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

 

Remembering This Is My Brave’s beginning

Remembering the BeginningI’ve been neglecting my little, teeny corner of the Internet. Not because I haven’t thought about blogging, it’s that making the time has been a challenge lately. But after yesterday’s This Is My Brave (year 3!!) Cast party, I felt drawn back to this space. My favorite mug within arm’s reach, emblazoned with my favorite photo of our inaugural cast, full of steaming hot peach tea. Headphones plugged into my laptop, the rhymes of Ed Sheeran keep me company as I click a button to Add New Post.

This is where it all started.

It started with a decision to tell my story nearly five years ago. Even if I told it without my name attached, I still made the choice to write about my experience living with bipolar disorder. I typed out the trauma of succumbing to two manic episodes in one month. I wrote about things like exercise and journaling that were helpful to me in finding a path to recovery amid the chaos of receiving a diagnosis.

IMG_3985I remember contemplating that I would name the blog, before those posts were even published, eventually settling on “Bipolar Mom Life” because I wanted to be searchable.

I remember feeling the wave of mental health advocacy begin to swell. I wanted to climb on, to be part of the monumental tidal wave of brave individuals who were working to drown stigma through their openness. So I grabbed my proverbial surfboard and started paddling.

Years of writing several posts a week, then writing for other websites, to landing my first paid writing gig. One thing led to another and then to another. This little blog became the catalyst for something I dreamt about but would never fully appreciate until it actually happened.

So, how did it happen? This Is My Brave has become what it is today because of the support that has emerged from the shadows. Friends, neighbors, co-workers, strangers. So many people ready to put their silence behind them. From extreme darkness comes the brightest lights, we’ve seen it time and time again through our shows. Our trials, trauma, and pain have taught us we are stronger than our struggles. We are compassionate souls, brave because we want to impact change. This Is My Brave is alive because in our communities everywhere live storytellers who aren’t afraid to show their scars.

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We only had to provide the opportunity for them to share.

I may have made the decision to start a blog, but This Is My Brave wouldn’t have ever taken off if it weren’t for people believing in its mission, to end the stigma surrounding mental illness by sharing our true, personal stories through poetry, music and essay, and stepping up onto the stage.

Our stories are coming together in a huge tsunami which is threatening to drown out the concept of stigma all together.

I may have had my doubts that this project would be able to make the impact I hoped it would, but those insecurities have been silenced. Every single time we put the call out for storytellers they bring it. Our job of casting becomes harder each year.

IMG_3998Through vivid imagery you feel their hearts bleed out onto the pages. You also learn how they made it through the minefield of mental illness. Their resilience warms your heart and in the end you’re glowing with pride for everything they’ve become. And that they’ve decided to selflessly share their strength with the world. This is the magic of This Is My Brave.

I hope you’ll come see a show this May. We’ll be in Greenville, South Carolina; Iowa City, Iowa; Arlington, Virginia; Denver, Colorado; and Valparaiso, Indiana. Tickets are on sale now.

Come and #LiveBrave with us.

Touched With Fire: a movie about bipolar’s mania

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When I received an email recently with an invitation from Mental Health America to attend a free screening of Touched With Fire a new film about bipolar disorder starring Katie Holmes and Luke Kirby, I RSVP’d immediately. It fascinates me to view my illness through the eyes of another person touched by this diagnosis. And this film was written, music composed and was directed by a man who lives with bipolar illness.

Screen Shot 2016-02-05 at 11.37.54 PMFilmmaker Paul Dalio was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at the age of 24, and like me, struggled to accept the label. He said he romanticized the mania, pointing to famous poets and writers who shared the condition. He’s developed a strong sense of pride and I could wholeheartedly relate. It seems his experience over the years has led him to a place I find myself in now: able to live in harmony with bipolar, with a loving family and a full life.

Touched With Fire screening attended by This Is My Brave

{from left, David, Annie, Leigh and I at the advanced screening of Touched With Fire starring Katie Holmes and Luke Kirby}

Several of my volunteers and one of our new This Is My Brave interns joined me at the screening. We all were impressed by the film, it’s ability to express the artistic side of the disease, how family members struggle with how to help or walk away, and what happens when one refuses to comply with medications and treatment.

Plus, it’s a love story. That was probably my favorite part about the movie. And it has a great ending.

I did have a concern as I reflected back on the scenes and the dialogue though. So many moments brought me back to my initial diagnosis and the years that followed.

Like when my parents kept referring to what was happening to me as “episodes” which made me feel so broken. 

