Stigma does not have to touch you specifically for it’s existence to have an effect on your life. You don’t need to hear something specific about yourself to know what is being said. You can stay home and watch TV or a movie and know you are misunderstood. You can see something in a newspaper or magazine that easily reminds you of the attitudes that permeate society. If stigma invades my home it must invade yours. It affects us both. It diminishes me as an individual and creates an attitudinal barrier between us.
It is often hard to see individual attitudes but when they are shared they become more evident. The word crazy does not define me but when you use it, it strips me of everything I am. You might not fully understand cancer but it has no other names. Why do we use so many words when it comes to mental illness? Mental illness has many aspects but we seem only capable of using words like lunatic. What are we trying to convey when we describe someone as being a few bricks short of a load? Most of these words and phrases don’t describe anything. They are simply a way to devalue and cast aside someone who differs from us on some level. As long as I am crazy to you I can be little else. I will never be your equal when the attitude you carry is one of derision or disrespect. If I have a physical illness you would not think to demean me or my illness.
A person doesn’t walk out the front door naked because we have a fair idea what others will think and say. We hide our mental health problems and isolate ourselves for the same reason. Stigma prevents us from occupying a place in your world. The only place you allow me to occupy is beneath you.
When my illness is something to be made fun of or used to put me or others down what am I to think? I did not ask for my illness anymore than you asked for your height. Maybe if you see me as I am, without your misconceptions, we can both stand taller. Stigma diminishes us all.
I started thinking about all the labels I have; crazy, insane, mentally ill, criminal, disabled, manic depressive, I could probably name a few more. Labels are basically stereotypes, mental molds that we cast for people so we feel separate and safe from them. If we don’t box them in and we allow them to occupy part of what comprises our world, we allow for the possibility that we too could be as they are or that they could also posses some of our human characteristics. If we can keep them as a name, they are less like us and therefore we could never be as they are.
With stereotypes comes stigma and with stigma comes isolation. This isolation helps protect the strong and healthy but it drives those who are different underground. It makes us feel less than we are and feel wrong for having the problems that we do. In the case of mental illness people don’t seek help or those that do feel weak or lesser for their illness. Many suffer in silence and the isolation of stereotypes and stigma only exacerbate the difficulties of mental illness. People with mental illness need support and understanding not labels. Labels are like a sign pinned to your back. Everyone sees the sign. It is physically painless but it is humiliating and degrading. The stigma associated with mental illness is simply fear. People fear the unknown and most know little about mental illness. Many are terrified by the prospect of losing control of their minds or emotions. Most people pride themselves on being rational and in control. To think there are illnesses that can rob you of this is like an alien taking control of your person. What could be worse than losing control of your mind, your sense and will, your emotions and desires?
When we or someone we love becomes mentally ill we become quiet about it. We isolate that person and ourselves. We contain what is fearful. We don’t let the world see a person who is very ill; they are kept on separate wards often locked, so there is little to no understanding of it. As a result all we have are misconceptions which lead to labels and stigma. Just think about how many people consider Schizophrenia to be a splitting of personalities. It has become part of popular culture and is totally ingrained in most people’s minds.
Getting past the fear is the first step and the key to this is knowledge. As more and more people step forward with their illnesses their success stories can only help to alleviate the stigma associated with mental illness.
I know at least one person who never thought I would survive. I would add myself to this number on many days. Much of my journey was not meant to build me up. I would add that some of this was unplanned. People and processes that could be considered helpful were not. I considered myself alone when I clearly wasn’t. I had family at my side and helpers in front of me but I was alone in my pain. In the midst of this, most of my thoughts involved giving up. I had one plan where I would never be found. I had one good reason but I also wanted to spare people the finality. I’m thankful I did not carry out this plan as my family would still be wondering or worse waiting. I did not disappear and I am doing my best not to be invisible.
I find great comfort in being at home. I have space and views, privacy and quiet. I lost a couple of my homes and have lived for years without any of the above. To have all this again is really enough. I once owned properties, now I rent. I used to have mutual funds, now I have a checking account. I had several valuable collections, now I have two glass jars full of marbles in my kitchen window. Marbles for me (and Toodles) are my happy thoughts. It started out that in the absence of my children I carried one for each. I found another marble in the basement crawlspace and added it to my pocket. When I had four or five they would become obvious when using change. I would often joke and say to anyone who asked that I in fact had all of my marbles. Most were without which greatly helped my self-esteem 🙂 As I got more marbles I would add them to a glass jar. I wasn’t aware of it but I was collecting happy thoughts. When my neighbours moved they gave me enough to fill another jar. It was fitting as they were two that made my transition into the community better. When I’m worried or even not thinking I sometimes fidget with the few in my pocket. They sometimes fall about but I have others to replace them. I would wish for anyone reading this to have as many happy thoughts as Toodles and I. I dare you to put one in your pocket and see if anymore turn up. We should all own at least one happy thought.
Sometimes it seems too late to make a change. Sometimes it seems like you are standing within a burned out home. There is nothing left to hold onto. Everything familiar has vanished like some dark magic wand has been waved. Kicking about the ashes reveals nothing of what once stood. The only pictures that remain are images in your head. No one can restore completely what has been lost. Staring at what is NOT only reduces what you believe you are.
We are something beyond what can be seen. We are more than what we own. We are more than what we do. We are more than where we live. Much of what we use to define ourselves has little to do with who we are.
