The Definition of Brave

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We think that by bearing our truths and sharing our stories, we’ll be faced with disapproval, ignorance, judgement, indifference even. We fear a painful backlash if we are to open up about the ways our brains are unique.

Some people would say the definition of brave is fourteen individuals standing up on stage in front of a sold-out audience of almost 400 to talk about what life feels like when one has been dealt the mental illness card. It’s knowing the entire performance is being videotaped so that it will be shareable to the world later. There is the potential it will reach thousands of people. Maybe millions.

It’s pacing backstage, outside a tiny dressing room, as we hear our anthem belted out with such beauty and soul that it’s impossible not to lip sync to calm our nerves.

It’s voices shaking, mouths dry as toast, weight shifting as we sit in a chair waiting for our turn to be introduced. It’s a deep breath sucked in and sighed out nervously before beginning to speak. It’s making eye contact with the audience members we can see outside of the tight spotlight shining directly on the space within our arms’ reach.

The definition of brave is not letting the cry pierce the surface when reminiscing about all the pain and suffering we endured, even though verbalizing the memories is like rubbing salt into a wound with tiny cracks in the scab that has yet to crust over completely. Brave is letting the feelings and emotions catch in bated breath for a second. Or a few seconds. Then continuing to finish the story. No one said it was going to be easy.

Brave is not giving up on sharing our story even though it hurts like hell.

What we’ve been through has taught us intense empathy, and for that we wouldn’t trade our conditions for that of a healthy, non-mentally-ill person. We are the lucky ones. Our determination to get well and stay well earns us the title of fighter on the outside. On the inside, it’s more like embracer.

We tell our stories as a reminder of how far we’ve come and how we work hard to stick to our treatment plans each day in order not to fall backwards. The days and weeks and months and years may put distance between our horrible sadness, our frantic madness, the chaos and confusion in our minds. Those are the moments we only keep in our memory for the reminders of what it felt like so we never let ourselves return there.

We are brave not because it’s a walk in the park to relive those moments, but because we know that by sharing our stories there’s a chance that one day, someone who is looking for a sign that things will get better, might find our stories. They will listen to us speak our raw truths and though our voices may shake, and tears may fall, they’ll see us rise above. We’ve been able to overcome mental illness. We chose life and we choose to be brave and continue to share our stories in hopes that we’ll inspire others to share theirs, too.

We share our pain because it only takes one person saying, ‘Thank you,’ to make us realize why. Why we chose to be brave in the first place. Why we chose to bare our souls and hold up our hearts for those before us to drink them in. Why we chose to walk off that stage with no regrets.

We are brave to demonstrate to others the power of sharing their stories. How powerful and healing it could be for more people to share their personal journeys of living with mental illness. The definition of brave shouldn’t have to describe talking openly about mental health disorders. It’s more accurately courage: the ability to do something that frightens one.

Because although we may be scared, and we may feel as though we will face danger or endure pain from sharing our stories, the reality was that when This Is My Brave took to the stage, the theater was filled with nothing but love, encouragement, understanding, acceptance and appreciation for what we did. Which is exactly why I’m excited to continue this journey.

Someday, in the very near future I hope, we will live in a world where we won’t have to call it brave to talk openly about living with mental illness. We’ll simply call it talking.

Corporate Photography, Political Photography, PR Photography

You Can Find Your Brave *

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Dear Anonymous,

A year ago I was you. I was writing about my life via my blog but was too afraid to use my real name for fear of being looked at and treated differently by people in my life, in my community. What I didn’t know was that once I did reveal my true identity to the world, how nothing would change, but in fact, things would actually become much more real. In an intensely positive way.

The shame that is attached to being diagnosed with mental illness is physically heavy. It’s a weight that is dumped on a person’s shoulders the moment they hear the words clinical depression, schizophrenia, OCD, bipolar disorder, anxiety or any one of the many different mental health disorders. It makes us feel like outcasts, unworthy of love and respect, when in reality there are millions of Americans living with the same conditions we are.

