Existing While Mentally Ill: Don’t Talk About It

I’m currently job-hunting.

Job hunting is a kind of soul-crushing experience for everyone. It’s weeks, maybe months, maybe years of having to go out into the universe and pleadingly attempt to convince other people – most of whom you’ve never met – that you’re worth providing with the means to acquire the representational units that allow you to get the necessities of life.

Aka give you a job so you can earn money.

And mostly you’re going to get ignored. You’re going to apply to postings that say “sorry we’re too busy to let everyone know when they’re rejected, so send your application into the void and wait.” (Except in nicer language.) Sometimes, you will get an apologetic form-letter – obviously sent to everyone – that lets you know that someone else got picked, but you are “encouraged” to apply for more jobs at this institution (whenever they materialise).

It’s a kind of grinding gauntlet and nobody enjoys it.

People around me generally know that I’m job-hunting. And the other day I got a very well-meaning Concerned note from someone I know.

Your LinkedIn connects to your Twitter and blog, they said.

Yeah, I know, I said.

Well, they said. On both of those platforms, you talk about, well. Mental illness and disability issues a lot.

Yeah, I said. I know. I consider my awareness of these issues a selling point.

Well yes, they said. But you talk about you having chronic depression and your experience with neurodivergence and that’s really the kind of thing you shouldn’t mention around possible employers until after you get the job. You don’t have any protection until after you get the job, after all. That’s the kind of thing that means you don’t get hired.

Nobody wants to hire someone with a chronic mental illness.

 

It’s not the first time I’ve heard this wisdom, by any means. I’ve even given it out, in some circumstances, and I’ve hated it every single time I’ve given it out.

I’ve also told people not to let on that they’re queer, in many cases, for the same reasons. And of course we’ve all seen the articles on making your name more “white” (or more male) to get a job.

The fact is, that concerned person is possibly even dead right: it’s not like I haven’t also lived through direct, applied, targeted stigma in similar areas because of being open about my mental illness, or my neuroatypicality.

Or the fact that I’m a queer woman.

But I tried living closeted as a queer woman for a few years when I was much younger and it was, in fact, absolute miserable poison. And I also know that my ability to live openly on that score inasmuch as I am able to do so is in no small part thanks to the amazing number of incredibly brave, often long-suffering queer people – men, women, both and genderless – who came before me.

They also saved me from thinking I was alone, that I was sick, that I was tainted, that I was wrong, that I was evil, and any number of other things that I would very, very easily have thought of myself had I not been able to see them, when I was figuring out that part of myself.

So when I draw that across to issues of mental illness and neurotype, I am doing it directly and deliberately. And I’m also doing it because I’ve lived it. I continue to live it.

I am very open about living with depression, with disordered anxiety, with neurodivergence. I am perfectly willing to say in casual conversation “I was dealing with a depressive downswing at the time”, or “that’s when I was first medicated” or any number of other things.

And I can’t tell you how often someone nearby, part of the conversation or sometimes even just listening to it, suddenly wants to talk. Needs to talk. How often, when we’re done, or sometimes when we’re halfway through, says I’ve never been able to talk about this before or nobody around me in my life really gets it or I thought I was just broken.

How often they say, I thought I was alone.

Often there’s qualifiers: often someone says my spouse is really supportive, they try hard, I just – where the “I just” means “I still feel like a freak, I still feel alone and Wrong and isolated.”

My family helps a lot, it’s just –

It’s not like anyone’s horrible about it, just that –

Just that. Just.

Just actually, don’t talk about it until after you have the job, because nobody wants to knowingly hire a ~*mentally ill*~ person, that’s a black mark. Just don’t actually mention anything on a date, because that’s ~*private*~, a secret, a piece of dirty laundry that you’d never just out and tell someone before they even know you’re worth knowing anyway.

Just don’t actually force people to know this secret about you, because well of course we’re not saying it’s something to be ashamed of or anything, but it’s just you don’t want people to see your bad side before they know you have so much to offer!

 

It’s quite possible, maybe even probable, that making it easy to find where I talk about mental illness, about my mental illness, under my own name and in some depth, is sometimes very much like putting a sticker on myself that says “do not hire, will not be worth it, will only be a problem.”

Fifteen years ago, being open about being queer would have been the same way, even here in Openminded Vancouver. Thirty years ago, definitely.

