Sunday, September 29, 2013

Haunted House Update: The Chains of Stigma are Heavy but We are Stronger

It’s been an emotional few days since I tried to reason with my local community clubhouse about not portraying the mentally ill as monsters in their annual haunted house. I went from anger to disappointment, then to tears. I couldn’t help but feel defeated. What stuck in my mind was the condescending tones and laughter that mocked me. I wanted so badly to stand up against them publicly, even turn the gruesome photos over to NAMI and alert the media about their insensitive plans, but I felt weighed down by the same stigma that I was trying to fight. I couldn’t go public because the risk to my child was too great. I was sad knowing that had it been cancer they were mocking, or even autism, I could publicly stand up and pull my troops together (you included), but because it was mental illness I risked ruining my son’s childhood. He’s been hurt before when others found out he was struggling with mental illness, I couldn’t let it happen again.

Stigma. It can be a powerful thing. It can wound you and keep you captive. Everything in my body wanted to fight, but in this situation, the stigma seemed too powerful. It felt like I was fighting something with my arms tied behind my back with tape over my mouth. I had a lot of energy to thrash around, but I wasn’t able to make a sound. It made me expereince in a small way the stigma that so many people are facing day-to-day while living with mental illness. It made me sick to my stomach.

When the conversations with the club management ran through my mind, I was troubled by one point we disagreed on. The manager tried to argue that because I was the only one to complain, it was unjustified to make any changes. He said, “So if everyone wants to do one thing and one person thinks it’s wrong, you think we should change it because of one person?” I responded, “Yes, if it’s the right thing to do.”

Isn’t that what we teach our kids? Just because everyone else is doing something, that doesn’t make it right. We still have to make wise choices, not blindly follow the pack.

Choosing to do the right thing has put an end to slavery and has given women equal rights, if we stuck with blindly following the majority we would never grow as a society.

I then asked him, “So what if the group wanted to do a haunted house with a 9/11 theme and they wanted to have people jumping out of windows. Would you still do it?”

After a long pause, he said, “Well, yes, if that’s what the group wanted.”

I sharply asked, “Can I quote you on that?”

He then of course back tracked and choked on his words.

I then pointed out, “Well how is this any different. Besides contributing to the stigma, what you’re doing is insensitive to a section of our population, why would you want to do this?”

He had no answer.

It’s great shame that our society can accept that a person’s heart or liver can get sick, but when their brain becomes ill, they’re considered evil or dangerous and on halloween, someone to mock. It just doesn’t make sense.

As the day went on, your feedback was pouring in through comments and private emails. I was showered with support and could feel your energy encouraging me to do something. Since I couldn’t risk connecting my blog to my community, I decided I had to start from scratch and form local troops that could join me. Thanks to all of your great tips, I devised a plan to call the local suicide prevention awareness group I’m connected with to gain their public support along with a long list of moms who they themselves were stirred with anger when they saw the photos from last year. Add to that my local chapter of NAMI, a local family resource center and even my church. I figured once the clubhouse received a number of calls from other mothers just as angry as me, they would no longer focus on exposing my son once it hit the media since there would be a lot of other mama bears now in the fight. When I came home my husband shared how he had read my blog and all of your comments and was fired up to fight this fight and we decided then to contact our mayor the next morning asking him to help us.

In a matter of hours my anger and tears turned into fierce energy, ready to take this on.

It felt damn good!

Then in a positive, yet anticlimactic moment, I called the clubhouse to confirm the contact info of all involved to release to the mayor’s office and my list of mama bears when the events director, the guy who pompously told me that he was not only using one straightjacket, but two, answered the phone. Upon recognizing my voice he said, “I’ve changed my mind about the theme this year, I’ve decided to do zombies instead.”


Later that day I stopped in at the clubhouse, I felt like I needed some closure. Now wishing that these previous conversations had taken place in person, because I believe people are different when they see you face to face, I wanted to thank him in person and show him a real person on the other side of our conversation—Ok, I admit a part of me still wanted to scream at him, but I knew that would accomplish nothing and that it was better to take the high road.

As I approached the events director he immediately recognized me, but his tone was softer and careful, I still sensed a chip on his shoulder. I stuck out my hand to shake his and said, “Thank you for changing your plans. I know it may be hard to understand, and little frustrating for you as you try to create this event, but this means a lot to me and other families just like mine. Plus, zombies are pretty cool!” I then handed him a news article and encouraged him and his manger to read it because it explains why you shouldn’t go “crazy” for halloween to help them understand that I am more than one voice.

He said that he never intended for all of this to get out of hand, in fact he was considering doing zombies the entire time but he felt rushed and went with last year’s theme at the last minute, acknowledging that yes, last year’s event was pretty extreme.

I got the sense that he changed the theme not because he grew to understand my position, but instead, he didn’t think it was worth the fight.

I wished he’d apologized for being rude to me over the phone, but I also realize that unlike last year, you can’t always change a person’s perspective or create compassion for something they don’t understand. Some people will never understand.

Sometimes change takes place in small increments, but in the end we’re still moving forward in the right direction.

* * *

Thank you all for your encouraging comments and emails, your support meant the world to me!

Why You Shouldn’t Go “Crazy” This Halloween
Plan to play dress-up on October 31? Mental health experts say to bypass one particular type of costume: The kind that reinforces mental illness stigma.

In case you missed it—Previous post about these events:
I Am So Angry


  1. You did it! Congratulations Mama Bear! You are awesome.

    1. Thanks Betsy, I really appreciated all your ideas you sent me!

  2. You are magnificent! Thank you Mama Bear....thank you so much.

    1. You’re welcome, I was moved by what you said about how it would help you yourself to be able to speak up. It was a perspective I never realized, thank you for teaching me that it can be healing for others to be able to fight against the stigma.

  3. You're my hero! xoxo

  4. I never doubted you for a minute. Good Job.

  5. What a great example of the power of positive change. You kept your integrity, you kept to the high road, and you won with grace. I'm glad you were able to take all this angry energy and channel it in such a way that you were able to elicit change in a diplomatic way.