Structural Stigma in an advanced Society: Are my personal troubles really social issues?

“I am tired of hiding, tired of misspent and knotted energies, tired of the hypocrisy, and tired of acting as though I have something to hide.”

Kay Redfield Jamison

An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness



“It’s just one of those bad weeks. This too shall pass,” said a friend in a futile attempt to reassure me.


We were sitting in a café in the gentrified neighborhood of Silverlake. My friend had taken me there to calm my nerves; he thought perhaps a cup of coffee and a warm conversation would help. He did not take into account the kind of pretension at this café.

 cup of coffee top shot


Despite the soothing reassurances of a friend, I found myself getting irritated by the voice of entitlement which spouted out from a woman two seats down from me. The false air of confidence was on display even as she had walked in wearing her yoga pants and taught the bearded barista behind the counter how to make a better cappuccino. Her press material and head shot was spread out on the table-top and she had finished two conference calls with “her agent” before my first cup of coffee. She loudly scolded someone on her cell phone for not meeting her and I think I completely understood why that person was absconding.


These typical shrilly voices that are part nagging and part brattish child – belong to a certain group of people who feel entitled to all the comforts and conveniences of the world. And they shriek and scream if they do not get their way. Are they thinking of the world at all? Or are they just thinking of themselves? Why do they scream and shriek at some poor, under-paid, over-qualified coffee-shop worker? Do they really think they have power? Are they any more capable of changing the system than a poor homeless man standing outside the cafe? Can they scream some sanity back into the world?


Yet these sounds of irritation were the most minor of my worries.


I closed my eyes trying to shut out these voices of demand and search for something I could hold on to – something I could grasp or rather something that would help me grasp everything that was going on with me and around me. Intellectual supports are in short supply in today’s world of so many choices.


My mind turned to imagination – the sociological imagination.


I remembered C. Wright Mills the sociologist who in 1959 declared that the critical task for a social scientist is to articulate the connections between “personal troubles” and “public issues”. He drew a distinction between troubles and issues: troubles belong or relate to a single person while issues refer to problems faced by a larger group of people or society. For instance, a man who cannot find employment is experiencing a trouble while a country with a large rate of unemployment is experiencing an issue.


c wright mills for dennis piece


C. Wright Mills, in The Sociological Imagination (1959), considered a sociological classic, described a framework for the study of society and sociology. The sociological imagination if nothing else is the ability of the social scientist to connect individual experiences and societal relationships.



I’ve been distracted for several weeks by a series of compounding events for what seems like a declining trajectory. My personal troubles have been unending. This downward trend began with a mysterious injury that resulted in a swelling on my left foot making it three times its normal size. I visited emergency rooms and acute clinics on four separate occasions and with each visit I was given a separate diagnosis.


My first stop was to LA County Hospital where I was triaged, filled out paper work and had my vitals checked. After seven hours a young attending physician saw me.


He looked at my foot and immediately said that it looked like cellulitis. I was advised to return to the emergency room if the condition didn’t improve or started to worsen. Which it did…


A week later the swelling increased and moved up my ankle and calf muscle. The throbbing of the pain became immense. I woke up in the middle of the night feeling shortness of breath, sweating and a tingling sensation racing down my arms. I had an acute myocardial infarction thirteen years ago, so I didn’t want to take the chance that the inflammation in my foot wasn’t causing inflammation in my heart.  It occurred to me that maybe I was hyperventilating, and my symptoms were only psychosomatic but I wasn’t feeling confident in my optimal well-being.


I arrived in the emergency room at LA County General once again. It was eleven o’clock on a Friday night and nothing had prepared me for what I was about to see.  A militant security guard greeted me as I proceeded through the metal detector. She was a very large African-American woman that didn’t seem to be happy to be there.  She was carrying handcuffs and a handgun on her hip. She disciplined me because I neglected to take my phone out of my pocket and didn’t take my hat off for the screening. At this point I was feeling anxious and a bit discombobulated.  She was instructing me of the rules when I interrupted her, reminding her that I was not passing through Gaza. I reminded her that people walking in the emergency room are sick and maybe a kinder approach would be in order. It was at this moment that she seemed outraged that someone would make such a suggestion.  She said to her colleague, “do you hear the crazy shit he is saying?”


