Stigmatization is a cruddy reality for those contending with the symptoms of illnesses, mental and medical alike. There’s a group of terms affiliated with stigmas I really don’t like in the least, the most, and all points betwixt:
“In The Closet,” “Coming Out,” and “Outing Myself.”
I’d like you to look at this photo of the NAMI Challenger. The front page article is one I composed during my time on the NAMI Albuquerque board. I ask you to look at this photo and remember it because when we travel full-circle back to “in the closet, “coming out,” and “outing myself,” the importance of this image will make sense.
So, I’ve got a buddy who is deaf (“Big D” as she calls it), and she is not the best at “reading lips.” That’s great for Hollywood scripts, she tells me, but not so great for actually carrying on a conversation. There are two things that bug her about people:
1.) When they raise their voices to talk to her, as if shouting will bring her hearing back.
2.) When people think she’s stupid, as in intellectually deficient, because her speaking voice is different than those of us whose ears collect noises and whose brains interpret the noises as sound.
These stigmas, when she was young and soon after she lost her ability to hear, had her hiding from the neighbor kids who were once her friends. After the accident that took her hearing, these “friends” became cruel, taunting, and vicious in the teasing and gossip they spread into the community that the accident made her stupid and deaf. She just wanted to hide, she just didn’t want to be with people anymore, she just wanted to die.
Now, she is a strong peer voice in the hearing impaired community (and I use the word “voice” purposely, and she likes it a lot), and she works with children with hearing impairment sharing her life stories and experiences to hopefully spare them the feeling of worthlessness and self-doubt that comes from being stigmatized.
In our chats, I shared with her that I, too, had feelings of worthlessness and self-doubt tied to my bipolar. I had a friend of two decades who stopped calling (after my wife… ex-wife now… told him I had a mental illness), I’d been fired from job after job, my marriage was a disaster and a failure, I’d been kicked out of New Mexico Tech… what I thought of myself was equivalent to what I thought of dog squeeze on the bottom of a nice pair of Nikes. I dreaded that point where someone caught whiff of me and tried to wipe me off on the lawn, the entire time cursing they ever met me… and the bottom of their shoe.
Stigmas abound beyond only medical and mental considerations. I gave a presentation to a group of kids at Polk Middle School earlier this year, and part of the presentation is asking the kids what stigmas they contend with in their lives. The typical teen-angstiness identified “We’re always on our phones,” “Everyone thinks we’re lazy,” and “All we think about is boys/girls.” I think they meant teen crushes, but I didn’t explore that one.
One young man shared a stigma that broke my heart. And, I could sense when he shared his stigma with the class that there was an implicit understanding with his peers:
“Everyone says if you live in the South Valley you’ll wind up in prison or working at Walmart.”
The quality of this stigma, the impact it had upon the class, was tangible. It was real. It was beyond “always being on the phone” or “being boy/girl crazy.” A young lady followed up saying “That’s why I never tell anyone where I go to school.” Too many of her classmates nodded in agreement.
That sense of accepted worthlessness is something I realize and understand is part of any marginalized group’s mainstay. It’s a community bond built upon a foundation of presumptions, misconceptions, and lies. These kids believe that people think less of them because of where they live, and that this stigma they overwhelmingly feel is part of their identity is a preordained limitation on what they can accomplish. I’m not too proud to say I started tearing up when I heard the kids speak about this unfair assumption.
The word “unfair” is thrown out there so much and so often that it’s all but lost meaning. It’s unfair I have to wait until Sunday to see Force Awakens. It’s unfair she got to go to the company picnic while I had to stay at work and finish billing reports. It’s unfair he buys a brand new car every year and I’m stuck driving this clunker. Given these qualifications for “unfairness,” it’s easy to see why “unfair” is a nearly worthless word.
Yet when you hear from these Polk Middle School kids, the word “unfair” is afforded a clarity all but lost in the vernacular, that the magnitude and direction of vectored fairness is so real and succinct that stigmatization is unavoidable. These kids were all a part of a leadership class, and there is no mistaking why they were chosen for this class. Their leadership talents define them so much more than the geographic locality of their community.
That’s the crux of stigmatization. It is unfair and immediate, created by an unenlightened, self-appointed mob judiciary over generations. More than that, though, is stigmas become so pervasive and saturating that the people being marginalized come to accept the prejudice, and when this happens stigmatization mutates from prejudice to shame.
