Stig’s & Cigs
I don't smoke but I've been eyeing these smokeless "essential oil" inhalers with a lot of temptation. I can't use one, I'm allergic to generally every form of fragrance on the planet - can't breathe it or wear it - so it's a fantasy notion, the idea of having something to fixate my anxiety on that looks cool and doesn't cause cancer that we know of yet.
Anxiety is a nasty word I've learned to live with lately, but not as bad as other words I've dealt with including "depression" "breakdown" and - the utterly last word I ever want to hear again - "bipolar". I lovingly refer to it as my family curse, in about the same way one might refer to lycanthropy; it runs in the tree and you pray to God you never manifest it but every full moon you get nervous and start to wonder. In therapy my psych kindly suggested that I didn't seem "bipolar" - but perhaps I suffered because I'd been raised by a mother who was. Little did this psych realize that by scapegoating the very same parent whose curse I dreaded to bear they put a lynchpin in my decision to stop pursuing children via IVF and thus kick off the end of my marriage of twelve years. Because if simply having a "bipolar" parent can cause such turmoil, then why on earth would I subject another human to the same? Or worse, see them turn into a monster one day just like me?
[For the record despite my mother's diagnosis I am a very loved and spoiled child - never beaten or abused - and hence my rather loyal ire at having my mother scapegoated when she should have been better supported during her own breakdown, and I should have received help too. Notice how even among doctors the stigma of their labels persists.]
I don't talk about my family curse, obviously. It's been my experience people will quickly start to put you into stereotypes and boxes as soon as you present one. Suddenly "Oh, that's why you do that" or "You always did seem so and so" will start to trickle into conversations and you become less a person and more a walking statistic. A werewolf only achieves acceptance by staying in human form and passing for normal.
When I brought up my monstrous metaphor to a friend, after sadly failing to keep the wolf at bay during COVID and other life stressors, they kindly suggested I find the gypsy who cursed my family and get them to lift the curse. They didn't see my curse as a defining personality trait; instead, they had also suffered mental health issues and knew - as I did - that it sucks trying to advocate for yourself in a sea of labels and medications. Yet never had it occurred to me to look more carefully at the curse I'd accepted on my family all those years ago. Intrigued, I took an abnormal psychology course and decided to learn "gypsy".
It was an utterly fascinating and horrifying eight week journey.
The gist of what I gleaned from my semester in psych is this: Psychology is fucking $@!%-t. Over half of all psychiatrists don't even practice it anymore; they just prescribe pills. Which have gained popularity as the "biomedical model" of science continues to push the idea that mental illness is a problem of the person suffering it, not the society or circumstances they find themselves in. Except there isn't actually any concrete physical evidence for mental illness as a biological problem. You may read studies that suggest "oh no there's a genetic factor" or "there's a chemical imbalance" but the actual truth exposed by journalists who finally looked through the reports paid for by pharmaceuticals who have nearly quadrupled their clientele over the past few decades have found that actually, in fact, these ideas are not fully proven yet.
The "chemical imbalance" theory sounds good on paper - your brain simply isn't producing the right stuff, that's the problem - however where it breaks down is the fact that 1) it was disproven 25 years ago but mental health professionals didn't feel the need to share that info with the public because it made prescribing meds easier if they believed they were the problem 2) the chemical imbalances that do exist are actually caused by the medications doctors prescribe you when you're diagnosed; and since there are increasingly fewer unmedicated patients nowadays there are no longer any controls to compare to for any studies that continue to refer to these imbalances.
The brain, once prescribed any of the multitude of drugs pushed by psych wards and often forced upon the homeless or the incarcerated, actually changes structure as it tries to adapt to the new chemicals. This process is called "homeostasis" and generally refers to your body trying hard to keep things status quo. When a chemical starts to block serotonin, for example, your brain will create more receptors to absorb it anyway. In a short period of time your brain absorbs more serotonin than normal and the initial imbalance the doctor suggested you had is now reality. These changes progress and cause the doses to rise up and the condition to worsen. Since the use of lithium to treat bipolar started back in the early 80's, for example, the number of bipolar patients recovering from a manic episode has dropped from over 70% to less than 33%. The drugs make us worse, not better. Probably because none of them are actually developed to treat mental illness because - again - they can't find any physical cause for it. They are instead simply uppers, downers, and sedative derivatives that wreck havoc in the receptors of our grey matter and leave us worse off for it. Or, as a wise man put it, they are a thousand different types of aspirin to ease symptoms, not cure a disease. Placebos actually have a higher success rate than most anti-depressants.
