I suffered through years of debilitating mental illness (and I didn’t even get a lousy t-shirt)

One in three adults will suffer from clinical depression in their lifetime, so at least I’m not alone.

This isn’t really comforting, though, when I’m curled up under the blankets smelling of three-day-old sweat because that’s how long it’s been since I was able to convince myself to leave my bedroom and take a shower and I’ve already missed two days of work and I know someone’s going to start asking questions soon because nobody has the flu this often and for this long. At those times, I feel really alone. I even feel alone as my husband, who is very kind and very caring and very supportive, does all the things you’re meant to do when faced with a morbidly depressed wife-shaped blob in your bed refusing to move – the hugs, the reassurances, the offers of food or other physical comforts, the reminders of my worth as a person. It’s all pretty meaningless at times like those. When you’re underwater and you can’t breathe and it feels like your lungs are going to burst, it doesn’t really help to know that some day, long after you’ve already inhaled a lungful of ocean, you might get to breathe a little stale air again.

This won’t be the most eloquent thing I’ve ever written about my illness, not even close. The reason for that is that I am too depressed right now to create something beautiful. Everything inside of me right now looks dark and ugly and jagged at the edges, so I expect this will look the same. I don’t remember what air tastes like or the feeling of it in my lungs – I’ve been holding my breath against the onward drowning rush of the turgid waters of depression for so long that all I can feel is this kind of weary resignation, like maybe if I just give in at least I won’t feel so dizzy any more. It’s not a perfect metaphor. It’s pretty ugly, actually, which makes it just about right.

I’ve been depressed since I was five, which seems like a really long time. It is a really long time. Sure, it didn’t get really terrible until I was twelve or thirteen and puberty threw in a whole bunch of hormones to destabilise me even further, but being even slightly depressed at age five is a big enough deviation from the norm that I was always very acutely aware that there was something weird about me. When you talk about death as an adult, people think you’re profound; when you want to walk in front of a car at age five because you think you’d rather take your chances on heaven being fake than listen to your parents fight again, people think you’re a freak. So I guess I’ve been a freak for a long time now, long enough that the word doesn’t even hurt any more, like the scar on my right arm from the time I broke it in three places, which I acquired around the same time. I have a whole lot of scars, but some of them are in places you can’t see, like right over the parts of my psyche that are meant to help me trust people and love them and feel happy with where I am in life. Those are the deepest and ugliest scars of all.

I wish I had the kind of depression you see in movies, where you sit at a window and feel melancholy and create poetry and win the affections of pretty girls. Instead, I have the kind where you lose all sense of self-worth and doubt everything you say and think and do and you can’t write any more because you’re pretty well convinced that everything you create is garbage that nobody would want to read. When was the last time I wrote something just because I wanted to – not because I was being paid, not because I felt like I owed someone, but just because writing is something I love that makes me happy? I can’t remember. I have a beautiful leather-bound journal with crisp pages that still smell new that I’ve only written in once because I don’t want to dirty it with the trash that’s currently spinning around my mind. I feel like it deserves better. I feel like I probably deserve better too, but I don’t know how to provide it for myself any more. I feel like this is how I’ll always be: unable to remember any of the things that make me good or useful or beautiful or worthwhile because they’re buried down under so many layers of dust that I wouldn’t even know where to start looking.

The ridiculous thing is that I know people like me and respect me and even love me, and I know there are reasons for that and they must be as plain as day from the outside. I look at the things people say about me and I try to wrap my head around the fact that I’m the person they’re talking to. It doesn’t seem possible that the person they see and the person I see could possibly occupy the same space. Doesn’t the theory of special relativity say two bodies can’t occupy the same space at the same time, or something? I feel like there must be two of me: the one who goes to her day job and writes a column every week and calls her mother just to see how she’s doing at work and teaches people things on the internet, and the one who lies here and cries for no reason and can’t remember how to stop. That these two people can exist inside my one (failing) body is a paradox. All Cretans are liars. This sentence is false. Something like that.

I’m making myself write this because I want to prove to myself that I can – that I can write a thousand words (even if they’re not very good ones) and publish them for no reason other than wanting to. And I want to, I really want to – I want to spend hours creating fairy tales in longhand and then spend hours longer sitting at my computer polishing them until they shine, and I want to share those fairy tales with the world because I genuinely do believe that when I’m at my best, I create beautiful things that are worth sharing. I’m not at my best now, but surely that version of myself, the one who can take care of herself and handle her everyday life and make beautiful things, is here somewhere underneath all this dust. And I can tell myself forever that I don’t know where to look, but what if I just start digging and see what I find first? I’m so tired of feeling like there’s no way out of this hole. I’m tired of feeling like there are no options, no answers. Why not try? If I finish this, it’s proof that I can do it. And if I can do it, I can do it again. And if I can do it again, maybe I’m still alive in here somewhere and my head doesn’t have to stay under the water forever and one day real soon I’m going to take in a huge breath of air and feel it burning in my lungs and know that I’m still alive.

