The Online Etymology Dictionary has this to say about the word stigma:
- stigma 1596, “mark made on skin by burning with a hot iron,” from L. stigma (pl. stigmata), from Gk. stigmastigmatos (gen. ) “mark, puncture,” especially one made by a pointed instrument, from root of stizein “to mark, tattoo,” from PIE *st(e)ig- (see stick (v.)). Fig. meaning “a mark of disgrace” is from 1619, as is stigmatize in this sense. Stigmas “marks resembling the wounds on the body of Christ, appearing supernaturally on the bodies of the devout” is from 1632; earlier stigmate (1387), from L. stigmata.
It is interesting to me that a stigma was basically a brand, a mark made on someone’s skin to identify him or her as disgraced, undesirable, someone you don’t want your kids to hang out with. It’s rather like Hester Prynne‘s scarlet A.
When I was struggling with the worst of my bipolar disorder – of which I have been blessedly free from symptoms for over six years now – I experienced the stigma attached to people who have a mental health diagnosis. I got some of the weird looks, the whispers, the conversations that would suddenly end when I came up. I moved to a different job a couple years later, where I did not disclose my diagnosis. There, I felt afraid, as though I had to keep it hidden. One day, in the cube farm, I overheard two managers talking about former employees, and one of them related a story.
This one guy, we had to buy all special light bulbs for him. They were so expensive! But something about the fluorescent lights would make him moody and weird. He seemed okay, but we had his doctor’s note, so we kept those special bulbs as long as he was their. I guess light can make some people… just… moody.
Before moving to that job, I’d done some research into full-spectrum lighting, and had decided against campaigning to use it in my workplace. Those lights are expensive, and I wasn’t sure how much they would help me, especially because for the treatment of depression, they come with the same warning I’d seen so many times about possibly triggering a manic episode. The thing that bothered me about this was, if this man had a doctor’s note, it is very likely that he had a legitimate mental illness, a disease or dysfunction in his physical brain. But the manager couldn’t talk about it as a legitimate illness – like diabetes or rheumatoid arthritis – only in terms like moody and weird. This was stigma in action, and I’m sure it was caused by ignorance.
I hadn’t realized it until I was doing some research last night, but chronic pain carries stigma, too, especially when the cause of the pain is invisible. My children don’t believe that I have as much pain as I do, and my daughter actually accused me of being a drug-seeker last month. It can be hard at work, because without daily external reminders, people don’t understand why suddenly I need to work from home for a couple days, I can sometimes feel like I’m perceived as a slacker, lazy, unproductive, when I am struggling to give my company the same level of work that I’ve always given before. My son shakes his head at me when I hire someone to mow my lawn or to take care of other garden chores that I’m just not physically able to cope with. I get accusing looks when I turn down an invitation to something, because I’ve weighed the fun against the cost I will have to pay the next day in pain and sleep-inducing medications and associated brain-fog.
Yes, some of the stigma is internalized, and I have to admit that sometimes I’ve made poor decisions because I was more concerned about what someone else would think than about the pain I would experience. In my marriage, I’d learned to conceal evidence of pain and suffering, because talking about it or showing it in my movements or expressions would get me comments like you’re such a drama queen, or you’re defective – I should trade you in on a newer model, or I wish you’d stop that, nobody feels sorry for you. And of course, there’s all that conditioning we get about being a good sport and being a team player and (especially for women) taking care of others.
It can be so hard to break out of those ways of thinking, and be honest and authentic. Heck – I don’t do a very good job of revealing or talking about my pain with my own doctors! When I was admitted to the psychiatric hospital in 1998, the recreation therapist came into my room a couple days later and apologized for not doing her intake interview with me earlier. She said, you always say hi and are so happy to see us, and we forget that you’re here for depression; but I thought, I know warriormare, and she may be smiling and talking with me, but she’s feeling really bad behind that smiling face. And she was right. Even in the psychiatric hospital after attempting suicide, I still had to be the sunny happy person that I thought everyone expected to see. I couldn’t express my deep sadness and pain, much less my anger. It took time to be able to let those things show at all, much less to the depth that I was feeling them.
I don’t know how to combat stigma, other than by combatting ignorance. The problem is, when you are already stigmatized, you become suspect, and people trust knowledge that comes from you less. Even if you hand them articles from peer-reviewed medical journals, books or websites written by experts in the field, you can still walk away frustrated.
For now, though, I’ll hang around with some of the other defective folks, the people who know their own brokenness and can allow that vulnerability to give birth to intimacy and relationship. But it is hard dealing with the ignorant, the perpetuators of stigma, and it gets tiring after a while.
Most blessed Jesus, you came to earth as a human and walked your journey in this flawed and broken world. You were reviled as a heretic and a blasphemer, and shunned by the authorities of your time. You recognize ignorance and know how it feels to be stigmatized. Hold us in your arms, dear brother, and fill our broken places with love. Shine your light and truth on those who are ignorant, those who stigmatize their brothers and sisters, and help them to find the knowledge and truth that will free them from their anger and pain. I ask these things in your name, Jesus Christ, who is one with the Father and the Holy Spirit. Amen.