Let’s stop talking about Donald Trump’s mental illness (in defense of mental illness)

I’ve seen a lot of “Trump is mentally ill” articles and memes this election cycle. At first I found them entertaining, but then pretty quickly they set me to thinking.

In defense of my mentally ill daughter Jesse, let me just say these few things.

Suffering from mental illness doesn’t disqualify a person from holding a job with tremendous responsibility, not even the presidency.

Lacking self-awareness, avoiding treatment, having no control over your illness so that you hurt other people? Probably does, but in the same way that any human being, mentally ill or not, is generally required to behave in a responsible way.

Suffering from mental illness doesn’t turn a person into an unmitigated asshole. It can make a person appear to be so, but it usually isn’t true. Thanks to her Tourettic OCD and anxiety, Jesse blurts “the N word”, blurts inappropriate sexualized chatter, and says inappropriate things all the time; she often has trouble connecting with people in ordinary conversation; she has terrible mood swings and tantrums; she lashes out at her family regularly.

But she’s also a profoundly empathic, loving, thoughtful person who believes in justice and equal opportunity and charity and diversity and hope and love and all the other moral imperatives her parents have taught her.

When her OCD and anxiety don’t own her, she’s charming, supportive, and very bright. She’s curious about the world, and she asks questions with insight. She’s a model big sister, providing for her brother and entertaining him. She’s thoughtful with compliments to people who are mean to her. She forgives friends and family for shunning her or lashing out at her for behaviors arising out of her illness.

And here’s a thing.  She takes responsibility for herself (partly because we make her, but mostly because she just does). She doesn’t blame everyone around her. She apologizes, every single day, for the shit she pulls.

She is excluded from activity after activity when her behaviors are disruptive or offensive. It’s what happens when you’re not in control, and so we’re teaching her that she has to work hard to gain control. (With her family right by her side.)

She doesn’t think she’s so awesome and amazing that she’s entitled to entrench herself in bad ideas. In fact, she hates herself. (We’re working on that.)

She goes to therapy every week (sometimes unwillingly, but we’re there to prod her along). For a couple months last spring she was in therapy three hours a day, four days a week.  She’ll do it again starting this fall as she tools up for school. She’s preparing, fighting, learning. Changing and growing, and becoming increasingly self aware. (So am I.)

That’s what severe mental illness looks like to me. It doesn’t look at all like Donald Trump.

A significant mental illness is usually something you’re just born with. When it comes to judging a person, what’s relevant isn’t the illness — it’s what you do with yourself, with whatever talents and impediments nature imposed on you.

Indicting Donald Trump because he has a mental illness is a cheap play to the deeply entrenched social stigma that still attaches to mental illness, just as surely as the Donald played the race card on President Obama with that birther business. The person who pulls the mental illness card on the Donald is saying this: “Look, you and I already know he’s a jerk. He’s egocentric and narcissistic, he’s a megalomaniac, he’s ignorant and thoughtless and yadda yadda and all that, but it gets EVEN WORSE. This is all because…. he’s MENTALLY ILL!”

OH MY GOD, YOU MEAN HE’S NOT JUST AN ASSHOLE?? He’s mentally ill!! That’s so much worse!!!

But let’s be clear. Lots and lots of people suffer from mental illness and go right on about the business of being decent, well-adjusted, thoughtful human beings.

In other words, if you have a problem with Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, or anyone else in this world, please consider talking about the things they do, the things they say, the way they carry themselves. You might consider exerting pressure on whoever it is you have an issue with, the way we exert pressure on Jesse to change, improve, apologize, and take responsibility. Or, barring that, to just go away. Votes can make that happen.

But please don’t play the crazy card anymore.  Please don’t throw my daughter into the same basket as Donald Trump. He is a uniquely awful person because he chooses to be, not because he’s a victim of mental illness.

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