When I first attended behavioral health meetings, there were two things that irritated me in conversations I had with industry employees and politicians. Want to know what irritated me? Consider being told (as a compliment):
What’s the worry here? I was being paid compliments. I’m articulate. I’m intelligent. These are kind words, not at all disparaging . . . if not for this one qualifier:
Putting aside that I’m not fond of the word “consumer” to describe peers – I was told this is because we consume mental health services – to be told that, amongst peers, I’m exceptional in being able to talk and think, well, this is insulting. To me, this implies that the “baseline” for peer eloquence and rationality is much lower than Muggles. It’s the concept that if you have mental health issues you are by default intellectually deficient. Thusly, for a peer, being able to talk and think is such an exception that I am exceptional. Bosh.
Please note, peers do not share these “compliments” with each other. I don’t go to an MHRAC meeting and say, “Wow, for a consumer you are much more adept with words and thoughts than I am. In fact, you are a giant amongst ants.” These “compliments” aren’t part of DBSA Albuquerque check ins. “I just want you to know, you put the rest of us to shame with things about stuff and stuff about things.”
I’m (of course) being facetious, and it’s always more effective when instead of levying snide quips I share how such events leave me feeling. So, here goes. How did it feel when I was told – with genuine warmth – that I was “articulate” and “intelligent”?
This might seem contrary to intent, and that it’s “just me” and I was being “oversensitive.” There’s something you need to understand about behavioral health meetings. They are frequented by individuals who know each other on a first name basis, and they know where everyone works and their role in the community, and they are well-versed in the volumes upon volumes of behavioral health acronyms. It is not a peer-friendly environment and for me I’d walk in with a sense of intimidation and uncertainty. I barely spoke because I knew absolutely nothing about the behavioral health field beyond my personal experience with detrimental mental health symptoms. After years of systematic, purposeful abuse by my ex-wife (another story) I had lost view on the confident, informed man I once knew years ago. I felt alone, separated, and unworthy.
Summed up, I walked in already feeling scared and out of place. So, to be told that I was somehow an anomaly amongst peers, well, now I felt out of place at these meetings AND I felt out of place at DBSA Albuquerque peer support groups. The first time I attended a DBSA Albuquerque support group – October 14, 2010 – I FINALLY felt like I was with other people who understood me and I understood them. Did I stand out? Did I seem like I didn’t belong? Did my newfound peers feel I didn’t have anything in common with them? Crud. I just found a place where I felt accepted for who I am. Now I feel I’m don’t, and all as a result of being “complimented.”
After many years of attending behavioral health meetings, it felt to me that many in the behavioral health industry simply don’t understand the peer experience. Sure, I can paint art with words and I am academically talented. So why should it matter if I’m a peer? I went over a decade without a diagnosis. Never did anyone feel necessary to tell me I’m articulate and/or intelligent for someone from the general population. And what does it say of my friends with mental health issues who are not as verbose or academically talented? Does this mean they are “typical” for a peer?
Can you see where the disconnect is? If not, then I will state it explicitly:
Let me finish off with a few rhetorical questions to illustrate why such “compliments” are the epitome of stigmatization, however well-meaning and friendly.
- Is it okay to say “You are so hard-working for a Mexican!”?
- Is it okay to say “You are so moral for a gay man!”?
- Is it okay to say “You are so mobile for a woman with MS!”?
- Is it okay to say “You are so aware of your surroundings for a blind man!”?
- Is it okay to say “You are so ethical for a lawyer working for disability rights!”?
- Is it okay to say “You are so honest for a politician running for lieutenant governor!”?
- Is it okay to say “You are so tall for a midget!”?
If all of these sound ludicrous and/or insensitive, then you have an informed grasp of how minimizing “complimenting” me as “articulate” and “intelligent” truly feels.
I close off with a horrible side-effect borne of what are effectively backhanded compliments (and I’ll give allowance for the backhanded component being unintentional). Coming from years of self-stigmatization and the PTSD I drag with me from my aborted marriage, the worst feeling that came from being tagged as “articulate” and “intelligent” was just this.
This final statement deserves its own exploration. Muggles, please understand. Peers are in every way the same as everyone else. And since I don’t like merely to point out issues, concerns, and needs, let me offer a request and solution:
That’s a standard anyone can appreciate with self-experiential empathy. And by the by, a less-attractive feature of my personality is I’m tenacious, stubborn, and competitive. I took reams of notes, googled tons of acronyms, researched individuals, and versed myself in every bill, program, and policy discussed at these meetings . . . which I then used to educate my fellow peers. This is the foundation of Stand Up To Stigma peer focus groups, which I conceitedly boast are entirely peer-developed, peer-managed, peer-run, and peer-driven. No other organization in New Mexico can boast this admirable endeavor.
– Steve Bringe