And when I questioned whether I even had bipolar disorder. I didn’t think I needed the meds.

And the times I went off my meds (to protect my unborn babies) only to end up manic and hospitalized within a week both times. 

I worry that the film will be dangerous to those who are not in a solid place of recovery. It’s been ten years since I’ve been diagnosed. Coming up on six years since I’ve had a manic episode requiring hospitalization. I’m at a place where I know that I will never go off my meds. I know what my triggers are and I know how to manage them. I take such better care of my body and my mind compared to where I was back when I was still learning to understand my condition.

{Q&A panel discussion following the screening, from left: Debbie Plotnik (MHA), Paul Dalio, Dr. Kay Jamison, Paul Gionfriddo (MHA President), Luke Kirby}

{Q&A panel discussion following the screening, from left: Debbie Plotnik (MHA), Paul Dalio, Dr. Kay Jamison, Paul Gionfriddo (MHA President), Luke Kirby}

Someone who is early in their recovery journey may be tempted by the film to get rid of meds, to go back to life before being medicated because they were so much more artistic (not true). Paul, the filmmaker, even commented on the fact that he’s so much more able to utilize his creativity to attain his goals and dreams being on medication and stable. Something that Dr. Kay Jamison taught him when they met and she became a mentor to him, a connection made possible by his own psychiatrist.

Speaking of Dr. Jamison, she makes a cameo in the movie and I got to say hello to her after the screening and Q & A. I told her how much I admired her work and how I attended one of her book signings in 2007 and asked her about pregnancy and medication. Her advice to me was to stay on my meds, which I did not heed and learned my lesson the hard way. She was very glad to know of the work This Is My Brave is doing and I’m hopeful she’ll be able to attend a local show in the near future.

{David, me, Dr. Kay Jamison, and Annie after the Q & A following the screening of Touched With Fire}

{David, me, Dr. Kay Jamison, and Annie after the Q & A following the screening of Touched With Fire}

You never know how someone will respond when you put your story out there, when you put your art out into the world. Paul has taken a risk that was no doubt worth taking. My hope is that the film will not live up to my concerns, but instead serve as a springboard for important conversations surrounding mental illness and mental health that need to be taking place in communities everywhere.

The film opens tomorrow, February 12th in New York City and Los Angeles, and on February 19th nationwide in select cities. You can watch a trailer of the film HERE. This Is My Brave is hosting a Meetup for anyone in the DC-metro area who would like to come together to support the film’s opening weekend. Click here to sign up to meet us on Friday at the Angelika Film Center in Fairfax for the 7pm-ish showing.

A Weekend At Home

This is going to be a long, boring post. Bear with me. I feel the need to justify my blogging absence by writing it all out. If only for myself.

It’s been a busy couple of months in our household. At the end of August, Ben and I celebrated our 12th wedding anniversary surrounded by our friends and family. It just happened to coincide perfectly with the summer house concert we had booked with independent artist and now friend of ours, Shannon Curtis. The evening was the perfect way to mark our special day. Shannon’s music was simply beautiful and she played under the big oak tree next to our house while the crickets chirped and the lights that Ben strung twinkled. My only regret is not taking more pictures, but I am glad I remembered to stay present and in the moment. It was a magical night to remember.

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The kids started school in the weeks that followed and I was busy helping our New York City team prep for their October show. The first weekend in September, my brother and I surprised my mom in Florida for her 65th Birthday. The look on her face was priceless when we both walked in the door, but lucky for her I decided not to Periscope or even photograph the surprise since she was still in her pajamas. You’re welcome, mom. Instead we have a photo of us wearing bibs. I loved getting to see my Grandma, too, since I hadn’t seen her since February which felt like so long ago.

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The second weekend in September Wear Your Label, a conscious clothing company out of Canada, invited me to emcee their fashion show at New York Fashion Week in New York City. The timing couldn’t have been better, since that was the same weekend our New York City cast was getting together for the first time and I was able to attend and meet everyone. It was an awesome {albeit fast-paced} weekend. I loved meeting Kaylee and Kyle {the Co-Founders of Wear Your Label} and look forward to working with them in the future on another mental health awareness event.

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The third weekend of September was the Northern Virginia NAMI {National Alliance on Mental Illness} walk. Anne Marie and I hosted a This Is My Brave table and got to talk with lots of attendees about our organization and what we do. We sold a bunch of Brave tees and brave beads, and our cast member Laurie was there to help us and catch up. The weather couldn’t have been more beautiful, to top it off.

