Coming Out

If your first thought is that this post is going to be about either my sexuality, or someone elses, you’d be forgiven. Coming out used to be about being presented to society, and more recently it’s been about coming out of the closet. Usually the gay closet. I’m not about to do either of these but coming out is something that I’ve been thinking about in terms of mental illness.

Lately I’ve been reading a number of blogs and articles about the stigma of mental illness, and more specifically the stigma of Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). And each time I’ve finished feeling a little frustrated, like we haven’t quite hit the nail on the head yet in addressing this problem.

That’s why I started thinking about the way in which sexuality, and more specifically, different kinds of sexuality have been moving toward a more acceptable space in society. I know that there is a long way to go yet for the LGBT movement, to enable all people to feel able to be who they are without being stigmatized. I look forward to the day when we all accept people for who they are.

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Image credit: Hugh Young

It’s got me thinking. Head back nearly 30 years ago, in New Zealand there was massive reform going on to see homosexuality legalised in 1986. It was a huge reform which saw many protests and arguments. Actually it was much along the lines of the Marriage Equality legislation that is currently being debated in many countries (including New Zealand).

As a young, (I was 21) heterosexual I could have chosen to ignore the 1980’s reform. At the time I was very involved in a Christian church (as I had been all my life) where homosexuality was frowned upon.  Actually ‘frowned’ is not that word.  It was regarded as wrong, and as a sin.

For me though, at the time I was working in an office where my boss was an openly gay man, and a co-worker was openly transsexual. It gave me a completely different view-point than the middle-class, Christian upbringing I had.  At that time, to be open about your sexuality was a big thing.  Not only were my workmates going against the norm, they were also going against the law.

I have to admit that it wasn’t until I knew those people who I realised that actually we are all the same and that no one deserves to be judged by another.  At 21, I came to the conclusion that if they weren’t hurting anyone then why should they not be able to live freely the life they chose?  I accordingly voted for homosexual law reform.

What has this got to do with mental illness?  It strikes me that those of us who have mental illness need to ‘come out’ too.  I know only too well that when we’re dealing with mental illness, we’ve got more than enough to think about let alone taking on activism.  But it seems to me that it is exactly what had to happen (and still happens) for those of a sexuality other than heterosexuality.  They had to come out in order to see change happen in our society.  Maybe it’s not fair, but no one can deny that coming out has helped open society to different realities.

Image credit: GO LIME Awareness for Mental Health (GLAMH)
Image credit: GO LIME Awareness for Mental Health (GLAMH)

Maybe it shouldn’t have been the responsibility of the LGBT movement to change the thinking of society.  In an ideal world, I’d go so far as to suggest as this should have been a responsibility of all human beings.  The thing is though, that the LGBT movement were the one’s who had a vested interest in getting laws and attitudes changed.

In the same way it is those of us with mental illnesses who have the vested interest in seeing the end of the stigma of mental illness.  It seems to me that I will directly benefit if there is more openness and acceptance of mental illness in society.  For my neighbours who don’t have a mental illness the benefit is indirect.

I’d like to think that everyone in society would want this, but the reality is that there isn’t the same obvious benefit for them, as there is for me.  They’re not the one’s who have to think carefully who they admit their mental illness to.  I do though, and in that respect I am little different from my transsexual work-mate of 30 years ago.

I believe we have a choice.  We can sit and wait, hoping that one day society will magically change its attitude to mental illness.  Or we can think about speaking up.  Coming out about our mental illness.  Because the more people who realise that they have a friend, neighbour, family member or work-mate with a mental illness, the more acceptable it will become.

It doesn’t need to be a big deal.  I don’t think we need to list off all our diagnoses.  Actually I believe that would be as off putting as if we listed off everything that was physically wrong.  We just need to let people know that mental illness is exists, and is not the scary thing society has thought it to be. If we can admit to our friends that we have, say diabetes, then why not mental illness?  This is exactly what the LGBT movement has done… shown that different sexualities are actually normal.

I don’t for one moment think that this is an easy ask.  There is a lot at stake.  I’ve simply come to the conclusion that I can’t just sit and wait, hoping that one day things will change.  It’s not going to magically happen.  But if each person takes a small step, as the LGBT people have done over years, and as other minority groups have also done in the past, then we start to make a difference.

“We learned three crucial lessons from LGBT activists: We had to build a movement. We couldn’t be afraid to challenge our friends in power. And we had to give our cause a human face.”

 – Frank Sharry,  America’s Voice

“We have got some very big problems confronting us and let us not make any mistake about it, human history in the future is fraught with tragedy … It’s only through people making a stand against that tragedy and being doggedly optimistic that we are going to win through. If you look at the plight of the human race it could well tip you into despair, so you have to be very strong.” 