What is shameful about living in the South Valley? For me, it’s a gorgeous place to walk the old trails and follow the irrigation canals between neighborhoods. The history and culture are rich and so much more a part of New Mexico’s identity than my tract housing neighborhood. For some reason, though, kids living in the South Valley are ashamed to tell other kids where they live and where they go to school, and this is baffling to me. If anything, being part of such an important community is a trophy of pride and not shame.
Looking at different stigmas, and looking at my own life living with bipolar and how I’ve often devalued myself, there is a common link expressed almost universally by marginalized groups:
In fact, the shame is so powerful that people feel they have to hide themselves from public view and scrutiny. My Big D friend hid from kids who used to be her friends. The young lady from Polk Middle School won’t tell other kids where she goes to school. And me? I pretended that I was “normal” and dreaded that people would see the symptoms of bipolar that alter my behavior so detrimentally (read: I’m weird, I know it, and I hope nobody notices me because I just can’t handle another failed job, failed relationship, and failed self). I was ashamed of myself for having bipolar.
“In The Closet,” “Coming Out,” and “Outing Myself.” We touched on this at the beginning of this article, and as promised we’ve gotten to the reason I started the article talking about “in the closet,” “coming out,” and “outing myself.” This is a concept attributed initially to the LGBT community (I don’t know the full acronym any longer – please send me the entire list of letters if you know it and I’ll edit the text). Being “in the closet” was being homosexual and not sharing this with others. There are valid reasons for this, with the policy of the U.S. military being a fine example. “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was actual policy and not just a catch phrase. Serving our country, protecting our freedom, rights, and liberty meant you couldn’t tell anyone you are gay. Where’s the logic in that? And yet there it was, and it was a policy that if you wanted to commit yourself to serving our country, it meant you couldn’t be homosexual, of if you were, you were required to hide it. It’s shameful to be gay while serving our country. It was official federal policy to keep people “in the closet.”
Now, stating proudly “I’m a guy who likes guys” or “I’m a girl who likes girls” is part of our American culture. Being “in the closet” has become more passe than “coming out of the closet.” Yet, the term remains. To share with those you love that you are gay still entails the idea of “I’m coming out of the closet,” shortened as “coming out,” and the choice and act of leaving “the closet” as “outing myself.”
I don’t like “in the closet,” “coming out,” and “outing myself” in word and concept, and this goes to the etymology of the phrase. The connotation retains the artifact consideration that “coming out” or “outing myself” meant I was hiding something that I felt was deeply shameful, and that I didn’t like who I was based upon others’ presumptions, misconceptions, and lies about what it is to be someone with bipolar.
I don’t like “in the closet,” “coming out,” and “outing myself” with such directed, purposeful zeal that it is part of my peer advocacy playbook. I don’t feel like I’ve “come out” to the public to share openly that I have bipolar. When I decided to start speaking in public about my challenges and triumphs living with bipolar, I wasn’t “outing myself.” I share openly that I have bipolar because I like who I am, and I’m hoping that my openness can inspire other peers to have the innate pride in themselves that every person on the planet has a right to.
Exactly like with “journey to recovery” versus “recovery journey” (I NEVER say “journey to recovery”), I NEVER say anywhere at anytime that me sharing my life experiences with others is the a process of being “in the closet,” “coming out,” and “outing myself.” You will NEVER hear me say “I’ve come out of the closet as someone with bipolar, and when I did I outed myself and you can, too.”
Why? Because while I felt inferior at the beginning of my recovery journey, and I felt I had to hide my shame away, the way I feel about the world and my place in it has evolved dramatically, and I’m exceptionally proud of who I am, and part of that is being a peer and a peer advocate. When I first began this peer advocacy phase of my recovery journey, I discovered in myself that I had no shame of having bipolar and I didn’t feel I had to hide my bipolar symptoms. There was no “coming out.” I didn’t “out myself.” There was only me sharing my life experiences with others in a celebration of life and all the quirky nuances that is the human condition.
So here is that photo again, zoomed in on a very specific sector of the article. “In the closet,” “coming out,” and in this article “outing myself” is not part of my vernacular, and I actively advocate removing “in the closet,” “coming out,” “outing myself” from the vocabulary of my peers.
