“I am not a mental patient. I am a secretary. ”
Unnamed long-stay patient at government mental hospital
She has lived for decades in the institution, yet her yearning for valued roles, respect, and dignity shine though. She sits in the back of a room, a tiny woman in a room full of professionals speaking articulately about the needs of people seen as ‘like her’. She rises when encouraged and asked, and if she had not been encouraged and asked, she would never have been able to create the space to express herself or be heard. She sits in her government-issued pajamas (one of three pairs issued by the government hospital)at this listening session, surrounded by esteemed people of relative wealth and relative power. She speaks with an astonishing level of clarity and courage to an issue near to my heart. She speaks to the deep human need for place, for belonging, for rootedness. I am somebody, she tells us, I am MORE than my impairment. I have gifts and contribution to offer. My gifts are wasted as I sit here awaiting a chance for a new life. Her simple words, “I am not a mental patient, I am a secretary” speak volumes about the power and possibility of societal roles.
Dr. Wolfensberger spoke and wrote about role-avidity – the idea that people are hungry for social roles. He spoke more powerfully of ‘role starvation’ for those deprived of such roles. He speaks of ‘role famine’ for those living in a world destitute of valued roles and yet full of deeply devalued roles such as “mental patient”. In this moment in time, I am struck by the abiding truth in his conceptualization of the realities for deeply marginalized people. For me, this moment crystallized the translation of theory into the life of one woman trying to reclaim her history, her contribution, her identity.
This is a concept which may well belong in the realm of theory and academia, but is rooted in the experience of individual people who experience its terrible impact and its beautiful promise of reclamation.