Aren’t we a strange bunch us humans? The idea that you have to be skinny to be healthy or attractive. The idea that you have to look like others to shine (doesn’t make sense does it?) And it seems we have a similar bizarre ranking for illnesses and symptoms based on…well, nothing really.
When you think about it, some illnesses are more stigmatised or more likely to be featured on ‘Embarrassing Bodies‘ because of the cause, rather than the symptoms experienced.
Here’s a few examples to explain what I mean…
Illness-induced psychosis v Bridget Jones having a laugh in Thailand
People are still scared of the idea of psychosis – an experience that can cause a person to lose their sense of reality through hallucinations or delusions and other symptoms such as confusion or extreme distress. Psychosis isn’t actually an illness as such, it’s a collection of symptoms that can be caused by many things – including schizophrenia, bipolar or severe depression. It can also be caused by sleep deprivation, extreme stress or drugs and alcohol.
There are still many misconceptions about psychosis with some people believing that it makes people violent or dangerous. It’s a nonsense (I’d suggest reading the Time to Change website if you want to find out the truth). The people who are most vulnerable are those currently experiencing an episode of psychosis – not the people who they are spending time with.
But what I find even stranger, is that while people with psychosis still experience a lot of stigma, it’s become a cool, almost respectable, middle-class thing to head off into the jungle and get off your face on ayahuasca, choosing to proactively induce a form of psychosis. Similarly, there’s nothing more cute and twee than seeing everyone’s favourite girl-next-door Bridget Jones enjoying a few mushroom induced hallucinations is there?
Maybe we should look at those experiences that some people create for a laugh, and consider what it would be like if we had no choice? And what if those experiences weren’t rays of beautiful light and stars dancing on the sea? What if they frightened you? On a regular basis. And you’d done absolutely nothing to bring that on?
People experiencing psychosis aren’t weird or violent or dangerous. They’re often quite scared. Sometimes, they can find some comfort in the voices they hear. But either way, there’s certainly no need for us to be scared of somebody else’s experience. It’s trekking into the jungle to drink that new herbal tea that the bored hipsters are lapping up that’s going to cause more harm.
Hidden herpes or naked cold sores?
Weirdly, there’s some people who think it’s more acceptable to have a tattoo if it’s easy to cover up. If you had a tat on your face, you would probably, albeit quite wrongly, be instantly judged by others. So why are the rules so different when it comes to cold sores?
If you have a cold sore on your face, you just have a cold sore on your face. In full view of the world. If you have a cold sore in your nether regions, well, if that got out in class at school there would’ve a been a hell of a lot of sniggering wouldn’t there? Why? Somebody with genital herpes might have caught it in a long-term relationship. Somebody with facial herpes (cold sores) might have got it by snogging ever other bloke in the Bigg Market on a Friday night. Either and vice versa can be true. And don’t even bring Shingles into it. Because that’s a proper illness isn’t it? They’re all caused by the same virus. Who decided which we should be ashamed of?
Addict vs a party-goer who enjoys a couple of lines of a weekend
So the difference here is choice isn’t it? If you’ve got the dosh to spend on illegal drugs and you do it just for a laugh, you’re pretty acceptable. But as soon as the word ‘addict’ is mentioned you’re a shameful piece of scum. Why? Again, it’s a nonsense.
People with choice, who enjoy drugs recreationally, seem to be more accepted by society. This is why when people are plunged into the darkness of addiction, they often become isolated through the shame that society imposes. And then, the more isolated somebody gets, the more the disease of addiction takes a hold.
Addiction kills. Nobody would choose to live their life as an addict. It’s not a choice. It can often be brought on by trauma, or mental health problems. It can be a form of self-medication. Imagine the difference, feeling that you have to take something to feel normal or to stop you have a fit versus feeling that you want to take something to have it large on a weekend. Why do we feel more negativity towards the addict, who is struggling in an unbearable and relentless situation. The best way for somebody with an addiction to become stable in their recovery is to have friendship and support around them. So, you know, if you think addiction’s a terrible thing, don’t perpetuate it by kicking the people suffering from it.
We know from global mental health campaigns that talking about our experiences provides comfort and relief and often sets us off on our journey to recovery. But taking that first step in terms of speaking out about some of the above symptoms or illnesses can be a scary and daunting thing to do. How will people respond? What will they say about me? Will I lose friends?
Society can be cruel. So I’m hoping that in writing about this topics and trying to think about illnesses in a different light, we can start to shift our views on them a little bit. And maybe if more of us do this, we can all start to move towards a greater understanding.
If you enjoyed this post, check out my book all about stigma, A Series of Unfortunate Stereotypes – Naming and Shaming Mental Health Stigmas.