That “outing myself” is presented in italics is a good indicator that my original article met with less-than-adept editing skills prior to publication. Sorry if anyone got the wrong impression, which many peers did at the time questioning, “Steve, ‘outing myself’ doesn’t sound like something you’d say.” Exactly. And please notice the “journey to recovery” kicking off the article as well. I covered this in an earlier “Letter to the NAMI Editor” article. “Journey to recovery” and “outing myself” in the same initial paragraph of my article are not my words or what I submitted for publication. Quality control and professional editing was not a priority for this issue of NAMI Challenger, so let this serve (vanity press) notice in lieu of a wordy editorial retraction in a future issue of NAMI Challenger.
If you’d like a copy of this NAMI Challenger issue, I’d highly recommend this specific issue. There is a very good article on WRAP, and a free WRAP class is taught at the NAMI Albuquerque office every Sunday.
Okay, so here’s the rub. I’ve learned a lot about myself as I understood more about stigmas. For you, I share a pocket-size version to take with you:
There is nothing shameful about having mental health challenges. There is nothing to hide.
And what I’ve discovered during my recovery journey is that while there are so many stigmas surrounding mental health peers, others weren’t stigmatizing me as strongly as I was stigmatizing myself.
I hope you learn something similar about yourself in your recovery journey.
Dedicated to Mary Tabor, for without your warmth, leadership, and encouragement this article would not be possible. Thank you for everything!
This week an article was posted to the Topeka Capital-Journal website concerning a program the Topeka Police Department has requesting citizens with behavioral health issues to voluntarily enroll in “Premise Alert.” The goal of Premise Alert is so responding officers will know ahead of time that there is an individual in potential mental health crisis, allowing officers to “make more informed decisions” because they know they are encountering a peer.
The goal is honorable. Safe, positive encounters between peers and police is what all of us want. However, I’m not pleased with programs like Premise Alert because I feel officers should be trained to deal with unique crisis situations and NOT an assumed predetermined threat. Education. I’ll say it again and again.
I am president of DBSA Albuquerque (Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance based in Chicago, Illinois) and sit on the Mental Health Response Advisory Committee, the DOJ mandated committee of community stakeholders who volunteer their time to help the Albuquerque Police Department develop better skills in engaging peers in crisis.
Our chapter collaborates closely with APD, including the 40 hour Crisis Intervention Training that was once a voluntary additional training and is now required of all APD officers. Peer involvement in creating those solutions that will protect both peers and police in crisis situations is key to successful, positive outcomes.
Many times, the topic of voluntary peer enrollment in a program such as this has been brought up at behavioral health meetings, and every time the concept meets with nearly instantaneous resistance to outright moral outage from peers. As one peer from our focus groups said last year, “Do they expect me to volunteer for a Tag & Release program?”
As an individual managing the symptoms of bipolar, anxiety, and PTSD, my reaction to this concept is also more than hesitant. The reason I share this is because often foreknowledge of a person’s behavioral health history can unduly affect a first responder’s attitude and readiness in a crisis situation. It may even have the exact opposite effect, something I can attest to personally. In one encounter with APD, officers focused entirely on asking if I was dangerous and not what help I needed.
Beyond the practical considerations of crisis response, there is a larger, more far-reaching concern among peers that has to do with the archiving and use of any database generated from an enrollment program. Let me share one example.
Say we have a peer who deals with alcohol misuse and schizophrenia (a condition the DSM V defines as co-occurring). Alcohol misuse exacerbates this individual’s schizoid symptoms to where police involvement is regularly required. However, when not misusing alcohol, this individual functions well and does not generate the type of crisis intervention needs.
Let’s say this individual voluntarily enrolls, under the auspices of “protecting all involved.” The idea doesn’t seem too horrible. Who doesn’t want to be safe?
Now, let’s consider this scenario:
A neighbor calls to report this individual’s yard is messy and the individual isn’t being cooperative in cleaning his yard. In fact, there was a heated argument over this to where the neighbor calls for the police.
The police arrive, already aware this individual has a prior co-occurring crisis history with police. There was an argument and police are dispatched “ready” for a situation where the individual.MIGHT be in crisis.
There are a few truths to consider:
1.) This individual is not symptomatic and in crisis.
2.) Neighbors get into yelling matches from time to time.
3.) They have been neighbors for 20 years.
4.) This individual experienced several crisis calls with police, and his neighbor witnessed this.
5.) The individual is 12 years sober.
