The Tragedy of “The Scarlett Letter”

Autumn lives across the street from my parents. I’d say she’s in her mid fifties. About fifteen years ago she attempted suicide. Living in a town of five hundred, the news spread like a wildfire. As far as I know nobody really knows why she tried.  And I don’t know if anyone, other than her family, has even reached out to her. To this day if someone sees a relative’s car at her house – suicide rumors flare up again. All this is about an incident that happen well over decade ago. She in fact doesn’t even associate with anyone unless they’re new to town. This way she won’t have worry about explaining her past.

We just won’t give people like Autumn a break. We just can’t get it out of our heads. It becomes a smoldering fodder for neighborhood gossip. Anything to do with a mental challenge, whether it’s been overcome or not – makes no difference The “Scarlett Letter” will forever be front and center. And God forbid it’s an addiction. Thanks to AA and its many siblings, you’ve never conquered anything, your always in recovery.

We don’t act this way if someone breaks a leg. Once the bone is healed, it’s “past times behind.” But the brain … watch out!  After all, you’re “crazy.”

Mental illness?

After Sandy Hook, gun control has become all the rage. And then the blame turned to mental illness. It didn’t make any difference an arsenal was within arms length, “he did it because he was crazy!” We don’t need to worry so much about guns (much to the delight of the NRA), if we make sure the crazy people don’t get to them. And from there we move onto Obama’s 23 Executive Orders designed to curb gun violence, of which a good portion are related to mental illness. On the surface they sound fine, but if you delve deeper … you’ll see we’re looking into the abyss of a “Scarlett Letter” database. You can read my take here: “Yea … but I think I’m fine.”

But this post isn’t about gun control. It’s about you. Way too often we rush to label people. And way too often these labels are “black and white.” It easy for us not to think, to lean back on our ideologies and crutches. We don’t want to have to “peel back the onion” and see the layers underneath. After all that may mess with our preconceptions and prejudices. We can’t have that.

Someone who’s “not right in the head” fits dead center. We don’t know how to deal with them.

“What if they don’t understand what we’re trying to say. Or worse yet, what if they go off.”

“What if they’re drinking again or what if they’ve started drugs, I can’t have my kids around them. I just don’t know what they’ll do.”

Mass media’s portrayal of mental illness does nothing but fuel these misconceptions. How many times do you hear the term Schizophrenia and split personalities used in the same breath. Or even violence. Both have nothing to do with the disease. A more accurate description of Schizophrenia would be flattened emotions; social withdrawal; and be prone to delusions, hallucinations or paranoia. But in the age of hyperbole, it’s easier just to default to the extreme. Other mental illnesses and even just acts of nonconformity are also often misconstrued.

This life ain’t no straight line; it’s a swirly, messy, ugly-beautiful scribble.

A little over a month ago I saw the movie Silver Linings Playbook. I loved it, but not necessarily for the reasons I thought I would. The movie featured a cast of lovable, but mentally off-center, characters. It showed reality. And it showed acceptance and love in a world of labeling and dismiss. This is what I took home.

Over my life I’ve been fortunate to have lived in a wide variety of sociological environments. I’ve learned from all of them. But often the most from the most unlikely sources. Seeing Silver Linings Playbook brought this home. As humans we’re all unique. Too not appreciate this uniqueness is, well … an unfortunate shame.

And this appreciation should include everyone even us that are a little off, a little “crazy.” We cannot continue to stigmatize those difference by branding it with the “Scarlett Letter” and trying to fix it automatically with psychotropic drugs. Imagine all the great minds throughout history that would have never blossomed if they were anesthetized with the ADHD drugs we pump into our children these days.

The problem isn’t them though … it’s us – it’s our society and all the branding and labeling. We need to embrace people not like us, not shun them. Who’s saying they’re not saner than we are. In fact I’d say obsession with money and “things” is plenty “crazy.”

And by embracing, look at someone for what they “bring to the table,” not their level of societal conformity. Einstein, Galileo, Copernicus, Picasso, Dali, Jobs – they were all thought of as “crazy.” You don’t change the world by thinking the same way as the crowd.

Unfortunately even when we do accept these “outliers,” we do only to try to fix them. I acknowledge some types of mental illness do need treatment, whether it be therapy or medications. But just being different doesn’t justify automatic intervention.

After all … who’s saying you’re not the one who needs fixing!

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You can find me on Twitter at @clayforsberg and Google+

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One thought on “The Tragedy of “The Scarlett Letter”

  1. Great posts, Clay. I enjoy your thoughts on this subject and I believe it is the only way we can begin to move forward and stop labeling everyone. Our society has a need to label everyone and therefore be “done” with it. At least that is my feeling. You are either smart or not, difficult or not, crazy or not. These definitions do not allow for the wide spectrum of personality traits that we all have and our idiosyncrasies, which make each of us individuals and as you write, help to lead down the road to creativity. How for away are we from making everyone the same save the few creative people the world allows such as some actors, musicians etc. Have you read the book “The Giver?”

    I run into this labeling constantly with those who do not like the STEM or STEAM acronym. It doesn’t really explain what you want to do, or how can you fuse those social arts or creative arts with the hard academics? It is not that different. The subjects, like people, are a mosaic of components or personality traits. I am not sure what the solution is, except as you are doing, to continue to point out how the world benefits by no labeling.

    I say we need to educate to educate, to become a whole person, not to fit into some slot or box as smart or creative, or average. As for the guns, I am not sure of the solution. I am not a gun owner, and never will be. I think those that want to use them for sport or hunting can do so, but it is out of control. I also believe further research into what the second amendment means is needed. This has gotten way off topic. No one needs semi automatic weapons and large magazine of ammunition to kill a deer. As for the rush those achieve from the “sport” of shooting, perhaps a balance needs to happen. Is that worth risking the lives of children to trying to train teachers to be armed? Just too “crazy” (if you will) for me.

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