A nurse then waved me over and took my information and told me that I would be seen shortly. I sit down in the waiting area and it is a carnival atmosphere. There are several homeless people there and they all seem to know each other and the routine.  Next to me was a Latino in his twenties talking to an African American Woman who seemed to be in a lot of pain.  He was attempting to romance her telling her that he plans on getting pain medication and had just got a hotel room for a few days. While he attempted to get her to meet him for an interlude, I could smell marijuana and alcohol coming off of him. She didn’t seem to be that interested in his proposition but I could tell that she was slightly entertained.


Meanwhile in the waiting room there must have been at least one hundred people. Many were trying to sleep, but for a few it was social hour. On the other side of the room a group of people some wrapped in blankets and tattered clothing were laughing and cutting it up as one of the security guards was walking around making sure that they weren’t getting too comfortable and or blocking any isles.  He was swinging his baton telling people to sit up straight and acted as a gatekeeper to who could pass the reception area. He provoked a few conflicts and received a few tongue-lashings from the patients in return.


One of the most animated people in the waiting room was an African American Woman in a wheel chair that was highly spirited. I overheard her tell someone that she was seventy years old. She cursed at the security guard for telling her to move her wheel chair out of the isle and she asked him, ”Where the fuck am I suppose to go you stupid mutha fucker?”  She then turned her wheel chair, continued to talk to her friends and the security guard sheepishly walked away.  She was entertaining four middle- aged black women and seemed to be having a good time when a man trying to sleep yelled out, “bitch why don’t you shut the fuck up!” Needless to say that didn’t go very well and the little party they were having nearly turned into a riot.


The night rolled by and the sun was beginning to rise. Around 7AM an interesting thing was happening.  As the custodial staff was leaving and the day staff was beginning to arrive, the emergency room began to empty. By eight o’clock two thirds of the emergency room had cleared.  It was then apparent to me that most of the people were homeless and this is a nightly ritual at LA County General-USC Medical Center. The sleepy pace of the hospital started to pick up and there was the energy of a new day. I was seen at 9:30AM, x-rayed once more and given a second diagnosis, a heal spur, or was that a stress fracture, or was it tendonitis? I forgot which.




What struck me was that it took the most advanced medical system in the world and the most well trained doctors with the most technologically advanced machines such a long time to figure out a simple problem.


What struck me also (and an experience that I did not share earlier when I described my early visits) was that despite all these trainings and technological advancements our doctors still hold firm to their biases and prejudices.


When the first doctor diagnosed me with cellulitis – he told me it was a type of infection more common in diabetics, elderly and IV drug users.  He asked me if I was an IV drug user or had a history of diabetes. I said that I didn’t, which was followed by a long pause. He said he would have to order an x-ray along with blood work.


Surprisingly, he then asked me about my mental health and if I felt suicidal. I assumed that these were common questions for emergency rooms, but the longer that I spoke to him I found him to be culturally incompetent.


I became increasingly agitated when I realized that he had been referencing my medical records and must have seen the 5051 designation in my computerized chart. In Los Angeles 5051 is the code for involuntary psychiatric hold. In the past I have been restrained and hospitalized because from the public health official’s perspective I was a danger to myself.  In retrospect, I may have been.  After being forced into these situations I have learned what not to say and do to avoid them.


I was walking with a cane for six weeks and found it very difficult to get around.  I eventually lost my job, because they must have seen I was a workman’s compensation liability, because the work was physically demanding. I actually I tried to go back to work after a few weeks, but after a few days it was apparent that I was vulnerable to injury.  I could not hide my limp and I couldn’t keep up with the pace. My employer’s return calls were delayed more and more and eventually I could see that I was being let go.


My foot eventually healed but that didn’t end my adversity.  By this time, I hadn’t worked full time in almost two months; I hadn’t sold any new artwork and an expected stipend did not come in. My cash flow was exhausted. What proceeded was my automobile was repossessed and I was evicted from my apartment. One of the first people to befriend me in California suddenly passed away.  Then one morning, I wake up a little late and see a message on my computer, “sorry to hear about your brother’s passing”.


