living with acceptance in an unjust world
August 2, 2014 11:18 AM   Subscribe

Yet another coping with life after child abuse question (TW): I am really struggling with the idea of fairness in the world and the stigma of being mentally ill due to abuse. Looking for resources or stories to help me start to come to terms with an unjust world.

Sorry for coming here again about my issues but me and my therapist have been discussing this for months and I just can't seem to come to any conclusion that gives me hope and I thought you all might have some ideas for places I could look or stories that would help me try to settle this in my head. Or at least not make me sob a lot of the time over it.

I am really struggling with the idea that I have been classified as mentally ill for what basically is the methods I used to survive my childhood. I understand logically that there is no stigma in mental illness... Or there shouldn't be one.. I was fine labeling myself with depression but after I really started to delve into my ten years of child abuse I find myself getting quite upset. I see the reasons for my life and my mental patterns and actions and it feels very dismissive that it gets labeled as a mental illness and not survival techniques.

For example, I was led to believe that everyone was watching me and if I did not appear normal they would get reports and I would be hurt. This led to hiding everything and being very wary of teachers/parents/doctors. So the fact that I am involved in a medical system is very triggering for me. It ends up feeling that I am at fault for my childhood. Yet I need the system in order to manage the PTSD from it. So I struggle with shame for being there and then guilt for needing it.

The thing I am really struggling with is the fairness of being declared mentally ill while the five people who hurt me are not. They lead fulfilling lives seemingly from Facebook while I am well before the poverty line and on disability.

I know you may not have had the same experiences but have you had to wrap your head around something similar and did you find a way to come to peace with the unfairness of the world? Is there anything that helped you get over the stigma of being mentally ill and coming to acceptance that other people will see you this way and don't take into account what caused it? Do you have sources I could read or watch or personal stories that could help me find a way to not be hopeless in the face of an unjust world?

(Man, I have no idea what category this fits cause I prayed to die at five so I am hesitant to choose religion but it isn't health so I don't know... Too many choices)
posted by kanata to Human Relations (33 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
Hi kanata. You sound really frustrated and angry. That is totally reasonable and understandable. I think it's very brave of you to seek help for your PTSD even though it's frightening and upsetting to you.

In terms of advice, I would say that Facebook is really poisonous to me, honestly, as is contact with my abusers. I absolutely do not talk to, listen to other people talk to, or interact with them in any way and I block people who urge me to contact them. In this way, I feel much more powerful and in control of my own life.

In terms of the broader philosophical issues, this is why I'm an atheist. At the same time I get a lot of comfort from reading buddhist philosophy.

Finally, I read a lot of history, specifically history about prolonged battles and other horrific things. It's important that they not be ongoing (or else I feel anxious).

This really isn't fair and I am sorry that you are suffering from this.
posted by the young rope-rider at 11:28 AM on August 2, 2014 [10 favorites]

The thing I am really struggling with is the fairness of being declared mentally ill while the five people who hurt me are not. They lead fulfilling lives seemingly from Facebook while I am well before the poverty line and on disability.

First, I am so sorry for what you went through. One of the big travesties of things that happen to us in our childhood is that it ends up bringing shame with it in ways that aren't justified, once we uncover their causes. But it's one thing to recognize this, and other to deal with the long-held patterns of thinking and feeling.

In terms of my own story, there are a number of things in my childhood that created relational patterns for me that were unhealthy, to the point that they were compulsive. I don't know that it would fall under the category of mental illness, but they did have a name, which I discovered through counseling. And my thought for you (take it for what it's worth) is to see your diagnosis as a category that simply helps you understand yourself and your trauma better. It's not stigma, it a medical description so as to be helpful to you. It identifies a pattern of life that even if it isn't healthy, it is understandable, based on your experiences.

We all (and I really do mean this) learned ways of navigating the world and it's pain in ways that were justified in our childhood, but don't work so well in adulthood. So in this sense, you are not alone. There is some goodness in the fact that you are able to identify the shape of your trauma and give it a name, because it gives you a well-traveled path to healing. Not all people are so fortunate, actually, and they suffer without people to walk with them. This is not to minimize your situation, but to say simply that you are not alone. We're all in this together, whatever it is that we want to call our pain. Perhaps see the diagnosis as a way of helping you understand your unique situation that although unique to you, shares in a common human condition.

And for what it's worth, those five that you mention: although they might not get a similar type of label (at least not under a formal diagnosis from what we know), there certainly is something wrong with them, very deeply. If it's stigma that you are thinking about, it's much, much worse. What you struggle with was not in your control. What they did was of their own free volition and indicates not only mental issues, but darkness in their hearts. If someone were to provide labels for me, I'd much rather have the former than the latter. I think no less of anyone who struggles with issues related to trauma. I have nothing but contempt for people who take advantage of the vulnerability of others. What looks like success on Facebook for them is really a facade for a life that is built on lies and hurting. (And as a side note, Facebook itself is generally the highlight real of people's lives, anyway, while ignoring the outtakes. It tells us nothing of value most of the time.)

My feeling, deep down, is that if you can find yourself a community of people who consistently show you that there is no stigma in sharing in a broken human condition and seeking good health, there can be healing in this. For myself, participating in my particular religious tradition that values people before it values their accomplishments has been very freeing and healing on every level.

