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Stigma Fighters: Joseph McBride

Tennessee Williams said a writer should never be embarrassed. That great playwright’s nakedly honest writing is filled with painful truths about human nature, drawn from his own experiences, observations, and relentless self-scrutiny. I took his words as inspiration during the many difficult times in writing my recently published memoir The Broken Places. Once I made the decision to be open about my physical and mental breakdown as a teenager in the 1960s, and the abuse that preceded it, I had taken the first step toward healing those wounds. But it was hard to keep confronting them and to overcome the social stigma that surrounds mental illness. Although we have made considerable progress in diminishing that stigma, it still exists and remains a barrier for many people who need help and are afraid to be open about their problems.

A stigma is defined as “a set of negative and often unfair beliefs that a society or group of people have about something.” We’ve made some progress from the days when it was considered socially acceptable to publicly label people as “nuts” or “crazy” and to view mental illness as a moral failing, much as alcoholism and drug addiction usually were regarded. But we haven’t come far enough. In many ways, such language has simply been massaged to make it sound less harsh. Society often views psychologically troubled people as objects to be shunned, mocked, or treated with condescension. We are much more aware of and empathetic toward people who suffer from development disabilities — such as autism, dyslexia, and ADHD — and we have learned not to blame abused people for the abuse they suffer. When I realized in 2000 that many of my early troubles probably had stemmed from a borderline case of Asperger’s syndrome, I was relieved and somewhat delighted; it’s almost become fashionable today to have that condition, and it made me feel less alone. But the primitive fear of “losing one’s mind” still leads us to stereotype people with various degrees of psychological disturbance.

My institutionalization in a mental hospital for four months during my senior year at Milwaukee’s Marquette University High School in 1965 followed years of family dysfunction, physical and psychological abuse in schools, and damaging sexual repression. My sexual guilt was tearing me apart as my adolescent body grew toward manhood in that puritanical period just before the Sexual Revolution. Having a breakdown was the best thing that ever happened to me: It enabled me to get out of the house, school, and the Catholic Church, and it was the only way I could meet a girl. In the hospital I met a teenager named Kathy Wolf, who was half Native American and half Irish. She was brilliant but even more troubled than I was. She saved me by opening me up to a freer, more relaxed way of looking at life. The sad part was that while I was getting better, she was getting worse. Kathy, who had family problems and conflicts over her cultural identity, as well as undiagnosed physiological problems with her brain, had been vaguely stigmatized for years as “schizophrenic”; she was overmedicated and subjected to shock treatment. She was sexually abused by her psychiatrist (unfortunately not an uncommon occurrence in those days) and fired by an employer who learned of her psychological problems. That sent her into a downward spiral that ended in suicide.

When I was in the hospital, I received a letter from a friend of my mother’s I barely knew. I didn’t fully understand the wisdom of his advice then, but it has meant a lot to me over the years. Marty Parnelli wrote me about my incarceration, “Perhaps strangely to you, I think it is a great grace. There are two immediate benefits: (1) Until one is isolated from the nuts who roam the streets he tends to look upon these nuts as being perfectly sane. When you leave the hospital you will have the advantage of being able to recognize which of your fellow men have been so unlucky as not to have experienced what you are now going through. (2) The fact of psychotherapy is a fantastic stroke of good fortune. The ultimate good of this present situation is that, like a man who knows he has a heart condition and who is not likely to drop dead of a heart attack because he knows how to take care of himself, so do you have a greater chance of living a more happy life than would otherwise be likely.”

Without the good fortune of cracking up, I would have spent many years, perhaps my whole life, repeating the self-destructive patterns of my youth. But as I went back out into the world after my release from the hospital and naturally tried to share my experiences with friends and family, I found that people didn’t want to hear about it. It made them uncomfortable, and when I expressed unorthodox viewpoints, as I am prone to do, I often felt myself being treated as a “nut” to be avoided. Marty had already warned me of this: “But before we get to the issue of ‘What do I do when I get out of here?,’ there is a more insidious and subtle question, namely, ‘What do people think who know about this now, and what will people think when they do find out about this?’ I don’t give a damn what they think. And neither should you. This is your life, and nobody else’s; and yet, the recognition that it is your life is one that you must come to yourself.”

Freud said the first step to mental health is realizing you have a problem. Many people never come to that realization, and so they are unable to get treatment and keep repeating their neurotic behavior. Even as I gradually came to recognize that I was largely responsible for my own wellbeing, some of the old patterns of behavior persisted. I had such anger over what I had been through with my parents, teachers, and classmates that I finally realized I had to perform a sustained form of self-psychoanalysis by writing about it. Doing so forced me to confront hard truths and dig deeply into my memories as well as challenging my parents and doing other research to piece the story together in a way that made it more understandable. I thought the process would be cathartic and therapeutic, and to some extent it has been, though I found that there is no such thing as “closure.” Now when I look back at those days, I see that troubled boy as someone I can look at from the outside, with dispassion and sympathy (if not “objectivity,” another chimerical word). That kind of dual perspective is what we gain from writing a memoir, or from undergoing psychotherapy with the right doctor.

I hoped my story would find an audience and, by sharing my experiences, strike a chord in others who have suffered. I have had many positive reactions from people who share similar experiences and express gratitude for being given a candid window onto psychological problems. That reward has been a long time coming — the writing process took decades, off and on, as I wrestled the manuscript into the form it needed — and there has been some negative feedback along the way. A few people have found such self-scrutiny a form of self-indulgence or self-pity and have expressed other ignorant reactions, mocking my sexual repression, making harsh judgments toward Kathy, or simply indicating they don’t want to hear such stories.

Most damaging over the years, perhaps, has been my own internalizing of such attitudes, which still persists to some extent. I have long felt a hypersensitivity to anyone applying such words as “crazy,” “nuts,” “paranoid,” etc., to something I say or do. Our society often puts such simplistic labels on things it doesn’t understand. And we all worry about how our friends, family, colleagues, and employers will react to us. I didn’t know how people would respond to my process of self-revelation in The Broken Places. Over the years I couldn’t help taking readers’ reactions to this project especially personally. Most of the early readers found the story gripping, but I had to draw another deep breath as publication approached. I am gratified that the response has been so positive, but that’s not the primary reason I write. As Marty Parnelli wisely put it, “I don’t give a damn what they think.”

Since 2000, I have been fortunate to live in the San Francisco Bay Area, which, as the world knows, is sort of the Ground Zero of liberalism. Much more so than in the previous places where I lived, Wisconsin and Southern California, people here tend to be tolerant and accepting. Oddity and nonconformity are seen as virtues rather than frightening aberrations. But nowhere is utopia; our supposed liberal attitudes have their limitations. We can see that in the disparities of wealth and the mistreatment of the often psychologically disturbed homeless people, classism and stigmatization are as present here as anywhere else. I wanted to get more of a sense of how well we manage to overcome stigmatization of the mentally ill and how much progress our culture in general has made in solving that problem. Since I don’t consider myself any kind of expert on that general topic, I asked a psychologist and a psychiatrist who work near me about how they view the subject.

