Thursday, March 22, 2012

Liar, Lunatic, or Lorax asks us to check our privilege, and today I can say that I am very privileged indeed. I am able-bodied, male, white, and adult well before retirement age, literate, employed and employable, articulate, with a good support network, a roof over my head and food in my belly.

In some areas I am less privileged: I have and do face occasional discrimination due to my sexual orientation (but again, I live in a time and place where the discrimination I've faced (that I'm aware of) has been limited and minor). I have a few mental health issues (primarily depression, anxiety, and an alcohol addiction which I am currently treating via sobriety). That's about it, actually.

I haven't always been so lucky. While I would not say that we were poor, when I was growing up my mom did struggle to raise me and my brother. There were times where we lived in a motel for weeks as we had no other place to stay. My mom has struggled with employment at various points in her life, and, as an adult, so have I. I have also lived in a hotel because I had no other options (don't tell mom!). I've also stayed in worse places than a hotel. My (thankfully) brief experience with homelessness was fueled in large part because of my mental health issues, primarily my alcoholism, and so at the time it was difficult to explain to my friends the kind of trap that I was in. I do not have any friends left from that period of my life: anyone I'm friends with now, I knew from before or after that 2-year period, five years ago.

I don't write much about poverty or mental illness, because to me they hit too close to home. Both conditions are incredibly isolating. If you aren't poor, it is impossible to really understand the toll it takes on every aspect of your life. To those of us with good jobs (or good-enough jobs), it can seem like laziness for someone to be unemployed. After all, getting a job is simple: you send your resume, someone calls you, you do a few interviews, and then bam, you've got the job. All it takes is for you to work hard and to be a good person.

But for anyone who has been poor knows that that's a bunch of bull. How do you send a resume if you don't have the internet or even a computer? What if you have difficulty with reading? What if you don't have a good suit, or the one suit you do have is ten years old and is fraying at the ends? How can you pay for several bus trips to reach multiple interviews? How do remain calm while answering questions when you know that there are kids at home that have been living on one meal a day for weeks? How, when the world seems stacked against you, do you maintain that state of "hope", which one person told me is the key missing element for people who are poor, and the reason why they can't get out of it? (As in, "If those poor people weren't just so hopeless and despairing all the time, maybe they could get some jobs!")

Mental illness is another difficult challenge that, unless you deal with it yourself, is hard to understand. For most humans, we tend to attribute our bad characteristics to circumstance, but other peoples' bad characteristics are attributed to character. If I can't get up in the morning to go to work, it's my depression, but when my colleague can't it's because he's lazy.

It's interesting, but not all that surprising, that these two conditions are often paired. Mentally ill people are more likely to be poor, and poor people are more likely to be mentally ill. I bet if someone looks, I'd expect to see a bit of a feedback loop here. Poverty is incredibly stressful, and everything about it is perfect for aggravating most kinds of mental illness, and mental illness can make it impossible to hold all but a few kinds of jobs for any length of time.

I don't have much to add to the discussion, except that I'm very glad that Lorax's privilege list includes poverty- and mental illness-related issues, because I know from my experience that there's a lot of folks out there who need to check their privilege before I'll talk with them on those subjects again.

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