Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Why I Talk About My Mental Illness

I talk about my mental illness a fair bit in the course of my blogging, and I get a lot of different responses to that. There are some people who find it upsetting or too much to deal with, and they stop reading. Which is fair enough. There are a lot of people who've contacted me with variations on the theme of "me too!" and that always delights me. Feeling like I was the only one who thought the way I did was one of the most upsetting parts of coming to terms with having a mental illness for me, so if I can help someone else to understand it's not just them, it's never just them, then I'm absolutely thrilled. But I also get a lot of comments along the lines of how "brave" I am for talking about it, and asking how I deal with the vulnerability of opening up such an internal, personal part of myself. I've been meaning to answer this question properly for a while, so here it is;

If I don't talk, other people fill the silence with their assumptions.

I thought no-one else was like me, because for a long time I didn't hear anyone else talking about it, so I filled the silence with my assumption. Once I started hearing other people talk, and hearing other people say things that I felt, I realised my assumption was wrong. But without that input, I never would have realised. And understanding that I'm not alone has been a fundamental part of my ability to deal with being crazy, to keep getting back up when I feel like I just can't anymore - without it I probably wouldn't be here anymore. Talking about my own crazy is one of the ways I feel like I can pay that back - if I contribute to the conversation, it gets louder, and maybe more likely to reach everyone who needs to hear it.

Talking about my mental illness, and the way it warps my thinking, actions, and reactions, has also made my life a hell of a lot easier. I've been very lucky to be surrounded by a lot of very empathetic, kind hearted people who wanted to listen, and were happy to take my requests on board. I know that not everyone is so lucky, and so I totally understand why some people are much more tentative about contributing to the conversation about mental illness. I've been fortunate enough to only have one really negative reaction to my "confession" of being mentally ill; for a long time my mother seemed to think it was somehow her fault, and that the sole purpose of therapy was to pin all my issues on her, which wasn't particularly helpful. She's largely come around on this, but to be fair she's viewing my illness through some serious issues of her own. But apart from that, everyone I've "confessed" to has either been supportive, or are in the same boat as me.

For a long time, I didn't think I had a mental illness. I just thought I was creative, and free spirited, and all the nonsense you get in your head from reading too many fantasy novels. I'd been displaying what I now realise were pretty obvious symptoms since I was about 17, but it took until I was 26 for me to have my big breakdown. After losing my job, friends, and nearly my partner too I very reluctantly started therapy, and medication, but I still didn't think I was REALLY crazy. I assumed it was something that would go away with time and effort. I told myself it wasn't really a part of me, it was just a thing that was happening TO me. For some people, depression does go away, and it is just a thing that happens for a while before clearing up. But in my case, it eventually became clear that I wasn't just experiencing temporary depression - I actually really did have a proper personality disorder, and it wasn't going to go away, no matter how much I wanted it to. That was, to be honest, a horrifying realisation. I felt monstrous, deformed, and like continuing was pointless because if it wasn't something that would go away I should just end it now and save everyone in my life the pain of having to deal with my monstrousness.

But then I started listening, and hearing that there were other people out there like me. I started reading a lot online, and discovering there were not only people just like me, but people with more mild symptoms, and people with more debilitating symptoms. They weren't monstrous, or deformed - they were cool people, that I thought were really awesome, and so eventually I started to understand that maybe I wasn't actually monstrous either. But when interacting with other people I was still enormously self conscious - it was one thing for other crazy people to be cool with me, but I wasn't convinced at all that "normal" people would accept me. I also had it in my head that if I just tried hard enough I could hide my crazy, and never have to risk judgement for it. Some people can completely hide their mental illness, and if you can I understand why you would. But that's not me. I came to understand that I not only couldn't hide it, I had been doing a god-awful job of hiding it even when I thought I was doing really well. I started tentatively suggesting to some of my close friends that maybe I might perhaps have a bit of a personality disorder, and the overwhelming response was, "We know." I mean, they were much kinder about it than that, but I came to understand that I didn't have a choice about hiding my mental illness from the people closest to me, because they already knew.

