Stigmatization is a cruddy reality for those contending with the symptoms of illnesses, mental and medical alike. There’s a group of terms affiliated with stigmas I really don’t like in the least, the most, and all points betwixt:
“In The Closet,” “Coming Out,” and “Outing Myself.”
I’d like you to look at this photo of the NAMI Challenger. The front page article is one I composed during my time on the NAMI Albuquerque board. I ask you to look at this photo and remember it because when we travel full-circle back to “in the closet, “coming out,” and “outing myself,” the importance of this image will make sense.
So, I’ve got a buddy who is deaf (“Big D” as she calls it), and she is not the best at “reading lips.” That’s great for Hollywood scripts, she tells me, but not so great for actually carrying on a conversation. There are two things that bug her about people:
1.) When they raise their voices to talk to her, as if shouting will bring her hearing back.
2.) When people think she’s stupid, as in intellectually deficient, because her speaking voice is different than those of us whose ears collect noises and whose brains interpret the noises as sound.
These stigmas, when she was young and soon after she lost her ability to hear, had her hiding from the neighbor kids who were once her friends. After the accident that took her hearing, these “friends” became cruel, taunting, and vicious in the teasing and gossip they spread into the community that the accident made her stupid and deaf. She just wanted to hide, she just didn’t want to be with people anymore, she just wanted to die.
Now, she is a strong peer voice in the hearing impaired community (and I use the word “voice” purposely, and she likes it a lot), and she works with children with hearing impairment sharing her life stories and experiences to hopefully spare them the feeling of worthlessness and self-doubt that comes from being stigmatized.
In our chats, I shared with her that I, too, had feelings of worthlessness and self-doubt tied to my bipolar. I had a friend of two decades who stopped calling (after my wife… ex-wife now… told him I had a mental illness), I’d been fired from job after job, my marriage was a disaster and a failure, I’d been kicked out of New Mexico Tech… what I thought of myself was equivalent to what I thought of dog squeeze on the bottom of a nice pair of Nikes. I dreaded that point where someone caught whiff of me and tried to wipe me off on the lawn, the entire time cursing they ever met me… and the bottom of their shoe.
Stigmas abound beyond only medical and mental considerations. I gave a presentation to a group of kids at Polk Middle School earlier this year, and part of the presentation is asking the kids what stigmas they contend with in their lives. The typical teen-angstiness identified “We’re always on our phones,” “Everyone thinks we’re lazy,” and “All we think about is boys/girls.” I think they meant teen crushes, but I didn’t explore that one.
One young man shared a stigma that broke my heart. And, I could sense when he shared his stigma with the class that there was an implicit understanding with his peers:
“Everyone says if you live in the South Valley you’ll wind up in prison or working at Walmart.”
The quality of this stigma, the impact it had upon the class, was tangible. It was real. It was beyond “always being on the phone” or “being boy/girl crazy.” A young lady followed up saying “That’s why I never tell anyone where I go to school.” Too many of her classmates nodded in agreement.
That sense of accepted worthlessness is something I realize and understand is part of any marginalized group’s mainstay. It’s a community bond built upon a foundation of presumptions, misconceptions, and lies. These kids believe that people think less of them because of where they live, and that this stigma they overwhelmingly feel is part of their identity is a preordained limitation on what they can accomplish. I’m not too proud to say I started tearing up when I heard the kids speak about this unfair assumption.
The word “unfair” is thrown out there so much and so often that it’s all but lost meaning. It’s unfair I have to wait until Sunday to see Force Awakens. It’s unfair she got to go to the company picnic while I had to stay at work and finish billing reports. It’s unfair he buys a brand new car every year and I’m stuck driving this clunker. Given these qualifications for “unfairness,” it’s easy to see why “unfair” is a nearly worthless word.
Yet when you hear from these Polk Middle School kids, the word “unfair” is afforded a clarity all but lost in the vernacular, that the magnitude and direction of vectored fairness is so real and succinct that stigmatization is unavoidable. These kids were all a part of a leadership class, and there is no mistaking why they were chosen for this class. Their leadership talents define them so much more than the geographic locality of their community.
That’s the crux of stigmatization. It is unfair and immediate, created by an unenlightened, self-appointed mob judiciary over generations. More than that, though, is stigmas become so pervasive and saturating that the people being marginalized come to accept the prejudice, and when this happens stigmatization mutates from prejudice to shame.
What is shameful about living in the South Valley? For me, it’s a gorgeous place to walk the old trails and follow the irrigation canals between neighborhoods. The history and culture are rich and so much more a part of New Mexico’s identity than my tract housing neighborhood. For some reason, though, kids living in the South Valley are ashamed to tell other kids where they live and where they go to school, and this is baffling to me. If anything, being part of such an important community is a trophy of pride and not shame.