6.) This happened to a friend of mine.
Granted, there was no enrollment program, and the foreknowledge provided police is from the neighbor of 20 years. But there was no crisis and responding officers treated my friend as if he was in the throes of co-occurring crisis. My friend is 12 years sober and only was a safety issue when drinking.
This illustrates striking concerns. How far does the enrollment record go back? How do you get yourself off the list once enrolled? What kind of information is collected and is this information guaranteed confidential? After all, the police are not medical providers and aren’t bound by mandates like HIPAA.
There are so many possible and real scenarios that all ultimately speak to one thing:
People with behavioral health issues are more than their symptoms and do enjoy significant recovery.
I’m not a sum total of my bipolar, anxiety, and PTSD symptoms. I don’t say “I’m bipolar.” If I’m trotting out self-proclaimed identities I’d go with I’m a father, I’m a son, I’m a geologist, I’m a boyfriend, I’m a peer advocate, and I’m a really great left defender on my soccer team. Enrollment in a program like this places symptoms I manage with exercise, medication, therapy, peer support groups, and personal responsibility above who I truly am. It’s too easy to mistake having foreknowledge as being forewarned.
The real, sustainable solution is education. Officer preparation doesn’t come from a list, it comes from training officers with the skills necessary to help peers help themselves to make good decisions. A single peer’s crises are not the same thing every time. Every potential crisis situation involves a unique individual under unique circumstances. Education is the key to being well-prepared. Crisis intervention training allows for officer safety, peer safety, and deescalation through a spirit of collaboration rather than predestined community peacekeeping.
I was intending on including this in the prior article. However, it’s a crucial concept that , as said, folks from agencies from DRNM to NAMI seem to neglect from their empathy toolbox and thusly their understanding of the Peer Experience.
As peers, we REQUIRE you to listen and understand when we are generous and share our life experiences.
Anything short of this is morally disingenuous and intellectually dishonest. What is the hazard? It’s simple.
Good intentions with bad information is the recipe for poor behavioral health policy.
To this end, Stand Up To Stigma has our first fully-trained Peer Focus Group that will be attending many public forums and advisory committees to ensure the proper information is shared and understood. Good information, good intentions, good policy.
My Dad lives in my childhood home; our family moved in just before I turned three, and it’s been a Bringe stronghold ever since. I get to sleep in my childhood bed when I come home to SoCal, a bed I outgrew when I was 12, where I began sleeping on the diagonal progressing to tucking my knees under my chin to remain completely upon the available sleeping area.
Today, before heading down to my HB stomping grounds at the beach, my neighbor who I’ve known for 45 years now came over to chat and catch up on what he’s been doing and what I’ve been doing. He’s a retired aircraft engineer (I think . . . he is an engineer of some flavor) so most of his conversation centered on his two girls and what they’ve been up to in their adult life. It’s tough thinking about the little girls next door being old enough to have adult lives. I’m aging. It happens to the best of us.
If it hasn’t been mentioned, ever since I was a very young child my academic and career trajectory was lasered in on being a geologist. I think my neighbor was expecting me to be talking about geology, which I did, although it was talking about geology in the terms of the pure joy of exploring the world (like when I was a kid) and not gazing upon the world as a commodity (which is where my mind naturally matured, since geology was now my profession).
Instead of talking about my latest geology gig, I said I had repurposed myself and was now working with Ryan and Sarah (and Megan) on behavioral health advocacy and education. I talked about developing and presenting peer-experience education for the Albuquerque Police Department – there was some discussion of the DOJ mandate because that’s where most people who have heard of APD want to go – as well as community presentations and going inpatient places like Turquoise Lodge Hospital.
It was that mention of Turquoise Lodge Hospital that revealed my neighbor has severe misconceptions of peers who receive inpatient services. I explained the Laugh It Off program and how we do a peer support group as the wrap up, or more accurately, how we use humor to let our friends in Turquoise Lodge know it’s safe and fun talking about our struggles with mental health issues and substance use issues.
His reply was, “That doesn’t sound fun at all.”
My reply was, “Really, it’s a lot of fun. It’s my favorite presentation of the week. And, it’s incredibly rewarding.”
And his reply was, “I can see it being rewarding. But aren’t you scared of what might happen to you?”
And my reply was, “What do you mean?”
And his reply was, “It’s dangerous, those people.”
