The Difference Between Understanding And Experiencing Privilege

This month, pending a background check, I’ll start co-leading a writing group for clients at a mental health agency in New York City. It’s the fusion of two passions—creative writing and ending stigma against mental illness. After arriving at the agency yesterday to complete paperwork, I lingered in the lobby waiting for my appointment to begin. Watching the clients and staff interact, I remembered returning from a support group years ago. “I hated it,” I told my now-husband. “I’m nothing like them.”

“No,” he said. “But you are related.”

Now a client gave me a warm, blinding smile. Grinning back, I realized how often I only focus on relating to others who face the same battles. At the same time, I’ve demanded others’ unconditional understanding of my myriad challenges and shortcomings.

The hypocrisy struck me like a punch in the gut. The emotion that bubbled up, however, wasn’t shame or sadness, but gratitude for the opportunity to be humbled.

Unlike many others, I had the privilege of growing up white and middle class, which meant easier access to resources like therapy. While stigma persists across racial and economic lines, people of color, especially those from underserved backgrounds, struggle to have those same benefits. It seems rudimentary, but there’s a distinction between intellectually understanding privilege and recognizing the experience of it.

I considered the good fortune of having a career, maintaining a relationship, and supporting adults of all ages going through a range of mental health issues. I left the appointment refreshed. As for the writing group, I can’t wait to officially get started.

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