On writing about mental health and exploring vulnerability

Last year I wrote a post where I declared:

“One problem with [media] presentations of mental illness is that they assume everyone’s problems will be helped by the same techniques. More importantly, the issue is always placed firmly in the past tense: “I was anxious, but then I…”

I’ve been writing this blog for ten months now and it’s taught me a few things: like, writing about mental health is hard. Sometimes you just have to crack on and do it.
Since writing that post I’ve definitely hit a temptation to place experiences in the past tense. “Should I write that my anxiety is flaring up? Should I be open about my intrusive thoughts? Or should I couch it in general terms?”
Sometimes this tension occurs because it’s hard to write from the centre of ongoing experience. You end up removing yourself from your writing, however autobiographical it looks. But then I find the more of myself I put in a post, the more people enjoy it, and I still don’t know why.
One thing I do know is that whilst I use my experiences to write about mental health and disability, the blog isn’t dedicated to documenting my issues. I don’t really like people using my blog to check up on me personally, because I think the content of my writing is more important than whatever it says about me.
The paradox is that I write openly, so I have to remember that my life is not public domain and I am under no obligation to share everything.
I once saw the poet Warsan Shire read, and I remember the room went quiet. There were gasps and some tears. By the end of the reading I had heard exquisite poems that explored vulnerabilities and trauma, but I knew as much about Shire herself as I had at the start.
Nor did I feel I needed to know. That’s not what her work is for.
Some people are keen on investigating the hidden autobiographical meanings in confessional poetry and this is because the poet has played a trick. They’ve confessed, but they haven’t told you everything – and why should they? Vulnerability is a precious thing which should be handled with great care.
The compulsion to overshare in public can be cathartic, but it’s also addictive. We live in a culture where women’s suffering is frequently consumed as entertainment. In that environment I know I must take responsibility for my own experiences, and take control of what I share.
And lastly, that leads me to Liz Jones.
Much as I hate the Daily Mail, I like its journalist Liz Jones: she’s a good writer, albeit highly problematic. She has written openly about topics like her anorexia and OCD, her body image issues, and her self-hatred.
Last time I looked, the comments on her pieces were a mix of vitriol and concern. Liz Jones was mad, she was ugly, she needed help and the editors should intervene. It was like seeing a crowd watching someone having a breakdown.
My thoughts:
1) How awful to see someone’s suffering packaged as a fun lifestyle column to entertain readers.
2) It was brave of this writer to share private experiences, and a shame that she was stuck with an audience of Daily Mail readers.
3) What was drawing me, as a reader? Was it a negative fascination with Ms Jones herself, or was it that I had a nagging feeling she might be playing a trick – leading readers to believe everything she said was confessional, and then possibly making things up?
4) Was I complicit in suffering as spectacle? After all, it doesn’t matter what you think about a crowd if you’re part of it.
So I stopped reading.
I have no easy answers to these questions. But I admire anyone who writes from a place of vulnerability, who writes of unpopular experiences, who opens their wounds in writing. I just hope that vulnerability can be handled with care, not exploited by other people.
Lastly my thoughts on this are summed up in Jenny’s Diski’s piece ‘In Defence of Liz Jones’ and I suggest you read it in its entirety:

“I couldn’t see what the universally abominated Liz Jones… had done wrong… She was making a very personal statement about what it was like to be someone who continuously experienced life as not worth living…
In a world that didn’t demand an upbeat ending to every story, she might have been thought to be offering a real insight into a long-term depressive’s point of view. Other people in her condition (I’m one of them), seeing the way she’d been attacked, might conclude that it was better not to talk about their experience, for all that society presently tells itself that it is vital for people to express their feelings.”

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Thoughts about thinking

On being illogical
Once I got in trouble at school. I was pulled aside by a fearsome teacher who bellowed at me “YOUR PROBLEM IS THAT YOU CAN’T THINK PROPERLY!” I was sixteen at the time. I still don’t know what she meant.
Actually, this teacher was constantly telling me off for the illogical way I thought. (She once told me that sometimes I “bordered on lunacy”.) This is because grammar schools like logical thinkers, not scatty maladaptive daydreamers.
Anyway, a while ago it struck me that maybe I don’t think properly.
I’d just finished writing an opinion at the time. Looking at what I’d written, it hit me that this was apparently something I thought – but I didn’t
know I thought it, until I wrote it down.
I am very suggestible; I can convince myself of anything. Sometimes arguments about abstract topics don’t feel real to me, so I pick the side that seems least bad. Later on, I see a contradiction of the position I chose and realise that I should think that instead. I am at best thinking about things that involve real situations and people, rather than solving abstract logical problems.
I wrote in my notebook:

“Maybe I don’t really think – I just seem to absorb ideas and sensations and arrange my impressions somehow. (But then, isn’t that just another way of thinking? It is just not the trad. academic way, where you have very verbal and linear thought processes.)”

