It’s Not Okay

Ruby The past 10 or so days have proved enormously instructive for me.  They’ve provided the kind of instruction I hear tell of from my parents’ days in Catholic school in the 50s and 60s, when one of the nuns would slap a student or turn from a sweet, soft-spoken angel of a teacher into the fires of hell epitomized, without raising anything but her voice.  (“YOU ANIMALS!“)  I think the latter scared more students at St. Mary of the Mount than every other individual who went the corporal punishment route.

I understand why, too.  I’ve taken on the stigma surrounding mental illness for many more years than I care to look back on.  When I was blogging regularly, I saw some pretty hateful stuff, but none of it ever penetrated.  I shot back, sure, I wouldn’t be me if I hadn’t.  But the only hurts I have ever actually felt from this dangerous combination of ignorance and fear have been inflicted by friends and loved ones.

By people whom I know “know better”, or certainly ought to, having seen or heard about even a fraction of what I’ve been through.

The first incident that occurred I will not detail, because it involved a thoughtless remark by someone young who has yet to be taught the realities of mental illness, bipolar disorder specifically.  I will say that was much like a slap, instruction-wise, because it woke me up to the fact that it’s time for this young one to learn more of the ugly details, the truth of what I and others have been through.  The time for shielding has officially passed.

The second incident, a few days later, was a few words between friends.  The problem of stigma arose because those words mentioned bipolar explicitly, and were extremely thoughtless.  Meant to be a harmless joke, as I’m sure those involved still truly believe them to be.  Which is why they fall into the scarier (“YOU ANIMALS!“) category.  And why, despite recently removing myself from blogging altogether due to health issues, I am writing this piece after walking around with this indigestible incident making me ill for more than a week.

Because, as Dr. Martin Luther King so insightfully said:

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

I’m not writing this piece to call anyone out individually.  Personally, I think making private hurts between friends public fodder is about as filthy an idea as anyone can devise, another reason I chewed on this so long.  But this is too instructive, too important, and I know no one could ever identify the parties involved.

Because you see, in the moment, I was silent.  As vocal as I usually am, I have moments like that one where I am so shocked at what I just heard that my jaw drops metaphorically to the floor, and I can form neither thoughts nor words.  Dr. King was so very right, because few though they have been I remember all of these incidents vividly, and I still feel shame and regret and anger and a hurricane of negative emotions associated with the memories and my silence.  Let those things stir around inside you too much and they will end you.

Here’s the thing, the thing I should have said, the thing I truly believe.  It’s these tiny, insidious, “harmless” comments that lay the groundwork for making the big, ugly, hateful and deliberately hurtful words okay.  It’s a normalizing of words like “bipolar” to refer to perceived extremes in people (and normal, even if painful or difficult, reactions to the ups and downs of life) that perpetuates misunderstanding and stereotyping, ultimately trivializing the experiences of those who fight against this demon clinical illness every day of their lives, sometimes simply to stay alive so that they can fight again for one more day.

Because if the “smaller” stuff were not viewed as harmless and laughed off, the bigger stuff wouldn’t even have a foothold to begin with.  Stigma needs to be fought from the ground up; we need to tear out the roots to topple the trees.

I still have not said anything to my friends.  Honestly, I probably never will, I’ll just choose to categorize my associations with them differently.  Unlike the young person I mentioned earlier, they are fully grown adults who should damned well know already that it’s not okay.  Not ever.  If they haven’t learned that by now, I don’t really see them as belonging in my life.  They are still fine people in so many ways — just not one that happens to be crucial to me and my daily existence.  (I’m still striving to reconcile this contradiction, probably I never will.)  It may seem like a cop-out on my part, and maybe in some ways, it is.  But I have fought this battle too often in my history, with people I loved more, with people who had more reason to be sympathetic and try to understand, with people I would give anything to have back in my life as they were.

Which should tell you that when I fought this battle in the past, I lost it.

Every.  Single.  Time.

♦ ♦ ♦

Note:  While I am focusing here on bipolar disorder as a mental illness wrongly normalized and stigmatized, my intent is to apply these thoughts to all illnesses and disorders.  Additionally, as someone who loves words more than almost anything in this world, I want to point out that bipolar is a word that can be used legitimately and completely inoffensively to describe inanimate objects or phenomenon.  I don’t object to this at all, I believe we should use all of our words, as long as we use them correctly.  (Sub-note:  The use of the word bipolar predates the attachment of it to an illness or disorder by more than 150 years.)

© Ruby Tuesday and A Canvas Of The Minds 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Ruby Tuesday and A Canvas Of The Minds with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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15 thoughts on “It’s Not Okay

  1. We can’t always be vocal in our advocacy, because we are still human and can be hurt about something so personal to us and so misunderstood by everyone else. Let the incident with the younger person guide you to direct awareness to youth-teens-young adults (which is important since, even today, so many mental health issues are misdiagnosed or ignored in that ageset)

    ((hugs)) and love to you to make up for the lack of such from those who should know better than to make light of such things.

