There has been a strain of a few arguments against the stay at home orders began in many states. The particular argument I’m concerned with comes in the form of a question. “What about people who have mental illnesses that end up committing suicide because they can’t pay their bills?’ That question has now made it out of the fever swamps of internet arguments, and right wing news outlets have begun to ask it of politicians. I’ve blown past it when I’ve seen it, up until now. It’s something I couldn’t even contend with because it comes across to me as having a level of nihilism which surpasses nihilism. It’s not even cynicism. The depth of bleak emptiness where this question originates, when put in context, doesn’t have a single word to describe it. I can say with certainty, the thing which makes the whisper about suicide in the far back of my mind become the volume of an air raid siren playing a constant loop of internal infomercial trying to sell me on the benefits of suicide is exactly the bleak, nihilistic, cynical, anti-human thing which has produced the inclusion of mental illness and suicide as arguments being made by these right wing ghouls to render other people expendable.
I do not just magically go from being someone who is dealing with life in a way which appears to be relatively well equipped to being someone who can not escape a near constant assault on my consciousness and awareness in the form of suicidal thoughts and can be easily recognized as barely functioning because I’m standing in the center of the crater that was my life. I do have some responsibility for it, I won’t argue that. When things go well, for too long, it becomes far too easy for me to forget I’m already operating at the outer limits of my ability related to how many different stressors I can juggle at the same time.
Think of it like bandwidth. Most of you go through your daily lives, and with the amount of stress which is consistent for everyone who is working, paying bills, having family, friends, all of the usual things, with some variation per individual of course. You may sometimes reach the outer limits of your bandwidth when there are higher stress situations in a few different areas of life or maybe when there is one very large stressor in one area or some combination thereof. Most of you are spending the overwhelming majority of your time with some bandwidth to spare, and you do your best to keep it that way because you know these added stressors come along.
Then there’s people like me. When I’m operating at what is generally considered a high functioning level, and I do so for a long time, it looks the same as it does when anyone else is functioning at a high level. I can have all the same successes everyone else enjoys from their efforts. It looks like the same use of bandwidth as everyone else, except for a few signs people who are closest to me would be familiar with. It’s not the same use of bandwidth though. The extra bandwidth most people have left for those moments of extra stress that come along, I don’t have it. My extra bandwidth is already being used on a combination of having to develop and then implement strategies which prevent the whispers about suicide from becoming air horns, while at the same time preventing myself from being distracted from that effort by the whispers themselves. I could be wrong, but I think this is a general description most people who’ve experienced any long term depressive mental illness would be pretty comfortable with. It’s not perfect, but it’s pretty good.
It basically means that for me to go about life, doing all the things we’re all generally expected to do, with any level of success, I have no cushion, no mental safety net to fall back on when those inevitable points come which involve the additional level of stress everyone else still has some space left for. If it were measured on a car thermostat, you’d have twenty or thirty degrees before you’d be running dangerously in the red. People with depressive illnesses run about ten degrees below red, all the time. My inability to accept that I need to leave myself more room for those extra stressors has cost me significantly.
Fun fact for me, depression is actually a symptom of PTSD, so there’s another feature which comes along with all of that. I’m hyper sensitive to my general environment. This means, essentially, a not small part of my consciousness is also constantly being dedicated to scanning the environment for danger in a way that is above and beyond anything which could be remotely considered normal. Factor this in, and my thermostat is generally running two or three degrees from being in the red when it looks on the outside as if I’m just going through life in the same way as everyone else.
Because I’ve done my best to try and understand how this all works for me, I know where the things which resulted in me having PTSD come from. To be it bluntly, I’ve had some real bad shit happen to me, and I’ve seen some real bad shit happen to other people. For me to deal with the aspect of my mental health that was an extremely unhealthy level of anger, even before I witnessed some real terrible shit, I had to come to some kind of understanding about how people could do things like what I had experienced.
Here’s what I’ve learned. The people who are doing the kind of really horrible things which give other people PTSD, they are coming from exactly the place occupied by people who spend years doing everything they can to prevent government funding of services for people with mental illness and research into treating mental illness and then turning around to use people with mental illness as a reason to endanger the well being of everyone else when it’s convenient for them. The people who do the kind of bad shit which results in people like me having PTSD are created by the same kind of people who are right now attempting to use people like me as an excuse to knowingly sacrifice “the weak,” when those of us with mental illness have been characterized as “the weak” for the entirety of the history of human understanding that something at all like mental illness has existed.
Everyone loves the old adage, “Hurt people hurt other people.” Very few people want to talk about doing what we can to end as many of the cycles which create the kind of hurt people who hurt other people as is humanly possible. We get to “hurt people hurt other people” and somehow this sublime profundity is where we give up. It’s like coming to the realization that space is infinite and then giving up on astronomy, physics, space travel and so on.
