Soft Stigma: “Good for You!”
I find myself splitting with the general zeitgeist of the mental health movement about “stigma” on a fairly regular basis. When it comes to addiction and alcoholism, I believe caution is reasonable, and does not represent a stigma, when it comes to making major life decisions around the participation of an addict in recovery. My partner, my employer, my family, my friends. All could reasonably decide that my potential for relapse represents an unacceptable risk. I’d understand. I think it’s a perfectly ordinary risk/value assessment we all have the right to make, even if I might not agree with their conclusions.
I also find myself reacting very badly to efforts on the part of mental health professionals to interact with me in a non-stigmatizing way. For a while, when I lived in St. Louis, I went to a walking meeting in Forest Park. It was about a 90 minute meeting that completed a 3 mile circuit while we talked about sobriety. It was an open meeting, and regularly attended by social work and nursing students who, as part of their curriculum, were assigned to attend an AA meeting.
For a while, especially shortly after my divorce, I was very pleased about this. Social work and nursing students trend towards being younger women. I was about three years sober. I thought it was a good chance to meet potential dates. This is not the best use of my meeting time, but it didn’t end up mattering because I never even asked one out. I discovered rapidly that we came from worlds so different as to be completely incompatible.
In the first place, the students would often try to talk about their own drinking as students, and talk about the party atmosphere at school. They can’t get it. Which is good! I’m glad they don’t get it. To get it, you have to have been through hell. But it always felt a little like going up to a NASCAR driver and saying, “Oh yeah! I once drove from Philly to DC on a Friday afternoon, so I know what it’s like to have to slalom through dense traffic at high speeds.” Sure, kid. Of course you do.
But that’s neither here nor there really, and taking a weird pride in being a giant fuck up that no one else can really understand or compete with is not exactly a winning disposition. The one that really bugged me was the near universal, “Good for you!”
This meeting was a regular part of my life, and I talked about my life in it. The years after my divorce were very productive for me, professionally. I won my first federal grants, and published a bunch of papers, and was promoted to principal investigator. And when I talked about any of these things at this meeting when a SW or nursing student was there, I invariably got “good for you” as a response. Said with the lilt you might use with a child who finally figured out how to pin the tail on the donkey, now that you took his blindfold off.
As an alcoholic in recovery, the things I accomplish are often amazing to me. But I’m not so sure they should be amazing to you. I’m incredibly grateful for my sobriety and my ability to achieve things that were impossible to me before. But seen through the eyes of a normal person, these achievements are pretty ordinary. I go to work, I run, I pay my bills, I maintain a healthy relationship. These are basic qualifications. I don’t need a participation trophy*. And I really don’t need a 24 year old student with no concept of what I’ve been through congratulating me condescendingly.
When I get a paper published, or finish a race, or whatever, I like the congratulations I get. And in my community of scientists, I like that the congratulations I get are the same as anyone else gets when they do the same. There’s no difference (that I detect, anyway) because I’m a former drunk. And in my community of alcoholics, we’ve all been through the same desolation, so we aren’t making an example of anyone when we talk about our achievements in sobriety.
But it’s really unbearably condescending to tell an addict in recovery that you don’t have a personal relationship with “good for you,” simply for doing the same things that any other human might do. That’s stigma. That’s telling us: I don’t expect you to be competent to participate in society, so I’m surprised and congratulatory when you do. I’m fine without that, thanks.
*Race medals are finisher medals. Not participation medals. If you don’t finish, you don’t get one.