I have to admit that when I started this blog I wanted to be an inspiration- someone with mental illness who could still hold a job.
Well, let me give you an update. I was employed on January 23 when I checked myself into a mental hospital, where I stayed for nearly a month. Now I go to an intensive outpatient program and rely on my parents for support. I don’t work and I think I’m months, if not years, away from being employable.
So I’m just a consumer now- someone who takes his meds, takes government support and just tries to get by.
Am I still a social worker? I’m licensed. But no, I don’t think I am.
You’d better be suicidal if you don’t want to wait for months.
I don’t mean vague-plan-and-means suicidal – that won’t cut it. I know. I’m vague-plan-and-means suicidal and I’ve been waiting for a month and a half for my first appointment at a large, well-known clinic that serves New Yorkers with and without insurance.
No, you need intent. You need to want to die. I know because whenever I call the intern who’s handling my case at the clinic to plead for an appointment he asks me about intent. At the time of the call I don’t want to die, so I say no. So he tells me I’ll have to wait, because it’s a walk-in clinic and there needs to be room for everyone. There are mornings, though, when I wake up hours after I meant to and my life feels outside of my control, when I look at my pill bottles and…
So a word to the wise: if you need help ham it up. Come in off the street with pills in your belly or self-inflicted cuts on your arms. Tear your clothes and shave your head. Make all the gestures, give all the cries for help I don’t give for fear of scaring the people who care about me.
Ham it up. And when you get help, tell me what it’s like.
I sent an influential anti-trans blogger a heartfelt letter. It didn’t go well.
If you’re one of my regular readers (either of them) you might have noticed that I haven’t written in a while. Why? Because I’d become too obsessed with hateful people, to the extent that I was feeling hateful myself. I needed to detox.
The people, if you’re new to my blog, are a strange subgroup of radical feminists known by their critics as Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists, or TERFs. TERFS believe transgender people are just cross-dressing fetishists who threaten women’s physical safety and support the patriarchy. One of the most notorious TERFs, a Baltimore lawyer named Cathy Brennan, has a reputation for outing and endangering transgender youth, advocating against legal protections for the transgender community and generally being nasty online.
It took an interaction with Brennan for me to realize my obsession with TERFs had become unhealthy.
The last thing the world needs is yet another article about Brennan. But I’d like to process my interaction with her, because it’s been bugging me – and because it says something about the difficult task of remaining a good person online.
Brennan hates and is hated. That isn’t criticism – it’s a description of her media strategy. She’s a social media junky, sending over 80 Twitter messages in an average day, many of them hostile. A website that assesses Twitter users’ personalities based on the content of their tweets rates Brennan as “very high” on the anger scale. A typical massage: “You’re still a man. Sorry about your dick. And I laugh because you will never be happy.” She said that to an 18-year-old transgender woman.
Of course, Brennan doesn’t start all of these exchanges. People go out of their way to send her unsolicited, hateful messages. For some people – especially transgender youth – standing up to Brennan might be a way of proving they can handle transmisogyny. But by sending aggressive messages they wind up giving Brennan justification for her own hateful rhetoric.
A typical cycle begins when someone sends Brennan an angry message. Brennan replies, and a hostile exchange ensues. Brennan posts the other person’s comments (and sometimes their personal identifying information) as evidence that transgender people and trans advocates are out to get her. Then somebody else, outraged that Brennan would post someone’s information in this way, sends her an angry message. Wash, rinse, repeat – Brennan has turned herself into a perpetual-hatred machine.
I’ve given in to the temptation. My first interaction with Brennan began when I sent a tweet insulting insultingly comparing her to the principal in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. This led to a brief, hostile exchange that I’m not proud of.
A couple of weeks ago I had an insane idea: What if there was a way to break this cycle of hate? It started when I was reading Brennan’s blog (hate-reading TERF blogs had become a hobby of mine) and came across a post about a young woman who was raped and murdered by men. Reading the post made me feel angry, sick and powerless. Then it occurred to me – Brennan and I probably had similar feelings about this atrocity.
Did she know there are men who feel that way? Did she know there are men who hate rape and male violence? I decided to find out. I decided to send Brennan a letter.
I put careful thought into the letter. I didn’t want to mention the woman from the article by name but I wrote about how her death made me feel – sick, angry, impotent. I wrote about women I knew who had been raped by men. “Please remember that all men have mothers,” I wrote. “If most women have been affected by sexual assault then most men have been affected by sexual assault too – and we’re not OK with it the way you think we are.”
