lizz ehrenpreis, betty mars, mental health, amanda lauren, CPTSD, creative non-fiction, writer, copywriter,

THE SNAKES AND THE DOGS

Ah, yes. Another day on the internet, where a clickbaity hot piece-o-garbage has us all running to our thinkpiece machines to churn out an adequate response! WHAT A GLORIOUS DAY!

Recently, essayist and seemingly professional troll Amanda Lauren published an article entitled, “My Former Friend’s Death Was a Blessing,” on xoJane, which detailed her relationship to a former friend–or rather, detailed said former friend’s social media activity after their fall out, and that friend’s unexpected death.

Lauren’s perspective was that her former friend’s mental health issues made her death an ultimately good thing:

I felt like Leah’s death was inevitable. Every box for being a danger to yourself or someone else was checked. A few weeks later I got another Facebook message from a different friend, saying that Leah passed away. She supposedly hit her head and drowned in a bathtub. Sadly, I really believe knowing who Leah used to be, that she would have wanted to die that way. Big and dramatic with an obit in the New York Times. Her better self would have been strangely proud. She would have laughed. Then again, it doesn’t really matter how Leah died. She might have drowned, but schizoaffective disorder was the hand that kept her head below water.

It sounds horrible to say, but her death wasn’t a tragedy, her life was. Her sister died when she was in college. Schizoaffective disorder robbed her of reaching her potential. There were some other things along the way. She was alone and terribly unhappy when died. Leah with the big heart didn’t deserve that. Judging Facebook pages, we all compare ourselves to other people, what they have, what they don’t, and their accomplishments. This girl had nothing to live for.

Naturally, the piece (and lack of empathy or perspective within it) inspired a new fashioned internet shitstorm, leading to the initial byline being deleted, and then eventually the article being replaced by an apology from xoJane founding editor Jane Pratt.

Lauren is not unfamiliar with being the cause of angry internet flurries; she has written a variety of other controversial and downright vapid pieces that have drawn a lot of attention to her. In an interview with Gawker about her most recent bid for Most Disliked Confessional Writer, she stated that her article was an attempt to draw attention to mental health issues and the lack of support for those who have them. Seems like a clumsy attempt at backpedaling to me, but what do I know about what lives in her head?

When I read Lauren’s article, it reminded me of a conversation I had not too long ago, during the second worst mental health crisis of my life. Someone I had considered a close friend outrightly accused me of lying about the state of distress I was in, amongst a slew of other insults about how selfish and “narcissistic” I was for trying to seek a space to calm down before having further conversation with her about it. During that time, I was having crippling panic attacks every day, seeing several doctors, and frantically trying to receive care to bring myself back down to a calm state.

See, I have Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (CPTSD). It looks a lot like PTSD, but with other long term side effects. PTSD is caused by a singular traumatic event, and CPTSD is usually the result of sustained, long-term trauma, and/or a series of traumatic events, which means the impact of it looks slightly different over time. Rather than a singular source, it has multiple, and creates a higher level of activation that expresses itself as anxiety and hypervigilance. CPTSD is most well-known amongst veterans who have been in long-term, sustained combat, but they aren’t the only ones who are capable of falling prey to it.

As one of my doctors described it, I exist in a state of “hyperactivation.” Her analogy for it: If she was in a room, and a snake entered, she would become activated. That would be a present threat, and her body and mind would respond accordingly. If something else happened, even something small, that caused stress, the combination of things would cause her to respond even more intensely than she might if the snake wasn’t with her in that room.

For me, the snake is always in the room.


A few years ago, when I was living in Santa Barbara, I was driving down the street and saw a family of raccoons running across the road. I had three choices: Hit them head on, avoid them by driving into oncoming traffic, or slow down as much as possible and try to avoid them–knowing that I’d clip at least one of them. I picked option three. My ex and I were in the car, and when I hit the raccoon, I immediately started crying and pulled over.

We called some emergency animal services number we looked up, and waited while they came to pick up the little dude. He was lying near the gutter, covered in blood, reaching his little paws out. I imagine he was pretty scared, in addition to being in pain; if I were that small and hurt, lying partially in the street, the cars passing by must seem too close, too loud, too dangerous.

The folks on the phone warned us to not touch him; raccoons can be vicious little beasts, and especially when they are hurt, he might think we’re aiming to hurt him more and defend himself. So instead, we sat on the curb and spoke to him, in the way that most of us speak to animals–pretending that if we try hard enough, they’ll understand what we’re saying, and we can bridge the inter-species communication gap.

Have you ever tried to comfort a person in physical pain? It’s not much different. If it’s bad enough, they can seem short, angry, unreceptive to your efforts. Ultimately, it’s not about you or what you’re doing it at all; it’s that intense pain begets an incredible amount of self-focus, largely because something in your body is screaming THIS IS WRONG and the overwhelming, natural reaction is to self-soothe and fix it. Our bodies are built to give us these warnings. Although survival looks a lot different in this age than it did in the many prior to it, our bodies haven’t caught up; these dumb ol’ meatsacks are built to draw great attention to our pains because without that, in the past, we wouldn’t have stayed alive.

