I used to be afraid of the idea of mental illness - it wasn’t a part of my world. Then a friend was impacted by mental illness, and all of a sudden it became a big part of my everyday life. In the 11 years since, I’ve spent thousands of hours on the phone having conversations that have both broken my heart and given me a new appreciation for the human spirit. I’ve seen good things come out of the mental health system, and over the past year I’ve seen it fail my friend miserably, to the point where having a conversation at all is impossible.
My friend has been through a lot over the years - lots of ups and downs, lots of hospitalizations, and a whole lot of stigma and discrimination. This past year took that to a whole new level, when a series of stressful events in her life overwhelmed her ability to cope with them. I spent a seemingly endless number of hours on the phone with her, because she said it helped drown out the voices she was hearing…I listened as she became less and less able to focus, started having trouble differentiating what was real from what wasn’t, and became terrified that she was losing control…I heard her try to get help, many times, and be dismissed as “just trying to get attention.” I tried to get help, from her advocate, and was equally unsuccessful. And so I kept listening as her worst fear - of “totally losing it” - started to play out. Something similar happened to her a few years ago, and since then she’s always said (and I’ve always reassured her) that things wouldn’t get to that point again, because now she knew how to advocate for herself. But the unfortunate reality was that the discrimination against mental illness was so strong that it didn’t matter. And so now it’s been months since she’s been able to have any kind of conversation that made sense…
As I’ve witnessed my friend’s experiences, I’ve become passionate about raising awareness of mental illness, and fighting stigma. As I’ve talked about my friend’s experiences (with her blessing), I’ve seen the “No kidding, me too!” phenomenon in full force. People have shared their own stories with me, about themselves, their family, their friends…stories I never would have known without having that conversation. Mental illness is a part of all of our lives in one way or another, and it shouldn’t have to be a secret. The mental health system is in desperate need of improvement, but that’s not going to happen when people are too afraid to talk about it.
Somebody asked me recently if my friend knew that I was sharing her story with others - and the answer is yes, or at least she did know. When I first started doing the NAMI Walk, and in the years since, I talked to her about it, and she wanted people to know her story, to know what it’s like to deal with mental illness. Last year when I was doing a presentation on mental illness, we talked about it again, and she was eager to share her experiences - kept saying that she wished she had the opportunity to talk to people about it. I still hope that someday she will be able to, but for now we can make sure that her voice, and that of all the others who aren’t able to speak up for themselves, is heard.