Only Anecdotal

No numbers, just stories

Sticks and Stones

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The man was nearly sixty years old, a generous guy with a productive life. He loved his family, and enjoyed his work at the local supermarket. But there was one thing that brought him to tears the day I met him: the R-word.

I do not need to repeat the word. He told me he was “in the slow classes at school”, and recalled the habit he developed so long ago of hiding in the bushes after he got off his bus. It was only a short walk home from the bus stop, but best, he said, not to have to walk in front of the bullies who taunted him with that word. He had heard it again recently, from someone who had hurt him in other ways. He said that hearing that word again brought back a lifetime of pain, pain that he had escaped largely in the adult world, but not without some journeys into worlds with alcohol and other distractions.

The word was more than a word, of course: it was a way of limiting him to a certain place in this world. The fights he is fighting right now are all around that. He wanted to make decisions about where he lives, whether he walks or goes by bus somewhere, who his friends are. And everyone “worries.” A diagnosis of mental retardation implies a certain need for safeguarding. And this man did not want to be “kept safe”. He wanted to go on living the life he had lived before.

Words can hurt, just as badly as sticks and stones. Worse.

But it is not only the obvious slurs, the outmoded names that differentiate people who have faced discrimination. Any diagnosis can limit, in its narrow description that reduces the person to the medical condition. We seek some way to order the chaos that being human presents to us, and in some ways it is helpful, helps us chart a way through unclear paths.

But a diagnosis is only as good as a vague road map; it does not show us who a person is, or how the medical conditions may affect the life.. or what the life is really like at all. Without consideration of the whole person, that clear path on paper may turn out to be much bumpier and less predictable than we want it to be. It may also exclude joy, and hope.

I hope that as we shift focus from a system of medical management to an actual health system, we fight the urge to categorize people as we categorize disease. I hope that we can remember the power of words, and the danger of reductionism, the pain and indignity of dehumanization.

Written by Only Anecdotal

4 Mar 2013 at 8:11pm

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