“It always seems impossible until it’s done.” ~ Nelson Mandela

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So, it took me a while to write this post because I questioned whether or not I really had a right to talk about something I’ve never experienced.  You see, I have a mental illness and it really bugs me when others talk about the mentally ill by making assumptions or buying into stereotypes when they don’t have one themselves or any experience working with someone who does.  But then I realized that all conversation about mental illness is worthwhile, as long as it opens people’s eyes and facilitates discussion pertaining to the issues we face.

In a like manner, I hope you don’t mind me talking about the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement.  I’m white and have never experienced prejudice or discrimination because of my skin color, but I still want to be a part of the conversation that can, at the very least, show support in some small way.

I know I have white privilege.  Why is that so hard for other whites to admit?  The word privilege means having an ‘advantage’ or ‘freedom’, something that’s easy for me to see based on my own experiences.  Look, I know when I walk into a store I’m not going to be watched.  I know when I get pulled over for speeding, I’m not going to be asked to step out of my car.  I know when I go into a bank for a loan, I’ll be taken seriously.  I know when I have something to say, I’ll be heard.  I know if I want to find a white Barbie (Lord knows why I’d want one) or a book with white characters for a kid’s Christmas gift, it will be easy to do.  I know if I screw something up, it won’t be blamed on my race.  And, I know that my race will never hear the words “They are all like that.”  I won’t be grouped into 1 box for ease…assuming everyone white is just like me.  In other words, I’m allowed my individuality.

Further, I know I take this for granted.  It’s all I’ve known during my life, and it’s not going to change.  Of that I can be sure.  Still, I’ve been teaching all of my professional life.  I started as a teacher’s aid when I was still in college at an inner city school in my state’s capital.  I did that for 2 years before student teaching (in another inner city school) and then having my own elementary classroom.  I moved on to teaching men and women who were on parole and who had to get a GED in order to maintain it, and then I finally started teaching college 26 years ago.  I’ve taught people from 15-70 in my classroom ever since.  And yes, I’ve had scores of black students that have taught me more than I’ve probably ever taught them.

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I’ll never forget one young, black lady who came up to me after our final exam, after I’d only been teaching college for a couple of years, who said this:  “Thank you for treating me like everyone else this semester.”  I looked at her and said:  “Ok…but why wouldn’t I?”  And she said this:  “Usually, professors have treated me 1 of 2 ways:  they either ignore me and assume I’m just here for the grant money which I’m not, since my parents are more than able to pay for school.  Or, they’ll say things like ‘you are such a good writer!’, as if it’s a miracle a black woman can actually put together a coherent sentence.”  It made me feel so bad that she is rarely treated ‘like everyone else’ and felt the need to be thankful when she was.

I had another young man whose last name is known in our community for the criminal behavior of his family.  In his first essay for me, he expressed how difficult it was for him to be in college.  It was obvious to him his profs had preconceived notions about his ability to do his work and some even asked if he was a member of ‘that’ family.  But, his family also gave him a hard time.  “So, you think you’re better than us, college boy?”  On either side of him, he was being told he should never think that college is right for him.  This was one of the first times I cried while reading an essay.  Here’s this bright young man (who really had the ability to do very well in school) who felt doomed from the start.  He didn’t think he’d ever get past the reputation of his last name, and without family support, he was lost.  I looked for him the following semester and he had withdrawn from school.  I tried to contact him a few times, but never heard back.  As far as I know, he hasn’t stepped into another classroom again.  How heartbreaking that is to me.

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I remember going to church one morning and a black man was there to worship with my all white congregation.  Everybody made such a fuss and ‘welcomed’ him profusely as a guest.  In fact, it was embarrassing how people were fawning over him, and it was obvious he was very uncomfortable.  Why can’t he just be a ‘regular’ guest in the sanctuary who isn’t being pointed out again and again?  Don’t we all worship the same God?  Doesn’t he hear us all the same?  Aren’t all of our prayers just as important to him?  Didn’t he make all of us in his image?  Churches are not our homes.  They are Christ’s homes…and because of that, anyone and everyone should be welcome.  Period.

Then there are the people around me that tell me they are color blind. Okey dokey.  Well, I’m not.  I see color.  Of course I do.  How can you not see there’s a difference between black skin and white skin?  To me, if you don’t ‘see’ the difference, you aren’t going to ‘see’ how you might be feeding into stereotypes.  How you might be prejudice or acting in a discriminatory way without consciously acknowledging it.  Blinders are not what we need.  Full vision of who each one of us are, and the struggles inherent to that, are.

In my parenting class, we talk about how black parents have an extra task that white parents don’t:  teaching their little gals and guys how to navigate the world of prejudice early on.  Let’s be honest here:  it starts very very young.  I was shocked to read about the expulsion rate of young black boys from preschool:  although they make up around 19% of students, they are 47% of total suspensions (Journal of African American Males).  And this is in PRE-school where kids are sponges…soaking up all they see and hear.  Doesn’t make for a very good beginning in academia, does it?