When you strip a person of everything: when they cannot access what brings them comfort; when they have no possessions, no friends or acquaintances; when they have been stripped only to flesh; this is when a person is and becomes only what they are. It is at this point that you can get a clear view of yourself. It is here that you learn to follow both what resides within you and beyond. When you can see nothing but a toilet and your extremities, boredom itself will start you on a journey. Dreams and thoughts are not lost in the business of life here. Dreams and thoughts gain a power that requires attention. They become your only avenue of escape. They become the only vehicle of hope.
When I was in the Hole I often lost all perception of time. I was conditioned by a 24 hour light. I also lost contact with my usual sense of reality though it differed little outwardly. I was captivated as I was captive. At times love was all that existed. I felt it for those I saw, for myself and for what I knew existed beyond the concrete.
I spent a period where I was without contact with family and friends. I was, in my mind absolutely alone. Nothing existed outside of where I found myself. It was an absolute belief and nothing in reality contradicted the fact. Some may have clawed their eyes out or balled their eyes out. I simply opened mine. In the absence of everything, I was drawn to what existed without presence. It was tied to me but it was not me. It was something I spent most of my life denying, rejecting and condemning. I don’t have any names or words as we do not call each other names at this point. I have no education regarding such matters to explain or compare. Regardless, it was that which exists in me and that which surrounds me that propelled me.
You are more than what is hurting you now. If you are experiencing something unacceptable, you are meant to try. There have been times I gave up but I have tried for 33 years. It sounds like a long time because it is. On a couple of occasions I tried to take my own life and thought of it for months at a time. I could never make sense of why I could never find peace.
I am told I died in the back of an ambulance. I’m not sure I ever wanted to die but having done so I have to ask why I am here. I have always been contemplative and sometimes because of my pain I asked the same question.
I am here to suffer and celebrate. I am here to find meaning in both. If I am able it is also for me to share in the suffering and celebrations of others. I am also here to share myself. If it is only a hello or more, it is what causes change. If no one knows you, no one can help you. If I am ever on the edge again, one direction may lead to an end to what is unacceptable but it is up to me to make a try. It may take longer than I think I can stand. Things may get worse and worse but the only thing that comes after giving up is a hearse.
I woke up but many don’t. I can tell you in my case things did get worse. I can also tell you my experiences, even the ones most would cringe at, I would not trade. Some of my learning took place in solitary confinement. It was in the midst of losing everything I knew for the second time that I learned. I was at the peak of my illness but very conscious of my surroundings. I experienced a reality that some do not recover from. We can agree it would constitute a low point for many of us. I have not recovered by many appearances but for what I have gained I would not trade places. I now know I am not alone literally or figuratively. When you lose all sense of time and are made to stand still you can experience yourself and you may even hear something from the universe. When you leave that space you can experience others and once again know you are not alone, literally or figuratively.
I don’t need to know exactly where I am going but where I am has a reason. Had I been processed by the morgue, I would not know the special people I do. I would not have a share in the love I was sure did not exist. I would not have a share in the happiness that laps at my life. I would not know the pain that broke over my body reminding me that I am human and revealing to others the same.
I spent some time with a few individuals still residing in the forensic hospital I once did. They are all very different individuals. They have been diagnosed differently. They have been in the system from a couple of years to over a decade. I really don’t know the story of the crimes they were involved in but each is unique. They all have different conditions regarding privileges. They are each being treated with varying degrees of success.
If you put all of them in a room you would come to like at least one. Would you like the one who was part of a well respected profession? Would you like the one who has a gentle way about him? Maybe you would like the one who I have been witness to most. He is a man who likes sports and was once an accomplished athlete. I have seen the tenderness he had for a woman he loved. He is full of names and dates and quite intelligent. He is a great conversationalist and has a smile to go with some of it. I don’t know him well but he was there before me. It took everything I had in me and great efforts by professionals, family and friends to make it through. I am a stronger person for my journey but I am unsure I would have the spirit to endure as he has.
It is unfortunate that few if any who read this will ever meet these individuals. It would be more unfortunate if the fact that they are forensic patients strikes enough fear or loathing in your heart that you cannot find a place in it for these men. “There, but for the Grace of God go I.”
His name is S. He lives on another long term ward in the hospital. I stand in a sheltered corner in the dark and watch him for a moment. He is sitting at a picnic table beneath a spruce tree. It is a cold windy night, so windy it’s hard to tell which direction it is coming from. It is snowing so many of the smokers are huddled inside the doors illegally or just outside the doors. This baffles me as it is no warmer beside the building than at the required distance of 60 feet yet we all do it.
He lights up a cigarette and his face with it. He is 50 or 60 with a pleasant face and a clean short haircut. He carries with him his clear garbage bag full of all his possessions. I have never been able to make out anything of value in the bag and I’m sure if he left it anywhere it would be thrown in with the trash. He obviously doesn’t trust anyone which may be a symptom.
S is a lifer, he has been here for many years but appears fairly normal. He is a quiet person and I have seen him smile on occasion. He often only wears a T-shirt or an unbuttoned coat over a T-shirt. His belly protrudes enough to challenge the fabric. He has something resembling a goiter on his belly. It protrudes a good 7 inches in all directions. I am drawn to it like a train wreck, I can see enough that I want to see more.
S is one of the psychiatric poor. I remember sitting with him this summer as he smoked cigarettes rolled with newspaper. In jail rolling paper was at a premium so we often used the waxy paper that the rolls of toilet paper came in or pages torn from a Bible. If we were out of tobacco which was usually the case some of the guys would smoke dried orange peels which had a smell of their own. At times the stringy pulp from bananas would be dried and tried. I’m not sure why you would smoke either of these as there was no nicotine but you can’t underestimate the pleasure of a smoke.