I think I’ve made it relatively clear here on my blog that I have “mental health issues” (aka the socially appropriate way of saying “mental illness”). Just in case I have not, well, there you go.
Since ’04 I have been an on and off member of a fantastic little drop in center for adults living with mental illness in my community. I’ve begun attending a bit more regularly as of late and I truly enjoy the time that I spend there.
When I’m out in the world; going about my day to day life amongst everyone else, I wear a mask. I have to mask my mental illness.
I have trained myself (and have been trained) to respond to others in socially appropriate ways, to conduct myself in such a manner that I am indiscernible from a neurotypical person, and to behave as though I have no issues nor limitations that are any greater or more significant than those of anyone else. I camouflage myself in plain sight.
I don’t have to wear a mask at the center. No one minds if I can’t remember their name. No one minds if someone talks to themselves or behaves in odd or eccentric ways. We eat together, we have groups together, we create together, we sit and talk together. It is a safe haven.
I decided to pop into the center last week on a whim. I was utterly delighted when one of the staff members invited me to attend a fundraising gala with some other center members where we would be performing a song for the guests.
I accepted and began practicing my singing immediately. I was going to shine! I have a good voice and I was excited to have the opportunity to share that part of my creative talent with others.
Today was THE day. I reread the email one of the staff members had sent me earlier in the week; the dress code was business casual, no jeans, wear comfortable shoes. I had a loose idea for an outfit but decided to think about it later as I had a very busy morning and afternoon ahead of me.
I dashed home after I was done with my tasks for the day and did not feel well. I immediately laid down.
“I don’t think I’m going to go,” I croaked to my boyfriend when he came into the bedroom.
“Why not?” He asked. “You’ve been looking forward to this.”
I muttered something to him about needing to rest for a bit and he left. I laid there thinking. How cool would it be to get to perform at a big shindig? To rub elbows with the big shots, the pro baseball player who was slated to attend, the television news anchor who would be acting as emcee? Most important, though, a large portion of the donations brought in by the gala would directly benefit my little drop in center. How awesome would it be to know that I had been a part of that?
I decided to go. I got dressed and changed a few times before landing on a rather odd ensemble consisting of mismatched avocado socks, my son’s shoes, a too big pair of pants, a floral camisole, and a white, gauze like kimono with lace detail in the back. Lacking a ponytail holder I created a simple updo using an elastic ear loop that I removed from a disposable mask in my pocket.
Talk about hot mess express. Choo choo! What can I say? It had been a rough day.
I felt comfortable when we first arrived at the event. I met with some of the family that had founded the drop in center. I drank a glass of water. I milled about. I managed to grab a photo with the baseball player (I don’t know who he is but my son and boyfriend were quite impressed that I got to meet him).
I began feeling like a bit of a sideshow performance when, after our group was introduced to the room of “VIPs”, a woman approached the table where I sat with my fellow center members and began speaking to us in a sing song, condescending tone. “It’s so wonderful to have all of you here!” She gushed, speaking loudly as though the fact that we were all mentally ill made us deaf, too.
When we were escorted down to dinner we were seated at the furthest table in the back of the event center. As I looked around at everyone dressed in their black tie attire, as I watched the wait staff hesitate over bringing wine to our table, as I observed the curious and pitying glances being shot in our direction every now and then, I came to a realization.
I was not an honored guest. I was being used as feel-good inspiration porn.
I knew what would happen once my fellow center members and I got up in front of the event to sing. The eyes of the wealthy would be filled with tears as our generous benefactors looked upon us with admiration for how “brave” and “strong” we were.
I wanted nothing to do with it and decided not to sing. I didn’t want to be seen as some poor, unfortunate soul being tormented by her own mind. I didn’t want my mask to be removed.
While I am immensely proud of my fellow center members for singing and for speaking, for putting themselves out there and for showing up, I can’t help but wonder at how demeaning and dehumanizing the experience felt.
I don’t regret not singing. I’m a human being; not some thing that other people can use to feel good about themselves.
Until next time,
One thought on “Feel Good Do-Gooders”
you say you are mentally ill. i say you were the sanest in the house that night. declining to be a puppet in the puppet show proves this. i only wish i lived close by so i could get to know you more. much love❤️❤️❤️
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