I can’t remember how we got talking about the ways in which people participate in anti-stigma campaigns, but it ended up with my friend scornfully remarking, “People are all for anti-stigma and anti-discrimination initiatives until they are personally inconvenienced in some way.”
Is this true? Do we all have a hard limit when it comes to acceptance and tolerance?
I thought about a different conversation I’d been part of recently, concerning someone with complex mental health issues. The woman speaking was very quick to assure me that, no, she didn’t have anything against people with mental health issues, but this particular person was “absolutely off her head”.
Then I started thinking about all the other times people had backed up their gossip with qualifying statements in a bid to convince me that they honestly weren’t saying what I thought they were saying, it was just that this particular person had tipped them over the edge. “I’ve got nothing against fat people but she was ridiculous.” “I’m not homophobic but they were being so obvious.” “I’ve got nothing against people with mental health issues but she was just crazy.”
I wondered if this was anything to do with the nice, clean, sanitised version of mental health problems often served up by the media, where at first we’re sitting with our heads in our hands until we do a bit of colouring and have a nice cup of tea. No mention of how hard, destabilising and unfair the recovery journey actually is with all the sleeplessness, vulnerability and public humiliation thrown in. I’ve cracked up before, thrown things, screamed, harmed myself – how far is it the average person will put up with me before I’m being described as “absolutely off her head”?
No one with mental health issues wants to be the person who has crossed the threshold from acceptable to unacceptable, so we learn to shut up when someone starts to look scared and to push down on acting out in public (at least as much as we can). We learn all of the different ways in which we can show people that we’ve not gone beyond the pale, even when we’re absolutely desperate. We sign online petitions and join anti-stigma campaigns where everyone in the pictures is smiling, looking relaxed. We pretend the problem is being dealt with and we smile and nod politely when someone is lamenting about someone they know who is just beyond help.
I’m sorry that I didn’t challenge the person speaking in this particular conversation. The woman’s violent outbursts were being described as though she was some kind of animal. Maybe I should have said, “What you’re describing is what people with mental health issues go through. It’s ugly and it’s scary, but she’s still worthy of respect.”
Because this is what the truthful experience of mental health difficulties is. It doesn’t happen in the vagueness of “breakdowns”, which suggests a temporary lapse until the nice RAC people pay you a visit and you’re up and running again, good as new. It doesn’t get taken away by “self-care” which can often be a boring, tedious yet necessary process rather than an interesting, life-affirming thing. It doesn’t allow you to “recover” in the sense of a straight line sky-rocketing on a graph. Recovery is dull and frustrating, it can take you back as well as forward and into new and scary territory that you’ve never navigated before. It’s the small moments which tell you it’s actually happening that make it all worthwhile and you often have to hang onto those moments for dear life. Who wouldn’t have the occasional freak-out in a Sainsbury’s or crying fit on the bus? Who wouldn’t occasionally slip into the “absolutely off her head” bracket?
I’ve probably been written off a good few times in my journey through mental ill health. It’s hard enough not to do that to myself! When you hear someone say, “I completely support X, but this person was just taking it too far”, ask them what makes them so sure.