Does that seem confusing? Does it seem circular in a strange way? It is. It’s very literally maddening. I know it is literally maddening, because as someone with mental illness and a hyper sensitivity about my safety, nothing has been so bad for my mental health as watching the expansion of people occupying that space and watching the normalization of that reasoning. The expansion of expendability, instead of the contraction of it has been at the center of my mental health declining.
Economic problems? Yes, they are real bad for my general well being, not least of which is my mental health. By itself though, not catastrophic. I’ve been poor for much more of my adult life than I have had time with much in the way of excess. I can do that. Let me give you a hint here… Having a severe mental illness over any long period of time, as an adult in the United States, pretty much means your chances of not being poor are almost completely defined by the circumstances of your birth. Why? Well, one big reason is that health insurance is tied to employment, and mental illness can interfere with employment to a significant degree, and again, the fight to insure people can’t be fired for mental health related issues, for them to be able to collect unemployment if fired because of mental health related issues has been a losing battle for longer and in many more instances than it has been won. The exact same political entities who are using people with mental illness as an excuse to threaten the entire population with greatly improving their chances of death by COVID have been the ones who’ve prevented expansions in worker protections which involved mental illnesses, have succeeded in preventing health insurance being available to everyone, and have prevented things like a living wage so that those of us with mental illness might be able to take more advantage of our periods of stability to be prepared for and therefore shorten the periods when we’re not as stable. That’s before even starting to think of whether or not something like disability pays enough for a person to survive on.
Nearly all of the things which are strong supports for people with mental illness are tied to employment, and not just employment, but “good employment,” which is really just a way to avoid using the term “class.” Do you have a job which provides you a stable schedule? If not, well, there’s an additional thing to manage if you already experience mental illness. Do you have a job which provides you some level of personal fulfillment? If not, you’ve got an added thing to manage if you already have a mental illness. Does your job provide compensation which both provides a health standard of living and the ability to afford health care? If not, there is a laundry list of things to contend with. Add attempting to manage a mental illness at the same time, let’s see how you do.
In short, people with mental illness have always been expendable. We are expendable when things are great, and the “economy is booming.” It’s clear because the appetite for funding services and research that would help us have a better quality of life is absolute zero, “booming economy” or not. I’ll promise you this, the likelihood people with long term, severe mental illness are sharing in the “boom” of the economy is statistically low. We were sure as hell expendable when all those “great economic minds” crashed the world economy too. People with mental illness certainly aren’t the only ones of the list of who is most expendable either. When that list starts to get expanded and the rapidity with which people are expended grows, as it has been in the last decade or so, fear and anxiety are natural reactions compounding the existing mental illness.
Aside from the purely moral arguments, this is one of the central reasons I have such a strong reaction to the lack of recognition that the far right is in control of one of the most powerful political and cultural aspects of American life, the conservative movement and the Republican Party. One of the defining features of far right movements has always been their desire to enforce their definitions of who is expendable with permanence. The people who make company with Nazis and white supremacists are doing so because they want their definition of expendable included. They make the mistake of thinking they’re going to manipulate Nazis and white supremacists as their pawns, but are poor students of history. The burning void of nihilistic extremism at the center of those hate movements tends to engulf everything which isn’t it’s direct opposition.
These things, this state of affairs, far more than just my economic status, are what are likely to amplify that suicidal drive. It’s the way the facade pulled over the blatantly obvious dehumanization isn’t acknowledged. When the country I live in continuously elects and empowers people who treat me and people like me as expendable, who have a long list of other people who are expendable, and will take every opportunity to install policy which systematizes that expendability, it’s no small weight to add to the burden of what already needs to be managed when dealing with a mental illness. A society based in far right values is a hierarchy of expendability, and the acceleration in the refusal to acknowledge how many of these arguments come down to who is expendable directly enables those values to become normalized. None of this is in my head, and it isn’t paranoia. It may be I see it more clearly because I have to, but it is very real, despite what seems like every effort to refuse to acknowledge it.
What I would say to the people who are worried about their economic conditions in the midst of the pandemic, and who are afraid for their well being as a result of the stay at home orders is that I’m also worried about your economic conditions, and I also care about your well being. I’ve actually expended energy and dedicated time to trying my best to see that those things could be improved for all of us. I’ve done that because I don’t think you’re expendable. I didn’t think you were expendable before, and I don’t think you’re expendable now. My mental illness isn’t an excuse to render anyone else expendable, and trying to use it as an excuse is only going to force people like me to attempt to render you as powerless as we can. What faith should any of us have you won’t go right back to categorizing us as expendable tomorrow, once you’re done with whoever it is you’ve categorized today?