Dr. Ruth O’Hara, a psychologist and associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University in Palo Alto, told me, “We are still educating the general public about the extent to which mental health reflects real brain changes. In the last twenty years there have been tremendous technological advances which have increased our understanding of mental health. Most mental health disorders are the result of brain dysfunction. For example, impairments to those parts of the brain that control decision-making and/or risk-taking are now believed to contribute to addictions and other behavioral health problems. Yet, as with asthma in decades past, there is a tendency for people to perceive mental health problems as simply emotional control problems rather than recognizing them as having a physiological basis. Mental health professionals and the field of psychiatry are trying to increase education so it’s better understood that mental health disorders are not always under people’s control. That doesn’t mean we should hold people less responsible for seeking treatment. But the ability to seek treatment is to some extent may be tied in with destigmatization. The current research on the brain may well ameliorate the kinds of stigmas and perceptions people have around mental health problems.”

Dr. Michelle Primeau is a psychiatrist who specializes in sleep medicine at the Sutter Health Palo Alto Medical Foundation and a consulting assistant professor at Stanford. She told me that despite the wealth of resources in the Bay Area, people often are still limited in finding treatment because some health insurance plans are inadequate for psychiatric treatment. Many doctors don’t accept certain health insurance plans, which causes some patients to be unable to find treatment or to have to pay themselves for private doctors. This results in what she calls a “tiered” approach to mental health care, favoring more affluent people (the same kind of problem that often causes less affluent people to receive a lesser quality of education). One way Dr. Primeau has found around this Catch-22, she said, is to provide psychiatric care under the umbrella of sleep medicine, because sleep and psychological problems often are interrelated, and insurance companies can be more willing to pay for treatment on that basis.

As for stigmatization hampering people’s ability to find treatment, Dr. Primeau said, “I definitely think stigma still persists. There still is a large amount of secrecy that persists in this area.” She noted that some students at Stanford ask her to refer them to doctors off-campus so no one will know they are being treated. Many people operate under a code of silence, not knowing how to talk about their or their families’ problems or fearing to do so. Some people worry that psychological treatment will go on their record, affecting their employment, even if that’s usually “a bit of irrational anxiety” because of privacy laws. Problems she sees that are particularly acute include the increased prevalence of post-traumatic stress disorder in our society, the pressures for high achievement in college and elsewhere, and an ongoing problem with a high rate of suicides among young people and veterans. Stigmas and silence only exacerbate these problems. Dr. Primeau agreed that education is needed so that people will break through the roadblocks surrounding mental health treatment, including overcoming the remaining social stigmas. As she puts it, “Maybe if you actually talk to someone else,” the fear surrounding such problems can be ameliorated.

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Joseph McBride lives in Berkeley and is a professor in the Cinema Department at San Francisco State University. He has published eighteen books, including biographies of Frank Capra, John Ford, and Steven Spielberg; and three books on Orson Welles. His website for his 2015 memoir The Broken Places is thebrokenplaces.info.

Joseph can be found on his website.

Abbie-Zebrowski

Stigma Fighters: Abbie Zebrowski

Beautifully Broken

“The hardest challenge is to be yourself in a world where everyone is trying to make you be somebody else.”
E.E. Cummings

I remember feeling different when I started third grade, as though there was an impenetrable glass wall between myself and my peers. I could see them, I could hear them, but I could not relate to them. Kids don’t handle ‘different’ well and they were not kind to me. I was sensitive and became an easy target. Little did I know this was just the beginning of a lifelong battle between what was considered ‘normal’ and how my brain works.

I have struggled relating with others my whole life, but it wasn’t until high school that I began to understand why. When I was about sixteen years old I was diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder. I was officially different – certifiably different – from everyone else I knew. The diagnosis was a stepping stone to understanding it; though I couldn’t really comprehend it at the time, those three words were (and are) the reason behind my struggles.

I wish it on no one and wonder what my life might be like if my brain produced the proper chemicals, yet I cannot dwell upon such fairy tales. Depression has shaped every curve, every groove, every move and choice of my life’s journey. Depression does not define me but depression is a large part of me. To deny that fact would be to deny that I need oxygen to breathe. It is the passion that feeds my creative soul and it is the weight that holds me in the darkest of nights.

The depths of my lows are deeper than any sadness, which is more intense than anything you could imagine. It is beyond sadness. It is feeling as though there will never be light again, like the sun will never rise and there is no moon or stars in the sky. It is nothingness, complete emptiness – like trying to fill a bottomless glass.

I fought my diagnosis in the beginning. I was what the psychiatric community calls ‘non-compliant’ because I did not understand why I had to take a pill to be happy. None of my friends or family needed a pill to feel happiness, so why should I? It made me angry. Being different was not popular, fitting in was all I wanted – and I wanted it desperately. I did not understand that my brain and body was, when it came down to it, broken. So I would take the meds sporadically, not realizing this only made my condition worse. My life was, and to some extent still is, a constant emotional roller-coaster; a ride from which I will never be able to disembark.

Attempting to manage depression is a defeating, numbing, and terrifying experience. While there are a multitude of psychotropic medications on the market, there is very little science to determine which medication will work for a specific individual. I refer to it as the ‘medication game’, wherein psychiatrists take an educated guess based on a patient’s diagnosis and then throw medications into the mix to see if they will alleviate the symptoms. More often than not, medications must be changed multiple times before the right ‘cocktail’ is found and the side effects can be worse than the original symptoms of the disease.

I have reached partial remission once. It lasted almost three years before my sanity started slipping away like sand between my fingers – slowly at first, and then as I tried to hold on tighter it slipped more rapidly away. I was hopeful that a slight tweak in the meds would save me, but it did the opposite. I was suicidal within a week. It has taken two years of playing the medication game, as well as trying Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation therapy, and finally a DNA test to determine which medications my body can actually metabolize, before finding medications that are starting to work.

The rest of the world may think I’m crazy because they don’t know what it’s like to fight for their sanity. My body tries to break me but I am unstoppable. My mind is both my worst enemy and my only hope. Depression swims through my blood, giving life to my words, like the marrow in my bones gives life to my body. This disease will never defeat me. Each broken piece of me is fucking beautiful. Even at my weakest, I am strong, for I am still here, breathing – the evidence of strength is in every additional beat of my heart.

Here’s the craziest part of my whole story… I attended and graduated from college with a bachelor’s degree. I met an amazing man I married and live with happily. I am a well-adjusted member of our society and an advocate, not only for myself, but for all people with mental health issues. I am a SUCCESS, by the world’s terms, except somehow, having a mental illness negates every shred of it. The world defines me by my illness, in spite of everything I’ve accomplished.

Depression does not define me, but it is a large part of who I am. As much as I despise the disease, I love who I am and I wouldn’t change that – even if the rest of the world would.

And dammit, I AM a success.

Abbie-ZebrowskiAbbie Zebrowski is a published writer and poet who creates with passion and conviction. She doesn’t shy away from the truth and often writes about her personal journey with depression and anxiety. Abbie is a fierce mental health advocate determined to promote awareness and fight stigmas, which inspired her to start the mental health resource, Depression: Catalyst for Change.

Connect with Abbie on Sidereal Catalyst, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest.

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Stigma Fighters: Rose Lockinger

I struggled with an all or nothing mentality for a long time starting in my teens. I was either obsessed with something or had no interest in it whatsoever. I was was either happy or sad. I had no middle ground. The line that separated these ideas was thin leaving little room for the gray areas of life; it was either black or white, on or off. I lived for many years stuck in this hell of black and white thinking, I was alienated and alone. I learned later that this is a common in many who struggle with addiction, depression and PTSD. I learned that there was a strong link between my addiction and PTSD that was a core component of my I turned to food, drugs and alcohol to cope with life. I also learned that I could change this way of thinking.

