Shame and Regret: The Sting of Social Stigma

First posted in August 2012 Shame And Regret: The Sting of Social Stigma has more of a wallop five years later than four years earlier. We as a race must get something out of persecuting the disenfranchised and marginalized friends, family’s, lovers, idols, and heroes. Maybe we ought to look inside ourselves and find that kernel of fear. Then erase it. And then get back to being compassionate brothers and sisters.

 

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Why are we ashamed by what we do?  We do what we choose to do because we stand to gain something.  Yes, some people are forced, say at gun point, to compromise; some are coerced through drugs and alcohol; and yes, some actions are purely altruistic (ashamed of philanthropy?).  It’s my opinion that consciously withholding or denying or lying about our actions is caused by fear.  Not a generic fear, but a two-tier fear.  The first tier-fear: judgement by others is beyond your control; but the second tier-fear: consequence sits squarely in your lap, and which, by the way, you’d already equated as a potential cost of your unprecedented action.  We all know this simple truth: We have absolutely no control over the actions of others.  That said, we can remove the first tier-fear: judgement by others; we now find ourselves staring down the steely barrel of culpability: we encountered a situation, measured consequence against benefit, and toed the line or stepped across it.  So shame and regret were considered well before we pandered to our hunger, thirst, or warm body (emphasis on warm).

The best possible precursor to a mental illness diagnosis was, until 1973 its own mental illness: homosexuality.  Coming out as a gay man taught me the valuable lesson that there will be people who can’t distinguish between my sexual orientation (which places me in a specific group) and who I am (in general terms) as a fellow human being.  Having learned that lesson years ago I was well prepared to face similar discrimination based upon my mental orientation, i.e. mental illness, e.g. bipolar disorder.  And yet, what is there to be ashamed and regretful about?  Don’t carry the burden of Shame or wear the shackles of Regret; never apologize to anyone irritated by what you have, especially if what you have is a medically recognized disease.

Recently I conducted a thoroughly non-scientific giddy-up poll which asked: What diseases do you think you’d be ashamed to admit having?

Answers?  Anal warts, vaginal herpes, syphilis, gonorrhea. . .what?  Anal warts? Venereal diseases? According to our non-scientific poll of middle-aged men and women, they said that carrying a sexually transmitted disease is the only other human affliction besides mental illness that they would be ashamed of having and which also carries with it a damning social stigma.  STD’s are the result of risky and unsafe sexual activities engaged in by choice. Does mental illness really belong in their company? Really?

Shame and Regret are burdens that those who choose to remain ignorant and judgmental should shoulder.

Not me.  Not you.  And certainly not the neighbor, best friend, Richard Dreyfuss rdreyfuss2
parishioner, bowling buddy, Ryan Phillippe, phillippeprom date, recipient of the first kiss, Girl Scout, Teddy Roosevelt (yes, really), Girl Scout Leader, Sinéad O’Conner, full back,  Metta World Peace ,
mettapeace offensive line coach, movie star, Burgess Meredith, Opera Star, Ronald Braunstein, famous orchestra conductor, infamous commuter train conductor or any one of the other 25% of our world’s population. How about the other 75% of the world’s population loosen the reins of their prejudice.

I Reckon, It Was My Reckoning

PLEASE NOTE: BnB has 190 posts. I doubt you’re going to rummage around in the basement of my blog, so I’ve decided to bring a handful of posts forward and mention why these are some of my favorites. Like: My Penned Invention of the Pen Invention (because I had fun writing it); or, The Start starring Wile E. Coyote (because this was my first post and of which has received 138 comments); or this one I Reckon, It Was My Reckoning (an early attempt to illustrate a dire consequence when you barter your character for wealth, fame, power and career). I hope you enjoy it and, as always, I invite you to leave comments.

 

It was now, right now, right now as you read this, exactly four years ago, that I stood in front of an old, caged teller’s window and watched The Principle Clerk place the Scales of Character atop an antiquated green-marbled counter.  His craggy index finger moved slowly down a ledger, then stopped; picking up the ledger he walked to the back where small drawers were stacked thirty feet high. Looking near the bottom he opened a drawer, plucked out a box, then returned it, plucked another, returned it, and after five attempts in four different drawers he removed a box, closed the drawer, snapped shut the ledger and returned to the front.  