Then, Northwestern University found that the physiological response to racism in schools causes elevated stress in black youth with a psychological response where the student has to develop some sort of coping mechanism to deal with this.  The effect?  Concentration, motivation and learning are impaired by both unintended and overt racism.

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When Jane Elliot started doing her ‘brown eye / blue eye’ experiment in her 3rd grade classrooms, her goal was to make sure her white students (in Riceville, Iowa) understood what prejudice and discrimination felt like in order to help them understand the issues of blacks during a time where there was so much social upheaval.  She first performed the exercise in 1968 after the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. and placed the children in one of 2 groups based on eye color.  One day, the brown eyed group was on top and received much privilege and inclusion (she talked to her class about how brown eyes were smarter, more talented, etc.), and the next day, the blue eyed were on top (she said she had made a mistake the day before, and actually it was the blue eyes that were better).   To easily show who was in the ‘bottom’ group on either day, the kids wore collars around their necks (much like the Jews wore stars during the Nazi regime).  The results were horrific.  Kids that had normally been great friends were (within an hour or so) bullying one another, ignoring each other, and a fist fight broke out between boys who had been buddies.   If a ‘bottom’ kid complained about something, they would have their argument turned against them and their words weren’t taken seriously…you could see the anger and frustration in their faces when this happened.  The ‘down’ kids were quiet, more inside of themselves, as if they didn’t want to draw attention to their new status.  What really shocked me was when the brown eyed kids got to take off their collars the next day to give them to a blue eyed.  You would think that having experienced something bad themselves, they would want to spare someone else that pain.  But instead, they quickly GAVE that treatment away to someone else…a friend.

There was another intended consequence Ms. Elliot didn’t see coming:  on the day a child was in the ‘out’ group, their academic performance dipped considerably, and when they were on top, their work excelled.  When she talked to the children later about this, one boy said it was hard to concentrate on work when you’re being treated differently…because that’s all you think about.  Wow.

And it’s horrible when you think about how many stereotypes still exist regarding blacks, even though we have more access to information than ever before in our history.  For example – 39.8% of all actual welfare recipients are black, and 38.8% of welfare recipients are white (Department of Health and Human Services).  This refutes a lot of current thought that blacks receive significantly more welfare benefits than whites.  Another?  A study published in Contemporary Educational Psychology found that “Black students experience more suspensions, expulsions, and disciplinary actions that white students, even for exactly the same behavior.”  Finally, in a Report to the United Nations on Race Disparity in Criminal Justice in the U.S., it was reported that blacks are more likely than whites to be arrested for a crime, to be convicted, and to be given longer prison sentences.  Period.

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Then, 46 year old George Floyd was killed on May 25th.  So many people don’t realize why the store clerk called 911:  it was after Floyd used a counterfeit $20 bill to buy a pack of cigarettes with.  OK.  A counterfeit $20 bill (20 bucks), and it’s not known if Floyd was aware of this or not since other business owners have said that bad $20’s were being circulated around the area.  The punishment for this is usually less than a year in prison and a $3000 fine.  In fact, a white college professor, Mark McCoy (Southern Methodist University in Dallas) was arrested for the exact same thing and spent one night in jail and received 6 months probation for his crime.  But George paid with his life.  And people still say racism doesn’t exist.

I know people are fond of saying “All Lives Matter” and that’s true…all lives do matter.  But the “Black Lives Matter” movement is so important to our society.  There has to be recognition that although all lives matter in terms of intrinsic value, not all lives are treated equally in terms of race.  And by looking at the Floyd case as one example, it’s easy to see that, in the eyes of so many, not all lives do matter.  Period.  Why is that so difficult to understand?  Why is it so threatening to others?  I write this blog to show how those of use who are mentally ill matter.  Why is it wrong for the black population to shed a spotlight on why their lives matter when they live in a country that is telling them otherwise?

Look, I know this post isn’t going to change things…I may be mentally ill, but I’m not stupid.  But I do know this:  all of us have to rally together and correct this wrong in our society.  How can it be that in 2020, we still judge people by their skin color?  What happened to perceiving and treating people as individuals?  To looking at what’s inside of them?  Why can’t we look at a person’s character…intelligence…humor…personality?  Why do people have to be grouped in the most negative way possible?  Why in the hell is it so difficult to understand that skin color is not the entirety of a person?  And most importantly, why aren’t all of us aware that “Black Lives Matter” isn’t a ‘black issue.’  Instead, it’s a people issue where all of us have to work together to ensure our children, our families, and our future generations will know from the start that everyone matters…no matter what.

Kristi xoxo

It’s in Their Head.

So, I’ve been reading a lot about the stigma of mental illness, and the more I read and study, the more I’m shocked and disheartened by the attitude of people towards the likes of me:  a mentally ill woman with Bipolar and Anorexia (in ‘remission’ but still something I have to fight daily in terms of making myself eat enough and stay healthy).

First, let’s talk about what stigmas are; if you look at the Oxford Dictionary for a definition, here’s what you find:

“A mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person.”