Good luck to you, and I really hope that you are able to find peace and healing.
posted by SpacemanStix at 11:45 AM on August 2, 2014 [5 favorites]

The only thing Facebook is good for are quotes like this:
"Don't compare your insides with someone else's outsides."
posted by NoraCharles at 11:49 AM on August 2, 2014 [7 favorites]

I'm sorry that happened to you.

It might be helpful for you to separate the pieces. For instance, you write, "The thing I am really struggling with is the fairness of being declared mentally ill while the five people who hurt me are not." Split the sentence, and take the first part: "The thing I am really struggling with is the fairness." If you set aside the prompts (your troubles, the abuse itself, abusers' fulfilling lives) and just focus on the struggle you're describing, it's not an uncommon problem. It's the "life isn't fair" problem. Everybody confronts it: failed marriages, being passed over for promotion at work, nonsmokers getting lung cancer while a lifelong smoker is healthy at 92, etc.

I hope those comparisons don't make your circumstance feel trivialized. They aren't meant to. The point is, hopefully, to make you feel like—"realize," really—your emotions aren't as isolated as it sounds like you perceive them to be. Everybody's life-experience triggers are different, even abuse victims, but there isn't quite so much variety in the resulting emotional challenges we end up coping with. If you think about it, this is why the field of mental health can exist without being completely fractured into a million different unrelated specialities. (Dr Smith specializes in father-daughter child abuse that lasted from ages 8–10, Dr Brown specializes in trauma resulting from urban-locale no-fault car accidents, etc.)

That may not look like a solution on first glance. For me, it is. When I find myself having trouble, two things are helpful: to consider how things could be worse (but they aren't!), and to look around at fellow humans struggling with what are essentially the same issues and to know that I'm not alone and what they can do, I can also do.

Good luck and be well.
posted by cribcage at 12:03 PM on August 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

I do think that most psychologists and other therapists would agree with you that most mental illnesses are exactly what you say -- survival adaptations to get through dangerous situations. You obviously didn't chose those situations. You did what you could to survive. There is strength in that. The unfortunate thing is that these coping mechanisms aren't as useful in adapting to situations outside of that danger, and it's absolutely true; you are bearing the cost for this. It is completely understandable that you are angry.

I agree with you; there's no way a diagnostic label can capture everything that led to it. And to have to wear that label, and for it to have to be your primary means of getting by, is unfair. Ambivalence and anger about that too is completely understandable. I think you're right, there might be a lot to get out of sharing experiences with others who wear the same label you've been stuck with, who are angry about the same kinds of things. I think there are ways anger can be constructive. It fuels advocacy, for example; most advocates are fighting injustices that have touched their lives. Is there a way talking this out, taking a public stand, could help you? Or maybe you want to focus on other things; that's fair enough too. But even just to be heard by other people who've shared that reality, and to hear them speak to it, could be helpful.
posted by cotton dress sock at 12:27 PM on August 2, 2014 [5 favorites]

My first foray into therapy was with a therapy group in college for women who were sexually abused as children. At 20, I was fairly "functional"...but underneath I was a huge mess of anxiety and guilt about this horrible secret I carried. And I was pissed of at the injustice of that. The person who hurt me was living a normal life....why did *I* have to go to therapy and be such a mess?!

Then I spent a bunch of Tuesday evenings in a little meeting room at the student health center with a group of women with stories really similar to mine. And we talked about our stuff. A lot. Being part of a group, and seeing bits of my story (and other stories that were very different) helped more than I can say. I wasn't in this alone. Yes, it was deeply unfair that I was handed this particular bag of rocks as a kid, but here was this opportunity to dismantle that bag of rocks with a bunch of people with similar burdens. Would I have chosen to have skipped the whole "being abused" thing in the first place....of course. But I came out of group therapy a much better listener, empathetic friend, and fiercely resilient human in all aspects of my life.

My advice is to pay less mind to being "declared mentally ill." Our culture has a crappy way of dealing with mental illness, but that is not your problem. There are a whole bunch of people out there with similar "declarations" and not one of them deserved it -- find some of them you click with and listen to their experiences. If face-to-face interactions seem intimidating - there are many books out there by people who overcame childhood trauma and write about surviving that experience. Maya Angelou and Augusten Burroughs come to mind.

It's OK to be angry. Find yourself a tribe and hang in there.
posted by pantarei70 at 12:51 PM on August 2, 2014 [12 favorites]

Well. I have had a somewhat similar experience - realizing that my life could have been different and better in so many ways if I had been paired with adults who cared about me instead of the ones I got. And it's not fair that I suffer and have to spend money and time and effort undoing all the harm they did to me while they get to go on living their lives completely unaware of the deep harm they caused me. I struggled with this idea just as you are.

For me, it's important to remember that I gained as well as lost. There is balance. I have a deep reservoir of strength and resilience to draw on as a direct result of my experiences. Have you considered how incredibly strong you must be to seek help from a system that triggers you and reminds you of everything horrible that happened to you? You don't have to do this, you are making an active choice to reach out for help, even though the reaching out is so difficult and painful.

You are trying to make your tomorrow better than your yesterday, you're fighting against the inertia which rules so much of our lives. It's clear through your words and that your strength and will to fight for yourself is shining through the muck.

Through getting help, I've also gained self-knowledge. As I deal with the pain, I'm learning how I can make the best choices that are in tune with who I am in my heart, and I know that this knowledge is going to serve me for the rest of my life. Perhaps this is true for you as well.

