stig·ma /ˈstiɡmə/ —from the Greek, a mark made with a pointed instrument.
I’ve been thinking about the ways in which people stigmatize people with mental illnesses a lot in the past few days. This is not because the idea got stuck on the Mobius Strip in my brain, and I can’t let go of it. Eh, who am I kidding? Of course that’s that reason. But at least I had a couple good catalysts.
First of all, a friend of mine in San Antonio was going on a Walkathon for NAMI, the National Alliance of Mental Illness, a group dedicated to fighting the stigma of mental illness. She’s a good person, and it was heartening to learn she was doing this.
The second reason was a flood of pictures on Facebook from a former friend’s birthday party. Each time a picture of a current beloved friend embracing this ex-friend came down my feed, and before I could delete it, I wanted to scream, “How could you betray me? Don’t you know how awful this [person]* was to me? I see your embrace of him as a rejection of me.” Then I would jump up and down, pointing and screaming at the computer, “J’accuse! J’accuse!”
[*Trust me, I came up with some pretty good, really descriptive, devastatingly cutting epithets for this person, but upon editing they all seemed as petty as him. So, I just reduced him to generic “person.” Trust me, if I could find something more boring I would.]
Luckily, I had the wherewithal all Sunday afternoon to practice my Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. While the immediate response going through my head may be that these friends of mine must obviously hate me as much as this [person] hates on me, the more rational response is that people like a party; that they don’t know how this [person] rejected me overnight in the coldest manner possible; and that people can’t be expected to take my warped and crushed feelings into account every time they pose for a picture.
Yet, the stigma of people being assholes towards the mentally ill is not the most insidious kind of stigma. Trust me, I could write volumes on how this [person] (and his boyfriend) erased me from their lives because they thought a coping mechanism of mine –when stressed I find a quiet place to shadow box a wall, a very private action –was directed at them. Or I could write about how another ex-friend –God, I so want to name names here –shut me out of his life after I called him on the phone looking for a friendly voice to talk to during a period of heavy stress, saying that the had to cut me off because he was worried I was too much of a suicide risk. Or, heck, I could talk about the guy a bar last week who, after asking why I was wearing long pants on a warm night, got flustered when I answered him honestly: “My cargo shorts were covered in deadly Cheetos dust.”
“I don’t know how to respond to that,” he said as he backed away like I was stroking a king cobra.
No, the worst stigmatizers are the ones who think they are helping you. These are the ones who will pull you aside at a party to tell you that you just need to:
- Read a certain book. Have you considered The Road Less Traveled by M. Scott Peck?
- “Buckle down.” This was a favorite of my dad’s when I would spend hours staring out the window to the detriment of my studies.
- Fill that “Christ-shaped” hole in your life. This always led me to hum the theme to the old TV show Square Pegs out loud.
- Cut back on processed foods. See, the Cheetos are affecting my ability to interact with others.
- Eat more of this food, vitamin, or juice extracted from the pituitary gland of an exotic rockfish or something.
But probably the strangest suggestion I ever got, and the one that first made me realize how insidious this type of “helpful” stigma is, was that I should carry notecards around with me.
Notecards. So I would stop saying whatever came to my mind.
Notecards. So I would be predictable.
Notecards. So I would be less of a disruptive element.
It was the second semester of my first year of grad school in American Studies at UT Austin. On of the classes I was enrolled in was a survey of great works utilizing American Studies methodology. If you’re wondering what constitutes American Studies methodology, just imagine you’ve checked undecided one to many times on college applications. That’s American Studies. Another word for this is “interdisciplinary.”
We would read our book for the week. Then in a three-hour seminar, we would actively discuss the methodology behind the book. Of course, we would also devote some time to discussing the actual content of the book. I relished these classes. Dr. Meikle, the professor, really encouraged a free-wheeling, yet somehow focused, discussion. For the first time in my academic career, I looked forward to doing the reading for class. Cliffs Notes were a thing of the past.
“Hey, Carolyn, Maureen, and I would love to grab a coffee with you at Quakenbush’s sometime this week.” The call from Todd V_____ seemed innocent enough. “We just felt that we haven’t had a chance to really get to know you.” Okay, that seemed odd and a bit socially awkward, but, frankly, the three of them struck me as odd and socially awkward. And not odd and socially awkward in that charming way I felt I was odd and socially awkward. They were odd and socially awkward like they never saw sunlight.