It was at this moment it became apparent how fragile life was and I was feeling very vulnerable.


boat in sand


I called the friend and I ended up with a cup of coffee surrounded by hipsters in Silverlake. Just when the coffee and conversation were having a soothing effect, they were rudely interrupted by the insisting voices of demand.


Thankfully, in my attempt to shut out these voices, I went back to the words of a sage. According to C. Wright Mills the three components of sociological imagination are – History (how social history is made and re-made); Biography (“human nature” in a “social” society and the kind of people that inhabit a particular society at a particular time); and Social Structure (the functioning and dynamics of institutions and institutional order in a society).


Thus with one term – sociological imagination – Mills connected the individual human being to the larger society and structure.


The role of the social scientist was then to connect the autobiographical, personal challenges to social institutions. Social scientists should then connect those institutions to social structure(s) and locate them within a historical narrative.


Was that my task then to do the same – to connect my personal experiences to a larger social frame?



painting dennis the madness of sister moon

The madness of sister moon. By Dennis Dodson


As I alluded to earlier, I have a touch of madness or as according to the American Psychiatric Society’s, Diagnostic and Statistical Manuel on Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition, I have been given the gift of Bipolar, Type I. What this label means I’m not certain except that it attaches a label. As I was discussing with my very high functioning criminal attorney friend whom also experiences the same malady, mental illness is one of the last societal stigmas and people still remain in the closet.


I’m taking a risk in discussing this, but to those who are close to me already know this much about me.  Those who don’t will likely not be surprised. Yet I share this with some reservation, because we live in an environment and society that finds ways of demonizing or criminalizing the marginalized. I recognize that I have acquired privilege by my skin color and associations, but to tell people about your mental illness is a fringe activity. Yet, let me express that I am crazy and proud!


As the United States becomes more of a military police state and mentally ill are blamed for all the gun violence, I fear for what will happen to people that are often stigmatized with mental illness.  As Sinclair Lewis noted, “When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped with a flag and carrying a cross.”  The Far-Right are angry and want to “take their county back”. As they are angry and afraid, they openly carry assault weapons in public like rebels do in Somalia. I sometimes wonder when they do “take my country back,” from whom will they be taking it back from? Really, who has the country now?


According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, 250,000 Americans with a diagnosed mental disorder are homeless. As poverty and homelessness becomes increasingly criminalized, I wonder what will be the fate of the mentally ill? Will they be rounded up and incarcerated? A report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics suggests that they will. There are also over a quarter million mentally ill people in American prisons. Yet these are the official numbers I suspect that the numbers are significantly higher.


Unfortunately, incarceration isn’t the worst possibility as James Boyd found out. In Albuquerque, New Mexico, James Boyd a mentally ill homeless man was killed, by the Albuquerque Police Department for illegally camping. The department said the killing was justified even though official video shows he was provoked with a stun grenade, dogs and shot in his back, so for James Boyd I speak out- and for all the colorful personalities, to those that our society neglects to understand or treat, but throws away like a tattered bundle of trash.  Insane people are not born in some other country or society. They are born in the very same country that gave birth to the policeman and the prejudiced doctor.


The 1960’s brought us the rapids of change. In 1969 there was the Stonewall riots in the West Village of New York City.  This was a symbolic event for the rights of gays and a movement was born.  After the long history of the colonial slave trade, emancipation and civil war the 1960’s also brought us the civil rights movement. The Feminist Movement also came to fruition during this time. The point I am making is that there is always a struggle in history that accelerates social justice. I don’t know if we are at that moment, but I hoping to facilitate awareness. Perhaps my troubles and biography can become social issues that are worthy enough to warrant institutional re-ordering and change in the course of history. Is that wishing for too much? A saner society that respects even the so-called insane individuals that are born and live within it.


A caring and kind society? Am I asking for too much?


I too have a dream.


But who knows? Perhaps it is a delusion to believe that America and this society can change. Perhaps I do suffer from some strange mental illness.

Rise Up1


 © Dennis Dodson, 2014


Painting: The madness of sister moon by Dennis Dodson (2013)

Photos courtesy: Dennis Dodson

C Wright Mills Image from:

LA County Hospital Image from:


Text References:

The Age of Organized Irresponsibility: (And) The Importance of Being C. Wright Mills

C. Wright Mills (1959). The Sociological Imagination. Oxford University Press.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.