Why Couldn’t I Keep My Phone?

N.B.: I debated back and forth about writing this, and debated about posting it as well. Ultimately I decided to do so, if only because I wanted to express my frustration and anger, but I wanted to note that my aim is in no way to discourage anyone from seeking help, and that I recognize that this is a singular experience with a singular institution, and I cannot necessarily make any sweeping judgments based on that. However, based on what I hear from others, I don’t think it’s as unique an experience as it should be. 

Last week I spent two hours at a psychiatric hospital. I’ve been thinking about it off and on since, and decided to write something about it – if for no other reason then to help myself process what was a nightmarish experience, for all it was only two hours and chosen voluntarily (thus putting me ahead of many others).

The reason I went in the first place is shockingly mundane: I’d run out of one of my medications and needed an emergency refill, and the only way I could find to do that was to go to a CPEP, or Comprehensive Psychiatric Emergency Program. (The funnier part of this story is the fact that the reason I was out of my meds in the first place is more or less the reason why I take them to begin with. You can see the problem here.)

I walked to the CPEP near to my apartment after work. I started getting nervous pretty quickly, standing in a foyer while I was checked in. Between me and the hospital was a locked door. There was an irrational part of my brain that was convinced I was going to end up involuntarily committed and was trying to make plans – would I be able to tell my girlfriend? My parents? It had been a really, really rough week for me, mental health-wise, and while at that time I was doing better than I had been, it still freaked me out.

A nurse came and retrieved me, taking me through the locked door (which then locked behind me). I waited in the hallway and watched an elderly woman change into a hospital gown, her clothes and other belongings signed over, presumably for safekeeping. Holding onto my tote bag (containing, to wit: wallet, two books, phone, and headphones), I started to wonder what I’d gotten myself into. Were they going to take my clothes? My belongings? I asked the nurse with me if I would have to give up my stuff, and she said they would take “some of” it. She asked why I was there – I told her, trying to laugh, that really I just needed a medication refill.

I ended up getting to keep my book and my wallet, and I kept my clothes on. No phone, though. (That made me anxious, too. What if someone tried to call me? What if my girlfriend got worried? It wasn’t just a matter of simple communication, either – having my phone taken away made me feel powerless, isolated.)

I waited in a hallway again, seemingly because the rooms were all in use. “We’re going to put you in a brief room,” the nurse said, which didn’t really mean anything to me, but I nodded, because when I’m scared I tend to clam up. In retrospect there were probably a lot of questions I should’ve asked – when can I expect to see a doctor, what kind of protocol do I have to go through – but I didn’t. I just waited.

The nurse did the usual weight-height-blood pressure check, had me sign a host of forms, and ushered me into a waiting room without saying anything further. Confused and nervous, I sat down and waited.

Another note – there was no privacy. When I was being weighed it was in an open room almost immediately adjacent to the doorway. The waiting room was across from that room. While I sat there, several police officers and EMTs walked through and out the door – a door that had to be unlocked by one of the staff.

I had my book, at least. I read, but as time went by I got antsy. I know about hospital wait times, but I don’t think I’ve ever felt so profoundly ignored as I did for that first hour, sitting and waiting for someone, anyone, to tell me what was going on, when I was going to see someone, when I could get my medication and go home. Eventually I stood up and went out into the hallway, because the longer I sat the more anxious I got. I couldn’t sit still, I couldn’t focus on my book, small sounds started to grate.

I stood there until someone noticed me, and then asked politely what was going on and when I might expect to see a doctor. “Oh, it could be a couple hours,” said the staff member who had taken my stuff.

I was a little incredulous, and I was starting to feel claustrophobic, trapped. I expressed a wish to leave, which was largely ignored. At that point a doctor who was just passing by stopped and asked why I was there. When I told her, she took me across the hall into the waiting room and asked me a series of standard questions, what medication I was taking, what pharmacy I used, the psychiatrist I usually saw. It was fairly clear she hadn’t been assigned to me. She assured me that she’d send a prescription over, and it would be just a little bit longer. The same doctor came back maybe twenty minutes later to confirm the pharmacy and tell me that she’d sent the prescription and I just needed to be released by one of the nurses.