Through a lot (like a LOT) of talking, I did however realise that just because they knew I was crazy didn't mean they actually understood what was going on in my head. Mental illness is a huge complex array of various symptoms and reactions, that all intersect in different ways depending on the individual in question, so even if I told people my exact diagnosis, that was still no guarantee that would actually understand me at all. I discovered that if I didn't talk, people filled the silence with their assumptions. If people saw the scars on my arms from cutting, and they hadn't heard me talk about the reasons I did it, they filled the silence with the assumption that it was just an attempt to gain attention. If I suddenly became cold towards someone I'd previously been really friendly with, and didn't tell them why, they filled the silence with an assumption that I was just being a bitch for kicks. If I needed my partner to just leave me alone for an afternoon, and I hadn't told them how sometimes my head gets so overcrowded it's like trying to think through static, they would naturally fill the silence with an assumption I was being cruel. Just saying, "I have a mental illness" wasn't enough to prevent my behavior from hurting the people around me - I needed to talk, I needed to let them see the gears and motors behind my actions, so they could understand that while it might LOOK like I'm a broken machine, I do actually have my reasons.

So I talk, as much as I can. It's still hard - I'm mostly terrified these days a potential employer will come across this blog and decide they're not going to hire some crazy person. But for me, it's absolutely worth it. I feel a responsibility to contribute to the ongoing conversation about mental illness in a broader sense, because I think it helps contribute to happier crazy people in general. I feel a responsibility to the people who care about me to explain the things I can't prevent, as part of a wider scheme of damage control. And  you know what? It gets easier every time - largely due to the encouraging and supportive people who listen to me.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Dark Blue

If you don't follow me obsessively around the internet, you might not know that I recently left my job. There were a lot of reasons, but mostly because my work situation was becoming rapidly and overwhelmingly upsetting. One of the first things I remember being excited about when coming to terms with the fact I was likely to be unemployed for a little while was the idea that I could stay up all night again if I wanted to. I've always loved being up when I'm not "supposed" to be, and after two years of working 9 to 5 the idea of being able to be awake or asleep as I chose was utterly glorious. Apart from the obvious childish glee at breaking the societal taboo of "proper" sleeping patterns, my love of staying up is actually driven by something kind of complicated.

You see, sometimes, it's like there's someone else trapped inside of me. Okay, to be totally honest, I feel like that all the time, it just bothers me some times more than others. It's not a distinct other person, like another personality, but rather a different, bigger, more nebulous aspect of the whole sum of what makes up me. There are lots of parts of me - there are parts that are overwhelmingly kind, and some that are horribly callous and unfeeling. There are some parts that are simply pragmatic. But under all of that, under all the conscious thoughts and rationalisations and the parts of me that are allowed to determine what I do most of the time, there is something else. Something deeper, darker, crueler and kinder. Something...bigger. It's almost as if she's a giant who's been shoved inside my skin, and a lot of the time she doesn't sit comfortably.

I've been drawing her for years, on and off. Looking back over my old sketchbooks, she seems to have first shown up when I was around about 17, and shows up more and more often after I moved out of home and got the chance to really explore who I was, what I wanted to be, and what I wanted my life to look like. While reading Imajica by Clive Barker, I was astonished to come across what seemed to me like a direct description of this woman inside me, this aspect I'd never actually told anyone about out loud. In the book she's a Goddess trapped by evil patriarchal Gods; the woman inside me isn't trapped by patriarchy specifically however, but by my need to interact with the outside world in an acceptable way. The feel of binding rung so painfully true though, and it remains one of the most powerful images for me out of the whole enormous tome.

"The bricks were the same plain stuff as all along the passages.The mortar between had a stain in it she recognised however; an unmistakable blue. Excited now, she drove her mind on...It was dark on the other side, darker even than the ground she'd dropped through to enter this secret place. Nor was it simply a darkness made of light's absence, but of despair and sorrow. Her instinct was to retreat from it, but there was another presence here that made her linger; a form barely distinguishable from the darkness, lying in the squalid cell. It was bound - almost cocooned - it's face completely covered...Her mind sank towards the binding, and slipped between the threads into the body's maze. She had expected darkness, but there was light here, the forms of the body's innards delineated by the milk-blue she'd come to know as the colour of this mystery...The dead woman had been large in life, hips substantial, her breasts heavy. But the binding bit into her ripeness everywhere, perverting the swell and sweep of her."

Last time I was unemployed I finished a huge painting featuring her prominently, or the closest I could manage to a visual approximation of her. I think the influence of that particular passage from Imajica is pretty obvious.

