Book Award: Sign of Progress for Mental Illness

Sep 19

Thanks to the work and dedication of many people, the concepts of mental illness and mental health are beginning to emerge from their dark hiding places and experience some much-deserved sunshine. Canada Goose Expedition Parka Mental illness in general is still difficult to discuss and can be met with cold misunderstanding; however, that is beginning to change. Parajumpers Lightweight Simona 6 Doudoune Understanding and empathy are increasing. nike air max 1 femme noir It’s becoming a little bit safer for people experiencing mental illness to seek and receive help. Nike Zoom Crusader A sign that thing are moving in a positive direction in the field of psychology, mental illness, and mental health is that professional and respected book review companies are honoring novels about mental illness and people living with it. Kirkus Reviews has released its list of Best Books of 2016, and Twenty-Four Shadows has been awarded a place on that list. Marcus Cannon   In their review of this novel, Kirkus Reviews said, “An exploration of dissociative identity disorder, this fourth novel by Peterson My Life in a Nutshell: A Novel, 2014, etc.) valiantly addresses the stigma of mental illness….[She] is able to say to the reader in earnest: this is mental illness, this is how it feels.” Twenty-Four Shadows was named to Kirkus Reviews Best Books of 2016 because of the way it addresses dissociative identity disorder, a serious mental illness. Stanford Cardinal For similar reasons, Kirkus Reviews named My Life in a Nutshell: A Novel to their list of Best Books of 2014, further indicating that mental illness (anxiety disorders and avoidant personality disorder) are important to bring into the sunlight. Air Jordan 8 Armani Survetement Other well-known review companies have recognized the novel Twenty-Four Shadows as well. Parajumpers Kodiak The Midwest Book Review lauded it, and The US Review of Books awarded it one of their coveted Recommended ratings. Nike SB Paul Rodriguez 9 adidas gazelle homme blanche All of this is a very good thing. Such honors for a novel that addresses a previously taboo subject shows that society is beginning to open minds and hearts to those living with mental illness. Oklahoma State Cowboys free run 5.0 grigio uomo When readers learn about mental illness through realistic stories, mental illness, and those living with it, are humanized. I speak a bit more about this in the below video, and I read a passage from the novel, too. Canada Goose Solaris Parka Nebraska Cornhuskers Jerseys I invite you to tune in. Air Jordan 13   Sign up for my free monthly newsletter, Wellbeing & Words. Justin Pugh Roll-Top Timberland Bottes Each issue is packed with useful tips for enhancing mental health and wellbeing, reading-related tidbits, and updates about my own mental health writing and activities.


Mental Illness Isn’t Who You Are

Sep 6

Experiencing any mental illness can be challenging, frustrating, and sometimes debilitating. It is something someone deals with, but it isn’t who someone is. Mental illness is a challenge, not an identity. Blue Black Jordan Shoes

You developed schizophrenia, and I know from talking to you that it’s scary and frustrating and it has brought a lot of changes to your life. Under Armour Rocket But it’s not who you are, Penelope. It is merely something you have to deal with. Your mind plays some pretty nasty tricks on you sometimes, but that doesn’t mean that you are unlovable. — Oliver to Penelope in Leave of Absence

Mental illness is a challenge, not an identity. Increasing understanding of mental illness helps this truth be known.That mental illness, any specific mental illness, isn’t an identity isn’t always easy to believe. Often, people associate their mental health challenges with who they are as a human being. There are multiple reasons for this.

  • Mental illnesses impact emotions, and often life feels out of control and hard to handle. It’s natural to believe that these intense, sometimes erratic feelings are a sign that we’re flawed somehow, unable to handle ourselves and the world around us.
  • Mental illnesses impacts thoughts. Parajumpers parka Mental illness can impact the way people think about themselves and the world. Nike Air Max Thea Femme Blanche Everyone has what are called faulty thoughts or automatic negative thoughts (like imposing “shoulds” upon yourself or catastrophizing/blowing something out of proportion and stressing out), but mental illnesses have a way of intensifying these thoughts.
  • Mental illnesses impact behaviors. Emotions, thoughts, and behaviors are intricately connected, and they affect each other. Faulty thoughts and intense emotions can affect actions people do or don’t take. Anxiety disorders, for example, can be very life-limiting when they prevent people from going out or doing certain things because of fear and worry.
  • Society doesn’t fully understand mental illness. Phoenix Suns A word commonly used for this misunderstanding is stigma. Canada Goose Chateau Parka There’s a lot of misperceptions about what mental illness really is, and this can negatively impact how someone living with mental illness is treated. Sometimes, outsiders see the mental illness before seeing the real person experiencing it.