We met at Quackenbush’s on a Thursday afternoon. Almost immediately, I could tell I was in for more of an intervention than a get-to-know-ya. First of all, they were all there waiting for me, and it seemed like they had been there for a while. Their drinks were all half-finished, and they each had notebooks –complete with notes that seemed fresh.
They had gathered early to discuss me. And this wasn’t my typical paranoia of me thinking everyone is talking about me. I could see my name in Carolyn’s notebook.
I was walking into an intervention.
“Chris, we called you here because we’re concerned about how you’re handling seminar. That you may not be getting everything you can out of it.” Todd did most of the talking. It struck me that he wasn’t really going to let Carolyn or Maureen speak. He was one of those people who you could imagine went around telling everyone he was a feminist… then would proceed to mansplain what was meant by the term “fe-min-ism.”
He also has stupid glasses. I will never forget those stupid glasses. Way too round for his face.
“I’m actually enjoying seminar. Professor Meikle is great. I’m looking forward to reading All The President’s Men next week.”
“It’s just that you seem to talk…” said Carolyn.
“Yes, it seems that you just say whatever’s on your mind,” interrupted Todd, not letting Carolyn say what was on her mind.
“Well, isn’t that the purpose of seminar? To discuss the material?” I asked. I could feel myself getting meeker. This is one thing all stigmatizers rely on –that the mentally ill person will shrink. A lifetime of being told you’re doing things wrong leads you know how to make this kabuki go smoother. If I don’t fight, it’ll be over sooner.
“It’s just that you seem to us,” he motioned to Maureen and Carolyn, “that you say whatever comes to your mind.”
“Well, a lot of times what you say seems to come out of left field. Your logic is hard to follow.” Of course my logic is hard to follow at various times. I’m bipolar; when I get excited about a topic, I don’t always “show my work.” But all someone has to ask me to explain, and I’m more than happy to.
“I’m just excited about the material. I thought that’s why we were here.”
“We,” again he gestured to Maureen and Carolyn, “think you’re a disruptive element in seminar.”
“The purpose of seminar is to train us for running seminars one day, and I –we –can’t do that with you speaking whatever comes to your mind.” He pushed his stupid too round glasses up on the bridge of his nose.
It should be pointed out to the reader that I was not spewing non-sequiters. I wasn’t shouting out “CANNED HAM! IT’S ALL ABOUT CANNED HAM!” while discussing Salem Possessed, a work about the real reasons behind the 1692 Salem Witch Trials. It’s more like I made the point that I thought we were dealing with a real estate squabble. Maybe the point was out of left field, but it was still in the stadium.
But stigmatizers stigmatize whenever their veneer of normal is cracked at all by that ball that comes from the wrong direction. Stigmatizers, both the angry kind like my ex-friends and the ones who are trying to “help,” are simple-minded, connect-the-dots folk who cannot imagine an alternative narrative going on besides the one that they’ve so heavily invested in.
But by this point, I was defeated. It seemed like I had had this discussion with teachers, etc. every year I’d been in school. Or maybe it was my parents giving me “advice” in dealing with bullies. I was tired. “Any suggestions?” I sighed.
“I’m glad you asked,” Todd positively beamed like he was about to tell me about the Lord Jeebus. “What I do is I write three questions about the material down on notecards, and I make sure I ask these questions during the discussion at the appropriate time.”
And I’m the crazy one.
I left Quackenbush’s apologizing. I will never figure out why I’ve felt the need to apologize for my illness when people point it out to me. I wandered around campus kicking myself for once again hurting people with my defective brain.
But then I got the courage to go see Professor Meikle in his office. I was a little agitated at this time. I may have slightly burst through the door. “Am I a disruptive element in seminar? People just told me I was.”
He gathered his thoughts, chose his words carefully, and said, “No, you actually seem like you’re engaging with the material as the discussion evolves. It’s not like you come in there with three questions written down on notecards.”
I left his office smiling. I was blessed to have someone like Professor Meikle in my corner. Sometimes you need to remind yourself that for every stigmatizer, there’s someone who puts up with your crazy shit because they’re looking forward to where your disruptive mind can lead them.