"Stigma is a Greek word that in its origins referred to a type of marking or tattoo that was cut or burned into the skin of criminals, slaves, or traitors in order to visibly identify them as blemished or morally polluted persons. These individuals were to be avoided or shunned, particularly in public places."
Wikipedia -- "Social Stigma"
I've been very fortunate in that I haven't experienced personal stigma until recently. It took me a while to realize that my old friend had most likely succumbed to it. I can only guess that the reason she decided to turn away from me had to do with the fact that I continue to be mentally ill. Not only that, but in this blog I am vocal about it. The irony is that I am vocal about it in order to fight the very response she gave. Then again I can understand and even sympathize with her human self-protective response. People pull away from the mentally ill out of fear and just plain ignorance. I have done it, too. I remember living in New York City and riding the subway and coming upon all sorts of mentally ill people. I reacted to them the way most people did, by keeping my distance and shutting down. Yes, I felt sorry for them, but the very unpredictable nature of their illness kept me on the defensive. I even worried that one of them might somehow attack me. Needless to say, they never did.
That was a long time ago before I got noticeably sick myself. Experiencing severe mental illness has softened me and given me insight. It has also caused me to become rather reclusive. I believe that being reclusive has protected me from most of the stigma that some of my peers have experienced at work, in school, with family members and friends. So when my friend, who responded with enthusiasm to my initial contact, became totally withdrawn from me after reading some of my blog, I had no experience with it. I was naive in thinking that she might have a strong sympathetic response to the severe struggles I've face in life. I even hoped that she might find things to appreciate in my writing and creative work. I didn't even think that she might become repelled by my honesty about my illness and my process. Only when it dawned on me that she had taken up my offer to step away because she was uncomfortable did I realize that I had made a mistake in approaching her so openly. Only then did I realize that I had put her in a difficult position, overwhelming her instead of slowly, gently getting to know her again.
The truth seems to me that we both acted poorly, but for me there is the lingering sensation of this new found stigma, this internal tattoo on my spirit. I've been trying to shake it since soon after we made that initial joyful contact. That's why I waited a week and a half to write this blog entry; I wanted to see if I could truly let go, but it is hard to let go of the feeling that I am ugly and unworthy. Not only that, but it is hard to let go of one of the few people in my life who was close to me for a time in my youth. I think she holds the answers to the things that I've forgotten about when we were both very innocent and inexperienced. I know it's been such a long time since then and we have changed, but my love of who she was is still alive. She may have shut the door, but I still have the urge to try and open it a crack in hopes that someday it can be fully opened. The I Ching has counseled me well saying that it does no good to try and force someone to do something that they don't want to do, but they also said that she would never try to make contact again. This really saddened me.
This is a loss for me undoubtedly, but it is also a loss for her. Just as I think she holds the key to a vital part of my past, I think that I also hold the key for her. I knew her just before she began to transform into a woman. She changed a lot after we stopped being friends. The biggest change for me was her coldness. All the while she was acting coldly to me, I was feeling warmth and regret towards her, but, being me, I withdrew and watched her from a distance. I couldn't get past that barricade of coldness. She even wrote a little about this in a letter she spontaneously sent to me after her dear cat died during the summer of 1981 while she was away in France. She wrote: "My childhood seems to be farther from my reach and even I am a little more distant or perhaps stranger." And she was, so distant that she became a stranger to me. And yet, she had heart enough to think of me after her cat died. I also remember writing her a letter for her 18th birthday when we were both at college together, though not friends anymore. I forget what I wrote, but I know I put my heart into it and I heard from someone that after she got my letter she was crying in the bathroom. That really touched me, but we didn't renew our friendship. I think that was because she had changed too much. I was changing also, but not as much, not as quickly. I was only 18 years old at the time and yet I was nostalgic.
Not so much has changed and I'm nostalgic all these years later for a time, a place and a person long gone. But no, I continue to believe that who my friend once was is a part of her and that her heart is sensitive to me, if hidden and sore. I seriously considered writing her an apology, but it seemed as if the moment for it had passed and that she would not welcome me in any way, shape or form. Then I thought, just give her time and maybe try again to contact her again in the Fall. She may have no intention of ever contacting me, but that doesn't mean that I can't try once more. I'm planning on sending her an audio tape. I thought maybe if she heard my voice she might feel some sort of connection to the me that used to be and that exists now. There's just something about hearing a recording from another person. It's genuine; you can't fake it and I have a lot of practice with being as sincere as possible. So that's the idea I have. I don't know if I'll do it, but I might. And, of course, she may not listen to it even if I did send it, but I will be hoping that she gives it one try. If she doesn't respond once again, maybe then I'll be ready to really let go.
But the time is now and now I'm feeling the ache of rejection. I can only hope that her encounter with me, however brief, makes her more aware of what it means to suffer from mental illness. I hope that I have sparked some curiosity in her that broadens her understanding. I apologize to my readers for going on and on about this, it's just that it takes time to go through the process and, even if I wanted to, I can't rush it. So this and all the lessons to be learned are what have been on my mind lately and this is what I have to offer. One of the lessons I must absolutely learn is that I cannot keep internalizing shame. I do have an invisible disability, but that doesn't mean that I must apologize for it or for being who I am. I have made serious mistakes before. I am more than willing to apologize for those. Those are things I've done and not the essence of who I am. Who I am is good enough. So now I'll work to fight the natural tendency to stigmatize myself in response to being stigmatized. If any of you have experienced stigma you need to remember that most of all. People can be hurtful, but don't you continue it by hurting yourself. Affirm what's good about yourself, admit to what's not and let it go. Now I have to see if I can follow my own advice. It may take a while, but I'm on the path.
A Recovery Blog
This blog is about my continuing recovery from severe mental illness. I celebrate this recovery by continuing to write, by sharing my music and artwork and by exploring Buddhist ideas and concepts. I claim that the yin/yang symbol is representative of all of us because I have found that even in the midst of acute psychosis there is still sense, method and even a kind of balance. We are more resilient than we think. We can cross beyond the edge of the sane world and return to tell the tale. A deeper kind of balance takes hold when we get honest, when we reach out for help, when we tell our stories.