And my reply was, “I’m one of those people. And it’s a serious misconception that peers are dangerous. That’s only what the media enjoys reporting because it’s sensational. Peers, we’re pretty straight forward and non-violent. Kind of like everyone.”
And his reply was, “So what do you have?”
And my reply was, “Bipolar, PTSD, and anxiety. Don’t worry. It’s not contagious. Except avian bipolar. I don’t have that.”
And his reply was, “……………………………………..”
And my reply was, “Dude, I’m messing with you. Avian bipolar is a joke.”
And his reply was, “Yes?”
And my reply was, “Dude, I’ve always been a wiseass. Don’t you remember how many times I made your kids cry with my teasing?”
And his reply was, “Yes, I remember that. So you’re still funny?”
And my reply was, “Yep. And it has nothing to do with the bipolar. And you’re ample proof my bizarre sense of humor predating the bipolar stuff. Can you be a reference for me next time someone attributes my humor to having a mental health diagnosis?”
And his reply was, “Sure. Did you know I went to Branson?”
Let’s get back on track. I’m going to pull out the salient parts of the conversation for reflection now, the part of the conversation dealing with our Laugh It Off program presented in Turquoise Lodge Hospital.
“That doesn’t sound fun at all.”
“I can see it being rewarding. But aren’t you scared of what might happen to you?”
“It’s dangerous, those people.”
My neighbor is a great guy. He helped me with calculus 2 when I was in high school. He’s a great dad and loves his family. He is well-read and very creative. Still, he harbors a kneejerk stigma very close to the surface. From his unfiltered reaction, going into Turquoise Lodge Hospital is inherently dangerous because the inpatient peers are inherently dangerous. I explained I’ve been inpatient a good dozen times since 1999, and that I’ve had issues with binge drinking through my recovery journey. I’m not a dangerous dude. Nor are the folks we meet inpatient.
So, unlike folks in the behavioral health industry and disability rights industry who have difficulty grasping the importance of peers sharing their life experiences, I felt no disappointment with my neighbor. What I felt was:
The peers who present with Stand Up To Stigma . . . we have a lot of work to do.
This is one of the weirdest stigmas known to peerkind. It’s perplexing at best and audacious at best. Best to explain what I’m sharing with you. It’s not anything so significant as being relegated to “Crazy” and “Not Crazy” elevators (that was a thing at a provider service I once frequented – I kid you not – it was kind of my fault – we’ll be talking about this in our podcast) although it is significant because it suggests peers be unemployed and broke, and having money earned to spend on necessities like food, rent, mortgage, and full-on way-radical limited edition Pokémon cards are real challenges for many peers.
Why are peers expected to volunteer their personal time and life expertise?
While I’ve always been sensitive to this specific stigma, where folks from Disability Rights New Mexico, The Rock at Noonday, the Albuquerque Police Department, the University of New Mexico, and various miscellaneous assorted politicians turned private business owner turned politicians (hats off to my main man Ricky) sit at the same advisory table as I do yet are being paid to be there, it never really struck me as immensely ingrained in the behavioral health culture as it is until a peer openly criticized me for wanting to launch Stand Up To Stigma so all peers can also be paid professionals sitting at the same advisory table (hats off to my main man Robby). Said this peer:
“You’re just in this for the money. It’s an honor to be invited to the table. You’re doing this for the wrong reason.”
Bam. There it was, a peer stigmatizing another peer and a peer directly stigmatizing himself. Let’s break this down, misguided point by misguided point.
1.) You’re just in this for the money.
You betcha! The service Stand Up To Stigma provides the community has every last bit of worth as DSNM lawyer-person advocate, director of The Rock at Noonday, Albuquerque police officer, UNM provider, and politician person (I’m not certain what service many politicians provide . . . can you imagine what sort of projects could be funded if campaign funding was diverted to social services instead?).
Peers have value. Peers sharing their personal experiences and uncomfortable truths has great value. Value is not only in the vital service peers sharing of themselves provides the community, value is also monetary.
Everyone else at the table is being paid. Why not peers? After all, if it wasn’t for peers having mental health symptoms, nobody would be at that table discussing mental health needs at all.
I’m uncertain why peers being compensated for their worth to the community by drawing an income is a bad thing. Being able to generate an income from a unique skill set is the definition of employment. It’s also incredibly empowering supporting oneself. Guess what? A cornerstone purpose of Stand Up To Stigma is helping peers empower themselves. How is being paid for our expertise a bad thing?