The problem is, many of us are scared to talk about it, which makes living with a mental illness feel even more shameful. Because shame breeds on secrecy and silence, the longer we remain anonymous and hidden, the more power we hand to our shame.

“Shame cannot survive being spoken. It cannot survive empathy.” – Brene Brown

I’m writing you this letter because I want to see you rise above the shame. I want to invite you to join our movement. I want to see you find your brave. The world is waiting. Now is the time.

It’s incredibly hard to allow ourselves to be vulnerable. To open up about the times of our lives that we’ve shoved to the back corner of the closet and piled stuff on top of so we could forget. But the memories remain, and the longer they stay secret, the more damage they do.

I found that the more I write about the lowest, darkest points in my life, the less power they have over me. The control shifts from those haunting memories to my tender heart and it feels good to have the upper hand. My initial fears of living the rest of my life with a brain illness have all but melted away. They’re still there, as they’ll always be there, but they’re more like raindrops of a quickly-passing storm rather than the thunderous, torrential downpour they were when I was first diagnosed.

“Loving ourselves through the process of owning our story is the bravest thing we’ll ever do.”            – Brene Brown

Even more than writing about my experience, talking about what I’ve gone through has been a life-changing experience. I’ve learned that by accepting my past and embracing my imperfections, by talking to people about my condition, I am helping others find the courage to talk openly about their struggles, too.

We all have struggles. We all have things we’re afraid to talk about. But if we weren’t put on this Earth to help others in life, tell me – why are we here?

I believe we can all find the courage to share our stories. Maybe it starts by telling a few close friends. Maybe you find a support group in your local area specifically targeted towards your condition and you go and share part of your story. Maybe you decide to write a blog and connect with other writers online.

Or maybe you decide to show the world your vulnerability in a new and different way. You’re an artist, and so you dream up and write down the thoughts that are floating around in your head. And they come out as a song or an essay or a poem, so lyrical and beautiful and heartfelt and emotional. For the world to know the true you, the whole you. Because every piece of us is something to be celebrated.

Join me in twelve days for This Is My Brave. If you haven’t bought your tickets yet, act fast because they are running out. Click here to get yours now. If you can’t make it to the show, but want to support our efforts, consider making a donation to our newly-formed non-profit to help us get up and running, or buy a BRAVE bracelet to show your dedication to our mission. Let’s tell the world our stories and kick the shame that is stigma to the curb.

Everyone is capable of finding their brave.

With love and encouragement,

Jenn

*This letter originally appeared on thisismybrave.com.

My Story Isn’t Over – #SemicolonProject416

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It rained today. Hard, pounding raindrops came down in sheets and I remember the bitter hatred I have towards this type of weather. How frustrated I get with the wetness, the dreary clouds that hang around until the storm finally passes. And then I realize – that’s the takeaway.

With my form of bipolar illness, I lean towards mania, rather than depression. Three or four nights off meds and with poor sleep and I’ll end up manic to the point of hallucinating, needing intravenous antipsychotics and a week in the mental hospital to return me to a semi-normal state. Then there are the weeks of recovery afterwards. I don’t dare mess with my treatment plan. It’s as much a part of my life as breathing and eating. It keeps me in the middle and for me, that is a beautiful place to be, especially with a household to run with two little ones looking up to me and counting on me to stay healthy.

But the rain. It’s still coming down, relentlessly soaking everything without a roof over its head. Rainy days can so easily take me back to the year of my life when I was so smothered by depression that I contemplated ending my own life to make the pain stop. I had been diagnosed a few months earlier with Bipolar Disorder Type 1, had to resign from a career I had worked so hard at, and was afraid the confidence that used to sparkle in my eyes would never return. I felt so far gone. I couldn’t see an end to the stormy fog I was living in.

The hardest part about the year I was being suffocated by depression was that I didn’t have people to look up to. People who had been in the dark, murky trenches of mental illness and yet had emerged stronger and more equipped to keep going. Because when one is diagnosed with a mental illness it never goes away, we must find a way to live with it and manage it so that it doesn’t manage us.

