Years ago, Linda Holmes wrote about her “red handle.” By that she meant those things that we have inside of us that render us permanently vulnerable to other people, no matter how much we might try to shrug them off. The sensitive things that reliably hurt us. Holmes’s red handle is mockery of fat people. (I think the various euphemisms for “fat” are ultimately more insulting than the word itself, though I don’t feel great about it either; Holmes uses the term in her piece, so I use it here.) Holmes pointed out an extra cruelty for her and other fat people: everyone can see your red handle. Everybody knows, at a glance, what you’re likely to be sensitive about. An alcoholic might be very susceptible to insults about his condition but you usually can’t tell just by looking at him. But a fat person both faces considerable social stigma and shows people what is likely to be an effective means to hurt them simply by existing. As Holmes says, this is quite an unfortunate condition.
My red handle, as you might imagine, is related to my mental health. But it’s not your average “you’re crazy,” “off your meds bro?,” “looks like Freddie’s gone psycho again,” etc. shit that gets to me. I hear that stuff literally every day, and at this point it washes off my back. My red handle is something much more specific: it’s when people attempt to discipline, undermine, or otherwise assert control over me under the guise of “checking up on me.” It’s a very common and totally infuriating thing. It’s an expression of faux concern that makes sure to let me know that there’s something in my behavior that’s deficient or weird, and in so doing seeks to regulate my behavior by making me feel shitty - while, at the same time, prompting precisely the feelings of instability they are ostensibly worried I already feel. The worst part is that, if you have had multiple legitimate psychotic episodes as I have, you can never 100% shut your mind down to the possibility that you have lost the thread again. Which means that no matter how apparent it is that someone is just fucking with you, you can’t completely ignore them; there’s always that 1% chance in your mind. So you’re permanently vulnerable to manipulation. It’s not a good feeling.
“You OK man? That last piece, it got a little emotional…. I don’t know, it just makes me nervous. Nothing specific I guess, just a feeling that you’re struggling. Maybe you should reach out to somebody? It’s not a good look when you get so worked up. Makes people think maybe you’re not in the right space. Anyway just saying.”
Listen, I understand that there will times that something that looks an awful lot like a totally disingenuous attempt to assert power over me will actually have good intentions. But look - no one, not even those with the most noble motives, can diagnose me over the internet. I promise. I know people are protective of me, and I am always 100% cool with people checking in, if they do so in a way that is at least minimally sincere and which stems from a place of genuine inquiry, rather than one that drips with condescension and assumes the answer to the question that it pretends to ask. If the question is “how’re you doing,” that makes me feel good. Even if the question is, “hey how’s your mental health been,” that’s cool. This is not cool: “Hey dude, I don’t mean to intrude, but you’ve seemed, like, no so good lately? I’m just a little worried about you… That last thing you wrote, I wasn’t so sure about it. Just had a feeling. You seem a little unstable.” That shit is so infuriating, so undermining, so stuffed with bad faith. It stabs me in the heart. And it could never result in more or better mental health treatment for me anyway. So please, don’t do that.
My girlfriend looks after me. My siblings look after me. My friends look after me. My psychiatrist looks after me. My doctor looks after me. My support group looks after me. You do not look after me. As much as you may sincerely want to.
When everything went down a few years ago, in the first weeks after there was a lot of insistence that I had faked everything - that I have no mental illness and have been playing some sort of long con, to what end I couldn’t possibly tell you. (I get a lot less of that now, thankfully.) People would sometimes ask me, you’ve been writing for almost a decade, you’ve said very little about mental illness, why haven’t we heard more about this before? It’s hard to believe that people don’t grasp this, but…. Revealing mental illness to others, as much as it may now be a common practice on social media, leaves you defenseless in a very real way. Let to its own devices, my brain will eventually rob my conscious mind of its ability to accurately perceive the world, to have knowledge about itself, and to regulate my behavior. This is not a pleasant condition, and though I now have no choice but to reflect on it openly and frankly, it’s not fun that complete strangers know this about me. Please be sensitive to the possibility that you may be taking advantage of that vulnerability even if you’re sure you have good intentions. “I support you and I hope you’re good” is more than enough.