When Compliments Hurt

help_wrist banage

Recently I was a guest speaker at an event involving some fairly sophisticated and “educated” people in the field of psychology and incarceration. I was there to speak about my experiences while incarcerated and struggles with mental health.

Whenever I am invited to speak or be on a panel, I look my best. I spent two hours on my hair, my nails were freshly painted and I had on a beautiful pale peach suit jacket and slim fitting black skirt and of course strappy heals. I looked fierce. I had to because the crowd I was facing knew me as a formerly incarcerated person with mental illness. They did not know me as a free person and I wanted them to see that I am surviving and at times thriving.

While the talk went over well and I did not puke, gag or use any potty language, I think I came across too stable. I did that thing that I learned years ago that is called a coping skill. I prettied myself up, became hyper articulate and disassociated myself from the person I was describing; the person before them who is a trauma survivor before, during and post prison.

smiling face_mental illness sign

After the talk I stood in the hallway with my co-workers and a few of the group I had spoken to about my struggles and survival. The talk turned to women with mental illness in prison and bringing Trauma Informed Care training to all the prisons for all staff. One woman looked at me as I explained how important this was to me and she said, “Yes. But you are not like those women we interviewed.” I paused and said, “What do you mean?” She answered, “Look at you. You are classy. Articulate. So well put together. These women are really damaged. They have suffered abuse after abuse. Just so much abuse they are destroyed.” Then another person from the event looked at me and said, “And you are an amazing self advocate.”

My heart constricted. I placed my hand over it and looked at both of these individuals, who meant me no harm and I said, “You never saw me in the Turtle Suit. You never saw me when I was unable to speak for myself.” I wanted to say, “You don’t know anything about how much abuse I have survived. You know nothing about how damaged I am.” And still they insisted that I am not like “those women” interviewed at the prison.

Yes. I am well put together. But I dare you to step inside my head and look around. I want all of you to know this: The stories of survival that I share with you are easy. The abuse that I write and speak about is not even a tenth of what I have survived. And it hurts when people look at me and tell me I am not, “…like those women.” Not only is this a slice into my soul survival it is an insult to “those women”.


faces_mental illness

I am “those women”, and one day I will be able to tell my whole truth. For now, just know that it is by Grace that I do not openly show that at times I live in an alternate world. Hear this truth, each day is a struggle for me against the past and slipping into complete madness. By Grace I manage to show the make-believe me. As my therapist says, “Fake it to you make it.” I have this wish for all of us—those women who are me—that we make it.

bill clinton quote on mental illness

Amme Voz


2 thoughts on “When Compliments Hurt

  1. What NAMI taught me is that no ones pain is less or worse than my own. No one’s suffering can be judged by another. Thank you for bringing this to light. We may each have a different breaking point, but we are fragile… we break, we weep, we heal, we fight for ourselves and each other. When we use linear thinking and project “degrees” of pain and suffering, we’ve lost the whole message. We need to teach others to avoid the tendency to “grade” suffering. It will only diminish understanding. I’m so glad you spoke up and did not walk away from a difficult situation. Maybe a few more people will teach a few more…


  2. The initial presentation of the ACE (Adverse Childhood Events) Report to a psychiatric group was not fully grasped either. The conference attendees did not believe the data was real. Some attendees insisted the respondents who completed the surveys were lying or exaggerating or mis-remembering their childhoods. The medical doctors who led the research and presented the report had thoughtfully selected psychiatry as the initial avenue of introduction believing their specialty above all others would instantly recognize the impact of the ACE findings. The physicians were shocked by the generalized denial.
    In my opinion, trauma has been our society’s secret for ages. Resistance and denial seem to be the initial pattern of response when these secrets are brought to light. The work you are doing is being heard. The fact that some people from your presentation saw you as, “less damaged”, suggests that your stories have cracked their veneer. If they were to see “classy” you, as one of “those women”, then they would have to consider that they too could be one of “those women”, and that truth, is more than they have the courage or experience to consider – at this point in their life. But!! You have given them pause and person by person, they will start to wonder if it could be true… and they will wonder, if we can change how we respond to to our wounded sisters and brothers… and they will wonder, if there is a chance of healing the wounds… and then they will see that there is, because you are here.
    Thank you for telling your/our truth.


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