Tag Archives: ignorance

“just stop it!” comments on alcoholism

back in august, i wrote a little post about addictions. here are two things commenters had to say:

#1  thanks for sharing this. i believe too much alcohol can’t help you better to stop it, you have to love your health and love your life. do something better, you can do physical activities instead of drinking too much.

#2 taking alcohol occasionally is okay but being addicted to it is not healthy anymore. health is wealth, so better start doing something about it. stop it and enjoy life.

both of these comments illustrate the typical mindsets of people who either know nothing about addiction or who are afraid of addiction (or both).

people who don’t know much about addiction don’t understand that people who are struggling with addiction already know things like “too much alcohol can’t help” or “health is wealth”. in fact, at least half of them beat themselves up with that knowledge a hundred times a day. once you’ve been using for a little while, guess what, you’ve figured out that it’s unhealthy and that it would be a pretty darn good idea to stop or at least decrease it.

it’s the same with advice. let’s take “stop it and enjoy life”. once again, the thought of stopping it has occurred to the person a thousand times.

and enjoying life? what if it feels like enjoying life seems impossible without the alcohol (or drug, or gambling, or whatever the person is dealing with). what if the person couldn’t enjoy life to begin with, and stopping the addiction would just bring her back to an unbearably bleak and painful life?

words such as “you can do physical activities instead of drinking too much” are supremely unhelpful for a number of reasons, e.g.

  • as said before, the person who is addicted already knows that
  • at least at the beginning, you don’t get nearly as much a kick out of the physical activity as the addictive activity (that goes for other activities as well)
  • substitutions only work under certain circumstances. how’d you like it if i said, “you’re boyfriend just died? don’t worry, just get yourself another one – here, take john, he’s got a moustache, too”

the most troublesome part is the attitude, and the unthinkingness (nice word, huh?) if the person offering these comments thought for a moment, they could realize that the person with the addiction already knows that stopping would be a good idea. implicit in truisms like the ones above is the message, “you’re too stupid/naïve to have figured this out on your own, so now i’m telling you something that everyone else but you knows.”

the above and the lack of thoughtfulness portray disregard. the message is “this person i’m talking to is not worth thinking about; what i have to say is more important”.

what comes with all of this is a lack of empathy. “i’m not going to stop and reflect on how i would feel if someone gave me unsolicited advice about something painful in my life.”

and why? most of the time it comes down to fear. fear of having my life entangled with the difficulties of another when my own may already be difficult to bear. and fear that by getting closer to the addiction, i might get “infected”. humans have a deep-seated fear of “catching” diseases not only of the body but also of the mind. the fact that this is irrational drives the fear even more underground, which just makes it more potent because it gets to roam around uncontrolled. (now there’s an interesting thought – the parallel between that suppressed fear and the underground, uncontrolled drug trade).


… and when and why is it ok to talk about mental health?

still thinking out loud

when and why do people get to talk about mental health?

there seem to be certain circumstances that make it more acceptable or easy to talk about mental health. as i am writing this i am telling myself that i need to be careful not to sound too cranky. “the curmudgeonly old advocate” is not a role that i am very well suited for. but it’s tempting, people, it’s tempting …

the truth is, there seems to be an unconscious fear of contagion. “if i get too close to you, will i catch your depression/anxiety/schizophrenia?” in a very, very roundabout way, it’s understandable where this comes from. we are sensitive to others’ emotion. harvard researchers, for example, found that happiness can be contagious (thanks for the reminder, aaron). i’ll be looking up research on “contagiousness” of mental illness as well.

however, some, perhaps much, of this fear is irrational. you don’t get the cooties from hanging out with someone with anxiety or PTSD. my (as yet unresearched) theory is that the irrational fear stems from old, instinctual fears that arose during times when humanity did not have the science to detect that the majority of diseases arise from causes such as bacteria, malnutrition, unsanitary practices or chemical imbalances.

all this is to say that when there is this fear of contagion, you talk about mental illness at your own risk. this fear seems to be strongest in the presence of ignorance. you know the silence that sits in a room like a rock when someone has the guts to say something like, “i wasn’t here last week because my meds got adjusted and i had to go to the hospital for a few days”? this thick, heavy, dense silence typically comes from fear and ignorance. fear and ignorance that OCD is contagious, but also lack of knowledge of what to say. we, the ones who know about mental illness first-hand, aren’t the only ones who don’t know how to talk about it. those who don’t know have even less of a clue.

so when is it a good time to talk about mental illness? since fear seems to be the problem here, the answer may just be, “when it’s safe.” that means situations like

  • when you’re in the presence of others with mental health issues (which is one of the major benefits of mental health camp)
  • when mental illness is far away, when others have it (e.g. when psychiatrists talk amongst each other; that is, psychiatrists who either don’t have a diagnosis themselves or if they have it, they’re secretive quiet about it)
  • to a lesser degree, when there is a “good reason” to have a mental health issue

yup, we’re coming back to the ignorance (and also to the cranky curmudgeon, apparently i can’t escape that role right now) because, you see, mental illness is apparently the kind of thing you only have a right to have (just for a short while, of course) if you have a “good reason”. a bit of postpartum depression is ok, about 3.5 weeks of depression caused by grief is ok, and if you’ve been raped or spent months in a crazy war, you’re also allowed to go off the rails for a little while. maybe.

someone i know is dealing with the acute, deep end of bipolar disorder right now. his family is pissed off; what is he doing going to the hospital when there are so many important things to do right now? and hasn’t he been to the hospital before and he still gets those silly crying jags, so clearly it doesn’t work? what a nuisance! mental health issues, like many other invisible illnesses, don’t seem to really exist for a lot of people, they are often treated like annoying idiosyncrasies.

boy, do i ever sound negative. let’s end with something a bit more uplifting. let’s think of a few more circumstances (the “why”) when it is at least somewhat safe to talk about mental health issues:

  • when the topic is to erase stigma
  • in art – literature, music, visual art, dance
  • in research

any more ideas?