Finally feeling like something was happening, I sat down again and read for a while. I kept having the urge to check the time, wondering if my girlfriend was freaking out about the fact that I wasn’t home yet. I could feel my blood sugar plummeting, since I hadn’t eaten since lunch and didn’t have any food on me.

Someone came in and asked me a few questions, set up an appointment the next week, and left. Someone else came by and confirmed who I was, but when I started to ask what was going on she said that she was just checking where all the patients were and walked away.

The overwhelming feeling I had was that I’d been abandoned. Cut loose. I felt confused and powerless and anxious, completely isolated. When I asked what I was waiting for, I got vague answers or dismissals. Someone said I was waiting for “aftercare”. Someone else said the nurse needed to discharge me. What either of these things entailed, or whether I needed to go somewhere or say something, was never made clear.

The impression overall was: we don’t care. We don’t have to listen to you, or worry about your feelings. I went into the CPEP feeling nervous but relatively okay. I left furiously angry, anxious, and on the verge of tears. After two hours, and as someone lucid and able to advocate for myself.

It scares me, the idea that this is what healthcare looks like for mentally ill people in dire straits – people who are sick, who are suffering. As I burst out to my girlfriend upon arriving home, “if I hadn’t been depressed and anxious to begin with, I sure as hell would be now!”

I understand lack of funding and lack of resources. I don’t feel like I can personally blame any of the staff at the facility I visited. But I can say that, when I was assured by the doctor I spoke to that “if things get worse, you can always come back here”, even as I nodded and smiled the foremost thought in my mind was “no way in hell.”

There has to be a better way than this.

About the title of this essay: I’m aware of the “millennials and their phones” jokes that would be easy to make. Maybe it would even be fair. On the other hand – like it or not, in this day and age cell phones are a major means of communication. They mediate huge forms of social activity and enable a large portion of our communication.

There’s a movement that advocates going screens free as a healthy act. I have found it healthy to step away from my devices when I can. But that is a choice.

Having that taken away – not, perhaps, against my will but without the option to say no – underlined the painful, isolated feelings, and the sense that I was being treated as something other than a complete adult. In one gesture I lost both a chunk of personal autonomy and all ties to my community. Humans are social animals, and a support system is vital for mental well being – but suddenly I couldn’t reach mine.

I have a hard time understanding why, in asking for help, I was (however temporarily) signing away that much.

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Stories About Wolves and Girls: On Personal Monstrosity

I’ve always been a fan of the bad guys.

I loved Scar in The Lion King. My favorite characters in mythology were tricksters like Loki or witches like Circe. I was inappropriately drawn to Roger of Conté even after it turned out that he was the evil mastermind in Tamora Pierce’s Lioness Quartet. I was seriously concerned about the vermin in Redwall, and indignant when Veil Sixclaw was cast out, and even more so when he redeemed himself by dying (the first of many encounters with a particular trope). I was drawn toward Draco Malfoy and Severus Snape in Harry Potter. You get the picture. Outcasts and rebels, those a little outside the lines of good.

Recently, I had the pleasure of attending a signing by Marjorie Liu, writer of some of my favorite comics ever. I asked her a question about the theme throughout her work of monsters and women or girls – the monsters within women, or the ways in which women are told they are monstrous. She gave an incredibly insightful answer that I really wish I’d written down, focused on race and the ways in which, growing up as a biracial kid, she felt alienated and othered, and seeking representation for herself found it in the outsiders, the monsters.

I write about people who have been othered. Who have been told that they’re monsters, […] who are looking for love and acceptance.

