Unexpected Ways Having a Psychiatric Disability Is Annoying

Golden jellyfish swimming on a bright blue background
Image via lcbritton.com

Did you know that being a person with psychiatrical disabilities (PPD) is annoying?


Let me rephrase. Did you know that the WHOLE WORLD makes it really annoying to be a PPD?

Here are some recent examples.

Example A

I decided to sign up for TSA Pre-Check. Mostly because I wear some really amazing shoes that are amazingly difficult to remove. Also I find it completely disgusting to walk around airports barefoot. Yes, I paid some ridiculous sum of money and did all this silly paperwork so I don’t have to take my shoes off in airports.

Judge me. I’m okay with that.

To get TSA Pre-Check certified, you go to this place where you wait in line—think DMV, but federal—and they take your fingerprints, and then they ask you some questions, including this one:

TSA Mental Health

I mean, OBVIOUSLY my medical history has a lot to do with whether my Via Spigas need to come off my feet in an airport. Fucking fantastic.

Questions 1-5 that preceded Question 6 above all have to do with a person’s criminal activity. You can view a PDF of the full questionnaire here.

Let me explain to you what this question—”Have you ever been involuntarily committed?”—does to a PPD, say a person like me who has actually never been committed, involuntarily or no, but who has friends who have. Friends who are wonderful, non-terrorist-like PPDs.

Because most PPDs are never violent. And of the minority of PPDs who are violent commit violence only against themselves. These are facts. They can be proven.

The question also gets wrong what it means to be involuntarily committed. For one thing, people are involuntarily committed for reasons that don’t necessarily correlate to their degree of psychiatric disability, and certainly not to the permanence of it. A person might have a common adverse reaction to a steroid prescribed for, say, for poison ivy or a bee sting—it’s called “steroid-induced psychosis.” A person might have an autoimmune reaction that causes temporary psychosis. A person might be involuntarily committed because he is poor, a person of color, or has no family or other support system—although, these days, this last group is far more likely to be arrested instead. (Oops, now THAT person can’t do Pre-Check because of Questions 1-5.)

The difference between involuntary commitment and voluntary commitment, so much of the time, is simply having someone tell you these words: “Just go voluntarily because otherwise you will have this on your record.”

To make matters worse, these days, everyone and their mother is arguing for lowering the due process standards for involuntary civil commitment. Which means that more people will be involuntarily committed. This is done under the auspices of a “need for treatment.” But if we’re involuntarily committing people because it is in their best interests, because they need treatment, why does that treatment permanently stain their records?

The point is, filling out this list of questions makes you feel that having a psychiatric disability is the same as being a criminal.*

We need to stop criminalizing psychiatric disability.

Moving on.

Example B

USAA, which is, in case you don’t know, A MILITARY CREDIT UNION, sent me a mailer that I should call them to sign up for life insurance. I think, okay, let me give them a ring. I don’t smoke, I’m super healthy, I’ve gotten certain aspects of my health (i.e., my psychiatric disability) under control, and I have small kids.

Let’s do this life insurance thing.

I call them on the phone. The lady is super nice. She says, “I’m just going to ask you some super preliminary questions to get you a super preliminary quote blah blah preliminary preliminary blah blah.”

I say, “Okay.”

She says, “Do you smoke or use tobacco products?”


“Do you have depression, anxiety, or PTSD?”

God Dammit.

Me: “What I’m about to say isn’t about me anymore. I’m about to talk about your questionnaire.”


“Don’t you serve veterans?”

“Of course.”

“In your preliminary interview of these veterans, do you think it is a good idea to ask them if they have depression, anxiety, or PTSD? Don’t you know that your very question is going to make them NOT SEEK TREATMENT IF THEY EVEN SUSPECT THAT THEY DO HAVE PTSD? They’re going to avoid treatment because they want to PROTECT THEIR FAMILIES.”

To be fair, she listened to me. But, she also defended their questions with this: “Well, we have to make sure someone isn’t at risk of dying.”

Indeed. But insurance companies know how to do that. They have suicide exception clauses. Time-clauses that limit payouts within the first two years of policy issuance. They have combinations of both of these things. Dealing with mental health in life insurance is neither new nor difficult.

Besides, doesn’t USAA insure soldiers who GO TO WAR? (A GOOD thing.)

Does no one pay attention to this stuff?


In Summary

Our society is terrified of people with psychiatric disabilities.

We don’t understand psychiatric disabilities.

We criminalize people with psychiatric disabilities.

We treat people with psychiatric disabilities as pariahs.

And that’s the only thing making me sick right now.


*Big fat footnote: We also need to stop permanently criminalizing folks who have committed crimes in this country. We need to believe—for real this time—in rehabilitation. But we don’t. Folks wear that scarlet C forever.

