The Power of Words

October 28, 2019

It's true that moral guidance and counsel need to be given, but the way you say it and to whom you say it are as important as what you say.  (The Message Bible)

I'm really struggling with writer's motivation; I have ideas, so it's not exactly writer's block, but I am struggling so hard with the sitting down and typing bit.  Maybe I'm out of practice?  I have been spending a lot of my time cleaning and organizing and decorating and just enjoying my new house that my writing drive is a bit rusty. 

Yes, you heard that right - A NEW HOUSE!

It was such a huge landmark when I was able to move out of my parents' house almost five years ago but this is even bigger.  My parents trust me and I trust me.  I will take care of the house, I will pay bills on time, and I belong to a wide community net that I know will help me when I need it. Tonight I am selling blackout poetry and leading a short blackout poetry workshop at a peer recovery event and yesterday I interviewed a friend for a LGBT cultural competency workshop that I am putting together.  I've been thinking a lot about how well I am doing these past few weeks and how desperate my life used to be.  I do not own any "positivity magic," just a lot of intention, time, practice, and support.  Here are a few images from my housewarming party a few days ago:

(That's right-cupcakes with edible fake blood!)

I remember about fifteen years ago, I went to a psychiatrist for a second opinion, and he said that I had "very severe mental illness" and that I would need "long term care."  He also said that he thought I should go to SkyLand Trail, as they're the only mental health facility that offers long term care in Atlanta and they are actually evidence-based as doing good work.  I took the doctor's advice and attended SkyLand Trail for nine months.  I am so glad I did!  I discovered myself again through art and music and I made many wonderful connections.  It was the first place where I actually bonded with therapists and felt like they were actually helping me instead of causing more harm.  In fact, I first met my current therapist at SkyLand Trail so long ago.

I am very grateful.

Even so, words have power and they really can hurt and cause trauma.  I wish the doctor I saw had used other descriptors and had promised more hope and recovery.  What if he had said, "You're going through a really rough and challenging time right now and I know it feels like this has been going on forever and like it will never stop.  I really think that a place like SkyLand Trail could help you.  The length of stay will be longer, but you'll get so much more out of it-skills and therapy and support and art.  I think you can still have a productive, meaningful life if you work hard and keep on going."

Instead, I have been left with the label of "severe" mental illness ever since.  It hurts in a very deep and primal way.  If only he could see me now! I have had to face this label again as I talked to a local psychologist's class about recovery from "SMI," "SPMI," and psychosis.  ("Severe mental illness" and "severe, persistent mental illness"). I am glad that I was able to talk to his class.  The instructor has turned out to be a wonderful ally and I think he is doing very good work.  He is trying to get a grant for him to be able to pay certified peer specialists to tell their recovery stories to more graduate psychology classes.  Here is a bit that I wrote in a letter supporting his request:

Having schizophrenia, psychosis, and other serious mental illnesses are still very stigmatized with few resources and oftentimes, little hope given for a productive and meaningful life in recovery.  As a person with serious mental illness, I find great meaning in dispelling these myths.  Empathy is gained by hearing a personal story filled with hope and I believe there is really no other way than through dialogue that a student can gain this type of knowledge.  I firmly believe that listening to personal experiences are critical for empathy, openness, and success for mental health professionals wanting to relate to clients with SMI.

Still, I wish we did not use words like "severe" or "psychotic" at all.  I wish our charts were full of our strengths and possibilities instead of just our symptoms and failures.  Symptoms and labels are just so limiting to the human psyche.

Words hurt.

A few weeks ago, I overheard a person in power tell a peer the classic line, "Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me," and I was appalled!  I thought that we were beyond this naive cliche by now.  I thought our mental healthcare system was trauma informed enough to know that this ignorant phrase actually causes trauma!  I was then left to clean up the damage and I told the peer about the importance of validation:

Your feelings are your feelings. It doesn't matter if another person gets why you feel a certain way, you feel that way and that is okay.  Needing attention and needing validation is not bad-we all need those things sometimes.  Unfortunately, oftentimes those in power will not give us the things we need to take care of our emotions.  Look for people who can genuinely support you and build you up when you need it.  Learn how to validate yourself.  Sometimes validating ourselves is as simple as saying the feeling out loud: "I feel sad," "I feel angry," "I feel hurt," etc.  Once we have said out loud the feeling, often it goes away much quicker.  If we try to cover it up with fake cheeriness though, then it usually gets harder and harder to bear.  

Words can hurt but they can also heal. 

In drug court last week, I talked to the peers about being gentle with themselves-how important it is to treat ourselves well, especially if other people don't.  I hate that a person in power was so careless with their words, but it reminds me of how much power I have with mine.  Our society is divided and negative nowadays, so every little drop of kindness is precious.

Acknowledge the power of words and use your words with care.  Now that I am well, I am in a position of power myself and I have to be aware of that.  I want to be a person that validates instead of disregarding others' feelings-just because I don't feel something doesn't mean that emotion is not real or intense.   I am also a person in power who can apologize.  I can be called out to make right a wrong.  Can you imagine how different the world would be if our leaders apologized when caught wrong?  If our leaders were powerful in the ways of authenticity, sincerity, honesty, humility, then the ways in which we are wrong could be used for civilization's growth instead of civilization's degradation.

Be the person our leaders aren't, instead.  

Be the change.  


I see you.

Let us see each other.

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