If my words are worth nothing, why are you stealing them?

A few days ago, I noticed that people were sharing around my blog post “Muslim, queer, feminist: it’s as complicated as it sounds” without including my Twitter username. Not a huge deal – they were linking back to my blog, so I was still getting clicks and page views out of it – but it was a little disconcerting (not bad, just disconcerting) to realise that my work was being shared around by people who didn’t even know me and therefore couldn’t directly credit me as the creator.

People keep telling me this is a consequence of “fame” (I wasn’t even aware that I was famous!) – that people will share your work without letting you know about it. I suppose I can live with that, as long as people aren’t just copy-pasting words of mine without any kind of course or attribution…

…which is exactly what happened to me this morning.

I woke up to find that someone was quoting a tweet of mine on Facebook without any mention of me whatsoever, and that people were quoting that Facebook post on Twitter – again, without any mention of me whatsoever. When a follower of mine brought this to my attention (thank you!), I politely requested that the person quoting me attach my name to my words. I think this is a reasonable request. I have a reach on Twitter of about a million users per week. As a writer who doesn’t have a regular column in a broadsheet or on a large website, I rely on my reach to promote my work, so that reach is important. All I did was politely request that my name be attached to my words. I even provided a link to the source so that I could be directly retweeted rather than being quoted.

Five minutes later, my mentions were full of people telling me I was a rude, entitled bitch who didn’t know her place. Nice way to start one’s day.

In academia, quoting without attribution is called plagiarism, and doing it is against both the written and unwritten rules of any reputable institution. So why do people think that on the internet, those rules don’t apply? Writing, no matter how it may seem to non-writers, is work. I’ve been writing constantly since I was a child. I write online; I write in journals nobody else ever sees; I write for business and for pleasure. I write every single day. Writing, like any other skill, takes practice. Even when it comes naturally, polishing one’s work takes time, effort and dedication.

Even microblogging is work, as much as people love to deride “Twitter feminists” and their output. The reason I get retweeted so much to begin with is that I have worked on my ability to reduce thoughts to 140 characters or less, a skill that not everyone has. It’s not too much to ask that other people don’t profit, monetarily or otherwise, from my skills, my work and the contacts and networks I’ve spent time cultivating.

Quoting me without attribution when you’re just quoting someone else who plagiarised me is an honest mistake. I’m sure it happens to me several times a day and I just don’t see it. In this case, however, I did see it, and I politely requested that the person who did it give me credit for my own words. She responded by mocking me, telling me I needed to learn my place and asking her followers to attack me. Suddenly, her mistake didn’t seem quite so honest after all.

This happens to content creators fairly often, but it happens to women – particularly women of colour and other marginalised women – most of all. When we protest, we’re told that our words are worthless and that we should be grateful people care enough to steal them. But I have to ask – if our words are worthless, why steal them at all? If you don’t consider our words and our thoughts valuable, interesting or insightful, why are you taking them and reframing them as your own?

My friend and heroine @thetrudz has spoken at length on Twitter and at her blog, Gradient Lair, about people who mine the content of WoC for things they can use in order to promote themselves and their own brands at the expense of the women from whom they’re stealing. If these people ever bother to defend themselves, their excuse is, “Well, everyone does it. It’s the internet, why do you care so much?” (Indeed, several people I don’t know made sure to tell me exactly that after stealing from me this morning.) But again – why shouldn’t we care? People consider our work worthy enough to steal. Why shouldn’t we care that something of value is being taken from us?

The fact is that our work – our words – do have value. If they didn’t, nobody would steal them in the first place. If people didn’t value my tweets, they wouldn’t go to great lengths to quote those tweets whilst giving as little credit to me as possible (or not crediting me at all). For WoC without large platforms, our personal brands and the networks we cultivate are the only way we have of making our voices heard. When you steal from us, when you deliberately use us as tools to increase your own worth, you are robbing us of the only platforms we have. Theft isn’t innocent – it’s done deliberately and it shows a lack of consideration at best and malice at worst. It’s done either to silence us or to profit off us or both.

It’s not hard to credit authors. It’s not hard to ask permission to use our words. If you think our words are worthless, don’t use them. If you think they’re worth using, don’t steal. Simple as that.


Further reading: @pixiemania started a great discussion about crediting creators on Twitter here.

