Out In a Dangerous World

  1. I have no doubt that her fears of being criticised for being open about mental illness were well grounded, but there’s also a certain amount of self defeat between the lines. It almost seems like she feels like she needs to be guilty about her depression. This thread is consistent throughout her update; she constantly reminds us that she feels bad about not appreciating her life more, as though she bears some personal responsibility for her depression and should just try harder. Even as she’s telling us that these attitudes are not productive, she’s reinforcing them.

    I am not sure I would assume this is internalized ableism. Feelings of guilt, feeling like it’s your fault and maybe if you just tried harder, and your problems aren’t as serious as other people’s so maybe you don’t deserve help, etc. are classic symptoms of depression (huge ones for me, personally). It’s very hard to step back from those feelings and recognize them as stemming from the depression itself.

  2. She’s also talked very openly in the past about her alcoholism, and over the years how she’s written about that has changed. So hopefully given time, she’ll get more settled with herself.

    But yeah, the internal thing… been there, done that. And I don’t know how to get it out of my brain. I have multiple friends with depression. Yet somehow… when L manages to get the laundry done, it’s a big achievement and I can cheer her on for it, when I get it done, it feels like I’ve done nothing and my brain wants to know why I’ve not done the rest of the tidying up too. Or when C says “F*** it, everything hurts, I’m taking AIM and a cookie and going to bed.”, I can go “Good on you for looking after yourself”, when I do it, I feel like a lazy lump. (I do wonder how much is a gender thing, especially since I as raised with the idea it was fine for women to be ill, men weren’t allowed.)

  3. A quote from her newsletter which really resonated with me: “a multitude of feelings, not just depression but agitation, anxiety, terror, panic, grief, desperation, despair and an almost irresistible desire to be dead”.

    One of the things which is so toxic about depression, from the inside and from my own experience, is it can hit you good and hard with an awareness of exactly what you have to be happy about – everything from breathing right the way up – and then scolds you with an awareness of precisely how happy you aren’t, and how dare you feel that way? This is why “counting your blessings” isn’t always the best advice for someone who’s depressed – believe me, they’re intimately acquainted with their blessings, and they *know* they should be feeling better, and the knowledge is only making them feel *worse*. I suspect this might be worse for women than for men, simply because of the way women are still largely conditioned socially about being “rays of sunshine” and “domestic angels”, but I can’t be certain.

    Can I just point out, though, the thing she’s talking about in this quote:

    “I know I’ll be criticised for saying all this, I know it sounds horribly selfish, when life is such a precious gift and many people desperately want to be alive and are denied it, but honestly, I’ve had no control over it.”

    is not so much the experience of mental illness itself, as that very fervent and heart-felt desire to be dead. Again, I can sympathise with her, because this is something I’ve lived myself. It takes a lot of very hard work to live through each day when the primary wish you have is that your heart would stop, or that your brain would collapse, or that you could somehow die to end the hell you’re walking through. It’s exhausting, and it isn’t made any easier by people telling you you have so much to live for, and trying to cheer you up and jolly you along.

    Back to my favourite analogy: depressive episodes, from the inside, are like drowning. People trying to cheer you up, or telling you to count your blessings, or to be happy, think positive, etc, are to the depressed person as a person who is trying to help someone who’s drowning by saying “breathe water”. Yes, breathing water *will* resolve the major issue in drowning, but there’s some major biological hitches in the way of actually *doing* it. If you see someone drowning, the more practical things to do are to throw them a line (offer a shoulder to cry on, or a listening ear), toss them a flotation aid (chivvy them into taking their medication, if they’re on it), getting out there and physically rescuing and/or resuscitating them (bullying them into doing the performance of “normality”), and once the crisis is over and they’re back to the dry land of a non-depressed period, taking them off and getting them swimming lessons (psychiatric and psychological help and counselling). None of this is as easy as yelling from the shoreline “breathe water” – but all of it will have a much higher success rate in actually saving the drowning person.

    The largest problem I’ve experienced coming out as depressed publicly is not so much the stigma of being mentally ill (although that’s a big part of it) as the cheerful realisation I’ve gained a lot more people who are willing to shout useless advice about breathing water from the sidelines as I’m drowning, and not so many who are willing to actually pitch in and help me through the tricky bits (like, ooh, making sure I’m taking my meds on a regular basis).

    (Personal PS note: I’m sure there’s a post in me somewhere which will go to great lengths to further elaborate this metaphor, and make some practical suggestions for people who want to help people in their lives who are subject to depressive episodes. Something to add to the list of things to be working on, I feel.)

  4. I’ve had major problems with my bipolar disorder and “coming out.” I tried desperately to keep people from knowing about my disorder, hiding it from my friends, parents, sisters, and for the longest time, from my boyfriend. It wasn’t until I started getting REALLY sick that I told anyone about it, because I was terrified about how they’d react. To be honest, I was right about most of them. Even the people that loved me the most didn’t really understand, saying things like “you just can’t dwell on those negative thoughts. Just push them out of your mind.” It just DOESN’T WORK THAT WAY. Meg, I love the way you phrased it– you can’t just start breathing water! The people that weren’t as close to me were the worst. My boyfriend’s little sister attacked me for it, telling me that I was horrible for feeling so depressed because it’s not like I had REAL problems like her family, which is one of the refrains that made me want to off myself the most. It made me crack and sent me into a hospital for three weeks. George Carlin’s monologue on the “suicide channel” made me sob for hours, because here are all these people who are laughing hysterically over the pain and terror I was going through on a daily basis. When you have people like that, speaking out publicly about mental illness in such a negative way, and are LAUDED for it, why on earth should we feel comfortable telling people about our illnesses? it’s ridiculous! I really appreciate people who speak out, but I’ve had such negative reactions that I find it really hard to do so myself.

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