Together, these can cause someone believe that mental illness is who they are. The truth is that mental illness (again, any particular mental illness) has affected the brain, not the essence of who we are. Memphis Tigers Jerseys The truth is that there are numerous treatments available to reduce the impact mental illnesses have on emotions, actions, and thoughts. The truth is that understanding can be taught. By listening to people’s shared stories, by reading memoirs and non-fiction books and articles about mental illness, by reading novels that show what these challenges are like for people, society as a whole is developing deeper understanding of what mental illness really is and what people living with mental health challenges experience. The truth is that mental illness isn’t who you are. AIR MORE UPTEMPO Therefore, you can rise above the illness to thrive. Journalism students from the University of Oregon interviewed me for a production for Allen Hall Studios. I share a bit about my own experience with mental illness — and transcending it. Sign up for my free monthly newsletter, Wellbeing & Words. Asics Gel Lyte 3 Femme Each issue is packed with useful tips for enhancing mental health and wellbeing, reading-related tidbits, and updates about my own mental health writing and activities.


Was it Stigma, or did I Read into It?

Sep 16

It’s sad but true. Adidas Zx 850 Femme “Isms” abound in our world. At any given time on any given day, turn to local or national news and we see that prejudice, the act of judging before knowing, before understanding, exists and harms. For those of us who live with or love and care for someone living with mental illness, the common word for this sad-but-true phenomenon is stigma. Stigma is a little word that sums up a big human problem. To condense a rather complicated concept, stigma means that when the term “mental illness” is used in the context of a human being, “mental illness” becomes the dominant trait that others see and hear. All of the other things about that human being—and every single human being on this planet has so many traits, characteristics, quirks, and strengths—melt away either partially or completely. canada goose langford parka Then, someone’s concept of mental illness becomes the lens through which he or she views the person associated with it. Another sad but true fact is that, while understanding is increasing, popular comprehension of what mental illness is and is not hasn’t quite caught up to what science and psychology knows. The result is often stigma, or misunderstanding, or judging before knowing. The result of stigma is that people living with mental illness or loving and caring for someone living with mental illness can be shunned or kept from fully experiencing life. Like other prejudices and “isms,” stigma is real. I once had an employer who, when I was hospitalized, was supportive when he thought I was in a “regular” hospital for effects of a traumatic brain injury. However, when he learned that the hospital wasn’t “regular” but was a behavioral health hospital (there was more to my experience than the brain injury), he withdrew his support and I no longer had my job waiting for me. Asics Gel Lyte 5 Femme Also, as a counselor, I’ve helped people frustrated by stigma. I co-facilitate a NAMI Connection support group, and the topic of stigma and its consequences is a common one. Armani Yes, stigma exists, but is it always present? And does it always matter? So, yes, stigma is real. nike air max thea donna However, is it always present, always at work? Recently, I attended a training to become a NAMI In Our Own Voice presenter. It was a two-day training in Portland, OR. Because I don’t live in Portland, I stayed in the hotel in which the training was held. When I arrived and checked in, I gave my name and informed the young woman at the desk that I was here with NAMI (because NAMI reserved the room). NIKE TANJUN The woman was cold and distant during the process. She answered a question I had with sparse words and no eye contact. Air Jordan 14 She wrote my room number on the key sleeve and handed it to me without directions to the room (not that it was hard to figure out). My first thought about the encounter was that she was judging me because I was with NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Then I stopped that thought, backed up, and considered it. In assuming that she was being prejudiced and thinking horrible things about me, was I also being prejudiced? And was I stigmatizing myself with my assumptions about her opinion of me? Was it stigma, or was I reading into this encounter? I shifted my thoughts and objectively examined what I knew about what went down.