Looking back I believe the polarization of my thinking was the result of trauma it reflected where I had stopped growing emotionally. It was so much easier to think in black or white, it was either right or wrong. Thinking this way did not require me to evaluate the situation and put myself in others shoes. It made for a very rigid life with little or no fluidity. I was a very closed minded person terrified of new ideas or experiences, but in a sense it also was a way of protecting myself of keeping myself safe. I had created a bubble that was my own personal hell but safe from the world, or at least that was what I thought.

This approach left no room for debate, and anytime that something did not fit in my with my beliefs, they were relegated to the “that’s wrong pile” and discarded. This was necessary in order for me to continue to actively drink and drug, and operate with my eating disorder. My diseases had to shield themselves from outside influences that may have interfered with their continuation and so I developed a black and white worldview which made it easier for me to justify my actions.

This black and white thinking continued until I hit bottom and attempted to get sober. The act of hitting bottom shook my constructed beliefs to their very core and for the first time in my life I was faced with the fact that I may not know everything. I had what some may call a moment of clarity and in that moment I realized that my best thinking and best efforts had gotten me to a point where I was hopeless addicted to drugs and alcohol and had essentially ruined my life. This was the beginning of the decline of my black and white thinking and the beginning of the rise of open-mindedness.

Open-mindedness is one of the essentials of recovery and the reason for this is that many of us relied solely on our own thinking and beliefs for far too long. We couldn’t see past our own thoughts and what’s worse is that many of us didn’t even realize that our thoughts and beliefs were extremely flawed, created only to propagate the continuation of a disease that wanted us dead. In order to overcome this we had to leave behind our old black and white way of viewing things and move towards a more open-minded worldview.

This was not easy for me at first and in fact everything in me rebelled against it. I wanted to believe in something to have hope again and the 12 steps offered that. Luckily drugs and alcohol are a great motivator for change and even though my mind rebelled against doing things differently, I knew that it was necessary. I knew that if I continued to keep my mind closed to new ideas I would continue to get the same results that I always had, and I didn’t want that to happen.

Breaking out of my black and white way of thinking began with doing little things like listening to my sponsor. Before getting sober I was open to people’s advice but I never had the motivation to follow through with it. That was the key to reaching a breaking point I finally realized that I had to change there were no more excuses. I started to do things like call my sponsor everyday, even though at the time I didn’t know why I had to do this, although I did find that there was a definite sense of relief after talking to her. I started to realize that when I talked about what was going on in my life with someone else even if they had no feedback saying it aloud changes my perspective. Part of the problem of with depression, addiction, PTSD is that you are a prisoner in your mind. You are so afraid to reach out and let others know what is going on. You’re terrified that if you do they will think you are crazy. I began to realize that opening up to my sponsor and therapist started to give me insight that although my thoughts were not always grounded in reality they were not crazy per se. I began to take her other suggestions as well, like reading the book and working the Steps.

My life slowly began to change for the better and I finally began to see that other people might know what they were talking about. It was a great feeling because I no longer felt like the weight of the world was on my shoulders, that I was not all alone in this process. Learning to trust other people, and their thoughts and ideas, revolutionized my own way of thinking and I actually became more comfortable living in the gray then in the black and white.

I think one of the main points of contention, and place where many addicts and alcoholics see the world in a very black and white manner, is in relation to God. For many us before getting sober we could only see a God of religion and because of this our views were you either believed the fable of a religious God who seems to have caused more damage to the world than good, or you didn’t believe in God at all. Once I got sober I realized that this was a very narrow way of looking at things. I was introduced to the idea of a personal God, one with whom I could have my own relationship with and this did away with years of black and white bias against God. This became the cornerstone for my new way of life and in the process a lot of the biases that I held against religion melted away as I realized that all religions essentially taught the same thing and that there was room enough in the world for all of them.

I can still sometimes have a black or white view on certain situations or ideas, but my time in recovery has taught me the valuable lesson that I may sometimes be wrong. This has allowed me to be open to new ideas and experiences that have led to some of the most tremendous personal growth that I have ever experienced in my life. Life can still be tremendously confusing and there are so many factors to take into account that it can still be difficult at times to come to definitive conclusions. In the past when I had a simple black and white, yes or no, view of the world this would drive me mad. Now with an understanding that most truths lay in the gray and there are certain things that I will never know, I am okay with knowing that I do not know, and understanding that I do not understand.

12479436_1085419574803126_1934317633_nRose Lockinger is passionate member of the recovery community. A rebel who found her cause, she uses blogging and social media to raise the awareness about the disease of addiction. She has visited all over North and South America. Single mom to two beautiful children she has learned parenting is without a doubt the most rewarding job in the world. Currently the Outreach Director at Stodzy Internet Marketing.

Rose can be found her website, Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, & Instagram.

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Stigma Fighters: Graeme Seabrook

It was three years ago – almost to the day now. I only know that because Facebook reminds me. Most of the first year of my son’s life is gone, lost, erased from my memory. Before he was born I knew nothing about traumatic births. I thought that postpartum depression was middle class White women being sad about staying at home with the kids. I had no idea that postpartum anxiety existed or that you could get PTSD from a birth experience.

Ignorance, as they say, is bliss.

Three years, and two kids, later my mission is to be a bliss buster. I blog, I post on Facebook, I tweet, I scope, and I’m gathering my courage to join a podcast (does anyone like the sound of their own voice???) I talk about my journey through postpartum depression and anxiety and how I’m living with PTSD all the time.

Every time I talk about it something horrible and amazing happens: someone says, “Me too”. An 81 year old woman came up to me after a funeral. A receptionist at the local TV studio. A stranger on a Facebook post. My friends send their friends to me.

For the first time in my life the big mouth that was the bane of my existence is actually a plus. I believe in talking. I believe in talk therapy. I believe in peer support. I believe in writing, and singing, and painting, and dancing, and getting your story out in any and every way that you possibly can. I believe in it because those words, ME TOO, those words can work miracles.

I had a history of depression and anxiety before I got pregnant. My pregnancy wasn’t planned and I was terrified. Looking back now I see that the depression and anxiety set in during the pregnancy. And one day what started as a regular check up a few weeks before our son was due turned into a blurry nightmare that kickstarted my PPD/A and PTSD. We were rushed to the hospital from my doctor’s office, I had Pre-eclampsia and Andrew’s heartbeat was slowing. This is where my memory starts to get foggy – except for the flashbacks that my fellow PTSD peeps know all too well, during those I relive everything in crystalline detail. What I generally remember are a few things – pain, fear, the feeling of being trapped and trying to run away inside my own head.

A day and a half later my son was born via emergency c-section and was taken to the nursery because he wasn’t breathing well. He was born at 10:44pm and I didn’t get to hold him until the next day.

If you’re familiar with the risk factors for perinatal mood disorders you should also know that I’m a Black woman, that I was 34 when he was born, that I quit my job to start working from home just before his birth, and that I had D-MER (dysphoric milk ejection reflex) that left me shaking and sobbing when I tried to feed him. My odds of suffering a maternal mental illness were ridiculously high.

BUT.

