Since last week’s post about Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death and the stigma surrounding addiction, mental illness and vulnerability in general, I have given the topic, and my own struggle, much thought.
I came to two realisations: 1. I would not be in recovery today if it were not for the fact that I have always been very public about my struggles. Everyone in my life, from family, to my friends, to my bosses and my co-workers, knew that I was an active addict and in active depression. And that lack of secrecy, of shame, is what forced me to keep it real, to keep a reality check on myself, and, ultimately, to break free of the addiction and the mental illness.
One of the most powerful and freeing things I ever did was while I was in Tara Psychiatric Hospital in 2007. In order to prevent myself from cutting, I took advantage of one of their support systems and asked the nurse assigned to me to do a daily physical examination of me. I committed to remaining mutilation free. If she found a new mutilation, I would be asked to leave the hospital, which would have been devastating, as it was at that stage my only safe space. Now this type of strip search might sound horrific, and believe me it was, but it was what allowed me to break free from the addiction of self-mutilation. Knowing that I couldn’t self-mutilate without consequences forced me to find other ways of coping. Which allowed me to realise that I was not as powerless over the mutilation as I thought I was, and that there were other ways of dealing with the overwhelming emotions that were less destructive.
I’ve approached all of my addictions, and my depression itself, in this way and by making the private, the shameful secret a public fact, I removed the power of that secret, that addiction and that depression over me.
Which brings me to the second of my thoughts about addiction, mental illness and vulnerability. 2. The politics of addiction and mental illness are always shrouded in secrecy, both in active addiction and in active recovery. In active addiction / active mental illness, the addict and/or the mentally ill and their family keep their struggles a secret. And in active recovery, one goes to anonymous twelve-step meetings where anonymity is not only part of the shame, but a necessary part of the twelve-step doctrine. “Hi, my name is Germaine and I’m an addict.” But it’s only inside those four walls and the four walls of your bedroom that you’re an addict. Outside of those spaces everything is FINE! You’re fine and everything’s ok.
And this secrecy creates the stigma around addiction and mental illness. Or the other way around. It doesn’t matter. What does matter is that the addict/mentally ill is removed from society because they are “dysfunctional” and when their addiction is “rehabilitated” and they are “cured” of their mental illness, they are allowed to return to society in order to function and contribute, as one should.
Well bugger that! Perhaps if more of us stood up and announced, “My name is Germaine de Larch and I am an addict and living with a mental illness”, the stigma would lose its sting. Because those of us in active recovery are modern day heroes. We are not only winning the daily battle (and don’t let anyone fool you that it’s not a daily battle), but we are contributing more to society than most, because we’ve stared death in the face and we know how precious life is.
So this is a call to take the anonymous out of addiction and mental illness. I’d like to begin a movement, centring around a photographic project, where we ‘come out’ as addicts and those living with mental illness. Because those in active addiction and active mental illness need to have a blueprint of what it looks like to be ‘allowed’ back into society, of what it looks like to live day by day with these diseases. Because being in recovery is one of the bravest things anyone can ever do, and this needs to be celebrated rather than stigmatised. And perhaps this will prevent the completely unnecessary deaths of those whom we know and love who feel that they are alone in their addiction and depression.
So herewith the first of the photographs in the series #AgainstStigma The Face of Addiction/’Mental Illness’*.
Please share this and please join me in being photographed, in providing a face to the anonymous diseases, in standing against stigma. Please join me in this photographic project: We all have addictions, and a lot of us live with mental illness If you’re in active recovery, whether it be from mental illness or from the addictions of smoking, sugar, over-working or heroin, please take part and please share.
#AgainstStigma The Face of Addiction/’Mental Illness’* 1.
My name is Germaine de Larch. I am a recovering addict (self-mutilation [7 years], bulimia [13 years], overeating [3 years], co-dependent relationships [3 years], cigarettes [2 months, 10 days]). I live with mental illness* (chronic depression, social phobia, Generalised Anxiety Disorder and Borderline Personality Disorder [3 years]).
[…] indicates clean time**.
Photo: Self-portrait by Germaine.