  • Before I even introduced myself, she wasn’t cheery. She didn’t look up from her computer right away, and when she did, she was flat and unsmiling.
  • When I walked into the lobby, the first thing I had noticed was a sign on the desk stating “We are full.” Perhaps the evening had been busy, this young woman had had to turn away many grumpy people, and she was tired and didn’t want to deal with another person seeking a room that didn’t exist.
  • Perhaps she had other challenging things in her life that made it hard to be peppy with a stranger.
  • Maybe she was experiencing depression.
  • Maybe this was simply her personality.
  • Maybe not; maybe she was stigmatizing me.
  • But if stigma was at work, was she stigmatizing “me” or a concept?

The liberating reality is that I can’t know the definitive answers to any of these questions. I do know that any one of them is a possibility. Another liberating reality is that the answer doesn’t actually matter to me. Mens Air Jordan 5 Her attitude and the reason behind it has no bearing whatsoever on my life and its quality. Golden State Warriors Jerseys This was a single, insignificant encounter with a stranger. Our opinions of each other, if we even have opinions at all, don’t matter because they don’t impact us. Of course stigma is real and can do harm. But that doesn’t mean it’s always there or always harmful. My self-concept comes from within. I embrace my strengths and my limitations. Arizona State Sun Devils I also know that everyone else operates from their own withins. Not everything, either positive or negative, is about me. And for the things that are about me, I get to decide how and if they affect me. So was the young woman at the desk stigmatizing me, or was I reading into it? Either one is a possibility. The beauty is that neither answer matters. It’s not stigma if there are no consequences.


To Understand is To See One Another as Human Beings

Sep 22

remember-your-humanity-and-forget-the-rest Mental illness changes lives. Masterpiece Kodiak Doudoune It does not, however, change our humanity. Penelope Baker is one of the main characters in the novel Leave of Absence. She lives with schizophrenia, and she is filled with shame and self-loathing. In this scene, she is lamenting one of the ways it has impacted her life: “I used to be proud of myself. Nike Air Huarache Femme I graduated from the University of Chicago and worked as an advertising executive at Anderson Fletcher.” She paused and hugged the beach ball against her chest. When she resumed, she spoke quietly. “But then I changed, and I’m not the same anymore. I had to take quit the job I loved. canada goose snow mantra At first, I thought I could take a leave of absence, just a little break to get well and then go back. Doudoune Parajumpers Homme But I never got better enough to go back. I had to quit completely, and now I’m just a loser.” Tears rolled down her cheeks and splashed onto the ball. Leave of Absence Cover I wrote Leave of Absence because no one experiencing mental illness should ever have to feel like a loser. I possess a unique combination of experiences that I carry with me into my writing—my novel writing, my Anxiety-Schmanxiety column on, my newsletter writing for my local NAMI chapter, and my blog writing. That I write about mental health is no coincidence, for I have experienced mental health and mental illness from both sides of the proverbial couch. Air Jordan 13 For Kids Having been both a counselor and a patient, I have a deep understanding of how people can suffer emotionally in so many ways, how people can triumph emotionally in so many ways, and of how every human being deserves empathy and understanding. Joe Montana Notre Dame Jersey I use my many experiences to create stories that, while themselves fictional, are a very real manifestation of mental health and mental illness. It is my hope that Leave of Absence, My Life in a Nutshell: A Novel, and all my writing will help people understand each other more deeply. I have a rather intimate relationship with mental illness. I understand it intellectually thanks to an intense graduate program, and that lends a solid factual background to my stories. I understand it professionally thanks to all the people I have worked with in various capacities; in working with people, I have developed a real-world understanding of what people need in order for them to help them help themselves heal, and I weave this into my stories. LUNARGLIDE 8 And I understand mental illness personally thanks to my own experiences with it. Parajumpers Homme Big Bend I try to draw on all of these aspects to infuse my character-driven novels with not only facts but feeling. My own roller coaster ride with mental illness officially began in 2004 when I sustained a traumatic brain injury in a car accident. Because I could walk, talk, and physically care for myself, I didn’t qualify for brain injury rehabilitation programs. That didn’t mean that I was functioning well in other areas of my life, though. I saw a psychologist for counseling, and when that wasn’t enough, I was admitted into a behavioral health hospital. Avera The Airhaven Behavioral Health Center that is the setting for much of Leave of Absence is actually based on the hospital in which I stayed. The characters are completely fabricated, of course, but the physical description and other little details (such as Oliver’s hatred of the ticking clock in his room) are based on my own personal experience in the hospital. Parajumpers Denali I was in and out of that hospital five times over the course of a few years, and it was there that I was officially diagnosed with bipolar I disorder and anxiety disorders. So it’s on multiple levels that I understand what it means to suffer mentally and emotionally, how mental illness impacts every single facet of one’s life, what it’s like to live with the stigma and have people shun you both personally and professionally. Andre Tippett I believe passionately in the importance of bringing these issues it to light. When we learn about each other as human beings, when we take time to really listen and look, we begin to understand.