It made me think about what pulls me toward villains and outcasts and monsters – after all, I’m white, cisgender, fairly privileged. Why does this resonate with me? Why should I turn, over and over, to the Lokis and Morrigans and Lucifers? Why are even the heroes I choose to love touched by a certain amount of darkness and violence, a certain aura of monstrosity?

There’s the obvious answer, of course: I’m queer. There is a long, long history of association between so-called “deviant” sexualities and evil – the taint of homosexuality around Dracula in Bram Stoker’s novel, the queer-coded villains of decades of films. Bisexuality in particular, as I have discussed elsewhere, is frequently aligned with tropes about trickery and deceitfulness.

It’s hard not to be aware of – and to a certain extent to absorb – those stereotypes, and it certainly creates a sense of being outside or excluded. Easy, then, to feel a connection to the characters that share that sense of existing in a space outside the community, who are not a part of the “good” society. (Or those characters – like tricksters – who exist in a liminal capacity, never quite good or quite evil, a living challenge to binaries and dichotomies. But this is not a post about my obsession with trickster gods – that might be another essay.)

Then there’s the aspect of gender. My relationship with femininity and femaleness has been…weird. There was a period during my childhood when I wanted to be a boy. I played the boy in every pretend game my sister and I dreamed up; I asked my mom if I could get a buzz cut. I don’t remember what I thought I could have if I were a boy that I couldn’t have as a girl, but I know there was a conviction in me that it was what I wanted.

I haven’t, since then, experienced gender dysphoria in any significant way.  Insecurity, absolutely – especially as a late bloomer, embarrassed by my apparently sexless body, eternally mistaken for a young boy with my short hair and flat chest. And more recently, when a hairdresser commented that she was shaping my hair to keep it “feminine”, I felt a flicker of anger, because no, dammit, I don’t want my hair to be feminine. At the same time, I love to wear A-Line skirts and dresses. I suppose what it comes down to is that I identify as a woman but not necessarily as feminine, which feels a little like splitting hairs but also somehow important.

In terms of monstrosity – there are the ways in which, of course, deviance from gender norms (like sexuality norms) is coded as villainous in nature. Women tip easily from good to evil, and I have always had a great deal of sympathy for the women who turn on the expectations of them to become monsters: Medea and Clytemnestra come to mind. Melisande Shahrizai from Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Legacy series was an early formative antagonist: politically savvy and absolutely vicious. Women, all too often, are not allowed to be angry, vengeful, or violent, and I wanted that freedom. Villains could offer me that catharsis – freedom from the feeling that I was trapped in a mold that I didn’t fit. (No one does.)

But ultimately I think what connects me to antagonists most of all, why I keep coming back to the bad guys, has to do with mental illness.

There are two aspects to this. The first is that the qualities of mental illness – the qualities of “insanity” – don’t tend to get attached to protagonists. At least, not the unappealing ones. Obsessiveness, anger, outbursts of apparently excessive emotion – these aren’t qualities of the typical hero. (There are, of course, exceptions, but as a general trend mental illness tends to be the province of the antagonist – look no further than Batman’s rogues gallery, most of whom have stayed in Arkham Asylum at one time or another.) Madness makes you bad. It makes you wrong, and outside, and hard to relate to. It makes you separate from the people around you, makes you feel marked. 

The thing about mental illness is that it changes how you see yourself. I have lived a lot of my life with the conviction that, deep down, I am a bad person. What this means varies from time to time, but the thought remains fairly consistent. And even outside of that abstract level of self doubt, there are other things: the fact that I am aware that my mental illness makes me often not a very nice person. In middle school, when my depression was at its worst, I lashed out at others because I couldn’t think of a better way to deal with my misery. I pushed others away and then got angry when they didn’t support me. I was angry, destructive and self-destructive.

For some people, they turn to heroes as a reminder that people can be better – that everything isn’t necessarily awful, and that there is such a thing as decency. Triumph over adversity is a powerful thing, and seeing protagonists beat the odds and win can make one’s own trials feel less insurmountable.