In Philosophy lessons, I always preferred discussing moral questions to solving logical ones. Ethical questions are so complex and many-sided that it was more fun to explore them, through narrative, questions and discussion, than to ‘solve’ them.
Perhaps this is because I was raised Christian. When Christians answer ethical questions they work from a firm moral foundation, which gives them confidence to approach the question from all angles and admit it if they don’t know the answer. But then, that’s not at all exclusive to Christianity.
Perhaps it’s because I seem to understand ethical problems best through narrative, not logic.

Unbalanced brains
When I had my ADHD assessment I tested highly on verbal comprehension, reading accuracy, spelling, and working memory. That made sense because I know I can write, analyse books, comprehend complex texts, and play around with words.
In contrast to that, I scored much lower on remembering sequences, and on processing speed.
The clinical psychologist told me I have a processing delay. That explained why I sometimes see something happen and take a minute to understand what I saw. It also explained why I was branded “slow” in school, despite simultaneously being labelled “gifted”.

A superior way of thinking?
Society prioritises a certain kind of thought. Logical, linear thought, rationality, and set opinions are valued over intuition, making connections, vision, sensing, receptivity, pattern recognition, faith, and observation.
The qualities I listed second are often seen as being fuzzy, imprecise, inferior ways to think. But I’d contest that qualities like intuition and sensing can be extremely precise and useful skills.
Take music: a good conductor should have a painfully acute ear, and must be able to sense the ebbing and flowing energy in a performance and pick out any mistakes immediately. They must observe every aspect of a performance. Most musicians can hear music in their head, and have a strong sense of beauty.
Learning the science of music requires logic, yes, but music requires all your abilities. Pattern recognition and sensing are vital to music, and other disciplines too. We undervalue those skills greatly.

Intellectualism
Let’s talk about the way Western society worships ‘cleverness’: which is basically seen as the ability to do maths and science, memorise a lot of information, problem-solve, and win arguments. In some circles, every issue must be up for debate (however sensitive), and being emotionally invested in a position is simply weird.
This attitude is based in a very white, Western, masculine conception of thought, which is itself rooted in structural oppression and prejudice. It was held for centuries that women are more intuitive, emotional, prone to hysteria and incapable of logic, whilst men were naturally more rational. (Those views are still being aired.) White supremacists also hold that other races are intellectually inferior and incapable of rational thought.
In this paradigm, white male = capable of rational thought, which makes you fully human (“I think, therefore I am.”) Anyone perceived to exist outside this bubble of rational thought must be less human. Rational thought has long been a trump card, held over the heads of people who are assumed to be inferior.

I am not saying that rational thought is Bad in itself; it can be used for great purposes, by people of any background. But I am saying that there is no superior thinking style, and that logic and rationality are perhaps overrated. Your way of thinking does not make you more or less human than anybody else. There is no inferior way to think!
Intuition, pattern recognition, sensing and emotion have long been seen as inferior to logic. How much of our prejudice against non-linear, intuitive thought is based on a bigoted view of thought?
That leads me on to my last point: that it’s ableist to worship logic.
I was 19 before I found out that some neurodivergent people find it hard to think in a linear, logical way. Before that I’d assumed being a good person and being rational were somehow the same thing, but neurodiversity advocates like Mel Baggs changed my perspective.
Much of Baggs’s writing is about hir thinking style, which is non-verbal and based on sensing and pattern recognition. Like many other Autistic people, sie is also preoccupied with ethics.
Being unable to think logically in the conventional way does not make someone wilfully ignorant, nor does logical ability necessarily make you a better person; you can build a logical argument to justify the most evil actions. Let’s not forget Aristotle and Plato argued logically for slavery, and 19th-century scientific racists thought their own arguments were highly rational. Thinking style has nothing to do with character or views.
However, different thinking styles have everything to do with people’s brains being wired differently, which makes for an interesting and diverse world.
So let’s not dislike ourselves for “not thinking properly”. Enjoy the way you think. It’s the only way you will ever know, and the world would be poorer without it.