Stop Stigma: Does it Stop Short?

Sep 18

“Stigma” is a prominent concept in the mental health community, and probably rightly so. It refers to a sense otherness, an experience of judgment and prejudice, and a feeling of isolated loneliness that results from the judgment. It’s not merely a perceived concept; rather, it’s very tangible and real. A great many people who experience mental illness or mental health challenges report the loss of friendships, jobs, and other such life things critical to well-being. I co-facilitate a NAMI Connection support group, and the topic of stigma is a popular discussion. I myself have experienced it. I’ve lost a couple of friendships when said friends were uncomfortable with my diagnosis of bipolar disorder, and I had negative responses from an employer that resulted in a distinct lack of employment. To be sure, when I was dealing with a traumatic brain injury and the diagnosis of bipolar 1 disorder, I couldn’t work. UGG Classic Short The employer was very supportive about the TBI and wanted me to return when ready, but when the employer learned that I was in a behavioral health rather than a “regular” hospital and was diagnosed with a mental illness, I was unwelcome and even told that I couldn’t be trusted. This was not based on any changed behavior or reliability on my part but instead on the perception of mental illness on their part. That is what stigma means. Nike Air Presto Yes. That is stigma. Stigma is real. Stigma is bullying. It leaves a foul taste in the mouths of those who speak of it, and it is toxic. To have toxicity means to poison those exposed to the substance—or in this case, the concept. People are hurt by stigma. However, perhaps “stigma” is toxic in another way, too. I recently engaged in a twitter conversation, limited to 140-character exchanges yet very meaningful, discussing the frustrating aspects of “stigma.” While stigma is indeed real and undeniable, are mental health organizations doing people a disservice by continuing to focus so much on it? When the cry is constantly, “Fight stigma!” is positive change actively promoted?

Is it enough to cry, "No Stigma"?

Is this helpful?

“Fight stigma” is a battle cry. Canada Goose Chilliwack Bomber In a battle, there are enemies. The enemies try to destroy each other. The people who perpetuate stigma by judging and ostracizing are being destructive. People with mental illness who are trying to just live life like everyone else meet barrier after barrier. But the anti-stigma campaigns are doing battle, too. ADIDAS ZX 750 “Fight stigma.” “Boo to the people who judge.” Okay. Fine. But then what? Do we want to stay and fight, or do we want to move forward? Believe me. I’m not brushing off stigma and it’s countering as unimportant. It is important. Currently, there are too many conversations like this one, extracted from the novel Leave of Absence: When William said nothing further, Rod continued, “I know I’ve said this before, but it really sucks that this happened to her. Leave of Absence CoverYou guys don’t deserve this. I hope they can help her. She hasn’t been the same for nearly two years, and that’s a shame. She used to be such a great person.” Used to be a great person? For a moment, William was speechless. Seton Hall Pirates Jerseys He knew Rod didn’t mean to be hurtful, but his comments stung. When he spoke, his voice was tinged with hurt and anger. “What the hell does that mean?” “Hey, no need to get pissed. I didn’t mean anything by it. She’s still Penelope and all, but just, well, you know…” Rod trailed off and made a vague gesture. “No. I don’t know.” “Come on. Schizophrenia…” Rod trailed off again, as if that single word said it all. “I don’t know what you’re getting at. Why don’t you enlighten me?” William challenged. “It’s gotta freak you out, man. It would freak anyone out. Doesn’t she think that aliens are going to abduct her, or that the CIA is out to get her or something like that? Aren’t you scared? People with schizophrenia are unpredictable and violent. Parajumpers en France What if voices tell her to kill you, William? You go to sleep one night, and she sneaks into the kitchen, grabs a knife, and stabs you or something.” Stereotypes abound, and they hurt. This description of schizophrenia is as common as it is incorrect. Parajumpers Femme Pas Cher Here, the stigma against mental illness destroyed a friendship. Things need to change. Nike Air Max 1 Femme But is crying “stigma” alone going to bring the needed changes? Perhaps it’s time to expand the stigma-fighting campaigns that exist. Stating that stigma needs to stop (and yes, it does) might not be enough. Perhaps more important than saying that stigma needs to stop is asserting that understanding needs to begin. Perhaps the Look Me in the Eye campaign, a movement to break down barriers between people, could be a positive model. Rather than calling for an end to the stigma against people with developmental and intellectual disabilities, this campaign calls for increased understanding and improved relationships. Is being rooted in a fight against stigma preventing forward movement? Personally, rather than telling someone to stop stigmatizing me, I’d like to give them a way to do it. I’d like to teach people what given mental illnesses are and are not as well as to show them how to look at each other’s heart.


