Don’t Scare the Normal People

A recent piece by Scott Wooledge in the Huffington Post entitled Straight Guys, Fierce Allies caught my attention on November 11, 2011. Wooledge described a “money quote” from Clint Eastwood in GQ. The quote is as follows:

These people who are making a big deal out of gay marriage? I don’t give a fuck about who wants to get married to anybody else! Why not?! We’re making a big deal out of things we shouldn’t be making a deal out of. They go on and on with all this bullshit about “sanctity” — don’t give me that sanctity crap! Just give everybody the chance to have the life they want.”

In his essay, Wooledge made the following statements that struck me as important:

“There is something truly beautiful about some straight guys’ brazen approach to the topic of LGBT equality. See, they aren’t trying to cope with a lifetime’s baggage of feeling shameful and unworthy. And they aren’t fetishizing the tactic of presenting their views in nice, inoffensive ways that won’t scare the straight people. I imagine it never even crosses their mind that they shouldn’t scare the straight people. They haven’t sent their talking points through the advocacy organization car wash for a nice polish and buff, to ensure that they better appeal to America’s soccer moms and NASCAR dads and are respectful of their deeply felt religious convictions. Sure, carefully focus-grouped messages have their place, most especially when big dollars are spent by groups that still need the people in power to return their calls sometime in the future. This is a legitimate concern, as is the idea that calling opponent “assholes” may not win us many votes. Bombastic messaging is actually most effective coming from folks who are safe from being dismissed as just another scary ‘radical homosexual activist!'”

“They aren’t trying to cope with a lifetime’s baggage of feeling shameful and unworthy.” Like many people living with a mental illness, I have a rather large suitcase of shame and unworthiness that I’ve drug around since early childhood. Depression in particular does that to a person.  I’ve worked very hard to unpack that bag and lighten the load over the 20 years since my diagnosis.  I learned to pass for normal and was happy to stay in the closet. When I began working with NAMI Stark County as a member of board, however, I decided to be more open about my diagnosis and experiences.  A colleague approached me soon after and shared his shock (“I had no idea!”).  It was an awkward moment as he had known me for about 17 years and had been a practicing counseling psychologist.  In his defense, I have been well most of the time I have known him.  The exceptions were both of my pregnancies but that’s a story for another day. I don’t believe I am unusual in my capacity to use a variety of strategies to hide my illness from others.  It took me a very long time, even after I began engaging in public mental health advocacy, to be open about my challenges though.  In my teaching, I had avoided disclosing my own struggle until very recently. Why? Because people look at you differently when you say the words “mental illness” in the same sentence with the words “I have a”. I worried about losing credibility in the classroom and with my colleagues. It’s hard enough dealing with the sexism that still exists in academia.  Women are already seen as a little more than off because their nads are internal and their hormones render them unpredictable. Why give the masses additional incriminating evidence?

“I imagine it never even crosses their mind that they shouldn’t scare the straight people.” Passing, I thought, made it possible for me to be blunt, direct, and even strident in my advocacy.  I could be sarcastic and even rude. I could be the John Stewart of mental health. I assumed that I could never have that much sway if I had been honest about myself. I thought “don’t scare the normal people”  (Typing that reminds me of the “ice cream outing” scene from Girl, Interrupted…). I thought I should argue from a position of safety instead. Frankly, I thought I could win more hearts and minds as a normal person than as a person diagnosed with a mental illness.

“Bombastic messaging is actually most effective coming from folks who are safe from being dismissed as just another scary ‘radical homosexual activist!'” There is actually evidence to support this statement from Social Psychology. It’s called counterattitudinal advocacy.  People who may seem more appropriate for making one argument actually make the other (e.g., C. Everett Koop, despite the inconsistency with his personal beliefs, refusing to agree that abortions performed by appropriate professionals were harmful to women despite great pressure to do so).  People who seem to argue against their own interests or perspectives can be more persuasive as a result.

I believed at the time that my fear of self-disclosure was based on not wanting to be dismissed as just another crazy person who couldn’t possibly tell the difference between fact and delusion and might just be packing.  I suppose I had internalized a fair amount of cultural misinformation attached to madness and didn’t want to put myself in that box. In fact, I just feared being known. I was in a difficult developmental spot. I was well. I was happy in my family and in my work.  I was confident in the classroom and was becoming useful to my community. I had been open with many individuals about my experiences but I was highly selective with my disclosures.  If I am truly honest, I think I just feared giving up my comfortable position as an outsider advocate.

On top of this, I have often found myself sitting on an uncomfortable fence separating consumers/survivors/peers from parents/loved ones.  A parent might talk to me about her frustration and pain related to her adult child’s refusal to remain on medication.  While I could see the child’s point of view with somewhat greater clarity than the parent’s having had to make my own decisions about treatment, I could also see the other side having two children of my own. A consumer/survivor/peer might talk about his history of conflict with parents and a desire to make his own choices about his own recovery. Again, I am better acquainted with that side of things but I can also empathize with the frequently legitimate concerns about relapse that loved ones so often express.  Eventually, deciding which messages I was going to use and with whom was making me feel like a slimy politician and it was exhausting. I felt I was being pushed toward a fairly safe and sanitized message acceptable to all which lacked the nuance and complexity that actually represents the choices we all face regardless of our various points of view.

I still haven’t figured out how to navigate the public debate as a person with a mental illness who is “out” but I have found the imperfect parallel with Wooledge’s thoughts on the role of brash straight advocates interesting to consider.

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About Tammy Daily

I am a professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at the University of Mount Union. My training is as a Social Psychologist and I study the impact of negative images of people with mental illness in the mass media. I have been teaching a class since 2004 called Movies and Madness which examines the ways in which people with mental illness and mental health care providers are presented in the mass media.

Posted on November 12, 2011, in Blog and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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