It’s that time of year — pumpkin spice lattes are available everywhere and people are planning their Halloween costumes for trick or treating and parties. What do you want to be this year? A princess? Cheerleader? Ghost? Witch? Or maybe you’re going to simply wear a Trump mask or a Hillary mask? Or maybe you can come up with something clever like my co-worker’s teen son did — he wrapped a big box in wrapping paper and put a big bow on it, cut arm and head holes in it, and wore it. The tag on the gift box said, “To: women, From: God.”
Maybe you’ve decided to go with one of those pre-packaged costumes that you can buy at stores all over the place. No shame in that — many of my daughter’s costumes were like that because I’m just not a crafty kind of mom. There are all sorts of great pre-packaged costumes. Maybe you’re going to go out and get one that’s really funny, like a straight jacket-looking kind of costume! What better time of year than Halloween to really play on the hilarity of crazy people, right? But maybe making fun of people with mental illness is not your cup of tea. Maybe you can find one of these costumes:
- Cancer patient — comes with a hospital gown, bald head wig, an emesis basin, and rubber vomit — HILARIOUS!
- Polio victim — nothing but a couple of leg braces to wear and some crutches to carry — cheap AND funny!
- Dead cop: a simple police man costume, except the shirt is riddled with fake blood-stained bullet holes — guaranteed to bring a smile to everyone’s face!
- Rape victim — a cute dress (available in a variety of colors to match YOUR college or university’s colors!) that comes out of the package rumpled and dirt stained, along with a messy wig that has twigs and leaves in in, including a makeup kit for you to create your own scratches and bruises wherever you want — face, neck, arms, inner thighs! — SO clever and timely!
- Holocaust victim — striped pajamas and a fake tattoo of a number for you to put on your arm — historical AND hilarious!
- Maybe you could steal an idea from these people who thought the Twin Towers burning with people jumping from them was complete hilarity.
You see, for some reason, people who are mentally ill are funny — so funny that companies make costumes so we can pretend to be them. But here’s the thing — mental illness is not any more funny or joke-worthy than people with cancer or polio, or dead police officers, or rape victims, or Holocaust victims, or the people who died on 9/11. Somehow most of us find all of those other costume ideas to be in bad taste, even offensive, but the straight jacket is okay and funny?
I’ve learned over the past few years to be a little more aware and a little more sensitive to this topic as my friend Laura so graciously and generously shared her son Zac with all of us. Zac had schizophrenia, and Laura was brutally honest about what life was like for Zac, and what life was like for her caring for and loving a child who was mentally ill. And, yes, I’ve been using past tense because Laura lost her son not much more than a year ago.
Zac was mentally ill. But his illness was just as real as any other illness — it just didn’t show itself as obviously physically as other illnesses do, like cancer. It also doesn’t garner the sympathy and understanding other “invisible” illnesses do, like diabetes. Mental illness affects real people. It’s not a funny illness, and those who have it are not funny people because of it. They don’t deserve ridicule. They deserve to be treated with respect and dignity and a healthy dose of understanding — just like any person does.
Before people start getting at me with the, “Oh quit being so sensitive/people are too easily offended these days/get over it,” rebuttals, let me say that I’m not saying that people — you included — can’t wear a straight jacket costume or a dead cop costume or a burning Twin Towers costume. By all means, go right ahead. But don’t YOU get all butthurt when other people are offended and have the audacity to call you out on your insensitivity. You are free to express yourself, but so is everyone else. Wearing costumes like these says a whole lot more about you than they do about the people you are poking fun at.