Empathy, Fiction, and Humanizing Mental Illness

Sep 14

  empathyThere’s currently a disconnect between understanding mental illness and understanding/accepting the person behind it. We need to look beyond the descriptions and symptoms of mental illness and see the human being living with it. I have a desire to be one of the many people who work to change this. My motivation stems from multiple sources. Professionally, I have a Master’s degree in counseling, am a Nationally Certified Counselor (US), and I’ve worked and volunteered as a teacher and a counselor. Parajumpers Californian Newport Adidas Ultra Boost Femme Personally, I experience bipolar I disorder and various anxiety issues. Chris Jones Therefore, I set out to tell stories to change the way the world thinks about mental illness and the people who experience it. Yes, stories. Nike Air Foamposite Pro Stories of people. My stories happen to be in the form of novels, of fiction. Air Jordan 10 Retro
However, fiction is a powerful vehicle for illustrating fact. Fiction entertains, and fiction educates. It provides opportunities for conversation. Fiction, at its core, is about life and about human beings. nike free run 4.0 homme We often become attached to characters in novels, and we empathize with them. Chaussures Nike Commonly, we transfer our empathy to real-life human beings. Asics Gel Kinsei 6 Homme Jordan Horizon I write my novels with a purpose. Mujer Air Jordan 4 Duke Blue Devils I’m exasperated by the negative stereotypes that exist against mental illness and the people who experience various forms of it. The stereotypes have led to a stigma so intense that it causes discrimination and isolation and can prevent people from seeking the help they need. AIR ZOOM ELITE 9 I like to believe in the best in people, so I don’t think that people are intentionally cruel toward those experiencing mental illness. Instead, I think they are basing their thoughts and subsequent actions on misinformation and misunderstanding. Canada Goose Foxe Bomber SMU Mustangs Jerseys Mainstream media continues to portray mental illness inaccurately: television, movies, books, advertisements, and the news are all guilty of this. FLYKNIT LUNAR3 New Balance 1300 homme The National Indie Excellence Awards committee selected (2013) Leave of Absence as a finalist in their “faction” category—fiction based on fact. Air Max 95 Hombre Recently, Kirkus Reviews awarded My Life in a Nutshell: A Novel their coveted Kirkus Star, a distinction “awarded to books of remarkable merit,” and had this to say: “As in her previous novels, Peterson demonstrates a tender, notably human understanding of mental illness….[S]he accurately captures the crushing sensations of anxiety disorder[s] while simultaneously offering rays of hope. A vital tool for sufferers and their families that broadens understanding of a debilitating illness.” Losing Elizabeth received Storytellers Campfire’s 2014 Marble Book Award for being a book that “makes a significant difference in the world. James White This is a good sign, I think. Perhaps the world is ready to open its collective mind and heart and deepen empathy and compassion.


Crazy Fun?