No one mentioned anything to me or to anyone in my family before we left the hospital. We got a brochure about a local support group that was in a folder so stuffed with brochures that we tossed it in the trash as soon as we got home. No one told me that I was at higher risk, or told Dork Dad (his online name) what symptoms to look out for. There was no follow up from the hospital and all follow up I received from my OB was physical.

They told me how to care for my incision. They told me the risks of pushing too hard physically and they gave me medication, information, and contacts for support if I needed it.

I walked out of that hospital and into hell and no one warned me.

My depression and anxiety manifested as rage, disconnection, foggy thinking, hysterical crying, panic attacks, and agoraphobia. It took months for me to seek treatment, over a year to claw my way out of the hole and it wasn’t until I was pregnant again TWO YEARS LATER that I was diagnosed with PTSD.

You may be able to tell that I’m angry. I’m angry at what happened to me. I’m angry that it is still happening right now. As you’re reading this a mom just like me, with tons of risk factors, is leaving a hospital with her baby. No one has told her that her mental health is at risk. No one has told her that 13 to 20% of all moms will suffer from a maternal mental illness. No one has told her that these are some of the most treatable disorders that exist. No one will check on her and her family. She’ll see her pediatrician an average of 2-10 times before she’ll see her OB for the first check up. Her pediatrician won’t screen her or offer any information. Her OB won’t screen her or offer any information.

She may stumble upon this article or one like it online; find help and hope. She may self medicate with alcohol or drugs. She may leave her family. She may end up on the news as another horrific example of what happens when we don’t talk.

My son is 3 years old. He’s a hilarious pain the butt. My daughter is seven months old and is the smartest, most beautiful baby who farts like a grown man. My life is pretty amazing now and that is thanks to my kids, and to their dad- who recognized that something was wrong and got me help, and to my therapist, and to my medication. It’s amazing because I have found local and national groups who are fighting the same fight I am. It’s amazing because every day I get to reach one more mom and tell her, ME TOO.

HeadshotGraeme Seabrook is a mom of two from Charleston, SC. After suffering with postpartum depression and anxiety following the birth of her son, Graeme sought out support groups online and in her area. Those groups saved her and turned her into a fan of and advocate for peer support. Graeme writes about her journey with maternal mental illness and parenting with PTSD on her website, postpartummama.org. She leads a community focused on self­care on Facebook and streams live tips about surviving PPD and thriving through self­care on Periscope. Graeme is writing a book for mothers considering a second child after a maternal mental illness and in her spare time she runs a vacation rental management company.

Graeme can be found on her blog, Facebook, and Twitter

@DocGroucho

Stigma Fighters: April C. Foreman, Ph.D.

“But whatever you do, between now and our next session, DON’T google Borderline Personality Disorder. Why? Because you aren’t going to like what you read. A lot of it will be misinformation, and it will make you out to be a monster. You have a treatable mental health diagnosis, with a very good chance for recovery…I know you are probably going to google this anyway when you get home. What you read is probably going to freak you out. When it does, call me so I can help you check the facts about what you are reading. And, consider going to www.borderlinepersonalitydisorder.com, or even Wikipedia.

This is my standard speech to people, after we discuss their diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). I didn’t start out giving this speech. I had to learn the hard way, along with my fabulous clients, how much misinformation and stigma there is towards people with BPD. Many times I have seen patient who clearly had BPD documented in their charts, but who were never told. I didn’t start out my career intending to advocate for people with this disorder. But after watching the prejudice and discrimination my patients faced, even in their own health care offices, I realized I had to speak up.

It’s not hard for most mental health providers to diagnose people with Borderline Personality Disorder. The hard part seems to be bringing themselves to tell their clients, in an upfront, factual way, about the diagnosis, or even just entering the diagnosis in the medical record to begin with. In fact, you are more likely to hear a therapist verbalize that a patient “is borderline” than you will see it actually written down. “Borderline” becomes code for “bad patient.”

Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), like the symptoms it consists of, is a condition full of opposites. It has one of the highest mortality rates of all mental health diagnosis (estimates suggest that 3-10% of people with BPD die by suicide), but despite its lethality, it is one of the most villianized disorders among clinicians. It is fairly common in places like community mental health centers (where about 1/5 of the client population might qualify for this disorder), but clinicians often intentionally do not diagnose it directly in the medical chart, preferring instead to reference it “between the lines” often saying they don’t want to give a client a bad “label.” I know of few other mental illness diagnoses to which clinicians attach so much moral judgment on the people we serve. And at the same time, there are evidence-based therapies for BPD, with high rates of successful outcomes, including full recovery.

Can you imagine your primary care doctor refusing to diagnose or even talk to you about a highly treatable condition that has a 3-10% chance of killing you?

And yet, this is the case in mental health clinics everywhere, everyday. The misinformation and stigma about BPD is so profound it is hard to get good information about this common disorder from most clinicians, or even a basic internet search.

When I was approached about writing this essay, about what it is like to help people with Borderline Personality Disorder, in just a thousand words, this is what leapt out to me. The challenge is not helping the people with BPD (though that does involve a fair amount of clinical skill). The real challenge, in my experience, is the overwhelming cultural change that needs to happen, within the mental health field, so that someone with BPD can trust that when they are seen by a licensed professional they will be accurately diagnosed, and accurately informed about their disorder.

There are decades of rigorous research about treatments like Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT, one of the gold standard, evidence-based treatments for Borderline Personality Disrder). The facts are that people with BPD who are accurately diagnosed and provided with DBT have a very high recovery rate. However, despite this, good clinical training around BPD is rare.

This is particularly troubling to me, given how commonly BPD occurs among the people with whom I might work in most general outpatient settings. Can you imagine going to a doctor who does not know how to diagnose or treat a common illness? And who will blame the patient for continuing to be sick and struggle as a result? This exact dilemma is one that faces people with BPD every day.

I’ve heard that living with Borderline Personality Disorder is like being an “emotional burn victim.” That’s how Marsha Linehan describes it, and she should know. She is one of the major researchers and developers of treatment for this disorder…and someone who has recovered from it. She has used this metaphor to describe the incredible emotional pain and sensitivity that people with BPD experience every day. That description always moves me to compassion. Now, imagine what I have frequently witnessed…that same person in excruciating emotional pain being dismissed, misdiagnosed, given ineffective therapy, and then blamed for not “wanting to get better” or being “manipulative.”

I find myself wishing, while writing this essay, that my biggest concern was getting the world to understand and fight the stigma of Borderline Personality Disorder. But considering that many people have not even heard of BPD (despite estimates that 1 in 20 people will have it over their lifetime, and all of us will know someone with BPD), that desires seems a little aspirational.

Most days, my biggest wish for people with Borderline Personality Disorder is just that licensed mental health professionals would be better educated and more aware of our own prejudice and discrimination towards BPD. After all, professionals are the ones the public trusts, the ones the public looks to for information and guidance. If we can’t be relied on to be educated, competent, and compassionate towards people with BPD, who can be?