It's worth remembering that there is balance.
posted by zug at 12:53 PM on August 2, 2014 [4 favorites]

I didn't realise I was angry. Thank you. I guess I am and had been seeing it through the lens of utter sadness and hopelessness.
posted by kanata at 12:59 PM on August 2, 2014 [5 favorites]

I struggle with this too. I think we all do.

Judith Herman's book, Trauma and Recovery, helped a lot.

At some point, I realized that I am still alive, and that means that, whatever my handicaps, I can do something. It's unfair, surely, and wrong. But we're still alive. And we can make a difference.
posted by 3491again at 1:04 PM on August 2, 2014 [4 favorites]

I'm sorry you're feeling this way, and I agree there might be anger too. It's legitimate, all of it -- the unfairness, the anger, the fact that even though those people should have labels and there are labels for them, like Antisocial Personality Disorder, they aren't seeking them out.

I will share a bit just in the hopes you will find something useful in it. I was abused as a child and ended up with two diagnoses, one of which is PTSD and one of which I will leave vague but is controversial enough that people don't believe it exists. I really don't care about the labels or the way in which they are perceived (at one point 12 years ago or so I told everyone about 'em but these days I am just less into the big disclosure); what I care is that they helped. Not because anyone has a magic cure for either one. But because they gave me a starting point into what therapies, strategies, and accommodations helped others that helped me.

To the larger question though, how to cope with the legitimate anger and despair you feel, this is how I have coped. First, I resolved that I would be kind to myself but I would also work hard for me, to have a good life, that being how I define it. Has this stuff stopped me from doing certain things? You had better believe it. I am not where I would have been. And yet, as previous commenters have noted, it also has delivered skills and capacities to deal with stuff that other people don't have. Once I figured out for myself how to use the strengths for my own good, rather than to meet anyone else's expectations, my life got a lot better.

The second is to deal with the feelings. I run. I maintain a stack of garage sale dishes that I go outside and smash (I am serious). I cry sometimes. Then I binge watch Netflix and get up and go have a really good time walking at the beach or playing play dough with my kids, because that is what I am fighting for. Not to be the Queen of Recovery or the Most Successful Person Ever but to have good days. Sure, that has involved also meeting some goals. But that serves my goal to have a good life and behave as an ethical person.

I will say...after 5 years of therapy to learn that I too deserve a good life and I too can work towards that, I had another go-round of unfairness and lost my first child to a medical clusterf*$&. That was supremely not fair and then I had to go back at it, and darned if those abusive losers never had that happen to them.

But. They had to be themselves. And that sucks enough I guess. I don't know. My job is not to make it fair or "come out in the end" like an ABC afterschool special. My job is to have a good life. Some days the lousy stuff outperforms the good, but at least I know where I am going.

So practically...I think I suggest you let yourself be mad and feel the unfairness. But also try to find one thing a day that you really love, add more and more and more as you can (and be kind the days you can't). It's cliche but true: Living well really is the best revenge.

Memail me if you want!
posted by warriorqueen at 1:15 PM on August 2, 2014 [11 favorites]

I didn't realise I was angry. Thank you. I guess I am and had been seeing it through the lens of utter sadness and hopelessness.

One of the best definition of anger I've heard is that it is comprised of disappointment + frustration. It sounds like you have both of those things going on, and anger is just a different way of framing your situation. It's okay to feel both of those things, by the way, and it's okay to be angry as a result. I think that when dealing with anger, addressing what you are disappointed with and also what is causing frustration is actually a more fundamental way to deal with anger in the long run, and it sounds like you are already there thinking about those things.
posted by SpacemanStix at 1:19 PM on August 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

I dealt with similar issues for years, though it's been a long time ago now.

You are expending a lot of energy on "fairness" and the lives of those who did you harm. Every minute you do that, they are still abusing you.

This will sound like just another platitude, but consider this - put it on your mirror, say it every morning...

"Only the first few chapters of my story have been written. I will write my own story from now on, because I'm the only one who can write it like I want it written. I control this story right up until the day I write my own ending. It's my story."

Simplistic? Maybe. Effective? If you live it every day - no question.
posted by Gerard Sorme at 1:22 PM on August 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

"I know you may not have had the same experiences (YES, I HAVE) but have you had to wrap your head around something similar and did you find a way to come to peace with the unfairness of the world?"

Let me help you here. *You* are conscious of true reality. You are working actively to become a better person who does not abuse yourself or others.

Your abusers are still as fucked up now as they were (if not more so) as when they victimized you, an innocent and defenseless child in their care. Can you imagine anything lower? I can not.

Stop following these assholes on FB. You are allowing them to continue to victimize you via the propaganda they post on social media.

Excusing their abusive behavior because they were likely abused as children, too, is not entirely intellectually honest. There are many points on the journey where they eschewed the harder work you are Right Now doing to heal and evolve.

When you were a child in their care, they had choices as adults and sentient beings. Understand this at your core. They had choices.

Hon, they're fucking scum child abusers. Of course they post lies about how wonderful their lives are on FB! Meanwhile, can you imagine how utterly depraved their inner lives are to have abused a child? Can you??

I can.

Believe me, you do not want what they have. The way they live is not for you or me.

I'm fortunate every day to constantly be able to heal, to work on myself, and not perpetuate their legacy. I'm profoundly grateful for my opportunities and the innate discernment that led me away from the path of becoming an abuser.

You be grateful for your discernment, too. Make peace with yourself for being smarter than them. The contrast hurts, but you get used to it.