2.) It’s an honor to be invited to the table.
Yeah. Stating it flatly, the dynamic suggested is backwards. To feel it is an honor – as peers – to be invited to a table where the issues, concerns, and needs of peers are being discussed, planned, and implemented is happening without direct peer advisement seems ludicrous. It’s like inviting an astronaut to sit in on lunar mission briefings. This does not happen. Astronauts are required at the briefing table at every step of the mission development and implementation. Personally, I’m not going to strap myself into the tip of a 50 story chemical cylinder bomb if I don’t know what’s going on. That’s what test monkeys are for. It treats peers like test monkeys. Don’t worry, we’ll keep you safe. Sure. Give me a banana and this month’s copy of “Just So We’re All on the Same Page, I’m Not an Astronaut Test Monkey.”
Peers are required at the table. They are not invited to the table. Why would there be peer discussions not involving peers?
Personally, I feel peers must be calling these meetings and inviting those who dedicate their lives to making our lives better (thank you, truly and honestly) to our table and discussing what is important to us, what we need for our successful recovery and wellness, and how we want it done. The honor is in peers bravely and openly sharing of themselves and the collaborations we require to ensure our successful recovery and wellness. “Being invited to the table” is such a miscalculation. Invitation? It’s our table!
3.) You’re doing this for the wrong reason.
I feel my expressions on the prior two misguided points touches on why the statement of “wrong reason” is so unintentionally ludicrous. What are the reasons I’m an active and dedicated peers advocate of the past eight years? There’s the being compensated for our value thing. There’s the helping peers empower themselves thing. There’s the making sure our voice is primary and our voice is heard thing. There’s the keeping both peers and the community informed of what’s important to peers thing. There’s the making sure our needs and the policies and projects implemented address and fulfill these needs thing. There’s the importance of peer education programs to be developed, managed, and engaged by peers thing (there are “peer education” programs where peers are invited to participate by Muggles). These hardly seem like “wrong reasons.” All said, do you know why I’m an active and dedicated peer advocate?
Because I care deeply about people.
Stand Up To Stigma is just as dedicated to ensuring peers earn monetary compensation when sitting at the table. Our mission and plan details just how. We don’t expect peers we train to be volunteers forever – we ask only for their support as we initiate the go code. And yes, Sarah, Ryan, and I are making Stand Up To Stigma our livelihoods.
We offer SUTS education programs free to the community; this means we ask your kind financial support in our fundraising efforts to make our dream of peer empowerment and community understanding a reality.
Go ahead. Tell me anything I’ve just shared is the “wrong reason” to go to the moon. Hold up. I’m stuck on the moon thing. Guess what? I always wanted to be an astronaut. A geologist astronaut. The moon is too close. God willing, I’ll get to go much farther than that. There are those who are passionate about reaching out to touch the stars. Then there are those who insist on touching the stars.
Peers are the stars.
And one way to touch the stars is to change perceptions on peers being considered first as volunteers and paid professionals second. As a community, we can change this stigmatizing perception. And Stand Up To Stigma is dedicated and prepared to do our part as peer community leaders. So maybe I’m getting to be an astronaut after all. All I needed to do was care about people. One small step for peers. One giant leap for peerkind.
– Steve Bringe
Becky Rutherford and Steve Bringe with Dr. Harrison Schmitt Apollo 17 Geologist Astronaut and personal hero.
A peer presenter with Stand Up To Stigma passed along a meme for posting to our site. Rather than just post the meme, it’s better to write out the dialog, which comes courtesy of Autistic Not Weird.
Dude #1: “I’m autistic, which means everyone around me has a disorder that makes them say things they don’t mean, not care about structure, fail to hyperfocus on singular important topics, have unreliable memories, drop weird hints and creepily stare into my eyeballs.”
Dude #2: “So why do people say YOU’RE the weird one?”
When I first started having troubles with bipolar and was frequenting the hospital with some regularity, my parents bought a house in Albuquerque so they had someplace to live if I needed them to help me for an extended length of time. My parents are my heroes.