It was incredible to at last have the time to create an image of her that seemed big enough to come close to conveying how she feels to me. The whole painting is enormous - so enormous, and so heavy that I actually have no idea how I'm ever going to hang it. But that seems kind of appropriate too, because she never sits entirely comfortably inside me. When Mr. Reluctant Femme first saw this painting, he asked if she was sleeping or curled up ready to burst out, and I honestly couldn't tell him. I didn't intend her to definitively look either way; depending on the moment, the woman inside me can feel like a warm, blue beating heart, strong, solid and unshakable. Other times she feels like a raging giant, struggling furiously at the bonds of flesh and bone that bind her into this stupid little useless body. It's usually at night that her struggles become most prominent, and for many years I had a habit of staying up writing in an attempt to soothe her, to let it all flow out into words so that I might have some peace when it was done. I remember more than once waking up the next day to find bruises on my wrists from where I'd been pressing them against the desk too hard while I typed. I would sometimes read back over what I'd written later, and have absolutely no memory of having written what was there. It's actually kind of alarming to see pages and pages of words written in what is definitively your own handwriting, but not have the slightest idea how they got there. The fact that these parts I couldn't remember writing were usually much better than the rest of my work only encouraged me to ignore the fact I was apparently losing great chunks of time, and keep at it in the name of art.

It all sounds pretty romantic when I write it out like that. There's a beautiful, glorious blue Goddess living inside me, and that's where all my pretty words come from! It's a story I told myself for a long time, and unfortunately the romanticism is part of what stopped me seeing this whole thing  for what it really is - a symptom of my mental illness. You see, the times where I feel like I'm a vessel for a being bigger than me are actually what psychology calls manic episodes. What I usually get is more properly called "elevated mood", but can easily slip over into a proper manic episode.

Mania manifests very differently for different people, and can be a reaction to a lot of different situations. It used to come off the back of long held frustration for me, emerging from a sense of not being able to speak, or inability to let something out. If I tried to hold something in for too long, or "behave" for too long at a stretch, the woman would burst out in a fiery explosion of mania. Sometimes it manifested as uncontrollable anger - I remember a fight with an ex of mine where I was gripping the counter to prevent myself from hitting him, and screaming in his face the whole time. It could also manifest as an overwhelming desire to go on an adventure, anywhere, RIGHT NOW. Which sounds like fun, and sometimes it WAS a lot of fun. Especially when I was younger and had more time on my hands, I would often call a friend and head off to Rookwood Cemetery or to some random beach in the middle of the night, and just have a delightful adventure. But the thing about manic episodes is that they're unpredictable. The same urge that led me to go and explore Rookwood Cemetery one night, led me to flee my house another time leaving only a note for my partner saying that he had to come find me. I ended up halfway across the city from him, for very important reasons I couldn't quite remember the details of, with him calling me over and over, unable to pick up the phone for very important reasons that I couldn't quite put into words.

These days however I'm not nearly so frustrated in general as I used to be, and I've noticed that instead of coming out of anger or frustration, my mania now usually starts with me being really happy, or excited about something. Perhaps it because I spent so many years barely touching the edges of feeling happy that now I'm happy quite a lot I still don't always know what to do with it. I start off happy, but if I get TOO happy I start wanting more. More happy, more excited, more fun, MORE. I start feeling restless, frustrated, trapped, and eventually it builds until I feel like if I don't run or smash something or set something on fire I'll  tear my own skin off just to get OUT. This happens often enough that I've started getting wary of being too happy about anything - I've started monitoring my mood really closely once my excitement hits a certain point. Luckily, the onset of a manic episode almost always triggers a lot of physical symptoms for me. Both my toes and my fingers get really twitchy, wriggling or adjusting position almost constantly. I'll often catch myself jiggling my knee up and down, or pacing around far more than is actually necessary. I'll start to speak more quickly and urgently, in longer run on sentences. I apparently blink faster, and my pupils get dilated; I can only take Mr. Reluctant Femme's word for that, but it seems to fit with everything else.

For all my watchfulness and awareness and lists of symptoms, I still don't know how to settle down the restless Goddess inside with thoughts alone. If I'm working or need to be somewhere the next day, I just down some sedatives. I'm lucky enough to be quite easy to sedate, so unless the mood is unusually strong I can just shut it down. But now I'm not working, I want to let her go more often. I hate having to shut her down so abruptly, so often, and I want her to have room to move every now and then. I know that I can't let her run wild like I used to, if only because I live with someone who will get understandably alarmed if I drop all presence of behaving like a civilised human being. If Mr. Reluctant Femme wakes up in the middle of the night and I'm just gone, there will be questions asked, and fair enough too. There just isn't room in my life, in the world I live in, for her kind of chaos. Her movements are too broad, too uncontrolled and too unpredictable. While she takes me on incredible adventures, she can also just as easily burn my life to the ground.