Looking at different stigmas, and looking at my own life living with bipolar and how I’ve often devalued myself, there is a common link expressed almost universally by marginalized groups:
In fact, the shame is so powerful that people feel they have to hide themselves from public view and scrutiny. My Big D friend hid from kids who used to be her friends. The young lady from Polk Middle School won’t tell other kids where she goes to school. And me? I pretended that I was “normal” and dreaded that people would see the symptoms of bipolar that alter my behavior so detrimentally (read: I’m weird, I know it, and I hope nobody notices me because I just can’t handle another failed job, failed relationship, and failed self). I was ashamed of myself for having bipolar.
“In The Closet,” “Coming Out,” and “Outing Myself.” We touched on this at the beginning of this article, and as promised we’ve gotten to the reason I started the article talking about “in the closet,” “coming out,” and “outing myself.” This is a concept attributed initially to the LGBT community (I don’t know the full acronym any longer – please send me the entire list of letters if you know it and I’ll edit the text). Being “in the closet” was being homosexual and not sharing this with others. There are valid reasons for this, with the policy of the U.S. military being a fine example. “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was actual policy and not just a catch phrase. Serving our country, protecting our freedom, rights, and liberty meant you couldn’t tell anyone you are gay. Where’s the logic in that? And yet there it was, and it was a policy that if you wanted to commit yourself to serving our country, it meant you couldn’t be homosexual, of if you were, you were required to hide it. It’s shameful to be gay while serving our country. It was official federal policy to keep people “in the closet.”
Now, stating proudly “I’m a guy who likes guys” or “I’m a girl who likes girls” is part of our American culture. Being “in the closet” has become more passe than “coming out of the closet.” Yet, the term remains. To share with those you love that you are gay still entails the idea of “I’m coming out of the closet,” shortened as “coming out,” and the choice and act of leaving “the closet” as “outing myself.”
I don’t like “in the closet,” “coming out,” and “outing myself” in word and concept, and this goes to the etymology of the phrase. The connotation retains the artifact consideration that “coming out” or “outing myself” meant I was hiding something that I felt was deeply shameful, and that I didn’t like who I was based upon others’ presumptions, misconceptions, and lies about what it is to be someone with bipolar.
I don’t like “in the closet,” “coming out,” and “outing myself” with such directed, purposeful zeal that it is part of my peer advocacy playbook. I don’t feel like I’ve “come out” to the public to share openly that I have bipolar. When I decided to start speaking in public about my challenges and triumphs living with bipolar, I wasn’t “outing myself.” I share openly that I have bipolar because I like who I am, and I’m hoping that my openness can inspire other peers to have the innate pride in themselves that every person on the planet has a right to.
Exactly like with “journey to recovery” versus “recovery journey” (I NEVER say “journey to recovery”), I NEVER say anywhere at anytime that me sharing my life experiences with others is the a process of being “in the closet,” “coming out,” and “outing myself.” You will NEVER hear me say “I’ve come out of the closet as someone with bipolar, and when I did I outed myself and you can, too.”
Why? Because while I felt inferior at the beginning of my recovery journey, and I felt I had to hide my shame away, the way I feel about the world and my place in it has evolved dramatically, and I’m exceptionally proud of who I am, and part of that is being a peer and a peer advocate. When I first began this peer advocacy phase of my recovery journey, I discovered in myself that I had no shame of having bipolar and I didn’t feel I had to hide my bipolar symptoms. There was no “coming out.” I didn’t “out myself.” There was only me sharing my life experiences with others in a celebration of life and all the quirky nuances that is the human condition.
So here is that photo again, zoomed in on a very specific sector of the article. “In the closet,” “coming out,” and in this article “outing myself” is not part of my vernacular, and I actively advocate removing “in the closet,” “coming out,” “outing myself” from the vocabulary of my peers.
That “outing myself” is presented in italics is a good indicator that my original article met with less-than-adept editing skills prior to publication. Sorry if anyone got the wrong impression, which many peers did at the time questioning, “Steve, ‘outing myself’ doesn’t sound like something you’d say.” Exactly. And please notice the “journey to recovery” kicking off the article as well. I covered this in an earlier “Letter to the NAMI Editor” article. “Journey to recovery” and “outing myself” in the same initial paragraph of my article are not my words or what I submitted for publication. Quality control and professional editing was not a priority for this issue of NAMI Challenger, so let this serve (vanity press) notice in lieu of a wordy editorial retraction in a future issue of NAMI Challenger.
If you’d like a copy of this NAMI Challenger issue, I’d highly recommend this specific issue. There is a very good article on WRAP, and a free WRAP class is taught at the NAMI Albuquerque office every Sunday.
Okay, so here’s the rub. I’ve learned a lot about myself as I understood more about stigmas. For you, I share a pocket-size version to take with you:
There is nothing shameful about having mental health challenges. There is nothing to hide.
And what I’ve discovered during my recovery journey is that while there are so many stigmas surrounding mental health peers, others weren’t stigmatizing me as strongly as I was stigmatizing myself.
I hope you learn something similar about yourself in your recovery journey.
Dedicated to Mary Tabor, for without your warmth, leadership, and encouragement this article would not be possible. Thank you for everything!
Reprinted with kind permission of Steve’s Thoughtcrimes.