Johannesburg, South Africa.
*/** PLEASE READ MY ‘DEFINITIONS’ OF ‘ADDICTION’, ‘MENTAL ILLNESS’, AND ‘RECOVERY’.
What are the requirements?
- That you’re a recovering addict** and/or living with mental illness, and not in active addiction** or in any way a victim** of your mental illness*. This project is for people who have overcome or are in the process of overcoming the dysfunction and are stronger for it, who have learned or are learning not only to live with their addictive personalities and mental illness, but who are stronger and more whole than when they first used or became mentally ill.
- The willingness to have your photograph, your full name and your information about your addiction and/or mental illness published on the internet in various social media forms, to be tagged on Facebook, as well as to have your image and details publicised in the form of a physical exhibition.
- That you use your full name.
Photo: This project is about the message, not the photograph, so it will only work if all the portraits are in the same format. Sorry to limit your creativity, but if you could keep the photograph setup as close to the ones already online that would be great. I’ll edit if needed. Thanks!
Text: Please fill your details into this format –
My name is ____________. I am a recovering addict (_________ [__ months/years], etc.). I live with mental illness (_________ [_____ months/years*]).
[…] indicates clean time.
* A note on what I mean by mental illness. The word ‘illness’ is something I use for the sake of clarity, to make sure that everyone knows what I am speaking about. So I use the psychiatric term. So whatever your definition and whether you see it as a burden or a gift, what I mean here by ‘mental illness’ is the same thing you mean. I have huge issues with the psychiatric institution and see it as very fraught, and I am not a big fan of the DSM whatever version we’re on now. I don’t believe in ‘diagnosis’ and hate how it labels and limits one. I see my ‘mental illness’ as part of my personality, not a pathology, something that makes me more sensitive and creative than most, which is both beautiful and difficult. Whether you align yourself to addiction as an illness or something that is not pathological, this project is for you, because I would like to put a face on those living outside the boundaries of what most people consider ‘normal’, and making a success of the daily struggles.
** recovery / active recovery / clean time / active recovery from mental illness / clean time from mental illness: ‘Recovery’ is not easily definable. I use the terms ‘recovery’ and ‘mental illness’ in the way that they are defined by the very, very fraught psychiatric institution. What I mean by ‘in recovery’ as opposed to ‘active addiction’ is that the former has taken the steps needed to live with their mental illness/addiction. They are aware that it is a day-to-day struggle and not something that is ever cured. An active addict or someone who is a victim to their mental illness is someone who is waiting to be saved; someone who does not take responsibility for what they are dealing with. And certainly, reaching out for help is taking responsibility. It’s the difference between between active, an agent in one’s own recovery, and being passive and waiting for a pill/professional/sobriety to save one. What it means for me is the last time my life was completely unmanageable, when I was not functioning, when the depression controlled me instead of the other way around; when I was a victim to it instead of a survivor living with and dealing with it daily. But having said that, it is not all smooth sailing. And not just because I’m an addict and living with mental illness, but because I’m alive 😉 There are ups and downs and I have bad days and even relapse in some of my addictions. Or if I don’t relapse in my addictions, then I relapse in my addictive thinking and do impulsive, self-destructive and general ‘addict’ things. This clarification is under constant revision and has not been expressed very well here. Comments, queries and suggestions are very, very welcome. Let’s keep redefining what we live with, by ourselves, for ourselves, instead of having a psychiatric institution tell us what we live with.
Stigma Too Much for #AgainstStigma? Please Participate Anonymously in Writing.
Now a month into the project, I must say that I had absolutely no idea how great the stigma is re addiction and mental illness until I started my In Recovery: The Face of Addiction/Mental Illness. #AgainstStigma project. I’m getting quite a bit of feedback that people would love to participate, but that they too did not realise how insidious the stigma was. I’d like to ask that those of you who feel that they cannot participate in this project due to the stigma please inbox or email me (firstname.lastname@example.org). I’d like to include your anonymous comments in this project in a piece I’ll be writing along with it.
And remember: this stigma says more about society than it does about you and your ability to participate.
For any queries or submissions, please contact me.