Sep 7

I found this on Facebook: “Did Your Name Make the Top 15 Names of Crazy People?” Clicking on the story routed me to the website of a radio station where this photo and a short little piece dominated the home page. The sensationalistic, and alarmingly negative, photo is, as you’ll see if you investigate, accompanied by a list of 15 names. They’re supposedly the top names of “crazy people.” Crazy People I’ll admit upfront that perhaps I’m taking this little article too seriously. I tend to do that when I’m passionate about something, and I am indeed passionate about people understanding each other — understanding what mental health issues truly are and developing empathy and compassion for those who live with mental illness/mental health struggles. I’m passionate about all human beings being treated as human beings and with the empathy that everyone deserves. So, because of my bias, am I reading too much into this? After all, the write-up accompanying the photo and the list references “fun” twice. “It’s [the post] been floating around Facebook, and it’s kind of fun to go through,” and “Just think about how much fun you could have with the list [of names] below.” I didn’t think that looking at a negatively stereotypical picture, reading about craziness, and then looking at a list of names to find out whether or not you or your friends are crazy sounded like good, wholesome fun. NIKE AIR MAX LD-ZERO But maybe I don’t understand “fun;” therefore, I looked up some definitions. Nike SB Stefan Janoski Here’s what I found: “Fun” is enjoyment, amusement, or lighthearted pleasure; it’s amusing, entertaining, or enjoyable; it is to joke or tease. Hmmm. It doesn’t sound like making fun of people who are “crazy” (an outdated term, by the way) and seeing if you’re like them, prone to lying in a straightjacket on the floor of an elevator, is lighthearted entertainment. But again, maybe I’m wrong. Louisville Cardinals Jerseys After comparing doing the activity in the post to the definition of “fun,” I remembered that part of the definition of that word included “tease.” I looked it up. Parajumpers Homme “Tease” is to make fun of or attempt to provoke (a person or animal) in a playful way. Burberry Vêtement But the synonyms for “tease” include “taunt,” “bait,” “goad,” “pick on,” “deride,” “mock,” and “ridicule.” Are such things playful? If they are, I don’t want to be playful. St. Johns I’m saddened that things get posted around the internet for the world to see and possibly adapt into their own outlooks in which “fun” equates to “tease” and “tease” equates to “ridicule.” It’s prominent, and it perpetuates stigma. Nike Air Max If this is my neighbor/friend/employer/grocery store clerk’s idea of mental illness, “crazy,” and “fun,” how must he or she view the 25% of the population who lives with mental illness? I write articles for’s Anxiety-Schmanxiety blog as well as other articles on their site. adidas gazelle homme grise I also write novels—Leave of Absence, My Life in a Nutshell: A Novel, Losing Elizabeth, and Twenty-four Shadows (due out in the spring of 2016)—to show what mental illness is really like and to build compassion and understanding for those who live with it. FREE 5.0 It’s disheartening when things like “Did Your Name Make the Top 15 Names of Crazy People?” dehumanize mental illness. Or maybe I’m just not having enough fun.


Stigma: Is There Glory in Illness?

Jun 16

This past weekend I read John Greene’s The Fault in Our Stars. Yes, yes, I’m a little late to get on that particular bandwagon. But hey, I did at least get on the bandwagon. Wonderful book, as most of the literate world already knows. Because this knowledge is common, I’m not focusing on the overall wonder of the writing and the story. Instead, I’d like to ponder—or, rather, share with you my ponderings that have been in my head all weekend—a single sentence.

At a certain point in the book, Hazel Grace and Augustus Waters, both adolescents dying of cancer, travel to Amsterdam for a few days. Hazel is forever accompanied by her cumbersome oxygen tank; Augustus limps due to a prosthetic leg. Thus, they were among those passengers allowed to board early due to the need for assistance. Hazel, acutely aware of the stares of other passengers as they watched her board, muses, “That was the worst part about having cancer, sometimes: The physical evidence of disease separates you from the other people.”

“The physical evidence of disease separates you from other people.”

Stigma: Is There Glory in Illness?Among the circles of those living with, or knowing someone who lives with, mental illness, the “s” word looms large. Stigma. Stigma equates to judgment of the negative sort, and it’s a horrible component to mental illness. Losing employment, losing friendships, being shunned and stared at and whispered about and judged to be crazy and someone to be feared…all of these very real, very hurtful things arise from lack of understanding. Together, they are stigma.

