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.