The Jay Delusion

Something you might not know about me is that by nature, I am incredibly shy. When I was a child, I would sometimes hide in my room and refuse to come out when my parents had guests over. I hate making eye contact with people. I become incredibly anxious if I don’t have something in my hands to play with whilst making conversation. I hate being in crowds because I find the crush of bodies suffocating, almost claustrophobia-inducing. When I’m not hypomanic, I find making conversation incredibly difficult. I can monologue, but I’m not great at dialogue. Personal discussions make me nervous. I am terrible at confrontation at a one-on-one level. Give me an empty room, a computer loaded up with distractions and a source of food that doesn’t require me having to leave the house, and I’d consider myself in heaven.

We learn to cope. See, the thing is, the world won’t accommodate my shyness. I am forced to interact with people every day. I have to make small talk with shop assistants. I’d probably be very lonely without my friends. Like most people, I require social contact. Humans are not solitary mammals – we need interpersonal connections in order to feel complete. Shy introverts are, unfortunately, no exception – while I sometimes dread seeing people, I also feel depressed when I’m cut off from them. So I’ve learned to give the world what it wants so that I can be happy.

I first took up public speaking when I started high school. Either I have a natural talent for talking until my throat is dry or I had a really great teacher (or both), because I went on to win a great number of certificates (still sitting somewhere in a box at my dad’s place) and even a trophy or two. The funny thing, though, is that to this day, when I get up to make a speech, my knees won’t stop trembling. I have to physically lock them into place to stop them from shaking. It doesn’t affect the quality of my performances, but it’s a physical tic I’ve never been able to shake.

I look like an extrovert because I taught myself how to be one in order to survive. I joined every extra-curricular program that would put me up in front of a crowd and leave me there until I made them applaud. I threw myself into writing and learning the art of persuasive speech. I made myself play several instruments (very badly) in front of crowds of bored-out-of-their-minds parents who clapped politely at the end. I started to see everything I did as just another performance.

That’s my shield, you see. It’s how I protect myself from the rest of the world. I perform. I get up on my soapbox and start to speak knowing that you won’t focus so much on the person speaking as you will on the words she’s saying. You don’t care about me – you care about the image of me that you’ve created in your mind. And frankly, I prefer it that way. The buffer between my inner self and the outer world that I’ve created with all my words and speeches is what helps me survive in a world that would drain all my energy and life if I didn’t have a way of protecting myself. I am still painfully shy; ask me to have a regular conversation with a regular person and it will feel like torture. But I can slap on a smile and some fake charm and treat it like just another performance, and that’ll get me through until I can be alone and have some time to recharge.

The me you see is a creation. Maybe that’s why some people are quick to accuse me of having built up some kind of cult of personality – because when this me speaks, people pay attention. I designed it that way. I want you to listen to what I’m saying so that you won’t look any closer at the person talking. I want you to focus on the performance. It’s how I get through my day. It’s how I’m getting through this blog post. I need you not to pay attention to the woman behind the curtain. I need you to love the act enough that you won’t ask me to drop it. I need you to enjoy watching me perform so you won’t ever want me to stop.

Because when I have to stop – well, that’s when things get ugly. On the inside, I am still a little girl who hides in her room when strangers come over. My persona is great at dealing with conflict, as anyone who’s seen me dive head-on into a flamewar can attest, but the person behind that mask hates it. My public self is charming, witty, charismatic, attractive – all things that I myself am not. And that’s okay! I don’t mind being like this. There’s nothing wrong with being introverted, and it’s not like I absolutely despise all social contact. I love and cherish the time I spend with my friends. I love my partner, my mother, the wonderful people in my life who are here for me when the mask starts to crack a little. I am not ashamed of who I really am, not at all. That’s why I’m writing this blog post – because I know that it’s okay to be a shy girl who isn’t great at making eye contact. There’s nothing wrong with me.

This is just how I survive. What you see is an act I’ve spent my life polishing. I still get things a little wrong sometimes, but hey, no improv performance is perfect. And hey – I don’t need you to like me, I just need you to keep watching so that you won’t notice that the girl behind the curtain has slipped off for a quiet cup of tea and a book.

I am called a lot of things – a troll, a provocateur, a bully, an attention-seeker. It’s funny that nobody’s ever thought to call me an actress, because that’s really what I am. And I’m a pretty damn good one, if I do say so myself. I’m someone who can step into a character who is entirely fictitious – Jay, intersectionalist attack dog for hire and some-time activist – and play her so convincingly that she seems real. I’ve played her so well that I’ve almost convinced myself that it’s who I really am. Playing this character hasn’t just helped me survive – it’s helped me enjoy life in ways that I didn’t think I was capable of. I am now an incredibly shy introvert…who is able to shed her fears, her doubts, her insecurities, just by putting on a pair of high heels and a pretty dress and being maddeningly glib about her haters. I can go out and enjoy the company of people – actually enjoy it! – and then go home and recharge and be ready to face another day.