“That drawer was really packed,” I said to relieve my tension.  

“That drawer is all you,” he said, “You in different lives; there’s quite a bit of you; more is better than less; you didn’t squander character; admirable.”  From the

From the box, he lifted a small parcel and placed it on the counter beneath his barred window. Looking at me above his spectacles he said, “You’ve got to open it and verify that everything’s there; that there’s nothing missing, and that it meets with your satisfaction; once you’re finished, close it, tie the string, and then pass it back to me under the barred window.” Then leaning in, within whispering distance, he looked left and then right to check if anyone was within earshot and whispered, “Almost everyone expects more; don’t be surprised; a bit is withdrawn each time you barter truth to self,” then he turned and went about his busy work.

Hands shaking, I untied the bow, peeled back the paper and gazed upon five brilliant, transparent, and twinkling jewels.  Immediately I felt absorbed or better, renewed; I felt capricious and peculiar; I looked eagerly for paper and pencil so I could describe it; I felt shy and naked; every ploy and deceit and means were displayed. I folded the paper atop the jewels, tied a knot in the string and called for the clerk.  “Everything in order, sir?” he asked.  

“I assume so,” I replied absolutely uncertain as to the truth of my answer.

“Excellent,” he said, “Now, let’s take a look at where you stand,” as he carried my box back to the Scales of Character.

“On the left,” he started to explain, “we place your parcel, that is, what remains of your character,” he says as he delicately places my parcel on the brass tray.  “On the right,” he continued, “we place the whole of your Lifetimes represented by these incremental weights.  The target for which we aim is that the left side, You, outweighs the right side, Lifetime. The objective is that one’s Character can outlast one’s Existence.” 

“And what does it mean if the right outweighs the left?” I asked hesitantly.

“Many things,” he said after taking a deep breath, “and one which you must choose. But before we talk about that, let’s see where you stand,” has said quietly, turning back to the scale. I tried to peer through the closeness of the bars of his window and watched as he carefully selected the right-side weights and placed them delicately in the elevated tray.  With each weights placement, he paused momentarily, allowing the scale to stop moving before he proceeded.  When he placed the second to last weight on the tray the right side sunk significantly but remained higher than the left.  “Not too bad, not too bad at all,” he said over his shoulder, “that weight is what does so many, so so many people in.”

“One weight left. . .” my comment exposing my nervousness.

“Yes,” the Clerk said, “but it represents the last decade,” he said as he placed it on the scale causing the left side to rise above the lowered right side.  

“Out of balance,” I mumbled, defeated.

Turning, he walked to the counter and studied me before speaking.  In a voice resembling that of my conscience, he began to explain, “There are people that stand where you’re standing and their left side hit bottom long before I stacked the weight. They knew what it meant before I started my explanation.  And for those people, there are no options: There’s just one thing to do. But it’s not the thing that’s hard to believe, it’s knowing that they won’t know when. That by overdrawing their Character account they lost the privilege of forethought.  Now they spend their time oblivious to all the choices of life, they’re left behind; indecisiveness caused missed chances, lost opportunities, and the upstarts, the less deserving were handed promotions. And they continued to fall further and further down their chosen ladder. And on his way down all of the trappings associated with bartered success fell too like leaves or thin branches: their wives and children and grandchildren. Here we call that damnation.”  He checked his watch and placed a sign directing people to other windows, walked back to a coat tree, grabbed his hat and coat and stood next to me.

“You stopped by at a good time.  You didn’t wait thinking the ship would right itself. You abandoned the inclination to compromise.  Compromise depletes Character quicker than any other life choice; compromise also happens to be the easiest and most benign.  And yet Character is the most coveted virtue by people besieged by empty character overdrafts and find themselves pleading for, but being denied protection. This persona non grata will happily promise anyone anything to convince the unwitting to give it up; let it go; who cares; nobody will see and who cares if they do; everyone else does it; it’s just for a while; come on we’re friends. And before the new initiates know it, their high-rolling days are over; they’re marginalized; they’re alone at any bar on any street and in that part of town; no wingmen; no gaggles and gaggles of girls gathering and giggling; no brunette with Azurite eyes. Those seeking devotees have already begun to feel that Life is no longer a Miracle but a rubric to be endured for all time. Not celebrated or explored or shared or even predicted.  The damned chides those with Character but those with Character cannot hear their heckles. You see, it’s not that those with Character won’t listen. They have listened. It’s the damned that didn’t listen and sadly they’ll be the only ones that will listen.

