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Community Cant: The necessary but flawed fantasy of what community can do

A month or so ago, someone I worked closely with died in one of those devastating ways. Several, in their social media posts, reminded people that if they are hurting to reach out to the community that cares, to call a crisis line, to do anything but what this person had done.

This piece of The Good (and Not So Good) Words is not about the person who died. This piece is about why any of us who have suffered in that particular way may not, will not, sometimes cannot reach out to the community that believes it cares. It cares, but the nature of that caring is more complicated than we want to accept. Communities are flawed, even the ones on the left that think somehow they have escaped the status games and power plays that govern all human societies.

I cannot speak for the person who died, but I can speak myself. For all the reasons why I have not reached out to community when contemplating my own death. First, let me show you a bad moment from a few weeks ago. A moment like this does not happen much anymore, but it still does happen. It used to happen everyday.

Devil in Blue
I’m battling the Blue Devil today. It’s been a while. Oh, the Blue Devil has crept up & whispered hateful somethings to me from time to time. S/he doesn’t want me to ever forget how much s/he can take away from me. But the Blue Devil hasn’t been the star of my show for awhile. Today, the Blue Devil hogs the limelight.

Can I explain the way that all words become fraught? Missteps and errors are magnified. The consequences for being human, and thus flawed, are dire. The reasonable brain argues, “No one will die. Yes, it would have been better not to have said or done that. But no one will die.” The disordered brain, pricked by the Blue Devil, responds, “I want to die when I say or do this. I have to die because I said or did that.” The contemptuous part, also egged on by the Blue Devil, sneers “You’re so melodramatic. Don’t you know that others really are suffering?” The reasonable brain reminds me, “You’ve been here before. You’re okay.”

I tried to tell someone on that very bad day, a bit about how bad it was. She stiffened. She retreated. It hard to stay still, to be present, when someone hurts. We don’t know what to say. And several weeks later, I am okay, though not as well as I would like. I am okay, but let’s be honest, if this cycle spins often or fast enough, then I won’t be, because I haven’t been. The problem with having been a regular patron of this particular brain state, is that I know there are no guarantees, that I could get caught and not get out next time. Once the brain has cracked hard enough, often enough, it is forever fragile. The option to opt out never is off the table completely, even at my strongest. At my most well, I almost can understand why others are baffled by someone’s choice to kill her or himself. Almost. I now go months at a time without wanting to die. But I haven’t gone a year yet without the Blue Devil being an unwelcome guest.

Pride goes before the fall.

Those of us who for lived with these sorts of painful loops for more than a few years think we are good at managing them. We’re not. But our egos can’t accept that we can’t manage it. Pride. We often do not tell others when the loops starts spinning. We don’t want to bother people. It will be over soon. We don’t want people to see us as weak. We need to feel strong and together. And many believe we are stronger than we are, even if they know some, small part of our pain, because they want to believe the facade as much as we do.

Now I have systems. I go to therapy at least once every two months even when well, because the warning signs need to be caught early. Recently, due to the stress of an upcoming big move, I started going every two weeks. If I need to, I will go every week. Medicines don’t work for me. I tried for years. But good sleep, good food & good movement make a big difference. It all makes a big difference, but these systems cannot completely protect me, thus the recent episode.

Fake it ’til you make it.

Few people know when the Blue Devil is back in my life, and for the few I will tell, I soften how bad it is. They may know I having a hard time, but not how hard. I have learned that most people, even caring people, can’t take it. Most don’t want to believe that their friend, this person who is so smart, so bright, so competent, so vivacious, is thinking about dying. Also, I sound so reasonable about it all. I intellectually understand the process. I even sound wise, from time to time. “Sure, Sheila’s having a hard time, but she knows what’s happening. She has it under control. She’ll be okay.” It took me years to understand that I couldn’t think my way out of it. I fooled many therapists. I necessarily fooled employers. I fool my friends. I fool myself.

They’ll believe it, when they see it.

For complicated reasons, at work, I became the news source about the memorial service for the(former) coworker who died. And somehow, I was their confessor. People told me “He was so good. He was thoughtful. He was together. I never knew. I never saw. I never would have thought. How could he . . .?” I tried to point to one person that we have a fantasy about what a person with a mood disorder or substance abuse problem will be like. That fantasy always makes the person’s suffering visible. They have to be marked by their suffering in ways that the rest of us can see. We have to know. Our communities, even the lefty ones, don’t like to be reminded how hidden this suffering can be, that we are blind to much of the pain our colleagues, friends and loved ones carry. It is intolerable to us that people suffering this way are just like us. We don’t want to believe that we could be carrying that pain, that we might vulnerable. I don’t think this is a rational response, but I think there are good reasons that our communities have a hard time accepting that this kind of death is available to any of us. Suicide is contagious. Communities protect themselves against it.

A slippery slope paved with good intentions

Our communities fail time and time again in the face of major mood disorders and/or substance abuse. I want you to understand how community has failed me. How it continues to fail me. And why I or someone else might not turn to it.

I will be blunt. I may not be fair. I may be unreasonable. My conclusions may be shaky. But if you feel attacked, or defensive, maybe you have failed me or someone like me. I know I have. I have. I bet you have, too.

While it is true that I isolate myself during the worst periods of my mood disorder, I pull back from my community, I stop showing up because it is too hard to pretend, my community also pulls back from me. During a bad spell about ten years ago, I was honest with some about why I was pulling back from the activist community, though I rarely shared just how bad it was. I couldn’t stay in contact, and my community didn’t stay in contact with me. Yes, it sucks when you have to do all the work, and the other person rarely, if ever responds. But it is not about you. Not if you believe that community can help. Yet someone I know, who was diagnosed with a physical illness, an illness that began to have visible effects on his body, well, that community stayed in contact with him. It is so much easier when the illness is physical.

