We Walk Among You
In mid 2018 I received an odd email. The emailer identified themselves as a writer and journalist. They told me that they had found my secret Twitter account and were going to expose me.
Having people “find” my supposed secret Twitter has not been an entirely uncommon experience since I deleted my account four years ago. I had probably already gotten such emails a couple times when I received this troubling one. But the half-dozen or so emails or messages I have received of this type since 2017 have mostly all been conspiratorial, not accusatory - “hey dude, I get that you can’t be public about this, but I’m like 90% sure I found your secret Twitter account, can you let me know if it’s really you?, I already follow it.” I suppose there are uncomfortable things that could be said about people being unable to imagine someone not on that platform, but anyway - I’ve always told them, no, sorry, I don’t have a secret Twitter account, you’re mistaken. I have never been remotely tempted to make one. Not after everything that happened.
I had not heard of this person prior to their email, but a cursory investigation revealed that they were what they said they were - a working writer and journalist who has been regularly published in some fairly prominent places and is plugged in to some high-profile networks. They had a professional webpage with links to work that showed their byline, as well as a Twitter account that was more than a decade old, with followers in the mid four-figures and the typical journo Twitter tics and mannerisms. They seemed legit.
The Twitter account that they accused me of being behind seemed normal enough - pseudonymous, as most are, and sort of halfway between a “real” account and a shitposting account, as many are. It had been started over a year and a half or so earlier and had, if I remember correctly, something like 120 followers. The account was mostly retweets with some original tweets that groused about politics and culture in a conventional way and which got at best three or four likes. Nothing notable there. But there was something strange about the whole thing. For one, there was a bizarre amount of retweets of brands, the kind of brands that tell “funny” “jokes,” but brands nonetheless, which most people are savvy enough to avoid. There was an unusual number of threads where it appeared that some but not all of the account’s tweets had been deleted, which I couldn’t make sense of. The account also frequently tweeted something and then immediately quote tweeted that tweet but added no new information, sometimes just a period or inscrutable emoji. The larger thing, though, was that I didn’t know what I would have been “exposed” for doing with this account - I had investigated it assuming that there would be a lot of the n-word and anti-Semitism and alt-right shit, but there really wasn’t anything scandalous, just a few off-color jokes. This was also a time when I had been out of sight of most of the internet for about a year, was not attempting to freelance, and didn’t really have anything going on. So the question was, expose what, to whom, and for what purpose?
I wrote back to my accuser and said, here’s some obvious places where your theory doesn’t work, there would appear to be autobiographical details in this account that don’t match up with me, I’ve never been to places the account tweeted from, this account was tweeting when I was in the hospital, and so on. I also said that I didn’t understand what could possibly be newsworthy about me tweeting those things even if I had been. And I asked to be left alone. The journalist responded curtly, said it was news because I was circumventing a Twitter ban, and repeated that they were going to expose me. (For the record, I’ve never been banned from Twitter.)
Not sure what else to do, I created a burner Twitter and DM’d the account, thinking that I might convince them to email this writer and exonerate me. It seemed to be the most direct way to get them out of my hair. I was mostly expecting the owner of the Twitter account not to get back to me, but I figured it was worth a shot. So I sent a very short message - something like “[thejournalist’s@] thinks this is my account and I can’t convince them otherwise, can you DM them and let them know it’s not?” The account in fact responded fairly quickly, but their reply was strange, scattered and unfocused and making references I didn’t understand. I replied back, saying that it was fine if they didn’t want to get involved. Again, I got a strange response, and one that made me suspicious, so I pursued it a little further and kept the conversation going. It took only a few messages back and forth for me to realize that the person running the account was the very journalist who was accusing me of having created it.
Sufficiently weirded out, I wrote an email to the writer and said, look, I don’t know what’s going on with this, but if it’s some sort of a prank I’m not amused, please leave me alone. They sent me a couple more emails, the first one rambling, the second angry, and both difficult to follow. I dropped it, at that point; there was no way any publications were going to publish something that this person would write about the situation, given how bizarre it was. I set it aside and went about my life.
