Speaking Out: Destigmatizing Mental Health
Lecturing at the Bennington Writing Seminars in January 2019
It was two years ago this week that I first stood up in front of a lecture hall full of people - friends, professors, strangers - and said, "I'm bipolar. I was hospitalized for an eating disorder as a teenager. I am mentally ill." Two years ago, that felt like an impossibly scary thing to do. I almost had a panic attack just practicing the lecture in front of a few friends (my husband had to grab me a chair when I nearly collapsed). But, a year after my Bipolar I diagnosis, it felt like my responsibility to incorporate my story into my talk. I was giving a lecture on representations of mentally ill women in fiction for my graduating requirements and felt I would be doing a disservice to myself and the audience if I didn't stand up at the podium and say, "This is me, too."
The title of my lecture was "Like Those Awful Dead People...", which is a reference to The Bell Jar, in which Esther Greenwood refuses to continue psychiatric help and her mother says, "Good, I knew you weren't like those people." What people? "Like those awful dead people in the hospital." To be called dead, to be seen as something less than a living human being. And to have the people close to you scoff at treatment or your self-care. I knew what that was like; being told mental health is bullshit, that psychology is a bunch of "psuedoscience," that you just need to get over it.
I'd heard my family refer to my week in a teen psych ward as "that time you were sick," and I couldn't tell them throughout the rest of my adolescence, I'm not better.
Beforehand, when I told her about my lecture topic, a classmate said, "Oh, interesting. Are you focusing on the perspectives of the mentally ill women, or the people who have to put up with them?" Ouch. I didn't forget that comment when I stood up at the podium and said, I am these women, the ones you see as broken or incapable or fragile, too sensitive, too emotional. Fucked up.
This week, I was interviewed by a local radio station (I come in about 45 mins in) about A Tether to This World, the anthology of mental health recovery stories I edited. We spoke about the book (which is coming out in May with Main Street Rag, now available for pre-order), but also about my own mental health journey. A few years ago, speaking publicly - on a radio station that serves my hometown - about my mental illness would have seemed unimaginable. Two years later, after writing/publishing my own essays, poems, and stories that address mental health and trauma, I won't say it's gotten easy, but it's certainly gotten easier.
One of the things that's helped is the feedback and vocal support. Not only have people I know come to me and tell me they'd dealt with depression, anxiety, manic episodes, or panic attacks, too, but also complete strangers from around the world have reached out to say my words have helped them. During my struggles in middle, high school, and college, I never could have imagined that my story would actually inspire or help someone else, or that I'd ever be brave enough to share it. And that's the gift I wanted to give anyone who is having a hard time, with A Tether to This World. 41 stories, essays, and poems about real-life struggles with mental illness, including supporting loved ones who are experiencing difficulties and mourning loss. In order to prevent death by suicide, addiction, homelessness, and other harmful results of mental illness, the first thing we need to do is destigmatize mental health. Talk about it.
Shame and fear of judgment/repercussions (Will people think I can't do my job? Will no one want to date or hang out with me? Will everybody see what a freak I am??) prevent too many from seeking help and talking about their problems/concerns with professionals and/or people who love them. As one writer says in A Tether to This World, BIPOC are much (about half) less likely than white people to seek treatment for mental health. So, not only are there socio-economic and geographical barriers to accessing necessary care, there are also further social barriers in many communities.
One very real thing you can do to help others get the help they need is talk about it. Be open and honest about your experiences. I can promise you you're not alone; Roughly 1 in 5 American adults deals with mental illness at some point. There are people in your life struggling now. Be there for them. Talk to them, and, perhaps even more important, listen.