The problem with relying on "genetic" factors for mental illness overlooks the contributing factors of intergenerational trauma + learned behavior/coping skills, all of which pass down from one generation to the next with about the same regularity as genes but could actually be a case of nurture more than nature. If one of your family members is ever diagnosed the only genetic testing they do to see if you've got the same issue is to ask about your family history. I was once actually told by a therapist not to give my family history to an intake psychiatrist, because it only made them lazy about diagnosing my symptoms (which they do in only 10 minutes of talking to you because time is money in hospitals). For further evidence my brother - who was also committed at one point for a mental breakdown - did not know to tell the doctors of our family's "bipolar" curse and was diagnosed with "schizophrenia" instead. Which begs the question - is my family really "bipolar" or "schizophrenic"? Furthermore they haven't found the gene for anything yet - including "bipolar" disorder - even though they're sure it's there. The idea that we can genetically treat mental illness is even further away than the ridiculous attempts we've made at medicating it.
The DSM - The Diagnostic & Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders - is updated every few decades by a board of psychiatrists of whom about 60% have their research fully funded by drug companies. With each iteration of the DSM, the criteria for meeting a set disorder are widened such that new cases often triple within the first year of the manual's publication. Interesting how one book can cause such a huge wave of mental illness. A few psychologists have decried the obvious clash of interests, however the industry persists and there's been little progress made since removing homosexuality as a disorder from the DSM in 1974; feeling distress over being homosexual wasn't removed until 2013.
Which begs the question - exactly what is mental illness and what causes it? Well, the insanely simple suggestion posed by my teacher is that it's natural and it's caused by the world continuing to suck. One of the key points made over and over is that mental illness is always defined by society - and sadly, society often overrides the needs of the individual for the needs of the system when it's meant to be the other way around. Often people who are "mentally ill" are struggling with intense trauma or life circumstances; PTSD - Post Traumatic Stress Disorder - for example is being rebranded now as PTSI - Post Traumatic Stress Injury - because the problem isn't in the person, it's in the situation that broke them. We send soldiers to war then treat them as invalids for witnessing its horrors. We have children suffer attack or abuse then treat them as mentally defective for surviving it. We ignore the loss of home, stability, and community in the homeless population and treat them as if magically they can overcome these basic human needs and function as a sane person while living on the street. Yet in each of these instances the focus is on treating the victim rather than addressing the flaws in our social systems that hurt them. War could be avoided. Families could be better supported in our communities. Housing costs could be regulated. However what will more likely happen is the victim-blaming of those dealing with these larger social evils than society making any meaningful change.
The crazy thing about mental health is that Western scientists literally bend over backwards to ignore everything outside the brain including social background, economic status, race, sex, culture, the whole gamut of overall health and wellness - to focus exclusively on little synapses and genetic coding. The obvious problem with this approach is that our brain isn't disconnected from everything around it. Far from it; in fact, they've proven that subtle changes including light, temperature, social isolation, and diet can all influence one's mood and mental health. Moreover the W.E.I.R.D. - Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic - countries all have the worst track record for mental illness. And unfortunately they're exporting it, through the paid advocacy of pharmaceutical-funded psychiatrists and increasing Western media coverage of what are increasingly now global disorders including depression, anxiety, anorexia, etc.
As for my stigma - my obstacle, the wolfsbane of my family tree? It's still there. Even after this eye-opening learning of the system that failed three generations of my family and branded us monsters. Curses don't die when you learn the gypsy lied. Because curses live in the continued beliefs of the angry mobs and villagers who listen to them.
And as I pack up the last of my things to move to a small apartment in a brand new city in the boonies (where I can afford to live on a single paycheck) while saying goodbye to friends and places I've known, I eye that homeopathic alternative to smoking and wonder if I had smoked whether it would have eased the anxiety for all those years growing up with a family struggling to cope with mental health issues. Or if it simply would have given me one more obstacle to beat.
Further Suggested Reading for Mental Health Issues In America:
Mad in America: https://www.madinamerica.com/blogs/
This is a blog covering the many failings and critiques of the mental healthcare system, including personal stories from people who have survived it
*If you're not a reader, the main founder/editor of Mad in America, Robert Whitaker, has a series of YouTube videos summarizing his research/findings in the mental health care system from his book Anatomy of an Epidemic, the first part of which you can find here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4R6MXO2j0V0
Crazy Like Us: The Globalization of the American Psyche
This is a fascinating book that delves into how culture informs madness, and how the way we diagnose and describe mental health in society can impact how it manifests among us.
Healing: Our Path from Mental Illness to Mental Health
This is a perhaps overly optimistic book by the former head of the National Institute of Mental Health that takes a critical look at America's mental healthcare system and its failings, as well as some suggestions for fixing it.