I had a poor showing at the Secular Humanist Meetup dinner this month. At the beginning, everything was going fine. But then one of the leaders of the meetup, an elderly man, decided to speak to us all.
Now, it struck me as paternalistic bullshit from the get-go. The daddy figure getting up to address us all, at whatever length he desired, about whatever topic he desired. The only reason I didn't leave the room, if not the meeting, is because I hadn't settled up my check. In retrospect, that's what I should have done. Ah, the clarity of vision of hindsight!
Then he talked a bit about a friend of his, the punchline being that this friend was insane, murdered his wife and then killed himself. Also in retrospect, that was just nuts to be talking about in that forum, anyway. It showed a complete lack of respect for the boundaries of the people at the meeting. No one there came to hear about this dude's crazy murder/suicide. I was a total stranger, as were several of the other people at the meeting, and burdening us with his horrific story was extraordinarily rude. I understand that a grieving person needs to get it out - I've had friends kill themselves, myself, though never along with a murder which is clearly a higher level of horror - but a meeting full of raw acquaintences, total strangers and a few friends is not the forum for that grief.
But what got me riled up in the moment was how he talked about mental illness - and I think we'll all agree a murderer/suicide had some pretty serious mental problems - "wasn't the man he knew" and he "made choices". I said, with considerable anger in my voice, that, no, that is not true. I said that I suffer from mental illness - which, of course, first drew jokes, because, hey, I guess it was a funny topic and is part of the problem of talking about mental illness, haha, it's funny, fuck you - and people with mental illness have a disease, about which they are no more responsible for than people who have cancer or birth defects. I said that I was deeply offended that the insinuation that people with serious mental problems "made choices".
Rather than apologize for his ignorance, this old man said that "he understood mental illness". Which, clearly, he did not. After all, he was a trial lawyer and his association with mentally ill people somehow gave him insight into their feelings. Which, like I said, was obviously untrue because he was repeating one of the biggest canards used to diminish the seriousness of mental illness: that we somehow have a choice. I found his assertion that he was a trial lawyer and thus understood mental illness to be akin to a racist saying he has some black friends.
(Oh, for the record, also he was a touch of a racist. Talking about those "Latins" are, about how they had gay family members and didn't talk about it because they were "Latin". Like Anglo families don't have that kind of idiotic dysfunction? We live in FLORIDA for crying out loud, one of the most generally homophobic states in the Union! You don't have to go down to Latin American countries to find homophobia!)
Well, the old dude wasn't buying what I was saying, he was dismissive and verbally bullying, which never, ever works on me. So we were going at it.
Then one of the other people, one of the long timers at the meetup, said that he had been in an institution for about a week and, hey, I was out of line.
No, no, I wasn't. The old guy shouldn't have been talking about this subject in the first place. He surprised and burdened strangers and people who barely knew him with disturbing and uncomfortable things. And in so doing, he repeated one of the most vicious canards used to justify bad treatment of the mentally ill - the idea we have a choice, a position that he repeated, I will note. He was rude from the onset, he took the position of a verbal bully, and was wholly unapologetic about it. Friends, however, support friends, I get that - but I wasn't this man's friend. If he had kept his grief among his friends, well, we would have never had the opportunity to argue, right? But, no, he decided that it was appropriate to surprise total strangers with his tale of horror, grief and madness, and in so doing he insulted me, personally, with one of the most terrible lies repeated about mental illness. So, yeah, taking that altogether, I figure I was totally in line.
However, at that point, I said, "Fuck you" and left. Which, again, I found appropriate because when the old guard start forming up the wagons around themselves, well, the conversation was over.
When I was settling the check, another new guy came out and tried to talk me down. He said he wanted me to come back. I'd given the old man something to think about, right? I said I wouldn't unless the older man apologized. I was so cute! I have done this sort of thing before and I knew what was going on. They weren't talking about how trenchant my observations were in the meeting; they were either trying to put it behind them or confirming to themselves that I was the unjustified aggressor. Again, this is common. Either way, the idea that I had somehow enlightened anyone was cute in its optimism, but I'd bet money it was not reflective of the general attitude in the room - which was probably relief I was gone.
So, I guess I'm done with that group of secular humanists. I don't see myself going back unless I get an apology and . . . I don't see that coming. I mean, if the group understood that what the guy was saying was out of line, they would have probably told him, "Hey, uh, maybe this isn't the place for you to talk about your murderer/suicide friend. Maybe that's wildly inappropriate to do in front of people you largely don't know, and you should seek support from your friends, family and perhaps a grief therapist." But when I left, he was being supported, so I doubt they even understand the inappropriateness of his remarks. Perhaps I am being uncharitable, though.
Anyway, that's the end of my story. Unlike the elderly man at the meetup, I am not going to hold anyone captive with my story and feelings. But I did feel the urge to get them out, and I'm writing this so I can post it to the meetup group so that they can understand my position. And I'm posting it publicly, because I want to be open about the difficulties of having mental illness and the hurdles that people face when trying to discuss it - how we are subject to bullying, or laughter, when we defend our rights to dignity.