The Wait For Allies

I am having a lot of thoughts about identity lately. About community. And culture.

I see as our nation begins to learn, bit by bit, to respond with better sensitivity and awareness to the communities that dwell within it. It’s a slow and painful process, fraught with missteps to be sure, but it’s happening. I’m watching from inside my own little societally assigned box of “crazy” at worst, and “person with a mental illness” at best, and I can’t seem to escape the ever sharpening reality that none of that societal alliance is really happening for us just yet.

Those of us with a mental health diagnosis still wait. There are a hundred things it’s still perfectly fine to do and say to the mentally ill community that really, actually aren’t. Questions you shouldn’t ask, opinions you shouldn’t give, memes in poor taste, discussions about pharmaceuticals vs. natural courses of treatment that are a matter of personal opinion and stigmatizing to an entire population.

Our country watches the news and freely throws about very real psychiatric terms they’ve never researched about people they’ve never met as though those words have no meaning to actual people living in their community. And, of course, the weather is bipolar, a sad mood is “so depressed,” losing car keys causes a “panic attack.” I could go on all day if you’d like.

I watch and I listen to the struggles of other marginalized communities and I see as people come to their side, as I myself come to their side, in the way that allies who are wanting to help but who are not “one of” do – posting the things that we can to educate others, calling people out when necessary, making the calls, doing the work that can be done in the ways that we know to do it, correcting and educating our own person. 

We still wait though. We wait for someone else to come alongside us and help us with the work of reminding their friends they probably didn’t just have a panic attack and that the weather can’t be bipolar, that joking about killing yourself isn’t really a joke and that no matter what your feelings about pharmaceutical drugs posting a meme about it on Facebook is always inappropriate and stigmatizing to a community of people who never asked for your opinion. 

That “right to state to your opinion,” that undercurrent of stigmatization can be the final thing that equals our death. 

In our community where it is our brains that keep us separate, we are sometimes too sick (or too busy trying to survive ourselves, or too filled with the evil that is self-stigma) to be able to rise up and defend ourselves. And so the few that can do, but mostly it’s still very quiet out there.

And in this silent, no push back society grows our self-stigma.

A mentally ill person has been training since birth for self-loathing. We don’t know, of course, that we are steeping in a culture that will eventually turn on us and turn us on ourselves, it’s simply the American way. Just like mental illness itself, our prejudicial and discriminatory feelings against those who bear the mark of a mental health diagnosis crosses all racial lines, socioeconomic barriers, and sexual identities. If there is something all communities still share, perhaps it is this.

A recent CNN article discusses the propensity for individuals with mental health diagnoses to be especially gifted in particular areas, sometimes outright geniuses. The article talks (in a tone I personally found to be offensive from beginning to end) about how the understanding of this in society might “help turn the stigma associated with these challenges on its head.”

This is so problematic for me. It is the “provocative” idea that there are lurking geniuses (and haven’t we actually known this for some time, truth be told?) in the mentally ill community that is going to break the stigma in our society? It is the thought that our divergent brains carry inside of them brilliant ideas for businesses and art and theater and books and marketing and a million other things that will begin to turn this tide?

Why is it that we cannot simply be and expect that the stigma associated with our disorders be turned on its head? Why must we be found to be above the average person in some way in order for things to change? Why must we have something bigger and better to offer the world around us than the simple presence of our actual humanity?

As it stands unless we are already a known genius (in which case some small allowances for eccentricity may be made), we must strive to be as normative as possible. In most instances, we can choose whether we prefer to achieve this societal blending through pharmaceutical or more natural means (though either choice will be judged openly and freely) so long as it works efficiently and effectively. But mind you, it is not the end goal to meet our own  personal sense of normal and healthy, we are to come as close to society’s idea of what normal should look like as is feasible.

And all the while we must be grateful for any acceptance we are offered. We must not make others uncomfortable with casual discussion of our illness. We must not ask for sick days in which to be sick. We must press through the discomfort of any and all symptoms because our diseases, though diagnosed by a medical professional, are not really real outside of that office. 

We must, at all times, be more concerned with the comfort level and peace of mind with those around us, those normative brained folks we keep company with, than with our own well-being. If we choose to out ourselves, we choose to accept the consequences; we choose to open ourselves up to a societal stigma that is rampant, acknowledged, and allowed.

And if we want all of this to change, despite the ever increasing cultural sensitivity that surrounds us, we are still being asked to do it largely on our own.

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