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I love true crime, and disaster documentaries, and crime procedurals. My husband thinks my interest is a little baffling. “Baby, why do you watch this stuff when you know you have anxiety?” Well, a couple of reasons: one, it’s fascinating and I enjoy it. My interest in true crime, et. al. predates the onset of my mental health problems. (Blame that early, parentally irresponsible, exposure to Unsolved Mysteries and Rescue 911 in the 90s.) And two, it’s part of a complex coping mechanism that can actually help lessen my anxiety by giving me the illusionary feeling of being prepared for the worst. It’s almost as if I can shield myself and those I love from terrible things with the knowledge of the absolute worst case scenario. (I know this is a logical fallacy. Just bear with me.)

My fascination with true crime in particular started shortly after I witnessed a horrible crime for myself. I was young and too ill-equipped to cope with the trauma I had experienced. Like many survivors, the idea that I could arm myself with knowledge of how bad the world can actually get occurred to me organically over time. That was over twenty years ago, but my fascination with the genre has persisted, and is what lead me to start listening to a new podcast a few months ago, called My Favorite Murder. This podcast, produced by Feral audio and featuring Karen Killgariff and Georgia Hardstark, is every late-night conversation you’ve had with your best friend after watching a horror movie or catching up on grim news stories. It’s true crime and comedy coming together in the holiest of unholy unions. I was instantly hooked.

I loved the podcast right away, but I knew I needed to take it easy and avoid binge-listening. I am already a regular consumer of other true crime media, and I am aware that I have to ration myself or risk an emotional crash. I’m one of those “highly sensitive personality” people you may have heard about — sometimes I empathize a little too much and a little too strongly. I’m just hard-wired that way. So, that plus PTSD, anxiety, and bipolar disorder can be a potent cocktail. Many times I have had to stop watching a show, return a book, or unplug from a story because it became too triggering for me. I usually don’t mind missing out. If it’s a news story or a true crime story, I can usually find out the interesting bits by researching the event using sources that are less graphic. That being said, trigger warnings are nice. It takes so little and offers so much potential relief. For instance, one of my other favorite true crime podcasts, Sword and Scale, not only offers a trigger warning at the beginning of each episode, they even tell you the nature of the potential trigger. So if you, like me, find violence against children particularly abhorrent, you know to skip this episode and listen to the one about Ted Bundy instead. Win-win!

Recently on the Facebook group page for My Favorite Murder, someone suggested having a document to keep track of potential trigger warnings for each episode of the podcast. She suggested it as a kindness to those in the fandom who live with PTSD and offered to do the bulk of the work herself. Stand-up gal, in my humble opinion. But because this is the Internet and we simply cannot have nice things, she was immediately dog-piled on.

le sigh.

It is a universal but often unacknowledged truth that human beings struggle to see the value in things that don’t personally effect their lives (I’m looking at you, anti-gay/anti-trans rights dickholes), but this sentiment coming from a group of people that are supposedly all about helping each other feel safe in an unsafe world is just preposterous.

In the early episodes of the podcast, the hosts, Karen and Georgia, speak to this issue directly when they explain how talking over true instances of horrible depravity and human aberration helps them feel as if they have some modicum of control in the chaos, because to know about what humanity is capable of is to be prepared, in a sense. The tag line of the show reflects this:

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#SSDGM

The Facebook fan page is replete with stories of listeners, usually women, who took the lessons of their fallen sisters to heart: “I said FUCK POLITENESS and got the fuck out” of a dangerous situation that might have otherwise ended in her being harmed.

These stories are celebrated with thousands of Likes and comments, but for some reason, when the hive mind is pushed to recognize that the “stay sexy don’t get murdered” message of the podcast is sometimes inaccessible for those individuals who have actually been victims of trauma, people get pissy.

While I was watching this conversation unfold on the fan page, it occurred to me that I don’t know why nuerotypical, able-bodied persons get so touchy when people with illnesses and disabilities start asking for accommodations. It’s as if our presence makes them so uncomfortable that the mere suggestion of it is too much to handle: “No I will NOT give you any trigger warnings. It interferes with my ability to pretend you don’t exist!”