But for me, all too often my trials always felt insurmountable, and I couldn’t believe in something better. So I reached for the monsters, because in some perverse way they meant I wasn’t alone. They gave me a point of identification. And even when they lost, that was somehow cathartic, too. Because their loss was mine. In grieving their falls, their deaths (with or without redemption), I was grieving myself.

At the same time, though, some part of me always wanted better for these irredeemable characters. The moments I lived for, the moments I craved but too seldom got (or only got with death immediately following) were the lurch toward the light. The idea that being bad might not necessarily mean being bad forever. That even at my most monstrous, I might still be worth caring about; might still be worth saving.

It’s interesting: if you read my writing (which most people probably haven’t) there’s a certain trajectory. For a long time, my stories held a certain nihilism. One in particular sticks out – a novel, of sorts, written during middle school, which ended with every major character dead. That was a sort of nihilistic low, but it lingered – I killed a lot of fictional characters during high school. I didn’t write happy endings. No one found redemption.

That’s not the case anymore. Now, I’m more inclined to want to find an ending that gives those characters some kind of resolution. Maybe not happiness, maybe not redemption, but resolution. In some ways, I think I’m trying to back-write myself, to say: just because you feel like a monster, just because people might tell you you’re one, doesn’t mean that’s all you can be.

And even if that is what you are: isn’t everyone?

Note: The title of this post comes from a line in Marjorie Liu’s run on Black Widow: “And there are stories about wolves and girls. Girls in red. All alone in the woods. About to get eaten up. Wolves and girls. Both have sharp teeth.”

Further Reading: Fearing the Other – Within and Beyond by Timothy K. Beal; Monstress is a Gorgeous Comic Book About Racism, War, and Slavery by Evan Narcisse; In Brightest Day: Batman and the Problem with Mental Illness in Comics by Lady Geek Girl;

Living With Depression

Last fall was a hard one for me.

I’d just moved across the country and felt isolated and friendless, but struggled with finding the energy to make or keep social commitments. I woke up almost every morning as tired as when I’d gone to sleep, even when I’d slept for eight hours or more. I’d spend days at a time feeling too sick to eat, or else feeling like the effort of procuring food was too much. I couldn’t think of anything that would make myself feel better – the usual suspects sounded unappealing at best.

My job, which required interacting with strangers for much of the day, while maintaining a happy, polite facade, was exhausting; my back frequently ached but not badly enough that I felt like I could get out of duties that were a strain. I could tell that I was exhausting my girlfriend, that she was sometimes frustrated with my refusal to try things she believed (from past experience) would help lift my spirits. But why would I? This was just the way things were, and the way things would be forever. There were several days when the only thing I could think of that I wanted was to stop existing.

I recognized what was happening, of course. I was officially diagnosed with depression when I was 12, and I’ve had my share of depressive episodes (despite managing my symptoms with therapy and medication) since then. I knew, objectively, that this had happened before and I’d come out of it, and that this time around would pass, too.

But one of the insidious things about depression is that arguing with it is, more or less, like trying to fight your own brain. Sometimes it feels like there are two Elises uneasily coexisting: the happy, relatively functional Elise who can think clearly and logically, and the depressed Elise who very firmly believes that everything is terrible and will be terrible forever, there is nothing that can help, she is worthless and a waste of space and a burden on everyone around her.

There’s an Ally Brosh comic that expresses this division very well:

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As you might guess, this approach doesn’t work very well at alleviating depression.

The worst thing about depression (other than all the other worst things about depression) is that it’ll convince you it isn’t real. You should be able to deal with this. You’re not really depressed. This is just reality, the real you. Don’t forget you’re here forever. And depression is very convincing.

That depressive episode in fall of 2015 didn’t last, of course. It ended, though I spent almost a month after the worst was over waiting breathlessly for the other shoe to drop. That’s been another part of my experience of depression – a lot of times, I don’t trust happiness. I’ll always be looking over my shoulder, thinking okay, but when are things going to go wrong. It’s an exhausting state of paranoia to live in.