I may not be real, but I am a very comforting fiction – mostly to myself, but partly, I suppose, to others. I’m glad of that, I truly am. I’m happy that in playing this character, I’ve been able to do good things that I might not have been able to do if I’d been forced to interact with the world as myself. If there’s a point to all this rambling, it’s this – I am the creation of a very talented and imaginative introvert, and by sharing this with you, I hope that some of you who are also the creations of talented and imaginative introverts might feel a little less alone. That’s what I do, you see – I step into this false face so that I can reach out and do the things I could never have done alone. So here I am, introverts, reaching out to you to tell you that it’s okay to be a shy child who hides in their room when strangers come calling. We can all be in hiding together! If we act well enough, they’ll never even realise we’re missing.

The problem with literature

Want to be the next Shakespeare? Forget literature. Shakespeare wasn’t trying to write enlightened literary fiction. He was writing the Elizabethan equivalent of daytime television – easily digestible, relatable stories (mostly stolen from elsewhere and given a quick spit and polish to make them look and sound new) that would appeal to an audience of mostly illiterate working-class people. He didn’t care about being a great artist or creating work that would last for centuries. He just wanted to make money.

I think modern literary authors forget that. They want to create art. They want to be taken seriously. God forbid their work be mistaken for trashy pulp fiction. God forbid it be accessible. True art, according to the modern literary author, is by nature elitist. In order to understand it, one must have more sophisticated tastes than the types of people who read mass-produced romances or pulpy sci-fi thrillers. One has to be discerning. Every great literary author wants to be remembered as the next iconic genius.

Except that our last iconic genius wrote exactly the kinds of fiction these aspiring greats treat with such derision. Hamlet, King Lear, Macbeth – these might be timeless classics, but to The Bard, they were how he paid the bills, and to the people who paid to see his plays performed, they were the equivalent of a good popcorn flick. We talk about Shakespeare, Kit Marlowe, Dickens, Conan Doyle as though they were trying to create enduring works of highbrow literature. They weren’t; they were writers working at their trade. It just so happens that they were very good at it, which is why we still enjoy their work today. But they had no lofty aspirations, no desire to be seen as anything more than working writers. Oh, sure, Shakespeare enjoyed the patronage of two successive monarchs. I’m not denying that he was a master wordsmith and a well-regarded one at that. But to the people who crowded into the globe to watch his work play out on stage, he was nothing more than an entertainer. Not an artiste, not a figure of reverence. He wrote theatre for the masses. He was Elizabethan England’s answer to JK Rowling, not Vonnegut.

If Shakespeare were alive today, he’d probably be writing for some wildly successful primetime drama. Dickens and Conan Doyle, were they to stick to the serial formats they preferred, would probably find a home in graphic novels. Byron was something of a poseur, but he wrote his generation’s equivalent of Harlequin romances. Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters? They’d have been penning this summer’s hottest chick lit. And you know what? There’s nothing wrong with that. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with writing things that people will enjoy just because they’re fun. There’s nothing wrong with writing to entertain, to captivate, to thrill. And just because work is engaging and accessible, doesn’t mean it can’t also be challenging, thought-provoking and enduringly popular.

The Bard was a genius at his craft, no doubt about it. I just came home from a fantastically staged production of Macbeth, a play still enjoyed by audiences around the world centuries after Shakespeare’s death. I hope to one day pass on my love of Shakespeare to my children. But I’ll also pass on my love of fantasy novels, detective mysteries, cheesy sci-fi and even the odd paranormal romance. Why not? Fiction is meant to be fun. Sure, it can also be a lot of other things, but if we don’t enjoy reading it on some level, what’s the point?

If you’re writing for an audience of people who think enjoying fiction for its own sake is below them, you’ll never be the next Shakespeare, or the next Marlowe, or the next Dickens or Mark Twain or Agatha Christie or Jane Austen. Hell, you won’t even be the next JK Rowling (and believe me – some day, we’ll talk about her work with the same reverence we reserve for the works of long-dead white men today). Don’t focus on creating literature. Focus on creating great entertainment. Take your readers somewhere new. Give them a means of escaping. Take an old story and make it sing again. Make it fun, for heaven’s sakes, because I can guarantee you that five hundred years from now, we won’t be talking about dry and dusty tomes written by pretentious poseurs with delusions of grandeur. We’ll be talking about what was popular, just like we do now. We’ll be talking about theatre for the masses. We’ll be talking about this generation’s Shakespeares. And if you’re not willing to do what he did – to write for all people, to amuse, to engage, to entertain – then you’ll never be one of them.