I’m sure you’ve all heard the expression “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” Basically, it’s a caution against over-analysis, a reminder that sometimes, things really are simple and they really are as they seem. No one likes to be thought of as simple, and we tend to not like it when people make assumptions about us and think about us in stereotype. In a sense, we like to be complicated and be seen as such. I know I do, and I have no shame about that. Sometimes, though, it can be a gift to be taken at face value, and it’s something that I took for granted.
If you are mentally ill, you may know what I’m talking about.
Let’s look at depression and anxiety, common mental health diagnoses that complicate your life and the way people interact with you. Depression and anxiety can be biochemical or situational. Regardless of the cause, anxiety and depression add layers to your life that aren’t immediately visible. That bitter, sarcastic unwillingness to go out with friends could be disguising agoraphobia. That laziness you see in your co-worker could be depression. Mention depression or anxiety and your mind teems with possibilities as to what’s REALLY going on in that crazy ass, mysterious head of yours.
That said, sometimes…a cigar is just a cigar. Sometimes, there’s no trick, no hidden motive, no mystery to be solved to the mentally healthy. People with mental health conditions, learning or mental disabilities have the same struggles, emotions, bad days and hissy fits that you do. That seems to get lost in discussions about normalization. There’s this push to destigmatize mental illness and to treat mental patients like any other segment of a population and yet…we are still treated like patients and like less than full adults in every area of our lives.
- If you want to spend some time alone, someone will always ask what’s wrong in your life to make you want to isolate yourself. Someone else might take it a step further and force you to interact. If you resist, it’s a sign of your advanced state of mental disease. The idea that you might just really want some “me” time, or that you are an introvert who really does prefer being alone, is not entertained.
- If you express any negative emotion at all, it will be written off as a sign of your illness and instability, a biochemical curiosity, nothing that you need to understand or respect or take seriously.
- If you do things that aren’t typical for you, or socialize with a different crowd than you normally do, people will assume that it’s because you are lonely or insecure, desperate to fit in, or to not feel. No one will think you have a genuine interest in self-improvement or self-exploration.
- If you take strong philosophical or political stands, especially as they relate to your condition or life experience, people will view them as attempts at self-justification and rationalization, not as genuine self-expression. They will psycho-mumble-jumble their way out of having to think about what you’re saying. If you challenge them on it, you are being defensive and/or projecting.
- If you are non-autistic and/or don’t have OCD, you are allowed to have intense, quirky, unusual, or childlike interests. People might even think it’s cute. If you have autism, OCD, or mental retardation, people will assume that your interests are symptoms of your disease, that they’re a detriment to your life and that they must be “managed.” People will force you out of your interests or into interests you don’t like or don’t agree with, and they will use the excuse that they’re trying to mainstream you, normalize you, “help” you to be more age-appropriate and “integrate” into the community better.
Normal people are allowed to have crappy days, to have alone time, to be politically active, to express themselves freely and stand by what they say, even when they’re not pleasant doing so. Normal people are allowed to play with action figures, watch cartoons, read horror novels obsessively, practice the religion (or no religion) of their choice, and make whatever decisions they please without interference or interrogation, and will often be respected or appreciated for it.
People with MI, MR, or other mental disabilities are not allowed any of this. Everything we do is part of a deeper narrative, and a negative one, about our disabilities, our deficits, and what’s wrong with us. We’re not entitled to face value. We’re not entitled to be mundane OR to be special. We’re not entitled to an identity outside of our condition OR to a positive, empowering identity that comes from disability.
Nope. You have to earn it, and you earn it by being something that you’re not, something that you will never able to be.
As for me, I say, “Pass the cigar.”