Monday, May 10, 2010

parallel forms of oppression, parallel tools of activism (and internalized shame)

A week ago I participated in a statewide conference for Florida NOW, and had a great time. I was on the committee that helped to plan the conference and it was great to see things come off successfully. I had the opportunity to meet several amazing women whom I admire, and see a number of women I have met through NOW and feel privileged to work with on women’s rights issues.

That weekend I was also supposed to be at a meeting of the NAMI consumer council in which I am acting secretary, however, I had to skip the meeting so I could be at the conference. As a member of the board of directors of Florida NOW it was important for me to be there.

I am committed to working within both of these organizations. It has come to my attention lately that I am living a dichotomy in my life in some ways. I am not really “out” and open about my psychiatric illness with my colleagues in NOW. Similarly, I rarely discuss women’s rights with my friends from NAMI. It is odd, this dichotomy, and what it boils down to, in some respects, is shame. I am ashamed, on a deep level, of which I am not always consciously aware, that I have a serious mental illness. And I don’t want that serious mental illness to be the defining factor of my life when I meet people and introduce myself. I want people I meet in activist efforts to know me as an activist. It’s not really relevant to tell them about my health – psychiatric or otherwise. However, I can see clearly that this shame is causing me to be ashamed and sort of “in the closet” about my mental illness. While I know much stigma and discrimination exist in this world, even amongst the most liberal and socially conscious people, I am also keenly aware that the stigma which enshrouds mental illness is not going to die until more people who have these illnesses start coming out of the closet about it.
If I were more open about my illness with people I meet, I could, potentially change their concept of what a mentally ill person is like, and give them a more accurate understanding of both me myself and Schizoaffective Disorder. Yet, while I may, at times, sound like the most outspoken of advocates for consumers of mental health care, I am afraid of what will happen when people I respect find out that I hear voices in my head, I have attempted suicide many times, I take a boatload of medication every day, morning and night, and I have been hospitalized more times than I can remember in psychiatric wards. I don’t want them to lose respect for me, pity me, think less of me, question my abilities and cognitive capabilities, be afraid of me, find me disturbing, or any other of the possible negative outcomes of coming out as schizophrenic or schizoaffective.

Thinking about this problem of shame, I began to consider the reasons why I do not need to feel this shame. I began to ponder the similarities of my two advocacy volunteer jobs. I can see many parallels in the oppression of women, worldwide, throughout most of the history of time, and the oppression of persons with psychiatric illnesses. I was born female, and, therefore, have experienced sexist discrimination since birth. I was not born with a mental illness, but I have experienced discrimination as a result of my illness since the illness began to manifest itself. Women are taught to “keep silent about their close escapes” as Alice Walker once wrote in a poem I love called, “On Stripping Bark from Myself” (see the sidebar left column on this blog to read it). People with psychiatric disabilities quickly learn to be ashamed of themselves because the demonizing of mental illness is prevalent everywhere in our society.

As a woman, I have had to experience losses that were not fair or just. I lost my self-esteem as a girl growing up in a patriarchal society where I realized by the age of eight that I would be expected to be married and have children as an adult, and I decidedly didn’t want to do that with my life. I wrote documents swearing my aversion to marriage and guaranteeing that I would never be held by a ball-and-chain to any man. I had family members “notarize” the documents, and my grandfather kept them hidden in a drawer in a secretary in his living room. I knew I didn’t want the life I saw some women living, and I knew that there were a great deal of things I wanted to do which did not include being a secondary citizen or a slave to a husband (as I thought of marriage at the time, based on what I saw around me).

As a woman, I knew at a young age my father wished I had been born a boy, and I felt that he didn’t really want a daughter much. As a woman, I had teachers who treated me as if I were invisible because I was shy and insecure, and their treating me this way always served to make me feel more shy and insecure than I did before. As a woman, I have experienced sexual violence. As a woman, I have been labeled a victim though I prefer to be known as a human being. As a woman, I wished at times that I were not a woman, as life would seemingly be easier as a man, and success would be more accessible.

Similarly, as a person living with a mental illness/ psychiatric disability, I have had my brain trapped, my thoughts hijacked, my life as a healthy human being taken away from me, and an identity as a secondary citizen, or, even a subhuman thing, assigned to my name. I have seen many doctors for physical illnesses who wanted to dismiss me as a person with a mental illness, as if that was the explanation for every health problem I ever had, and ninety percent of the time, they were incorrect with the mental illnesses they diagnosed. I was invisible then, with both a physical invisible illness and a psychiatric one that led medical professionals to forget that, first and foremost, I was a human being just like them.

