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.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

On Stigma

Stig-ma --  1 a) archaic: a scar left by a hot iron: BRAND  b) : a mark of shame or discredit : STAIN  c) : an identifying mark or characteristic: a specific diagnostic sign of a disease  2  stigmata pl: bodily marks or pains resembling the wounds of the crucified Jesus and sometime accompanying religious ecstasy.  (taken from the Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, 11th Edition)

To be branded and shamed because of having a mental illness such as schizophrenia is a form of psychic crucifixion.  Much of stigma is due to ignorance that gets fostered by the media in film and news stories.  The main stigma attached to schizophrenia sufferers is that they are at best deranged and violent and at worst all premeditated serial killers.  The flip side of ignorance, which in this day and age of internet access to information comes down to plain laziness, is fear of the unknown.  Though, really, I question that, for who hasn't acted irrationally by the time they reach adulthood out of jealousy or resentment or envy or even joy, love and happiness.  We all know what it is to be upset, to be impulsive and to trust in ideas, beliefs and people that may not be trustworthy.  People get crazy in love and out of their minds in anger and just simply mistaken about other people's motivations as the result of some complex situation.  And then there are many people who have tried one mind altering drug or another, who have temporarily crossed over into some very strange experiences.  To get drunk is to act crazy.  Even excesses of caffeine can give a person a glimpse of what mental imbalance is like.

So, on second and third thought, I'd have to say that most people know quite well enough what it is like to be mentally ill.  It's not unknown, but it is deeply disturbing.  And part of why it is so disturbing, other than the obvious reason that it is horrible to be so out of control, is because of the stigma that our culture brands people with who don't tow the line, who don't try to be respectable, "normal" and conformist.  It's the potential for unpredictable behavior that puts those "normal" people on edge.  I can understand this fear because I, too, get anxious around people who act out.  My instinct is to repress any strange impulses I have and generally I didn't act out except when I was sure that I was alone, which consisted of me talking aloud to myself, gesturing, pacing, even dancing.  I had an urgent need to express myself, but at the same time, I had an urgent need not to make other people uncomfortable.  Also, in paranoid states, I didn't want to draw people's wrath against me, so I kept a low profile.

I have been unusually fortunate:  I have not been the victim of stigma.  In my day to day activities I keep to myself and visit only my brother each week, and so I haven't given others the opportunity to label me and put me down.  I don't talk to anyone about my illness except my therapist and sometime my brother. My identity as a schizophrenia sufferer is reserved for my online presence, mainly in this blog.  The reason I started this blog was to do my part to fight the stigma.  I don't feel comfortable yet reaching out to people in my community, but I do feel comfortable sharing my world and struggles and successes with the hand full or so of people who follow or stumble upon this blog.  I also wanted to encourage those with the illness to come forward in order to show others that we, the afflicted, are not the monsters portrayed in the media, but are just as human and deserving of kind treatment as anyone.

Thanks to the internet, it is becoming more widely accepted that depression, bi-polar disorder, schizo-affective disorder and schizophrenia all have their basis in biology.  As a biological disorder it can be treated in many people (though not all) through psychiatric drugs.  The hard reality of that is that there are side-effects and because of the side-effects many people resist taking the medications consistently.  And there are other hard facts as well, such as it can take months, even years to find the right combination of medications.  Then there is the cost of these drugs and the fact that way too many people do not have health insurance.  One of the reasons why I didn't commit to taking the drugs during the first three years of acute psychosis was because of the cost and because I only had the minimum in health insurance.  If that hadn't been the case it might have saved me three years of on again/off again hell.  But a really big reason why some people do not take the medications is that they don't have insight into the fact that they have an illness in the first place.  This, too, might be due to the stigma attached to mental illness.  All too often, we who suffer, internalize the stigma and label ourselves "freaks" and "psychos".  Those who refuse to accept their diagnosis may just be trying to avoid those very labels.

Though I have met a few people face to face who suffer from bi-polar disorder or schizophrenia related disorders, most of the people I have contact with are online.  My closest friends with mental illness are almost all bloggers.  Several of them are visual artists, too.  All of them are intelligent, sensitive and creative.  None of them are "freaks".  The more people who come forward in blogs, on message boards, in YouTube videos and ultimately in the news, the more I believe much of stigma will be defeated.  Also, people have to start getting honest about either their own mental illnesses or those of their loved ones and share their stories if not publicly than with their friends and family or in support groups.  I'm a firm believer that honesty is the best policy to overcoming virtually all our problems.  Open non-violent communication might be the way of the future.  Let's all use our intelligence, sensitivity and creativity, the way my friends are doing, and take a stand against the stigma.  And while you're at it, boycott the films that are making a huge profit out of the misery of the mentally ill.
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