Tuesday, August 19, 2014

It's Not About You

Recently, I read the book You Don't Look Like Anyone I Know, by Heather Sellers. It's the story of her struggle with prosopagnosia (face blindness), which she didn't realize existed until her late 30s. As she started reading about it, she realized quickly she had it. But as she tentatively brought it up to friends, family, and medical professionals, they roundly rejected it. Their justifications for this varied, but seemed to come down to three arguments.

"You couldn't possibly have face blindness. I can recognize faces just fine."

"You can't have face blindness, because sometimes you recognize me."

or occasionally,

"You don't have face blindness, because sometimes I have trouble with faces, too."

Logic, my friend. Learn to love it.

For some reason, people are reluctant to believe that others can have disorders that don't make any sense to them. Not understanding something is generally a sign that one isn't an expert on it, but many seem to consider it an asset when it comes to interpreting the behavior of others. They're suspicious and critical, and suddenly experts on things they know nothing about. This happens with bipolar disorder, high-functioning autism, ADD/ADHD, addiction, eating disorders, PTSD, sometimes even illnesses as severe as schizophrenia. That's only a partial list. Seller's ex-husband, for example, had a definition of schizophrenia that he had made up out of whole cloth, based primarily on the philosophy that those who suffer from schizophrenia are really just being difficult, and could stop it if they weren't such selfish jerks. Also, old people don't have it, because they're too tired to keep it up.

Then there are those who make a bit of noise about mental illnesses and learning disabilities being legitimate, but conclude, "it's not an excuse." What they are really saying is, "Just because you have a disorder doesn't give you any right to exhibit symptoms of that disorder." Hey, I understand you have a cold, okay? I get it. But there's no excuse for all that sneezing.

Disorders are often inconsistent. Some by definition, and many others because, well, they just are, okay? Someone with anxiety might have a good day, week or month before being seized by panic attacks again. Bipolar disorder is inconsistent by definition, so the fact that your co-worker seems in control of herself most of the time is no proof that she can master her mood swings all the time.  Maybe she's working hard all the time to keep it under control - you don't know. People with ADD/ADHD can pay attention to some things some of the time, but it might not happen when you (or they) want it to.

"Sometimes I can't remember people's names. Sometimes I have a hard time paying attention. Sometimes I feel sad. Sometimes I'm nervous. Therefore you don't have a disorder."

There also tends to be a certain circular logic to these things. Basically, it often boils down to something along the lines of "You don't have face blindness. You just made that up as an excuse for the way you don't recognize people!"

Do just a little probing, and this kind if argument will crumble. But rarely is it questioned too closely, because it's a commonly accepted attitude.

Perhaps you find it easy to eat enough calories to sustain your body. That guy over there with a restrictive eating disorder does not. Conversely, perhaps you are able to refrain from overeating. Your friend, the compulsive overeater, isn't. Can you get out of bed every morning, focus at school or work, regulate your moods well enough, and drink moderately without alcohol controlling you? Goody for you! You're lucky. That is not true for everyone else. Thank your fairy godmother. Say "there but for the grace of God go I," and get over yourself. 

People who suffer from these disorders aren't immune to arrogance and ignorance, either. They'll decide being bipolar makes them an expert on bipolar disorder, and say something like, "well, I'm bipolar, and I don't go on massive spending sprees!" Again, goody for you. Anecdotally, I've noticed those who are smug about how well they're handling their challenges often aren't doing as well as they think they are, but that's another story.

No matter how many similarities you have, the differences between you and other people are many and massive. I promise. You have absolutely no insight into why they are the way they are. None of us have an identical journey. Perhaps their illness manifests itself differently than yours does, or it's more severe, or they can't afford treatment, or they haven't had as many experiences to counter it as you have. The possibilities are endless, and you'll probably never come close to understanding them.

Do you have to put up with disrespect or abuse? Nope. You get to take care of yourself. Addicts and alcoholics in particular cause problems for people in their lives. It may be too much to accept. But when you're deciding you can't have your drunken friend call your house crying at 3AM even one more time, own your decision. Regretfully admit to yourself that the person you care about has a problem you cannot solve for them, and the risk/benefit ratio is no longer worth it to you. If you're so inclined, you can even tell them you'll be there to support them if they ever decide to seek help.

Ah, but Erin, could the inability to understand where others are coming from could be considered an issue sufferers have little to no control over, too? You certainly aren't showing a lot of compassion for it. True. It might be my blind spot, but all I can see is narcissism. You resent other people's problems, therefore they don't exist. I'll keep trying to figure out a way to accommodate this particular psychological problem while not indulging it, but I haven't found it yet.

Other people's learning disabilities and psychological problems are almost always harder on them than they are on you. The fact is, they're rarely asking for much from you. It might be as simple as you not taking offense if they walk right by you in the grocery store. Is that so hard? Because if it is, you might have a problem of your own. That kind of hypersensitivity could be indicative of a number of things. If you figure out what it is and how we can help you navigate it, please let me know how I can help.

Me, I know your face. Heather Sellers? Profoundly face blind. It's as simple as that.

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