Stigma Fighters: Beka L.

I don’t really remember a time when I wasn’t experiencing some type of turmoil in my life, however small. I grew up with 4 older brothers and an older sister. They all took their fair share of recreational drugs or drank alcohol. They caused my parents many sleepless nights. Unfortunately, at an early age I began to experience the anxiety that would also cause me to lose sleep. I don’t think I had a fair shot at a healthy existence. Not for lack of trying.

As the years went on, I knew something was a little off with me too. Being overweight and made fun of a lot in middle school didn’t help. High school went a little better. I suppose I could have been considered popular. I certainly wasn’t an outcast. Yet, by the age of 19, my suspicion that I wasn’t wired quite right became a fact. I was depressed, and there wasn’t a thing I could do to fix it.

I started seeing my first psychiatrist then. I remember the first medication I was ever prescribed was Prozac. I honestly don’t recall if it helped or for how long. It was just the beginning of an arduous journey through the county health system. At the time, I didn’t have mental health coverage, so I had to take what I could get. It worked out alright for several years. They really didn’t give a damn about you, but you didn’t have to pay for your medications. I always lived by the motto, “Beggars can’t be choosers”.

With the depression came horrible anxiety. Borderline Personality Disorder would soon follow, along with PTSD. The older I got, the worse I got. There came a time when I was on 7 medications at once. I found myself drifting in a sea of worthless relationships with men that made me feel like a freak. In 1998, I was in a long distance relationship that began online. He asked me to marry him. Before that could happen, but after the deposits had been put down, he dumped me. Apparently a psychotic episode and a psychiatric hospitalization make you less appealing to the opposite sex.

With his hasty exit from my life weighing heavily on my shoulders, I taught myself self-injury. I didn’t know that’s what it was at the time. I didn’t know anyone else knew what it was either. Ironically, I discovered it when I was rejected by another male acquaintance, and I had it in my head that life wasn’t worth living. It was an accident really. A failure of sorts that became a coping mechanism when things were too much for me to handle.

I realize as I look back on the past that it most certainly appears that I just didn’t experience a single happy moment in my entire life. That isn’t true. I found happiness quite frequently. I held some gratifying positions with successful companies. I was often promoted and thought of to be a problem solver. I partied on the weekends, I met famous people, I went to concerts and sporting events. I had a best friend that I met in 5th grade that was a constant in my life. We were never apart for long, no matter what path we chose for ourselves.

I made new friends and met a lot of people online. You know, in the 90’s when it wasn’t quite as terrifying as it is now. Back then, not once did I think I was talking to a pedophile or a stalker. I was lucky that everyone I met was who they said they were.
The problem with my life was that as happy as it could be, the misery was a thousand times worse. I didn’t ever put two and two together. It never occurred to me that I couldn’t just take a bunch of medication and go on about my business and I would be all better. I didn’t understand that I had to do the work too.

Once I made that realization, I started to make better choices. I stopped meeting multiple people online. I buckled down and worked really hard. I met someone that although at first we didn’t seem compatible, we eventually discovered that we missed each other once we were apart. In 2001, we were married. Thirteen years later, he still knows how to make me laugh. We are happy, even though I still have my highs and my lows. I would be lost without him. My calming force in a sea of chaos.

Although I have spent over 20 years dealing with bipolar disorder, anxiety, PTSD, ADHD, panic disorder, borderline personality disorder, and self-injury; I am ALIVE. I consider myself a survivor. A warrior to say the least. Every day I wake up and hope that it will be a good day. Unfortunately, not every day can be. Thankfully, I am learning to process the guilt a bad day brings. I am learning that I didn’t ask for this, and I certainly wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy. But, I can do this. If only people could understand how much energy goes into fighting this fight.

In the last 20 years, I’ve experienced more pain than anyone should ever have to bear. The death of my mother brought me to my knees. The more recent death of my brother, on my birthday no less, sent me on a tailspin. Yet, despite the outside influences that could have and should have broken me, I still fight on. I see the doctor, I take my medication. I give my feelings a voice no matter how hard it is, and I keep waking up every day with just a tiny glimmer of hope.

There may be days when I look in the mirror and feel like a failure. Sometimes, I want to give up. Then, I remember the strength it took to get me to this point in my life.

I remember I AM ENOUGH.