It is important that we go forward to create more of us than there are of them. You can not give up. Grieve and accept. Resist despair, embrace your humanity and intelligence because these qualities saved you from their fate!

I mean this from the bottom of my heart.

(It goes without saying there is a lot to do once you get better - like grow emotionally healthy relationships, communities, and financial systems.

Not long ago, that day the passenger plane was shot down over Ukraine and the violence in Gaza was flaring, do you remember it? I spent that day crying a lot. I was not depressed, but I was fully grieving. And why not? The cycle of violence is tragic and sad.

I believe the majority will come around. In the meantime, I'm not going to pretend that the violence behind closed doors in the home next door and the violence in foreign lands are not related.

Which is my way of saying that since your eyes are open now, you will *feel* a lot and you will process and grieve, occasionally. This is as it should be. Otherwise, you would sublimate your feelings into violence against yourself and others. You're not gonna do that.

It's OK to acknowledge out loud that something past or present is not right, even if there is nothing you can do in that moment to fix it. Practicing awareness and discernment is often enough. Certainly, it's more positive than anything those who resort to abuse or violence are contributing.

My best to you. Good luck on your journey.)

posted by jbenben at 1:35 PM on August 2, 2014 [12 favorites]

You don't have to call yourself mentally ill if you don't want to. Those labels are often for other people to figure out how to categorize and deal with you, so yes, they are not about your welfare at all, they are about making it easy for you to be labelled categorized and dealt with.

I personally reject the notion of mental illness in the way it's commonly used and don't refer to people as having mental illnesses unless they like to use that label. You can need an accommodation and not be labelled as having a mental illness. You can have various physical strengths or vulnerabilities and need various accommodations without being called disabled (unless you like the label in which case rock it). It's mainly about people wanting to make it clear that YOUR accommodations are bothersome to others and ensure everyone can agree that you're different and more ofa burden and that's bad.

So don't use that label unless you want to. Yes for paper work to get benefits it might be required but that's because they want to make sure that you area person with a legitimate need for help and in our culture a fucked up thing about it is that we don't believe in helping healthy people, so the people who offer the help have to devise a pathology to deal with the fact they think people who need help are less than and either choosing to be bad people or "sick."

People who are sad because their mom died when they were young do not have "mom dieditis". People DESERVE their emotional realities and the weights they carry and how that affects their physical bodies and health to be acknowledged for what it is.

I don't find that icarus project suits exactly how I view things but you might be surprised to find that there are many different movements with people who feel exactly as you do, that pathology is harmful and misguided and that sometimes we hurt people more than help. You might enjoy reading Foucault and others who have been talking about the harms we perpetuate on those we want to marginalize with labels that reflect their status as "other" and the desire we have to uncover biology that proves those with deep sorrow are simply WRONG and of inferior mental status to those who aren't. I'll try to makea better reading list for you later if you're interested.

You're not alone and in my opinion, you're in the right and being harmed by others who are in the wrong in how they label and treat you. If you believed that the sky was made of cheese it might be worth wondering if there is something wrong with your ability to accurately see reality, but I think there are various types of people who see reality in various ways and have been given different levels of suffering in their lives. To call all people who are having a hard time "mentally ill" is simply false and very harmful.
posted by xarnop at 1:42 PM on August 2, 2014 [7 favorites]

The shame you feel for being mentally ill is probably the same shame you learned to feel while you were being abused. It's a symptom of the abuse. You didn't need to feel ashamed for soiling when you were three because it was developmentally normal. But you were made to feel shame for things like that and the shame has transferred to what you are now.

It might help to thing of shame as a biochemical thing, a submissive, cowering avoidance state, rather than an ethical thing. It actually has a purpose. When your caregivers were cruel you learned to respond by not challenging them, by trying to avoid notice and by trying to be different, such as by being neurotically careful not to soil. Your brain got used to being in this state so it goes back into that state easily. Your cortisol levels go up fast, your dopamine levels drop fast and you feel the emotion shame from very small triggers.

Just as you learned this, you can unlearn it. I'm not saying it is easy. It's a many year process and you will very likely be more easily shamed than most people all of your life but with practice you can learn to feel shame less easily and less often and have a deeper ability to reject the shame as being a learned behaviour and not something that is inevitable in the different situations that trigger it.

Life is not fair. But that is both a good thing and a bad thing. It's a neutral thing. You may have seriously been out of luck with your caregivers, but that means equally that good things may yet come into your life that you don't deserve and haven't earned.

The cry of "It's not fair!" is a cry of anger. You may find that if you express your anger you will feel the injustice less and the shame less. Righteous wrath is a good direction to aim for. In my own experience I had to get angry at my mother before I could forgive her. Until I got angry I accepted her narrative of what had happened and her conclusion that her behaviour had been good. Anger turned out to be a more comfortable, more honest feeling than shame. It also helped me get a better perspective on who she was so that I understood her behaviour better and could see the mental illness that lay at the root of it.

There is a stage where the caretaker is so much more knowledgeable and stronger than you are so you accept everything they teach. When they tell you there is a corner store down this block, there is indeed a corner store down that block. Then when they tell you that a little kid who soils deserves to have his or her face rubbed into it, you accept that as being just as true. Later on when you also become knowledgeable and strong you get a chance to re-evaluate all the things you learned from them and will realise that in many things they had absolutely no clue and were acting in a totally inappropriate way. I think you are partway through this process. Instead of feeling shame that you were a little kid who soiled (the example I am using) you get to feel amazement that anyone could have been so clueless and ineffectual as to do the things they did.

