Stigma

Be advised, this is somewhat of a rant (but not really). By the time this post ends, I will have moved beyond the reason it began. Partly because I want to understand and partly because I believe we are all misunderstood; and partly because I want to improve, partly because I have memories of who I was and used to be an partly because I want to change the misperception of what we think or believe is the reason why I began this trip. 

There are words we use to describe and define people, which may or may not be accurate or hurtful but in many cases, there are words we use that are literally crippling. And I think there is a word for this.
Yes, there is. The word is stigma. Ever hear of this?
Stigma, as in a mark of shame or disgrace.
You know about stigma, right?
This is a mental or physical mark that characterizes a defect or disease. Stigma is the reason people keep their secrets hidden because “God forbid” someone comes along and finds out “I’m not perfect” or that I’m just another kid on the bus, right?

I am unsure where this comes from. Probably ego is the culprit here. And yet, there is something within us that is afraid to be seen as frail or imperfect. Meanwhile, we all have our faults. We all have our little secrets and problems that we struggle with. No one is impenetrable. We just pretend to be. I wonder if this is why stigma takes off the way it does.

Stigma is the talk at the water cooler at work. Stigma is the fuel for the gossip mills and the rumor factories. This is the bloodline in the hallways at school that literally destroy someone’s character. This is all shame-based. This is the root of PTA discussions when say, a Mom remarks to another Mom, “Did you hear about what happened to Katie’s son?”

See, the truth is most people don’t know what it’s like to be the kid on the other side of the table. But I do. Most people don’t get it. The truth is someone will say, “Hey did you hear what happened?” and they’ll talk about someone else’s life to give the gossips some fat to chew. They’ll talk about someone’s family and someone else’s problem. I’ve seen this before; it happens all the time.

Everyone has something to say but meanwhile, no one gets one crucial fact; this is someone’s life they’re talking about. This is someone’s family. This is someone’s heart. This is a person’s mind, body, and soul and yet, people snicker and talk as if there’s a sense of enjoyment or at minimum — maybe we point fingers to say “Look at him,” because deep down we’re thinking, “Thank God, it’s not me!”

I have listened to parents discuss other kids and other homes. I’ve met with parents that insisted, “Nothing like that would ever happen to one of my kids!” They say this until it does happen and it was me, standing across from them with a clipboard in hand and asking questions like, “Who was the person in your family that called 911?”

No one is above or beyond mental or emotional challenges. Life happens to everybody. So does stigma.

I was 17 and sitting in a place that no longer exists anymore. I was in a town called Liberty, New York. The facility was small but the challenges were huge. 

The facility housed a small number of adolescents. With a majority being male, there was an offset mixture of males and female patients. All of us were young. We were the so-called “Crazy kids” from the town. Some had scarred arms from their self-cutting, hateful disdain towards life — and they looked and they spoke exactly the way you would think.

All of us were wildeyed and sneaky. All of us had a story and each of us had our unique details but still, the end result was consistent between us all. Our placement in treatment was inevitable and had it not been for a forceful intervention or had it not been for a legal interruption or some kind of punishing influence, all of us would have undoubtedly been met with one of three inevitabilities which are jails, institution, and death.

We were the kids you heard about. We were troubled and the dyslexic. We were the depressed, the unfit misfits and the learning disabled, the stupid ones, or the “Special class” kids that had a story that followed us on a so-called permanent record.

No one ever knew how deeply the roots went. No one knew what we thought or felt. Hell, no one ever asked. We were just problem kids.

No one knew what it was like to be in our head. We were the runaways. We were the exiled and the social undesirables. We were the tough ones and the weak ones. We were the local crooks and the teenage junkies and meanwhile, at the core of our being; there was a reason for everything. There was an unheard cry and a misinterpreted reaction in which this was the only way we knew how to behave.

I was told I was mentally ill.
I figured if they wanted mentally ill then I would show them something they would never believe.
And sure, I did my share of things. I have my stories.

My stories were no worse than anyone else’s nor were they any better. I was in search of something, much like the rest of us are. I only wanted to feel better. I wanted to feel something other than my unrelenting contempt and discomfort. I learned to hide my eyes behind longhair. I learned that I was “That kid,” and of course I was. I had to be “That kid,” because teachers, counselors, and administrators said I was “That kid.” So what else could I be?

I first heard the words “Emotionally disturbed” when I was 12.
I mean, really?
What kind of thing is this to say to a little kid?
Emotionally disturbed?
What do those words even mean?
What do they mean to you? What do they mean to a society?

What do these words sound like? If you were to paint a picture and base the picture on the words emotionally disturbed, would the picture be pleasant?  Or put together the ideas of learning disability. What does this sound like? What picture would come of this?

Next, we could use the word depression. Let’s paint a picture based on the word abuse or worse, paint a picture based on the words sexual abuse or molestation. What would any of these pictures look like?

I remember there was a boy named Doug. In fairness, before I go onward, I have to address that Doug was a hero to me. Doug was physically challenged. He could hardly walk and he was wheelchaired by the age of 12 or maybe 13. Yet still, everyone loved Doug and rightfully so. I admired him. I admired Doug yet, I related to him because although I had all the physical abilities my body could offer; somehow, I believed that I was otherwise handicapped. With all of his challenges, in my eyes; Doug was more capable than I was. Who would think this way?

I believed there was something wrong with me. And maybe this was true. Maybe I needed help; however, the one thing I never understood is why do people support the physically disabled and look down on those that have mental challenges?

Doug was the strongest man alive, yet, he could hardly lift the weight of his own hands.
No one ever shamed Doug.
No one should ever shame anyone to be honest, but yet, we do.
We shame people for challenges that are often beyond usual control.
We do this all the time.
This is why people never look to get help. Or worse, this is why the animal comes out. This is why the misguided youth or the troubled and dangerous decide, “Okay, you want to see crazy. I’ll show you crazy!”

This is what stigma did for me. The shame I felt and the degradation that I allowed to keep me down was punishing. I believed in this. And why wouldn’t I? Opinions were commonplace when it came to people like me.

The only time stigma helped me is when I decided to defy all the lies that stigma dictates. I decided to defy all the stereotypes. I decided that I wanted to surpass my supposed limitations. More than anything, I wanted to be something more than someone that lives with something we call mental illness. I wanted to be more than depressed or an addict or an alcoholic. I wanted to be me.

In fact, one of my clients once asked me, “So you consider yourself to be an addict and alcoholic?”
I answered, “Actually, I consider me to be Ben.”
I am more than any disorder and beyond any stigma. I have chosen to refuse the ranks of who I believed I was and instead, I made a commitment to myself to defy any of the old inaccurate labels that I learned before choosing recovery.

And yes, I was that kid and gratefully, I am the man I’ve become today, which is why I look to help others. This is why I look to help with a language that builds instead of destroys. And believe me when I tell you this; stigma destroys us.

2 thoughts on “Stigma

  1. Good on you for rising above all the labels people are so quick to throw on other people who are in some way different than themselves. We all look for someone to compare ourselves favorably to, so we can feel better about ourselves. And you’re right about stigma destroying us; some folks literally die from it.

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