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Rebecca Lombardo began writing as a child. In third grade, she told everyone that her dream was to be a writer. At the age of 19, she was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder, but continued to write poetry into her 20’s, until her illness consumed so much of her time and energy, that she just lost the will to write.
She never gave up her dream to be a writer, but the despair she felt over not being able to find the words anymore was just too much for her to take, so she gave up writing for many, many years. Sporadically, she would begin a journal, blog, or even write a poem for her beloved husband, but it was never the same again.
In the summer of 2013, Rebecca faced one of the biggest struggles of her life. After losing both her mom to lung cancer in 2008, and her brother to an accident (on her birthday) in 2011, she felt as if she was drowning. Her physical health continued to deteriorate, and the migraines that were once just a nuisance became a constant, and would sometimes last 6-7 days at a time, and were cause for countless trips to the emergency room.
After trying to pick up the pieces of her life after her mother’s death, she moved forward with running her own pet sitting business, and attempting an online multi-level marketing business. Yet, she fell apart, and there was no way she was going to come back on her own this time. She attempted to take her own life, and was hospitalized against her will in a horrible, horrible place.
When she came out, in roughly July, her PTSD, anxiety, depression, and grief were overwhelming, and she decided to begin writing again. When the words began to flow easier and easier, she decided that she would be willing to turn it into a blog so that others could see her struggle and know that it’s a vicious cycle but it can be overcome. She hoped that in addition, it would help her get past all of these horrible experiences. As her writing went on, she would receive more and more feedback from total strangers, sometimes in other countries, that would thank her for telling her story. They were grateful that because of her, they were now able to get help.
At 41 years of age and happily married for 13 years, Rebecca can finally say that she is on her way to reaching her dream. Not only does she hope to help people that are struggling with depression, she hopes to help them realize that you are never too old to find your voice, and make your dream happen. Rebecca lives in a suburb in Michigan with her husband, Joseph and 5 cats. 4 of which were rescued. Her father lives a short distance away and is going to be turning 85 this year. She has 3 brothers and 1 sister as well as several nieces and nephews.
She continues to work on her pet sitting business and hopes to continue to find the words to keep writing her blog so that she can help as many people as possible.

Stigma Fighters: Kurt C.

I am a Survivor of Suicide
By Kurt Cunningham

I tried to end my life one night after having a wonderful fun-filled evening with friends. It was in November 2012 — I had a plan in place for months. Not one person had any idea what I was planning to do.

After a series of life-changing events that began in 2009 and included the closing my once- successful business of nine years, and culminated with the death of my mother in August 2012 life just seemed unbearable to me. My finances were a mess. My health wasn’t great. And I couldn’t make a romantic relationship last more than a few months.

Life just sucked! So I thought about every option I could end my life and finally decided on a plan that I could carry through with that wasn’t violent, or that wouldn’t bring harm to innocent bystanders. I remember coming home and getting everything in place to follow through with my plan. I’m sure you’re wondering what my plan was, but I would never want to put any ideas in someone’s head that was considering harming themselves. Once I was finished, I remember taking out the trash, grabbing my cat, and laying on my couch with the cat on my chest, unable to stop crying until I fell asleep.

Of course with the recent suicide of Robin Williams, countless articles have been written, news stories have flooded television for days, and now the news media are onto the next sensationalistic story. So I wanted to share my experience and acknowledge that I am a survivor of suicide. That sounds…I don’t know…kind of dramatic.

But there is something about creating a plan, going through with it, and the result not being what’s anticipated that is very dramatic. How are you supposed to feel when you wake up from a medically induced coma to see your friends and family at your bedside waiting for you to wake up?

My first thought was not “DAMN it didn’t work!” I can’t even remember what my first thoughts were. I know I was pretty delirious for a while because I thought I was at some lady’s home, and she was taking care of me while she decorated a Christmas tree. That lady was a nurse in my private ICU hospital room. The “tree” she was decorating was my IV drip rack. There were so many bags on that thing that they looked like ornaments. It was if strands of tinsel were flowing into my arms. I’ve done a fair share of drugs in my life but I’ve never mainlined Christmas. I had contracted pneumonia; there was a fear of liver and kidney failure. To say I was in bad shape would be an understatement.

It was a lengthy hospital stay. I was under 24-hour watch, which meant a nurse sat next to my bed every hour, every day. After about a week I was transferred to the “West Wing,” and believe me it was nothing as plush as the West Wing of the White House. The West Wing of UCSD Hillcrest is the psychiatric ward of the hospital. It’s like taking a step back in time. I believe it was a portion of the original space of the hospital when it was first built. It was very stark, sterile with plastic furniture and doors that locked us in. It felt like a prison and I was on permanent lockdown, there was nothing I could do about it. You don’t get to sign yourself out of a psychiatric ward like you can after a typical stay in a regular hospital – you are there until some stranger says you are back to normal…whatever the hell that is.

I was told by staff members that I would have a particularly difficult time there because I was the only “highly functional” patient in the ward.

They weren’t kidding. This was no resort-type facility that we often hear about celebrities going to because of “exhaustion,” but this support was an important part of the journey to recovery. I needed to be safe.

I sat alone. I tried to read. I would sometimes talk with the nurses when they weren’t busy.

“I don’t belong here. I’m nothing like these people! Don’t you know who I am? Get my friend who is also my City Councilman on the phone. Call my friends who are City Commissioners. Placing me here is obviously a mistake!”

I was coming unglued. The lunatics had taken over the asylum, and I was going down with them.