I check on my Dad’s house a couple times each week. Mostly, it’s to make sure the weeds are murdered – I like vegecide as much as arborcide – as well as making sure the roof isn’t leaking. Yes, in Albuquerque, we get stuff falling from the skies that damages roofs. Usually it’s frozen water. Frozen water falling from the skies. This global warming thing . . . somebody got it wrong. Somebody got it very, very wrong.
Where was I? Right, I know. Once, on checking upon my Dad’s house, I found the front door had been kicked in. The intruder tried to bolt with the TV in the living room (the only TV in the house) but my Dad’s got it wedged into this walled shelf above the fireplace, so how I found it was slightly askew. I’m telling you where to find the TV, that there is only one, and you’ll never get it if you break in to my Dad’s place. So there.
I did a quick assessment of the damage and because it seemed significant enough structurally I made a call to the police, so I could file a report in case Dad needed one. Interested neighbors are universally famous for congregating at times like this. Perhaps it’s with the hopes of potato salad like on the July 4th block party, perhaps it’s with the hopes that their home doesn’t also fall prey to a frustrated bandit. Did I mention he didn’t get the TV? Classic.
It turns out that one of Dad’s neighbors is a retired Albuquerque Police Department lieutenant. He shared that there were contractors working on the house next door and this meant there were also subcontractors. That my Dad’s place was vacant – there’s really only the TV to steal, by the by, and you can’t get it out – did not pass unnoticed, and the Lt. also shared that usually with this type of break-in the perp is a subcontractor. Contractors, do background checks on your subcontractors, please. I guess. I’m itching to turn this tale into a parable.
Oh, wait, I got it! Parable, start your engines! So I shared with the Lt. that I was active in training APD in understanding peers in crisis and ways that officers can help peers, and themselves, in deescalating a crisis call. This was not long after the James Boyd thing and APD was very sensitive to any discussion of mental health and law enforcement. We spoke for some time about what I was doing with APD, and the Lt. offered this.
“The difference between you and them is you respect the law.”
I couldn’t hold back laughing. Openly laughing. Not about a perceived shortcoming of the Lt. I wasn’t laughing at him. I was laughing at me and the stupid stuff I’ve done when in crisis. My arborcide story is legend and deserves its own article. For now, I’ll say I’ve done some incredibly weird stuff when in crisis, stories I enjoy sharing with APD in their training. It’s helpful to see me when I am well because the only time APD has seen me at my abode is when I’m not well. It stands to reason. We don’t call APD when we’re not in crisis. Unless we’re lonely. I guess. Hi, it’s Steve. How are you? Just calling to see how everyone’s doing. So, fighting a lot of crime today?
Off track again. My reply after the hearty laughter was very self-aware and self-assessing. With the Lt. I shared . . .
“Dude, you’ve never been to my house when I’m crisis. I really don’t have the understanding, awareness, or capacity to ‘respect the law’ when I’m at my worst.”
The Lt. looked somewhat perplexed. I expanded upon my statement. “Lt., you only see peers when they are at their worst. You don’t see those times when they’re not in crisis because there’s no need for your services when we’re doing well. Crisis situations are infrequent for many of us. When we first started talking today would you have pegged me for someone who had police response for psychosis? Probably not. We walk amongst, sir, we walk amongst unnoticed because we aren’t always sick. And that’s when you see us. When we’re sick.”
He took it in, chewed it about, and shook his head in understanding. No words were necessary. He got it. And that felt so freakin’ great to make that connection.
This is a story I’ve shared with APD during Crisis Intervention Training. And it’s a story I’ve used in helping to develop CIU training. If there’s a moral to the story, law enforcement needs to understand that we aren’t our symptoms and we aren’t always symptomatic. Many officers have approached me after trainings and when they recognize me in the street. I always ask if what I’ve shared with them has helped them in the field. Many say they’ve had more successful outcomes, many say they now feel safer in mental health crisis situations. The most warm-fuzzy satisfying feedback I’ve gotten is just this:
“Steve, you’ve helped put on a human face on things for me.”
Score. I don’t know if we’re allowed to hug a police officer on duty. It might be assault on an officer. These are uncertain times with the DOJ hanging about. What is certain is peers sharing their stories with officers is making things more successful and safer for peers and police.
This is the cornerstone of the SUTS education program
Peer & Police Safety
What a lovely parable. Brothers Grimm, you can just clean between my toes until they are clean to my satisfaction. I’ve totally smoked your ham on this one. Take your spankin’ and scoot on back to Saxony. Score.