@DocGrouchoApril C. Foreman, Ph.D., is a Licensed Psychologist serving Veterans as Suicide Prevention Coordinator for Southeast Louisiana Veterans Health Care System. She also serves as Suicide Prevention Lead for Veterans Integrated Service Network 16, a region of Veterans Affairs. She is passionate about helping people with severe (sometimes lethal) emotional pain, and in particular advocates for people with Borderline Personality Disorder, which has one of the highest mortality rates of all mental illnesses. She is known for her work at the intersection of technology, social media, and mental health, with nationally recognized implementations of innovations in the use of technology and mood tracking. She is the 2015 recipient of the Roger J. Tierney Award for her work as a founder and moderator of the first sponsored regular mental health chat on Twitter, the weekly Suicide Prevention Social Media chat (#SPSM, sponsored by the American Association of Suicidology, AAS). In the recent years this chat has become one of the largest and most active mental health centered social media communities on Twitter. Her dream is to use her unique skills and vision to build a mental health system effectively and elegantly designed to serve the people who need it.

April can be found on Twitter and Facebook

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Stigma Fighters: Stephanie Paige

I Am Surely Dying…

It truly amazes me how in the matter of just a few days, my body and my brain, can completely double cross me…

A friend of mine recently posted how we are less than 200 days away from Christmas.  This had me thinking about last Christmas and my immediate family that was 4 in count at the time.  I remember waking Christmas morning in our house with two very happy kids, my 8 year old daughter and my 2 1/2 year old foster son.  He was smiling, his dimples poking his cheeks, realizing this is a happy occasion but not knowing why.  There was laughter and much confusion from him as he had no idea what to do with a wrapped present.  My husband sat on the floor by T’s gifts and unwrapped them with the glee a child would normally have.  It was a Christmas morning that was full of smiles, laughs and love.

Just a few days later, this all changed.

I had been having major anxiety off and on since T moved in with us at the end of October.  None of my spells lasted past a week.  This was a warning sign and I refused to listen to it.  I ignored the heavy breathing, the annoyance of every sound within my home… these things that my brain was telling me, “SOS, we need help, NOW!”.  I didn’t want to believe my perfect family, my dream family, was causing me to drown.  I tried to suppress the angry feelings I was getting toward my children in order to keep my dream of mothering 2 kids alive.  I continued to go to work and act as if nothing was bothering me, dreading going home at the end of the day.  I told myself, “This too shall pass.”

But it didn’t.

On the morning of December 30th, I awoke for work not feeling normal.  I was shaking.  My chest felt tight and I was dry heaving.  Once again, I ignored my body’s warning signals and went to work.  I sat in my cubicle hyperventilating.  “Deep breaths Stephanie,” I told myself.  I stared at my breakfast with disgust.  I was so nauseous that the sight of my cheerios churned my stomach.  I became dizzy, pushing myself against the headrest of my office chair to hold me up.  I cried as quietly as I could to not clue my coworkers into what was happening to me.

Then the tightness in my chest produced extreme heart palpitations.  This only fed my anxiety more as I wondered whether or not a heart attack was going to follow.  My hand quivered at my keyboard.  My eyesight blurred with tears I was striving so hard to hold back.  I was scared.  I had never felt this way in my life before.

And then, about 20 minutes later, the moment passed.

I thought I was in the clear when about a half hour later all the symptoms I had just experienced came roaring back.  My body was exhausted from fighting it the first time.  Professionals say there are two types of people with anxiety… the fighters and the flighters.  I am the former.  I fought so hard, I was dumbfounded I didn’t pass out from fatigue.  Just like the first time, after about 20 minutes, I succumbed to exhaustion.

This cycle repeated itself over and over that morning.  My coworkers were still clueless.  Most of them weren’t there due to vacation days they needed to use.  Those that were, I hid the terror in me from them with a fake smile.  It was 1pm at work which was lunch time.  I went down with my coworkers and sat in silence which was uncommon for me.  I forced myself to eat as much of my lunch as possible.  As they chatted away about TV shows, I sat… my heart beating out of my chest, the nausea increasing, my breaths become short and rapid.  Yet, I forced the smile on my face.  I left the lunch table slightly early. Back at my cubicle, almost an hour later, the symptoms weren’t subsiding.  In fact, they were growing in strength.  I thought surely I was going to pass out and die.

I called my husband.  He told me to use my coping skills from therapy.  They weren’t working.  I said I needed help.  I needed to go to the hospital.  He could not take me because he was home with our daughter and foster son.  Next in line was my mother.  I called her cell but could not reach her.  3rd in line was my father.  Success.  He answered the phone and tried to talk me down from this attack.  I informed him this was going on all day off and on.  He said he would come and take me to the ER as I was in no condition to drive myself.  I sat waiting for his text that he was here.  I informed a coworker as to why I was leaving in general terms to inform my boss.  My phone vibrated… my father was here.

By the time I reached his car, he could see I was not myself in any way.  I was a shaking, hyperventilating shell of a person.  On the way to the ER, he asked me more questions that took me minutes to respond due to my lack of breathing.  I was shivering so much, it was as if I was standing out in frigid temperatures for a long period of time which for December was common but I was dressed appropriately.  We reached the parking garage at the ER within 15 minutes.  I felt helpless as my father had to help walk me in because I would fall over.  At the desk I had to give my name, date of birth, etc. to the person at the ER desk.  This I did with labored breath.  My father then helped me sit until we were called into a triage room.  I sat down next to the nurse in the room.  At this point I was just waiting for the heart attack.  My heart was outside my chest visually in my mind.  The pounding drowned out my hearing.  I was still shaking uncontrollably and my breathing remained heavy.

Her questions were not easy to answer.  Unfortunately, being a grown adult, my father could not answer for me.  It took about 15 minutes to answer her five to six questions including if I had been to West Africa lately.  Believe me, Ebola was far from my mind.  Then she got up and hooked me up to the blood pressure machine… 164/95.  Then came my temperature… inaccurate read because of my strenuous breathing.  Then my pulse and O2… again, inaccurate.  Upon completion of these tests I was finally moved to a room in the ER.

The ER doctor came in, asked me several questions, some the same as the nurse in triage.  He took a good look at me.  I could see the look in his eyes.  He knew the suffering I was going through.  The words came out of his mouth, “You are having a major Panic Attack.”  The good news, I wasn’t dying.  The bad news, I felt like I was.  I was given .5mg of Xanax.  Within 15 minutes of taking the Xanax, my body was beginning to calm itself.

At this time, I phoned my husband.  Our foster son’s social worker was over for what should have been a happy occasion.  He brought gifts for the family for the holidays.  After hanging up the phone, I knew what was going to happen.  My husband had to tell the social worker where I was and why.  I knew that my foster son, a boy I loved just as much as my daughter, would probably be removed from our house.  This stirred the anxiety in me but I was drugged and extremely exhausted I couldn’t fight anymore that day.  I just laid in the bed in the ER and breathed what were the first normal breaths of the day…

*****

Most people that know me, know that it was only a few short days later that T left our home.  It was a decision that both my husband and I (with agreement from our and his social worker) made in the best interest for him, our daughter and myself.  It was not an easy decision… as a couple of people expressed to me after he was gone saying I didn’t care about T’s needs, that I was being selfish.  The fact is, I cared so much about him, I knew he needed a mother that was not becoming a poster child for Mental Illness.  I think of him daily.  I smile at the fact that we taught him how to love, how to eat, and how to speak in the 2 months he lived with us.  He is truly an amazing little boy that I will always love and miss.

20160418_134440 Stephanie Paige is a 30-something who has struggled with Depression since age 14 and Anxiety since age 26. She is mother to one beautiful daughter. With the strength of her husband, parents, and her child, she has survived 6 bouts of Severe Depression and has become a huge advocate of Mental Illness. Currently, she has been diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder and Generalized Anxiety Disorder and has survived severe Postpartum Depression & Anxiety.

