Clarity. We all need to talk about mental illness, celebrity or otherwise

I’ve been thinking a lot about the post I published yesterday about my inability to relate to Kristen Bell opening up about her anxiety and depression.

I don’t know why it struck me to write about my feelings, but I wrote them out and put it out there, and the more I thought about what I wrote, the more I began to disagree with myself.

Sure, it’s hard to relate to a celebrity because their lifestyles seem so dramatically different from the average person who struggles to pay bills or isn’t able to get appropriate mental health care because they don’t have insurance. But this lack of being able to identify with a famous person shouldn’t have any impact on my appreciation for their ability to share their story about overcoming mental illness and stigma.

I’m sure it took a great deal of courage for Kristen to open up in that interview, the same way our This Is My Brave cast members conjure up a certain amount of bravery to audition for, and then share their stories on stage through our shows.

I’m embarrassed to admit that I think what I was feeling had more to do with envy than of not being able to empathize with a famous person sharing their story of mental illness. I’m envious that a celebrity has a much bigger platform than we do, and therefore when they share their stories they immediately garner a TON more attention than we’ve seen for all the hard work our organization has done over the past three years.

One of my favorite writers once wrote about envy, and I found myself re-reading her words today. Glennon reminded me today that: Envy is just unexpressed admiration. It’s respect holding its breath.

I constantly need to remind myself that we need to focus on the important work we do and that when the time is right, I’m confident our organization will attract the attention of national media. In fact, it may begin happening sooner than we thought.

This is my life’s work now, this work of storytelling. My organization encourages individuals to share their stories to end the stigma. I have no right to say that a celebrity sharing her story is any less impactful than a member of my own community.

Kristen, blog reader Jill, and anyone else I may have offended from my post yesterday, please accept my apology. Thank you to all who join us in the effort to end stigma, celebrity or not.

Clarity. We all need to talk about mental illness, celebrity or not.

On relating to Kristen Bell’s mental illness disclosure

Last week Kristen Bell became the latest Hollywood star to mention that she’s not ashamed for taking medication for her anxiety and depression, and the news of her mental illness disclosure went viral. I’m grateful she used her fame to bring awareness to an issue that touches so many of us, but at the same time felt like I couldn’t quite relate, even though I’ve been affected by the same disorders.

Listen, I’m all for celebrities sharing their stories. They have platforms much, MUCH, bigger than mine, and the more people who open up, the better. The more attention we can draw to the cause, the better. The more we normalize mental illness, the better.

I guess I just can’t really relate to a celebrity. I’ve never met one myself, although I’d imagine most of them are down to earth. They are human, too, after all. Albeit humans with seemingly endless streams of money, and access to practically any doctor they would ever need to see. They experience mental illness the same way the rest of the population does, only with privilege. Many of them receive the proper diagnosis, effective treatment, and manage their conditions successfully.

On the flip side, no matter how much wealth and access to care they have, some we lose to suicide, like Robin Williams.

Now let me back up for a moment and acknowledge the fact that when I experienced my most serious battles with my mental illness, it was partially my privilege which allowed me to be able to get well. I recognize this.

What I’m trying to say is that to me, when a celebrity goes on camera and talks about having gone through a mental health issue, it’s not nearly as impactful as when regular people I meet through my advocacy work share their stories. It’s also not the same as a celebrity figure who has made a commitment to fighting the stigma surrounding mental illness by continually sharing her story – the way Demi Lovato has. There’s a big difference between mentioning the fact that you take medication for anxiety and depression, and making it part of your purpose in life to educate people.

Also, last time I checked Psychologists weren’t licensed to prescribe medication.

When I started this blog my goal was to simply inspire one person not to give up. To let her know that there is life after a mental illness diagnosis and multiple psychiatric hospitalizations. That the months spent crying and sleeping and barely eating because you’re so nauseous even the thought of toast turns your stomach, that all those months and maybe even years spent suffering could come to an end.

I truly believe finding other people’s stories online helped me to find my recovery path. Which is why when I found the right time to begin writing out my own story, I went for it. I knew that being anonymous wasn’t the answer. But at the time I felt a responsibility to my family when making the decision on whether or not to use my real name in my writing. My disclosure would affect them, too, after all.

