Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Their misfortune, not hers

Schadenfreude is a German word meaning 'pleasure taken from someone else's misfortune'. There is a form of private derision or public scorn (referred to as 'Hohn'). I suppose that this topic was on my mind as a result of an exchange I had with a friend.

She remarked about how difficult it was for her sometimes to be around other people, because they knew she had mental health issues and they devalued what she said. People question everything she says, she told me, and treat her as if she has no credibility at all. But worse than that, she explained, is the way they do it. They do it in a way where they act superior, as if her version of reality just doesn't matter. And it came across to her in this one group as gloating, to put it simply, like youths on a playing field who beat up the other team and clap each other on the back after they questioned what she said due to her mental health issues. It was humiliating to her.

What's so interesting about this is that the entire thing arises from misunderstanding and ignorance. Her mental health issues don't involve symptoms of hallucinations or altered reality at all - and , quite frankly, even if they did those would be transient states- occasional symptoms at most. Most people on medication with mental health disorders, contrary to popular belief, are quite grounded anad aware of reality. How do I know? I've worked with people and read volumes of documents about their conditions written by experts describing their disorders. I know people with mental health disorders. I'm familiar with my friend's diagnosis and know that the reaction she's getting isn't based on the right information. Most people don't know that 80 to 90% of people who get treatment for mental health disorders can function the way they used to. And what stops them from doing so? Stigma. How do we fight stigma? Through advocacy, public education and contact with those who have mental health issues.

My friend is certainly aware of it when others treat her differently. Her feelings are hurt when she is patronized, her reality is questioned and she's told she's imagining things. Not only does this serve to lower her self esteem and stunt her social opportunities - it goes much further. It dehumanizes her and attempts to turn her from adult status to the role of a child.

Schadenfreude is the German word for only some of the behavior she's describing. It's interesting to read over at Wikipedia the various ways this phrase is used in other countries. It describes a broad range of responses, from what may be called gloating to a sense of retribution. In some places, it can be about "better you than me" or "you deserve that" even if the reason isn't clearly articulated.

No one deserves to be treated in the ways my friend is describing. Yet I've seen this before - and will see it again. It isn't called by this name and some will disagree when I do so, but I think it's time to speak up about these issues honestly. We can call it bullying or we can call it teasing or we can even benignly say kids are like that (or adults are like that in a group, etc.) and the person is being 'thin skinned'.

But what's at the bottom of it is a sickening sense of false superiority described very well by this term, a pleasure taken by right of entitlement at the sake of someone who's perceived as "different". I don't think of disability as misfortune, but they do. The only misfortune going on here is that they fail to see what a wonderful, big hearted, generous person my friend is.

It is everyone's loss and there is nothing, nothing at all to gloat about.