If you need help dealing with mental illness (of a family member, friend, or yourself), please call the national NAMI Helpline at (800) 950-6264 or the Ventura County Helpline at (805) 500-NAMi
I’ve spent the last two days in a training for the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). I’ve been working on becoming a presenter for the In Our Own Voice program, which puts people living with mental illness in front of public audiences. It’s a structured presentation that utilizes a nationally-based video as well as stories from two local presenters and question and answer time for the audience.
I was a last minute addition to the training. The local NAMI director recognized me as a potential candidate during an interview for a volunteer publications editor just days before the training. While I think most people would have been surprised and hesitant, my superpower (courage, for those of you who are late to the game) kicked in immediately. I was excited.
I have no qualms about speaking to groups. l have been talking to groups in one form or another since I became a Girl Scout camp counselor in the early 1990’s. In college my speeches were video taped by professors and critiqued on video playback in front of the class.Talk about a good time. As a daily routine in my professional life, I gave presentations, pitched articles and even advocated for entire editorial sections to cranky audiences. Among my bizarre superpowers, I appear to have dual personalities (not in a multiple personality way), one kicking into a high gear with a dominating voice and confident demeanor and the other, when I’m alone, who is calm and quietly creative. It’s possible I got into the wrong profession. Perhaps, I should have been some sort of public speaking mentor. You never know, maybe it’s in my future.
I recognize that it is hard or even physically painful for most people to speak in public. When I’m in an audience of those speakers, I make sure to make eye contact and give a reassuring smile. I know that not everyone shares my superpower.
I think being vulnerable dwarfs the fear the public speaking. There’s nothing quite like opening yourself up and telling — not just one — a roomful of people your darkest moments. They’re moments that it’s difficult to be proud of. It’s not just that those moments are dark. Often the person you’re talking to has no life experience to match the hell you’ve walked through and come back from. For me, the pity face is the worst. I hate to see that person in the crowd looking up at me with “oh, poor you” written all over their face.They don’t understand that I couldn’t be on that stage, telling my riveting story without having walked through the fire.
Despite the fire, I’m in a solid place with my past. But sometimes I still feel guilty. I still feel defective or broken. I still feel like the people who have signed on to love me are going to change their minds. Often I wouldn’t blame them. Those people know the best parts of me. I’m empathetic, a wonderful listener, a talented artist, a creative mom. Until recently, I wondered how those people would react to my story. And then I blogged about it. Family and friends came out of the woodwork to tell me how much they loved me and to thank me for coming out. I know I’m lucky. Not everyone is blessed with the same support. As I listened to my classmates tell their stories, I wondered how many of them were scared by the same insecurities.
The reason I’ve pulled out my superpower to reveal my most vulnerable moments in public is hope. I hope that, even if it’s just one person, something I say will resonate and get stuck inside. I know when I’m watching a movie, listening to a song, or hearing a speaker, sometimes there are a few words that penetrate the core of me. They get stuck just behind my sternum and rattle around. Occasionally, it causes dark chaos but mostly those few simple words soothe me. They inspire me. They tell me that I’m not alone. Someone else on this great big rock has felt what I’m feeling. For me, it leads to art of one variety or another. Art is how I express the feelings that I can’t find words for. At the end of this post I’ll share some those pieces with you.
So, I’ve made the commitment through this blog, my Facebook, and my work with NAMI to no longer hide. It feels uplifting. It reminds me of strength that I’d forgotten I possessed. I didn’t realize the extent to which hiding has been damaging my self-esteem and my soul. Hiding has invited the black sludge and insecurity to take up residence. Mental illness is not who I am as a person, but living with Bipolar Disorder, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder changes how I live my life. It changes how I perceive the world. I am more empathetic, a better listener, more curious, a thoughtful and creative artist, and a willing and strong advocate for others.
When I made the decision to stop self-harming through cutting myself. I put a tattoo over the place where I cut. From my personal experience with cutters, most have a ritual including a certain object, a place, and sanitary measures. Mine was the inside of my forearm with razor blades. It left delicate scars that most people would never notice. I noticed. The tattoo I chose to cover my scars was a dandelion. Each dandelion gives an unknown number of wishes wafting off into the breeze. If I could have just one of those, I would close my eyes and wish that every member of the mental illness community could use my superpower strength to tell their story. It doesn’t matter who they tell: their mom, pastor, best friend, or random person on a park bench. Or even me. If you want, use my superpower and leave your story in my comments. I read them all, you’ll be heard.
Every story making its way into the world has an effect on how mental illness is perceived in society. I would like to live in a world where my illnesses are perceived no differently than the common cold. I’d like to be offered a tissue rather than a look of pity or fear.
The art of the day is a few collages. It’s an evolving project I’ve been playing with involving images and phrases from popular magazines as well as song lyrics.