Then, after eighteen months of blogging, I reached a point where my anonymous writing had reeled in a regular paid blogging gig for WhatToExpect.com, and I wasn’t willing to go on without receiving recognition for my work. I wanted to do my part to stand up to stigma, and I knew the best way to do that was come out of the closet about my mental illness. So I did.

And none of my fears came true. The fear of losing friends, of being discriminated upon, of being looked down upon. None. Instead, the response was the complete opposite.

Which is why I am such a strong believer in the power of storytelling. Yes, I come from privilege. But in our This Is My Brave shows there are plenty of people who have come forward to share their stories and they didn’t have the same access to care that I did. They still made it out of the darkness. Their stories are extraordinary.

The power behind sharing our stories lies in the ability to comfort others. In our country alone, one in five adults is living with a diagnosable mental illness. We are all affected by it, whether we realize this or not. Mental illness is mostly invisible, and because of both internal and external stigma, and the fear it instills in people, those suffering often times do not reach out for help. They feel isolated, like they are the only one who has ever dealt with that condition.

It’s not true. When we share our stories openly, people suffering in silence realize they are not alone. And they see that if someone like them was able to get well, they can too.

Which brings me back to my point about celebrities. Celebrities are people just like you and me. They’re human. But given the world they live in, my guess is that it’s hard for an average American to relate to their stories.

I urge you to visit our This Is My Brave YouTube Channel where you can view over 100 true, personal stories of overcoming mental illness from regular, everyday people. Teachers, students, small business owners, stay-at-home-moms, community service workers, and the list goes on.

This month, for Mental Health Awareness Month, we have five all-new This Is My Brave shows on the schedule. Our Greenville, South Carolina show was this past Thursday night and it was incredible. Our Iowa City show is this coming Friday night, the third annual DC-area show is this Sunday. And finishing out the month on the same date, May 19th, are our Chicagoland and Denver shows. All our new shows will be added to our YouTube channel this summer.

Deciding to share your own struggle with mental illness is a personal choice. It’s This Is My Brave’s goal to inspire people to #LiveBrave which means when you’re ready, and you find the right opportunity to share your experience with someone, whether privately or publicly, you will. Your ability to be brave will give the other person the comfort and solace they need to feel understood. We’ve seen it happen through our guest bloggers and our live show presentations. It’s life-changing and extremely powerful.

Whether you get that feeling from a celebrity talking about her experience, or someone you know and love in your life, the point is that together we can dissolve the stigma surrounding mental illness by sharing our stories.

LiveBraveIf you decide to #LiveBrave with us, we’ve designed an overlay you can add to your Facebook profile pic and Twitter profile pic. It’s easy, simply follow the instructions here: http://twibbon.com/support/live-brave

 

Being Known as Bipolar Mom

Bipolar MomSummer Beach Trip, August 2014

Back when I started my blog three years ago, I guess I had the right idea when it came to choosing a name. It was me in that moment. I was a mom with bipolar, and I wanted a website where other moms with bipolar and other mental illnesses would land. And regular people, too, for that matter. I wanted my site to show up in search results. I was determined to get my story out there to help others who were going through similar experiences. Determined to make an impact, no matter how small. My heart told me that if I could reach people through my writing, I could help change the way people viewed mental illness in our society.

I knew in the back of my mind that I was so much more than my illness, but I needed a platform. So I built it, giving it the most obvious name. I set out on a quest and had no idea where it would lead me.

My words appeared anonymously at first, I had to test the waters. I wrote just words and only shared photos where faces weren’t recognizable to protect our privacy. But blogging behind a mask felt disingenuous and a bit like I was hiding something. It didn’t take long for me to realize my story was one I needed to tell with my real name. I wasn’t ashamed of the fact I had an illness in my brain. I deserved to have a voice, an authentic one, and I was ready to share my real life through not only my stories, but also through real photos of me and my family.

You see, until we put a face on mental illness, the face of a person who has learned to manage their illness so that the illness doesn’t control them, society will continue to stigmatize those who live with mental health disorders because they don’t understand. They don’t understand what we go through on a daily basis, they don’t understand how hard we fight to educate ourselves on the best medicines and treatments for our conditions, and they don’t understand how to support a person who is struggling with a mental illness. They fear what they don’t know. They don’t know it’s possible for a person with a mental illness to fully recover and live a beautiful, productive, successful life.