Why the hell would I share all this? I admit there was part of me that wanted to shock Brennan with kindness. I thought, “This TERF thinks men are awful? Let’s see what she makes of this!” But I also thought there was an outside chance she’d recognize my experiences and feelings as being vaguely similar to her own. And then what? Embrace transgender people? Lighten up a bit? I don’t really know what I expected.
I sent the email anonymously from my SocialWorked account (firstname.lastname@example.org), not really expecting a response. But Brennan did reply – and she went all out. She looked up my Twitter account and sent me a message: “Do not ever contact me @Social_Worked. I am not interested in communicating with you. There is something wrong w you.” She also posted a screencap of the letter on my Facebook page, accompanied by a similar comment.
Bizarrely, Brennan was able to track down my real name and personal Facebook account, even though I contacted her anonymously. I’ve since Googled my real name together with my SocialWorked email address and nothing came up. Maybe she pays for online background checks?
True to reputation, Brennan doxed me by posting the letter (which was meant to be private) alongside my personal Facebook information, including my real name and photo. That sucks for me because I’ve been using this blog and associated social media accounts to share deeply personal feelings and experiences under the cover of anonymity. Thanks to Brennan I need to be more careful.
I can understand Brennan being put off by the letter – it was an unsolicited email sent to her work address. It would have been understandable if she ignored it or asked me not to write again. But her reaction seemed disproportionate. Did the kind tone of my letter threaten her hate-based worldview?
Whatever the reason for her hostility, the whole interaction left me with a bad taste in my mouth. What was I doing, obsessing over TERFs and getting into Twitter feuds with people like Brennan?
That’s what I’ve been thinking about for the last couple of weeks. I have some thoughts.
The most noble explanation for my TERF obsession is that I wanted to defend transgender people. I think there’s some truth to that. But if that’s the case why wasn’t I getting into it with other kinds of transphobes, like religious fundamentalists? Clearly my reasons weren’t all noble.
I’m ashamed to admit that much of my beef with TERFs, and with Brennan, stems from my sense of white male fragility. Despite my privileged place in society, I felt threatened when TERFs demonized men. After all, as a social worker I’m eager to be part of the solution – radical feminists don’t seem to give men that opportunity.
I’m going through some hard times, and part of my baggage is the aftermath of some toxic romantic relationships. I’ve been hit by a woman I was with. So when radical feminists seem to insist that men hit women but never the other way around – and the idea that all men are violent towards women seems to be part of their orthodoxy – it felt like they were denying my experience.
Does that mean I was wrong? Certainly not about transgender equality. I have as much right to an opinion on this issue as a cis man as TERFs do as cis women. Unfortunately, I think I used transgender people as pawns in the service of my ego – I owe transgender people an apology.
I think I owe women an apology, too. Even radical feminists. We live in a patriarchal society where women are routinely victimized, and I benefit from that. What right do I have to naysay a philosophy that helps women deal?
If I was going to say something to TERFs, it would be this: I don’t feel powerful enough to be oppressive. I’m scared too. I hurt too. I’m too tired to fight.
I think that explains some of my hangups. I’ve learned that despite having literally all the privilege I can be pretty sensitive. If there’s a lesson for others in this I’d say it’s know thyself – get to the root of why you respond to things the way you do. Especially if, like me, you’ve found yourself sending nasty messages.
So much for my hangups. I can’t really explain Brennan’s, except to note that hate seems to be working well for her – she’s often referred to as a women’s “advocate” (what does she advocate for?) and speaks at radical feminist conferences. But I wonder if she’s happy. After looking at her social media timeliness, her late-night message board flame wars, I don’t have the sense she is. I know this: I tried hate and it became too toxic for me. Maybe it’s one of those things where you have to fully commit or give it up entirely.
I know this too: I’m done talking to her and writing about her. I’d suggest everyone else ignore her too. She’d stop being an “advocate” if she ran out of people to hate. Deprived of enemies, she’d be revealed as being what she’s been all along: an adult woman who gets into social media feuds with children. And that makes her fundamentally sad.
I was speaking with a client the other night and was struck by her rigid view of the world. Her boyfriend’s friends are” evil,” she’s being “attacked” by her family members.
I like to use humor, and I nearly said this: “In all my years I’ve never heard of anyone who’s actually evil – with the possible exception of Donald Trump.”
Trump was on my mind because he’d just won the Indiana primary. As much as I’d like to sit back and eat popcorn while watching the Republican Party explode, I find it so disturbing that so many Americans could be won over by hate.
