Pleased to Meet You: Jeanene Harlick

Meet Jeanene

Jeanene Harlick is a freelance investigative journalist who recently created a blog, A Disordered World, where she publishes her investigative journalism articles, dismantles myths about the “mentally ill,” explores the flawed mental health care delivery system, and honestly reveals her own mental health struggles.

Jeanene generously agreed to answer a few questions about her inspiration, her creative process, what she’s learned about blogging, and more.

I hope you enjoy getting to know Jeanene as much as I have!

What are you working on now?

At the moment I am trying to complete an article about the fact that residential treatment centers (for eating disorder clients) aren’t required to be held accountable – either by themselves or to the government – for their abysmal, long-term recovery rates, particularly when it comes to adults. Most ED programs are privately owned, and are not required to report or track their short- or long-term outcomes. Meanwhile, insurance plans and individual families are pouring billions per year into treatment programs which simply don’t work – at least not for adults. The first thing any older woman like me finds when one enters an RTC, for example, is that you’re surrounded by people who’ve already been to several other treatment centers.

The reason I need to be quick is because NEDA (the National Eating Disorders Association) is holding its big, annual conference this weekend. The theme is “Thinking Big: Uniting Families & Professionals in the Fight Against Eating Disorders” – the idea purportedly being to promote collaboration between not only clinicians and researchers (the status quo, for the past 25-odd years) but to also incorporate the thoughts and perspectives of clients and families in searching for ways to improve recovery outcomes. However, when I looked at the conference agenda, I discovered that none of the presenters are people like me, or family members of people like me – a former client who has been to several treatment centers and has some very specific recommendations as to what kinds of changes truly need to occur. All the presenters, on the contrary, are the typical Ph.D’s, MDs, LCSWs, PsyD’s, etc you always see held up as the authority on treatment, at these conferences. I found the hypocrisy of the conference theme versus the panel line-up infuriating, so it prompted me to attempt to write sooner rather than later a story I’ve wanted to get out for several months. I am also setting the goal of getting this piece simultaneously published as a guest op-ed in a prominent newspaper, to coincide with the NEDA event.

What big idea inspires and drives what you do?

Oh my, it is so hard to pin down one “big idea.” However, my primary driver at the moment is amplifying the voice of the marginalized and heavily-stigmatized “mentally ill,” as well as challenging the whole concept of “mental illness” in general. The discussion about the “mentally ill” in media today is driven by professionals with no lived experience of it, professionals who like to categorize us, label us, and stick us into neatly stacked, organized grids of boxes which fail to truly portray what “mental illness” is. I want to show that “mental illness” has a lot more to do with a sick society than a sick mind. As you can see, I don’t exactly subscribe to the idea that anybody, really, is “mentally ill” per se: Just as there are different shades of skin color in our society, so there are different varieties of minds. Of course, this does not diminish the fact that some people who struggle with particularly intense inner thoughts and emotions also often end up in psychological pain, and can hurt themselves as they try to cope with their invisible battle. And that these people – including me – do need help. But society also needs to not treat us as third-class citizens lacking the insight, intelligence, or capacity to still fully function and have a voice in society.

I want to help show that “mental illness” is not what it seems, that its labeling is highly subjective and culturally-conscripted, and that we actually are simply a different shade of human, after all! I also, through my writing, want to help advance the civil rights and decrease the oppression of the “mentally ill.”

The other primary passions which inspire me are literature and the nature and process of writing – as those two things have helped keep me alive to this day. I was a literature major in college and continue to obsessively keep tabs on an eclectic array of authors and novels. Additionally, immersing myself in a book, at times, has been the only thing that has prevented me from unraveling altogether over the years. I am hoping to get more literary-related articles posted on the site soon (I have several off-beat ideas in the works, literary-related subjects other outlets aren’t writing about).

What does your creative routine look like?

In general, my approach depends on the type of article I’m writing. For example, so far, a lot of what I’ve posted on my website has been more personal, emotionally-driven articles. A couple of those posts have simply involved me – prompted by an intense, overwhelming tide of grief, anger, hopelessness, etc. – sitting down in front of my computer for an hour or two and literally spewing out my inner pain in all its ugliness – mixed in, hopefully, with some reflection.

A more recent post on the other hand, while personal in nature, also involved me attempting to apply a therapeutic modality to myself, so it evolved over several days and involved research and a more methodical approach. I established a rough outline to begin with – based on the therapeutic exercise I was utilizing – and then sort of painstakingly looked back at the preceding week and wrote down the thoughts, emotions, circumstances, and vulnerabilities I had experienced during a recent “depressive episode.”