―    Robert James Brown

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What Dad Taught Me About Shoes (Passions Profile Challenge #4)

When I introduced my Passions Profile Challenge, this is what I said I would do with this topic of Social Justice:

“For want of a description of what I mean I found that in my country (of New Zealand) Social Justice is seen as Equal Distribution, Tolerance, Equal Treatment, Criminal Justice, Equal Rights, Equal Opportunities, Legislative, Responsibility, Democratic, Collectivism  and Individualism(1.) While I feel strongly about all of these, to tackle them all will be more than a mouthful.  So please excuse me for concentrating on equality in distribution, treatment, opportunities and rights.”

Image via Fresh Minds Matter

I could take an academic approach to this topic (like I implied I would) but that just isn’t me.  Rather, social justice to me is simply about treating people the way I would want to be treated myself.  Simple.  I don’t want to be hurt, judged, segregated, refused my rights, denied opportunity.  I want to be treated in exactly the way I want you to treat me.  I want you to put yourself in my shoes, live my life for a day, week, year or however long it takes, to understand my reality and appreciate my need for compassion and acceptance regardless of my beliefs, preferences, income, health, skin colour, religion.  Getting the picture?

It’s actually a much easier way to live.  There’s no having to think “does this person share my… religion, skin colour, sexual preference, income status, etc?”  None of that matters.  It is simply that they have the same rights as I do.  No exceptions.  And I am passionate to see the world adopt this way of treating each other.

So where did I develop this way of looking at the world?

Actually I learnt this from my Dad.  He was a good man, and a great example.  While my father was a Baptist Church minister for most of my life, he also had a strong sense of compassion for others, regardless of who, or what they might be.  He always opened our home to a wide range of people, and while a couple of times that left a young Cate feeling a little fearful, I could always see that Dad was just treating these people as he would want to be treated himself.  My fear came out of the unknown, probably caused by youth.  Sometimes these people were very different from what I knew, and sometimes they acted in ways to different to me.  Everything about them was different, yet Dad opened our home to them, and showed me how I could do the same, if that is what I chose.

Dad also taught me something else.  As a Christian he used the principle of What would Jesus do? to determine his actions.  This was Christian philosophy that built in the 1990’s (but I think Dad adopted it much earlier than that) and was a moral imperative to act in a manner that would demonstrate the love of Jesus through action.  Regardless of your religious belief I think this isn’t a bad way to work.  Maybe it suits to take ‘Jesus’ out and supplement it with something from your own faith.  One thing I like about a variety of religions is that they give a guide of how to live and how to treat others.  I mention Dad’s belief not so much for its religious significance but because it is something he lived day to day.  It was something that he used to determine how he acted towards others, and for him, it worked.  For me, watching him was a 45 year lesson in compassion and how to treat other people.

As a result of Dad’s influence on how I live I ended up in a wide range of situations for which now, I am very grateful.  It lead me into jobs where I could show compassion and then lead me into study (I have a degree in Sociology and Social Work) where I could hopefully make more use of those skills.  Because of my physical health I am not currently able to work but it is still the way I live, by putting myself in another’s shoes.

Image via Try God’s Patience

I strongly believe that it is not my place to judge another person.  I also strongly believe that I should stand up for what I believe in and support people who are unable to stand up for themselves.  I am not some ardent activist, at every protest going, although at 16 I joined a large portion of my country to protest against apartheid at the time when our national rugby team wanted the national team from South Africa  (the Springboks) to play here in 1981.  In New Zealand it was a big thing at the time and many people first chose to stand up for what they believed in.  In hindsight I’m not exactly sure that this is something dad wanted me to be involved in but I think he would have appreciated my sense of wanting to do the right thing.  I admit though that at 16, while I felt strongly about the issue of apartheid in South Africa, there was also an element of excitement in being rebellious and doing what my friends were doing.  To be honest, I’m not sure what was the over-riding factor at the time..

Something that I’ve noticed is that s/he who shouts the loudest gets the action, and for some reason that often seems to be that the loudest is the one with the resources (even if that is just the microphone).  This makes me sad because it means that s/he who does not have the resources, maybe does not have the language skills, does not have the confidence… (there are lots of things they may not have) are the ones who miss out.  Time and time again.  For five years, in an earlier life, I worked for New Zealand’s social security system and I saw this all the time.  People who were confident, English speakers, who knew how a government organisation worked… were much more likely to get the help they needed than those for whom English was not a first language and possibly had some type of health issue (including mental health).  And it will be the same anywhere.  In your country and in mine.  It pays to know how to work ;the system’ and shout loudly.

This is what breaks my heart and really does my head in.  The people who really need the help, aren’t always able to make themselves heard, and to access what is available.

Maybe that’s slightly veering off track but Dad taught me to walk in those people’s shoes, to experience their pain, and not to judge.  He taught me to make a difference.  Dad died suddenly just over a year ago, but this is something that I am very glad he left me.

“Do not wait for leaders; do it alone, person to person.”
– Mother Teresa

“You must be the change you wish to see in the world.”
– Mahatma Gandhi