The implications of Donald’s success paint a darker picture of humanity than my clinical experiences, which generally leave room for human strength and resilience. Trump is different. The fact that vast numbers of Americans would be attracted to somebody who basically embodies the fantasy of grotesque wealth no matter the human cost – I find that chilling. To me, Trump is saying “I hate all these people, but if you support me you’ll be rich like I am”; and it’s hard to see Americans buy that pitch.
Here’s why I’m glad I didn’t make a comment about Trump with the woman. During our conversation she kept bemoaning the world’s problems. Then she said, “Thank God for Trump. At least something’s right.”
I didn’t laugh in her face. Maybe that would have been justified during a normal encounter. But this is social work.
I encouraged her to volunteer with the Trump campaign.
Let’s face it, social workers tend to be liberal – myself included. Liberalism is about helping people while conservatism is about people helping themselves, so it’s hard to understand how a conservative could be a social worker (I’d love to talk to one! Please get in touch.) We need to be really careful around our political biases. Because I came damn close to ending my conversation with this woman in need before it even started.
My bosses were oddly sympathetic – they didn’t just want to know why I kept coming in late for work but why I was having so much trouble sleeping at night. I didn’t know, so I just looked at the floor, feeling my cheeks flush.
Which is why I’m on medical leave now. Timetable? “Open-ended.”
This time I ask the question, and once again a room falls silent. After a moment the guy leading the support group leans towards me and says, softly, “You know, a lot of us have nightmares.”
Like when I woke up that morning to a guy climbing into my bed, getting ready to punch me. I sat up and in a moment he was gone, taking the fear with him.
Some nightmares are imaginary and some nightmares are real.
A year earlier I was a social worker in the Bronx. I’m in the lobby of an apartment building waiting to meet with a family I work with. A teenage girl comes in, then a guy. The guy corners the girl. She tells the guy to leave her alone. “It sounds like you’d better go,” I say. “Mind your fucking business,” the guy says. I’m between them. The guy has his fist cocked back but all I see in his eyes is fear. “Move or I’ll punch you.”
I make him to be about 16.
I’m on the floor. Blood is pouring out of a busted lip. There’s something so wrong about the feeling of a busted lip.
I must have blacked out. My head hurt. The girl was still there. The guy was gone.
These are the things I remember, usually at night. Fear is such a funny thing. The memories come at night, the fear comes in the day.
I remember a teenage girl on a bench near a park in the Bronx, two other teenagers above her, raining down on her with their fists. There’s so much blood. You can’t pull the two girls off, they’re like magnets, but they run when a cop shows up. The cop just shrugs when I offer to give a statement so I leave; I’m late to see a family.
I remember a cop talking about how the neighborhood used to be when white people lived there; he’s nostalgic. I’m thinking, you racist bastard.
I remember a guy hitting a cop with a two-by-four, two blocks from my office.
A funny thing. Sometimes you’re afraid when you shouldn’t be and sometimes you’re not afraid when you should be.
I remember standing outside my office smoking a cigarette when my phone rings. It’s my boss calling from inside the office – “Get inside. Now.” I’m pissed about her tone until I realize someone got shot right across the street, at the dollar slice pizza parlor where I eat most days. We can’t see the body through the office windows, just blood pooling from behind the bus shelter that obscures our view. The police and paramedics take a long time to arrive. When they load him into an ambulance we realize the guy isn’t dead because they have to push him into the stretcher; and he yells, “Matelo.” “Kill him,” a coworker translates. The police don’t react; they stay in a tight-knit circle, talking to each other. A Hispanic guy comes out of the pizza place and uses a hose to wash away the blood. The guy who was barking out prices for stockings returns to his stool by the fire hydrant. A minute later the street is full again. A year later I’m still numb.
I often miss that job – even the bad parts. The late nights. The shelters and the projects. The stories of abuse. The bruises on a kid’s arm. I especially miss the bad parts because I could do something about them; or failing that, I could at least bear witness.
But I don’t miss the blood. I never want to see blood again.
When I started the job kids would tell me about blood – classmates’, strangers’, parents’, their own. The blood was often their excuse for misbehaving. I didn’t always believe them – it was my job to be skeptical. That was before I knew about blood.
That was before I got off elevators carefully, checking sight lines to make sure no one was waiting for me.
Before I started wondering, every time I met someone, whether I could hurt them or they could hurt me.
Before this anger that has no name.
They say the Bronx is getting more violent – more violence, more killings, more blood. It hardly matters. You only need to see blood once for it to get in you, change you. Make your future open-ended.
It’s been a little while since I’ve posted. I’ve been focused on my social media accounts, living and dying with my retweets and follower counts as if they mean something important.
I care about how emotional issues can make social workers better at their jobs. If that resonates with you, welcome.