“But here’s what’s going to happen to you:  You saw that you’re a wee bit short on Character to last your Lifetime. Maybe you traded it, sold it, or gave it away. So you’re going off-line for a few years; to recharge; to reenergize; to rediscover curiosity and creativity; to stop, take root, sprout and expand; to see not simply look; to listen and understand not just hear and obey; to get back to the business of your life; to be you to the end.  Expect people to identify you as crazy, loony, out-of-your-head and off your noggin, a victim of mental illness; they may even identify you as a kind of nut case; a specific type of lunatic; because, they’ll say, if Crayola can have five different reds and blues and greens, then why can’t the mentally ill be as colorful! Let it be, let it wash ashore like the tide; you’ll survive. That pinch of Character you might need to navigate life will be available and parsed out.  Now, once that door opens and you cross that threshold your entire life will fall apart.  You won’t know why you won’t remember here or me. That is until one day some years from now when it’s time for your turn at the window you’ll recall a sort of Déjà vu clerking behind the window.  And being one of Generous Character you may even tell this story using your own voice which mysteriously fell silent twenty years ago just like mine did twenty years ago. And maybe the middle-aged man standing in front of your window will have more Character than Life remaining. And then both of you can walk out that door over there.” 

“What’s it say?” I asked, careening my neck in order to see. 

“There’s no need knowing now,” he said as one strong hand went to my back and the other hand to the lock. “Besides,” he said turning the knob, “Time just eats you up,” as he nudged me, waited, then with considerably more strength he nudged me again with more purpose, and then he barked loudly and snarled like a teased-to-mean junkyard dog waving that craggy finger at me, “Now, get out!” he snarled, “Twenty more years until I can go through that door marked “To Trains.” Then with great conviction, he pushed me into the street followed by doors slamming and deadbolts being thrown. When I turned back I saw an empty, fenced-in lot among pitiless faces deep within a strange city when my eyes shot open early this morning.

Has Been’s, Could’ve Been’s, Once Was’s, and Children

Note: Like a sliver that’s penetrated the thick skin, it needs to be removed by a sterilized needle and constant squeezing. It will continue to ache until its presence causes you far more anguish than it’s extraction. The parallels are one reason why this post means so much to me.
Me (right) and my brother (left)

My brother got my dad’s physique; I got his mental illness.

Once I assumed the role of cook a couple of years ago, I planned my menu so that every other day I’d prepare a new meal.  The only cookbook I owned was a 1960’s copy of Betty Crocker’s Cookbook.  This cookbook was my mother’s, and if you saw it, you’d think Betty Crocker herself passed it along to my mother.  It was a solid first-step for me, my hesitation quieted by my mother’s obvious use of the cookbook, evidenced by the incredible number of batter-splattered pages; missing pages; half-pages; and an index at the rear which resembled the color palette of Crayola’s 64-Color box of crayons.  There were highlighted recipes; notations at the margins; and just a few, but oddly significant in an extreme way, an ad infinitum decree by way of thick, heavy lines, one or two eliminated altogether by a formidable, dense marker, applied as determined and repeated coats, forbidding any chance that these recipes might appear on our kitchen table.

My father was already a train wreck when my brain began recording his presence.  Failing at life (mainly due to his undiagnosed mental illness, bipolar), his appearance was infrequent: his social mask was one of humor: albeit acidic sarcasm and shearing, pointed wit composed in the key of tease and enacted before an unending column of untried yet promising second-shift ladies.  His role as a bullying, boorish big shot, whose sole domestic purpose was to reprise the 1963 verbal variety of water boarding. His peacocking drove us  closer and closer to suffocation, as though with each matinée he pressed another thick pillow of despair onto our faces and then, just when our desperation went quiet and we felt that first, foamy wave of disappearance, back we’d go into his second act and the shrill, ingenuous cackle of his subordinate’s callow laughter warned us that he was gaining adoration.  And the louder the laughter, the more lewd, raunchy, and viscous his anecdotes became, and our mention increased proportionally until, by the end, the three of us, his family, descended well past indecency, a good way beyond degenerate, and somewhere between contemptible and worthless.