    • Sheena, thank you. As you can imagine, I really struggled with this piece. Ought I to write it in the first place? Have I the right to address it here but not with the original parties?

      As your wisdom, kindness, and I imagine your own life inform you, the younger are a lot easier to talk to. They (usually) have minds much more open and receptive, and they want so very much for you to tell them what’s really going on. They may pick up ignorant habits and even beliefs from friends or even family members, but like Kate Hudson’s character observes in “Almost Famous”, “Doesn’t the truth just sound different?”

      As for the adults, five years ago, one year ago, I would have found myself more hopeful and willing to try. But as you so rightly point out, we are still human and we can be hurt (more), which I confess upsets me to admit. I used to think I could raise the awareness in how the people I cared for view things they may consider “harmless” or “small”, but I found out how many times I was wrong. And now I save any heartbreak for where it will do the most good.

      And, for the most important piece, one of you as a part of my life is worth at least 50 of those who are so ignorant. Love and (((hugs))) to you.

  2. Well it’s good to see a post from you.. I am just sorry that it was prompted by upset. I am becoming increasingly aware of verbiage and how it does normalize things that should not be normalized, like violence against women, racism, sexism and mental illness. There are so many things that people say, often believing it’s innocent when in fact it perpetuates malicious programming normalizing things that we might otherwise object to. When we hear something often enough it does become normal. It changes the way we think about things. For instance, the phrase (boys will be boys). I have heard this phrase at various times throughout my life. I didn’t give it much thought growing up, but it infers that the male of our species do not have to behave or be held to the same standards as women simply because they are male. People use it to describe behavior sometimes funny, but usually slightly to moderately out of line and they make a joke of it. But it perpetuates the idea in our minds and collective thoughts that men are held to a different standard in our society and so they are by many. I have even heard parents use it as an excuse for problematic behavior they are attempting to dismiss. Words matter. How we phrase things effect how we and those around us think about those things. I am sorry that someone hurt you. I can only hope they truly didn’t mean it, and just weren’t thinking. I think the best that we can do is raise awareness, not always easy. I regret so many times I have remained silent when I have heard or witnessed inappropriate behavior. sighs..

    • Dani, you are dead on with the usage of “boys will be boys”. It essentially sets them up to be held to a different standard than girls, and in some instances probably subconsciously programs them to feel that different standard as truth.

      I think that should more rightly be “kids will be kids”, used only to describe behavior that is non-aggressive, and not deliberately malicious. I mean, you get a three-year-old who has opened the fridge while Mom is in the other room and broken about a half dozen eggs on the kitchen floor (true story), that’s a kid fulfilling curiosity and enjoying themselves, as kids are programmed to do. It’s how their little brains learn and develop (and in this case learn some limits), and while Mom may be at the end of her rope — not to mention that eggs are pretty much the worst things to clean up in the world — that’s just a kid being a kid. Had she thrown those eggs and hit another child, then we would be in entirely different territory, and she would need to know it. That’s a message you can communicate even to a three-year-old.

      I think mental illness is one of the few “acceptable” prejudices left. And while sexism still runs rampant, it’s the quieter, more insidious things like pay inequality and locker room bragging (I assume this still goes on, I don’t spend much time in men’s locker rooms these days) that gives any man the training to be deliberately and obviously sexist, which I feel is where mental illness is, only more so.

      Mental illness is not the only issue it’s still acceptable to be hateful about, but it’s an easy and common target. And why not? The pilot responsible for the Germanwings crash was mentally ill and look at all the lives he took. We must all be capable of going “crazy” and killing people. Even from where I sit, I find myself disappointed on how that has been dealt with, and I don’t mean by the media. Pretty much all of the mental health bloggers I know flipped out in the immediate aftermath and said that his mental health history should not even be brought into it. Yet I cannot remember coming across one piece from that same group acknowledging the role his depression played. So even those with mental illness perpetuate discrimination, by wanting so badly not to be thought of as “crazy”, they don’t speak of things as they really are.

      And I won’t even start about the deserving versus undeserving dichotomy of mental illness that exists.

      I apologize, I didn’t mean to go on. Thank you for reading and commenting and sharing your thoughts. They are very much appreciated, Dani.

      • I think people make fun of, and hate.. things that they fear. People are scared to death of crazy. That doesn’t by any means make it okay. I love reading your words. 🙂

        • You’re absolutely right, Dani. I think bigotry and hatred almost always come from a combination of fear and ignorance. Those who don’t understand something, they get scared and they get mean and hateful.

          And thank you for your kind words about my words!

  3. We live in something of a thoughtless society where almost anyone can say something or do something, or NOT do or say something which can cause great upset. That’s not to condone such behaviour nor criticise your post, but simply to say that people are a product of their generation and culture using signs and signifiers accordingly. Surely there has to be distinction between deliberate harm and accidental? In the former, codes shared between two parties are used to inflict wounds; in the latter, codes are mixed to that what one perceives as innocent the other reads as repugnant. This can happen even between two friends where one can percieve the other ‘should have known better’.

