I started thinking about this when the whole Richie Incognito thing went down with Jonathan Martin. It became popular in the media to wax about the brute nature of the NFL, and several writers and commentators compared his mental illness to a physical injury. How could anyone blame Jonathan Martin for anything that happened to him? So went the argument: Punishing someone for their mental illness was no different than calling someone out for their torn ACL. You cannot hold someone accountable for what’s broken inside them. Yet, for me, the analogy fell short. Try as I did, I could not help but identify with the frustration his teammates and coaches had with him (minus the racial slurs). Was Jonathan Martin completely without responsibility? Isn’t making him the martyr hurting the mental health cause more than helping it?
I’d wager there isn’t a reader here who hasn’t known someone (or perhaps BEEN someone) who suffered from what we’ll loosely call mental illness. I’m not talking about schizophrenia or whatever lands you in a padded room sucking on towels. I mean active, “I’m getting out of bed and getting through this day” depression specifically, but eating disorders and hypochondria, too, all of which are as American as apple pie. Hell, Xanax is more readily available than weed. I’d also wager that the mentally ill person you knew was a complete asshole. I’m sure they were difficult to talk to, self-obsessed and lacked confidence. They got driven home early from parties, talked frequently of their frustrations, and sulked in bars. Chemically induced or not, depression is a disease of narcissism: my life, my pain, my fears. And all normal-feeling people can do is attempt to accommodate, because we’ve all been taught since we were kids to play nice with others. And there is a form of aggression in there, right? We’re all left to just deal while they do whatever they want. I know that they are not solely to blame, but I have to ask because no one else seems to be; aren’t they just a little bit? When an alcoholic gets a DUI, we acknowledge a certain level of choice. Yes, they are genetically predisposed. But they had to pick up that beer, had to turn that ignition. So when your friend doesn’t show up for work, doesn’t speak to anyone at dinner, won’t see a doctor, or take a pill, can’t we consider that the same sort of indulgence into the disease?
I just listened to a comedy special by Maria Bamford where she has a bit called “Stigma” in which she uses other physical diseases in place of depression to illustrate, and thus criticize, the way we all judge the mentally ill. In one example, she uses poor eyesight as a stand-in for depression, wondering aloud why someone would ever need glasses because good eyesight is “all about attitude.” It’s an effective bit, and I’ll admit it illustrates our lack of empathy for our sulking, unhappy counterparts. But shit, isn’t it overlooking the difficulty in telling a friend to “see someone?” Isn’t that different than “Hey Magoo, get some glasses?” Isn’t there some responsibility on their end? I know, I know: there are real, chemically imbalanced depressives out there. And I know that minute piling on minute can bring a pressure to their chest, and that looking anyone in the eye can carry the fear of crying, and that any love they receive never feels deserved, and that sleep is hard and food is harder, and that the sadness they put on others can only bring them more sadness – an infinity of sadness all spiraling inward until it feels like dawn will never break. But, ultimately, that’s a prison no one can break into – only out of.
I’m not saying this to shame the ill, but rather to ask the rest of us if we’re all looking at this the right way. I believe there is a point where normal socialization has to come into play. If we continue to avoid challenging people for actions that offend others and coddle the notion that it’s OK to be an emotional mess, I wonder if anyone will ever seek the treatment they need. If you yell at your mother one minute only to fall crying into her arms the next, that shit can’t just be waved off with “I’m depressed” without following up with what the hell you’re going to do about it. And while I don’t agree that the open abuse Jonathan Martin experienced was righteous, I do know that the world around him cannot stop spinning to accommodate his struggles. He needed to leave the team and that needed to be his choice. Not everyone else’s. So maybe the only thing a depressed person needs to hear is the words “we spoke about this yesterday, you need to get help,” rather than affirmations of their worth in this world. Because, honestly, the rest of us just need to get to the dry cleaners before it closes and we can’t go on like this. Maybe acting like we don’t care is the best care we can give.