I just finished watching these videos my husband wanted me to see. (http://richardmcohen.com/videos/) I don’t know why he wanted to me to see them exactly. I haven’t yet asked him. Of course, I found nothing new in these. I know what it is like to suffer from a mental illness (depression) as well as a chronic (and progressive) illness.
For the most part I think they were informative and Richard Cohen seems to take his bouts with illness in stride, as everyone must. What surprises me is that it surprises people when ordinary people with less than ordinary illnesses survive and thrive and have ‘normal’ lives. The interview with Piers Morgan seems to me to be one of the better of these. He treats Richard with the due dignity of any accomplished individual, regardless of his physical condition. The one I found interesting is the one where Meredith Viera (Richard Cohen’s wife) interviews (if briefly) several individuals who participated in Richard’s book “Strong at the Broken Places,” in which he talks about people with chronic illness. Among them a man with bi-polar disorder, a young man with MD and a girl with Crohnes. She knows how to treat these individuals with due respect, not hero-izing them, or with condescension or pity.
My problem comes with the last video, with MSNBC host (I can’t think of her name, maybe Debra Norvill?) who seems to both belittle and hero-ize Richard in the same introduction. Personally I really disliked her tone. I know she didn’t write the script she spoke, and it was for America’s benefit, it was so over the top and her tone sort of condescending. To me it seemed she felt deeply sorry for Richard and his travails. From what I have seen disabled or ill people do not want anyone’s pity. What an ill person wants is “normalcy.” To be treated just like everyone else, while wanting people to understand you. SInce most of us do not understand each other, at least treat everyone equally.
(If I may be so bold by using “We” and include the general chronically ill population), We don’t want our feelings disregarded either. Please if someone is in chronic pain don’t make them “feel better” by trying to commiserate and saying, “I know, I had a charlie horse once, and man did that hurt.” Please, if someone with chronic illness mentions they are not feeling very well, don’t say, “But you look great.” Please if you are talking to someone with chronic depression, don’t tell them to “buck up” or, my personal favorite, “smile, it could be worse.” I understand why people say such things; they don’t know what they should say, they don’t really care, they truly think they are being ‘nice.’ All of these things are dismissive and imply a complete lack of understanding.
As for the stigma attached to being mentally ill, I can only speak for those with depression, and the stigma that we are self centered; that only a selfish person commits suicide. Or worse, we could be happy if we just wanted to. Ugh, that one really makes me scream. There is nothing more a depressed person wants than to be happy. Nothing more someone with bi-polar disorder wants than to be on an even keel. Saying we have control, when we don’t is demeaning.
Of course, we can control how we think and change the way we think. I know, I’m one of these, but I didn’t believe that even two years ago, or even six months ago. But it has taken years of therapy, and drugs to realize this. It isn’t exactly as easy as “smile,” or “look on the bright side.” Until misconceptions and stigma end, may I make this suggestion: Unless you have experience in this area you should just keep quiet. Just a suggestion.