In their research, Corrigan and Rao write,
“…a key to challenging self-stigma is to promote personal empowerment. One way to do this is through disclosure…the strategic decision to let others know about one’s struggle toward recovery.”
I wasn’t sure I trusted this statement. But I had been inspired by both of my co-workers Jackie and Paul, who had been open at work about their mental illnesses. Their vulnerability, their strength, their integrity…and most of all, their effectiveness with their clients touched me deeply.
Who they were and my admiration of them helped me to reveal something I had been keeping secret all my life, the fact that I struggled with a severe mental illness.
THE BIG REVEAL
I decided to reveal this truth about myself and submit a proposal to speak at Los Angeles Department of Mental Health Transition Age Youth Conference regarding stigma and it’s impact on healing. I asked if any of my co-workers would be interested in presenting with me, and Jackie and Paul quickly volunteered.
Our proposal was accepted and we presented last month and during the workshop the audience was engaged in the conversation, asking meaningful questions, and I noticed several people crying.
RESOUNDING REFRAIN: HOPE
On SAMSHA’s website a clinician diagnosed with a mental illness states, “I’ve asked many of my patients what it has meant for them to know about my history, and there is one consistent and resounding refrain: HOPE!”
And that is the feeling I felt in this room. Hope. Hope, because even though I struggle at times, I am OK. Hope, because I have been able to lead a productive career in a field that I enjoy. Hope because even though I have very dark days, I often feel joyful and at peace with the world.
Hope because this room, filled with row after row of people intently listening to what we had to say weren’t judging us with the kind of judgment we three had all feared throughout our lives, but were instead inspired by us…grateful for us…touched by our stories, our hearts, and our words.
GOOD TREATMENT AND DOING WELL
I had several people come up and speak with me after the presentation was over, and one in particular stands out in my mind. A young, beautiful girl, perhaps in her mid twenties. She told me she had been diagnosed with schizophrenia several years before, but had been able to receive good treatment and was doing well.
She was in a masters program and engaged to be married. My husband had come to the presentation and while speaking I shared my experience of disclosing my mental health history to him for the first time as well as other stories about the impact of my diagnosis on our lives. In his charming and humourous way, he bantered back and forth with me from the audience.
This young woman wanted to know how my husband and I had handled the issue of in laws. Did we disclose my diagnosis with his parents before we got married? If so how had they handled it? She had a sincere desire to handle this issue with integrity and honesty, but was nervous regarding the ramifications.
I was touched by this woman and openly shared my experience with her. I was touched because she was trying her hardest to make the wisest decision for everyone involved. She did not want to make a decision from a fear-based place and hide her truth, but she also wanted to maintain good boundaries and a strong sense of self and the right to personal privacy.
MENTALLY ILL/EMOTIONALLY WELL
She is an example of what I have had the opportunity to witness many times throughout my life and my career…she is someone with a serious mental illness who is displaying emotional wellness and making wise decisions. One can have a brain disorder and be emotionally healthy. They are not mutually exclusive.
Yes brain disorders have symptoms, and those symptoms can sometimes be very disconcerting. But the symptoms are not the person. I dated a guy once that told me he’d never date anyone that was bipolar. That that was a total deal breaker.
My relationship with him didn’t last, and I never disclosed to him that I had been given that diagnosis. He’s now divorced…and my husband and I are still married…married and in a healthy, thriving and enjoyable relationship.
MY FLAWS MADE ME MORE LOVABLE
Yes I have “flaws”. And yes, at times, those “flaws” have been disruptive. But with good self-care, a good treatment team, and great family and friends I do really, really well. And those flaws don’t make me unloveable, or unlikeable.
In this amazing room, at this presentation…my flaws actually made me more loveable, more real, more human. Even more useful at that moment than I would have been without my flaws.
I believe everything happens for a reason. But I also believe we have a hand in creating what that reason is. And in that moment, my reason my illness happened to me, was so that I could have a conversation with that young, beautiful, thoughtful woman preparing to get married and wanting to go about it in the most wise and conscious way possible.
My reason was so that I could connect with another struggling, striving human and share the hope that health and happiness are possible, no matter what cards we are dealt with in life.
WE CREATE OUR OWN QUEENDOM, MOMENT BY MOMENT…DAY AFTER DAY.
Paul Jefferson me and Jackie Vargas