Stephanie can be found on her blog, Facebook, and Twitter

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Stigma Fighters: Thomas Franklin, M.D.

The sliver of light coming under the door of the windowless office seemed unbearably bright and offensive. I turned away from it and closed my eyes. In a few moments, I would be asleep again. I was supposed to be out seeing patients, but it was all I could do to show up at work and hide in my office. My supervisor was a gentle woman who would come check on me a couple of times a day. She would crack the door and ask, “Dr. Franklin, why don’t you come out and see one of the new patients?”

“I can’t. I just can’t… I’m no good to anyone.”

Drifting in and out of consciousness in that dark room seemed far superior to being up and about, feeling the pain that seemed to emanate from my chest and flow throughout my body. I wondered if that might be better than living like this.

Fearing Stigma but Seeking Help
I was a psychiatric intern at the time, and I was depressed. But I couldn’t bring myself to seek treatment. I suffered like that for months until I saw a colleague in consultation, where I described suffering the symptoms of attention deficit disorder, but suggested that a third-line medication for that diagnosis, also used for depression, might help me. I needed so much more than that medication, but my depression, my own inhibitions, and stigma kept me from getting the help I needed. Difficulty concentrating seemed a safer problem to admit to than depression. I was worried that I wouldn’t be taken seriously as a psychiatrist if it became known that I, too, was a patient.

I continued to suffer off and on for years, finally getting into real treatment for the first time after my training was over. A combination of psychotherapy and medications led to the relief of stabilization. Eventually, I was able to stop taking medicines. The way I had felt only years before seemed so far away. I felt a part of the human race.

Until now, I have kept quiet about my experience. A continued fear of stigma has kept me quiet. I felt that if I was known as a psychiatric patient, even a so-called “cured” one, I would be labeled or disgraced or stereotyped. I thought it might hold back my career.

But the only way to combat stigma is to speak out. This is not easy, but I am inspired by those that have travelled before me on this road and by my current patients. I can’t go on urging them to be courageous, to face down the stigma they were feeling, without doing all I can to fight stigma myself. Only by shining the light of truth on people’s lived experience of mental illness will stigma finally become a thing of the past.

Why a Triathlon?
After my psychoanalysis was over, I took up triathlons. Exercise has not only helped my mood, but I found that endurance sports are a powerful metaphor for what living with a mental illness can be like. In some ways, training for and finishing races makes me feel that I have mastery over that part of me that suffered so much.

In triathlons, like in depression, you have to go on putting one foot in front of another for as long as it takes. It will be painful. Your best-laid plans will go awry. Small mistakes early in the race can turn into big problems before the end of the day. The finish line will seem an impossibly long way away. There are moments of despair, but also moments of triumph. There is beauty around the next corner that can give you hope, if you only look up long enough to take it in. But preparing for and finishing the race is much more about your mind than your body.

On July 24th, I will be racing the 140.6 miles of the Ironman Lake Placid triathlon to fight stigma, to show people that are suffering that treatment works, and to raise money for the Sheppard Pratt Patient Care Fund so that no one has to go without the treatment they need. 100 percent of the monies donated to this fund are spent on patient care. Maybe someone we help get treated will become the next courageous voice in the fight against stigma. Please give generously, whatever that means for you in your life. Thank you for your support.

This article is adapted from an original blog post for Thrive. a blog by Sheppard Pratt Health System.

10626573_10204872626241644_4102894962561251350_nDr. Thomas Franklin is a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and a graduate analyst, having trained at the Washington Psychoanalytic Institute. He is Board Certified in Addiction Medicine and Psychiatry, and has extensive experience in psychotherapy, psychopharmacology, addictions, and co-occurring disorders. Dr. Franklin previously served as medical director of Ruxton House, The Retreat’s transitional living program, before assuming the role of medical director of The Retreat in 2014. Dr. Franklin teaches, writes, speaks, and consults on psychoanalysis, psychotherapy, stigma, psychiatric hospital care, and mental health policy.

Thomas can be found on the Sheppard Pratt Health System.

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Stigma Fighters: Amanda Hughes

Fighting the Deluge
I have told my story more times than I care to count. It is a staple of rehab: you start at childhood and narrate through your addiction. You tell the sordid story of your suffering until you reach the heartwarming conclusion where everyone hears what you learned and how you are all better now. Except it was always tricky for me because I never knew where to start, and there’s not really an end. Anxiety and depression were precursors and catalysts for my drinking. And even though I don’t drink anymore, the maladies linger. So I won’t bore you with some chronological recounting of my life that has no resolution; I’ll just start in the middle.
Years ago I was diagnosed with dysthymia and generalized anxiety disorder. I was told that I have mild versions of both, which means I am incredibly functional yet often quite uncomfortable. Like I’m wearing sunglasses indoors, I can see everything clearly but it is all a bit dull. Or sometimes, there is buzzing anxiety right underneath the surface of things, scratching in my ears and making me want to come out of my skin.
Symptoms first surfaced in my teenage years but they were quickly eclipsed by various coping distractions. First eating disorder, then alcohol addiction then codependency, I was a good mess for eight or nine years until it was clear I needed to permanently detox from alcohol.
Rehab was torture – I had to listen to my thoughts and learn to sit in my feelings. I railed and cried and whined until slowly the desire to drink faded into the background – the way busy wallpaper in a waiting room hurts your eyes less and less the longer you sit in the hard plastic chair. Eventually the obnoxious hum of visual activity is just a part of the room’s reality, inseparable from the 5 year old magazines and beige mini-blinds. My anxiety and depression retreated too. For the most part they remain in the background, an unpleasant pattern on the walls.
I do best when I immerse myself in the moment and focus on specific tasks. Often when I am down or anxious that means throwing shoes on the kids and going for a walk, but that’s been hard in the recent rain. So I am trying to compensate. Which brings me to this morning.
Dark clouds hang heavy in the sky, and although it is dawn the world is still dark. The last month in Houston has felt like monsoon season – the rain is relentless. I am starting to feel tense and moldy from all of the water – water everywhere. I pour my coffee and turn on every light in the house. I need to see – I need the light to shake the cobwebs from my brain so I can start my day. I turn on the TV for background noise and I peck out the mere seed of an essay on my smartphone. Saturday mornings with two young children don’t offer time to sit at the computer and ponder words. But I write what I can: snippets and nuggets scrawled on scratch paper or typed into a phone. Words exorcised have less power than words careening around my brain and nervously whispering into my ear.
I didn’t sleep well last night. It’s been 2 months since my husband was laid off and for over 1 month he’s been working every day at his new job. We are stable and secure and have a lot to be grateful for, which my rational mind understands. My normal variety of slightly anxious, prickly skin feelings during the day are pretty manageable. What was unleashed by this unexpected life change was something more intense and sinister.
Mild anxiety gave way to an avalanche of panic and intrusive worry, and I’m fighting the thoughts. For a week I had no appetite and felt terrified, despite our less than dire reality. My desire to eat came back, but the deep underlying hum of tension remains, vibrating throughout my days.
I wake up in the middle of the night sometimes, gasping for breath. These dark hours are when anxiety tastes like fear and fear tastes like shame and shame tastes like relapse. They are all snarled up in one messy ball of wires and I can’t untangle them. Greedy shame grabs hold of my brain and the intense worry claws at my soul and I am consumed with irrational thoughts of impending disaster. To be clear: there was no relapse in drinking. But waking in the middle of the night, paralyzed by panic, unease and remorse is reminiscent of that feeling. It’s a PTSD of sorts, the kind of scars that never really go away.
I look around our house with all of our carefully accumulated belongings. I stare at our two lovely children who have never seen us drink, and I see the beautiful life we have built. But depression lies and says that I am not worth any of this, and anxiety whispers that I don’t deserve it and it will all be taken away. I keep watch over my sweet babies, locking doors and wiping hair out of eyes. I am vigilant in fighting these irrational thoughts, but I stand guard nonetheless.
And now morning has come – it’s time to snap myself out of indulging in these feelings. I force myself to act. I write, I straighten up the kitchen table, I dust the living room and I go to check on the baby. He is sleeping peacefully with a blissful smile on his face. I hope he is always this happy.
And as I look at him I feel a wash of calm and love. I smile, holding out hope that this means today will be a good day. Everything is okay – it really is. I sit watching him, with tears on my cheeks. I don’t know why I’m crying – sometimes sad tears and happy tears feel the same. But I hold out hope that maybe today the clouds will clear and we will see just a little sunshine. It’s about time.