The five people who hurt you are not being labeled mentally ill by the people around them, but you know that they are mentally ill, and incompetent, and morally weak, and basically, well, they are dreadfully ineffectual people who couldn't even bring up a child decently. They have the outward hallmarks of success, in that they have friends and coworkers or whoever that are unaware of how badly they failed, but that doesn't make them any less failures, fools, and freaks. They have not gotten off scott-free. They are still the kind of horrible people who would abuse a child. That's a nasty fate to could wish on them. Imagine having so little control over your emotions that you lose your temper and beat a child? Imagine having so little understanding of how things work that you blame a child, scapegoat it, give up your own agency to make things better and resort to blaming a toddler for you own lack of self control and bad care-taking. That's repulsively pathetic. And that's who they are.

You were perfect. That is, everything you did you did because of your own basic biological needs and it was the right thing and a good thing for you to do. If a baby cries it's not being bad. It's expressing needs. It would be terrible to have a baby that didn't cry. You'd never get the cues that it needed feeding, or that it was sick or uncomfortable. A baby that didn't cry would be in terrible danger of being inadvertently neglected. A baby that didn't soil would be a dying baby with an internal blockage. A baby is not a baby doll but your caretakers were not fit to take care of you, only to have a baby doll that never had needs.

The same is true when you were older. When you did something wrong that you are now ashamed of, told a lie, came home late, got whiny, whatever things were considered huge transgressions, bad kid behaviour, you were NOT at fault. It was your caretakers' job to make you secure enough that you wouldn't tell lies, to make your home safe and appealing enough that you were glad to come home promptly, to teach you to phone, to listen to you so that you could express your needs confidently and clearly.

Be amazed. They actually thought you were being bad. They actually, genuinely were so dishonest with themselves as to blame you for the things they punished you for. A hundred and seventy pound adult, so unable to control a thirty-five pound child that they resorted to violence. Unbelievable. No wonder you learned neurotic behaviour coping with adults like that. Who wouldn't? Didn't they have any self-control?? You made messes? They were so incompetent that they couldn't predict it and forestall it or clean up without going into an emotional freak-out. Six year olds get spaghetti sauce on everything. If you can't cope with cleaning up tomato sauce, why would you feed a six year old spaghetti? Your caretakers were insane. And yet you are the one feeling shame for mental illness?

My examples about soiling and spaghetti sauce may be right off and not the kind of abuse you were hurt by, but my point still stands. You learned shame as a self-preservation tool and now you've outgrown it. You've come to a safe place where you know that people who want to make you ashamed of yourself are the people who are incompetent and repulsive. You are the one who is getting more and more clarity and insight.
posted by Jane the Brown at 1:43 PM on August 2, 2014 [8 favorites]

It's not fair. It's completely unfair. It is absolutely fucking unfair.

But it's what is, and you can spend time and energy upset about the world being unjust or you can invest that time and energy into getting better.

Because I think the important thing to remember, the thing that makes it better, is that the coping mechanisms you used to survive the abuse did what they were supposed to do -- they let you survive -- and now that you don't need them anymore, you can let them go and develop new coping mechanisms that serve you better. The nice thing about realizing that the "mentally ill" label applies to the coping mechanisms and not the person is that you've tapped into the idea that the "illness" is learned, and so it can be unlearned. You're holding onto a model of mental illness that allows you enormous flexibility, and strength, and growth, and I wish everyone in the world had your clarity about this issue. They don't, but that's ok -- it's really only important in your life that you do, right now.
posted by jaguar at 1:44 PM on August 2, 2014 [4 favorites]

The betrayal bond is a pretty good book. Time (like years) away from a trauma helps a bit... you can never be who you were before quite but wounds scab over a bit. Know you are not alone in wishing the world was just.
posted by tanktop at 2:22 PM on August 2, 2014

Maybe you can begin to reframe things a little. Your past influenced you, certainly, but the wake does not define the path of the boat; you are now free to make new choices. Starting today. You're directing the ship. YOU are in control.

I know it is unfair that those who hurt you seem to be living life consequence free. I'm a Buddhist and I believe that no one escapes their karma; they have lessons to learn and they will learn them in their time. Even if you don't ascribe to a karmic view, remember that living well is the best revenge. Imagine being so far removed from your past that it is like a distant memory. You run into your abusers in the shopping mall and you're like "sorry who are you?" because you've completely moved on and your life is simple and happy.

Exorcising the demons is a healthy adult thing to do. Everyone needs to check their childhood programming. Just don't make it your identity. Cheesy as it sounds, any illness does not define you. Grow your identity outside of "person in therapy". Maybe start seeing therapy as "talking to someone with experience in order to gain perspective" instead of "fixing something that's broken." Even the most happily raised well-adjusted people I know have weird oddities and associations. It's just the way the human mind works and we all just do our best with the hand we've been dealt. Good luck.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 2:30 PM on August 2, 2014

The place I'm at with these sorts of issues is focusing more on having high standards for my own behavior and focusing less on the ways in which others let me down or are inadequate. For me, once I recognize that someone is being manipulative, my task is then to figure out how to bypass them if I'm relying on them for something, rather than focusing on how unreasonable they're being.

