Stigma

My son and I were talking not long ago about his brother’s mental illness, and it came out that we both had noticed unusual and unfortunate behavior last year and said nothing because we didn’t want others to judge him harshly, which seemed inevitable to us and still does. I just wanted whatever was making him act like that to go away. I still do.

I understand the stigma of mental illness. It doesn’t make sense, and I still get it. When somebody seems unreasonable and unreasoning, many of us think “Crazy.” Over the past year or so, many, many times out of frustration I’ve reacted to something my son did or said by thinking, “Have you lost your mind?” or “Are you nuts?” Ordinarily I would have asked it aloud, but now I know that such a question is still rhetorical, although now the answer is “Yes,” rather than “No.”

I went on the National Association for Mental Illness (NAMI) walk this year, and the theme was “Stomp the Stigma.” I think stigma is a big problem for people with mental illness, in that people’s prejudices and biases adversely affect the way we deal with mental patients. “Stomp the Stigma” strikes me as a silly metaphor for a worthwhile objective. I’m not aware of any stigma associated with diabetes, for instance, and I don’t think arthritis or cancer or heart disease carry the same burden of shame and ostracism. Still, stomping won’t help anybody.

I remember how reluctant I was to see a therapist the first time. Two of my best friends had told me I ought to, which of course made it that much worse. I did it, though. Those sessions didn’t amount to much—I was extremely wary, and my therapist wasn’t good enough to see through me. I was quite pleased, though, and actually stumbled on an insight or two that later proved useful, so I guess it worked after all.

It took me a while to be comfortable talking to a therapist, and it wasn’t until I started working in book publishing that I found my current simile for therapy—a therapist is like an editor. A trained editor can see qualities in a manuscript that the writer can’t, being on the inside, so to speak. Another metaphor: You can’t see what a house looks like to others if you’re inside it. Likewise, a therapist can see things about a personality of which the person inside the personality is unaware. It’s not a shortcoming; it’s just the way it is.

Some mental patients become slovens, some become actors, some politicians. All of them can be hard to be around for long and seem often to be a pain in the ass. They may not observe social conventions that most of us don’t even think about until somebody ignores the little niceties that help keep us from biting each other. If a crippled woman bumps into you, you wouldn’t be angry with her, would you?

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