Middle school sucks for everybody. But its harder for some people than others. After nearly a decade at a small, conservative, K-8 Catholic school, I was beginning to chafe beneath the cross of my mental illness. I had suffered from depression and anxiety since early childhood but as I entered the maelstrom of my teens, these issues became too turbulent to conceal. I didn’t feel like the other kids and my awkward individuality felt far from welcome among the pious adults. Even beyond my ability to cope with the basic everyday stress of being an active human being, I felt strange and detached from what passed as normal in this stifling environment. My body felt like a mistake and I couldn’t shake the fear that these feelings were evil. I had never heard of words like transgender or genderfluid. This was the Nineties and the only people who looked the way I felt were Dennis Rodman and Marilyn Manson, and the generally excepted wisdom at my church was that these freaks were going to hell, and so was I.
I was terrified. Terrified of myself. Terrified that if I ever let people in, that if people ever really truly saw me, they would either burn me at the stake or run screaming for the hills. So I retreated and found ways to cope. I lost most of my friends but I found shards of myself through the awesome power of punk rock music and radical politics. George W. Bush dropped bombs on Baghdad when I was in 8th grade and the very next day I came to school with a peace sign strapped to my arm. In early post-9/11 middle America, this mild gesture of resistance was tantamount to burning a pentagram in your forehead and declaring allegiance to Al-Qaeda.
I spent the proceeding weeks and months engaging in all out verbal combat with nearly every student and teacher I crossed. It was exhausting, but for the first time in a very long time, I wasn’t scared, I was proud. I had declared my independence from “normal” and stood my ground and it felt empowering. So I dressed in all black, stopped standing for the pledge of allegiance and gave up on trying to please the normal people who occupied my life. I decorated my backpack with badges emblazoned with the portraits of my new saints; Kurt Cobain, Che Guevara and Joey Ramone. Then the wolves came in and normal bit back.
My poorly trained principle called me to her office and informed me that the whole school; students, parents and teachers, had been talking behind my back and they all agreed that my worst fears were true. I was a monster. I was accused of a litany of fictional offenses, from dressing like a criminal to plotting another Columbine. My hysterical principle had even gone so far as to contact the archdiocese for advice. All of this lunacy, the entire witch hunt, built on little more than small town rumors and soccer-mom hearsay to back it up. The only facts these adults needed to know to demonize a frightened child was that I was different and I was mentally ill. Up to that point, I had never even considered violence of any kind, I was a goddamn pacifist for Christ’s sake. But after being ostracized the way I was by “concerned adults”, I felt like burning that school to the fucking ground. I held high hopes that a secular public school would be different. But the very next year, the same thing happened all over again, this time over a graphic short story I wrote as a nonviolent alternative to arson. I’ve been broken ever since.
I was red flag kid, dearest motherfuckers. The kind our truly psychotic president has been demonizing on social media, like some self-loathing preteen troll. The result of these experiences continue to haunt me. No one should ever be made to feel like monster when they’re only 14 years old, especially not someone who was very clearly emotionally fragile. But as traumatizing as these experiences were, they would have been ten times worse in today’s police state climate. After a seemingly endless string of mass shootings in the heartlands of the most violent empire the world has ever trembled beneath, everyone seems desperate for a quick and easy government solution to a very complicated socio-cultural problem. If I had been 14 in 2019 or, even worse, 2020, the predatory adult authority figures in my life would have been empowered to use police resources to restrain me.
With frantic calls from war-mongering politicians and alarmist talking heads to crack down on the mentally ill like a human virus with the revocation of our constitutional rights and even draconian measures like involuntary confinement, what we’re talking about here isn’t addressing the very real problem of mental illness, it’s weaponizing it. We are talking about giving the state the downright Stalinesque ability to police an entire class of people numbering in the millions, not on their actions but on certain authority figure’s fear of crimes that have not yet been committed, gutting due process like a fucking trout in the process. Well, this is one crazy person who won’t fucking stand for it.
I do not own a gun, but as a mentally ill person, I am far more likely to be a victim of violence than a perpetrator. And as a trans person, I do not nor will I ever trust the police to keep me safe. I should have every right to both my Zoloft and my revolver. The Constitution doesn’t come with asterisks. But with today’s rapidly expanding red flag laws, all the state would have to do to disarm me of my Second Amendment rights is point to my online activity as a radical anarchist with connections to both the far-left and the far-right and tell the public that my mental illness and social media extremism makes me a threat to myself and others. And if I resisted this blatant violation of my basic human rights, it would only give them the moral green light to throw me a Ruby Ridge Chivaree.
I honestly don’t have all the answers to America’s epidemic of mass shootings and though I think our countries war addiction is a much more likely culprit, I don’t deny that mental illness and gun culture are part of the problem. But turning this country into a giant goddamn gulag is not the solution. As I mentioned above, millions of Americans suffer from mental illness and even more millions of Americans are discontent with the derelict state of our dying empire, I honestly suspect the latter informs the prior rather than the other way around. Vilifying these people, especially when they’re young, will only push them deeper into the shadows where they can fall prey to violent parasites like ISIS, the Alt-right and the US Army and maybe that’s the point. My point is that the problem isn’t the mentally ill, it’s the society that alienates and stigmatizes us for not fitting their tight definition of normal in these pathologically abnormal times.
When I was a scared, lonely, confused adolescent, all I really needed was for someone to fucking listen to me, and that’s the one thing I do have in common with these shooters. We’re all too goddamn busy with our fears and hang-ups to just sit the fuck down and fucking listen to one another. We need to fight the stigma. We need to put down the fucking phones, turn off the fucking news and stop turning to the police state to raise our fucking children for us. The violence doesn’t stop until we shut the fuck up and start listening to these kids before they have to start a fire just get our attention.