I got into an argument with a stranger the other day on a mutual friend’s Facebook page. It started as a debate over the role of mental illness in the Las Vegas shooting and very quickly became a discussion of whether I was qualified to have an opinion on the matter. My opponent, a white male psychology student, told me “You don’t understand mental health.”
Well, maybe that’s true. Maybe I don’t understand mental health. But I think I have a decent understanding of mental illness – primarily the depressive-bipolar-schizophrenic variety and PTSD – from having lived with it for most of my life and having lots of contact with people who live with it, treated and untreated. Of course I am always learning more and there is much that scientists don’t understand either; and my knowledge and understanding of things like substance abuse, personality disorders (including antisocial personality disorder), is more limited.
There is no evidence that Stephen Paddock was mentally ill or that “counseling” would have prevented what he did, had he been motivated to seek it out (certainly money was not a barrier for him). He carefully and deliberately planned the massacre over a long period of time in a way that somebody with the cognitive impairments often accompanying psychiatric illness would be unable to do. His preparations included modifying legally purchased rifles to function as automatic weapons and installing surveillance cameras outside his hotel room.
I hold the unpopular opinion that some people simply enjoy hurting others and are basically bad people. You can label that a mental illness if you want, but these people are often very clever, very manipulative, good at hiding at their crimes and appearing charming. They have no functional impairment or apparent distress due to their actions. Very sadly, I have some personal experience with this, too. What do we call these people? What do we call the child pornographers and the serial killers?
That’s the discussion we could have had – the psychology major and I. But the discussion we ended up having, centered on me and how ignorant I am. He picked at my use of words; he was passive-aggressive and condescending. As it happens, I have not been terribly stable lately, and I snapped.
No doubt, the strong and colorful language that I ended up using, completely discredited everything I’d said. But I was discredited in his mind long before then. Why? Probably because I’m female and not a psych student and I disagreed with him. Disclosing that I’m crazy (and using the word “crazy”) didn’t help my case.
What upset me, and left me in a fragile and agitated state for the rest of the day, was not that someone disagreed with me. I actually enjoy debate. It was the way he picked apart everything I said. It was the implicit sneer in his comments. I hate to think that this person may become a therapist. I hate to think that people will go to him for help and that he will impose his preconceived ideas on their realities, then pick at them and condescend to them when they object. We don’t need any more therapists like that. That’s the last thing we need.
Navigating the world with a brain that filters and connects things unpredictably, that turns on you at odd moments, is scary. Depending on how much insight we have into our condition, it can make for a lot of self-doubt and self-questioning. “Are my perceptions here correct? Is this real? Will I look back on this later and realize my thinking was totally distorted? Or am I right this time? I’ve turned out to be right before.” Having a couple of trusted individuals whom one can consult in these instances of doubt is very helpful. But this dependence on others to confirm or dispute our interpretations of our own experiences makes us very susceptible to gaslighting, and to what I’m going to call sanesplaining.
Sanesplaining is when someone who does NOT have a major psychiatric condition themselves, tells someone who does what their condition is “really” like, what they experience or should experience, how they feel or should feel. It also involves discrediting and disputing the person’s thoughts and opinions. I’m going to use an example here from one of my favorite movies, Benny and Joon.
Joon is a highly intelligent young woman with an unspecified mental illness (mostly resembling schizophrenia). She is cared for by her older brother Benny. After Benny finds out that Joon has begun a sexual relationship with their roommate, Sam (who’s also neurodivergent, with a learning disability and some autistic traits), Benny goes into a rage and throws Sam out of the house. At this point, Joon tells Benny, with strong feeling and conviction, “I love him!”
“Yeah?” says Benny. “Well you are crazy.”
There you have it. Sanesplaining in a nutshell.
Our feelings and thoughts are constantly in question. It’s not always that overt. It might be a family member asking “Did you take your meds?” when we’re trying to explain why we’re upset about something they’ve done. It might be a psychiatrist saying “No, that’s not a side effect of this medication”. (Hint: if your psychiatrist says this, FIND A NEW ONE.) Or it might be some douchey psychology major on the internet, saying “You used a clinically imprecise term, therefore your opinion is worthless. Your lived experience doesn’t matter.”