We can begin to change this ignorance by simply being open. By sharing our story when we have the opportunity. By letting go of the shame and embarrassment we inherited when we were diagnosed. And by not being afraid of being treated differently because of having a mental illness, but instead looking at it as a chance to educate someone and make a difference.

These days when Mary Lambert’s song Secrets comes on the radio, me and my kids sing it loud and proud. It’s no longer a secret that I live with bipolar disorder. I am sometimes recognized as “Bipolar Mom” when at networking events and I’m okay with this. I am a mom with bipolar disorder and my mental illness allowed me to become an advocate. I’ve rediscovered my love of writing and my blog guided me to create This Is My Brave with my creative partner, Anne Marie Ames, providing a platform and community for others living with mental illness to do what I’ve done.

I couldn’t imagine life any other way.  Happy Mental Illness Awareness Week, friends.

Today is National Depression Screening Day. Do yourself a favor and spend 2 minutes taking an online assessment of your mental health.

 

#TBT – A Much Needed Vacation

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The other night as we were getting ready for bed I complained of my lack of writing lately to my husband.

“I just feel so disconnected from my illness. Like I haven’t been experiencing any symptoms so how can I write authentically on my blog?” I whined.

He smiled at me. “That’s a good thing.”

I’m not arguing that a lack of symptoms is anything but wonderful. These past four years I’ve felt better than I ever have. At about year five was when I crossed over to the point of understanding why my body did the things it did, and what I needed to do in order to control my illness lest it control me.

Don’t get me wrong, I have plenty of scars from where I’ve been. I especially remember the emotional rips to my heart from the stigma I feared in talking about what I was going through early on.

I wasn’t the only person affected this way by my illness.

Less than two months after my first two episodes and the hospitalizations that followed, Ben and I found ourselves in a tropical paradise. That fall we had booked a romantic February vacation to celebrate our birthdays and Valentine’s day. I spent months researching bed & breakfast spots on the island before settling on one that looked absolutely breathtaking, cozy and perfect.

I still can’t believe I made it through the trip.

The sunsets were magical and sitting across from this man who had cared for me so lovingly brought me to tears almost every night. Even though I was desperate to talk about what had happened to me, to try to figure out why my brain got so screwed up, we couldn’t. It was too soon. It hurt too much to revisit those excruciating moments so soon after we had managed to pull through.

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Our B&B host was welcoming and sweet, and I would have loved to have chatted with her if I would have been able to make it through three sentences before getting choked up. I could barely tell her how much I enjoyed her homemade breakfast let alone tell her how special this trip was to us, how we both needed the relaxation the island was providing more than she’d ever know. It was as if my story was caught in my throat. But why wouldn’t it be? It was so raw and I hadn’t yet been able to process everything that had happened so no wonder my words got stuck and jumbled. It was easier to let the tears speak for me.

My love. He must have been so scared of what was ahead of us. Would I recover? Would I ever be the same woman he fell in love with? Would he be able to hold on to our marriage until I was able to pull myself out of the fog I was sinking into?

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{After I snapped this picture, Ben came face-to-face with a barracuda when he was snorkling!}

People often write to me and ask how I was able to make it. They look at my highlight reel and wonder how I make it look so effortless. But the photos of today don’t reflect the pain and suffering of eight and a half years ago. If you look closely at pictures from 2006, my eyes show the trauma. My feelings may have been bottled-up back then, but photos can’t lie. My smile isn’t as bright and true. My eyes are distant, cold, afraid of the future.

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The future keeps coming. And now I find myself here, ready for what is lies ahead still. But I haven’t done it alone, that’s for sure. My partner honored his vows and stayed by my side, cheering me on each and every day. Through the days when I said I didn’t think I wanted to go on anymore. Through the days when I doubted whether we’d ever have a family. Through the days when I fell asleep crying for it to be over, for the clouds to make way for the sun again in my life.

The sun came back. And although I know that it will come and go at times in my life, I hold on to the past as a reminder of how far I’ve come and how grateful I am for the life I have today.