People are listening, even if they can’t fully grasp what we have to say in the midst of their own pain. We kept speaking to the raccoon, trying to soothe from a distance, even though it seemed to be a futile effort.

What we have to say may not be fully heard, but it does not mean we should stop talking.


Being an asshole and being mentally ill are not mutually exclusive things. You can be a totally insufferable person, fundamentally, and still be extremely unwell. Sometimes, those defense mechanisms can look like cruelties that aren’t cruelties at all–exiting a conversation, exiting a situation, going from social butterfly to hermit, having trouble finding the energy to stay in touch. Everyone is self-centered, and it’s easy to think that these behaviors are an expression of how someone feels about you. Most of the time, though, people aren’t doing things at you; they’re just trying to get through each day alive, and when someone is ill, in whatever capacity, that takes a whole helluva lot of energy.

Amanda Lauren’s list of reasons that her friend’s death is a “blessing” are petty grievances–things she is completely within her rights to dislike, but by no means justify applauding her friend’s (I’m using the term “friend” loosely, here) untimely and unfortunate death. I’m sure that my friend, above, would have a list of petty grievances, and based on our falling out when I was completely falling apart, it wouldn’t surprise me if the entire sentiment of that letter encapsulated how she would feel about me if I passed too.

People around the internet throw around “Go kill yourself,” regularly. People casually joke about suicide as if it’s not a big deal, and people talk about it as the highest form of selfishness. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard someone say, in all seriousness, that if someone wants to be that selfish, they should, and spare us all.

Part of the natural process of grief is anger–anger at the deceased, anger at the world, anger at everything. Even when they haven’t taken their own life, the question of how they could possibly have the gall to die and leave you here alone is a normal one. It’s an outrageous question originated from an outrageous pain. And sometimes, pain can be easier to swallow if you can vilify–if you can other someone and distance yourself from the parallels you recognize between the two of you or what they meant to you.

This happens in breakups, too: The worst breakups are where no one did anything wrong. While the ones where one party betrays the other might be more complex and intense due to the mix of emotions involved, it also makes it easy to call on that anger. “Fuck you,” you say. “I’m moving on.”


Over time, I’ve gotten better at dealing with my snake. Through therapy, medications, and other forms of care, including having a strong support system filled with unfathomably patient and loving people, my coping mechanisms have advanced enormously. It’s not a perfect process, and at times, I still find myself spinning out disproportionately to the situation at hand.

I’m highly functional, and typically, I have a high threshold when it comes to stress and anxiety. Once I’ve crossed that threshold, though, it becomes much more challenging to address. The snake moves from merely sharing the same space as me to being wrapped around my neck, and calming myself down can take an exorbitant amount of time and energy. It’s devastating. It feels like a failure.

It is in those times when suicidal ideation has crossed my mind, because it feels so debilitating. It’s defeating, and it makes me feel like a profound burden on those who are generous enough to let me lean–those people who love me in entirety. It’s hard to remind myself that I wouldn’t be helping them by ridding them of me.

One of the only things that helps is looking to those I’ve lost due to addiction or mental health struggles, and remembering how the loss of them affected me. For whatever “burden” they may have been, the loss was always so much greater, because they were so much greater. People are not merely their illnesses, and all of the reasons I loved those people were so much more than their unwellness, even when the expression of their ailments were entangled in the rest of who they were.

Their struggles informed their clever, dark humor, their fortitude, their wisdom, and their kindness. Their generosity and their patience. They, as people, were bigger than the things that killed them, and while I hate that they are gone, I also know that their illnesses informed so many parts of them in wonderful ways. To hate that part of them, and to hate that part of myself, is counterproductive.

Understanding that these illnesses become wrapped up in who we are, and we cannot hate them without hating the person. Unlike physical illnesses, these are things that live inside who we are and how we think. We need greater education and support to empower folks with coping mechanisms to address their pains; being dismissive is not a supportive solution, but an obstruction. If we love those in our life who are mentally ill, and want to eradicate a stigma that exacerbates their health problems, we need to extend beyond brushing all of those who suffer aside.


I’m guilty of this distancing mechanism too. I constantly battle between what it means to be compassionate to and empathetic of someone’s plight while also maintaining my own boundaries. It’s tough fucking work, and sometimes, there’s nothing that can be done but walking out the door. I don’t blame people who have done this to me; I probably deserved it.

Maybe “deserve” is the wrong word, because when we talk about what we deserve, we lose sight of what it means to love other people. Love is not earned. Trust is earned. Respect is earned. Those things are undoubtedly crucial to maintaining love over a long period of time. But love itself–real, unadulterated, genuine love is not something you can strive for, or pry out of yourself (or someone else) or somehow make happen. It’s something you choose to give, and something you are given. Holistic love, a love that recognizes all parts of a person as interconnected and significant, even the parts we find inconvenient or frustrating, is a gift. “Deserve” misses the point, because all it’s really about is what we have to give to each person in our lives.

Although there was a notable backlash to Lauren’s article, the sentiment is something most of us have been guilty of at one point or another. At this point in time, popular consensus is that there should be more support for the mentally ill, and that those who are suffering should not be further maligned by society at large or by those close to them, but we need to start backing that up with the right amount of compassion in our direct interactions with others. To truly make an impact, this cannot be compassion as an abstraction; it needs to be compassion as an act.

