Monday, April 22, 2013

Optimism is a Privilege

A few things about me:  I have depression.  I have anxiety.  Neither of these are nearly as bad since I began testosterone, but they're still there.  Like many people with depression and anxiety, I have good days and I have bad days.  Lately I've had quite a few bad days, manifesting themselves due to lack of money and health problems I can't afford to get checked out, as well as the general angriness that comes with being a social activist.

But I'm also an optimist.  I have always had the ability to see that it's likely I will wind up successful and stable in the future.  I see things getting better for people like me.  In short, I can see the light at the end of the tunnel.  And you know what?  That's a privilege.  It's a privilege I have received by being reasonably well-educated, having a place to live, having enough food, having a strong support system, being in some privileged majority groups, and simply having my depression and anxiety manifest in its own unique way.

People who have depression or anxiety do not always have that privilege.  Neither do people in oppressed groups.  Plenty cannot see the light at the end of the tunnel.  For some, the tunnel remains dark all the way through; I cannot in good conscience say that everybody will wind up fine in the end.  I don't know that.  I'm not arrogant enough to believe that everybody's unique situation would be improved by optimism.  It's simply not true.

This is why when I see my Facebook feed pebbled with posts about optimism, it makes me feel physically ill.  It's not just me; I have several friends with depression, anxiety, or who are going through tragedies who get seriously offended when these things pop up only to be told they're being oversensitive when they explain why.  One was being pelted by these two weeks after her mom died and she wound up exploding on every one of them.  And really, I don't blame her.

If you can write something like this, non-facetiously, then you are speaking out of the privilege of optimism.  What follows are a few Facebook posts and comments about them. There are some brief mentions of suicide, but no descriptions.

Text: "Actually, I just woke up one day and decided
I didn't want to feel like that anymore, or ever again.
So I changed."
Depression isn't something you can just decide not to have.  Saying things like this makes the assumption that people who are depressed or pessimistic are making the conscious decision to be that way.  For many, though, these feelings are either based on chemical imbalances in their brains or on a string of extremely shitty things happening to them.

Imagine telling somebody who was just the victim of a major catastrophe that they can simply decide not to feel shitty about it.  What kind of person does that?  But we do this all the time with depression and anxiety.

Text: "Optimism is key.
If you expect the worst, the worst will happen.
You are your own stress, your own anger,
your own sadness and frustration.
If you let things bother you, they will.
So don't let them. Just be happy.
Nothing in life is easy, so make the best of all of it.
Don't dwell on the negatives.
Optimism. is key."
If I mention that I have depression or am going through a major struggle, the last thing I need to hear is "Just be happy, nothing in life is easy."  No shit, Sherlock.  Life isn't easy.  That doesn't mean people don't have the right to let things bother them.

This entire passage places the catalyst for "negative" emotions on the person experiencing them.  Anger is your fault, not the fault of people who make you angry, for any reason.  Stress is your fault, not systematic oppression that forces you to work twice as hard to get half the recognition.  How many of these emotions are directly caused by things like oppression or lack of opportunity?  And you're going to tell people in those situations that their stress is something they brought upon themselves?  If somebody confides in you and tells you that they've just experienced major homophobia or transphobia are you going to tell them that they should just not let it bother them?

People have told me not to let things like that bother me.  It's such an insensitive thing to say to somebody experiencing a hardship that I just don't even.

Text: "Please don't let a bad day convince you
that you have a bad life."
A woman I worked with at a summer camp used to respond to camper complaints with "Suck it up, Nancy."  After a while she was told to stop.  And, well, good: It was dismissive bullshit.  And that's exactly how I feel about these posts.

I've heard this a lot when the subject of suicide comes up.  It's similar to "suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem."  What both of these assume is that the depressed person or suicidal person is only experiencing temporary upset.  The problems that typically lead to suicide are not temporary, petty issues, and by making the case that they are you do nothing but belittle the suicidal person for having the gall to be upset about something which is probably quite crushing and major.  People treat the suicidal feelings as the problem instead of dealing with why a person would feel that way!

Although depressed people are not necessarily suicidal, the same thing applies.  If the depressed person has a chemical imbalance, there's no way things are going to get better for them until that gets treated; it's not something you can dismiss as a "bad day."  Plenty of people do have really rough, difficult-to-manage lives, people who experience daily oppression, bullying, lack of food or medical access.  It's insulting to assume they're just being hyperbolic when they say so.

Text: False: When things change, I will be happy.
True: When I am happy, things will change.
Another victim-blaming post.  Sigh.  Alright, people, please be realistic.  How many major world changes have occurred because people just decided to be happy?  Did the civil rights movement happen because black people just decided they would be happy with Jim Crow, and then magically the law changed?  If I just decide to be happy, will that get me the medical care I need?  Fuck no.  So stop saying shit like this.

But wait, here's my personal favorite:

Text: Never forget that God only gives you
what he knows you can handle. There is no
situation that you are experiencing alone. God walks
beside you always.
We all fight struggles.  It's easy, when you are a person who can handle the obstacles put in front of you, to believe that if other people just have faith or try harder they can jump over their own obstacles just as easily as you did.  And that's just not true.  We don't have an even playing field.  There are people out there who really can't handle their situation, who need help they don't have access to.  Does God just hate them?  Because you know, this assessment includes people of all faiths and all levels of faithfulness.

As a person of faith, I find that ridiculously insulting.  I find no reason to believe that God--any God--is up there in the clouds giving people just enough struggle to help them build character, forcing people to walk the line between just enough and total helplessness to see what side of the fence they happen to fall on.  If they happen to fall on the eternal depression side of the fence, oh well, so sayeth God.

I do not see an end in sight to these so-called "inspirational" posts, but  I still think it's important that people put them in perspective.  These are the kinds of things a person can only write if they either are very privileged or have been tricked by privileged people into thinking they'll one day be privileged themselves.  Because despite what these quotes may say, being depressed and angry isn't necessarily your fault.