Last Friday, Hugo Schwyzer, a prolific blogger and professor of history and gender studies at Pasadena City College, had an agonizing meltdown on Twitter. I’m not going to go into the details because it’s really not the point of this post, but if you want to take a few days out of your life and read about it, you can google his name and five zillion links will pop up.
Although I know Hugo from the blogging world, I have not followed his much-publicized conflicts with African-American feminists closely enough to make informed comments about that issue.
But there are other issues involving Hugo on which I feel compelled to comment.
On Twitter Meltdowns and Public Eviscerations
I am in no way apologizing for Hugo’s transgressions, which have emerged as a disturbing, pervasive pattern of behavior, and which have clearly hurt a lot of people. That said, reading his mania-fueled Tweets was gut-wrenching, and thank God someone figured out where he was and called 911 so he could be hospitalized.
Equally gut-wrenching have been the cyber-attacks on Hugo. While the outrage over his behavior is legitimate, the public evisceration of him is not. People have not just jeered that he has blown up his life; some have actually wished him dead.
Reading the Twitter feed from his haters is like watching an angry mob hooting and hollering as they encircle their target. Ripping apart Hugo doesn’t right his wrong-doings and it hurts innocent people — namely his family. The man is someone’s son, brother, husband, and father. None of his relatives are to blame for Hugo’s choices and it can’t be anything but horrific to read the on-line vitriol directed at him. On-line vitriol that his young children will likely have to read when they’re older.
I agree that restitution should be made to the people hurt by Hugo’s actions. But eviscerating the guy on Twitter is not the way to do it. It’s just wrong.
On Mental Illness Stigma
Hugo has been open about his mental health issues: according to him, he struggles with Bipolar I Disorder and Borderline Personality Disorder. Many of his symptoms and choices are consistent with people suffering from both. He has acted in ways that are impulsive, compulsive, and lack good judgment.
During his Twitter catharsis, Hugo referenced his mental health issues. Some people felt that referencing his mental illness was an attempt to absolve himself of responsibility. But my concern is that some will think that anyone who has Bipolar Disorder or Borderline traits will look like Hugo.
As a clinician who works with people with these diagnoses, and who has personal experience with people who have both, I can tell you the conditions reside on a spectrum.
On the low end of Bipolar Disorder is Cyclothymia, which is a comparatively mild from of mood swings. On the other end is full-blown mania with psychotic features. And that is the brand of Bipolar that is truly dangerous, manifesting in wild spending and sex sprees, public debacles, and suicide attempts.
But many people with Bipolar Disorder, especially “Bipolar Lite” Disorder, don’t exhibit those features, especially if they’re properly medicated.
Borderline Personality Disorder also exists on a continuum. People with the full-blown disorder have entrenched behaviors that are hard to shake. They use dysfunctional coping strategies to manage inner turmoil. They stir up conflict, cut on themselves, abuse drugs and sex, threaten or attempt suicide and go to extreme lengths to gain attention. They are manipulative and exhausting to be around.
They can also be phenomenally charismatic and endearing, which is why they engender controversy. They behave different ways with different folks. People either love them or hate them.
Those with less extreme behaviors are referred to as having “borderline traits.” They still have a black-and-white way of looking at the world and a lack of self-understanding that results in interpersonal drama. But it’s much less severe. They can go through their lives functioning more or less normally, especially as they get older.
Many people with Borderline traits eventually get tired of the constant mishigas and get serious about getting their shit together. They take medication, go to therapy, become self-aware and develop coping skills. And sometimes, they just grow out of it. It’s exhausting being that exhausting.
There is so much stigma surrounding mental illness, and so much misinformation. Bipolar Disorder and Borderline Personality Disorder can look alike, but they’re not the same thing. Manic people make isolated poor choices — like having a confessional on Twitter.
Borderlines, in the extreme, have a pervasive pattern of manipulating others for their own gain. This is a way of being in the world, not mistakes made due to going off medication.
It’s important for people to understand that there are nuances to all mental illness. Those with properly-treated Bipolar Disorder and Borderline Personality Disorder can and do have productive lives.
It’s taken years to bring mental illness out of the shadows. Let’s not send it back.
Click here for information and resources on Bipolar Disorder.
Click here for information on the treatment of Borderline Personality Disorder.