You do not have to like anyone. You do not have to love anyone. That holistic love is yours to give as you see fit, should you find those that you want to give it to. But we have to stop telling people that their fundamental worth is dependent on their pathology, because in doing so, we continue to stigmatize those who are already struggling to stay afloat through no fault of their own.

Being ill, in any capacity, doesn’t mean you have “nothing to live for.” Struggling to have a life doesn’t make the endeavor–or the life itself–worthless. If anything, struggling gives our existences depth and nuance. Some of our most heralded heroes spent long periods of time with extensive failure and downright loser-hood for them, even well into adulthood (and in their time, into middle age!), and we never would have been able to share in what they left behind if they had exited the planet early. Would we say that these people had “nothing to live for” at those points in their lives?

The positive thinking movement is alive and well, and when its ideals are most strongly enforced, it suggests that there is no better way to be than optimistic in perpetuity. To ignore the realities of living, which is that it involves hardship, it involves struggle, is to erase its full value. Who the fuck wants a pie without filling?


My father’s death was caused by a combination of congenital heart issues and severe alcoholism. Prior to his death, he would call me, drunk, and cry, telling me that nobody cared about him, that nobody loved him except me, and at that point, even we didn’t speak often anymore. His life was a mess, and the coping mechanisms he had relied on as a young man didn’t fit so well on a fifty-two year old frame. He died coming back from the store, when he was walking up the three flights of stairs to his apartment. He died on the second floor landing, only one set of steps from his new and supposedly temporary apartment in Ventura, CA.

His death was preventable. His service, held two months later, was small, but included a bevy of out-of-towners. After losing several family members when he was young, he always said he hated funerals (who doesn’t?), and insisted that, when he die, we throw a party in his honor. He was the type to say that death was the next great adventure.

Since my father was a practically lifelong guitarist with a love for the blues and a knack for party tricks, like pulling a Hendrix and playing with his teeth, his musician friends thought it right to honor him by playing songs and telling funny stories. It was only during my eulogy, if you can call something informal as it was a eulogy, when everyone lost their weak grasp on keeping it light. It was nineteen year old me, bawling and barely able to read what I’d written, surrounded by a bunch of fifty something dudes sobbing quietly.

My father was a bit of an internet troll himself. Many of his friends liked a band named Poco, and my father did not, so on a message board where all of them gathered to discuss the band, he would leave abrasive, funny commentary, poking fun at the band and his friends alike. My father was irascible–a bonafide pain in the ass–but a humorous and generous charmer, with a kind streak a mile long.

Two of the people from the service had never had the opportunity to meet him in person, but they knew him from the message board, and they came anyway. They approached me there, shaking my hand, and telling me in soft tones how sad were about never having the pleasure of meeting him face-to-face. At the time, I was territorial over my own suffering, and felt their presence to be a violation of my personal loss. My singular and personal grief.

It’s a moment that keeps coming back to me, over and over again. Now that my grief has waned (or simply changed), the fact that these two people felt so strongly connected to my father over so little, and that they wanted to make that known in the wake of his death, is such a treasure.

One of my greatest, most unresolvable fears is that my father died believing what he told me when he’d call–that no one loved him anymore. That he died alone, in a shithole apartment, drinking himself to death, thinking that he had nothing worth hanging onto–that there was not a soul who loved him when he wasn’t at his best. I wish he could have been at that service, and seen the mourning of those who loved him–a great many people, even at the furthest periphery of his influence.

We cannot see who we truly are to others. We cannot know what we have done for them. We cannot understand the full breadth of our impact, no matter how hard we try. We have to take it on faith. This is true for every life.

Perhaps Amanda Lauren could not see the true ramifications of the loss of her former friend, but I bet they wouldn’t be hard to find. All that is required is paying attention.


Some of us live with snakes in the room. Some of us have our Black Dogs. Much of the time, these things aren’t temporary; these monsters aren’t going to disappear someday, never to be seen again. We cannot banish them, because they are a part of us. And if they haven’t yet, maybe someday one of them will visit you too.

We can’t save each other, but we can support each other. We can’t take care or responsibility for our respective monsters on behalf of one another, but we can extend an invite to each other’s internal plus-ones. Most importantly, we can stop perpetuating the idea that the plus-one is a curse that determines our worthiness, and start recognizing that, if we live long enough, we may all eventually find ourselves in the company of mental frenemies we never asked for.

We can find what it means to offer that holistic love, and give it every time we can, even when it isn’t easy–even when it is given to someone that, for whatever reason, cannot be in our life anymore. Not because they deserve it, whatever that means, but because they meant something to us, and because that is the kind of love that matters. Not love as an abstraction, but love as an act.

 

One thought on “THE SNAKES AND THE DOGS

  1. Thank you so much for sharing this with me last week. I read it over the weekend and it was very timely. Some stuff in there I really needed to hear.

    I want to go through point by point, but that would turn into a book pretty quickly. So instead, I’ll just again just say, thank you.

    Reply

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