Friday, August 28, 2009

The Stigma of Addiction and other Mental Issues

The topic of stigma and mental problems has been coming up a lot for me lately, especially (of course) in relation to addiction.  So it was rather fortuitous to discover another great blog this morning and this post...

Sometimes I find it easy to forget about, because I have a lot of supportive, loving people in my life who just don't go in for stigma.  Couple that with having even less of a social life than usual this summer and I found myself in that comfortable place - the place where I just don't have to think about the destructive force of words - words that perpetuate shame.  It is that shame that really gets me fucking angry as hell.  I get enraged at the notion that a whole lot of people - some of whom I know - are so terribly ashamed of their own fucking brain.

To me, it is so obvious now...Feeling ashamed of the way one's brain works, is a lot like feeling ashamed of having brown eyes instead of blue, or red hair instead of blond.  It's obvious enough to me, that I forget sometimes that it is not so obvious to others.  It's obvious enough to me now, that I even forget sometimes that it wasn't always so obvious to me.  And even as obvious as it is, it is still easy enough to feel shame about who I have been and how I have behaved - because it is impossible to sort out where my neurochemical issues end and just plain old bad decision making begins.  It is especially hard, because everything I have done, all the bad decisions that I have made - all of it was at least influenced by the way my brain works.

How then, does one separate what one should be ashamed of, from what they should just accept as part of having neurological issues?

My short answer; one can't.  Trying to do so requires sorting through every factor that influences our decision making.  As a thought exercise, I would ask you to think for a moment, about the last book you read (or article).  I want you to consider everything that went into the decision to read it - don't just scratch the surface - dig deep into your motivations.  Follow the chain that brought you to the point where you wanted to read that book or article.  Where did your interest in the subject of that piece come from?  Where did the interest in whatever influenced you to get into that subject arise?  What else did you read, that indicated you might like to read this piece?  What influenced you to read that?  In short, try to untangle the skein of influences and motivations that brought you to the simple decision to read that book.  If it was a friend who recommended it, why do you trust their judgment?

If you just did as I asked, you probably got stuck rather close to the decision you made to read whatever it is you recently read.  Unless you took quite a bit of time and really went at it, you barely touched on a small fraction of everything that went into that very basic decision.  And even if you did take the time and focused, you quite likely still only scratched the surface - just a little deeper than some people would scratch.  Now think about this - we're just talking about the decision to read something.  How then does one sort out the decision to wander the country, sleeping outside as often as not?  How does one sort out the decisions to use virtually every mind altering substance set in front of them?  How does one sort out the decisions to have sex with virtually every woman and some men, who were willing and willing to use protection?  How does one sort the decisions that leaves one virtually homeless for more than five fucking years?  How does one sort the decisions to sell drugs, so one has drugs and sometimes a little money (and sometimes a lot of money)?  How does one sort the decisions to buy dope, instead of buying shoes that aren't literally falling apart at the seems?  How does one sort all the decisions that led to losing the roof over not only one's own head, but that of their family?

How does one sort the decisions that paint a picture of a reprehensible excuse for a human being?  How can such a person not be brutally ashamed of their own fucking brain - regardless of what actually influenced those decisions and how?

I wish there were a simple answer.  I really, really do, because it is hard being that person - hard not to be ashamed to the point of incapacitation.  It's hard not to extrapolate thirty some years of bad decisions into an inherent failure.  It is hard not to take those stigmas that are attatched to being mentally ill and accepting them as absolute truth.  But there is an excellent place to start - a place that not only helps the person who has made these decisions, but helps others as well.

Fighting these vile fucking stigmas is a very important place to start.  Being loud and proud of who and what one is, because as reprehensible as many of my decisions have been, I am also a good person on a great many levels.  And what makes me a good person, what fosters the positive - these factors are just as influenced by the way my brain works.  Just as the bad - the things that can foster shame - are influenced by the way my brain works, so are the positives.  The same chemistry that has seen me getting high on all manner of stupidity, has also seen me fostering my children's native intellect - communicating, reading and providing them with the absolute security of my absolute love for them.  The same chemistry that has seen me sleeping under bridges and in all manner of flops, has also seen me work feats of extreme beauty and grace in multi-million dollar homes.  The same chemistry that sees me lashing out in extremely harsh words, has also seen me develop a love for a wonderful women that transcends anything I ever thought anyone could feel in that context, let alone me.

Stigma is a trap.  Stigma is a prison of invisible bars that hold some people far more firmly than steel and concrete could ever manage.  Stigma does nothing but destroy and break further, people who are already broken and in need of healing.  Not broken because our brains are atypical, but because we haven't the tools to integrate our neurochemistry with the society in which we exist.  We are broken, because our society doesn't have a place for us - though that is slowly changing.  But regardless of what makes us broken, stigmas just exacerbate the problem - the brokeness - the shame.


Juniper Shoemaker said...

Dear darling, don't be incapacitatingly ashamed.

I'm going out now, but I will return.

Abby Normal said...

I like the point about not allowing others to dictate what causes you shame. As you said, being ashamed of how your brain works is like being ashamed of your eye color. But I think it's also important not invalidate that shame and to understand what to do with it when it does show up. Otherwise you can end up in a place where you're ashamed about feeling ashamed, which can be a difficult mire to crawl out of.

For me, when I feel shame, I usually deal with it by first surrendering to it. I'll cry or yell or pound my fist, whatever it takes to get it out, just so long as there's some physical action involved.

After surrender comes acceptance of responsibility. If it's shame over something I've done then I acknowledge that I've let myself down. If its shame from the judgment of others I accept that I haven't measured up in some way their eyes.

Next comes contemplation. What can I lean from this experience? Is there anything I want to change? Does an outside judgment have merit? That sort of thing.

Then finally, forgiveness. I remind myself that it's okay to make mistakes or for people to make judgments. It may not be pleasant. But it's a necessary part of life and effective way to learn and grow.

The entire process can take minutes or years. But I've learned that if I don't go through it, if I try to deny or bury my shame, then it never goes away.

Edward said...

I think stigma is a prison of invisible bars that hold some people far more firmly than steel and concrete could ever manage. Stigma does nothing but destroy and break further, people who are already broken and in need of healing. Drug Rehab CT