This post is less about any particular angle or particular point than it’s an attempt to talk about an experience. Depression isn’t any one thing, and different people experience it differently. For me, sometimes it feels like there’s a bear living in my head. Sometimes it’s asleep for a while, but then it’ll wake up roaring and go on a rampage for a while – a week, two weeks, a month, two months. Eventually, it’ll subside and go back to sleep, but the scars take longer to heal and I’ll be looking over my shoulder, half expecting it to have been faking, it’s really right behind me. And probably that’s a bear I’ll have to live with for the rest of my life.

But maybe I can keep it sleeping longer. I can get better at wrangling it. And at enjoying the times in between, when things are good.

I ran across a song, a couple years ago: Rilo Kiley’s “A Better Son/Daughter”. The lyrics are painfully perfect for dealing with mental illness, but the part that always makes my heart lift is the final verse:

Your ship may be coming in
You’re weak but not giving in
To the cries and the wails of the valley below

To the weak but not giving in. We’ll make it through this.

Growing Up Bisexual

My sexuality adventure started in middle school, maybe around fifth or sixth grade, when I told my parents that I thought I might be attracted to girls.

I grew up in a very liberal community – or at least, a community that called itself very liberal. I knew one or two kids who were out (gay men, mostly), but me and my friends still joked about people we knew, were-they-or-weren’t-they. Still, I had a language to describe what I was feeling – or what I thought I might be feeling. My parents, when I announced that I thought I might be gay, hastened to tell me that it might just be a phase.

I am sure they had the best of intentions for doing so – in fact, I know they did. Likely they thought I was scared of this development, or worried about it, which indeed on some level I was. I wasn’t sure what it might mean. I wasn’t even sure if it was true. However, the effect of this assurance was mostly to leave me even more uncertain. Was what I was feeling real? If it was a phase, when would it stop? How would I know?

And didn’t the fact that I was at least sort of interested in boys mean I couldn’t be gay?

Move forward a little bit and witness me playing spin the bottle with a group of (all female) friends, or truth-or-dare, where we kissed each other, clumsily, awkwardly, giggling and a little unsure. Experimenting, as the parlance goes. It was fun, and a little thrilling, and thinking back it’s hard to untangle how much of my intense, close friendships with women had a certain element of a crush to them. I assumed everyone felt the same way I did. It was just a phase.

Throughout middle school, I had an intense and unrequited crush on a boy. I desperately wanted him to notice me. I had vague fantasies about dating. I pined – and with my slight flair for the melodramatic, I was damn good at it. I cried when he stopped talking to me after I kind of, sort of, through a third party, admitted I was into him. At the same time, when my friends were swooning over Gerard Butler I found myself more interested in Emmy Rossum’s breasts. I looked at women all the time, and I told myself I wanted to be them but at least some of the time I think I just wanted them. I made out with a female friend of mine in the back of a movie theater – looking back, a number of our interactions were sexually tinged. Were we flirting with each other or just – that word again – experimenting?

Around this time, a guy confronted me in class to claim he knew I was a lesbian. He seemed to expect this to shame me. I laughed him off, mostly amused because the girl he claimed to have seen me kissing wasn’t the one I’d actually made out with.

Later on, in high school, I asked a guy to the Tolo dance (women ask men) and I remember feeling weird – in a good way – when we got to the slow dancing part. I dated a man very briefly in my senior year, though it’s hard to say if I actually liked him or was just flattered by the attention. Sometimes my friends and I talked about women – “she’s hot” or complimenting each others’ asses – which left me even more sure that, and stop me if this phrase is familiar to you, “everyone’s a little bit bisexual.” I was straight. I just sometimes thought women were attractive.

(That makes sense, right?)