March Writing Roundup

Colorful bottles on a blue shop shelf in St. Lucia
Image via lcbritton.com

It’s time for the writing roundup of the articles I published during the month of March. As usual, You can view all of my publications, including those listed here, on my Writing page. I only published two pieces this month, but one was a doozy, so.

Indeed, because one was a doozy, I’m going in reverse-chronological order so that the doozy comes second.

On March 13, 2015, The Chronicle of Higher Education Vitae published “Losing My Affiliation.” This piece was the fourth in my Freelance Academic series for Vitae. The piece recounts how I unexpectedly went from employed by a university—and from having a university affiliation for 11 years—to unaffiliated in a matter of 24 hours.

Many of the challenges I’ve encountered during this sudden transition were surprising, and the solutions even more so. So I thought I’d share my adventures in suddenly starting over, in case they might help you in your journey from employed to self-employed, from academic to freelance academic.

I addressed the practical ramifications of losing one’s affiliation—library access, for example—and the ephemeral, such as how to build a new identity without an institution behind you any more.

It was a good piece. Then came the doozy.

For those of you who don’t know, I write about campus rape and work as a consultant with End Rape on Campus. When we found out, via this article from Tyler Kingkade at the Huffington Post, that the University of Oregon had Watergated the counseling records of a student before she had ever brought a lawsuit (a civil lawsuit that she did, eventually, file), we wanted to know if any college could—legally—so easily access the medical records of its students.

Answer: Yes.

On March 2, 2015, The Chronicle of Higher Education (the regular one) published “Raped on Campus? Don’t Trust Your College to Do the Right Thing.” I argued that UO might have legally been allowed to take her records without her permission before she filed a lawsuit, but it really sucked that they did.

BUT KATIEEEEEE! [Says the half of the Internet], wouldn’t they have had access to her records anyways because she filed a lawsuit against them?!

Sure, eventually, some of them, through the proper judicial discovery process. But not in a back-room-have-some-intern-scan-all-of-her-records-and-email-them-around-and-are-you-creeped-out-yet? manner. The issue isn’t whether they would have eventually had proper access to the records.

The issue is that they took them, before any lawsuit was filed, without her permission, and without judicial oversight. The issue is that, had the plaintiff in the case not been a student, UO would not have been allowed to do this. But, as I explain, FERPA, which covers student medical records, allows just this sort of thing. This is a loophole I urged the Department of Education to close. Fortunately, some folks are listening.

Something Small and Something Big

Paperthinks Pencil Case
Paperthinks Pencil Case

Something Small

I had a pen case, a round tube of turquoise fabric with a zipper across the top, that served me all through graduate school, law school, work, graduate school again, and work again. Like, for more than 15 years. I loved that damn pen case. Then the zipper broke last week. I actually considered replacing the zipper.

Then I decided: Pen case, you’ve served me well, go on to the great pen case prairie and carry no more pens.

Since I’m not currently in Tokyo, the last place where I saw respectable pen cases, I went online to find a new one. Knowing that I have long, monogamous relationships with my pen cases, I knew my new pen case had to have very specific qualities.

People, I found my new pen case soul mate.

This Paperthinks case cost a little more than I was expecting to spend on a new pen case. But on balance, it had great features. See above image:

  1. Big, chunky zipper—less likely to break.
  2. Blissful turquoise color—easy to find in my bag.
  3. Long enough (Lamy pen provided for scale), but not too long.
  4. Unzipped fully, it lies open flat—no digging around in the dark recesses of the pen case.
  5. Recycled leather fabric, so it’s sturdy and likely to retain any leaked ink in time for me to rescue the situation from tragedy inside my bag.

On a scale of 1 (pens jambling around in bottom of your bag) to 5 (accio pen), this pen case is a 4.5, losing .5 star just on account of the price. Otherwise it is perfect.

Something Big

All this talk of pens and pen cases and such has got me thinking of writing and writing and holy bananas people I sold my novel to a publisher and it’s coming out this summer WOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOT.

Here’s what happened.

In January, one of my fiction-writing soulmates, LF, came to my home for an in-house writing retreat. Obviously, we didn’t do much writing in my home because toddlers. Instead, we found nooks all over Chapel Hill. She wrote about our antics on her blog. We spent 5 full days, from sun up till way after sun down only doing one thing: revising our novel projects. We were fiercely focused.

After LF left to go back home to the mountains (jealous), I compiled a list of publishers and submitted to five. Two accepted. I chose the one that was the best fit.

And here we are. Sounds easy. It. was. not.

The book is called ENTANGLEMENT. I’ll post updates on here now and then about it’s progress. If you want to read some of the short stories I’ve published in the past, you can check out my writing page.