As a person with a psychiatric disability, I have felt rejected by friends, and in a couple of cases, looked down upon by family members. I have met many therapists and psychiatrists who did not consider me to be an equal human being and talked to me in a most condescending manner, as if the fact that I had a mental illness meant that my entire brain was defective, rather than just a portion of it. I have also met excellent therapists and psychiatrists who did not treat me this way, but they were harder to find. So, once again, I had my identity negated. I was not an intelligent woman or a college student. I was a mentally ill person, and that nullified my other roles in this world.

Because of my mental illness, a horrible coworker harassed me and essentially forced me out of a job two years ago, because my secret came out. Consequentially, now I do not disclose my illness to anybody I work with. When people find out that I have a disorder that starts with the term "schizo”, they generally take a step back, and look at me in a different way, not always a hateful way, but a confused, or scared, or shocked way. I have had friends disappear from my life because of this illness, and was left to flounder in it alone, hating myself even more since people did not want to talk to me when they experienced my symptoms back before I received proper treatment for them. My ability to be a friend, an employee, a neighbor, a daughter, all of these were changed forever when the “schizo” term was as assigned to my name.

Now that I have illustrated here some of the similarities between sexism and the stigma against mental illness, I would ask you to please imagine for a moment what life is like when these two forms of discrimination are combined. Several years ago, I took a course at a college I was attending called “American Pluralism”. One of the topics we discussed and read about in that course was “double oppression” and “triple oppression”, which are the scholarly terms used to describe two or more forms of discrimination occurring together against a person. Being a woman with a mental illness is double oppression. If you add to that being poor and living in severe economic hardship, that’s triple oppression. If you want to go further, you can add having a chronic, disabling physical illness. I guess now we’re talking quadruple oppression, but the point is, it’s harder to live on this planet under certain conditions. I am lucky in many respects. In a racist culture, I was born white and therefore have experienced privileges I never wanted, deserved, or asked for, based on my skin color. In a world saturated with homophobia, I was born heterosexual, and therefore have not been on the receiving end of gay bashing (although many people I’m related to probably assume I am gay, being a single woman, a feminist, and a friend or ally of many gay people).

So, the point is, I’m not trying to claim the right to call myself a victim of every form of oppression that exists. Rather, I am trying to explain, both to you readers, and myself, what the connections are between the two passions I have as an activist – feminism and mental health awareness. There are many reasons why I care about both types of advocacy. I feel they are important parts of my life, and that they define me more than being a woman defines me, and more than being a person living with a mental illness defines me. As Alice Walker once wrote, “I am an activist. It pays the rent for living on this planet.” And so, I choose to think of myself as an activist, and I choose to be an activist. I am not a victim. I am a member of more than one oppressed groups of people, but I make combating that oppression a major aspect of my life and I deeply enjoy activism efforts.

I think that it would be excellent if the correlation between being a woman, and being a person living with a mental illness were more frequently discussed. I have not seen many discussions of this which delved into the similarities of these two groups. I come into some difficult decisions these days, when I have to decide whether I will work on NAMI issues or whether I will work on NOW issues on any given day. I want to do both, but time, or the lack thereof, and fatigue are limiting my ability to do that. I hope to make my life’s work – either paid or unpaid – about mental health advocacy and feminism, because these are the issues the universe put in my lap, and as they used to say in the disability rights movement, “Nothing about us without us.”


  1. Very insightful post. You are right, we as women with mental illness have nothing to be ashamed about. But like you, I still feel that way at times. I can understand your desire to advocate for your MI with the women's group, but you have the right to do what is best for you. You are not obligated to solve the problem of the world's bias against us folks with MI all by yourself! Hopefully, we each do a little as we can, where we can, whether we are 'out' about our illnesses or not. Good luck with your volunteer endeavors.
    Adventures in Anxiety Land

  2. Jennifer, I just wanted to say thankyou so very much for the really lovely comment you left on my blog. I only just read it, as I just got out of hospital (my liver is playing up a lot) after a week, and it was a beautiful surprise and a real boost.
    Thankyou and i look forward to continuing reading your blog.
    I adore the beautiful mind,complex life, expression!
    Love Jennifer xxoo


I welcome comments from all readers and encourage you to leave them! Please do. However, due to spam, I review each comment before it can be posted, so it may take 24-48 hours before your comment appears on the blog. Please be patient. I post comments that are not spam.Note: my definition of "spam" includes ALL links to sites claiming to cure or provide "the solution" for incurable diseases such as Schizoaffective Disorder and Schizophrenia. Vulnerable people come to my blog, and I will not let them be preyed upon, but people who post snake oil remedies on the internets. Take your garbage and peddle it elsewhere. Since Blogger doesn't weed all that garbage out, I've been doing it myself for years.