A late night conversation has made me think a lot about my role in the psych survivor movement, and the importance of incorporating the truths of the people who are not privileged enough to even begin to heal, because they are under the foot of a system that continues to disempower under the guise of treatment – those who would never make it through the doors of a Laing House or a Youth Against Stigma coffee house because their shame is too deep. Although interactions with the mental health system can be likened to one with a benevolent caregiver at times, it can also be similar to an interaction with a mother who says you suddenly have to wear a sign signalling that you are now different and less than, but that the sign doesn’t really mean what it says to everyone, and she loves you … but expects nothing of you because you are were born with an inherently broken brain. These mixed messages should be acknowledged, particularly by people who are in my privileged position of living as someone that is often deemed recovered, as if my experience was a disease and not a profoundly life changing experience of loss and transformation. One does not recover from transformation. There is no need. However, I will work to include the voices of those deemed “mentally ill” who dare to show up at swanky mental health fundraisers that usually don’t even come close to representing their experience, and won’t try so hard to make everyone so comfortable. Healing is a goal, but healing can only happen when we meet everyone where they are and include them. And not everyone looks like a smiley face in a 1 in 5 ad.

It has always been far easier for most of us to look at the glamorous Margaret Trudeau, or Catherine Zeta-Jones and feel somehow that we are doing the world it’s greatest service by talking about them as inspiring examples of people who suffer psychologically.  But we are often far from ready to engage with people in the MIDST of acute suffering.  As a society, we are afraid of it.  Harkening back to Victorian times, we prize composure, attractiveness and intellectual prowess.  By failing to question these societal norms and hierarchies, we fall short of our goals of inclusiveness.  Must someone be well dressed, say all the right things, and have societal status to be deemed worthy of inclusion?

I had an interesting experience last year with a man who asked for change every day outside my door on St. Catherine Street in Montreal.  This man was complex, and sweet, and charming, and a complete hustler.  But I had come to respect him for the way he was motivated to survive – in and out of the justice system and psychiatric hospitals, he managed to pay for his injections of anti-psychotic medication by politely and consistently pursuing the kindness of the local passersby.  This man, like me, had a diagnosis of schizophrenia.  I could have been him.  Had I been born an immigrant, non-white, poor child of someone who also lived with their own mental distress, I might not be writing in the comfort of my heated apartment; I might be freezing my ass off, depending on strangers to eat, to survive.

I remember once, after having already given Robert money that day, he came up to me, ragged, disorganized, and on the border of psychosis. And I can spot that state like a soldier can smell war.  I had suddenly been pulled into Robert’s personal battle ground. I sat with him, heard his story, and gave him my last $60 for his injection, which was, as he said, a few weeks overdue.  But I struggled with the question of whether or not most of the money I gave Robert from day to day was actually feeding his hunger and his sanity, or if it was feeding a drug habit that may have been exacerbating the psychosis that he struggled daily to keep at bay.  Even though he appeared aggressive, manipulative, and sometimes downright annoying, I came to seriously respect this man’s ability to survive, as a true misfit.  I could walk down the same block and no one knew my psychiatric history by looking at me, but Robert wore his story like a potent cheap perfume.  It is people like him that we need to fight to include – because it is fear and disgust of the diversity and the complexity of the human condition, and the suffering it sometimes entails, which projects the same judgments onto the psych survivor movement as a whole.

It is as if suffering is unbearable, and we want to sit as far away from its unpredictable gaze.  We shun not only the Roberts of the world, but we secretly fear and avoid our own friends and families and colleagues who until a year ago were just like us, because we see suffering as a sign of weakness, or otherness, or inferiority.  I have to say, my experience is that it is anything but that.  Suffering is the gateway through which we open to a greater field of vision – one where we are forced to accept a more realistic, dynamic picture of the world, or else we will simply not survive.  As Brene Brown says, we live in a culture that flees from vulnerability, and psychiatric survivors and patients wear it like a badge that signifies all their battles fought with a world that fails to acknowledge their most basic sufferings as intrinsically human.  I refuse to pretend that I am invincible.  Like a compassionate professor of mine said once in my undergrad, when she saw me slumping down the hallway, about to burst into tears: “The world needs crying posts, where we can all lean against in the middle of our busy lives, and be human with dignity, and just cry.”

I can’t think of a better resolution than to embrace the dignity in vulnerability, because that is in essence the only thing the world can take from us, and the right to be whole is indeed one of the only things worth fighting for.

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