I’m not actually sure when I first heard the word “bisexual.” I think I was sort of peripherally aware of it in high school, but it was never really something I thought was real – people were either straight or they were gay. As for what I was – I didn’t know. I couldn’t label it. (There’s another line: “I don’t like labels.”)

It wasn’t until mid-college I started to think: okay, you know what? Why don’t I put a name to this thing and see what happens? I started with queer: nice and ambiguous and blanket, let me admit that I wasn’t really straight but I didn’t really know what to call myself. It was also in college that I first heard discussions of pansexuality and asexuality. That I learned, and acknowledged, that sexuality is a spectrum experienced differently by different people. It was also in college I first heard that bisexuality excludes trans and genderqueer people, because it implies a gender binary of male/female.

I slid toward “bisexual” sideways. I didn’t officially claim the name for myself until maybe three years ago – a year into a relationship with a delightful (gender-nonconforming) woman. Calling myself a lesbian felt dishonest. Calling myself queer didn’t feel quite right either – though I still use it sometimes. Bisexual was right there. Had always been there, but for so many reasons it had never seemed like an option.

Our cultural narrative has started to make room for more of the range of sexuality and gender that is human experience. Still, often sexuality still ends up divided into “straight” and “gay”. Characters that date a man and then a woman tend to end up labeled “straight” or “gay” depending on who they’re with at the time. Orange is the New Black’s nominal protagonist Piper repeatedly responds to claims that she is “a lesbian now” and similar by saying that she doesn’t like labels. The b-word is a taboo. This is bisexual erasure, and it plays into the idea that bisexual people are just confused, or don’t know what they want. Words like “bi-curious” and “heteroflexible” play with this idea, even as they might be useful for those whose sexuality is fluid: the notion that bisexuality is a phase, a transitory state, an experiment.

Then there’s another idea, somewhat related: bisexual people are sluts. The promiscuous bisexual trope is one of the few roles bisexual people have taken in media. Think Jack Harkness from Doctor Who and Torchwood, or Maureen Johnson in RENT, or Oberyn Martell in Game of Thrones/A Song of Ice and Fire. The joke goes that bisexual people are greedy – by being attracted to more than one gender, we’re playing the field, willing to have sex with anything on legs. Bisexual characters are also often sexually aggressive, almost predatory.

On top of the negative – or nonexistent – portrayal of bisexual people in media – tropes that carry over into real life – there’s the reception by people in your life, too. In LGBT circles, bisexual people in heterosexual relationships are frequently unwelcome, while bisexual people who were in a heterosexual relationship can be seen as tainted goods. Being bisexual leaves you open to claims of transphobia (bi means two!) despite the fact that the bisexual community has long identified that “two” as meaning “your own and other genders”. Things are a little better if you’re bisexual and in a same-gender relationship, like me: people will just call you a lesbian and laugh it off when you correct them. Or else maybe your wife will think you’re secretly soliciting sex with men. If you’re a woman, there’s the added likelihood that people will assume your interest in women is insincere, or just a phase, or that you’re a “college lesbian” who is just screwing around. If you’re a bisexual man, you’re especially vulnerable to hostility from within the LGBT community and also exposed to homophobia from others. And if you’re trans or nonbinary and bisexual…well, you probably just don’t exist.

Is it any wonder I resisted claiming my identity for so long?

Why write all this, you may ask. Why does this matter? Mostly it matters to me because my bisexuality is a part of me, and a part that I spent an agonizingly long time struggling with. If I had known there was an identity I could claim, a way I could quantify what I felt – what would be different?

Sometimes I’m tired. I don’t want to insist, or I don’t want to talk about it, or I don’t want to try to explain to people that yes, I am in a relationship with a woman; no, I’m not a lesbian. Sometimes I don’t want to deal with accusations of transphobia or discussions of privilege that revolve, at their heart, around erasure. But ultimately, it’s a label I want to claim for myself, and I’m trying to learn to hold onto that.

Further Reading: The Invisible Bisexual Man, Bisexuality and the LGBT Community