I recognized my suicidal thoughts, was absolutely terrified by them, and although I was ashamed by these feelings I was experiencing, somehow found the courage to tell my husband and parents and my psychiatrist who then changed my medications. Within a few weeks I started to feel better, the thoughts began to fade, and I was able to lift my head above the fog. I chose not to end my story, and because I was able to get help and support, I am here today advocating for mental health awareness through my blog and my show, This Is My Brave.

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These conversations don’t have to be hard. The more we open up and talk about mental illness, the more people will realize that it’s an illness like any other and that with proper treatment and support, anyone can overcome mental illness to lead happy, successful lives. The more we share, the more we encourage others to be vulnerable, and this ripple effect is the change that the mental health community needs to break down the ignorance that surrounds societal views on mental illness.

We are human. We live with mental illness and we want to be heard. We can persevere because our stories matter.

#THISISMYBRAVE

Mental Illness Allowed Me To Find My Gift – My Messy Beautiful

A close family friend who I’ve known since I was a baby invited me to his parent’s house for a Jewish holiday meal one night in 2009, as they did whenever those special occasions roll around. I’m not Jewish, but they treat me like family, so it’s only natural to be at these events, surrounded by friends and loved ones and good food.

After dinner, Dave and I were chatting, catching up on what we both had going on. He described his plans of starting a non-profit with a good friend of his, to give back to the community. I remember my exact first reaction:

“Why on Earth would you want to start a business that doesn’t make you a profit?” although luckily I didn’t say it aloud.

What I forgot in that moment was what Dave had been through. Early on in his life, he had everything going for him. Top athlete, funny guy, made decent grades in school. But in college he got caught up with the new found freedom and after making some bad choices, started doing drugs to self-medicate the pain away. Hard drugs. One night he almost died and so his parents found a treatment facility in California and he went away to get help. He found his recovery path and stayed at the treatment center to become a counselor himself. His addiction led him to a place where he found his gift. And now he had come home and was ready to give his gift away to the world using his non-profit as the vehicle through which to share it.

It would take five more years for me to understand this concept.

Growing up, I painted murals on the walls of my room and wrote in my journal, read poetry and spun dreams of becoming an artist. But when the time came in college to pick a major, I reached for the safe choice: Business, with a concentration in Marketing. That way, I could graduate with a degree that would ensure I’d be able to get a job, while at the same time I’d be able to tap into my artistic side. Really, I was thinking more about money and my future and much less about long-term happiness and making a difference in the world.

I wasn’t following my heart and my lack of follow-through made me envious of my girlfriends who entered the fields of teaching, nursing, and speech-language pathology because they were going to graduate and go out into the world and touch people’s lives each and every day with their talents and they’d get PAID to do what they loved. I wished I could follow my dream of becoming an artist by studying writing or art or design.

But could my creative, business-y work really touch someone’s life the way theirs would?

I was too afraid of the unknown.

Too afraid to fail.

Too afraid to be less than perfect.

Too afraid to expose my feelings through my work.

Too afraid I wouldn’t be able to support myself.

Too afraid of all these things that stood in my way.

They were my fears. And piled up together they appeared as a roadblock to the path to following my dreams.

Upon graduating, I start out in the corporate world with that versatile Business degree and I get a taste of success in the form of bonuses and commissions that keep rolling in as I continue to prove my worth to the company as the top grossing recruiter within the agency. I like this compensation system, and so I work harder and harder. I’m helping people find jobs and I’m helping companies to find talent they desperately need and it feels rewarding all around.

But over the years I become greedy. I work longer and longer hours to pull in the “big bucks”.

At the end of 2005, as I am anticipating the best year-end bonus of my career, the life I had worked so hard to build up to that point, came crashing down around me. I suffered what could only be described as a “nervous breakdown” at that moment. I spent a few nights in a psych ward, but upon my release the psychiatrist I saw attributed the episode to the lack of sleep I had experienced the week before when my husband was away on business travel.

