The acceptable performance of insanity

Despite myself, I love Lana Del Rey. She's the epitome of problematic, with her singsong hey-Lolita-hey and Daddy fetish and the not-like-other-girls kind of misogyny that you see in the music video for Ride (which is also like, racist as hell). Her vacant gaze pouted lip slurred syllable brand is so obviously fake, a perfectly crafted shot at the stars from boring bluesy Lizzie Grant. Her interviews reveal a grating depressive romanticism ("She has been talking about the heroes she and her boyfriend share – Amy Winehouse and Kurt Cobain among them – when I point out that what links them is death and ask if she sees an early death as glamorous. "I don't know. Ummm, yeah." {x}). She's a transparent collection of cliches. But I love her. Her precisely honed, holographic fucked-up-ness is everything I want to be.

Being borderline, listening to Lana Del Rey puts me in chain-smoking Jack Daniels dangerzone. Identity instability means that my personality (which is pretty sparse as it is) can shift easily into almost completely alternate personas. In moments of incredible stress, I'll act and talk in ways and voices I don't recognise. This isn't like dissociative identity disorder, where "alters" will emerge and leave amnesia in their wake. It's more like my identity is a very weak current and if something powerful comes along - like the deliciously inorganic del Rey brand - I get consumed by it. I've had strange men fall in love with those personas, artificial and confident and red-lipped while the real me is running a terrified survivalist commentary underneath. I'm impulsive, reckless, full of rage and obsession and a persistent deathwish. From an outside perspective, and sometimes from the inside, it's a fun diagnosis. "I'm a sad girl, I'm a bad girl, I'm a mad girl", croons Lana. 

Is this romanticisation? When I talk like that, am I just as bad as the neurotypicals who think depression makes a person quirky and interesting, who have blogs full of pictures of Cassie from Skins, who don't have a clue what psychosis actually means? Tbh, Cassie kinda triggers me as well. I went through a phase of basing my identity heavily on her. Maybe my symptoms make me problematic?! Idk, call me out if I'm being oppressive by being mentally ill.

I'm trying stability right now - I'm not smoking, I didn't drink for three weeks, I'm not going out except on chaste visits to coffee shops and the library. It's so boring. I keep having the overwhelming 
urge to book a ticket to LA or New Zealand or somewhere far far away where I can fall into another identity and don't have to do this "getting better" thing. Is this a symptom - "impulsivity in at least two areas that are potentially self-damaging (e.g., spending, sex, substance abuse, reckless driving, binge eating)" - or have I fallen in love with my sickness? 
Cat Marnell

“[Adderall] made me who I am now. I was a little more talkative than other people. I could write a bit better. I was a little skinnier and crazy-eyed. I got more attention than other people. […] If anything, that’s what you are addicted to: you become a little more special than other people. I’ve always been an enhanced version of a human being. Of myself. I’m addicted to that. When I went off of it, you know what happened? I became normal. I looked normal. My ideas were normal.” {x}

Thing is, society loves a certain kind of mad girl. The skinny smudged lipstick bleach and adderall insanity got Cat Marnell a column in Vice and a book deal ("I was Rolling Stone's "Hot Bukowski". I was the toast of the town. I was puking flowers afterhours; I was letting everybody down.") Felice Fawn would never have had the popularity to build several dodgy businesses if she hadn't been emaciated and addicted. Mira Gonzalez' career is built on her carefully curated image, drafted and re-drafted tweets and blogs and poetry that would be over-earnest if they weren't in that affectively flat tone:


This is how you get to be honest about being mentally ill. It needs some glamour, a strong and consistent brand. Someone posting manic paranoid ramblings on a livejournal/some other renounced online format gets grimaces. Someone who can craft their insanity into something digestible, funny or wonderful, gets the privilege of being acceptably mentally ill. 

It's harder if you're fat, or old, or you don't know the exact words to use, or you have difficulty with hygiene or self-image and can't put a suitably pretty face to your packaged distress. The rejection that comes with being unacceptably mentally ill is painful. Think about the treatment Amanda Bynes received compared to Mira Gonzalez. While Mira has built a brand off her instability, Amanda's twitter account made her a laughing stock. Her badly-framed, semi-nude selfies with the flash on and explicit tweets to Drake put her firmly in the unacceptable category. When Miley Cyrus lashed out at Sinead O'Connor, she posted screenshots of Sinead's old tweets, made in the desperation of a mental health crisis, with the caption "Before Amanda Bynes... There was...". The parameters of acceptability are clear: showing distress is out, asking for help is out; being symptomatic is only OK if it's presented with cynical self-awareness. 

I don't mean to suggest that someone who presents a mental illness in a more acceptable way doesn't face stigma. But you can maybe see why, when offered the option to romanticise or to tell the whole, gory, unmanicured truth, one would choose the former. When your brain is trying to ruin your life and it's probably never going to stop, you've gotta do whatever you can to survive.

But still, I worry what this means for people who, for whatever reason, do not perform insanity in an acceptable way. In eating disorder communities, there is an informal hierarchy of disorders: binge eating disorder at the bottom, EDNOS and then bulimia close together in the middle, and anorexia at the top. Everyone wants to be anorexic. The anorexics get to be thin, get the Success Stories and the most straightforward recovery stories (lost weight, got hospitalised, gained weight, recovered). This doesn't mean that people with anorexia have any easier a time of it than people with bulimia. Both are horrendous illnesses. But we do create these hierarchies; we imagine in the public consciousness an ideal ED sufferer. And not conforming to this - by not losing weight or by gaining it, as many bulimics do - brings its own issues. The same issues exist for those with disorders which are already more stigmatised: how does one create a Relatable internet brand around being schizophrenic, or having paranoid personality disorder? I worry that what might seem like a climate of increasing tolerance is actually marginalising some of the most vulnerable mentally ill people and erasing their voices from the public sphere.

So like, idk. I disagree with the Barbie-font Tumblr imperatives that tell us not to romanticise mental illness. Living with mental illness is more complicated than that. We have the right to exist in whichever way makes sense to us. We have the right to seek out relatable role models, even if they actually depict mental illness or instability in a pretty damaging way. But I also think that radical honesty is important and that, if possible, we should be writing narratives that challenge ideas of what sort of mentally ill person is acceptable. It's the same good/bad dichotomy that exists for every oppressed group, and it feeds ableist society just as much as much as total erasure. If things are getting better for us, we should be thinking about who is getting left behind.