I don’t read twitter anymore, by which I mean, I don’t have twitter but people send me tweets they think I might find interesting and every time I follow one of the links I’m sent, I wind up clicking around for a few hours, and reading just as many tweets as I did when I had an account. This is fine. The posts are funny sometimes; more times, they are are a reminder that given five seconds of distance from that website, it’s inconceivable why anybody spends much time there voluntarily. Twitter is just a machine for snowballing a thousand small annoyances into a constant agitated, paranoid omnidirectional rage. It’s a machine for simulating the curse of Prometheus. A thousand little birds come and eat your liver every day.
For example, I’ve spent the last several days fuming over a tweet from a well-known media-and-culture fixture explaining why, actually, movies like Shutter Island are bad. Or, as the tweeter put it:
“Something I don’t love is horror movies where people are recently out of mental institutions and can’t tell if they’re delusional or if it’s ghosts bc this a real fucking struggle for my friends who have delusions! […] ESPECIALLY if the twist is ‘hahahaha, you’re just delusional’.”
A number of thoughts occur to me, roughly in this order:
They’re called horror movies.
“A thing I don’t like is cars where people go fast, because it’s a real fucking struggle for my friends who have motion sickness.”
Is ‘hahahaha’ really the tone of any of these movies?
If the point here is only that a movie (or any piece of art) might use something that has been difficult or even traumatizing for a subsection of the population as a narrative device, and that might be difficult to watch if you’re part of that subsection, then what, precisely, are we left with for plot devices? I suppose war movies are out, obviously.
I don’t watch horror movies about serious mental illness much either, but I think if a friend denounced the genre in solidarity, I would feel more embarrassed than I do about having my hand twitch uncontrollably some days, and I used that hand-twitch as the basis for an entire essay about how embarrassing mental illness can be.
You can see what twitter does to you: as obnoxious as I find the original tweet, I’m also being obnoxious. I’m thinking of five different ways to roll my eyes at it, even though I know — I know! — that what the tweeter means, basically, is “There is a genre of movie that uses something my friends have a hard time with in order to generate a cheap thrill, and it’s not usually handled in a particularly sensitive way, and there’s a line, probably, between acknowledging pain and suffering in the real world, and exploiting species of pain as some kind of exotic dysfunction porn.” The tweet is cloying, sure, and soaked in the kind of performative solidarity where saying good is tantamount to being good, but even that isn’t the tweeter so much as the logic of posting (another definition: twitter is a machine for pushing JL Austen’s ideas about forms of speech which are actions, not descriptions, to its breaking point), and at any rate, it’s well-intentioned and trying to be nice and is ultimately harmless and I’d be a hypocrite to lather up my encounter with somebody trying to highlight an insensitive part of our culture into an instance of injustice by a fake ally who is actually getting it wrong and should feel bad. The tweet is wrong, I think, but there’s nothing really wrong with the tweet. Fine.
But what I’ve been fuming over is a mode of thinking which that tweet represents. A mode of thinking, The main problem with being mentally ill is that people might be insensitive about it. A mode of thinking that says, The main problem with being mentally ill is that people might judge you. Or, people might think you’re weird. Or, people might think your problems are Exotic and Interesting and kind of funny or cool, in a dark way. It’s a mode of thinking that says, the horror of mental illness is stigma against the mentally ill. I know this tweet isn’t saying that. But it’s a way to read it, and the culture that it came out of. Just let me riff here. It is a mode of thinking that treats mental illness as an identity marker with no predictive value except its ability to predict the fucked up ways people might be unfair about your bearing that marker. Discrimination against the mentally ill is real, and there are miles of misunderstandings and counter-misunderstandings muddling the discourse about it, and if somebody fired me for disclosing my diagnosis, I’d sue, but the illness itself is actually a problem. Being crazy isn’t like being black. It isn’t, there is no race but there is racism, i.e., there is no there there except a meaningless visible difference which people will kill you over. There’s stigma and discrimination and cheap cultural exploitation of the mentally ill, but there is also mental illness. The illness itself is a problem, not an identity. It’s right there in the world: illness.
There are, of course, mentally ill people for whom stigma is the main downside. They’re the people with moderate anxiety disorders and 21st century depression—with Anxiety and Depression(TM)—who do suffer to various degrees from the illness itself, but who are basically strivers and the drag, the real drag! I’m not beating up on this! is feeling anxious at parties or on dates and therefore maybe not being as cool or as well-liked as they’d like to be, which isn’t really fair, and is a kind of discrimination, I guess, so when they think about their illness, the biggest consequence they’re seeing isn’t the ways the illness makes them feel bad (although it does!), it’s the much larger and more life-impacting ways that their feeling-bad turns into acting-weird turns into social-consequences. The stigma is the problem. Unsurprisingly, these are the people who tend to be the most stable and functional and innocent of the mentally ill, and so they get most of the jobs writing and tweeting about Struggling with Mental Illness, and like any talented tenth, they purport to speak for the rest of us. Or they don’t. Maybe they’re clear about that. Some are. But they’re the ones speaking, so it makes sense that other people—the well-intentioned included most of all—come to understand mental illness in that way.
But I don’t know. There are a lot of us in institutions, and a lot of us in jail. There are a lot of us on the streets, or living with relatives, barely living, without access to good care, or worse, for whom good care still isn’t enough. I’ve been relatively lucky, but even I’ve never thought that the big bummer about all of this has been stigma, or judgement, or the occasional movie where it turned out Leonardo DiCaprio was just crazy the whole time. The bummer is the part where I lived in hell for years, and am sedated every day now, and in the process of going from hell to heavy sedation, I managed to alienate most of my friends, and blow most of my opportunities, and go from a life where I suppose I would have been a lawyer or something into a life where I am mad online, writing a blog about a tweet I don’t like between doses of seroquel. And I’d still take that over still being sick. I’d rather be sedated and poorly liked and lazy and barely employable than be back in the part where I put a knife in my neck to try to take the Holy Ghost out of my lymph node. Because that’s the horror movie. That’s something I don’t love.