Two weeks later that hypothesis would be proven wrong when my mind succumbed to another manic episode for which I had to be hospitalized on Christmas Day. Talk about the lowest low one can feel. Being left by your family at a psych ward while your mind unravels faster and faster until you’re unrecognizable to even yourself pretty much describes it. That was eight years ago and Christmas, to this day, still brings up mixed emotions for me. More so gratitude now, but fear used to consume my thoughts. Fear that it could happen again, that my life was over now that I was diagnosed with a mental illness. That I’d never have children. That my husband might leave me. That my life was practically worthless now that my brain was sick.

I spent 2006 behind a veil of black. I mourned the life I had to leave behind. My success as a recruiter, my friends at work, my nice, fat paycheck with all those bonuses and commissions. The tears were in endless supply that year, though I tried never to let on to my friends how unhappy I was. I woke up most mornings with anxiety crawling up my spine, and would crumble onto the couch at the end of the day, a mess of nerves and sadness and self-pity.

In my mind I couldn’t see past the day ahead of me. My future was so cloudy, it was as if my diagnosis had pulled an eye mask down over my forehead so that my vision was blocked. No more thinking a year, two years, five years down the road like I had been so used to doing. Those days it was about surviving to see the next sunrise. I battled suicidal thoughts and although ashamed to tell my husband and parents about the images in my head, I did. My psychiatrist adjusted my medication and over the course of several months, the thoughts gradually began to dissolve. I was no longer fighting for my life each day, but I was still battling the voice in my head which asked me continuously what my purpose was.

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It’s been almost nine years since I was diagnosed with type one bipolar disorder. I’ve had two kids, and had two more hospitalizations because I was protecting my babies from the psychiatric medication in my bloodstream which I know now I’ll have to take for the rest of my life. I made it through five years of mania and meds and therapy and psychosis and depression and wanting to just make it all stop. And came to the conclusion that the reality of life with mental illness is that it will never stop; you can only learn to manage it so it doesn’t manage you.

Having overcome my mental health disorder allowed me to find the courage to write about my experiences. It may have taken me time to understand the beauty and impact of true vulnerability, but I’m proud to say that I’m there now. Telling the world that I live with bipolar disorder and still love my life has been the most liberating and gratifying step I’ve taken in this career I’ve carved out for myself. Dave is now the first person I go to for advice. I feel lucky to have such a close friend as a mentor so I don’t feel like I’m starting completely from scratch.

I’ve become a mental health advocate and I run a non-profit called This Is My Brave whose mission is to ignite and actively promote a positive, supportive, national conversation surrounding mental illness. Next month my Associate Producer and I will debut This Is My Brave – the show: a live, theater-based production made up of fourteen individuals from the community who will share their stories of living with mental illness through personal essays, poetry and original music in an effort to silence stigma and inspire change.

I found beauty in the messiness of life with bipolar disorder. It’s in the people who lift me up when I’m down and in the people who have opened up to me about the struggles in their life with mental illness.

I’m grateful to have found meaning in my life, and to be able to give hope away to those who might be in the midst of the same painful place I found myself in years ago. I know they can find a way out with the support of friends and family and quality psychiatric care. If I can do it, they can too.

My messy beautiful is encouraging others to share their stories of living with mental illness so that no one has to feel alone.

I’m thrilled to be participating in the Messy, Beautiful Warrior Project — To learn more and join us, CLICK HERE! And to learn about the New York Times Bestselling Memoir Carry On Warrior: The Power of Embracing Your Messy, Beautiful Life, just released in paperback, CLICK HERE!

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Glennon Doyle Melton is one of my favorite writers because she taught me that vulnerability is okay. Carry On, Warrior taught me that by showing the world that the imperfections that make me who I am, I in turn am giving others permission to share their messy, beautiful with me. I’ve met some of the most loving, supportive friends this year and my hope is that by giving away a copy of this special book, I’ll be paying it forward so that another person can learn the magic of sharing their messy, beautiful instead of covering it up.

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