I'm currently working my way through How to be an Adult in Relationships by David Richo, which is recommended a lot here in AskMe and which offers a Buddhist perspective. The author writes a lot about identifying the ways in which your needs we're not met in childhood and sitting with that pain in meditation in order to transcend it. The author has also written a book called How to be an Adult which I plan on checking out after I finish this one.
posted by alphanerd at 2:51 PM on August 2, 2014 [2 favorites]

What xarnop said:

You don't have to call yourself mentally ill if you don't want to.

Having long ago been diagnosed by mental health professionals with various major mental illnesses the first step to real recovery was rejecting the diagnoses and rejecting the entire apparatus of mental health care such as we know it here. (Though it has -- I must say -- taken years to quietly back out of the obligations its 'care' imposes.)

And it is not true there is no stigma or that stigma is going away. Even mainstream research shows that treating disturbances of the psyche and self as medical problems -- and not inter-personal, ethical, spiritual or religious problems -- increases stigma. (Some links on this topic are in my post in this thread, although about a somewhat different circumstance.) Self-identifying as 'mentally ill' reinforces your own passivity and gives others who seek it an excuse to treat you with less than deserved respect and consideration.

Yes, you do not have to call yourself mentally ill. And you know enough not to.
posted by bertran at 3:01 PM on August 2, 2014 [3 favorites]

Therapy is saying "I am worth caring for now." Anger says "I was always worth caring for!" Sometimes progress comes in strange coats.
posted by heatherann at 3:20 PM on August 2, 2014 [11 favorites]

What jumped out at me was the injustice of your being labelled mentally ill while your abusers are not. This actually struck me as completely analagous to other kinds of victimization: If one person assaults another, the assaultee is injured but the assaulter is not. So generalizing a little from there, it occurs to me that some kinds of mental illness might more accurately be described as "mentally injured." Like physical injuries, mental injuries can change the functioning of the injured bit of a person, thus causing continuing illness: An concussion can leave long-term cognitive effects, an assault injuring the spleen can cause all kinds of other illnesses, emotional trauma can cause continuing anxiety.

So where I'm going with this is that maybe you're more mentally injured than mentally ill. I'm not sure that's more fair, but it somehow feels less stigmatizing to me. And as I see others have said, you don't really have to take on any label if you don't want to. But if others are applying a label to you, you can translate it in your own mind, if you like.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 4:11 PM on August 2, 2014 [15 favorites]

So many fantastic replies above. My comments will just be an attempt to mention some things that have helped me in case they resonate with you at some level. If not, ignore them.

I had a very, very weird childhood but it was not awful. I think my childhood was so radically different from the norm that I grew up trying to figure out the "normals". I'm almost 61 and I haven't yet. This particular speech really resonates with me, because the one thing I see as consistent with the "normals" is they see everything as so black and white. "Of course" is a favorite expression of theirs. I suspect the world is "unfair" because most people have little insight or empathy or concern with consequences.

I also find this C. S. Lewis quote inspirational, because (combined with the above) it suggests that the "normals" are rather weak and insipid (though sometimes dangerous):
You find out the strength of a wind by trying to walk against it, not by lying down. A man who gives in to temptation after five minutes simply does not know what it would have been like an hour later. That is why bad people, in one sense, know very little about badness — they have lived a sheltered life by always giving in. We never find out the strength of the evil impulse inside us until we try to fight it.
In my own life what has helped me most is finding people who are not normal, but extraordinary. My wife, friends, selected coworkers, neighbors and relatives. They are out there, but they're not easy to find. I am not saying the opposite of normal is extraordinary, I am saying that we non-normals need extraordinary people to encourage us and show us the way in this dark world. That may make us "needy" and "angry", but I think it is with cause, I think it is the human condition. If someone is totally satisfied and calm in today's world that would seem to me to be perverse.

posted by forthright at 4:39 PM on August 2, 2014 [6 favorites]

I am also a survivor of severe childhood abuse. I totally understand your anger at your abusers continuing to live their charmed lives while you struggle to make yourself feel more whole and strong. Yes my life would have been easier if I hadn't been through hell, and yes I might have accomplished a whole lot more, but I'm happy with the way things have turned out.

In my late thirties I finally cut off all contact with my father and I wish I had done it sooner. It was relatively easy because he lived 3,000. miles away. If any of the people who hurt you live near you please consider moving to a whole new place if it's at all possible.

If you're seeing them on Facebook does that mean you have them as friends there? Defriend now! And defriend anyone mutual acquaintances or family members who refuse to acknowledge the severity and the impact of the hell you've been through. Find yourself a bunch of supportive people. Try to make friends of various ages, some of them may become your aunts and uncles and grandparents of choice.

Don't let the mental illness labels get to you, in the larger scale of things they don't mean much. Do healthy things that make you feel better, whatever they are: exercise, walks in the woods, volunteering, caring for a pet. Be kind to yourself.

Keep reaching out like you're doing here. Feel free to memail me.
posted by mareli at 5:15 PM on August 2, 2014 [3 favorites]

What is it about being declared mentally ill that bothers you?

It bothered me too, for a while. There's this weird vortex surrounding mental illness that causes people to hold it differently than they hold physical illness. Which, i mean that's absurd. One of the biggest differences is that, a lot of the time, physical illness is something you have, while mental illness is something you are.
Fuck that. Really. Just, fuck that all to hell. You say it's unfair that a lot of your habits are labeled as mental illness instead of survival techniques. Those aren't mutually exclusive.

