I’ve talked before about having psychiatric disabilities and being an abuse survivor. Today, I’m going to go into a bit more detail. This hasn’t been easy to write, but I think it’s a story that needs to be told.
It’s honestly a misnomer to say “I” in the first place; it’s more for your convenience than it is an inner truth. There are a lot of ghosts in this machine. I have a complex, intricate personal mythos; though I am very private about what that entails, it’s still a central component of my experience. I don’t feel comfortable with any of the “official” diagnostic labels that come close to what I experience, but there’s some similarity to Internal Family Systems. I’d say that the experience is more complex than that therapeutic model encourages, but it’s vastly better than anything that immediately evokes thoughts of Sybil and Three Faces of Eve.
I said this when I was 19:
It is difficult to define me in a few words; I see myself as a fissiparous, separate collection of ideas consolidated into one whole, forced to work together because of physical unity. In my mind exist multitudes of plots, characters, turns of phrase, denouements, orchestras with rousing crescendos and subtle diminuendos, the decisions and revisions of daily life, and the constant analysis of information. I’ve likened my brain to a large music-box or production factory; the ideas and influences of this world enter me, and I take them and combine them through my perception and interpretation, and take the universe and make it into [my own].
So many “psychiatric disorders” are extreme responses to a disordered, chaotic, and often mean world. To imply that the person experiencing psychiatric disability is the one who is “disordered” lets abusers, dictators, and warmongers off the hook. Our lives are intricately linked with others’. It’s important to understand individual factors, but it’s also vital to remember that we exist within systems: families, towns and cities, friend groups, countries, Earth at large. My lack of a contiguous “I”-narrator is in part a response to the circumstances in which I was brought up. I don’t—can’t—believe anything with absolute certitude, because I know my entire universe can be ruptured at any moment. It gets even more intense when you add in generational trauma: slavery, the Middle Passage, Jim Crow, and centuries of tilling the land without being able to reap the results of one’s own handiwork. This is not a stable foundation on which to build a singular sense of self, but my brain mitigated this problem by allowing for varied and co-creative senses of self to exist instead. I’m not anti-psychiatry, but I am vehemently against seeing people’s mental health as something extricable from the contexts in which people grow, live, work, and play.
A contiguous sense of self is an epiphenomenal emergent property anyway, not a concrete reality that can be used as an absolute benchmark of sanity or insanity. Because it’s all people know, they act as though it can be used to delineate what is beneficial and what is harmful. That’s not to say that there aren’t consistent tendencies, traits, and behaviours I can label as mine, but they’re the traits of a microcosm. There are plenty of other creative people who “contain multitudes,” pace Walt Whitman.
On a meta-level, it’s already pretty fucking weird that a collection of atoms can perceive itself at all. Thought itself is an intangible process generated by electrical impulses and chemical baths washing over our brains. I could continue the reduction to the sub-atomic levels: quarks, photons, and the like.
If it weren’t for the way my cognition is arranged, I don’t think I’d be alive to be telling you about this today, or if I were still alive, I think my quality of life would be greatly diminished. Having an internal support team has allowed me to pull through difficult traumas and create a better life for myself. This is deeply important to me and I am horrified by narratives that pathologise, flatten, and diminish my interiority or its positive effects on my external presentation. It’s especially galling when those judgements come from other neurodivergent people who seem to think that only some forms of cognitive difference are acceptable. Anxiety, autism, and depression are OK to talk about, but nothing else is. This is not OK. There is no point in trying to win the Oppression Olympics. Some animals are not more equal than others.
I don’t typically talk about it publicly because I have no interest in ontological debates, especially when people drag in the medical model. I’m also profoundly uncomfortable with having people apply inaccurate, minimising, and hurtful narratives to my experiences, turning a complex, multi-dimensional topological space into a two-dimensional figure or stripping it into non-contiguous pieces separate from the context in which they originally existed. It’s particularly painful to see people who know me well do it. I don’t want people to delve into extensive analyses of my personal mereology. I just want them to listen and not try to create their own—ultimately inaccurate—stories that they think supersede my own.
I refuse to allow people to denigrate me for having internal mechanisms that allow me to survive and even thrive after years of abuse, discrimination, marginalisation, and oppression. It’s time to take my power back by telling my story. Our story.