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.
Pauline, thank you for writing about this. I actually volunteered to have a psych evaluation done last year, as I had been on antidepressants for years and years and had never really been evaluated. I wanted to be sure I didn’t have any other condition which had missed being diagnosed (I had been exhibiting some manic behavior). My evaluation came back with not the bipolar diagnosis I had expected, but a borderline diagnosis. I was stunned, and even more so when I started researching borderline. I’m 43, and I’m one of the people who has grown out of a lot of the drama, but when I was in my 20s and younger? My behavior was textbook borderline, and it WAS exhausting. Don’t get me wrong – I still have some symptoms, and some drama. I’m not “cured” by any means. However, I’m now older and have a lot of the tools you mention, with a great therapist at the top of the list. I feel very fortunate, because I am able to lead a productive life now,
That’s great news, Leslie! So much of treating Borderline is about developing coping skills. And you’re proof that it doesn’t have to be a permanent diagnosis, at least in the extreme.
William Belle says
I’m glad you mentioned this. I, myself, have followed this saga wondering what to say, if anything at all. The public evisceration – an apt expression – seems to be more proof of a very critical side of the human animal. You have previously written about trolls, a perplexing phenomenon indicative of a very very judgemental personality. Is there a mob mentality simmering below the surface of all of us and is it a question of intensity and opportunity?
Of course, in this modern information age, any one of us can reach out and touch thousands, maybe tens of thousands of people in seconds. Whether it’s a complete meltdown or merely a lapse of judgement, everything we do is on display to any and all. I try to think twice before I click on Send. I also try to think twice before I criticise. I’ll give Mr. Schwyzer a break. I hope somebody gives me a break. John 8:7.
lisa thomson says
This is very informative, Pauline. I am now clearer on the differences of these disorders. I hadn’t heard about the twitter frenzy…I missed that one but this is an important post! Thanks.
I think one reason Hugo inspires so much anger is that in his redemption narratives, he identifies [Pathology X] as the source of his transgressions, which is deeply insulting to other people who share [Pathology X] but not his transgressions. At the moment, “Pathology X” is mood and/or personality disorders, which already have plenty of stigma attached to them, so many people share your concern that Hugo is making a bad stigma worse by confirming the worst stereotypes people already have. In less spectacular fashion, he’s been perpetuating stigma and negative stereotypes of manhood itself, attributing his “bad boy” Hugo past to being a man before feminism redeemed him, as though being a non-feminist man is pathological. In the running discussion/debate about whether or not men can be feminists, Hugo has undoubtedly hurt the “yes” side by making himself Exhibit A of why male feminists aren’t to be believed or trusted.
The common denominator of all these reasons for misbehavior is Hugo, but in his most stable and charismatic incarnations, he is adept at attaching the worst of his transgressions to non-Hugo conditions other people share – mental illness, addiction, being a man. I don’t think that attribution is meant to absolve himself, but it’s meant to point to something other than himself that needs redeeming. By extension, whether it’s intentional or not, he implies that anyone else who shares those conditions shares his guilt (since it’s the conditions, not him, that have transgressed) and needs redeeming. That’s insulting, and when you feel like some people with think anyone with traits like Hugo “will look like Hugo”, it’s infuriating. That covers men, recovering addicts, people with mental illness, feminists…and all the people who love anyone like that. In other words, just about everyone by now.
I don’t find Hugo’s breakdown entertaining or satisfying, and I’m sure not rooting for him to kill himself. It’s perhaps easier for me to hope he recovers than many others, because I’m not among those he has directly wronged. I have no more than some built-up resentment as an occasional blogosphere reader who disagrees with so much of what he writes. I do hope that if he pulls of this dive, he will *not* return to writing about gender, or pretty much anything controversial, because doing so seems to be both a way in which he does harm, and increases the harm done to himself.
Excellent analysis, Marcus. Thanks for weighing in.
I have bipolar disorder. I don’t think I am on the same place on the spectrum as Hugo, but I am there, riding the wave. It is really hard to explain how out of control one is when in a manic episode. Mine always culminated in excessive spending and promiscuity. Thankfully I found a pretty good p-doc and a good cocktail of meds. I don’t know if all of Hugo’s behavior is the bipolar, or if he also has other disorders, maybe npd. He seems to be quite self absorbed. In any event, I hope he gets the help he needs.