Illustration for Imajica by Richard A. Kirk
Even so, I still hate binding her, binding myself. I went for a walk tonight to try and shake off this mood a bit, and I can't tell you how much I just wanted to run. I didn't want to run anywhere in particular, I just wanted start running and see where I ended up. But I can't - there's someone waiting for me at home, I didn't have any money to get home from wherever I might end up, all sorts of real life threads binding the giant inside me who just wanted to run away. I mourn the fact that the way my world is doesn't allow for how she is, and sometimes wish there was some other sort of world I could live in; a bigger, broader, more hardy world where we'd live in a bigger, hardier body, so she could dance and run without breaking everything. I know that if I let her take over, she could destroy everything,. But sometimes I don't want to stop her, and that worries me. While the woman inside me and I are co-existing more comfortably than we used to, I still haven't really made peace with the reality of having to keep her bound most of the time, and I'm starting to wonder if I ever really will.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

How Captain Marvel Converted Me To Superhero Comics

While I've always been an unabashed comic nerd, before I met Mr. Reluctant Femme I didn't read superhero comics. They were just not a thing I read. I had stacks of comics, but none of them anything remotely superhero related. Well, okay, there was the occasional exception; I did read X-Men, mostly because of my deep, long held, ferociously intense crush on Wolverine. But apart from that, I simply wasn't interested. I never got the impression from the outside that there was anything in superhero comics for me, as a woman. It all looked like bulging biceps and pert female buttocks twisted in biologically improbable ways, with plots so ludicrous they're barely comprehensible even to the hardcore fans. I mean, just look at this summary of Infinite Crisis, a recent superhero "event" story. Superboy punches the universe so hard it shatters. Seriously. That is a thing that they wrote and which we were expected to take seriously. Why would I spend my money on things like that when well written, beautiful books like The Sandman existed? Why would I read about a guy with a magic ring that makes stuff from the "emotion" of willpower when books like Tank Girl are just as ludicrous, but WAY more fun? 

Lawd, I love Tank Girl. It's such wonderful, magnificent, unashamed nonsense.
This wasn't something anyone ever saw as any sort of problem until I got together with Mr. Reluctant Femme, who is possibly one of the most devoted Batfans on the planet. He loves superhero comics. He recognises that a lot of them have some really super serious issues, but he loves them all the same, and as we fell in love, he started wanting to share the things he loved with me. Slowly, in that gentle but persistent way that you can only really pull off with someone you're sleeping with on the regular, Mr. Reluctant Femme eased me into the world of superheroes. A little Batman here, a little Avengers there, some selected cartoons just to round out the experience, and I slowly realised that there might be some gold hidden under the morass of "Hulk In Space" and "Robin Hood But Green" after all. 

Of all the superheroes, I was least against Batman, so he started there, Obviously, being a complete Batobsessive, he knew what ones would reel me in. He subtly nudged me to give the Batman Black and White series a try, since it was the one most similar to the indie comics I preferred, and kept travesties like Red Rain (Batman does Dracula, I'm not even joking) at the bottom of the pile. Once I'd finished those, I conceded that they were actually kind of okay, but complained about the lack of women in the Batverse. So he handed me Ed Brubaker's wonderful Catwoman run, which I powered through in a matter of days. The way Brubaker portrayed Catwoman was so different to how I'd seen her previously; so strong, smart, and capable. And miracle of miracles, she wore FLAT SHOES. I don't know why it bothers me so much more than everything else about the portrayal of women in superhero comics, but women trying to fight in stiletto heels just ticks me right off. But here was a strong, interesting, sexy woman stealing loot and having adventures in biker boots! Amazing! 

Darwyn Cooke did the costume design for this particular run of Catwoman, and I think
he's MAGICAL. 
The first tiny stirrings of a hero fandom began to rustle around in the back of my mind, but I still didn't think of myself as someone who REALLY read superhero comics. Not REALLY. I mean, I went and made a classic 60's Catwoman cosplay, but I wasn't REALLY a superhero fan. Batwoman was taken out of mothballs, and given a beautiful new book to lead, and after picking it up on a friend's recommendation I felt further fandom stirrings - once again for a woman fighting in flat shoes. As with the Brubaker run of Catwoman, the combination of great characterisation and beautiful art suckered me right in past my preconceptions of superhero comics in general. 