There are times, when it has been at its worst, when I wished I had cancer. Then people would bring me meals, they would understand why self care (teeth brushing, eating) can be so difficult, they would hang out with me and not expect me to do anything but be, they would keep trying even if I wasn’t reciprocating. Then they would understand just how devastating this illness was for me. Oh, they still would fuck up. Communities also have a hard time with physical illness. But my experience is that even the well meaning, even the bright can’t deal with severe mood disorders. Community will chose the easier path.

Two for you, none for me. Three for you, none for me. All for you, none for me.

After the wreck of a seven year relationship in my 20’s, due in no small part to my out of control mood disorder, my ex got to keep the community. Now some of it is that I moved away. Some of it was they didn’t realize what was going on because we both hid it. Some of it was that in the midst of a particularly bad episode, I couldn’t stay in contact. I was focused on more important things, like trying to find the energy to brush my teeth & feed myself, or to make it through hours when I was so agitated I wanted to rip my skin off (this is not an exaggeration) or was thinking about various ways I could die. But some of it was that it is easier for them to stay friends with the person who wasn’t caught in the hell of mixed states.

I understand that it was complicated. Yes, it was a messy breakup. Yes, people tend to choose who to stay friends with after even less messy breakups. Yes, we were young. But we aren’t now. I am not angry at him, but sometimes I resent that he got to keep the community. Over the years, I have rebuilt friendships with individual members of that crew. Occasionally, they all get together. I’m never invited, though I see the photos of Facebook. I was part of that community for years- this community of left leaning, smart as hell, New College types. And not one them seems to be aware that my not being included in these reunions is an example of how community does not deal well with mood disorders.

I find this somewhat painful, but I cultivate equanimity. I get that it is really hard for others. I understand that some probably don’t know that as I got to know them, way back in the early 90’s, I also was starting a journey through 20 years of unrelenting mood disorder. This mood disorder shaped how they saw me, this mood disorder made it difficult for me to connect. But some of them do know, at least somewhat. And still I am not invited.

Even with life jackets, people still drown.

Here is a hard, hard truth to hold. Even when communities do step in, they may not save that person.

My cousin Robby died by suicide in October 2008. He was going to a doctor. He had a therapist. He was taking medicine. He had a stable job and a stable schedule. He exercised regularly. He took care of his health. And his community was there for him. He lived with his brother, who knew what was going on. His friends also knew and were rallying to help him. The night before he died, he worked out with friends. He knew he needed to ground himself in those social connections. At 3 in the morning, he tried to call another friend. He reached out when he was suffering. His brother left for work early the next morning, and Robby, in a moment of terrible pain, decided to shoot himself.

It is almost the anniversary of his death. Some years, it feels more distant. This year, after two deaths by suicide in my circle of friends and family, it feels very close. I grieve.

Community Cant/Community can’t

My illness is not cured. It is in remission, kind of, sort of. It will flare up again. It could be quite bad. When the Blue Devil comes knocking on my door, and s/he will, I doubt I will tell you. I have been punished enough by this illness, and by your inability to be present for it. I have been punished enough.

{ 2 } Comments

  1. Amy | September 9, 2015 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

    You state so well what I’ve felt for years. I’m sorry you’ve felt/are feeling that way.
    It is true: most people cannot handle the mood disorders. I’ve learned to not talk about the worst if it because of how many times I’ve been told I’m too much or it’s my fault for ruminating. Which might it might not be true.
    It’s difficult enough for people to just be present for physically ill people. The concept of doing that for emotional/mental illnesses, I believe, is completely foreign to most. I know it’s exhausting to be around people when they feel so awful. We still need it.
    You are brave to write about this with such honesty. I hope people will understand a little better. I’m sad you ever have to feel like that but I have to say it makes me feel less alone, less freakish, less guilty to know I’m not the only one who feels some of the same things. I’m good at faking too. There are few people who know when I feel bad, and if they don’t see it, I only say something add a last resort, when I can’t stand being me. And then I apologize profusely.
    I don’t know; there should be a better way. But like you said, even worth the best of supports, there are no guarantees. I’d like there to be a network of people we could all call that a) one would be comfortable with, and b) would understand the gift of presence.

  2. Bishop Bishop | September 10, 2015 at 4:56 am | Permalink

    Amy, if I made you feel less lonely, then I am glad. Thank you for reading and commenting. I’m sorry to hear that you’ve been told it is your fault for ruminating. While it is true those of us who ruminate need tricks to try to step out of the loop, and perhaps others can help, I have found that the spirit of the comment (whether I make it internally or someone else makes it) makes a great difference. And if it is a bad, bad loop that “you’re ruminating, you need to stop” just fuels the loop even more, because then I feel guilty about ruminating.

    I needed to write something because in the wake of the suicide of this former co-worker, I got so tired of how “surprised” everyone was, because of course, they all assume that they would recognize a mood disorder or substance abuse problem. I had one person, who was a much closer friend to this person recoil a bit when I said I could believe it. I have know too many people – like us- who “fake it” to get through bad days. I’m saddened but not surprised when someone who seemed to have it together, turns out to have been falling apart.

    I don’t think there are easy answers. But I think that if we create more nuanced pictures of who lives with major mood disorders, our communities will have better information to grapple what it means to support people suffering.

    I send my love and support to you. Keep on keeping on.

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