And as the ladies stood and he, broadcasting his manners, helped them with their coats, those ladies whose saturating attention fueled my father’s mania sending him further and further afield, looked at the three of us, fodder of my father’s insanity, and delicately lifted the corners of their mouths in an effort to produce a symbol of empathy that my father couldn’t decode.

But what those lips produced was that sneer tossed at has been’s, could’ve beens, once was’s, and children who repeatedly witness their father falling apart.

Going Back pt. 1

yellowwarbler

I was born a foot this side of the tracks, I joke. My mother had an eighth-grade education. She sat with 30 other kids in a one-room schoolhouse in some no-name farm town in northern Wisconsin. My father achieved a high school education and allegedly a scholarship to Purdue which he forfeited for one hour with a sixteen-year-old. I harbor no grudge nor animosity toward them. With one exception: Their insistent protestations, threats, and finally abandonment regarding my decision to defect, seek asylum for fear of persecution because I wanted a college degree and because I was gay: Having lost patience I insisted I wouldn’t stay in my hometown any more than the Yellow Warbler would stay the winter. If we both had ignored that innate call to leave the familiar we would have surely perished. And I’m uncertain of the Yellow Warbler but my flight felt like I’d fallen into a patch of firethorn, second in pain only to my mother’s scheduled absence when my taxi arrived. So I decided, after telling the cabbie my destination, that I’d become a fledgling Robin leaping from the nest and failing to fly, flying occurs after falling; falling triggers faith; falling faster surrounded by a vortex of swirling updrafts and downdrafts! Then suddenly without thought or debate or decision, I extended my arms into the maelstrom. Moments later my arms caught an updraft and I was flying. And like my brethren, once aloft and free home is behind you, and ahead? Clear skies with a slight tailwind.

 

My Moral Corruption

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“How you said what you said was simply enchanting,” were the first words he ever said to me.

“I was awake, I was always awake,” were the last words.

And between these two bookends were almost thirty years of an on-again/off-again relationship which redefined the term love affair, and which did very little to boost my self-confidence.  Instead this. . .entanglement. . .often followed a beachpalsdreadfully antagonistic and well-rehearsed sequence of deplorable behavior: Vanish, spot, affirm, invite, tempt, yield, pity, agony, masquerade, endure, discredit, and pluck.   And each incarnation ripped yet another piece of moral character from me until sometime in the early nineties I concluded that we were no more to each other than a dealer and an addict, and he was always, always willing to deal, not out of compassion for me, but to satisfy some dark hunger, a craving, maybe a need.

Like anonymous chunks of an ice shelf, we broke apart and drifted away from each boy-in-bushother.  I finding love and partnership and success in Chicago.  He and his art landed in New York.  It wasn’t his drawings they placed atop acrylic pedestals.  For dollar bills he ignored their probing fingers; for five’s he forgot their foraging.  We never discussed the activities associated with higher denominations but he emphasized they were few and far between (“even for someone that looks like me!”), a thinly veiled plea for adoration of which I ignored and which subsequently produced a stifling silence as though the bridge between us had been washed away by indifference.

He enjoyed a modicum of success with a small band of go-go-boys that played the voyeuristic circuit of Greenwich bars, and infrequently out-of-town gigs took them to South Beach, Atlanta and, of course, Chicago.  But by that time his mother had passed, his baby brother didn’t want to farm, and his father sold all three hundred acres, outbuildings, and the triple-generation farmhouse and moved into town,  So when he was in Chicago it was all business; most of it public, but private parties were viceprisonerhands down the most lucrative (and dangerous).  His last trip to Chicago was a bona fide performance, secretly cast by the Chicago Vice Squad who raided the place and arrested the lot and charged them with indecency (the cheek dividing string of his g-string was 0.25″ too narrow to entirely cover his anus).  I was called and took clothes and cash and bailed him out of jail.  As the sun started to peek above Lake Michigan we were driving north on Lake Shore Drive when he said, “You know, I think it’s time to hang up the g-string.”

“Really?” I asked in disbelief, knowing (from years of personal experience) that posing whether still or sparkling was his only talent.

Staring out the window he replied, “Yup!  Problem is. . .”  Here it comes, I thought.  “Problem is, the cops kept it as evidence!”