Behind the Curtain: “Bad” Mental Illness and the Danger of Visibility

Over the last six months or so, as I write this, I’ve dealt with a number of attempted harassment campaigns. The majority of them, admittedly, didn’t go very far. I’m lucky in that respect – I don’t make a good target of outrage, I’m hard to get fired since I work for myself, and I’m Canadian and therefore somewhat out of reach for most doxxers. (Also, if delivery drivers can’t find my apartment, you certainly can’t.) The details of these incidents are besides the point; for some of them, admittedly, I may have been in the wrong, although I’m not sure any amount of ‘wrong’ makes harassment acceptable, and in all of the cases, I’m completely disinterested in poking them to start them up again.

But in the wake of the most recent, I’ve been finding myself at a horrible, inevitable crossroads. On social media, up until now, I’ve been extremely open about my mental illness. I lock down during psychotic episodes just in case; I mass-delete tweets every now and again to help process paranoia; I tweet earnestly as an own-voices advocate for Borderline Personality Disorder and Narcissistic Personality Disorder. I’ve even challenged people in politics on their careless use of ‘narcissist’ as an insult, and frequently nudge mutuals not to use it, at least around me; and all of this has, at least until now, been fine to do so. I accepted the risk, but I also hadn’t had to reckon with it in any light beyond “well, I have some fandom history, but that’s in the past”. But in the last year, I broke what appears to be the magic number (3,000 followers) and now, when I make a controversial or bad tweet, or piss off the wrong person (frankly, that’s more common), there’s backlash. Sometimes, it’s just replies; often, I start getting DM requests that range from ‘sort of snippy’ to ‘violent threats’; more rarely, I get horrible stuff sent through my contact form on my website, intended to upset me. And most of this is… well, not fine. I’m more upset when I lose followers or mutuals who I’d thought I was on friendly terms with, since it feels like I’ve disappointed them or something of the sort.

Yet, as I start really approaching the idea of an actual Career in writing and advocacy, I’m realizing how scared I am. Not of the harassment, exactly. But it feels less and less safe to admit that I’m mentally ill, because in the past, abusers have had a field day with that. Psychosis must mean I’m making things up, after all; and “everybody knows” narcissists are the real abusers, so I must be lying if I say I’m the victim of something, especially if I’m too angry about it. And abusers are bad enough on their own – but what if somebody with 5, 10, 20k followers crafts that narrative on me? It was bad enough in fandom, but now I’m building something I want to last me a lifetime. It feels like I’m juggling hot coal, and it’s only a matter of time before it burns me.

It’s a ridiculous expectation, obviously, for me to decide to shut down my mental health advocacy. First of all, while some people can hide their mental health and keep it private, I’m not sure I can. I can fake it to some degree, but one bipolar episode and access to Twitter later, I’m fucked! And that’s without accounting for the fact that PTSD, NPD, BPD – all of these affect how I approach people, how I criticize things, how I write… If I tried to retroactively hide these, even if I could pass for allistic (I absolutely cannot. Want proof? Ask me about Fullmetal Alchemist and watch me try to keep my mouth shut.) I would just look worse, not better – because then, well, I’m just the erratic weirdo who shuts down emotionally in between jags of mad, Joker-like laughter. Perhaps not quite that bad, but I’m having a very sore night and it sometimes feels like that from the inside. But secondly… I shouldn’t have to. One of the biggest barriers in mental health work is shame, and that’s exactly what the issue is here. “Bad” mental illnesses are so frequently shut down and hidden away, with the experts on them all being outsiders with outsider perspectives and outsider treatment. I know that even in being open about the effects of psychosis, of narcissistic collapse, of BPD splitting and bipolar mania, I am doing good work.

I can’t help but think about how so many social work and non-profit employees burn out in periods countable in months instead of years. Online advocacy is difficult in different ways, but the burnout is so, so powerful – and some of it is from that creeping fear, the waiting for people who should be on your side to find a reason to turn on you. It’s such an acknowledged problem that Kai Cheng Thom has an entire essay on it in her book I Hope We Choose Love. (In fact, multiple touch on it; it’s a good book, you should read it.) It’s all the worse for the fact that I want to and that I try to be open to good-faith criticism, but I’m autistic enough to have a hard time telling when somebody’s lying to me, and paranoid enough that once I start thinking somebody is, I’ll believe that everybody is. It’s all the harder with low empathy; while one might think that “low empathy” (not compassion; empathy is simply the automatic ability to step into somebody’s shoes) would make this easier, it instead leaves me drowning all the more, just as lost on the motives or emotions of my supposed “in-groups” as “out-groups” and unable to extend trust to people who think they should automatically have it. And not automatically giving people trust just because they’re in the Right Group isn’t a bad idea… but it makes for a very lonely existence when it’s most of how people function.

I doubt I’ll have any easy answers to any of this. Do I be less open now that I have a wider audience, or does the wider audience mean the openness is better? Do I have to share less information to be less vulnerable, or do I just have to change how I share it? Do I have to trust less, or trust more, or use whisper networks, or not use them? Most of what I get from other people with “bigger” (again, over 3k + political/sociological or fandom based) accounts is “fuck having a big account”, which while very indicative of a problem, isn’t very helpful! And truthfully, I don’t really know how to be Less. I’m certain that I’d run into less trouble if I ran a strictly professional account, perhaps one that didn’t gush over FMA every few days or have increasingly ridiculous display names about rabbits, and only posted updates. I’d also be all the more lonely, and have even less support – and so would the people who message me thanking me for saying things like “narcissists aren’t abusers” or “psychosis is not always Obvious” (the bar is on the fucking floor, huh?). I suppose most of what I can really do is ask others to be aware of this. The more marginalizations that somebody is carrying, the more directions they’re bracing for danger from. It’s not about being more or less oppressed – I hate it when people frame it that way – but it means that the impact can come from so many more places. A white cis gay man who’s able-bodied and sane only needs to worry about homophobia; the impact with which that hits him may still kill him! But he only needs to look in one direction. Someone like me, with transness, Jewishness, mental illness, aroace identity, “bad survivorship”, deafness – some of the damage comes literally just from how much I have to arch my neck to make sure I can see the next impact coming. And so when somebody just… stops doing activism, stops posting threads, stops being able to help, it’s because we have finally just. Collapsed.

I don’t want to reach that point, and I’m going to try reposition myself how I can so I don’t have to. But look out for your friends. Don’t fall for callout posts or harassment campaigns. And, look, hey. Do some of the work. Post about NPD, advocate for better treatment for us, because man, I have to deal with psychotic episodes and also the bullshit about being psychotic. That seem fair to you? I could use a hand.

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