Active compassion for your mental illness is a form of resistance.
Content warning: suicidal ideation
Last week, I did something I hadn’t done since coming out of my last mental health crisis: I took all the sharp knives, razors, and scissors in sight and hid them in a plastic bag under the sink. Out of sight, out of mind, or so my magical thinking goes. I have bipolar disorder and struggle with complex-PTSD. Often I want to die; last week and this week were not unlike many others.
Like many, I have found the American elections triggering and excruciating. I have sat for days fixated on a feed of pain and terror scrolling before my eyes. I see the flood of calls for action and organized resistance: the ever-growing lists of numbers to call and email (senators, governors, mayors, the media, etc.) and organizations to donate to; the petitions to call out family members and friends; the protests and rallies to attend; and everything else presented with the same level of urgency. My mind fragments with information overload: the guides, the think pieces, the memes, the latest reports of fuckduggery.
But how can I be of any help to any cause when I’m truly mentally sick? When a good portion of my time and energy has been focused on resisting the desire to kill myself? How do I resist feelings of worthlessness and despair when I feel worthless in supporting the cause right now?
As someone who often battles with suicidal ideation, I’m a bit “old hat” when it comes to strategizing new ways to resist self-destructive thought patterns. Over the last few weeks, I’ve had to navigate a storm of emotions and combat feelings that have threatened to pull me under while still finding ways to contribute where and when I can.
For those who contend with suicidal ideation as a lived, perhaps daily, reality, below is a guide to engagement and self-care, as well as a few approaches to activism.
Have Empathy For Yourself
I have, first and foremost, forced myself to acknowledge this fact: I am sick. I am limited. Even when I’m feeling mentally well, my health is so precarious that I’m one triggering phone call or email away from plunging back into suicidal ideation. It is imperative that I prioritize my mental health, even when the drum calls are banging otherwise.
But when you are mentally ill, prioritizing one’s mental health in the face of calamity can feel like the ultimate form of selfishness, leading to a shame spiral marked by feelings of worthlessness, particularly in times of great need for social action.
I have to ask myself, do I extend the same judgmental attitudes toward others working in the cause whom I admire? Is it reasonable for me to expect others to put their mental health so at risk by being on all the time? And if not, why do I apply this judgement to myself? Would I really want any of my activist friends to drive themselves to suicide? Can I not work on extending the same love and empathy I have for others towards myself?
Realize that active compassion for your illness is a form of resistance.
Resist Internalized Ableism
Understand that not all calls to action are directed at you, and resist descending into shame over not being in a position to do specific activities. When we see calls that are beyond our ability and means, rather than allow those messages to contribute to feelings of abject worthlessness, perhaps we need to allow that those calls are meant for those with the means to take action, who have been so far complacent.
There is a difference between those who haven’t called out racist/misogynistic/trans and homophobic family members because it is hard, awkward, and uncomfortable, and refusing to speak to abusive family members who are the source of trauma in which any conversation might trigger suicidal thoughts.
If using the phone sends you into a panic, understand that calling congress is not for you. Likewise if you are agoraphobic and can’t attend protests and rallies. When you are struggling with suicidal ideation, making room for these nuances and allowances for yourself can be the difference between life and death.
When battling fragmented identity, trauma, feelings of worthlessness, and suicidal ideation, it can be all too easy to project ableism inward (and outward as well). Resist the poisonous capitalistic concept that your value depends on productivity. Acknowledge that this often leads to counterproductive fronting and “good allyship” performativity even at the best of times.
Try reflecting on your intrinsic value. Keep reminding yourself: My life has value outside a lack of productivity. And this applies even when thinking about activist activities.
Keep reminding yourself: My life has value outside a lack of productivity.
Reflect instead on how your struggles with mental illness bring perspectives and skills to the table that are unique. Do not underestimate the value of your empathy even at times when you cannot afford to act on it. The mentally-sick are well acquainted with having to contend with an overwhelming storm of emotions, which might be new terrain for many. Don’t discount your experience with your struggles. Even catastrophizing, kept in check, can be a positive skill, as it can help others imagine worst-case scenarios and plan contingencies for resistance.
Separate The Fragility Of Your Mental State From White Fragility
Having a mental illness does not give you a free pass on white fragility. Last week, at a time when I was feeling mentally fraught, a friend made a post calling out white people, and I have to admit I did feel hurt about being indirectly called out regarding some of my own recent behaviors (no, it was not safety pins). I also had to acknowledge that I was too sick in that moment to contend with those feelings of knee-jerk defensiveness, and had to resist taking up the space to act on how the post made me feel.
My mental health requires attention; my white tears do not. There is a difference between ignoring your problematic behaviors and persisting in them, and acknowledging that you might be too sick to address call-outs in this moment. At these times, it might be better to tap out for a little while to come back and reflect on how you can make transformative changes, and do better, when your mental health is a little less fragile. And while calls for succor to help alleviate anguish stemming from mental health issues are always appropriate, taking up the space of others, particularly people of color, to validate hurt feelings around your own problematic behaviors separate from your mental illness are not.
Map What You Can And Cannot Do
When simple tasks such as brushing my teeth or cracking open a Babybel cheese become unsurmountable, I have to acknowledge I can do very little, whether it is one of my worst days, worst weeks, or worst months. In those moments, even self-care looks like doing my best not to give into feelings of shame about crying in bed all day in the fetal position.
But not every day is my worst day. Some days, all I can do to offer support is to signal boost activist writers online. If the only thing you can do is retweet when you are too unwell to do otherwise, you have taken part. On better days, I can manage to write something. On good days, I can attend a protest, knowing I have to pace myself, I cannot go the distance, and I will have to bow out after an hour or two.
Sometimes it is easier to learn not to compare ourselves to others than to learn not to compare our most unwell self with our most well self. Map out a staggered checklist of things you can and can’t do based on the spectrum of your mental health. Celebrate even the tiniest of victories, like remembering to take your meds on bad days, assuring yourself that when you are well enough you can and will do more, no matter how insignificant that contribution might feel at the time.
What To Do When There Are No Good Days
There might be an endless stream of worst days. During the height of my last mental crisis, it felt particularly cruel to be called upon to stay on this earth because I was “needed” when I was battling the worst psychic pain.
Instead, I try to resist ideation around suicide as an act of martyrdom for the cause. It has been reported that a Neo-Nazi site has been encouraging its readers to troll targeted people into suicide. Resist adopting a strategy endorsed by the enemy by turning projections of their violence inwards.
Drawing upon all the resources you need is a form of activism in combatting ableism.
Do not give into feelings of being too much of a burden when you are in deep despair and psychic pain because you imagine resources are better spent elsewhere with world conditions as they are. Reach out (I know how fucking hard this is, I know, I know). Make the calls to suicide hotlines. Or reach out to text or chat support if phone calls are too overwhelming. Understand that drawing upon all the resources you need is a form of activism in combatting ableism. Issues around mental health and suicide have value. YOU HAVE VALUE.
You have value today, you have value tomorrow, and you have value all the days to come.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1–800–273–8255
Crisis Text Line