Something like six or seven weeks later, I got an email from the writer, an apology. They told me they had been suffering an unspecified mental health crisis when they had contacted me, and had shortly thereafter been hospitalized for the first time in their life. They talked a little bit about the hospitalization process - it’s never what people think, before they go in - and had the vocabulary of someone who had recently done a lot of therapy, of someone who was very much newly “in the program.” And they were very apologetic, and I could tell they were ashamed. So I wrote back and told them, look, the very last person you have to apologize to about this stuff is me, and anyway they hadn’t hurt me in any way. I commiserated, and talked about my own still-young recovery, asked about their meds and therapy. They never replied to my reply, which was OK and not unexpected. This stuff is hard. I checked their Twitter, and there was indeed a gap of several weeks in the timeline, but otherwise there was no sign that anything was amiss. They were back to telling bad jokes. “My” Twitter account had been deleted.
Again, time passed and I mostly forgot about it. Maybe a month later I got another message. This one was anguished. I’m not sure if it’s possible for an email to tremble, but if it is, this one did. They seemed to be in crisis, in a shame spiral of the kind I’ve been in before. They begged me not to tell anyone what had happened. They referenced the potential impact on their family and friends, said they’d be ruined professionally. I wrote them back quickly: I would never reveal such a secret about anyone, not even my worst enemy. Even before my crisis people were confident that I would keep their secrets, and they were right to be. I told them that it would be alright, and asked if I could help. I wasn’t sure where they lived, but if they were in the northeast I could try and travel to them as soon as I could. I asked them when they had last talked to a psychiatrist and if they had a crisis contact or anyone I could call. But again they never responded to my response. I checked their Twitter account anxiously, but they were quiet for a few days.
Two weeks later I received another email, the last of our correspondence. They told me that they had been in contact with a lawyer and had sent him all of our messages. They said that if I told anyone what happened they would sue me for libel. They also told me that if I ever contacted them again they would have me arrested for harassment, despite the fact that they had initiated all of our communication. I was worried for them, but that seemed pretty definitive, so I left it alone. I checked their Twitter and found that they had been making fun of me that day with some other journalists. For a long time after I would impulsively look up their tweets to try and see if they were doing alright, but eventually I had to force myself to stop. I have been in the position of compulsively trying to keep tabs on the mental health of someone I know in real life, and that’s hard enough. I realized anyway that I couldn’t do anything for them. I do look in on them once in awhile, via social media. They’re still publishing. They still tweet. As far as I can tell they have never divulged anything about their mental health publicly. I suppose they’re still living with their shame. And so am I.
I have heard from many people, in the past four years, who speak with confidence about what mental illness can and can’t do, what behaviors it can and can’t inspire. I envy them. They have an understanding of the disordered brain I will never possess. I suspect most of them would not be able to parse the behavior of my emailer. It demonstrates planning, forethought, and for some reason people have decided that severe mental illness precludes higher-order thinking. In fact the severely mentally ill can sometimes be the most elaborate planners you can imagine; no one conspires more busily than those who see conspiracies everywhere. I recall the apocryphal story of the schizophrenics in an institution where, when a fire broke out, the doctors and nurses found all of the exits blocked, and fearing the end they panicked and cried. But the patients calmly led them through a circuitous route to safety that only they knew. Because, you see, a paranoid schizophrenic knows, better than you’ll ever know anything, that crisis is right around the corner, and so every day they plan. To suppose that psychosis is inimical to intricacy of thinking is pretty much the opposite of the truth, the opposite of the problem.
