In the last two years, I have chosen a pathway of radical honesty about my own experience of living with mental illness. In the last 18 months, I have come to realize how incredibly fortunate I am. Don’t get me wrong, living with mental illness is no joke, but on the spectrum of how my life could be as a person with anxiety and depression, I’m doing pretty well.
I grew up in a middle-class home with both my parents in rural North Carolina. My parents had a decent insurance policy, so when I realized that I needed help I could afford to go to the doctor, I could afford my medication, and I could afford to see a therapist. Now I’m married to my husband who (thank the Lord) is gainfully employed in a business with an insurance policy that also covers mental healthcare, so I still have access to these important treatments.
With few exceptions, my experience is not questioned because I am a middle class white woman. In the eyes of society, I am “allowed” to have a mental illness. My mental health can make my life difficult, but my life could also be a lot harder.
The experience of contextualizing my experience of mental illness has been a part of a greater theme of “reeducation” over the last six years of my life. Let me explain it this way:
When I was sixteen, besides struggling with untreated anxiety, I thought that when I was 24 that I would be married, starting a family, most likely a stay-at-home mom or working as a Spanish teacher that also taught dance classes. I was pro-life, pro-traditional-marriage, pro-capitalism, and thought that the Constitution was a Christian document. I believed that affirmative action was theft and that undocumented immigrants should just follow the legal process like everyone else. I voted in favor of Amendment One (what I would give to go back and do that over). I whole-heartedly believed in the War on Christmas. I believed that the United States was the greatest country on Earth and anyone who said differently was un-American.
I could not be further from where I was then. In many ways, a suicide attempt at 20 opened my eyes. It caused two things: 1) I realized how sick I was and was what ultimately drove me to seek treatment and 2) I realized that what I was living was not who I wanted to be. I had internalized a narrative of who I was supposed to be, not who I actually was. If what I believed about who I was supposed to be was wrong, what else did I believe that was wrong?
As painful as it has been, I have come to realize that I was racist, homophobic, classist, ableist, Islamophobic, and had internalized a significant amount of misogyny. I think back on things that I said when I was in high school and get sick to my stomach. The most painful thing to remember is this: I was raised as a Christian and believed that I had a responsibility to “the least of these” (Matthew 25:40,45) but the lack of empathy and understanding that I grew up with was the complete opposite of what I believe that Christians are called to be. I wanted to serve others and try to create “God’s kingdom on Earth” but did not understand that my beliefs and lack of self-awareness made me part of the problem rather than the solution.
My saving grace was that when I went to college I met a group of people that were imbued with patience and love and walked with me step by wobbly step as I unlearned narratives of hate and relearned a pathway of listening, acceptance, and love. These people helped me to see what I had never been required to see, and I am forever indebted to them because I would not have found my way to this place on my own.
But, as anyone who teaches knows, education is not complete without reflection. Unless you can see the connections between the events of your past and their consequences on your present and future, you haven’t learned anything at all. What’s worse is that you will continue to make the same mistakes in perpetuity, never understanding why they happen or where they come from. The time has come for me to truly face my past self and acknowledge her publicly.
There are lots of things that the United States hides in plain sight. We would like to believe that we are a bastion of freedom and hope, but the older I get the less sure of this I become. Most of us would like to believe that racism wears a hood and has a swastika tattoo, that misogyny wears a hoodie and hides in the bushes, that homophobia goes to Westboro Baptist Church. The truth of the matter is that hate is in our DNA. Our nation was founded on hate that created chattel slavery and genocide. That hate is still present and active in the 21st century; it has just morphed to suit our modern sensitivities.
Here’s an example: Last year I joined a forum for dance teachers on Facebook hoping that I could discourse with dance teachers who were older and more experienced than me. I did not find this discourse; I found a lot of problematic conversation surrounding issues of black culture. One of the worst was a post about the phenomenon of “Hiplet.” (For you non-dance folks out there that is the combination of ballet and HipHop performed in pointe shoes. It’s popular among many young, black ballet dancers.) Besides the fact that the white woman that posted the video stated that she couldn’t wait for the trend “to die” another commenter, a white man, said, “This is the kind of stuff that holds black people back in ballet.” (I wish that I had screen-shot the post for posterity, but I was so shocked that I didn’t think to do it.) When I called out the post as racist, the white woman who administered the forum, sent me, another white woman, a message of apology, in spite of the fact that at least three other black dance teachers on the forum had also said as much about the post, but were met with accusations of being “too sensitive.”