There is a popular argument/metaphor used among those of us who work to reduce the stigma associated with mental illness. It goes somewhat like this: We don’t blame people for having cancer or diabetes. We don’t judge them for it. We don’t look down on their medical treatments. So why is it different for people with mental illness? Why the negative judgment rather than understanding and empathy?

Valid points, yes. However, Hazel helped me see this in a new light. There actually is a stigma against cancer and other physical illnesses. Mental illnesses (which, incidentally, are physical illnesses as they are brain-based) do have a particularly nasty association tacked onto them, but still, physical illness, too, draws stares and pity and even fear (will I catch that, too?).

In looking up the definition of stigma, one can see common themes: mark of disgrace, a stain on one’s reputation, a mental or physical mark characteristic of a disease. The definition encompasses all illnesses, mental and physical (again, there’s technically not a difference between the two).

I said earlier that I was going to ponder one single sentence from The Fault in Our Stars. I changed my mind. I’d like to add one more. Augustus, after his cancer had returned in full-force, was frustrated and sad and lamented, “There’s no glory in illness.”

No, whether it’s cancer or diabetes or Parkinson’s or bipolar disorder or anxiety or schizophrenia or countless others, there is no glory in illness. Illness can cause pain and suffering. Part of the suffering is being on the receiving end of judgment from others.

So where, then, is the glory? Perhaps the glory lies in the good in all of us. For Hazel and Augustus, there was no glory in the stigma of the stares of the people who gawked as they boarded the plane. But there was glory in the love they had for each other. They met someone in Amsterdam who was full of hate, but they met someone else full of kindness. There was no glory in the hate, but there was glory in the kindness.

Stigma isn’t going to disappear quickly and easily. Nonetheless, there’s glory in the kindness that does exist. Bask in that glory.




Under The Bell Jar: It’s Hard to Fight Insanity When You’re Depressed

Jan 31

(For a brief explanation as to why I’m commenting on novels about mental illness, see Books As Insight Into Mental Illness.)


This is a bell jar:

A Bell Jar

Imagine living inside one of these. Not just the top of your head, mind you, but all the way down to your toes. It would be like wearing one of those awful plastic Halloween masks only worse. Worse because there are no air holes. Worse because it would fog up. Worse because there would be no air circulation but you couldn’t just slide it easily to the top of your head and let it rest. Worse because it wouldn’t be worn by choice, for fun, but instead against your will and for no fun reason at all.Bell Jar

It is this object, this functional device turned torture device, that Sylvia Plath chose as the symbolic title of her 1963 novel. It’s an apt title. It represents mental illness itself, a heavy, stifling, confining jar that descends over one’s very mind and impedes the ability to fully, freely live.

The novel’s main character, the young woman who sinks deeply into mental illness, is one Esther Greenwood. She muses over this thing that she doesn’t fully understand, this illness that has covered her and seeped deep within, and the description she gives is telling: “…wherever I sat—on the deck of a ship or at a street café in Paris or Bangkok—I would be sitting under the same glass bell jar, stewing in my own sour air.” For Esther, like so many who live with mental illness, the problem isn’t where in the world she is. The problem is the stifling, oppressive bell jar that has fallen down upon her, and even in an exotic location there it would be.

Sylvia Plath wrote a fiction novel. However, it was slightly autobiographical. Esther, while indeed a separate entity, is representative of Plath herself. Sylvia Plath struggled with mental illness, and, tragically, she took her own life in 1963, the same year The Bell Jar was released (originally under a pseudonym). In the novel, it is Esther’s attempted suicide, the result of inner torment, that lands her in psychiatric hospital after psychiatric hospital.

The terminology used in The Bell Jar is very much indicative of the lack of understanding typical of the era. To be sure, the fields of psychology and psychiatry existed. Modern psychology had been ushered in by Sigmund Freud over half a century before. The American Psychological Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual existed but was in its infancy; the first edition was released in 1952, and while it provided a uniform terminology, there was much that went unmentioned and more that was misunderstood. (In fact, the manual is still being updated and revised as we advance our understanding of the brain; the fifth version was released in 2013, and it most certainly won’t be the last version.)

