In light of the horrific school shooting that left 27 dead in Newtown, Connecticut yesterday, a lot of people – both in the media and the populace at large – have been saying that it’s time to talk about mental illness.

I’m all for that. We do need to talk more openly and honestly about mental illness in all facets of life. But when we do have that talk, especially in relation to this tragedy, we need to be incredibly careful about the tone and the direction it takes. And I can’t say that I like where this particular conversation is going so far.

If we, as a society, are going to Talk About Mental Illness, can we talk about treatment and outreach? Can we try to eschew, or at least address, any preconceived notions of weakness or deviance? Can we not talk about bootstraps and positive attitudes? Can we do our very best to treat these afflictions like any physical disease? Can we attack the illness and not the patients?  Can we try to get past the stereotypes and prejudice attached to any and all mental illnesses?

And, if we’re currently too fucked up and traumatized and devastated and scared by this brutal situation to deal with all of that right now, then I hope we can at least try to keep the following two points in mind:

  1. Mental illness is a common comorbidity of Asperger’s Syndrome, for many reasons, but Asperger’s Sydrome is not a mental illness in of itself.
  2. While some people who suffer from mental illness, Asperger’s related or not, could possibly be ticking time bombs, all of us are vulnerable. And acting like we’re all potentially dangerous is only going to make us more so.

Even now, as a depressed and autistic woman, I can’t simply grieve with my fellow human beings. I can’t just be sad and confused; I also have to be defensive.

I have to read things about killer Adam Lanza like:

He was described as socially awkward and was known in high school as “intelligent, but nervous and fidgety, spitting his words out, as if having to speak up were painful.”


He was smart,” the insider said. “He was like one of these real brainiac computer kind of kids.”


“Adam Lanza has been a weird kid since we were 5 years old.”


“He was just a weird kid. He was a very quiet kid, a shy kid, maybe socially awkward,” Israel added.


He was a socially awkward kid,” Ms. Israel said. “He always had issues. He was kind of a loner. I don’t know who his friends were.”


“[…]he just didn’t really connect with our high school, and didn’t really connect with our town.”

and know that any one of things can, or could have, at one time, been said about me.

I have to watch ostensibly respectable outlets like CBS and The New York Times report that Lanza maybe, kind of, sort of, might have had Asperger’s Syndrome and worry about what the inevitable onslaught of misinformation and stereotypes will mean for all of the awkward loners out there just like me who will, once again, have to add suspicion to list of issues that are keeping them isolated. And I have to watch people trot out the old gem about people with Asperger’s being absolutely incapable of feeling empathy (which is, at best, an oversimplification and, at worst, absolutely untrue) as some sort of explanation for what happened in Lanza’s head to make him capable of such unbelievable malice, cruelty and evil.

Even in this moment of collective grief, I am removed from the rest of society.

Isolation just like this is one of the reasons that so many people with Asperger’s Syndrome also suffer from anxiety, depression and other mental illnesses in the first place. None of what is happening right now is going to help us in any way. And it has the potential to make things worse.

I get the impulses behind the narrative that people are building around Lanza right now. Honestly, I do. People are trying to make some sense of a completely nonsensical event. It’s only human to want to find some meaning, context, or explanation in the face of such an incomprehensible act.

But the thing is, we’ll never find any of those things. We never do. The current confusion and sloppy speculation will eventually give way to hard facts and more clinical discussion of what caused Lanza to gun down so many people and to brutally murder such young children, but we’ll never actually have answers. We will never understand this tragedy and will never understand Adam Lanza. We can’t even ask him to explain himself.

What we can do is try to understand mental illness– Asperger’s related or not– a little better. We can talk to people who suffer from it, including people who have never fucking considered hurting anyone other than themselves, and try to understand what is happening to them. We can have a mental health talk that is as much, if not more, about helping people for its own sake as it is about stopping potentially dangerous people from hurting the innocent normal population.

Even if that doesn’t prevent the next mass murder or equally monstrous event on a major scale, it might just do a little to lessen the little tragedies that people who suffer from mental illness face every single day of our lives.


a young Amy Winehouse

There’s an enormous chasm between people who have never suffered from a mental illness and those who have. For the unafflicted, it’s incredibly hard to comprehend, and for those of us on the other side, it’s almost impossible to explain.

I can tell you that I suffer from depression. I can say that, every day, I wage a war against my own mind in an effort to keep myself functional on a good day and alive on a bad one. I can try to describe the feeling that always lingers in the back of my brain that tells me that I’m worthless, and admit that it is, all too often, stronger than the rest of me, stronger than my tireless therapist, stronger than the love of all of my family and friends combined. But if you haven’t been there, or somewhere similar, you can’t truly feel the unbearable, relentless weight of it.

If you have no history of mental illness, it’s probably pretty easy to dismiss the death of a twenty-seven year old addict whose biggest hit was a flippant “no no no” to treatment. She had talent and riches and adoring fans. She had every possible resource available to her, but she continuously refused help. Clearly, she was carelessly throwing away her gifts and her life.

I didn’t know her, and I wasn’t in her head. But I can almost guarantee you that it wasn’t that simple.

The dismissive comments I’ve been reading on the internet about Amy Winehouse are getting to me. It saddens me that so many people think that a woman with her problems was entirely unworthy of sympathy and that she deserved what they consider an obvious and inevitable fate.

But what really breaks my heart is that that little girl up there would probably have agreed with them.