Take a close look at this sentence, Peeps.  “A mark of DISGRACE.”  Really?  In this day and age, we are still considered ‘disgraceful?’  Or let’s use other synonyms to further understand this:  shameful, despicable, bad.  I should be ashamed to have a brain disease?  It makes me despicable?  It makes me bad?  Wow.

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Prejudice is pre-JUDGING.  PRE-judging.  Putting people in groups based on certain characteristics then lumping them all together under an umbrella of adjectives.  “The rich are all stingy.”  “The poor don’t want to work.”  “All teenagers all use drugs.”  Nope.  None of these are true.  There might be some individuals that have these characteristics, but not all!  Now, here’s the one we MI’s might hear:  “The mentally ill are just crazy.  They should be locked up!”  “Those homeless guys make me nervous…you know they’re just nuts.”  “I know that if someone is schizo, they’ll hurt you!”  And on and on and on.  Then, because of these prejudicial stereotypes, discrimination follows – these ideas are acted out by the people that have them, and suddenly, we’re treated differently.

I read an excellent article entitled:  The Stigma of Mental Disorders by Wulf Rossler.  In this, he states the following:  “There is no country, society or culture where people with mental illness have the same societal value as people without a mental illness.”  He also writes that people with mental illness internalize societal stigmas, and then experience diminished self-esteem and self-efficacy as a result.  Non wonder so many of us feel bad about simply being who we are.

In another article entitled: Prejudice Towards People with Mental Illness, the authors say 4 factors have been identified that underlie prejudice towards people with mental illness (my explanations of these are in the parenthesis):  fear/avoidance (people being scared of the MI and then staying away because they’re considered dangerous), malevolence (highly negative thoughts against the MI and thinking they are bad), authoritarianism (the MI should be controlled by society), and unpredictability (who knows what they’ll do?).  So, in a nutshell:  people fear us…try to avoid us…think we’re bad or inferior…think we need to be controlled…think our behavior is always unpredictable.  Wow again.

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Photo by Dmitry Demidov on Pexels.com

So.  I’m literally sitting here right now, trying to think of what to say, and I’m drawing a blank.  Not writer’s block.  But a blank of how us MI can been seen so freaking negatively for having disorders we can’t help.  But then, I think about racism, and how skin color changes a person’s opportunities and treatment in our culture drastically.  How our gender puts us in boxes with very clear expectations and assumptions.  How our social class determines the way people see us, treat us, and either look up to us or down to us, just based on what we might have in our bank account.  How can any of this be possible?  How can anybody be judged by others who could be judged themselves.  I just don’t get it.

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What have YOU been told to do?

And yes, I’ve definitely felt the consequences of these stigmas.  You know, in the 23 years I’ve taught at my school, I’ve only been asked to lunch twice.  Twice.  People get in groups and eat together all of the time, with me watching my colleagues in adjoining offices getting ready to go out while joking around.  But I’m not asked.  I think it’s because I can be loud…overly sensitive…overly eager.  When a student threatened to rape me and turn me into a lamp shade (his words), I was blamed.  After all, I’m the sicko.  Right?  The crazy and unpredictable one.  So, of course MY bipolar had to be the reason for HIS threat.  When I’m struggling with depression or having difficulty with suppressing my feelings, I’m simply ignored.  It’s just too uncomfortable for others to be around or address.  In fact, according to one colleague, mental illness isn’t real.  They say:  “Just cheer up!  Damn, others have it a lot worse than you do.”  Or here’s a good one that really makes me feel better:  “What the fuck!   Quit being so damn sensitive.”  (I’ve heard that more times than I can count).  Or how about this gem: “God, here goes Kristi AGAIN, just looking for more attention.”  Or my truly favorite one:  “What the fuck is the matter with you?”

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I can so relate to this.

It’s not my imagination; I know I’m treated differently than others since I’ve ‘come out’ and really started talking about my mental illness.  I’m not taken as seriously.  Sometimes I’ll be talking in a meeting at school, and someone talks over me and I just have to shut up and not contribute.  Or, I’ll be in a bad depression but try to hide it from family members because I don’t want them to think I’m not trying to be ‘better’.  In fact, I have family members that won’t even talk about it at all, while others have told me:  “You’re going to beat this!”  No, I’m not.  I’m going to fight it, but I’m not going to beat it; this is who I am, and who I have been for as long as I can remember. {Shout out here to my mom, son and sister:  they are awesomely supportive of me.  My rocks.}

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I feel different than others.  I see things differently.  I think about things differently.  But when I try to express that to people, I’m shut down.  And to be a part of the conversation, I just have to nod and pretend that their ideas are mine too.  Sometimes I think I should just build a bubble around myself to protect people from having to be around me.  Uncomfortable around me.   Wary around me.

But, there is a light.  You know the friend I talked about in my last post?  While we were talking about what having bipolar is like, I told him I did feel so different..so out of place…so at odds with others.  And after thinking for a minute, here’s what he said:  “Kristi, you are different.  You light up a room when you walk in.  Not many do that.”

You know, like Elton says in ‘Rocketman’:  “I’m OK with different”.  Maybe someday, we can all share that sentiment.

Kristi xoxo