Monday, 19 September 2016

Words (and their impact on Recovery)

'The verb is 'to crown'!' As I write I am shouting at a journalist, supposedly an artful practitioner of our language, telling me that someone is on in the process of being 'coronated'! Grrrrr. I would not call myself a grammatical tyrant, but really folks, English is so difficult to learn as a foreign language, precisely because we can carefully choose the words we want to use in any given context. I used to liken grammar to a train. It makes sense if you label in a very specific way... anyway I'm not about to launch into a Year 7 parts of speech lesson, although I have had a hankering for teaching recently. Anyway, the main thrust for my imagery was to convey to the children that how we structure our words is vital to helping us become really good at communicating what is in our heads to the world around us.

Of course as we grow older we find that not only have we left the childish belief that 'words can never hurt me' behind us, but we realise there are certain words which not only convey an idea, but can be loaded with judgement. Words like, 'unemployed', 'mentally ill', 'immigrant'carry with them sometimes very dark judgements, mostly about people who have a different background or experience to us.

One thing I have noticed as I have continued on my recovery journey, is that I am now more sensitive to certain words and, as a result, they can have a devastating impact on my emotions, often triggering feelings of failure. Sometimes it's a single word, at others it's a well worn phrase, or a sentence. Here is a selection:

Relapse. When I was working with drug users in recovery there was much discussion around 'lapses' and 'relapses'. Our mantra was 'a lapse is not a relapse...' I have found that when I face struggles in recovery from my emotional issues everyone refers just to a 'relapse' which to me means failure, going back to square one, letting myself and everyone else down. One word, but so much weight of judgement. I have combatted this by dropping the 're' and saying to myself 'a lapse is not a relapse' A lapse means that I have been overwhelmed by a moment, it is a temporary setback, recoverable. I can reset myself from a lapse. To me, for a relapse to happen means I have needed more extensive outside help to recover from out of control emotions and/or I have reverted to using self defeating coping mechanisms. It may seem a small thing, but the addition of a prefix totally changes my reactions and/or actions to recover again.

Mental Illness/Condition/Issues: I could call what I battle with, 'bagel', that way I can totally avoid judgements being loaded on me by others who have interpreted what suffering from a Mental Health Condition means. The problem is that without giving you my history and context the word is out of place and therefore fails to convey the ideas I am seeking to communicate. Hence it is problematic if I launch into my story by telling you that 'I was diagnosed with 'bagel' in 2011'. Sometimes I have the choice to ignore other people's judgements and values applied to certain labels and choose to redefine them for myself. If I believe that mental health conditions are just the same as physical health conditions, then why wouldn't I be willing to use commonly used phrases which are basically descriptive. The best way to tackle stigma is to introduce the ignorant to human reality. It is powerful to stand in front of a room and be able to admit that I struggle with my emotions and sometimes my thinking becomes clouded as a result. Particularly in recovery this can be more productive for me than focusing on trying to change people's use of specific words - why not simply introduce them to the person they avoid behind the labels?

Vulnerable v Fragile. One thing I heard through the DBT (dialectical behaviour therapy) programme was that although I may be emotionally vulnerable at times, I am not fragile. There is a song by Julia Fordham called 'Porcelain' and it expresses that frustration women often have when treated as 'weak', needful of protection. I know there is a paradox here. It is nice to be looked after, to know that people care for our needs. I guess there is a line, maybe it's similar to the one some relationships cross when 'protective' becomes 'possessive'. There is a sense of smothering, of not being trusted to be an adult, a loss of independence. I think there is an element of seeing patients as 'fragile' which contributes to the environments in Mental Health services which create dependence and that thorny little issue of 'learned helplessness'. Granted there are times when it would lovely to have a white knight swoop me up into his strong arms while he whisks me away from my daily grind and struggles. Except, those moments are really meant to stay in my childhood stories and now, sometimes in the cinema. Most importantly, for my ongoing recovery, to see myself as having vulnerabilities without being 'fragile' is important to giving me a sense of control over my life and more especially, my emotions. My goodness, if my experiences in life have not shattered me, there must be a core of steel in there somewhere. I may be a product of my past experiences, but I am no longer their prisoner.

The issues around Mental Health Stigma are part of a wider demonising and marginalising of certain groups nationally and internationally. I do listen to Donald Trump and worry that he is so oblivious to the power of words, particularly when conveying vacuous and bigoted ideas. In the end no word is an empty vessel, I need not only to take heed of my internal judgements, but also the fact that those who hear my words carry their own history which affects their interpretation of what I am saying.

Perhaps, the conclusion to my reflections here is that I should remind myself to hear what is behind others' words, as much as I expect others to move beyond their own (narrow) definitions of mine. Maybe we all need to take time to get to know people as people, take the pre-judgement out of our interactions. I know, I am Canute and the waves of words flooding our public spaces is the sea coming in around my feet. Only place I can start is here.

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