The Dignity of Risk and The Right to Fail

The Dignity of Risk and The Right to Fail
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Deconstructing Distortion and Ignorance

Almost 30 years ago, I entered the world within a dysfunctional family dynamic as a supposed consequence of rape, and an unwanted child. I grew to be the wayward of three. The youngest and only girl, I was destructive, and rebellious. I became a product of my environment, and an unknown advocate in the making. I spent my life living in fear of failure, therefore rarely taking any risk in pursuit of success.

In July of 2019, I found myself sitting alongside others, more or less dysfunctional than I, at Howie the Harp Peer Advocacy Training (HTH) in Harlem, New York. It was at HTH that I learned about the Dignity of Risk and the Right to Fail. This means having “the right to take risks while engaging in life experiences and the right to fail in taking them.” It “…acknowledges that life experiences come with risk and that we must support people in experiencing success and failure.”

I have unknowingly lived by the moral grounds of the dignity of risk and the right to fail. I simply called it trial and error.

Due to my ill-nurtured upbringing, what I perceived as my dysfunctional and rebellious nature turned out to be my own destiny to thrive, and persevere as an individual. I come from a long line of trauma resulting in mental illness, poverty, and substance abuse. I spent a good portion of my life navigating the world as an uncontrolled vagabond. The only reason I am still alive today is because of my connection with HIV.

I was a child living the unglamorous life of “50 Shades of Grey.” Wretched and broken, HIV was my blessing in disguise. A burdensome gift at the time, my diagnosis forced me into treatment for the sake of compliance as my name was now added to the list for the Center for Disease Control. I was on the path towards a quick demise.

At first, I was reluctant to engage in social, medical, and mental health therapy. I doubted the system’s intent to help me and felt as if I was nothing more than a statistic on the “watch list.” I found myself at the Adolescent AIDS Program (AAP), in the Bronx at 17. This is when I truly began to entertain services. However, this was not enough to convince myself of my worth as a human being.

AAP became my escape, yet I had no choice but to return to my darkened reality outside of the facility. I couldn’t take the program with me so I unraveled and continued down a path of numbing self-destruction awaiting my next appointment, showing up clean and sober. Mental health engagement became my solace. Self-disclosure was not an acceptable practice among my family and associates. Silence was the key to keeping the peace and avoiding violence. Intoxication was the key to keeping me silent. I kept myself numb until my next opportunity to step into the safety of mental health services.

I continued to grow while simultaneously self-destructing away from practitioners, and peers. My journey through recovery was a slow and hindered process due to the lack of community, and family support outside of “the professional environment.” I believe that an abundance of support and encouragement is vital to one’s recovery, especially with regards to the dignity of risk and the right to fail. Having support within the medical, and mental health field is helpful, but it can often be blindsided by the lack of support one has within the community, and family environment. There is the need to include loved ones in the treatment plan for individuals receiving medical, mental, or substance abuse services; people that a “patient” might feel make a direct impact on their lives, decisions, and sense of belonging. This can be family, friends, and partners, even teachers.

As a peer specialist in training, it is my goal to find a way to build encouragement, empowerment, and bridges between those we consider our chosen family, and those we are forced to endure. My most debilitating reason for rejecting the dignity of risk and the right to fail was due to the fear of being rejected, ridiculed, and banished by those I held dear to my heart. I found myself quite alone anyway, dependent entirely on the support of “professional services,” and afraid to speak about my experiences in my attempt to avoid being labeled a mental patient. I hope to pave the way for change.

Note: Born, and raised in New York City, Malissa is a dedicated advocate for both humans, and animals alike. She has learned to navigate the mental health system in order to better her chances of survival and is now a peer specialist in the making under the guidance of Howie the Harp. It is her passion to help others by utilizing her lived experiences as her greatest asset in pursuit of equality, justice, and success in honor of “the dignity of risk and the right to fail.”

Pullout: “I doubted the system’s intent to help me and felt as if I was nothing more than a statistic on the ‘watch list’…afraid to speak about my experiences in my attempt to avoid being labeled a mental patient. I hope to pave the way for change.”

Malissa Vazquez

Malissa Vazquez

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