February Writing Roundup

Colorful bottles on a blue shop shelf in St. Lucia
Image via lcbritton.com

This post introduces a new monthly series of posts on my blog: the roundup of writing I’ve published around the internet during the previous month. Not included here are posts published to my blog on this website. You can view all of my publications, including those listed here, on my Writing page.

Some months, the Writing Roundup will contain more pieces. Some, like this month, will contain fewer. The excuse for this month’s pitiful showing is #NCSnow—no school happened for two straight weeks. I couldn’t even locate my laptop, let alone use it.

Here we go.

On February 5, I published the second installment of my Freelance Academic series at the Chronicle of Higher Education Vitae, “The University is Just Another Client.” In it, I advocated for something both small and incredibly large at the same time: a change in mindset.

NTTs are the freelancers of academia, and we need to start acting like it. Look at it this way: Your university has basically already said that you are a freelancer. You are already working job to job. That’s what a year-to-year contract means. … But if that is the case, then your institution will just be one of your many clients. Freelancers don’t make a living hoping one client will keep hiring them over and over. They hustle and find other clients, too. We NTTs need to do the same.

The conversation, as usual, moved to Twitter, where lots of post-academic coaches and others had so much great advice to share. It’s worth finding that conversation and listening to what they have to say.

On February 22, I published another review for Underground Book Reviews, a great site that reviews books solely by independent (“indie”) authors and indie publishing collectives. I reviewed the Oracle of Philadelphia by Elizabeth Corrigan. I love love love urban fantasy novels, so if you are an indie author of urban fantasy, let me know, and I’ll add you to my review list.

On February 24, I published “Letter From the Weird Mom at Kindergarten Orientation” in the Huffington Post. This piece, addressed to an amalgamation of other moms, was about how being weird and awkward on the first day of school just doesn’t go away once you grow up, even when it is your kid starting school, not you.

But you still didn’t smile at me. I turned red and looked at my feet, feeling like I was in the sixth grade again. Not fitting in, in the worst way. I know that sometimes talking to me seems like being inside a Surrealist painting. I’m just so weird. You’d think I’d be used to people’s reactions by now.

But we don’t get used to these reactions, do we—they hurt forever, even if the hurt is only a little bit. On a Facebook discussion, some folks defended “me” by saying that the other moms in the tale just sounded “mean.” But I don’t think it’s that simple. I wrote:

I think people have certain expectations of how other people should act, and when you don’t act in those ways, you basically disrupt their whole reality. That might make you seem weird and them seem mean. But really it’s about loosening up our expectations. Being open to new things, people who act in unexpected ways.

What I was getting at is this: everyone (including weird me) has expectations of how others should act, and when others don’t meet those expectations, I/we might not treat those people how they deserve to be treated as fellow human beings. That is, indeed, we treat them meanly.

We are all bumping up against each other, disrupting each other. So to be more forgiving with our expectations seems to me, at this moment, the only way to see the weird as wonderful.

See you again on the first Monday of April for the next Writing Roundup.

Why It Stings, or Disability and Oscars 2015

Image via lcbritton.com
Image via lcbritton.com

I didn’t watch the Oscars for a variety of reasons. First, there was the complete White-Out of the awards nominations, which is just gross, especially in a year with SELMA.

But I heard who won Best Actor and Actress in a Leading Role. Eddie Redmayne won best actor for playing a person with a disability, famous physicist Stephen Hawking (who has ALS). Julianne Moore won best actress for playing a person with a disability (early onset Alzheimer’s disease).

Neither of these actors are people with disabilities similar to the ones they are portraying. Of course they aren’t.

Their wins made me think back to all of the Oscar wins that traded on performances of disability—on freakish circus act performances of disability. Here’s my off-the-top list of Oscar winners that traded on performance of disability:

  • As Good As It Gets
  • My Left Foot
  • Forrest Gump
  • The King’s Speech
  • Ray
  • Scent of a Woman
  • A Beautiful Mind
  • Rain Man
  • One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
  • Silver Linings Playbook
  • Girl, Interrupted

The list goes on and on. And I’m sure there are many more that were nominated that didn’t win.

And none of the actors who portrayed people with disabilities in the films listed above were actually themselves disabled in the way that they were portraying. Jamie Foxx and Al Pacino are not people with severe visual impairments. Eddie Redmayne does not have ALS (that we know of). Colin Firth does not have severe speech disfluency. Russell Crowe does not have schizophrenia (that we know of). Similarly, Angelina Jolie does not have a personality disorder (that we know of), and certainly not one as severe as the one she portrayed in Girl, Interrupted and won an Oscar for.

So what’s my problem? Shouldn’t we, as a society, and we, as people with disabilities, be, you know, psyched to see people with disabilities portrayed on screen?

No. It’s not that simple.