Perhaps it isn’t that they want to ignore us, but they are actually hyper-aware of our existence and are thereby deeply offended by our collective “weakness”: “The world owes you nothing. Nobody treats me with kid gloves, so why should you be the exception?” This is actually the most common refrain I see from people who criticize the movement for ending the stigma surrounding mental illness. Their comments typically take the form of “well, just don’t do the thing” or “why are you so sensitive/sad/anxious?” or “it’s all in your head”. “If you don’t like/can’t participate in X, do something else.” “Pick yourself up by the bootstraps!” “You could ‘mind over matter’ this problem if you really wanted to.” The list of microaggressions is infinite. All of the typical victim-blaming bullshit that puts the onus of responsibility squarely back in the shoulders of the disadvantaged party to not only justify and defend their experience, but also to prove their need for accommodation and their right to be a full, equal participant in the world around them. Apparently, some people don’t see the value in equal access — because the world ought to be more dog-eat-dog, every man for himself, and fuck PC culture too, right? I mean, until you yourself need public assistance or SSDI or find yourself part of a marginalized group, that is.

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Intolerance first, ask questions never.

Honestly, why are people without disabilities so threatened by the other half? It isn’t as if we’re really asking anything substantial of you, just some compassion and some consideration. It doesn’t cost you anything, except perhaps a little time and a little energy. Whats the problem with that? This situation in particular is even more confounding: the poster was asking nothing of anyone! Simply posing a suggestion that she thought could be helpful.

Trivializing the experiences of survivors and those with disabilities is not only cruel to the individual, it is also undermines our society as a whole. When we cite “PC culture” and scream obscenities at “social justice warriors”, we are doing ourselves a disservice. Instead of empowering those who have been victimized, we are emboldening the perpetrators to continue mistreating others and shirking responsibility for their actions. The world is scary and dangerous enough, what with super volcanoes being overdue to detonate, and serial killers on the rampage, and Donald Trump in the White House; do we really need to make our surroundings more hostile by attacking each other? Let alone attacking each other over the mere suggestion of increased compassion for others — that just doesn’t make one lick of sense. We can do better, y’all.

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A perfect storm

Actor Robin Williams took his own life today. By all accounts an extremely funny, extremely intelligent person, he lost a battle with depression. I’m probably more upset by this than I have any right to be — Mr. Williams being an actor and a public figure whom I enjoyed does not mean that he belongs to me in any sense. It doesn’t seem right to eulogize someone I have never, and now will never, meet, despite his featuring prominently in the entertainment landscape of my childhood. Maybe it’s just that his humor resonated with me, because I see similarities to my own sense of humor… and maybe because his actions today resonate with me, also.

Seems to me that it goes something like this: A good sense of humor is an indication of intelligence. Intelligence is a predisposing factor to depression and mental illness. People who are depressed are also more likely to be humorous, probably as a result of their higher intelligence and perhaps as a result of coping mechanisms developed to mitigate their depression.

Smart people are also marginalized in our society. Those who suffer with depression and other mental illnesses are likewise stigmatized. We use humor to deflect and cover up our wounds, and then we suffer quietly. Alone. As we spend more time alone, we are observed to be introverted. People who are introverted, on the whole, seem to be less desirable companions and are therefore sought out less by their peers. In the end, you get a bunch of smart, suffering, funny people with no close friends.

And then we kill ourselves because human beings aren’t meant to be islands (Bon Jovi had that right) but what choice does a person have when their territory is being colonized by naysayers and doubters and people who, in general, just want to make you feel bad for being who you are and enjoying what you like.

Seriously. Fuck those people.

This is what being a Stigma Fighter is about. Standing up to the unenlightened masses who would prefer to see a greatly homogenized culture instead of embracing and celebrating our differences, mental illness included. I wonder if Mr. Williams, had he known about our mission, would have joined us. Something tells me he might have done just that.

The aftermath

When I was young, a terrible thing happened. The teeth of that event, jagged and complex as they are, shaped the contours of my personality in a number of ways (though I think it can be argued that I never stood a chance of escaping childhood without at least a few neuroses). Be that as it may, it was a short time after the deaths of my friends that my personality underwent a severe and startling shift. I can’t pinpoint exactly when it happened. I feel like I continued to be pretty normal in the first few months after their deaths. It wasn’t as if I didn’t receive counseling afterwards. My parents talked to me about what happened, and they took me to see a nice lady in a tidy little office who asked me questions about my friends while I drew them as stick-figure angels with bright yellow halos. That lady must’ve thought I was handling the trauma all right, because I only remember seeing her once. In the meantime, my dad took a few pieces of leftover fence posts and some primer paint to make a roughly hewn cross that he hammered into the grass outside of their deserted home. They took me to the funeral — closed casket — in a starchy plaid dress. I sat, not internalizing anything that was said, as I contemplated with horrifying clarity exactly why the caskets needed to be closed and large portraits of their young, smiling faces be displayed instead. My second grade teacher, Mrs. Steadler I think her name was, was especially compassionate in the wake of the event, inviting me to speak with the class or with her if ever I needed to.

