This is going to sound like it’s all about me, but it isn’t. I’m not that special.
I have Seasonal Affective Disorder, aka SAD, aka “the winter blues”. ’tis the most socially acceptable of mood disorders, I wager; the vast majority of the time when I tell someone about it, the response I get is a friendly “oh, yeeeeaaaaah, winter suuucks, I geeet it.”
No, you don’t.
Spend the next four months sleeping 3 hours a day max, while having crushing PMS, while frantically – no, that’s not right: no energy to spare for that – while sluggishly trying not to fuck up your life because you know you’re not firing on all cylinders but there’s fuck-all you can do about it bar watch yourself fuck shit up. Then come back to me and we can talk about how well you’re getting it.
I should not bitch about this: the bottom line is that I can talk about my SAD and expect people not to freak out. They mostly don’t freak out because they don’t have a clue what they’re talking about, but it is a subject I can bring up without fear of a major backlash. Friends of mine who have other, less media-friendly mood disorders can’t do that. They absolutely can “out” themselves, if they so wish, but they have to be prepared for people’s panicked, uninformed, bigoted, or just plain mean reactions. If you don’t believe me, go out and tell ten people in your life that you have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and see what kind of response you get. Pick people who can have an actual impact on your life – your boss, partner, closest friends, club leaders – otherwise it’s cheating. If you’re unwilling to do that, then I’m willing to bet that you already know what kind of reaction you’d get.
Anyhoo: I have a mood disorder I can talk about. That simple fact helps me manage it, because I can make the people around me aware that I am experiencing A Problem. Some may cut me some slack, some may not, but at least I can make them aware that something is going on, that there is a reason for my (mis)behavior, that I’m not being weird at them.
Outing myself that way can backfire, normally in three ways. Some people just tell me that either I don’t have SAD or there’s no such thing as SAD. I’m confused, misinformed, exaggerating, or straight-up making shit up. Whatever their reasoning is, it amounts to the fact that my problem isn’t there and I’m talking trash. Our interactions from then on will be marred by the fact that they don’t trust my reality and I don’t appreciate their invalidation of my experience.
Most commonly, as soon as I tell people that I have a problem, a proportion of them comes charging up at me with their solutions. That would be just fucking lovely if any of those solutions were new to me and/or implementable. Alas, 99.9999% of the times they are not. This should surprise nobody thinking rationally about the issue. I’m not a masochist, I can read, and I have access to the internet. If a simple, commonly-known, implementable solution could make my problem go away, I would no longer have that problem. Give me some credit, hey?
Dealing with a barrage of unsolicited, useless advice may sound like a non-issue if you’ve never been at the receiving end of it. Believe me: it’s exhausting. Aside from the time and energy it takes (which is an issue when I’m already running woefully short), people who push advice on you are generally not very good at accepting that you won’t follow it, or hearing how it doesn’t help. Rather than accepting that their advice is a poor fit, they tend to argue for it, which hugely increases the energy and time they are taking from you, which really doesn’t help. For the longest time I couldn’t begin to comprehend the phenomenon: why are so many people so attached to the advice they’re spewing? I mean, this is usually shit they picked up from random articles, not the summation of their live’s work. Then a friend explained to me that people aren’t really trying to help me; they’re trying to be helpful. It’s not about me and my problem: it’s about their ego, their role in our “community”, and our respective status. By rejecting their advice I’m lowering their status or some suchlike shit. I can’t even, frankly, and I can even less around January (ha ha ha; but no, really). Whatever causes the phenomenon, unsolicited, dud advice and the resulting fallout are pretty much guaranteed if any sniff of a problem ever gets out.
The third way in which outing myself can backfire is probably the worst one. I’ve had plenty of conversations where everything I said got brushed off by my interlocutor because “it’s not me speaking, it’s my SAD.”
Yes, that can be a thing. Mood disorders do affect your mood. However, it so happens that I can have SAD and also have actual problems in my life that are causing me distress. I can have SAD and be sad because I am not getting on with my partner and I might have to break up with them. I can have SAD and be scared shitless because I broke my damn back and I struggle to use the toilet on my own. I can have SAD and be lonely, upset by political events, worried about friends whose lives are imploding, stressed about work, and so on and so forth. My SAD is not the root cause of all the negative emotions I have from October to March, and does not invalidate them. In some people’s eyes, however, it does, and that is infinitely draining. It’s exponentially draining when I have to navigate that roadblock while I’m experiencing the symptoms of my SAD… which, if I mention it to those people, is taken to prove their point… so I might as well headbutt a wall instead of talking.
It’s a dilemma. If I don’t out myself and my behavior is affected by my SAD, people think I’m wilfully misbehaving and get pissed off. If I do out myself, I’m going to have to deal with umpteenth people pissed off at me because why won’t I just try yoooooga, and with a fair few people discounting anything I do or say from then on. Picking which possible problem to choose can be a great way to spend the winter.
An alternative solution I’ve used with relatively decent results is to bypass any mention of my actual problem and just discuss the symptoms. People don’t necessarily need to know why I’m so sleep deprived I can barely parse language; they just need to know that I’m sleep deprived. That still gets me the unsolicited advice, but it doesn’t make everyfuckingthing I do and say get put down to my SAD. It also avoids any risk of people acting like assholes because I have a mental health issue hence I am clearly cray-cray and a danger to people and property.
Why am I talking about this crap in the context of a self-defence blog? It turns out that people can expect very similar responses if they out themselves as the survivors of violence or abuse.
If you are a survivor and you’re still dealing with the aftermath, that may show in your behavior. If you don’t tell people about your experience, they won’t know why you’re “being weird” and won’t cut you any slack. If you tell people about it, some will freak out, some will deny it, some will pummel you with useless advice, and some will assume that everything you say or do henceforth is a reflection of your trauma. Let’s not even get into the victim blaming side of things, which is totally a thing, doesn’t just affect women or sexual assault victims, and is not going away just because so many self-defence instructors are determined to ignore that it’s still an issue.
The best course of action will depend on the people you’re dealing with, but it’s hard to know beforehand how people will react to an entirely new stimuli. And that’s assuming you have the option to decide whether to go “public” or not; if you end up in the media, that decision will be taken away from you. Discussing the symptoms you are experiencing rather than the cause may help in some cases, but not always.
What’s the point of this incredibly depressing piece? There are two, actually. Maybe we can’t do anything to stop people behaving unhelpfully towards us when we are working through difficulties, but we can:
- Remind ourselves that it’s not about us. It’s a thing people do. People default to their standard response script regardless of what they are responding to. Deniers deny, compulsive advice-givers will give advice, judgemental people will judge, and the assholes will be assholes. They’ll do that whether you go to them with a health issue, a broken down car, a sexual assault, or a hangnail. We just tend to notice it more for serious stuff because it impacts us more. If it’s happening to us a lot it’s because people are people all the damn time, warts and all. It’s annoying as all hell, but it doesn’t say anything about us, our lives, our worth, etc.
- Try not to behave that way ourselves. If being at the receiving end of that sucks, we can stop handing it out. If we don’t know what to say, we can say that. If we don’t know what people need, we can ask them. If we think we know what people need, we can still ask them what they actually want and respect their right to steer their own lives.