20160501_145540I am a mom, wife, employee, and writer. I am in recovery from alcohol addiction, depression, anxiety and general malaise. I’m just trying to make each day better than the last.

Amanda can be found on her blog and Twitter

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Stigma Fighters: Johnny Sparkles Part 2

Read part 1 here.

Samantha soon warned me that in the not-so-distant future, she would possibly not be in contact with me for a few days, and I accepted it, because I loved her, and I knew it was something she had to do. She ended up breaking her promise, and I got to see her pretty much every day up until a 48 hour stretch (or so) where I didn’t hear from her. When I finally heard back from her, she revealed that she took a bottle of pills, intending to end her life, and that she woke up feeling groggy, and regretful, but thankfully still alive, and then she picked up the phone to call me. She apologized, but I was kind of numb. I didn’t know what to really think, and I was scared. I knew she wasn’t leaving me specifically, and that our love was strong, but it’s not an easy task trying to cope with the thought of the most important person in your life thinking about disappearing, and not giving you fair warning first. She had been planning this from before she met me, I soon found out, and this was part of the reason why it took her so long to approach me, as she was worried about bringing me into all of this. But we dealt with it, as people who love each other do.

For the next few days, I still saw her pretty regularly, but now she was determined to go on a trip to the neighbor islands. Due to financial reasons, I was unable to accompany her, and I was once again terrified that I would lose her. Just being away from her for a day or two at this point was very hard, as things seemed a lot more serious and fragile than I had realized. I trusted that she just needed to get away for a few days, but in the back of my head, I knew anything was possible.

When she returned from the trip, we still saw each other pretty regularly, but I felt an uneasiness with her from time to time, but as the days passed, I felt her happy side coming out again, and we were the kind of couple that was always inseparable, as long as we were physically with each other. It was the time away that scared me. I never doubted anything when I was face to face with her, although I often worried about her nonetheless, just because, you know, I wanted her to be “okay”, whatever that means.

Over the next few days, Samantha was talking about getting a new job, and seemed to be readjusting to life on the island quite well, after all the recent trauma, uncertainty and adventure in her life. I remember her visiting me at work one day, which she was known to do from time to time, and dropping off some of my books, while saying she was considering getting a job with the company. I thought this was promising news, and I talked to her on the phone later that night before bed, to gab about our usual sweet nothings. By the time Monday had rolled around, I hadn’t heard back from Samantha. This was very out of the ordinary, even after the last episode. Every horrible thought you could think of was in my brain at this time, and I was sick to my stomach around the clock.

It’s a common misconception that someone who hurts so much, and lives with so much depression, is incapable of loving another human being. Actually, I don’t really know if that’s a common misconception, but I must say that it is something I worried about upon getting involved with Samantha. But she shattered that misconception almost overnight with her patience, her generosity, and well, her love, of course. Calling it “love” sounds so minimal, though. It’s that certain thing that can’t be explained, but is something you feel every time that special someone looks at you, touches you, or says something to you in that perfect way–a way that you’ve never heard it, felt it, or experienced it before–not in a way that’s meant to slight any past loves, but sometimes someone just gets you the way nobody else does, and something about you just clicks with them, and you seem them the way nobody else does–and that’s when what seems like a once a generation type love forms between two people. As much of a mess the world can be at times, it can really be a miracle, too.

Samantha would often apologize for bringing me into her world, and felt bad that she had subjected me to her pain, but the only thing I wish she had done differently–other than survive, naturally–is introduce herself sooner, because once I met her, loving her with all of me was inevitable. Maybe she knew that, too, and that probably was overwhelming for her, but the fact is I know my love made her last few months on this planet more manageable. I have the memories, and the emails, and the warmth in my heart to tell me that, and nothing could ever change what we had together as a couple.

There was never any issue between us in that way. We were perfect friends, a perfect team, perfect lovers, and we just fit together like two forgotten puzzle pieces. The life that her and I shared together is something I wouldn’t trade for anything in the world, except for more time with her, and I am so honored that she had the strength to approach me, even though much of what was inside of her told her not to. I told her all the time how lucky, fortunate, and honored I was, and she was always so sweet to tell me how much I meant to her, even on her darkest days, and she also made me feel so sexy and handsome, even though I often don’t feel like either one of those things. When I was around her, I had no doubt that I was those things, and that’s what love is, folks.

As far as her suicide goes, I don’t blame her. I often curse the universe for leaving me behind with this massive hole in my heart, but I never, even for a second, imagined being upset with her about what she did. The way I look at it, it wasn’t my thing to be upset with anyway. This was Samantha’s cross to bear. This was something she had to deal with. Sure, in many ways, I had to deal with it, too, but while I have struggled with a bit of depression, I never had to deal with that weight of it the way she had to, and I can’t imagine how hard it was for her to even breathe when it got really bad, so how could I ever be upset with someone who chose to love me, and open up to me, and give me all of her time, when she could have easily just never even said “hello”?

When I was asked to write this piece, I was concerned with what exactly they wanted me to say. In the end, I just decided to write what I was feeling. It’s been over three years since I’ve been able to see, touch, and feel Samantha, and my life in many ways has never been worse, but the beautiful (and crushing, I suppose) irony, is that it was that very love that she bestowed on me, that has given me the strength to keep moving forward, because I know that kind of love exists, and that it can come sneaking up on you at any time.

So I guess if I had to leave you with something, I would say, never think you’ve got the world figured out. You may be depressed, or love someone who is depressed, or think that you don’t want love, or you might just be unsure about everything, but if you let down your walls a little bit, and take a swing on something unexpected, sometimes you get borrowed time. It might not be forever, or as much time as you want, or need, but it will give you infinite moments of beauty that would have otherwise never crossed paths with you. Sometimes you just have to trust your instincts, even if your mind isn’t always on your side.

The other thing about Samantha and I is that we were always honest with each other. We didn’t agree on everything, but when we were unsure, we always told each other why, and within minutes, everything would be great again, because we knew we had each other’s backs when we were together, and that’s really all that fucking matters. Even if only one person has your back, and even if that is only for a short time, that is more than a lot of other people ever get, so one last parting shot of wisdom from me would be to take every ounce of good luck you’ve ever received, and let it inspire you for the rest of your life. It’s up to you to choose how long that will be, or how powerful that inspiration is, but the last thing you want to do is ignore it, or push it away.

