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Deconstructing Stigma

by SUZANNE MORSE

June 21, 2021

“People need to hear these stories, as uncomfortable as they are. It’s a step in the right direction to have public conversations that make us all more aware.” 

Suzanne’s is one of those uncomfortable stories. 

“My experience is best told on my son’s behalf. He’s no longer here to tell his story. I myself have been consistently sober for 36 years, however, the majority of alcoholics, including my son, are not as fortunate. Michael was born in 1976, but it wasn’t until he was in his 30’s that I was made aware of his bipolar diagnosis. Up to that point, Michael had been in constant pursuit of something to make him feel balanced and normal. Anything to take away the constant pain. I didn’t consider bipolar a factor at that time, although I was aware that addiction and mental illness often appear hand in hand”

When Michael entered his teens, Suzanne realized the extent of her son’s pain. Because of her years of recovery and her family history of alcoholism, Suzanne knew what was evolving. During this period, Michael went from being an Honor Roll student to not being able to graduate. 

“The happy, carefree essence of my little boy no longer existed. Instead, a young man emerged, hell bent on self-destruction. His number one goal in life was to find the next party, the next drink, the escape from this place he was stuck in.” 

Suzanne saw Michael’s addiction progress over the years, and his alcohol abuse created dangerous situations. Ultimately, Michael was brought to the courthouse, introduced to the judiciary system, and he spent four months in jail.

“He was wrongly labeled by the court and society. All of this was motivated and driven by undiagnosed and untreated mental illness. He knew no other way to cope with his symptoms other than to drink. Emotional growth stops when alcohol is part of the equation.” 

Michael was open to treatment for his substance use disorder, bipolar disorder, and PTSD. He was eager to get a handle on his life. Through it all, Suzanne stood by Michael, his advocate, paid thousands in treatment fees for the mental health help he so clearly needed. 

“He wasn’t afraid to face his demons. He went to psychiatrists, 30-day programs and countless three-day ‘spin dries.’ He had ‘sectioned,’ himself, begging for medical help for his disease. But there was no place for him, because of his label. He ended up back in jail instead. When I begged him to continue his fight for sobriety behind bars, he said, ‘What’s the point, Mum? I’ve been judged. There’s no future for me.’” 

Michael went back to jail for a second and final time. He was released after 18 months. 

“When he was released, the first thing he told me was, ‘Jail broke me, Mum, I don’t think I can be fixed.’ Even so, he gallantly tried to pick up the pieces for over three grueling years. He attempted to create some kind of life where he clearly was not wanted. Every attempt failed. He told me he was ‘Dancing with the Devil,’ a formidable foe.”

Ultimately, Michael surrendered his life. 

“Michael died from the pain that he carried, the stigma created by society, the media, and the judicial system. Everyone turned their backs on him. He’d been ‘given enough breaks,’ they all said, as they walked away from a man with a terminal disease. Michael had a kind, loving heart. He was at his best with people. To be ostracized and viewed as a pariah was just too much for him bear. The pain exceeded the resources he had to cope.” 

By sharing Michael’s story, Suzanne hopes that people will face up to some uncomfortable truths. 

“What becomes of those with mental illness, where exactly do they go? The institutions that end up with these sick and suffering souls, typically jail, are not equipped to provide treatment, nor do they care. When I asked Probation, ‘Where can my son go upon release?’, he said, “Tell him to find a tent city, that’s his best bet,’ and he hung up in my ear. The inmates are released more damaged. They leave jail with obligations that can’t possibly be met. They are set up to fail. The dollars spent need to be reallocated with more emphasize on humane treatment—leave the archaic punishment behind.”

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