We can all be helped by refusing to render each other expendable. If my mental health means something to you, as your well being means something to me, then start supporting the kinds of things which can improve all of our quality of life. I want nothing of yours, except the understanding that neither myself or anyone else (including you), should be expendable. I have reason to be interested in your well being because the less you are worried about being expendable, the less incentive you have to try to render me expendable. The more expendable you feel you are, the more incentive you have to try to render anyone who isn’t you expendable.
Things like universal health care aren’t just about whatever taxes you are afraid of having to pay. They’re also about giving people like me the ability to do more to contribute to all of our well being, including yours. They’re about giving someone like me the tools to be able to insure better stability, and in turn, giving me more time and more bandwidth to dedicate to contributing. They’re about lessening the threat of expendability on all of us. They’re about understanding that things like pandemics happen, and if we have a healthcare system which is able to dedicate itself to the people’s health and being prepared for the emergencies of public health instead of the profit motive driving every decision, no one has to be expendable.
It’s about understanding that things like a living wage are related to more than how hard someone worked to get where they are, and that the number of factors that can go into what puts someone in any position in their lives is infinitely greater than their work ethic. The people out there today who have worked hard don’t deserve to die of COVID 19 or the effects of a healthcare system burdened beyond capacity anymore than you deserve to have your economic conditions threatened by COVID 19. What you’re afraid of is how hard it’s going to be to get back to the economic conditions you had before coronavirus. Millions and millions of people have had things beyond their control put them in positions as bad or worse than what you imagine you’re going to be in. A living wage gives all of us a chance to be prepared for those things, and lessens the blow when they do. It means you don’t have to lose the ability to survive just because your status is changed by things beyond your control. You may not be able to go back to exactly how things were, but no matter what, you’ll be able to survive.
The other thing I would impress on the people protesting the stay at home orders if I could, is that the people who are telling them people like myself want to take something from them, including their nebulous “way of life” are just people who’ve been experiencing the level of expendability they now fear. We don’t want to take anything from you. The people who are served by your being expendable are the same people who are telling you we want to take your shit. Chances are real high you’re no billionaire, otherwise you’d be on the phone with the lobbyists or members of Congress you’ve bought or whatever think tank you support, and not in the street. It’s the billionaires we’re after.
There is no amount of hard work which explains the difference in distribution of resources that makes someone a billionaire. Most of you have worked hard, I’m sure. Does any amount of work or labor you can possibly think of make sense in comparing where you’ve ended up and where a billionaire has ended up? How much harder could you really have worked? I’m betting all of you worked pretty hard. Well, so have we. We’d like to not have billionaires rigging the game so they get to hoover up all of the gains and leaving all of us (including you) that much more exposed when the next gigantic, disruptive event comes along.
In fact, what most of the people who you’ve been convinced want to try and take thing from you really want is to give all of us a more stable society. Constantly expanding the list of people who are expendable and allowing inequality to become as bad as it has are things which make societies unstable. Inequality and expendability are directly connected, so none of us are going to get to have a stable society until we start tackling that with some real perseverance. How much of what you have right now would you trade for never have to fear being expendable again? That’s where we’re at, and why many of us have dedicated time and effort to attempting to address these things.
Those of us who mental illness are not here to be the excuse to risk millions of lives. The people who are the source of that line of reasoning have treated us like we are expendable until this moment. The fears they are preying on to make people oppose the stay at home orders aren’t just fears for most of us. They are things we have and do experience daily, and have been experiencing daily since long before the coronavirus came along. Supporting people with mental illness isn’t relegating other people to death because you’re scared of being poor. The majority of people out there who are making this argument have never cared, for a second, how strongly mental illness effects the likelihood of being in poverty. In truth, they haven’t even cared enough to know those links exist. To them, if we’ve been poor, it’s just because we were lazy. It’s because we wouldn’t just decide to not be depressed. It’s because we want sympathy or attention. They’ve got a thousand different excuses to oppose acting in concert with reality and then instead of uplift what amounts to a value system based on superstition and ignorance.
To those people who are attempting to use us as an excuse to make other people expendable, I’d say, there is a choice to be made. They can either get on the train with the very many different kinds of people who are constantly being rendered expendable in one way or another or they can get in line and wait for us all to be expended and it’s their turn. You’re never going to get a society which is both stable and has significant levels of inequality, because that inequality is the expression of expendability. As long as the inequality and expendability exist, we’re never going to stop trying to disrupt it, and the people who do actually benefit from it are going to keep trying to expand it so they can keep the gains to themselves. If you’re right now choosing to advocate for making other people expendable, you’re only getting in line to be next. Should I come out and prevent you from being expendable?