All told, I think I adjusted with the same easy acceptance that all children employ when synthesizing a terrible event with their reality: It was bad, and it happened, and I’m sad that it happened. And then you move on because you’re a kid, and without sustained, repeated trauma, chances are the catastrophes you witness aren’t going to define your personality like they would in someone older. Such is the extraordinary capacity of children to heal and to love, so effortlessly.

But eventually something changed. In what now seems to be an overnight shift, I lost all feelings of safety and comfort. I was afraid. All. Of. The time. Like, can’t-sleep-with-the-lights-out, must-have-the-doors-and-windows-barred, TV-on-and-blaring-or-else-shit-your-pants-in-fear kind of afraid. I had night terrors in which my deceased friends would come to me and tell me that the afterlife was lonely and they wanted me to join them. In my dream, I would start to suffocate, then wake to find my face in a pillow.

Prior to this constant fear, I quite distinctly remember sleeping peacefully in my bedroom with the lights out, window open to the breeze, moon light streaming in. Then a change happened, wherein I became so utterly terrified of the darkness that I never opened my windows or blinds unless it was light out. I kept the overhead lamp on my bedroom’s ceiling fan blazing all night long, and if my parents tried to exchange the 100watt bulb for something dimmer, I’d throw a fit. Not knowing or not understanding why I needed to sleep with the TV on, my parents would remove the set from my room if I had done something to incur a punishment. This lead to some explosive tantrums during which I tried, with a child’s inadequate articulation, to explain why they just couldn’t take that away from me. It wasn’t about entertainment — it was about survival: bad things would happen if I were left alone in my bedroom overnight without the television on.

I would scream if left in the darkness. Maybe they thought that, if left to my own devices, I would tire and fall asleep, but the fear kept me quivering and awake. Once, my mother stood in my bedroom door silhouetted by the hallway light as I cried and begged her to comfort me. She answered, unequivocally, that she would not, because I was a big girl and I could sleep in my own room. The dreadful thought that I was disappointing her, that she was ashamed of my behavior, only made me cry harder.

We weren’t a particularly religious family — we never went to church or anything like that — but I knew there was a God, that he had something to do with the gold cross my daddy wore and Santa Claus, and he could protect me if I played my cards right. This was the beginning of my ritualized behavior: I believed that if I said my prayers at night exactly the same way, in exactly the same order every single night with my hands clasped dutifully in front of my chest that God, like some combination of watch dog and genie, would keep me safe from whatever frightened me and also grant me wishes. If I forgot some line in my prayer speech (it was probably a few minutes long), I would have to stop and do it over again, because if I didn’t stick to the script, it wouldn’t work and any number of ghosts, goblins, or aliens would come attack me in the darkness. I went to one of those jewelry vending machines in the grocery store, stuck in my fifty cents, and got a cheap nickel-plated crucifix to put on my teddy bear. From then on I worshiped him like a fuzzy false idol, convinced that he was ordained BY GOD to protect me while I slept.

Like this, but more like a cleric.
Like this, but more like a cleric instead of a knight.

I still have that teddy bear, by the way. His name is Joefas, and now he guards my daughter while she sleeps, sans religious armor of any kind.

Looking back, I think this was the period of time that planted the seeds of mental illness that I continue to struggle with today. The beginnings of my irrational anxiety. The genesis of obsessive-compulsive, ritualistic behavior. The foundation for my fear of abandonment. All of those threads can be traced back, not necessary to Cheri and Nick’s deaths, but to what I experienced directly afterwards. Due to my sieve-like memory, I can only speculate on what extenuating factors precipitated my descent into minor madness. My less-than-Leave-it-to-Beaver upbringing, some kind long-buried abuse, or perhaps, just the small, seemingly insignificant watermarks of everyday tragedy, built up over time. Were my irrational fears, my gruesome visions of dead friends, all symptomatic of some other long-forgotten trauma? I don’t know, and I don’t especially want to go digging for those answers. All I know is that while the Terrible Thing is one of the only things I remember, it isn’t the only thing that changed me. The rest, since it wasn’t reported on and can’t be searched on the internet, will just have to remain a mystery. Truthfully, I think I prefer it that way.