The People Hurt By The "It's a Beautiful Journey" School of Mental Health Are the People with Mental Disorders
a response to critics of my UnHerd essay
My review of Marianne Eloise’s book appears to have legs in terms of views, and there’s been a conversation bubbling about it ever since publication. That's great; it's always a bummer to write a freelance piece and watch it disappear into the ether. A lot of the reaction has been vitriolic and unhappy, which of course was to be expected - UnHerd would not have commissioned the piece, and I would not have bothered, had I not intended to write something provocative. I am however a bit frustrated with some of the common themes in the criticism, as readers have frequently missed the fact that I was reviewing a professionally-published book and ignored things that I specifically said. And you guys, for goodness sakes, the writer doesn’t choose the headline, subhed, or art. More substantively…
First, a lot of people seem to have missed that the piece is a review of a book. Many people have accused me of “inventing someone to get mad at.” But my critique of the broader “mental wellness” movement was driven by the text in front of me. If you think Marianne Eloise is not worth commenting on, fine, but I was being paid to comment on her. I find it very strange to complain that I was critiquing things that don’t matter when they are central to the text I’ve been tasked with reviewing. For example, some people raged about the idea that anyone would knowingly seek out being autistic, but as I write explicitly in the review Eloise says in no uncertain terms that she self-diagnosed and then doctor-shopped until she got a formal diagnosis. Perhaps it would be worthwhile to keep the text itself in mind when you’re accusing me of responding to nothing. It’s in the fucking book!
Second, many people have complained that I’m lumping in mental illnesses under the neurodiversity label where they don’t belong. But I’m not doing anything of the sort - first, Eloise is doing that, and I remind you again that the piece is a review of a book. Second, lots of other people are doing that too. Here is an article that considers that very question, and 15 seconds of Googling will reveal that it’s fairly common to put schizophrenia et al under the banner of neurodiversity. In fact, the person who coined the term neurodiversity says that it’s inclusive of those other kinds of conditions.
Neurodivergent refers to neurologically divergent from typical. That’s ALL.
I am multiply neurodivergent: I’m Autistic, epileptic, have PTSD, have cluster headaches, have a chiari malformation.
Neurodivergent just means a brain that diverges.
Autistic people. ADHD people. People with learning disabilities. Epileptic people. People with mental illnesses. People with MS or Parkinsons or apraxia or cerebral palsy or dyspraxia or no specific diagnosis but wonky lateralization or something.
So… yeah. People making those complaints are just factually wrong. Now, me, I think the term “neurodivergent” is pointless and helps no one, so I have no particular attachment to any definition. But maybe before you go trying to shot call you should get the facts straight.
Most importantly: I thought I made this very clear, but the whole point of my perspective is that the people who are most hurt by this infantilizing insistence that mental illness makes you beautiful and deep are the very people who buy into that ideology. They are the ones I write for. Not to mock them, but to impress on them: this isn’t going to work. It isn’t going to last. The benefits you think are accruing to you from treating your mental illness as some benevolent conveyor of meaning are illusory, and in time you will be left all too aware that this shit just hurts. You’re not always going to be a photogenic 22-year-old, showcasing your disorder on Instagram. If you’re really afflicted, someday you’ll be a 43-year-old working on your second divorce, estranged from many of the people who once meant the most to you, 30 pounds overweight from meds, unemployed, and broke. And none of this shit, none of it, will comfort you in the slightest. I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news. But I’ve been in a half-dozen psychiatric facilities in my life, and the people in them aren’t self-actualized and being their best selves. They’re in profound pain. Many of them have ruined lives. The romanticism that would obscure this basic, tragic reality is what I am absolutely committed to opposing. And I invite you to go ahead and tell someone whose life has been irreparably damaged by their mental illness that they should be grateful for it, a notion that crops up again and again in these spaces. Go right ahead.
I have sympathy for people with diabetes and think they should receive free and effective medical care. But that's what it is, sympathy - an acknowledgment that someone has suffered a hindrance, a problem, a dis-ability. It would be absolutely bizarre if I insisted on “honoring” their diabetes, of treating it like something that should inspire pride. Lines have been muddied here for no coherent reason and to no positive effect. I don't know why it's so hard to understand the statement, “people with mental illness are not bad, they've done nothing wrong, they don't deserve to be punished or disrespected for having mental illness, but the illnesses themselves are bad, by definition, and should not be celebrated.” Just as diabetes or heart disease or cancer should not be.
Some things in life are just sad and broken and can't be changed. That's our existence. And the obsession with turning every negative into a positive, through the application of cliches and good intentions, is a sign of a culture that has forgotten how to live with tragedy. I sincerely and passionately believe that people would be far healthier if they stopped injecting their struggles for mental stability with romance or inspiration or woowoo bullshit and instead accessed the dignity that comes from living with pain without ceremony.
Finally - I have paid the price to have my opinions on this. For twenty years I’ve paid the price. I will keep my own counsel on what is best for those who suffer from mental illnesses.
Update: Eloise in the NYT:
I expected to be ambivalent [about a diagnosis], but I wasn’t: I was euphoric… After pursuing it for five years, the diagnosis gave me certainty, solidity and the strength to articulate my needs to others. I looked back on the past anew, seeing my own behavior through a softer lens and pinpointing where others could have been kinder.
How on earth does this describe a disability? If something makes you euphoric, how can it possibly meet the standard of being such a hindrance that you may demand that society give you special accommodation for that thing?
People are so desperate to have an identity so that they can be special enough to banish the fear of their own mortality. If you collect enough identity tokens you'll be special enough to be a main character and then you'll never die.
Your are so right, and I am grateful for your honesty. I flew in from the Middle East to put my closest friend in the hospital when her bipolar mental disorder rendered her incoherent and unable to live by herself. I sat her her room as she wept for hours in her misery. It took years for her to recover and she was never the same. Fortunately, as a tenured professor, she had great medical insurance and job security but she still suffered enormous pain and there was nothing to celebrate. Thank you again for speaking the truth.