Thursday, January 14, 2016

Disability,Gun Violence, and the Broad Brush of Prejudice


Thursday, January 14, 2016
6:12 PM

Do terrorists take Prozac ? One might assume these days that they do. There is legislation  afoot at the state and federal level which imposes hefty privacy violations on people like me because of an escalation of gun violence/terrorism in America. I can't put into words how profoundly discouraging it is to watch this happening from the sidelines. As an American who counts herself among the many millions of people in this country who take anti-depressants, I find the discriminatory rhetoric deeply degrading.

My experience tells me that there is a difference between mental illness and evil. Evil seeks to kill, to steal and to destroy. It does not regard the mystery of human existence as something to be cherished and protected. It is darkness. It celebrates death rather that respecting it as an inevitable component of life.

Disability is challenging. Both for those who suffer from it as well as for those who must make room for it. It  is often experienced as a negative. And yet it also can function as an elevator of the human condition because it causes us to surrender our common assumptions about people who are different from ourselves. Disabled people illicit a necessary pause in the hurried and determined competitions of life. Learning to see the unique beauty of a disabled person is often a spiritually uplifting experience. The interaction serves to dilate the heart and expand the mind as we take the time and energy to discover a divine spark which is perhaps hidden beneath a few layers of dust and grime, strange smells, or even our own hard won opinions. Disability opens our eyes to deeper levels of meaning in the everyday world around us.

My brother suffered from schizophrenia for 27 years before he finally gave up and took his life two years ago. Henry heard voices in his head and on the radio which taunted him relentlessly. The voices told him that he was "Hitler" and "the Beast of the Apocalypse". The doctors told us that we needed to remind Henry that the voices weren't real. I never did that. Henry's voices were very real to him. If you didn't know my brother and just read his emails, you might get the impression that he was some kind of neo-nazi. It's because he had to reckon with those voices somehow. They were unrelenting in their pursuit of his simple goodness. He was turned away at the airport a few times for probably that reason. Sometimes he would say the wrong thing. But Henry was the farthest thing from threatening. Everyone who actually knew my brother knew that his soul was as gentle as a dove. He never hit me once growing up. He never taunted me or called me names. Behind the unattractive exterior of an unzipped pant fly or a three day old ketchup stain on his shirt, his kindness was really special. He was incapable of judging people in the way that we all do. Like most people who suffer from the disease of schizophrenia , Henry had a beautiful mind  and extraordinary courage. Just imagine the strength of will required to spend most waking hours hearing a cacophony of evil taunts inside and outside of your head with no hope of a cure on the horizon. Imagine for a moment wearing the scorn, the rejection, the humiliation that comes from the ugly stigma of a disease which more often than not generated revulsion in healthy people. Imagine living in a world where everyone suspects you of being a killer because our leaders say you're inescapable condition casts you into the same category as Isis. I'm sure that I would give up after a few years. Wouldn't you ?

If I were in a leadership position I would stop the rhetoric that demonizes and marginalizes people who suffer from mental illnesses. A mental health diagnosis does not define a person's character and should not determine a person's equal treatment before the law.People like my brother need our help and our hope, not our worst fears confounded. The people who go on killing sprees may or may not have a mental illness. Mentally ill does not mean homicidal or hateful.Studies show that violent behavior is not  necessarily connected to mental illness My brother Henry never touched a gun and he was incapable of hate .His biggest problem was that he loved people too much and was too trusting. Henry is no longer with us but his memory still inspires me to be a better person and build a better world. I hope that others like him  aren't unjustly penalized because of a disability. Mental illness isn't the danger. Becoming so afraid that we discredit and marginalize groups of people with a broad brush of suspicion is dangerous. If this demagoguery continues unabated, we all lose.




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