In my last column, I mentioned how helpful it has been to live in a world where people do not see me as essentially different or less-than. While I don’t think it’s wise to live in the opinions and impressions of others, I must say that it helps when those impressions are generally positive.When I was homeless, it wasn’t just the people around me who often looked upon me with scorn. After a while, I found that I myself had become extremely self-critical. I began to believe many of the same things that others said about me—even people who did not know me at all. The smirks and glances of total strangers who walked by me at my Spot began to carry great weight within my consciousness.
This phenomenon, often applied to those who have mental health conditions, is known as “self-stigma.”
The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) lists four characteristics of mental health patients who self-stigmatize. I found it intriguing to replace expressions such as “mentally ill” with words like “homeless.” Here’s how it turned out:
1. Alienation: Feeling embarrassed, ashamed, inferior, or disappointed in yourself for being homeless. Feeling that your homelessness is your fault. Believing homelessness has ruined your life. Feeling like others are incapable of understanding you.
2. Stereotype endorsement: Applying stereotypes to yourself, such as homeless people are violent, can’t live good or rewarding lives, can’t do certain typical things (e.g., get married, work a steady job, contribute to society), and can’t make decisions for themselves.
3. Discrimination experience: Feeling discriminated against, patronized, ignored, or not taken seriously; believing others would not want a relationship with you; feeling incapable of achieving much.
4. Social withdrawal: Avoiding getting close to people who aren’t homeless, socializing or talking about yourself because you feel like a burden, out of place or inadequate, like a potential embarrassment to loved ones.
I don’t know how many of my homeless friends reading this will find it applicable. Myself, I identify strongly with all four.
But mental illness and homelessness are not identical. As we all know, the overall conditions of homelessness can drive a person nuts. Others, like myself, became homeless as the result of a mental breakdown.
As I careened toward the gutter during the course of that breakdown, my concern about my mental health became only one of many concerns that together comprised the much more enormous concern that is homelessness itself.Looking back, had I realized then that I had been subjected to a misdiagnosis, and that there was a true diagnosis waiting to be effectively treated, I might have been able to get myself sane enough to escape homelessness at an earlier stage.
But I could not do so. The reason why is because my mental illness was no longer my biggest health concern. My biggest health concern was homelessness. Trying to stay alive and relatively unharmed, one day to the next, was what was on my mind.
And while my mind was so occupied, the self-stigma relevant to mental illness morphed into a much larger self-stigma, related to homelessness and its many shame-inducing components. Mental illness was only one drop in the Bucket of Shame.
As the years went on, that self-stigma became more deeply engrained in my consciousness. It had nothing to do with my mental health diagnosis, and everything to do with homelessness. All the messages from society—some blatant, some subtle—had subliminally affected my sense of self. No matter the veneer or bravado I employed to hide my feelings, I felt inside that I was a worthless, miserable human being, whose life and even death meant nothing.
I remember thinking that my death would go unnoticed. There would be no obituary, no memorial. Nobody at my bedside in the hospital. Just another homeless guy slaughtered to death in his sleep.
Today it’s not like that. Some people in some circles may think I’m a little weird, and I’ve learned not to discuss things like psychiatric diagnoses with these types. They’re the kinds who think that if someone has a mental health condition, it means they’re going to grab an AR-15 and start shooting madly at schoolchildren.
But for the most part, I am accepted.
Homeless No More is a column that features the stories of people making the transition from homelessness to housing.
Andy Pope is a freelance writer who lives in the Pacific Northwest. He is the author of Eden in Babylon, a musical about youth homelessness in urban America, currently under development at the RTOP Theatre in Pullman, Washington.