Like, look at this. You go camping, eat some berries, they fuck your stomach up. In retaliation, you vomit. A lot. The berries made you ill, the vomiting is making the illness better, but is also a part of it. It's dangerous, it could lead to dehydration, infection, hallucination, etc. So, while it is a survival tactic, it needs to be fixed.
Going through trauma messed with your mind, caused it to work in all sorts of unhealthy ways. Insomnia, disassociating, depression. They're all things that help you get through the day, but they're also part of your "illness". It doesn't make them any less valid. You are not a mental illness, you have one and your mind fights against it the same way your body fights against physical illness.

The thing I am really struggling with is the fairness of being declared mentally ill while the five people who hurt me are not. They lead fulfilling lives seemingly from Facebook while I am well before the poverty line and on disability.

Being declared mentally ill is not a death sentence. It is not punishment. It is not something they deserve and you don't. It is your mind fighting what happened. These are survival techniques and you'd be perfectly fine and totally right to disregard the declaration and just think of them as tools in your survival toolbag.
posted by FirstMateKate at 5:23 PM on August 2, 2014 [8 favorites]

I wish I had the eloquent words of others. I too was severely abused and struggle with the "fairness" thing. But, the fact is, it wasn't fair. It wasn't fair that we were put into situations where survival means convoluting our minds. It isn't fair that we were shamed and made to feel we were the broken ones. It makes me angry to hear how many other people thought about suicide as little more than babies (I was 4-5 when I first thought about it).

Someone above suggested survivor groups. I think they're a great idea in theory, but for me, a bad idea in practice. You will only know when you try.

What many of us need is to be acknowledged and helped to realize that it really wasn't our fault.

I will encourage you to write. I have an anonymous blog because I don't trust that my abuser wouldn't read a diary if he found it (whereas he doesn't have the first idea of how to use a computer). Feel free to MeMail me if you want to talk or would like the link to my blog.

We are survivors even though it doesn't feel like that a lot of the time.
posted by kathrynm at 6:58 PM on August 2, 2014 [2 favorites]

I also hate being pathologized and find it demeaning, and a lot of mental health "diagnostics" are just about pathologizing valid perceptions and emotions, imo. Just because doctors or whoever say something and you have to parrot it to get the things you need (medication, benefits, whatever), doesn't mean it's true. You have the right to disagree, though for pragmatic reasons you may have to keep your mouth shut about that.

The thing I am really struggling with is the fairness of being declared mentally ill while the five people who hurt me are not.

You're not a bad person, and they are. It's better to have some illness or some counterproductive coping strategy or some other thing THAT'S NOT YOUR FAULT AND THAT YOUR'E ACTIVELY TRYING TO AMELIORATE TO BETTER FIT YOUR CURRENT NEEDS/WANTS/CIRCUMSTANCES than to be a remorselessly bad person. So you've actually got one up on them.

Unfortunately, some things come more easily when you're cruel and have no scruples, like it sounds like is true of these five people. Things like creating a cinematic facade of a nice life to plaster onto people's facebook feeds, for example.

That doesn't mean it's a good thing to be a cruel person with no scruples, though -- because that's a net negative for the world in general. Being a kind person with scruples, on the other hand, is a great way to have a net positive impact on the world. So that's something worth aiming for, and something it sounds like you're already doing.

Also, in case you haven't already -- please please please consider blocking these people from your facebook or at least taking them off your newsfeed. You DON'T have to see that stuff if you don't like to!
posted by rue72 at 10:50 PM on August 2, 2014 [2 favorites]

Checking back on this thread I want to second If I only had a penguin's remark about mental injury. That seems to me completely right and a good way to frame it: an injury that you can with care and mindfulness eventually emerge from well if not wholly unblemished.

And to FirstMateKate's remarks I could not disagree more. Being labeled 'mentally ill' is -- in a very literal sense -- a punishment, and until someone sees why the folks who've been empowered to administer this punishment are (misguidedly) doing so -- how one has violated whatever local, unspoken, and probably unjust social rules -- they will keep at it with their punishment.

The 'label' is also just a lie, and therefore, as are all falsehoods, rejectable even if it is in other respects a benign thing. Which it is not.

If you go for the truth, in the long run you will do fine, imo.

(My perspective. And, yes, practically, tact and discretion will serve you well with this side of the issues you are facing.)
posted by bertran at 2:14 AM on August 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

Also you might like kellevision, a blog by a mental health worker who largely shares your perspective in situations of trauma (even if clients decide to use meds to treat symptoms):

Am I crazy?
"People often come to therapy concerned they are "crazy" because they need therapy. But that has not been my experience. Some of the healthiest people I have seen are the ones who recognize that something is wrong and seek to change it. Some of the sickest people I have seen are the ones who are convinced that everyone else has a problem. I often see this in families. The healthiest member of the family may be the one who is in therapy....I often find that people who are uncertain, questioning, full of doubt and working on their issues are the healthiest while the most mentally unhealthy are often quite certain they are right and everyone else is wrong. "

Diagnosing mental disorders
"Are psychiatric diagnoses valid? I'm beginning to wonder. At best, they are sometimes misapplied to the point of becoming meaningless. At worst, they are causing great harm both psychologically and physically."