This woman is probably a nice person. She’s probably a good dance teacher. But that doesn’t change the fact that she listened to me over three other dance teachers that were black and 1) actually experience racism in their daily lives and 2) definitely know better than me how racism looks, sounds, and feels. This action was rooted in racism and white supremacy.
Here’s an even better example: When I was a sophomore in high school, a friend and I were debating whether being gay was a choice (and by debating, I mean that I was debating, and he wanted to have a conversation). Being 15 and an expert backed up by the Holy Spirit and “the Truth” I knew just the statement to win the argument. “How many gay fish do you know?” I quipped, extremely proud of my cleverness. My friend would later come out as gay and one of my classmate’s sisters had also just come out.
This is one of those statements that makes me feel physically ill every time that I think about it. It was homophobic and dripping with contempt. My desire to “win” the argument overrode any possibility of compassion. It reflected ignorance and hate. I didn’t mean to hurt anyone, but I was also wasn’t terribly concerned with the consequences. And my words cut at least two people to their souls.
You see, hate doesn’t always come out as a bullet or a bomb. It comes out when winning an argument becomes more important than having a conversation. It comes when we ask, “What about black on black crime?” It comes out as writing a group of people off as “too sensitive” when they ask to be called by the correct pronouns. It comes out as wondering why a victim of sexual violence waited years to speak up. It comes out as drug testing welfare recipients. It comes out as not teaching American Sign Language (ASL) to deaf children or saying that it costs too much to put a wheel chair ramp or elevator into a subway station. All of this is hate because it all comes from long-standing and deeply rooted traditions of denying the humanity and dignity of others to prove our own superiority and justify our actions.
When I was little, I remember sermons about a particular conversation between King David and the prophet Nathan from 2 Samuel 12. Nathan has come to reprimand David for committing adultery with another man’s wife and then having the man sent to the front lines of battle so that he will be killed and never discover the truth. Nathan tells David the story of a rich man who steals the only lamb of a poor man and cooks it for company, rather than kill and eat one of his own lambs (we can talk about how this comparison makes me feel a little uneasy, later). David exclaims that the rich man should be tried and executed for his crimes! Then Nathan says, “You are that man.”
Throughout my life to this point there have been many times when I would like to believe that I am Nathan, the keeper of truth shining light on the Evil of the world. More often than not, however, I am David. My actions are born out of learned hate – racism, homophobia, transphobia, misogyny, classism – and masked by privilege that I am still learning to recognize. And I doubt that I am the only one that has ever made this discovery.
I am not a Monster, my current choreographic project, is a response to my last few years of learning, relearning, and unlearning about myself and the context of my life. Yes, it is in small part an acknowledgement of the hurts of my own life, but it is more than that. It is an acknowledgement and interrogation of the pain that I see and feel in the world that I live in. More than anything, it is an acknowledgement that most of us, myself especially, see pain and abuse on a regular basis and do nothing. I am not a Monster is both a denial and a plea. It is a denial of the darkness that so many of us are guilty of abetting and propagating but to which we are so very blind. It is also the plea of the victims of the abuse that results from the hate that underscores our nation and world to have their stories heard and understood. It is a plea for justice.
I share my own darkness with you because if I am, in good faith, going to criticize and call for change, I must first speak truth to my own role in the propagation of hate. I am not speaking from a space of righteousness. I come to you prepared to acknowledge my complicity and with a heart that desires to be a part of the solution, whatever it is, however it will be created.
Over the next several months I am going to write about the blind spots that I have found in my own life and activism, many of which are themes that I and the dancers collaborating with me are interrogating as a part of creating our work. I want to acknowledge the (many) places where I have failed, share what I have learned, and, the ways that I, as a white middle-class woman, hope to improve my practices to not only avoid these errors but also to help create a world that holds space for the many expressions of our humanity.
I hope you’ll join me. I hope you’ll converse with me. I hope we can make a change together.