Social Justice and My Misbehaving Brain

1. Substrate

Most of the time, my brain behaves. That is, it performs the tasks necessary to be a functional human: simple things like decision-making, the complexities of social interaction. I experience the joy of creation, the pride of accomplishment. I’ve got a good life: I’m fed, housed, much loved. When the collection of electrical impulses and neurochemicals that comprise my emotional self works properly, I am filled with awe and gratitude for my existence, my talents, the many people who love and support me.

But my brain does not always behave. The technical diagnosis is bipolar II disorder, rapid cycling; I personify it as the Weird Sister, a shadow self and nemesis who loathes me and wants to see me hurt, who tells me vicious lies about myself and is only muffled, not silenced, by medication.

What this means in practical terms is that my moods can be quickly changeable and overwhelming, often set off by insignificant events or seemingly nothing at all. In my worst moments, I face the world with no defenses: all nerves, no skin. In my worst moments, deciding what to eat is so daunting I go hungry, talking to people so terrifying I withdraw completely; I can’t write, I can barely read, I go through the motions of life and wonder why I bother. It’s been years since I hurt myself, but I have, and I still think about it regularly.

2. Catalyst

When I first encountered the Internet concept of trigger warnings, I gnashed my teeth in fury. How dare you, I thought, assume what I can and can’t take, that the act of reading about suicide or self-harm bears even a passing resemblance to the hiss and snarl of the Weird Sister inside my head, the ever-present background static of being mentally ill.

My illness is always with me, and she’s the one with her finger on the trigger. A Tumblr post, I huffed, can hardly compare.

But I’ve made my peace with trigger warnings, once I realized that they aren’t the paternalistic condescension I initially saw. Quite the contrary, they’re a way of giving an ill or traumatized person power: so often, we have no choice but to encounter echoes of our own pain — how often does fiction use a sudden suicide as plot punctuation? A trigger warning is a marker saying “hey, it’s up to you, I don’t know how you’re feeling today.” Now, I appreciate the heads-up, although I press on despite almost every time.

The trouble is, my most common trigger is never warned for, and in many cases it shouldn’t be. Because it’s anger, and while anger is a negative emotion, it can also be a positive force for change. It is vital and necessary, and cannot — should not — be entirely quashed.

Anger is also one of the default modes of expression online. Like many a thirty-something feminist writer, I spend a lot of time on social media, especially Twitter, a medium poorly suited for nuance but excellent for expressing ire. There is, of course, a distinction between righteous fury against prejudice or violence and, say, the sputtering rage of a certain kind of man confronted by a woman with an opinion — unfortunately, this distinction is immaterial to the tripwire in my head.

When the Weird Sister is in control, every angry tweet becomes a dagger directed at me; every injustice in the world feels like my fault. I know that these thoughts are skewed and irrational, I know that they are utterly untrue, and yet at times I believe them, helplessly, with my whole heart.

3. Reaction

The obvious solution is avoidance: if angry Twitter is getting to me, I should just turn off Twitter, right? And that’s usually what I do — but then, the guilt starts.

I’m white, middle-class, a cis woman married to a cis man, and I have benefited from the privilege attached to these things. My race and socioeconomic class made it more likely that I would be diagnosed young, that I would have health insurance to defray the costs of psychiatric treatment, which are staggering. Privilege protects me from so many external stressors that would make dealing with my illness and its consequences — turbulent interpersonal relationships, a work history riddled with gaps — much more difficult.

I am admonished, and rightly so, to acknowledge and understand my privilege, how factors beyond my control have made my life easier; and in turn, to listen to those whose identity puts them at a disadvantage. Women, POC, the LGBT community — these are the angry people on my Twitter feed, people who have been systemically oppressed and marginalized, who have every right to be angry. The ability to withdraw, to simply turn off my exposure to racism, misogyny, homophobia, is itself a privilege, one I am deeply ashamed of. I have a responsibility to bear witness, and when I don’t, I hate myself.

The pathetic truth of it is, in the grip of my illness, engaging with social justice can make me want to die. You’re just another privileged white girl, the Weird Sister whispers. Wouldn’t the world be better off with you out of it?

I’m aware that this is not a rational reaction, that no one discussing social justice issues on Twitter is telling me to kill myself. It is no one’s problem but mine — I want to make it clear that I understand that, that I’m in no way telling anyone to stop talking or tone down their rhetoric so that I’m more comfortable.

But for me and those like me, those who suffer from mental illness yet are otherwise privileged, the duties of a good ally are sometimes distressing, even dangerous. If the latest Twitter outrage upsets me until I contemplate self-harm, this helps absolutely no one. It is a pointless pain.

I will listen as much as I can. I’m sorry for the times when I can’t.

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