I’ve been at this peer advocacy thing for about a half decade now. Maybe a bit more. I’ve been a peer since 1987-ish. So I’ve had enough time on this recovery journey to know about mental health stigmas and have been on the receiving end of stigmatic misbehavior, from both Muggles and fellow peers.

One of the more amusing stigmas I’ve endured is when I first began this advocacy part of my recovery journey. I’m an adept public speaker, and I adore taking on leadership roles, or at least blustering on into unknown frontiers to clear a trail for others to traverse.

Because of this, it was not out of the norm for Muggles to say to me:

“You are so articulate for a consumer.”

Or along the same logical loopiness…

“You are so brave to talk so openly about your mental illness.”

At first, it was a frustration, because no matter how well-intentioned the compliments, the compliments were unintentionally backhanded in degree. The accolades of “excellent articulation” and “bravely sharing your secret shame” were a commentary on less of a stigma and more of a stereotype of the peer experience.

For some peers, this sort of Muggle complimentary outreach equated to “Because you are a person with a mental illness, by default you are also a person of lesser intelligence and capability.” For some peers, this sort of Muggle complimentary outreach equated to “Consumers have so much to hide from the world, and it’s amazing you don’t want to hide your disease as well.” And for some peers, this sort of complimentary outreach equated to “Are you sure you’re a consumer? You don’t act like a consumer.”

Anger, irritation, frustration, insulted, demeaned, diminished, discarded, marginalized, categorized, stigmatized. Any and all of these are appropriate emotional responses Mugglish astonishment that peers are not inferior in intellect, ability, and self-assurance. And these emotional responses often manifested in various ways of saying “FOOK YOU!” by peers I’ve spoken with about just this subject. Truth told, it’s rough trying to hold in the sentiment after being insulted so directly and personally.

Over time, I realized something about being short-changed just by being a peer. I recognized something way cool that really helped me move through the initial frustrations and embrace the wonderment of being held to a lesser standard. And this is something I once was able to take advantage of in peer advocacy, and this is something I impart upon my fellow peer advocates who are not as well-known as I:

It’s a wonderful gift Muggles give us. Let Muggles underestimate us for as long as they want.”

How the heck can being underestimated be a gift and not an insult? Let me give a personal example by way of those anecdotes I love so much.

There was a meeting where many of my friends with whom I collaborate at APD last year, and these APD folks have worked with me on any number of community advocacy projects for at least three years.

So one of these APD folks, “Doc”, came to me and said, “I’ve never asked you what type of law you practice. What do lawyers do in geology?”

Confusion. “Doc, I’m not a lawyer.”

The meeting started, and I didn’t get to talk to Doc after the meeting, so I asked Sarge later on, “Sarge, why does Nils think I’m a lawyer?”

Sarge replied, “You’re not a lawyer?”

“Nope. I’m not a lawyer. Why do you guys think I’m a lawyer?”

Sarge’s answer:

“Because you’re always out-lawyering the lawyers.”

Weird. I drove home and starting pondering the meaning and implications of being mistaken for a lawyer. The civil rights lawyers I often went toe to toe with at these meetings are bright folks, very adept, and with years of experience. I only had two semesters of business law in college. How could these lawyers be “out-lawyered” by me? The answer is simple.

These lawyers underestimated me because I am a peer.

Can you see how this is a gift? Peer advocacy is a tough charge. Getting providers and politicians to listen and understand is a rough road. How much easier is peer advocacy when they don’t expect peers to perform with such natural skill and talent?

This is what I impart to my peer advocate colleagues. Let Muggles underestimate you as long as they’ll allow it. It’s sooooooooooooo much simpler getting our point across when Muggles aren’t expecting such “brave articulation.”

Bonus, dude.