Apart from their shoes, both these books starred women who weren't defined by heterosexual romantic relationships. While Catwoman writers often spend an almost creepy amount of time obsessing about her apparent relationship with Batman, Brubaker's run cut all that crap out and let Selina Kyle be a character in her own right for once. And Batwoman...well, her alter ego, Kathy Kane is gay, so heterosexual romance isn't so much part of her characterisation either. I'd never seen women allowed to be so...well, free in superhero comics before. There have always been tons of female characters in books like X-Men - it's one of the reasons I'd made an exception to read them. But they're always involved in some nonsense love triangle rubbish. Rouge is in love with Wolverine, who's in love with Jean Grey, who's in love with Scott Summers...none of the women are allowed plotlines that don't involve the male characters. Apart that time all the female X-Men went shopping at an LA mall, of course, but that particular episode is much better left forgotten.

Ha ha! Girls like makeup, right? That's a girl thing?

But as much as I blathered about how great Batwoman was to anyone who would listen, and how Catwoman really was pretty great with the right writers, and while I was actually reading quite a few superhero comics, I was still resisting. It still wasn't something I really wanted to stand up and announce that I was a part of. There was still too much I was uncomfortable with, too few exceptions to the rules of boobs and butts on every panel. And then came Captain Marvel. 


To be clear, I'm talking here about the wonderful book starring Carol Danvers, who is also Captain Marvel, that is currently being written by the enormously talented Kelly de Connick. You see, I have to be specific to be clear when talking about Captain Marvel, because there are approximately fifty billion other characters also named Captain Marvel, for reasons Mr. Reluctant Femme sums up very eloquently here. Captain Marvel is the kind of character I usually stay away from at all costs - it's been rebooted, rewritten, moved around, chopped up and pasted back together again so many times that none of it makes a lick of sense anymore. But two things convinced me to give it a try - firstly, I'd heard excellent things from people I trusted, and had been told it was more or less a clean reboot, so I wouldn't have to touch any of the past bullshit. Secondly, look at that costume. Jamie McKelvie was responsible for the costume redesign, and while I knew he drew great clothes for women (his work on Phonogram is basically fashion porn) the brilliance of this design still blows me away. Just fucking look at it. Look at the beautiful, clean, perfectly put together design! Look at the tasteful little button accents that create a visual hook to the character's military background! The sash draped across her hips to add a little feminine flair! LOOK AT THOSE FLAT SHOES!

From the very first page, I was so glad I took a chance on Ms. Danvers. Firstly, miracle of miracles, she's single and not looking. She's smart, and no-nonsense, but she's also really witty and funny as well. She's strong and physically capable, but also still quite femme. While she can probably toss things around just as capably as The Hulk, she's still written with a certain softness, and a little of the traditionally feminine, without being too "girly". This is an enormously difficult balance to pull off, but DeConnick manages to make it look easy. Finally, someone has created a superhero that I actually really, (quite desperately) want to be! While I love Catwoman and Batwoman, neither of them are really what you'd call role models as such. But Carol Danvers is a character I would want any daughters I might possibly have one day to know, and look up to. I think a lot of women dream of having incredible strength, while still remaining relatable and approachable. It doesn't seem like an option that's on the table for us a lot of the time, in the reality we live in. Too often, women are given just two options; being strong, and inevitably being perceived as scary or overly aggressive; or we have the option to be weak, meek, and beloved. But Carol Danvers is portrayed as being strong, assertive, AND beloved - and I like to think it's planting the seeds of a possible third option for more women one day. 

And, I'm in. I've finally found a superhero I can unreservedly get right behind and just love the shit out of. Captain Marvel is written by a woman, about a woman, for a fanbase of largely women - it's everything I thought I'd never see in a superhero comic, all in the one place. Also, she punches dinosaurs, and it's AWESOME.

 I am officially, wholeheartedly in. I'm following the Carol Corps fanclub on Tumblr, I'm making Captain Marvel pendants, I'm even considering breaking a lifetime of insistence that I will never read comics digitally just so I don't have to trade wait for more Captain Marvel awesomeness. I am a person who reads superhero comics, thanks to Ms. Danvers. I am now a proper superhero comics fan - and I think I'm okay with that.