Nor can you comfortably say that people who know they are suffering from delusions therefore cannot be delusional. Some who are deeply deranged are well aware that they have become so. The question is, which part of their brain rules? And some put on a shirt and tie every day and go to work and pay the bills and navigate public transit, and inside their head, they see shadowy figures conspiring against them in the walls and on the subway, and at night they plan their violent revenge. Why do people think the mentally ill can’t know they are, or can’t function amid the dysfunction? Same reason people believe anything about the subject: that’s how it is in movies. The real thing is not comprehensible, and it certainly is not cinematic. Several times in my life I have sat in front of impeccably credentialed psychiatrists who were festooned with degrees and certifications, who had consumed more of the medical literature than I can imagine, who had dedicated their lives to the treatment of psychotic disorders, and when they talked of the actual lived experience of being psychotic, I could only shake my head inside and say “you have no idea.” It cannot be understood, it can only be experienced, and no two of us experience it the same way. That’s why group therapy is such a bittersweet thing. It’s only another way to be alone together.
We are, I suppose, in a new era when it comes to public perception of mental illness. Suddenly, we who suffer from it find ourselves constantly being “honored.” Our visibility has been raised and our existence validated; what any of that means, I don’t know, but I’m told it’s the better part of justice. In the minds of a certain influential slice of our population, to declare that you are having a mental health issue is to put forth an edict that absolves you from all aspects of adult responsibility. This is all meant to be progress, but in many ways I find the current era immeasurably worse than what came before it. Mental illness has become a category that, like so many others, invites a kind of vague and condescending positivity, an unfocused and useless sense that you are approved of by people who watch the Criterion Channel and lay awake at night thinking of funny things to say on Slack. This palpably inauthentic concern is, for me, far worse than the judgment of those who look at you and see only a lunatic. Among other things, those in the latter category actually have a coherent understanding of the mentally ill. Cruel, yes, but coherent. The former only have a sudden social command to love us without love and to understand us in a way that precludes understanding.
This senseless commitment to mindlessly supporting those who you make no effort to fully understand represents itself, for example, by twisting a true fact - that people with mental illness are less likely to commit violent crimes than the norm - until it becomes “violence is never caused by mental illness.” Of course this absurd and cruel stance could only have political origins; it has become conventional wisdom because liberals on Twitter don’t want to countenance the idea that a mass shooter (a white male mass shooter) might not be perfectly culpable for his crimes. So they tweet “mental illness doesn’t do that,” and create a reality in which those suffering from schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders never commit violence. Which means that James Holmes, and many others, must die. Holmes’s story is an absolutely quintessential case of the onset of schizophrenia, but never mind, a 24-year-old who writes for Teen Vogue finds it inconvenient to say that mental illness can provoke violence, so ready the lethal injection. This is what it’s like to operate in American intellectual culture, now. Nothing has a philosophical or moral justification, just short-term argumentative convenience, everything a cudgel to beat whoever it is you hate at the moment, even those people that you want everyone to know you “honor.”
You know when I first had my crisis back in 2017 it was pretty common for people to say that I was faking it all - for what reason I would fake such a thing, I can’t imagine, but that’s what they said. It seems to have occurred to people that this wasn’t very woke, so now they just don’t mention my psychosis when using what happened as a justification for exiling me. I think I preferred it when people said that I was faking. At least that made some sense. Now, they want to bring up what I did, but to discuss the fact that I was diagnosed as psychotic at the time would invite moral complexity, and the entire political culture of our chattering class is based on moral simplicity. So they just… pretend they don’t know. I have said, over and over again and consistently since the beginning, that I am responsible for what happened and accept blame, censure, and consequences regardless of what was happening with my mental illness. But the fact that I was psychotic cannot be nothing, cannot be simply elided, even outside of any self-interest of mine. How could it be so irrelevant as to not be worth mentioning?
I don’t pretend that this is simple. For 20 years I have dealt with the confusion and hypocrisy inherent to my feelings about my culpability when manic. But some have walked away from me, for good, after indicting my behavior in a way that took my bipolar disorder and its consequences very seriously, very humanely, and still left, and still I was truly indicted. And it hurt. All of it hurts every day. People who I’ve never met feel empowered to decide I’m not contrite and don’t feel guilty. All I ever feel is guilty. What I don’t know how to parse is the continued intervention in my life of people who think that mental health is an all-encompassing excuse for anything done by someone they like, but who ignore it completely when discussing someone they don’t. And I am left again to ask of strangers who had nothing to do with anything that happened back then: what is it that you think you know about me, and what is it that you think I owe you?
