Songs of Stigma

Imagine you have experienced a terribly embarrassing event or happening.  You are surrounded by people you love, respect, and value immensely and then, without your control or consent, something occurs and you do something, say something, or experience something scary, shameful, and strange.

Your world dissolves into raindrops on windshields, bright white lights, a locked room you cannot leave, and utter isolation.  Days go by.  One day, you are told in a patronizing and childlike way about some selected details of the event that just transpired.

Then, you are given a diagnosis: ‘mentally ill.’  You are given something for the symptoms and thrust back into a world full of people who treat you like broken glass.


I have known and loved a number of great people who have suffered from various kinds of mental illness.  They have each dealt with their suffering in different ways.  Therapy and prescription medications.  Alcohol and drugs.  Writing.  Social media.  Work.  School.  Exercise.  Food.  Attempts at romance.  Love.  Self-harm.

For some of the people I have known, mental illness paralyzed them in certain ways.  They either refused to discuss their experiences of the illness or only described as one would a wart on the center of her nose.  I think their inability to talk openly about their experiences is rooted, in part, in stigma and shame.

The brain and its power and talents are the most fetishized personal characteristics in a capitalistic, information-age economy.  If you are “smart,” you are good and alluring; if you are “stupid,” you are bad and repellent.  Or, so it goes.

When a person discovers or is informed that she suffers from an illness of the brain, it hurts in more than just the direct effects of that malady.  The person’s inherent self-worth takes a hit and the person’s external worth in the eyes of society does too.  This is the real shame.  This is the real embarrassment.

Because capitalism values “rainmakers” and today that means being able to think and process information faster and more clearly than others, brain injuries and illnesses are tantamount to plague.  No employer wants these allegedly defective workers and no wants to be around these allegedly defective people.

The mentally ill are seen as, at best, simply dumb and, at worst, dangerous–either to themselves or others.  The western world sees little value in these people as they are and even less value in attempting to improve them or their illnesses for no reason I can think up at the present moment.  Perhaps, the western world just finds mental illness “icky” or something pedestrian and childish like that.  I would wager a guess that it’s more insidious than that and the western world fears the mentally ill because they are far less controllable in the subtle and ubiquitous fashion society likes to influence and exert power over people.  But, that’s likely just my cynicism talking.

All of this fear and shame directly and indirectly imposed upon people suffering from mental illness in addition to the inherent troubles of suffering from mental illness itself creates a toxic cocktail of low self-esteem, attendant anxiety, and self-consciousness.  The people I have known with mental illness often would rather hide the parts of themselves they believe would tip off others to their condition or dress it up in trappings of ironic, self-deprecating humor than be direct, honest, and open about their intense suffering.

If only the world found it in itself to accept, encourage, and promote these truly singular individuals, we may be able to hear their stories of trial, tribulation, and triumph.  For, the songs and tales of those suffering from the weight of busy and troubled minds are some of the best.  They carry with them visions of worlds and ways of being that the “mentally healthy” often do not and cannot.

But, instead of trying to listen to these multifaceted and wonderful people, the world tries to hide them away.  Rather than treat the root of their problems, they are given medications that blunt their symptoms.  They are given treatments to quiet their mind and hide their gifts and curses.  Rather than sunlight and invitations, the world gives lithium, benzodiazepines, and knowing silence.

And the palpable shame and paternalistic fear of strangeness drives the mentally ill into the uncomfortable binary of either becoming sicker or shutting up.

This sad state of affairs costs all of us the joy and pleasure of knowing, loving, and sharing these intriguing, unique, complex, and vibrant people for all that long.  In time, they either wither into mechanical shells of their full former selves or they pass on into a place different than this world.

There are some who break this mold.  And they make it because of excellent care, loving friends and family, and outlets that stimulate their minds.  Others make it because they are prized and valued immensely on account of their illnesses being considered gifts or doors rather than condemnations and obstacles.

In an age where mental prowess is king, we need to find better ways to understand mental difference.  The stigma of mental illness, long lamented by some, must end.  We should all open up and talk about our inner darkness and the demons that linger and haunt us and others.

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.” –MLK

3 thoughts on “Songs of Stigma

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