Also "What to do if you were sexually molested as a child"

I don't agree with all of her opinions, but I've found that there are many therapists who share her perspectives and are even less interested in labeling or pathology and more interested in bringing support to where it is needed. If someone needs to be heard and listened to when a parent dies, it's not necessary to give them a lable. You can actually just LISTEN and offer support. A person might have misunderstood something that happened or have a negative self belief because of it and you don't have to give them a label for that, you can just open a door to new thinking patterns.

A lot of therapists operate from this model, and you might find it helpful to find one, I've found those doing emdr tend to operate that way. Focusing on healing from the trauma rather than on labels for the symptoms.

She also writes a lot about the scapegoat role in abusive families and how the scapegoat is often wrongfully given all the psychiatric labels and treatment when they are actually the most healthy person in the family, rightfully upset/angry/depressed about being mistreated of neglected.
posted by xarnop at 3:46 AM on August 3, 2014 [4 favorites]

For example, I was led to believe that everyone was watching me and if I did not appear normal they would get reports and I would be hurt. This led to hiding everything and being very wary of teachers/parents/doctors.

In a book called "Domination and the Arts of Resistance," what you describe is called "infrapolitics" and it isn't framed as mental illness, but as resistance tactics of relatively powerless people. It might feel better to look at it that way. It also suggests that these aren't skills that we need to get rid of. They are still useful and cool skills, and always will be as long as there is power imbalances in the world.
posted by Buddy_Boy at 4:29 AM on August 3, 2014 [3 favorites]

kanata, (I know I owe you a MeMail), perhaps what you are struggling with is not the stigma, not what you were led to believe, but perhaps some lingering feeling that you were culpable in your abuse and your reactions to it?

It may also be useful to separate "I am depressed" from "I was abused." I'm sure one led to the other, but there may well be other factors at play. They may all stem from reactions to the abuse, but perhaps knocking those pins down one by one may help? E.g. I was abused, so I reacted poorly to doctors, so now my health isn't great. So work on health and relationships with doctors; treat symptomatically is what I am suggesting. (And I am no stranger to either mental illness, as you know, or abuse. Self-link.)

Look at the effects of depression and PTSD on your life and figure out coping strategies therefrom. Forget (and I know this is antithetical to the ideas of therapy) the root causes. (NB: I am diagnosed both with depression and a personality disorder. The depression can be treated from root causes, the disorder can't; we can only manage symptoms and develop strategies to move around them, so that's where I'm coming from here.)

As for acceptance for unfairness... I don't really know how to help there. It's grotesque that these people have gone free, but AFAIK there's no statute of limitations on child abuse. They broke the law; have you explored the logical conclusion from that statement? Beyond that, what those pisswizards did is not you. Find justice within yourself; surviving is a form of that justice. Thriving is another, and more profound. Where do you want go, what do you want to be? Maybe work with your therapist to figure those things out, and work out the strategies you need to get there. As gross as this may sound, look forward and not back. Accept that seriously bad shit happened to you that you had nothing to do with, and decide--if you can and when you can; I'm not shrugging off how difficult this will be--to let go of it and move on. I mean... if you were hit by a car and needed physio and maybe a cane to walk, would you spend the rest of your life blaming that driver? Probably not. It was an accident that occurred when a certain kind of person intersected with you. What they did was gross and an affront against everything that defines us as human... but don't, if you can, let it define you. (I think while it's important to understand the role of victim, it's more important to understand and define yourself in terms of the word 'survivor.' YMMV.)

Have you confronted your abusers? That can be cathartic (and also terrifying so no judgement attaches if you haven't). Saying "You did these things to me, you assbag and waste of DNA" may help. But if it would impact your living situation or daily life, best to build the escape hatch (I mean in terms of another living situation and/or daily life) first and then confront.

It may be that saying--ex- or implicitly--"I will not let you control my life anymore" will grant you some peace and acceptance. That will probably involve cutting some ties, but cutting ties is sometimes like cutting the lines that moor you to a dock; you now have the freedom to sail free.

I really don't mean to be glib here. So I hope it's not coming across that way.

I'd give you every hug there is if you would like and if I were in your neck of the woods.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 5:53 AM on August 3, 2014

I read this post, then clicked over to the You Are Not So Smart podcast, whose most recent episode discusses "How labels affect our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors." Timely, I thought, and then came back here.

The mental health system labels people these days largely for billing purposes; that's the way the system has evolved in the States. Unfortunately, IMHO, the labels tend to "stick" in ways that are not always helpful to the person seeking treatment. The slogan "Take what you want, leave the rest" might be helpful to you in dealing with the labelling. As xarnop comments, there are therapists out there that take a more holistic perspective of their clients' lives.
posted by Sheydem-tants at 3:40 PM on August 3, 2014 [2 favorites]

kanata, I feel your pain. I have been in the same place for 45 years. And I have a idea for you.

When I told my current trauma therapist about my "mental illness" (referring to my PTSD) that I have had since childhood, she was quick to correct me. She said, "strelizia, you are not mentally ill, you are wounded from many years of abuse and neglect. There's a big difference." My therapist corrects me on this often.

It was burned into my psyche by my mother (main abuser) and the mental health system over the years that I was mentally ill because nobody ever bothered to ask about my childhood. The doctors kept hospitalizing me for severe depression like I was an animal. No one ever considered the possibility of trauma. Not even myself until I was in my early 40s. Now I know why I was so sick for so long.

IANYD, but maybe like me, you are severely wounded, surviving the best you can, and are no more ill than anyone else.
posted by strelitzia at 11:26 AM on August 4, 2014 [5 favorites]

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