In the 1960s, the time of The Bell Jar, so little was fully known that Esther is simply considered to be “insane.” She stays in an “insane asylum” where she is not so much treated but managed and controlled. She receives a series of shock treatments, very common back then and used much more recklessly than they are today. The reader gets the feeling that these treatments aren’t quite administered with accuracy and purpose. It seems more as though the doctors are trying what they can to jolt, force, shock, shake Esther back to the world of the sane.

And indeed, this is how it often was. Sadly, people didn’t really know enough about the brain, mental illness, and psychiatry to truly be helpful. Thankfully, people wanted to know more, so they researched and studied and listened until we have arrived where we are today. Oh, we still have a long way to go as both scientific and lay communities, toward fully understanding, treating, and accepting mental illness. At least, though, the term “insane” isn’t applied as a blanket term for someone experiencing mental illness and most people aren’t controlled and most people aren’t shocked recklessly and against their will (electroconvulsive therapy does exist, but it’s not like the shock treatments to which Esther was subjected).

Because of the lack of true understanding and the use of the term “insane,” Esther never does receive a more specific diagnosis. (Which explains why she wasn’t helped very well; how can one be helped if no one understands what’s going on?) I only know what is revealed to me by Esther, of course, so I can’t make an official diagnosis for her. That said, it seems evident that Esther was experiencing major depressive order, commonly known as depression.

More than one thing points to depression as the culprit for Esther’s immense suffering.


The entire book (told by Esther) has a detached feel. She is completely disengaged from life around her. She has no desire for connection with those around her or even for simple conversation. She shows little emotion, other than occasional irritability or anger.

Esther shows us how depression can feel: slow; separate from reality, as if things are happening around her but she’s not fully part of it; powerless to take action, which is fine because she doesn’t want to anyway; a confused detachment from the world, as though watching people parade around you, saying strange, incomprehensible things.

Misinterpretation of the world:

In the hospital after her suicide attempt, she is visited by her friend George. George just wants to see her, but Ester is hurt and angry, believing that he only wants to gawk at her as if she’s an animal in a zoo. She “knows” he wants to see what a crazy girl who tried to kill herself looks like. He tries to convince her otherwise, to no avail. She screams at him to get the hell out and never come back.

Later, in a different hospital, another patient by the name of Miss Norris is completely silent. Esther is hurt by this silence, and she believes that the staff told Miss Norris that Esther is stupid and bad and so now Miss Norris is ignoring her.

She even misinterprets her mother. She is hurt and angry because she thinks her mother is ashamed of her and embarrassed to have a daughter in an insane asylum. She goes so far as to throw away the bouquet of roses her mother gives her on her birthday and then order her mother to leave.

Many forms of mental illness, depression among them, make it difficult for people to interpret the world accurately. Thought patterns are different than they would be without mental illness, and the stigma attached to mental illness can make it easy to believe that others are judging you.

And speaking of stigma! It existed in Esther’s world as it does still in ours today. I believe a simple quote from The Bell Jar will say it all. The comment was made by one Buddy Willard when he stopped by briefly to see Esther (or, more accurately, to make sure there wasn’t something he did to land her there). Buddy and Esther had previously dated, and at one point Buddy was interested in marrying her. Buddy had recently been released from a year-long stay at a special hospital for people with tuberculosis. (Those facts amplify the impact of his statement).

Buddy to Esther: “’I wonder who you’ll marry now, Esther. Now you’ve been,’ and Buddy’s gesture encompassed the hill, the pines, and the severe, snow-gabled buildings breaking up the rolling landscape, ‘here.’”

The Bell Jar is a powerful novel for many reasons. It takes us inside the mind and heart of someone experiencing “insanity”—or, if you will, depression. It’s powerful, too, because it leaves us with a sense of hesitancy yet hope.

Says Esther, “But I wasn’t sure. I wasn’t sure at all. How did I know that someday—at college, in Europe, somewhere, anywhere—the bell jar, with its stifling distortions, wouldn’t descend again?” And another time, “…all I could see were question marks.”

And that is so accurate. With any mental illness, there’s always a shadow lingering, a fear that things might get bad again. And again. And that a good spell is only temporary. Yet Esther’s statement is significant. She’s thinking ahead. She’s envisioning college and Europe. No matter where the bell jar may be, there is possibility. There is hope.


Empathy, Understanding Trump Stigma

Sep 29

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