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Stigma and the Impaired Self

David Feingold's picture

As anyone who has come upon my work on Serendip, numerous online venues or my web site (, you know that I am an artist that 'draws' upon emotions, stemming from a term I coined from personal experience and doctoral dissertation in Disability Studies, called the Impaired Self.  I will continue to touch on this issue, offering the Serendip readership opportunities to learn how the Impaired Self impacts, effects, determines and reflects one's quality of life.  Again, the Impaired Self is the phenomenon that underlies our impairments and disabilities that in themselves provide challenges to our daily functioning, compared to the 'abled' population.  This reality one faces with a disability/impairment (whether mental, cognitive, empotional, or physical) stems from society's harsh judgement and prejudice.  This forms the stigma surrounding illnesses, disorders and conditions leading to characteristics of the Impaired Self: shame, embarrasment, humiliation, self-loathing, poor self-esteem, infantilization, low self-worth, hopelessness, etc.  You get the picture and if you don't, well, that's where my artwork comes in.  Each piece is a graphic representation of the Impaired Self.  We can see external scars on our physical bodies, but what about the hidden, emotional scars that languish on the inside?  I depict them in over 400 pieces of art.  Here is a recent one I made.  My Impaired Self comes from my diagnosis of Bipolar Disorder, a mental illness that comes with a lot of social baggage, otherwise known as stigma.  Which brings me to this particular addition of my blog .  With permission of my significant other, I am providing an example from my own life of how stigma can affect people and influence their ability to maintain a sense of dignity and pride.  It has to do with Linda's teenage son, adult brother and mother.  Two years ago, Linda (not her real name) invited me to stay with her, her son and her mother, who all shared the family home from Linda's childhood.  I was successfully resolving a temporary family crisis, which included me deciding on where to reside.  Linda said I can stay with them, while I figured out where I would like to set up stakes on a more permanent basis.  With Linda's continued offerings of me staying while paying rent, weeks turned into months and months turned into two years.  I was under the impression that I was a welcomed addition to the family household.  To make a long story short, I spent the better part of two years wondering if I was a guest, quasi-adopted family member or merely a concession to the desire of a daughter and mother to have a caring companion.  I am a particularly sensitive and intuitive individual, especially given my vocation as a social worker.  Over the two years I noticed a coolness and inability to fully accept me as an inclusive addition to the family system. Subtle signs were given that communicated my position of being outside the family as opposed to in.  Things such as not being included or spoken to in conversations, often not being greeted or inquired as to how I was feeling, being overlooked in various family functions. Sensing a problem early on, I indicated to Linda that I was going to move out but on a number of these ocassions, when she extolled me to maintain patience and an open mind, I agreed to give it more time.  That was until recently when I was determined to make a change and let Linda work on my leaving with her therapist.  I'm happy to say things are going well for Linda and for me, as we still find quality time to be together.  Here is where stigma and the Impaired Self come into the story.  It turns out, Linda's brother relayed concerns to their mother about having someone with bipolar disorder live in the house.  In addition, it has come to my attention that Linda's son feared having someone with bipolar disorder live in the house and was concerned for his mother's welfare, should I ever kill myself.  The book I am writing about the Impaired Self, along with presentations I give and artwork I exhibit call attention to the necessity of becoming aware of a societal belief system that causes people to stigmatize others and can cause rejection from even close friends and yes--even from one's family.  Remember, this is on top of and in addition to the person's disability/impairment, itself. What I would like to see happen is for people to get to know the person with a visible or known disability.  Try not to rely on negative societal views, sensational reporting by the media, common misperceptions and a lack of knowledge and understanding instead of getting to know the real person behind the disability/impairment.  Think about a friend, co-worker, loved one or family member who has "abiity" challenges.  Then consider how much of how we act towards, treat and relate to them can contribute or detract from their ability to not only survive but thrive, given their already challenging circumstances.  The last thing we want to do is to 'dis' someone's ability!  Artwork: "Impaired Self Stigma"