Wednesday, January 30, 2019
Every day, and in every way, I am hearing a message. And it's not a bad message, in and of itself.
It's building, in fact, in intensity and clarity, and in some ways I like to hear it.
It's about mental illness, a state I've always thought is mis-named: yes, I guess it's "mental" (though not in the same class as the epithet, "You're totally mental"), but when you call it mental illness, it's forever and always associated with and even attached to a state of illness. You're either ill or you're well; they're mutually exclusive, aren't they?
We don't speak of diabetic illness. We don't speak of Parkinsonian illness. We don't speak of - you get the idea. Although these are all chronic, ongoing disease conditions, we use different language to describe them that does not imply the person cannot be well.
Why should this matter? It's only a name, isn't - it doesn't change anything, does it?
I beg to differ. The name "mental illness" itself is problematic to me. It seems to nail people into their condition. Worse than that, nobody even notices. I have never in my life heard anyone object to or even mention it, because in the public consciousness, it does not exist. In fact, "mentally ill" is a compassionate term (so they say), if leaning towards pity and tinged with dread. But it is is definitely preferable to "psycho", "nut case", "whack job", "fucking lunatic", and the list goes on (and on, and on, as if it doesn't really matter what we call them). But it's still inadequate.
There's something else going on that people think is totally positive, even wonderful, showing that they're truly "tolerant" even of people who seem to dwell on the bottom rung of society. Everywhere I look, there are signs saying, "Let's reduce the stigma about mental illness."
Note that they say "reduce", not banish. It's as if society realizes that getting rid of it is just beyond the realm of possibility. Let's not hope for miracles, let's settle for feeling a little bit better about ourselves (hey, we're really helping the cause!) for not calling them awful names and excluding them from everything.
(Caption: To put yourself in another's shoes, you gotta first unlace your own.)
I hate "stigma". I hate it because it's an ugly word, and if you juxtapose it with any other word, it makes that word ugly too. "Let's reduce the hopelessness" might be more honest. "Let's reduce the ostracism, the hostility, the contempt." "Stigma" isn't used very much any more, in fact I can't think of any other group of people it is so consistently attached to. Even awful conditions (supposedly) like alcoholism and drug abuse aren't "stigmatized" any more. Being gay isn't either. Why? Compassion and understanding are beginning to dissolve the ugly term, detach it and throw it away.
"Let's reduce the stigma" doesn't help because it's miserly, not to mention miserable. It's the old "you don't look fat in that dress" thing (hey, who said anything about looking fat?) Much could be gained by pulling the plug on this intractibly negative term. Reducing the stigma is like reducing racism or sexism or gun violence - a spiritually stingy approach which only calls attention to the existence of the stigma.
So what's the opposite of "stigmatized"? Accepted, welcomed, fully employed, creative, productive, loved? Would it be such a stretch to focus our energies on these things, replacing the "poor soul" attitude that prevails?
But so far, the stifling box of stigma remains, perhaps somewhat better than hatred or fear, but not much. Twenty or thirty years ago, a term used to appear on TV, in newspapers, everywhere, and it made me furious: "cancer victim". Anyone who had cancer was a victim, not just people who had "lost the battle" (and for some reason, we always resort to military terms to describe the course of the illness). It was standard, neutral, just a way to describe things, and nobody objected or even noticed.But then something happened, the tide turned, and energy began to flow the other way.
From something that was inevitably bound to stigma in the past, cancer came out of the closet in a big way, leading to all sorts of positive change that is still being felt. (We won't get into the obvious role of corporate sponsorship.) But first we had to lose terms like "victim", because they were unconsciously influencing people's attitudes. We had to begin to substitute words like "survivor" and even "warrior". The movement to change language gave rise to much more positive, life-affirming, even accurate terminology
That's exactly what needs to happen here. We don't just need to "reduce the stigma": we need to CAN that term, spit on it, get rid of it once and for all, and begin to see our mental health warriors for who and what they really are. They lead the way in a daring revolution of attitudes and deeply-buried, primitive ideas, a shakeup and shakedown of prejudice that is shockingly late, and desperately needed.
Why do we need to do this so badly? We're caught and hung up on a negative, limiting word that is only keeping the culture in the dark. When one person briefly illuminates their own story (and they're always called "brave", as in "you're pretty brave to wear that dress"), the light is like fireflies, a brief burst of enlightenment before darkness closes in again. It's not even a candle against the night. When will the light come on that renders the entire concept of stigma dated, backward, offensive, and completely irrelevant?
POST-DATED. You may or may not recognize this piece, for I've run it a couple of times already. Today is Bell Media's "Let's Talk" day, in which one day per year is set aside for "mental health awareness". This 24-hour period takes up a few grudging minutes of media time, emphasizing over and over again the fact that people who are suffering need to "reach out for help". Never is it mentioned that their family and friends should consider reaching out to THEM - it's just too much bother, and besides, it makes them uncomfortable. I had considered, as I do every year, sharing my own story, then quickly decided it would just cost me too much. Experience has shown me again and again that it just isn't worth it. I still mean this, however, so I will post it once again.
This was an experiment using only three or four seconds of film. I made a gif out of it, ran it forwards and backwards, and slowed it down dramatically.
Elizabeth Holmes has always had weird, scary, sociopathic facial expressions, with everything calculated for effect. Her recent days in court saw her discarding this elaborate technique, substituting vacant, staring eyes, a ducked head, brown hair escaping a messy bun, and everything else that she might think would make her seem more sympathetic. The actual effect is disturbing: the eyes look almost like holes, and her habit of ducking her head and constant slight nodding is almost pathological. I have seldom seen anyone come across so badly in a courtroom.
Then comes the other set in the repertoire: the coy little smile with the half-moon eyes, which is on the surface of things almost charming, and certainly a manipulation of face which is calculated to charm. But the shiny blue crescents always seem a bit mad to me, glistening unnaturally. The smile is tightly restricted at first, but then comes the "pop" of very white teeth. But there's a funny thing going on here. Even vastly slowed down, the teeth show only very briefly before her lips close over them again. It's as if the smile is bitten off before it can bloom.
Elizabeth is quite tight-lipped and often purses her mouth very noticeably. Along with the pursing, however, comes an unreadable expression, with her eyes looking down. The woman who never blinks is suddenly blinking, again and again. No more hypnotic stare here - it's as if she has something to hide. Is she, after all, afraid of getting caught? Or is this just blankness, the lack of feeling or soul or anything that makes a person vulnerably human? But in the final analysis, it may just be boredom, the realization that the focus is not exclusively on her, one hundred per cent of the time.