How I Met Mental Illness

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“Mental illness? Me? No, I’ve never encountered that…” At the time we first took in my nieces as foster kids nine years ago, and began our journey of learning about trauma and severe mental illness, I think I would have told you that I didn’t really have any personal experience with mental illness. It was just a sad or scary thing that happened to other people.

I thought mental illness was a sad or scary thing that happened to other people.

I’ve been doing a lot of reflecting in preparation for a keynote talk I’m preparing, and I’ve realized that in fact before the girls ever came to us, I had already had several encounters with mental illness in my life, scary, sad or frustrating encounters that had written themselves into my heart without really registering as such in my memory.

Moments like:

  • The odd, strange, and then scary little girl at my first sleep-away camp, an 8- or 9-year-old girl who didn’t fit in, who heard things we could not hear, ran away from the counselors and then tried to hurt people.
  • The trauma of the timid little girl in my sixth grade class who showed up to school with the rope marks of her father’s anger on her neck.
  • The shock and fear of an angry punch thrown at my father’s face, a punch that broke his glasses and his heart as my father saw the uncomprehending madness and hate in the eyes of his childhood best friend, whom we’d stopped by to visit on a vacation.
  • My own little brother, born with severe ADHD and later plagued by anxiety and symptoms of OCD, possibly caused by witnessing another child’s abuse by a Scout leader; and the broken young girl with whom he would fall in love, a childhood victim of chronic abuse who would leave my brother for her children’s abuser.
  • A high school friend, a boy whose mother was an alcoholic, a boy who used needles and matches to write his hidden pain on his arms and hands, who openly self-harmed before we knew what that was, or why we should be concerned.
  • The bright, handsome, funny and sensitive brother of another high school friend (a pretty great guy whom I would later marry), lost to schizophrenia and suicide before I ever had the chance to meet him.
  • A college roommate who struggled with incapacitating depression that prevented her from even packing her things at the end of the school year.
  • My own lifelong best friend who struggles with ongoing bouts of depression that have flattened her spirit and frustrated me at my own helplessness to help.

The truth is we’ve all probably had similar encounters with mental illness, moments that may have left us afraid, confused, or feeling helpless.

I have found, however, that when we learn to approach those moments with love, dignity, simple skills and awareness, we can turn them into lifegiving moments that can nurture others and leave us feeling more competent and loving.

That’s why I’m so excited about our upcoming annual regional Shattering Stigma conference, in which we’ll be talking about tough subjects like porn and sex addiction, PTSD, bipolar disorder and anxiety disorders, as well as learning new skills in mindfulness that we can ALL use everyday.
So how about you? When did you first meet mental illness?

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