And sometimes, you just can’t afford that sticker. Believe me I understand that, and I will vehemently defend people who make the choices they need to in order to get where they need to go in a society that is incredibly messed up about this stuff.

The thing is, I’m lucky enough that if I really have to, there are things I can do to get a job. (And it is luck: luck in my family, luck in my friends, luck in other skills and abilities I’ve had the precious opportunities to require). Other people might not be. I am.

There’s tracks I can abandon, alternatives I can pursue.

I don’t want to: if I didn’t want to work in this field, I wouldn’t’ve worked so hard to train for it, to get the MLIS in all its expense in time, energy, money and – yes! – mental health.

If I didn’t think I could be good at it I wouldn’t be here.

But if I have to, I can look elsewhere, and I can survive. Whereas I don’t survive very well being ashamed of myself at all. I don’t survive very well in closets. Any kind of closet.

So yes: I talk about mental illness. I talk about my mental illness. I talk about my experiences as a member of this population, as someone on the Autism spectrum, as someone with chronic depressive disorder, with anxiety disorders, with disabilities that impact my life.

And actually this makes me a better librarian. It makes me better at the services I want to provide. It makes me understand the needs and the challenges of underserved parts of the population of library users better than I might otherwise do, starting with “because I’m part of it” and then moving onto “well if people can misunderstand what my kind of person needs so much, they must get other kinds of people wrong all the time too” and inspiring me to find out what those populations say they need, ask for, say is a problem, say about how those problems can be ameliorated.

I am better at understanding how I can help other people because I had to throw out so much “wisdom” about how to help myself and figure it out.

It’s entirely possible that’s not how that sticker will look for other people.

But that’s the way it goes. And I’ll deal with that. I’ve dealt with everything else.

My brain’s been trying to kill me since I was twelve. I’ll be fine.

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Reacting to Text: The Boy Who Was Raised As A Dog

[see the first post in this series for preamble on what “reacting to text” is]

The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog: and Other Stories from a Child Psychiatrist’s Notebook – What Traumatized Children Can Teach Us About Loss, Love and Healing, by Bruce D. Perry and Maia Szalavitz

Blurb:

How does trauma affect a child’s mind–and how can that mind recover? In the classic The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog, Dr. Perry explains what happens to the brains of children exposed to extreme stress and shares their lessons of courage, humanity, and hope. Only when we understand the science of the mind and the power of love and nurturing, can we hope to heal the spirit of even the most wounded child.

There are very few books I recommend for people wanting to understand human brains and why humans do what we do than this one. I’m pretty sure that people in my MLIS courses got tired of hearing about it, and certainly strongly suspect one or two professors did. I consider it an excellent tool for conveying absolutely crucial knowledge about the nature of neurological development in children and also what happens when that development is messed up, truncated, damaged or otherwise interfered with – and what we can do about it, how we can start changing how we think.

I am deeply appreciative of the work that Perry has done in this field, of the existence of the ChildTrauma Academy and its programs, and I strongly think that if we can get it to take hold properly in a conscientious and intelligent way (that isn’t oversimplified or bonsaied into something barely resembling itself) that the Neurosequential Model of Education will, if not save the world (since hyperbole while sometimes satisfying is rarely useful) at least make the endless work we have as human beings to suck a little bit less a lot more fruitful.

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Reacting to Text: The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents

[see the first post in this series for preamble on what “reacting to text” is]

The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents, by Terry Pratchett

Blurb:

Maurice, an amazing cat who has survived four years on the toughest streets in the whole of the Discworld, reckons that rats are dumb. Clever, OK, but dumb. Maurice, however, is smart. Smart enough to recognize that there’s a new kind of rat around – rats who have been eating wizards’ rubbish and can now talk. Smart enough to get a pretty amazing idea when he spots a stupid-looking kid playing the flute…

Now Maurice has his very own ‘plague of rats’ – and his own Pied Piper. And his money-bags are getting fuller and fuller. Until the group reach the farflung village of Bad Blintz…

This is going to be one of those ones that are more like me talking for quite a while about Feelings and Thoughts about this book. I have quite a lot of them, and since I recently re-read it for the purpose of recording myself reading it for someone, I’m going to muse on them.

If you know the work of the late Sir Terry Pratchett you know that he started out basically writing a world that was a straight-forward send-up of the tropes and stereotypes of the fantasy genre at the time he started (around the 1980s), and then accidentally ended up writing a lot of very substantial works that deal with the heavy questions of human philosophy and existence with deeply real and substantial characters who happen to be superficially in a satirical comedic world that also itself has a lot more substance than it first looks like.