Like most things, there’s more than one way to do a thing. Most films that trade on disability to garner Oscar nods are doing just that: trading on disability. These films trade on the disabilities of real people to make money and gain prestige while actually excluding people who live with disabilities from that world of money and prestige.

Part of the problem is this: How many in Hollywood can talk about their psychiatric disabilities without fear of repercussions? Because Hollywood is a world where it’s A-OK for top Sony brass and producers to write these words to each other about someone as powerful as Angelina Jolie:

A further leaked email thread between Sony Pictures co-chairperson Amy Pascal and movie producer Scott Rudin reveals Rudin once again harshly criticising Angelina Jolie. In the exchange, published by Gawker, Rudin describes the actress as “seriously out of her mind” as tension mounts over Jolie’s planned film Cleopatra, for which Eric Roth produced a script.

Who in Hollywood is actually going to come forward and give these assholes actual ammo to criticize their mental health?

I know I wouldn’t.

So here we are, in a world where studios race to put out the latest freakshow of a film to win Oscars, but call actors “crazy” behind their backs, shaming them—and all of us—into silence. 

Studios do not hire actors with disabilities to play characters with disabilities. It’s like the Globe Theater, dressing men up as women. It stings.

It’s also getting old.

CAVEATS: Bravo to Breaking Bad for recently breaking this trend with RJ Mitte, a brilliant actor playing a brilliant role on a brilliant, if brutal, show. Also bravo to Michael J. Fox who is breaking every trend kind of constantly. I LOVE THE GOOD WIFE basically all the time anyway so go watch it.

The Super Bowl of White Male Privilege

Image via Morguefile: http://mrg.bz/u1ln2h
Image via Morguefile: http://mrg.bz/u1ln2h

This is all I could think about last night while watching the Super Bowl. I’m sure I’m not the only one.

(Heads up: No mention of the half-time show follows because that would take an entire post in and of itself. Plus this is about white male privilege. Katy Perry dominating/riding the King of Beasts wink wink in her fire dress needs way more than a listicle.)

Here we go. In a count of 5, the Super Bowl of White Male Privilege:

1. The announcers pointed out, before kickoff, that Bill Belichick was wearing his “favorite hoodie,” highlighting the privilege of white men in any field to dress down (or in Bill’s case, like a slob), while people of color must adhere to heightened, invisible dress codes to earn respect. And if you’re a person of color and don’t dress up, as we know, you are very well risking your life. But even if you do dress up, like Ersula Ore and others, you are not immune to police abuse.

2. Tom Brady has the privilege to abandon his pregnant fiancee for a supermodel without invoking racial stereotypes—do all white men leave their pregnant girlfriends? Is that a white thing to do? Yet, white people go crazy that Richard Sherman hasn’t married his pregnant girlfriend. Every article on Sherman and his girlfriend’s impending due date is flooded with racist comments by white people talking about how he hasn’t married his “baby mama.” In case you were wondering, yes, “baby mama” is racially loaded language.

3. Gronk gives interview after interview, and each interview has any thinking person dropping her head to her desk in brain pain. But no one says he speaks for all white men, demonstrating the lack of intelligence, education, or articulateness of all white men. While Marshawn Lynch is, well, you know.

4. Meanwhile, Russell Wilson is quietly breaking records as the first Black quarterback to ever play twice in the Super Bowl. But his record doesn’t make the headlines it should. Oh, by the way, it is Black History Month. You notice?

5. And all of this is happening in a context that has a certain (large) group of white Americans pulling for the Patriots—a team they would have never otherwise pulled for (Taxachusetts, amirite?)—simply because the alternative is too distasteful. But don’t you dare call these newbie Patriots fans racist. They just wish Sherman would be quiet and get married. They just prefer watching Brady throw to Gronk, you know, because those two are “All-American.”

Yeah. We know.

Love Poem

Image via Laura Collins Britton, lcbritton.com
Image via Laura Collins Britton, lcbritton.com

I saw a tweet come across my feed today that Tom Sleigh is doing a reading a bookstore near Harvard. (I live nowhere near Harvard.) I took a poetry workshop with Tom Sleigh a million years ago at Johns Hopkins where I got my master’s in creative writing. He was the kindest, most generous professor and writer. Tom, if you’re reading this, thank you again.

I wrote this during that time, not for the workshop, but for someone in the workshop. #younglove


For You

For you I have transcended gender.
It’s like being friends with a priest,
I told you, at the end of a late-night bender
when we were drunk on words. At least

you had the courtesy to tell
me (at the diner, remember?) just how
you belong to another place, you fell
in love there last year. Even now

I hear you say those words, but it doesn’t
matter to me, I do what I do
because I can’t say what was, wasn’t—
though the truth offends, or scares you.

I’m your benefactress in a black dress,
your armed and mounted standard-bearer,
your journeyman minstrel (singing to confess
my malintent), your secret sharer.