Like everyone new to social media and blogging, I’ve struggled to find my voice. I’ve labored over long, exhaustively researched articles only to realize you prefer personal, emotional essays. Doesn’t matter; I’ll keep writing both. I’ve written as if I’m an individual person or a company or a nonprofit, aping social media accounts I admire. At the end of the day, I’ve realized I can only be myself.
So let me tell you who I am.
I’m a social worker – at least I usually am. My bosses have “suggested” I take medical leave, which I’m doing now.
They noticed I have severe depression (and anxiety), which impacts my work. For the better and worse. This blog is for writing about that.
I’m a guy writing from my apartment, which I find impossible to keep clean. I love my two dogs. I don’t get out enough.
I believe mental illness can be destigmatized, that it’s possible to start a national conversation about emotional wellbeing focused on everybody achieving wellness, and after believing that I usually masturbate and take a nap.
I’m interested in how things intersect. In particular, I care about how emotional issues can make social workers better at their jobs, in addition to making their jobs harder. If that resonates with you, welcome.
I have high hopes and dreams, despite not having my own shit figured out.
Warning: Adult language and themes; triggering content.
“I think it’s time you consider a higher level of care.”
The psychiatrist’s words hit me like buckshot.
A beat passed in his office on the Upper East Side. Between us there was a marble table. In the bathroom there were four kinds of soap.
I play it cool. Inside I’m screaming. “Like a five-day-a-week program? ,” I say. “Would the idea be to get my meds sorted out?”
The psychiatrist leans back in his chair as if I’d asked for the meaning of life. He paws through my intake form, which had been blank 30 minutes ago.
Calculating route. Calculating route.
“It would be an opportunity to get your medications sorted out.” He points to a page of the intake form. “And you’ve told me that you’re experiencing significant pain, to the detriment of your ability to function; and that you’ve had significant thoughts about suicide in the last couple of weeks.”
When you drink all you need to do to fix your life is stop drinking. When you quit you’re left with what’s left – yourself.
I tell him I’m not worried about the thoughts of suicide. I can handle the thoughts of suicide. They’d always been there, like a loyal friend.
The depression and anxiety suck, and I’ve been working on them forever, I tell him. My therapist and doctor know about every thought, every symptom, I say.
I’m seeing him because I can’t seem to wake up in the morning, as if the meds I’m taking have a gross weight that holds my body to the matress. I’m seeing him for a second opinion. I sure got one.
“I need some insight,” I say. “I need your opinion about whether my medications are working for me. Right now that would help me more than a referral to a program.”
“You can come back if you like, but I’m not saying I’ve taken you on as a patient,” he says.
“I understand,” I say. “You’re worried something bad might happen.”
Calculating route. Calculating route.
He points at my intake form, now full of scribbled notes. Somewhere in there is my sister, dead by suicide at 20; my abusive grandparents; my estranged alcoholic aunt; my ex-wife and the pills she swallowed one fall afternoon in a church courtyard.
“I’m only worried this isn’t the proper treatment setting for you,” he says. “I think you need a higher level of care. You’re experiencing significant pain, to the detriment of your ability to function; and you’ve had thoughts about suicide in the last couple of weeks.”
You’re worried you’ll be liable if I swallow a bottle of pills, so fuck you.
Earlier I’d told him where I’m employed as a social worker. Will he ever refer people there again? Will he tell everyone about the messed up counselor he met from [Mental Health Inc]?
Earlier still I’d told him I’m one year and three weeks sober. Congratulations, he’d said. It doesn’t feel like congratulations are in order. When you drink you’re a badass – you’re Don Draper or McNulty from The Wire. When you quit you’re just some depressed anxious dude. When you drink all you need to do to fix your life is stop drinking. When you quit you’re left with what’s left – yourself.
We shake hands and I leave. The receptionist is confused about my insurance. I’m panicking: are they buying time while the psychiatrist calls 911? This is exactly how they’d do it.
We sort out the insurance and I leave. I light a cigarette, then another. I catch my reflection in a window. Fuck you. The psychiatrist will tell all his colleagues about the messed up social worker from [Mental Health Inc]; don’t refer people there, they’ll hire anybody.
What right do I have to be a social worker, being in the condition I’m in? I’ve spoken with rape victims and domestic violence survivors. I’ve spoken with people who were suicidal while being suicidal myself. I’ve spoken with people who had the knife in their hand, the pills in their belly. I haven’t lost a person yet. I haven’t made a person feel as scared and powerless as I felt just now.
I think of the psychiatrist; of that quality of empathy. I think: I’ll never refer anyone to him.