The Amazing Maurice (hereafter TAM for short) not only fits neatly into this description, it in some ways distills and epitomizes it, and does it while also being a book about talking rats for kids.

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Reacting To Text: Preamble, and also _Where’s My F**king Unicorn?_, Michelle Gordon

Preamble: I’m trying to get back into reading. Specifically reading books.

Most people would not expect this to be something a librarian or information-studies person would have problems with, but this is in part because most people still associate “information” with “books.” I’ll probably have something to say about that later, but suffice it to say, this has rather expanded.

The other reason is that most people aren’t super aware of the problems that something like Major Depressive Disorder can pose to cognitive functioning. This is a long, complex and (*rimshot*) somewhat depressing topic, but the short version is: around 2009 or so, my MDD developed a super-fun aspect where it seriously interfered with a bunch of cognitive stuff, including my facility with reading text.

For a while it was a real problem, and interfered with my undergrad; these days it doesn’t really do that anymore, but the thing it did that was significant (and I’ll probably have a post about that at some point too!) was that it killed my enjoyment of reading.

Reading became – and to some extent still is – at best a function and more often a chore. Reading fiction or entertaining non-fiction for pleasure became entirely pointless. (Whereupon the use of reading/books as a virtue-marker got really aggravating but that, too, is another post.)

I’m doing a bit better now, and also I have a bit more time. Reading is still of limited enjoyability but these things are also a matter of practice. So an irregular and sporadic series here will hopefully be thoughts on things I have recently read.

I almost hesitate to call them “reviews”, because all of my experience is that enjoyment and value is so idiosyncratic that it’s difficult to apply any kind of meaningful standard. Thus, we will call these me Reacting To Texts, and I’ll spot me the idea that “text” applies to basically anything – actual books, short stories, movies, audiobooks, and so on.

It’s worth noting that my reactions are always going to be heavily influenced by being queer, being female, being mentally ill and being neuratypical – these are perspectives that are overwhelmingly influential on my experience of the world.


 

Which brings us to – Where’s My F**king Unicorn: A Guide To Life, Your Unicorn and Everything, by Michelle Gordon.

Back-blurb:

Are your bookshelves filled with self-help books, and yet your life feels empty? Do you keep following paths to enlightenment that lead to the same dead ends? You’ve read the books, attended the seminars and workshops…but you still cannot find your f**king unicorn!

Where’s My F**king Unicorn? offers a very different way forward. Author, Michelle Gordon, explains why, in spite of all your best efforts, your life still doesn’t live up to your vision of what it could be. In refreshing down-to-earth language, she shows you how to harness all the self-knowledge you have gained and actually start putting it to practical use.

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this just in: nobody has set the Little House on fire.

As part of this year’s Annual Conference, ALSC has (thankfully) voted by a wide margin to change the name of their award from the Wilder Award to the Children’s Literature Legacy Award.

This has of course lead to a certain segment of people interpreting this to mean that the org has put the entire Little House series into a giant pile in the centre of the floor and set it on fire, possibly while tossing effigies of the author onto the burning heap and using the ashes to ritually mark anyone who likes the books out for subsequent attack.

This is, of course, a bit silly*. None of that has happened. Literally all that has happened is that the name of the award has been changed. Laura Ingalls Wilder is still a winner of the award; so is everyone else who ever won it. Nobody is going to show up to light the books on fire, and they remain staples of children’s lit and probably will for a while. The history of the award is untouched and nobody is about to scrub it – for one thing, librarians of all people are well aware that would be dishonest and counterproductive.

But this isn’t just about history.

Things change. The ALSC’s award is a living, current award: it is something that gets handed out to people today to represent the views of the organization. Many of the attitudes very clearly and blatantly expressed in the Little House books were normalized and acceptable at the time they were written; they are not acceptable now. We know better. These works are no longer a good representation of what the Award is meant to convey in the here and the now.

This is a problem for awards. Sometimes, the right thing to do is to retire the award; sometimes the right thing to do is change its name.

As the ALA states:

This change should not be viewed as a call for readers to change their personal relationship with or feelings about Wilder’s books. Updating the award’s name should not be construed as censorship, as we are not demanding that anyone stop reading Wilder’s books, talking about them, or making them available to children. We hope adults think critically about Wilder’s books and the discussions that can take place around them.

