The definition of stigma in the Merriam Webster Dictionary is “a mark of shame or discredit.”
The definition of stigma in the Cambridge Dictionary is “a strong lack of respect for a person or a group of people or a bad opinion of them because they have done something society does not approve of.”
The definition of stigma according to Dictionary.com is “a mark of disgrace or infamy, a stain or reproach.”
Pretty negative, right? Stigma comes from a lack of knowledge. It affects many people with disabilities, both visible and invisible. Some people (not all people!) can be quick to stereotype and judge when they discover you have something they are not familiar with or something that they think they are familiar with. And it is very hard when they can’t see the illness (no wheelchair, cane, or oxygen tank). They may completely dismiss your condition or make inaccurate determinations about it and you:
“You’re just lazy.”
“That’s not even a real condition.”
“You look fine, why can’t you work?”
“My friend had that and she cured it with turmeric.”
“If you just got more sunshine, you’d feel better.”
“You wouldn’t be so depressed if you just smiled more.”
Statements like these make you feel like you are not believed, understood, or accepted. You can even have ‘self-stigma’ where you internalize the message from others and feel worthless and full of shame. You can suffer from low self-esteem. You can even sometimes believe the false message. This does so much harm! I have been there!
I have several invisible conditions. No one can see the chronic pain. I look fine on the outside, other than looking tired. No one can see the mental illnesses that ebbs and flows. I can still smile. Sometimes I am left feeling judged and misunderstood by others, even though I know it’s because of their own lack of knowledge. I try to educate others, as best I can, when I can. Some people are very receptive to that and want to understand and others are dismissive and still choose to believe what they (falsely) think. I try to spend more time with those who understand and less time being with and worrying about those who don’t. It’s always a work in progress. And really, it is impossible to put everything I experience into words.
I try to live a stigma free life. I also work to educate myself about others and continue to learn about other social stigmas such as age, race, developmental disabilities, gender identity, etc. I have learned a lot these last few years about not judging others, no matter what their situation. I have become much more aware and understanding and encourage others to do the same.
I know my illnesses do not define me. They are a part of me now. But they are not the only thing about me. I have many interests and I am constantly nurturing my relationship with God.
I’d like this to be a place where I can write about my experiences, share the ups and downs of life, share my art and faith, and raise awareness for invisible disabilities. I have good days and bad days, but I want to let others know they are not alone in their struggles and that there is hope. It is possible to reject that false message others are projecting onto you and strive to live stigma free.
Progress, not perfection.