I learned an important lesson yesterday. I frequently write about language – the words people use to describe someone who is mentally ill. I want people to stop saying lunatic, psycho, schizo, and referring to people who may be moody, different or difficult as bipolar, schizophrenic, or crazy. Although I want people to stop using these words, because they are hurtful and degrading to those of us with a mental illness, I don’t want to shame people into not using them.
Last night at a big dinner of family and friends I was trying to think of a movie that I love. The movie was about a transsexual, but because I hardly ever use that word, and because I couldn’t think quickly enough, I said it was a movie about a transvestite. Someone at the table knew the movie I was talking about and jumped all over me for getting the words mixed up. I fumbled again by saying, “Someone that feels they are in the wrong body.”
Two people at the table proceeded to shame me by saying, “They don’t feel it. They are! Get it right, Rebecca! It is important!” Then they proceeded to “educate” me further.
I believe it is important to get the language right too. I believe it is very important. I want to talk about people in the way they prefer to be talked about. I don’t need to be shamed, embarrassed or made to feel like an ignorant bigot for making a mistake though, and I never want to make other people feel that way when it comes to mental illness.
I am not the enemy of transsexual people. I am not a hater of them. I wish to include, accept and welcome them in the way they want and need to be accepted and welcomed. Last night I realized some people are allies (even if they don’t know the correct terminology and still use derogatory language) and others don’t want to change because they see some people as “less than” broken or somehow wrong. I don’t fall into that category of seeing people as “less than” or broken. On most days, I speak out for equality and acceptance for all people.
I think it is important not to treat the allies of the marginalized as the enemy. Shaming someone who is normally open to being educated makes that person feel like it is unsafe to have a conversation about something they don’t know about, but would like to. I frequently want to discuss the issues of racism, LGBT, etc. with people, because I can relate to belonging to a group that is marginalized, made fun of, dehumanized, etc. I want to have these discussions but the fear of being shamed keeps me from doing it, and I feel even stronger about that now.
If everyone who wants to become educated and wants to understand other people’s experience is afraid to talk, how will any of us learn? How will we grow from where we are now to a place that is safe and respectful of everyone?
Interestingly enough, one of the people who was “educating” me at the dinner party had participated in a conversation in front of me only two days before where his friends were calling someone who has been acting erratically, bipolar, crazy, psycho, etc. I was very uncomfortable, and I felt put down by their choice of words. I didn’t say anything to any of the people having the conversation. I didn’t feel like calling someone out in a group of people was the best way to educate someone on issues of mental illness and language.
I find it amazing that people who are so quick to criticize and shame people for using the wrong word about one group of people would easily, and casually degrade another group of people. I think it is important to know we all have something to learn. We need to treat each other as people who want to learn, and grow, and treat people better. Most of us don’t want to hurt or exclude or see people as “broken” or “less than.” I for one want to lift everyone up to a place where they are safe, happy, treated with respect and dignity and experience equality.
The next time someone makes a joke about mental illness (happens every day) or the next time I hear someone say they are having a schizophrenic or bipolar day, I will try to remember that they may be an ally of mine if given the right tools. It is my job to make sure they get those tools without feeling shame.
Don’t speak photo available from Shutterstock