With investigative, journalistic-type stories I always start with one main theme along with a couple of supporting sub-themes. I jot down a quick-list of points I want to make sure I hit upon. Then I start the research – I pour through academic journals as well as news articles, I identify sources to interview, etc. I often travel down tangential lanes in this process, as I’ll talk to somebody, or read something, that raises an issue related to my main subject that I decide I need to also further research to buttress my main theme. More recently, I have realized if I take a break from the story for a day or so, then I can gain the distance I need to see that some points simply need to be saved for another day or story.

After all my research and interviewing is complete, I always develop a story outline – as a solid, organizational foundation is central to any good news story – and then, of course, I write. Then I almost always have to edit the story extensively – as I tend to write much too long – as well as need to enhance the story’s flow, plus I always find better and more efficient ways to phrase things upon subsequent re-readings.

In your blog posts, you are very honest about your thoughts and emotions. How do you feel about being so open online? What has been your audience’s response to your authentic writing?

It’s a mixed bag, as far as how I feel about revealing the “true me” goes. It’s weird, from the first guest column I ever got published, way back in college, for UCLA’s The Daily Bruin, I’ve never thought twice about revealing the most intimate and embarrassing parts of me. I think it’s partly due to the nature of writing – it’s such a solitary activity, particularly when you’re a freelancer (as opposed to when I was working in a newsroom, and was much more aware and in close proximity to the audience I was writing for). The fact that I may have an audience sometimes doesn’t sink in until (if I’m lucky), I actually receive a comment on something I wrote.

So at first when I post something more personally revealing, I normally just feel relief, to have gotten certain things about myself off my chest, or to have expressed my pain, which helps alleviate some of that burden and is obviously cathartic. But at other times, a couple days later, I sometimes also regret being so revealing – either 1) Because I’m just embarrassed about and ashamed of the things I do in private, and the fact that now everyone knows it, 2) Or even worse, if I’ve received no response from others on the post, I may obsessively fear they’re embarrassed for – or sort of repulsed by – me. And that of course is a really difficult fear to manage.

The response to my writing, however, has been for the most part enormously helpful, validating, and comforting. Relatives I haven’t spoken to in years have reached out to me. Family friends I barely know who have personal experiences – either themselves or through a family member – with mental illness have also commented on how helpful it is to hear or relate to the inner workings of a mind like mine. They say it helps them understand the true nature of “depression” and other mental health issues more fully.

Both the process of my writing and response to it have also been empowering. When you’re a member of a marginalized group in society, you often feel powerless and voiceless. So even though my current audience is fairly small, having any audience at all is a gift, because it helps me feel that I’ve partially reclaimed a Voice in this world. It makes me feel that at least some people – however few – are listening to what I have to say, that what I say matters. And that means a whole lot.

What have you learned about setting up a website and blogging that would be helpful for others who want to share what they create?

I’ve learned several things. Some of the most prominent being 1) It’s really fun and gratifying to watch a website – which can be a work of art, of sorts – come to life right before your eyes, in such an immediate way, because you have put in the time to learn the nuts and bolts of web technology and then add your own personal touch. All of a sudden you have this unique thing you’ve crafted live and online for anybody in the world to see. And even though few may see it, the fact that many can feels neat. 2) I’ve also learned that it is very important to not let my psychological well-being depend on response – or lack thereof – to something I post, or to how many “unique site visitors” I’m getting in an average week. After all, just putting oneself out there is something, right? It takes a bit of courage, I suppose. And you never know where it might lead, in the end.

Your website is evolving, where would you love for it to go from here?

Like most people who start a website, I’d of course like to gain a wider following – most importantly in my aim to change the conception of “mental illness.” I’d also like to use it as a platform to help me gain freelance work with newspapers and magazines. If I can post well-written and solidly-reported articles on “A Disordered World,” it will help me establish a more current portfolio of work that could potentially give me better odds at having submissions to more mainstream publications accepted. I would also simply like to start publishing articles on a more consistent basis. This is always a struggle, as my ability to write or “be productive” also depends on my mental health and stability, which vacillates wildly. So I need to continue to work on better-managing my own issues if I’m to realize the potential that “A Disordered World” holds for me. Finally, I want to put more effort into soliciting guest articles or columns; I have friends with lived experience of mental illness who are also writers and interested in contributing to the site, I just haven’t gotten around yet to tapping into the “editor” role yet.

Thank you Jeanene for taking time to answer my questions!

To learn more about Jeanene and follow her writing please visit her blog, A Disordered World.

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