This is the moral poverty of this view of mental illness; it is “accepting” of it only through the mechanism of deracinating it from genuine, ugly, human pathology. This is the emotional violence of romanticism and these are the wages of a Manichean moral culture. Like a shitty 1990s movie where a character who’s somehow different (deaf, perhaps, or suffering from cognitive disability) is thus also made unthreatening, sexless, harmless, our culture can now only conceive of the mentally ill as entirely blameless, because as a people we do not now have the humility and the wisdom to treat those who are different with the sober and thoughtful inquiries of adult judgment. The mentally ill can’t be understood as agency-laden adults who suffer under constraints that are hard to understand. They must be exonerated from all blame like children. Which means that, in your eyes, those who you are dedicated to blaming cannot be mentally ill. To blame and exonerate someone at the same time is complicated, unsatisfying. And nothing now is allowed to be complicated.
If you assault someone while psychotic our elite culture may find it in its heart to forgive you. If you say a racial slur - and people in institutions using slurs is A Thing - they definitely won’t. What is the basic moral architecture that could by turns treat mental health as everything and nothing, that tells the rich and famous that their mental health is the most important thing in the whole wide world, but which dismisses the possibility that people that violate that laws of their new catechism could be in need of some of that same compassion, that same equanimity? Why are appeals to mental health always treated with more compassion when expressed by the celebrities people already like? I don’t have a clue. The blessings of the woke have always been a fickle thing, and our new moralists bend like reeds in the wind when blown by their personal resentments, their self-interest, and their jealousies.
I do not want my mental illness to be accepted by strangers. I hate it and I hate myself for having it. Mental illness is not an expression of the beauty of every individual who has it but the most ugly element of their most ugly selves. What I want is drugs that don’t wreck my body and therapy that doesn’t cost $250 a session. I understand that it’s not within the capacity of the crowd to give me those things. But what the crowd can do is to stop honoring and to start recognizing that you do not need to celebrate brokenness, only tolerate its expression when that expression is the least inspiring of sympathy. Your support only matters when you least want to give it. That has value, not awareness. We no more need the juvenile and head-patting approval of the social justice set than we needed the lobotomies that were once forced on us. It is indeed progress that they no longer are, but this is progress in medicine, not moral hygiene. We need adults to practice adult discrimination, in full view of all the facts, including our illnesses, and I would hope that the discrimination of the average person could include a commitment to the basic elements of understanding and charity.
The worst part of this caricature of kindness towards the mentally ill may seem contradictory: it extinguishes the capacity for mercy. For only the guilty can be shown mercy; that is the most essential quality of mercy, its only meaning. And I am guilty. Many of us who suffer from mental illness are. Perhaps someday our culture will mature enough to understand that what we need is not to be absolved, nor to be exonerated, nor to be excused, but to be forgiven.
"If you assault someone while psychotic our elite culture may find it in its heart to forgive you. If you say a racial slur - and people in institutions using slurs is A Thing - they definitely won’t. What is the basic moral architecture that could by turns treat mental health as everything and nothing, that tells the rich and famous that their mental health is the most important thing in the whole wide world, but which dismisses the possibility that people that violate that laws of their new catechism could be in need of some of that same compassion, that same equanimity?"
A very pertinent question, and one that the guardians of the culture will never ask. To use their own language against them, they have a place of enormous privilege, where they can wear as a holy aegis the garb of Tragic Heroic Mental Illness when it suits, and cast it aside like rags the microsecond it actually presents a challenge or a nuance or - horror of horrors! - having to wrestle with something that makes a journalist say "yikes."
The Twitterati's commitment to mental health is Monsanto's commitment to a clean environment and Amazon's commitment to worker's rights. It's a simpering, cartoonish grotesquerie which diminishes everyone involved. It's the human experience reduced to enough characters to fit in a Twitter bio, nestled between pronouns and @TheAtlantic.
There are few writers who actually make their readers better people, but you're definitely one of them, Freddie.