Stigma means “a mark of infamy.” In ancient times they used to literally brand criminals and slaves. Now we talk about the stigma of mental illness. We know how we are marked by others; that’s obvious. We’re marked by the media, the medical establishment, the ignorant and the uninformed. But it’s worth asking: do we pick up the branding iron and mark ourselves as well?
I own one suit; I trot it out when I need to dress like a banker, or a psychiatrist; when I need to pass as a very responsible person. I am currently the Executive Director of CHOICE, a nonprofit, publicly funded agency with a budget approaching one million dollars. I was the co-chair of the board of directors of the New York Association of Psychiatric Rehabilitation Services, and recently I became the President of my condominium association, with over 180 members. By definition, I am a person in whom others have entrusted a significant amount of responsibility.
How I got here from the disheveled, manic, stoned individual who was dragged on more than one occasion into an ambulance or a police car is too long a story to recount here. But at least part of that transformation involved buying a suit.
Buying clothes has never been an easy process for me. A fat kid, I had to buy my clothes at a Big & Tall Men’s store by the time I was 14. I despised having to stand in one of those three-way mirrors, to behold my misshapen body from all directions. Being a fat kid was my first stigma, and there was no way to hide it.
Even though I was much thinner in high school and college there was still that fat boy waiting to re-emerge, and after a six month stint on an inpatient unit, during which I kept boxes of Triscuits and squeeze-a-cheese under my bed and made forays to the hospital gift shop for half pound bags of peanut M&Ms as soon as I had a grounds pass, my weight ballooned. After my discharge I was a poor, depressed, fat alcoholic (couldn’t afford drugs anymore) and I dressed the part: in ill-fitting jeans and beat up sneakers.
Much, much later, I learned that I could buy a suit, at Sims, “where an educated consumer is our best customer,” (I thought they meant me!) for the approximate cost of the following: 12 cases of bear, nine cartons of cigarettes, six months’ worth of lottery tickets, and 4 bags of really fine weed.
All of which, at one point or another, I was using my precious disability checks to purchase.
Looking back on it now, I would consider all of those purchases self-inflicted wounds, ways in which I accepted and internalized the stigma of mental illness. As poor as I was, with my Medicaid and Medicare and Section 8, I was even more poverty-stricken in terms not financial but aspirational. I was the square peg that would never fit into the round hole (perhaps a round peg in a square hole was more like it, given my shape).
What I failed to realize was that life isn’t like that. There isn’t some great existence out there that, if you could only change yourself to fit, you could then enter. You have to build yourself the life that you want and then start to live in it and become the person that belongs in that life. On the day that I became Executive Director of this small mental health agency (and back then it was tiny – I was the only full-time employee), my most extensive professional experience as anything was cab driver. I dressed, talked, and walked like a cab driver. I had no experience or education in administration, budgets, personnel management, fund raising, or anything else close to what I would end up doing. But once I got the job as an administrator, I looked at how the other administrators dressed. I wanted to look like them. As much as I needed to look like a road warrior before (and believe me, your literal survival as the operator of a rolling ATM machine depends on your street image), now I wanted to look like an executive. I was ready to run out and buy the appropriate clothes so I could at least look like I knew what I was doing. Having the suit felt better, not worse. And, little by little, day by day, I became the person I was pretending to be.
I make this point to people in IPRTs and CDTS and clubhouses who insist they’re not ready to work. They have to finish studying that manual they think is going to teach them how to swim before they’ll get wet. It doesn’t work. Recently, however, one brainy clubhouse member said that it would, as long as you threw it out in the pool and made someone go in after it. He had a point.
Ever see The Matrix? The first one, not the crummy sequels. What is the Matrix? It’s the perceived realty that swallows us all, our accepted reality. It’s not created by a race of sentient machines (to the best of my knowledge); it’s created by our culture, our political system, our economic system. It’s a mile wide, but an inch deep. You want to belong? Act like you belong. Sound like you belong. Look like you belong. Dress like you belong.
Pick any one of a number of lives. Some of us have gotten doctorates: that PhD after your name really helps erase the stigma of mental illness. Some of us wear old clothes spattered with paint, exhibit in galleries, and paint right over the stigma. Artists are always a little eccentric. I’m too lazy to go back to school, not talented enough to be an artist. But I did get myself an American Express Card, gold thank you very much, and combined with the suit, I am Mr. Legit.
And what do you know, some bank loaned me enough money to buy a condo. I bought one and I moved in – I moved into my own new life. The stigma I left on the old one.
Is this a great country, or what?