As far as loving someone who is going through depression, or other forms of mental illness goes, it’s simple. You just keep doing that: Loving. You support them. You listen to them. You understand them. You ask how you can help them. You stay out of their way if you can’t, or they don’t want you to. You embrace them. You believe in them. And you love them. And never take any of it personally. Choose to make them as comfortable as you can, and be happy that you don’t have to deal with all that weight on your shoulders and burden on your mind. Some people may even walk away, because they can’t deal with it. But no matter what, you don’t stop loving them. Because if you stop loving someone who is going through that kind of anguish, well then you probably never really loved them in the first place.

I love you, Samantha. Almost from the first moment I knew you. Then I never stopped, and I always will. Thank you, thank you, THANK YOU for everything. I hope that every second for you now, is as happy as you made me feel every second I was with you. xoxox

ok10Johnny Sparkles is a Hawaiian-born stand up comedian now based in Las Vegas. He is also a journalist for hire, as well as former editor, and staff writer for a handful of websites. His debut comedy album, ‘Homeless Romantic’, is available all over the interwebz, including iTunes, Amazon, Band Camp, and Pass Out Records.

Johnny can be found on his blog,Facebook, and Twitter

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Stigma Fighters: Johnny Sparkles Part 1

I was asked to write this piece a couple weeks ago, and I started to write it quite a few times. I wrote some of it down here, and erased it. I wrote some elsewhere, and scrapped it. I wrote pages upon pages in my head, and tossed them aside, along with all the useless stuff that occupies much of my mind space.

It’s not that I didn’t know what to write, or how to say it. It’s more like sometimes you have too much to say, and you know how to say it, but you want to say it as succinctly as possible. And when you’re writing about the most important stranger to ever walk into your life, who then–almost overnight–becomes a huge part of your life, you want it to be almost perfect, because when you’re writing about someone who impacted your life in such flawlessly beautiful ways, you want to honor that, so I’m not sorry that I waited this long, though it wasn’t my intention.

But now, I think it’s time…

On December 12, 2012, an hour or so after performing a comedy set in Honolulu, Hawaii, I approached the exit of the venue, as I heard a voice call out. I didn’t recognize the voice, but when I turned around, I did recognize the face, but only vaguely. This was the girl who had been coming to my stand up and improv shows sporadically over the last few months. She sort of always just sat in the back, and never talked to me, but I never took it personally, because she never really talked to anybody. But she was there a lot, to the extent that it was kind of odd for her to stay basically silent all that time, but not completely out of the ordinary, as a lot of people go to shows because they appreciate talent from afar, and are too terrified to even sit close to a stage, let alone get up on one.

She introduced herself, and said she thought I was funny, and then we awkwardly uttered a few sentences back and forth to each other. Not only do I not remember much of this conversation, but I don’t think if I even did, that it would be very interesting to anybody. Knowing what I know now, I think she was nervous because she liked me, and I was nervous because a girl was talking to me, and I never really know what that means, because I’m horrible at signs. So horrible at signs that I didn’t know what it meant when a girl who had been coming to my shows for months, and not talking to anybody, suddenly approached me and mustered up a few sentences before we awkwardly parted ways. Even after a few colleagues tried to convince me that she was into me. Have I mentioned how horrible at signs I am?

A month, and change later (I’m horrible at signs!), there was a much bigger show at the same venue, and I was opening for a national headliner. I was delighted to see that Samantha had shown up for it, because in spite of my bad sign reading, I was feeling confident, and I was determined to have a more witty, and overall interesting conversation with her that night. Luckily for me, it happened, and I got to speak to her more in a half hour or so, than I had the entire time I had known her face. I don’t remember much of that conversation either, but I do remember the flirting becoming almost overly obvious, and I recall thinking it was kind of great that she didn’t have a Facebook account. (How cool is that, Rivers Cuomo!?) Before I cut the conversation short to reluctantly talk to other people (and not appear too eager, probably), I left her with my business card, and told her to call or email me anytime, which seemed to tickle her.

Within the next couple of weeks, we were emailing epic letters to each other, and within a week or two after that, we started seeing each other pretty regularly. It was the epitome of a whirlwind romance, and I had never been so happy to be caught in a gust. At first, Samantha was reluctant to see me more often, but I think by then, it was beyond her control. From what I can gather from all the emails, and texts we exchanged, not seeing me regularly was simply not an option once we started seeing more of each other.

I wasn’t completely sure what I wanted when I first met her either, but I can tell you now, that by the second or third time I had gone on a proper date with Samantha, I was madly in love with her. And I’m happy to say that by right around the same time, the feeling was mutual, although she would never say she was in love with me. The funny thing is I used to be mildly bothered by the fact that she didn’t use the words “I”, “love”, and “you”, all in the same sentence as it pertained to me, but the fact of the matter was, the things that she did say to me, and show to me, were far more meaningful than those three words. The woman was crazy about me, and once she got comfortable, she never hesitated to tell me how awesome she thought I was, and that made me feel like the luckiest guy in the world.

If my timeline memory serves me well, we’re now at about two months from the night she first approached me, and we are now a disgustingly happy couple, and though she warned me at the beginning that she wanted to take things slow, we were soon spending every free moment together, and hanging out with our friends a lot less. But there was always something a little puzzling about Samantha, and I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.

The morning after the second or third time we spent the night together, we were lounging in bed, and I was telling Samantha how amazing she was, when she began crying. I’ll never forget how sad and beautiful she looked at the same time, as the sun shined on her glistening eyes and cheeks. I wanted to hold her and tell her everything was okay, but I was too scared to do anything. This was when she started to tell me that she couldn’t promise me anything, and that it would never be forever, or something like that. At first, I didn’t know what she meant, or I just assumed I was coming on too strong.

Over the next few days, things started to reveal themselves, and I started to worry that this storybook romance was not going to have a happy ending, but I still held onto hope, because I loved her too much to just stop. She had quickly become not just a big part of my life, but suddenly she felt like she was my life.

We still saw each other all the time, but every few days I’d get a little more info. First she mentioned that she had a tumor, and that she did not care to have it operated on. I have never heard any confirmation about whether or not that was true, but ultimately it was not that big of an issue, although some would speculate that the “tumor” was actually just a code word for crippling depression. I knew that Samantha was a depressed person, but at the beginning, I didn’t know (or chose to ignore) the full extent of it. It’s not that I didn’t think her feelings were real, I think it’s more that I sometimes ignorantly think that I can help people deal with things sometimes, and I always hold out hope for the best, even when things would seem dire to most everyone else. And the fact of the matter is I know I did help her, and maybe that’s part of why she couldn’t stay away. But when it comes to that deep, dark depression, there is of course, only so much we can do with our own, let alone someone else’s.

ok10Johnny Sparkles is a Hawaiian-born stand up comedian now based in Las Vegas. He is also a journalist for hire, as well as former editor, and staff writer for a handful of websites. His debut comedy album, ‘Homeless Romantic’, is available all over the interwebz, including iTunes, Amazon, Band Camp, and Pass Out Records.

Johnny can be found on his blog, Facebook, and Twitter