There have been some things eating at me since I made this post yesterday. Something about the pushback against some of the things I said when writing it have been sitting wrong with. Not for the simple matter of disagreement, because certainly there is plenty of that going on, and I had one of the best discussions on the topic late last night while mulling this over.
No. The thing that is niggling at the back of my mind, and the left, front, and center of it too, is this pushback against the idea that we aren’t supposed to love and otherwise care for people with mental illness and disability in spite of said disabilities, or illnesses, or anything else.
Part of this comes from the framing of this objection. Already, someone compared it to loving someone in spite of an annoying habit they might have, and someone else told me that they thought it was all right to hate that part of the person. Disturbingly, to me, is that I know that most frequently, these thoughts on the subject come from people who are abled or neurotypical. Not always, but often enough, and even when they don’t they are often influenced by the way the world wants us to look at mental illness and disability. Our society wants us to believe that the caregiver/loved one’s perspective on mental illness or other disabilities is the one that should be centered. Rarely do we see the conversation happening from the inside, even in the most progressive and intersectionally progressive circles. Discussions centered on disability should take the concerns, needs, and desires of the person with said disability into account. This is why I am a strong advocate for people who want to refuse treatment. For people who don’t want to “get better” according to the way the world would have us all be (there are other reasons, and some of them scary and awful, so we won’t get into them right now).
Part of what really is getting to me is this idea that we can compare disability, especially mental illness, to other things, such as never rinsing you dishes when you put them in the sink or leaving your socks next to the computer. A person with annoying habits can unlearn said habit. They can figure out how not to do that. It isn’t comparing apples and oranges, it’s comparing oranges and hamburger. People with mental illness don’t just get over it, unlearn it, snap out of it. They instead learn to cope with and live with it — usually, except when they don’t — because they have no choice.
Saying that “I will love you in spite of your disability” runs in a similar vein to suggesting that I love my husband in spite of his being Asian, or my daughter in spite of her blue eyes, or a close friend in spite of being homosexual. These are things that people are born with, and in some cases, develop over time. They are intrinsically part of that whole person. People with mental illness do not choose to be mentally ill. It’s a thing that happens, and supporting that person and loving that person includes that part of them, too. It’s OK to dislike something that hurts someone you love, but framing it as “in spite of” carries the connotation that people with these things you don’t like are somehow not worthy of your affection unless you are a Really Good Person who just over looks it. As a friend said to me last night, she doesn’t love her husband in spite of the fact that he’s sick and often depressed. She just loves him. He happens to be depressed sometimes. That is a very important distinction to make because these things are part of who we are. My husband loves me, and I just happen to be a person who has chronic pain, who sometimes self-harms, and who is sometimes depressed.
Most of us in today’s society want to look at a person with mental illness (and here is where I think Hepler accomplished what she set out to do, and why I think it didn’t work) and see The Person I Know, as in, who that person really is, and That Thing That Takes Over Sometimes. This was demonstrated well in the Anders/Justice characterization, but the problem therein lies in the fact that this is a trope, and a harmful one at that. This is not how mental illness works.
We want to believe that mental illness is this horrible, despicable thing that we can separate from our loved ones with mental illness. We can’t, though. It’s not separate. It is so much a part of those of us with mental illness that even the best medical professionals probably couldn’t tell you where the person begins and the illness ends. They are that connected and intertwined. The truth is, for many people, it isn’t the worst thing that has ever happened to them. People with mental illness aren’t suffering from it, they are living with it, coping, managing, and figuring out how it fits into their lives — we are surviving. Mental illness, for those who have it, changes, shapes and affects the ultimate person we are. You can’t just separate out the good things to care about in a person. You love them? Love all of them. Don’t cheapen the person by thinking you get to pick and choose.
When I gave my tumblr url to people who wanted to follow me outside of the Social Justice sphere, I warned them that this was sometimes a very political blog. I am a social justice advocate. I critique popular culture professionally. I work for the rights of disabled people/persons with disabilities. I fight against hospitals for fair practices for people who are marginalized, othered, and treated as if they should have no agency in the decisions that form their lives. I don’t just shut that off. I don’t take things too seriously. I don’t look at parallels like this drawn in popular culture and take that too seriously. I take it as seriously as I need to, because harmful portrayals are more common than helpful ones, and those harmful portrayals sometimes cost the lives of people with disabilities. Is it personal? You betcha. That doesn’t make it any less important.
If my advocacy is something you would rather not see, there is a convenient “unfollow” button up in the corner. You are welcome to use it.