We need to create spaces to tell our stories and encourage others to talk about their own struggles and triumphs. OC87 Recovery Diaries is one good resource to listen to and tell stories of mental health recovery. And for other bipolar friends/advocates, bphope/bp magazine can be helpful, too. I also think people like comedian Hannah Gadsby, whose Netflix special "Nanette" inspired the book's title, are doing important work to destigmatize talking - and even joking, respectfully - about mental health in public spaces. I hope these resources inspire others to do the same. For Vermonters, NAMI-VT is a great place to go for resources and support groups/community; it's a national org, so there's probably a chapter near you, too. It's open to family members/friends, as well as those living with mental health issues. Plus, many, if not most, therapists are offering virtual sessions these days and there are a lot of entirely-online therapy options.
Many of the pieces in A Tether to This World address fear and pain and insecurity, but there's another commonality, too: shame. Writers talk about being ashamed about struggling with addiction, being ashamed of being hospitalized or trying to kill one's self, being ashamed of feeling like a disappointment to family members. Several of these pieces are written by family members of those who suffer from mental illness, and I found their support and desire to help touching, even if they didn't always know how, or, in one case, if it's too late.
So often after someone dies by suicide do we say, I wish I had been there. I wish I knew. I wish they'd talked to me. I feel that way about everyone whom I've ever known, however briefly or tangentially, who died by suicide. I wish they could have seen me as someone to open up to. I wish I'd given them that gift. So, how can we be there for the people in our lives who need it before tragedy strikes? Let them know you see them, without judgment, that you understand or want to and that you're a really good listener. If you've had your own challenges, be open about them. Let others know you've been through it, too, that it's OK to talk about, that they're loved. You will probably have to repeat yourself; they won't believe it's really OK at first, and maybe not even for a while. Just keep being there. Keep talking. Keep listening.
A few years ago, during my second ten-day residency at the Bennington Writing Seminars, there was a first-term student I'll call Sasha. Sasha was a phenomenal writer, but very shy, nervous, and, I could tell, riddled with anxiety. She wouldn't look anyone in the eye, never spoke in workshop, stumbled over her words when someone asked her a question. I was having a very tough residency. My husband and I weren't speaking and I'd had four panic attacks that week, two of them quite severe and nearly ending up in the hospital (which I am terrified of and wanted nothing to do with). I was crying on the shower floor, pacing my room all night, talking to myself, having panic attacks anytime I was in a group. I even bummed a few cigarettes, even though I don't smoke. On the outside, I was gregarious, outgoing, fun. But I couldn't possibly talk about what was really going on, how my life felt like it was crumbling around me.
I'd been crying in my room for most of the day, but had finally convinced myself to get the fuck up and go to the evening reading. As I was cutting across the field to get to the "barn," Sasha was coming up the path, head down, sniffling, stiff. I could tell she didn't want to talk to anyone. As she approached, I had an impulse, an intuition, and I said, "Hey, Sasha, I hope it's OK that I'm saying this, but I have pretty severe anxiety. I've had a bunch of panic attacks these past few days, I've spent most of the day crying alone, not ready to see anyone." She looked me in the eyes, nodded. "And I don't know what's going on with you, obviously, but just - it looks like you're in it right now, right?" Another nod. "I'm in it, too, and, you know, I know we don't really know each other. But your writing is so fucking good, and I'm around, you know, if you need to talk."
She was silent for a moment, just staring at me. "Can I hug you?" I asked.
"I was gonna ask the same thing!" she said, and cried into my arms. "Thank you," she said, "Thank you." And, as we walked in opposite directions, "I really like your writing, too."
If you see something in someone, don't hesitate to - in an encouraging and supportive, not judgmental, way - tell someone that you're there, when they're ready. That they have someone to talk to.
Mental illness is everywhere; it's time we did something about it, and that begins by destigmatizing the conversation. It could literally save a life.
P.S. Vermont Mental Health Advocacy Day is coming up on Monday, February 1 (virtual this year). At last year's event, I met a lot of cool people and spoke to local news about my mental health journey. It's a great opportunity to share your story and hear from other Vermonters. See if there's something similar in your area (or, you know, start it).