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The last weekend of September I was invited to the DBSA {Depression Bipolar Support Alliance} annual conference in Chicago to present during the Peer Showcase night, the first evening of the conference. I was joined by Canadian comedian David Granier of Stand Up for Mental Health, and my friend, singer/songwriter Shannon Curtis. We kicked off the conference with storytelling, comedy and music, and everyone had a lovely evening. The weekend was full of incredible speakers: Dese’Rae Stage of Live Thru This, Mariel Hemingway, and Andrew Solomon. I met so many amazing, like-minded people, and I felt at home.

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Just this past weekend, on October 4th, This Is My Brave had our first show in New York City. I can’t even begin to describe how proud I am of our cast and production team. I was beaming from the moment the curtain went up until I closed my eyes to fall asleep that night, exhausted with the joy of what they had accomplished.

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My parents flew in from Florida to spend the weekend with me and see the show. Despite the threats from Hurricane Joaquin, we made it. We drove to Long Island on Friday to see my Uncle Marty and his partner Ralph, and had a great time catching up with them before heading into the city on Saturday. I was able to attend the second half of rehearsal on Saturday, and then spent the rest of the day and evening getting last-minute details ready for the show. Sunday morning, my dad and I went to the Today Show with signs to try to get some free publicity. The show touched me on so many levels and I loved seeing and hearing how the event impacted all who attended. Monday was my dad’s birthday, and I am so thankful I got to celebrate it with him and my mom over a lovely dinner after the show. Living over a thousand miles apart makes me so grateful for the moments we get to spend together.

This weekend I was supposed to host a table at the AFSP {American Foundation for Suicide Prevention – there will be a quiz on all the mental health organization acronyms at the end!} community walk in DC, but after being in DC on Friday for the International Bipolar Foundation breakfast, I knew I needed a day off. That, and realizing the tornado inside of our house was screaming to be tamed, I made the decision to take this weekend to re-group, clean and spend time at home with my family.

I spent yesterday attacking one room at a time with a duster, the vacuum, and the desire to give everyone a fresh, clean start as we tumble into autumn. As I cleaned, I listened to Jenny Lawson’s new book, Furiously Happy, and found myself having to stop what I was doing and tweet out quotes it was so good. It made me want to get serious about writing my own memoir about living with bipolar, which is something I desperately want to do someday. But at the moment my focus is on This Is My Brave, our seventh and final show of this year {LA’s book launch event for Amy Ferris’ Shades of Blue on November 19th! Details coming this week!} and planning for 2016.

I’m not going to lie. These past few months have been exhausting. But at the same time, they are what fill me up. It’s hard to be away from my family, but I return to them more complete. It’s an unbelievable feeling to know in your heart that you’ve found your life’s calling, and I don’t take it for granted. Whenever someone tells me how much my work touches them and it’s so wonderful I’m helping so many people, I am overwhelmed. All I ever wanted to do was encourage people to be open and share their stories. It’s only because people believed in me that this work is able to touch so many. I am so grateful people had confidence in my vision.

I can’t help but let my insecurities creep in from time to time. Typically when I hear about a suicide or that someone I know is struggling with their own mental health. I feel so helpless, even though I’ve battled similar demons. Why can’t I find the right words? Why can’t I be a better friend? Why can’t I make a bigger difference, help more people, stop the suffering?

I know it has to do with the issue of being enough and accepting that I am enough, and these are things I’m working on. This is not a plea for pity or praise. I’m just putting it out there because I want to be real, and I want my readers to know that I still have plenty of things I’m working on. Just because I’ve found stability with my mental health doesn’t mean my life is perfect. If only it were that easy. Anne Marie reminds me nearly every week that we’ve accomplished a great deal in our first two years, and I know she is right. I know that I want This Is My Brave to grow slowly and sustainably, staying true to our mission of ending stigma through storytelling, which is exactly what we’re doing.

Thank you to everyone who has supported me on this journey, especially my husband, parents and in-laws who are always willing to jump in and help with the kids so that I can attend meetings, conferences, and special events. I wouldn’t be on this journey if it weren’t for my friends cheering me on, my readers continuously reaching out to tell me how much they appreciate me being open about my story, and my growing This Is My Brave family for contributing to this dream. Sometimes it doesn’t feel real, like when I saw myself on the cover of Bipolar Hope Magazine this week. I am full of gratitude for this life.

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Happy Holiday weekend, friends. Thanks for being on this journey with me.