As it happens, the Little House books – while engaging literature – are not particularly good portraits of “the life of a pioneer” and so on that they are generally portrayed as: between them Wilder and Lane (Rose, her daughter) sanitized the hell out of Wilder’s life and fact-checking rapidly shows one that many of the portraits drawn are anything from misleading to straight-up lies. They are at best excessively bowdlerized, and as we ought to be aware by now, just because someone claims something is accurate autobiography doesn’t mean they’re right, or honest.

Truthfully, the Little House books have as much relationship with actual history as does Oliver Twist: certainly the author had been there, and knew a lot of what they were talking about, but they also had an agenda and a purpose to their writing and they weren’t particularly hesitant about altering reality to suit.

This is just another reason to echo the ALA’s other note – that it behooves adults to engage critically with these books and to think about what they’re being engaged with for. Which is true of any book, really.

So everyone take a deep breath. It really is just a name.

*okay that’s a lie: it’s extraordinarily silly. But work with me here.

this is probably a post.

hoardofbooks

(image credit to iguanamouth.tumblr.com for their series “unusual dragon hoards”)

It is a truth widely acknowledged that any public site or blog must be in want of a first post. Sometimes the blog is in want of that post forever and sits forlornly empty, a site of abandoned internet dreams and good intentions, and sometimes it’s in want of a first post and just gets whatever thing the blog-owner decides first needs to be argued about on the internet.

I’ve had rather a lot of different blogs over the years, and most of them have been something like that. Some people might quibble with the idea that the primary purpose of a blog is to argue with other people on the internet, but I assume they haven’t been here long.

(Note: this is a joke.)

But that always feels a little abrupt and also like it sticks the blog with a sort of expectation that that’s what all the posts will be about, and also – I’ll admit it – I haven’t got anything burning a hole in my queue of things to write but I did want to get this started, so here’s a more casual first post instead.

I’m Meredith and after a lifetime it feels very odd to have a blog under my legal name – I usually go by initials or various nicknames and pseudonyms. I am, as indicated, a very longtime internet denizen, having wandered on and found my social group at around sixteen, and now being in my mid-thirties. This makes me just old enough/experienced enough to feel very old and slightly bemused by post-Facebook internet-social-space adopters, and just young enough that the really old internet hands give me deservedly funny looks when I say this.

I recently finished my MLIS at the University of British Columbia, after an abandoned degree in music (classical vocal performance), a completed undergrad in History and English (both focusing on early-modern and mediaeval time-periods), a decade or so of being variously a nanny, a voice-teacher, a retail minion, and working a lot of cafes. As a nanny I looked after children from birth to school age, and as a voice teacher I taught from the ages of about four to adult students.

I have an absolutely fascinated interest in human neurological development, psychological development, variations, and the effects of trauma, neuroatypicality and mental illness on the above, as well as the processes of recovery, or at least amelioration, and treatment. I am a huge, huge fan of the neurosequential model of education.

I’m also neuroatypical (on the Autism Spectrum and Gifted) and suffer from chronic Major Depressive Disorder and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. I’m pretty upfront about all of the above, and heavily involved in advocacy and self-advocacy, as well as heavily interested in education, parental and caregiver education, and well-thought-out accessibility concerns in education and child-care. As a queer adult I am very invested in improving the situation, resources and experiences available to queer youth in all their wide variety of experiences, and am particularly interested in the often-unexpected ways that the intersections of gender, sexuality/gender-identity and disability/neuroatypicality complicate and influence experience, particularly those that do not necessarily map onto a neat binary privilege/disprivilege division.

If your eyes just glazed over at the jargon: I really care a lot about making sure everyone has the chance to grow up into a balanced, basically-content human being with opportunity and baseline sense of self-worth, and I think a lot of that starts very early. Thus I’m also really interested in early and emergent literacy and topics relating to it.

In my private life I’m a fiction writer and have been involved in various online fan communities both integrally and peripherally since I discovered the internet. This sometimes made it very odd to do certain of my Masters degree classes where these communities and concerns were treated as sort of an alien landscape to be peered at through academic texts. I am a polytheist, which brings its own difference in perspective.

I have an old and rather senile cat whom I love deeply, and I live in North Vancouver with my sister and her fluffy and somewhat ridiculous cat. I also collect dragons.

It’s possible I am merely a dragon in a very good human suit, but nobody will ever know for sure.