If You're Guilt-Posting About How 'We Owe Britney An Apology,' There's Someone In Your Life Who Deserves One, Too

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Britney Spears

The problem with making demeaning comments about a stranger is that doing so informs everyone within earshot how they’re going to be treated if they demonstrate the same traits. This is not news; it’s how schoolyard bullies gain power.

When one kid gets mocked into feeling shame about their clothes/hygiene/looks/differences, it encourages everyone else around to conform to the implied norm to avoid being targeted in the next attack. However, when the press, the courts, and the public gang up on a young mother for losing her sanity in impossible circumstances, they all play a part in silencing those of us with a similar struggle.

I was just a few months out of my second stay at a mental hospital when the press descended on Britney's mental health crisis in 2007. I’d never really been a fan of her music but even through my petty adolescent envy, I could recognize that she was a talented performer with incredible magnetism.

Being that we’re close in age, watching her career always felt kind of like observing a distant classmate succeed, that is, until her perfectly-crafted public persona started to disintegrate, and I was suddenly full of empathy. Although our lives were radically different, I too, was a new mom with mental health struggles and I understood how lonely a road mental illness can be, particularly when you’re fighting for respect and autonomy.   

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Watching the masses eviscerate Britney for their entertainment was a heartbreaking lesson in how little we as a society had advanced in our acceptance and treatment of mental illness.

With shame and self-loathing, I internalized the public message that showing any semblance of madness would make me unlovable, and as more and more people gleefully picked apart Britney’s every move, I isolated as much as I could.

I was pregnant at the time, and my heartache while watching the world’s treatment of Britney for her parenting choices in an impossible situation was punctuated by my terror that my honesty about my own mental health struggles would only lead to me being similarly mocked, abandoned, and labeled as an “unfit mother.” Whatever hope I had that people would be gentle and understanding with those of us vulnerable to mental issues was squashed that year. For a lot of us suffering from mental illness, this was a common theme in 2007. 

Listen, when you’re in a mental hospital, people don't send cards or flowers. Friends and family don't organize fundraisers to help with medical bills after a manic episode or suicide attempt; instead they’ll do that thing where they don’t know what to say so they say nothing. Some will make terrible jokes behind your back and spread rumors based on clichés they learned from movies. Some will ask very insensitive questions, like if you know how selfish and hurtful it is that you're sick. 

And no amount of well-intentioned platitudes reposted on social media about mental illness support can undo the evidence we’ve seen to the contrary. No amount of “you are not alone!”s can reverse the feeling of abandonment I had after my hospitalizations when my friends stopped calling, and when my boyfriend of 5 years broke up with me right after my suicide attempt because he claimed he “couldn’t have a girlfriend who was unstable.” (He apologized the next day, citing his abandonment issues and pledging his commitment to my fight. Then, the next day, he broke up with me again at the encouragement of friends … but I was the one who was “unstable.”)

The only people left was my family, and uncertain how to proceed, they made sure to tell me all the ways my mental illness had been hurtful, expensive, and confusing for them if they addressed it at all. I wondered if they'd act similarly if I’d been hospitalized for say, cancer.

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I made sure to feel very, very bad about myself as a result. Despite many years in recovery since, it still hurts to think about.

From what I’ve learned in my support groups, I’m not the only one who not only had to fight a mental illness, but I had to do it while first convincing those around me that I had it and then apologizing for being sick in the first place.

Even with all the normalization of mental health awareness in the last decade, people still think it’s funny to misdiagnose others as “sooo bipolar/OCD” and laugh about triggering others’ PTSD as if none of those are life-threatening disorders that affect hundreds of millions of people.

We make jokes about the intelligence of anyone with eating disorders and dismiss those exhibiting anxiety or attention struggles until their symptoms become dire. Ignorant assholes observe the suicide attempts of celebrities and, like in the case of Paris Jackson scoff, “she’s just doing it for attention!” as if that’s not reason enough to help someone.

Healthy people don’t contemplate self-harm in any capacity. If I was drowning, you can bet your ass I’d be screaming for attention, and I don’t understand why people feel smug about ignoring anyone’s cry for help.

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It’s obvious those who delight in ridiculing the mentally ill do so out of their own terror that they could turn out the same, which is a valid fear.

All of us are susceptible to mental illness. However, I may never understand why people seem to think trashing someone with mental health issues is somehow morally better than trashing someone with a physical illness.

Britney Spears did nothing to deserve the vitriol she's received from the public since the mid-aughts. How much longer are we going to keep sharing memes with pictures taken by the same paparazzi she was railing against for pushing her to her limits? Why do people still think it's funny or somehow clever to laugh about what must have felt like a terrifying nightmare for her?

And if people require a documentary to feel sympathy for someone in a mental crisis, what hope is there for the rest of us who struggle in anonymity?

I’m frustrated that it’s taken this long for the masses to finally start agreeing that Britney deserved better, sure. But more than that, I'm irritated that so many of those with new sympathy for her can't see that this is not an isolated incident but a symptom of a larger cultural dynamic. My hope is that this proves to be a turning point for our conversations about providing adequate support for those in crisis, but I have to be honest: I’m not holding my breath. 

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Liz Pardue-Schultz is a writer and activist based in North Carolina, where she overshares her bizarre journey through mental illness, recovery, parenting, and surviving Southern suburbia on her blog or anywhere she can get published. Her words have appeared in Huffington Post, Time.com, XOJane, Ravishly, ThoughtCatalog, and one time in the Letters to the Editor section of Playboy.