  4. Hi Ruby, it’s so nice to hear from you, I thought you had vanished from blogland forever. I think stigma of MH problems are among the most difficult to speak up against, but a part of me dies inside if I remain silent. Sometimes it is better to distance ourselves rather than enter into some kind of confrontation with ignorance. People can learn from what we testify, while for others it somehow seem safer or more comfortable to continue thinking in their narrow minded ways. In many ways, I find the younger people who just haven’t had that life experience are the easiest to speak to than those who should probably know better 🙂

    • Cat, bless you, you showed up at just the right moment and gave me a very important reminder when I needed it so very much. To wit:

      “Sometimes it is better to distance ourselves rather than enter into some kind of confrontation with ignorance.”

      That piece of wisdom applies not only to the initial incident, but to the reactions and aftermath as well. You wrote of the feeling (perhaps more rightly the illusion) of safety so many cherish, a safety that is absolutely contingent upon them keeping to “their narrow minded ways”. And quite fittingly for this piece, they don’t even realize they are doing so.

      Thank you for your words. I’m afraid I can’t say more than that, but I trust and hope you realize how much I needed to read what you wrote, and how grateful I am. 🙂

        • Like I said, your words were exactly the reminder I needed when I had come very clear to forgetting and entering into a “confrontation with ignorance” — and arrogance.

          I guess I needn’t have made it all sound so mysterious, it was just a timely reminder of what I needed to be reminded was healthy for myself. 😉

  5. The correct use of words is a biggie for sure. We can safely call our planet “bipolar” because of its magnetic field, for example.

    I think the problems come from evolution and the survival of the fittest mentality, which it seems is often held by people whose own education is perhaps not as thorough as it might have been. Just think about how the word “spastic” has been used as an insult (by people who don’t understand the terminology) to the point that it has been dropped as a medical term for cerebal palsy and 20 years ago, the UK charity “The National Spastics Society” renamed itself “Scope”.

    Sadly, ignorance is too often the barrier to making life better for everyone.

    Ruby, I love you whether you post or not. Xxx

    • You know, it was funny to me when I read that first sentence, because that’s exactly the example I first think of as a correct usage of bipolar! 😉

      You’re very kind in the terms you use to describe individuals whom I would call ignorant (but then you are generally just very kind). I like to use that word, because it can cover a broad range and still be absolutely correct. There are, for example, those who are ignorant of a subject in the exact literal sense — they have never learned about it. With particle physics, that’s one thing, but I think with social issues (mental illness, civil rights, oppression of the poor, etc.), if by adulthood someone is ignorant, they are ignorant by choice.

      Which brings me to the other end of the spectrum of ignorant, and a definition that is not strictly dictionary. It’s one I grew up with, as my father uses it to refer to people who do thoughtless, selfish, sometimes endangering things. As such, I think it fits the tone of my piece and our discussion of it well.

      I think here in the U.S. the analogue to what happened with the word “spastic” would be retarded. That was once an acceptable and technically correct term to describe certain subsets of the population. Before she had children of her own, my mother worked with children who had different forms of mental and physical retardation. That was actual the more clinical word, she always just spoke of them as “special needs” children — which says more about my mother than about American culture.

      But “retarded” became a slur — and actually is still used by the more ignorant of my generation, and even now by children of these people (who have no frame of reference for why it’s so wrong). So we use terms like “developmentally delayed”. Absurd really when you realize that delay and retard are very nearly synonyms, but somewhat more effective. Of course, we also generalize less and speak specifically of individual disorders more, which is good in terms of getting individuals help for very unique symptom patterns — as opposed to lumping them all into one group and expecting the same one-size-fits-all approach to improve quality of life.

      “Sadly, ignorance is too often the barrier to making life better for everyone.”

      I love you, too, and whether or not I ever make it known, I am still reading. I loved Sister Grumpy Cat. 😉

      • Ruby, I agree with you there! Bigotry and hatred are learned responses, and a child brought up by adults who consider those with certain differences to be sub-human is sadly very likely to not want to be educated when they get older, unless they have an experience that shows them the adults are wrong while the child is still young enough to be positively influenced.

        Yay for bi-polar planets! 😉

        • It’s so incredibly sad to me when I see children whose minds have been closed by that kind of upbringing. As you say, bigotry and hatred are learned responses. No child comes into this world already filled with fear and hatred for another individual or group, that comes from a childhood of being exposed to those feelings. And you’re also so right that they seldom seek to open their minds and learn to believe differently. After a certain age, it really takes something pretty major to shake people up and cause them to examine their beliefs.

          I love the bipolar planets. Now I’m going to think about you every time I hear any sort of reference to the poles and magnetic field! ♥

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