I begged to be let out. At one point a doctor gave me some false hope that I might be released over the weekend. Unfortunately, it was a Thanksgiving holiday weekend and the ward was being run by the “B list” doctors. Their idea of therapy included coloring in coloring books and making flowers out of colored paper. Finally, the following Monday the “A list” doctors came back on duty and saw that my mood was deteriorating because of my surroundings. I have a wonderful group of close friends who were visiting the hospital every day, bringing me some of my favorite food, keeping me focused on what my plans were for when I got out of the hospital. The nurses and the doctors were very impressed by the amount of people that would come visit me. I think I broke the record for the amount of visitors in one day. Hell, I even had a drag queen in full gown & crown visit me on Thanksgiving Day. It was like a dadgum parade in there. But it also showed the doctors I had a great support team waiting for me when I was released. The ongoing visits reminded me that I had a team of support, that I was not alone in the world.

Luckily that support system was willing to do anything they could to help me get reacquainted with life and back on my feet.

So let me fast forward a bit to my recovery. Follow-up appointments with all the doctors, weekly “talk” therapy, and new medications helped me with my recovery. Staying close to home but getting out of the house for a bit was important to me, but being seen wasn’t. I guess in a way I was embarrassed and ashamed of what I had done. Good thing I didn’t leave a “fuck you and fuck you too” letter for anyone to find, because then I would have to face those people again.

Looking back, I realize that shame and embarrassment was something that was a way of feeling that was imbedded in my mind. A learned behavior. YES, trying to end your life is an awful thing. I do not recommend it to anyone. But the stigma that was put on me like a scarlet letter made it very difficult to move forward in certain situations. That stigma was one of the many obstacles I have overcome. Friendships were the #1 thing that had changed in my life.

People’s attitudes about depression and suicide, just mental illness in general, often come with a stigma. Even when people try to have conversations about depression, their competency or understanding about the issue is archaic or maybe they’re just repeating things heard somewhere that they take as fact.

So, class is now in session.

Lesson 1: Depression is real.

Depression, clinical, diagnosed depression is not the same thing as having a bad day because your car got scratched, or you lost your lucky pair of underwear. The word “depressed” is used in a very loose and at times offensive manner. It trivializes what a truly depressed person is dealing with in their life.

It’s hard to blame the people that aren’t familiar with depression or other mental health issues. Our culture has taught us to dismiss these people as being victims and weak. I tend to be a little passive-aggressive when I see someone post on social media “I’m so depressed.” My response is always the same. “Oh, I’m sorry, how long have you been suffering from depression?” No one has ever answered that question when I ask.

Lesson 2: Suicide is a lot of things, but selfish isn’t one of them.

Suicide is a decision made out of desperation, hopelessness, isolation and loneliness. The black hole that is clinical depression is all-consuming.

People who say that suicide is selfish always reference the survivors. They say it’s selfish to leave friends and family and loved ones behind. What they don’t know is that those loved ones are the reason many people hang on for just one more day. They do think about the survivors, probably up until the very last moment in many cases. But the dark cloud of depression that follows you everywhere leaves you feeling like there is no alternative, that the only way to get out of the crappy situation you think you are in is to end it all. That is a devastating thought to endure.

Until you’ve stared down that level of depression, until you’ve lost your body, heart, mind and soul to a sea of emptiness and darkness…you don’t get to make those judgments. You might not understand it, and you are certainly entitled to your opinion, but making those judgments and spreading that kind of negativity won’t help the next person. In fact, it will only hurt them – and others – deeper.

Lesson 3: Once a nutcase, always a nutcase is a myth.

You have to look at depression for exactly what it is, an illness. Let’s compare it to diabetes. There is no cure for diabetes, but it is a manageable illness. There are many ways people with mental illness can live regular lives just like everyone else. Of course, there are different levels of the illness and it might take a lot of work for one person versus very little for another.

For me, the best plan has been medication and “talk” therapy. Medication isn’t a magic pill that works the first time you take it. You may have to try different pills or different combinations, and it takes a short time for those meds to kick in. You would be surprised at how many people you know or are familiar with that live with mental illness. Remember approximately 1 in 4 people suffers from a diagnosable mental disorder. Take a look around, it could be you, your best friend, your partner, your parent. Don’t be so quick to judge, but do ask questions. Approach them in a caring, concerned and loving manner.

Lesson 4: No blame, no shame, just be kind.

The worst things to say to someone with a mental illness:

• Snap out of it
• There are a lot of people worse off than you
• You have so many things to be thankful for, how can you be depressed?
• You’d feel better if you got off all those pills
• What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger
• Go out and have some fun
• I know how you feel
• So you’re depressed. Aren’t you always?
• This too shall pass
• You make the choice to have a bad day, just decide to have a good day.

Think about it. If you changed the words up a little bit, you would never even think to say things like:

• Hey, diabetic, snap out of it.
• Hey, epileptic, I know how you feel.
• Hey, paraplegic, so you can’t use your legs, isn’t that always the case?

You get the idea. No one would think those things are okay to say, and just because you can’t “see” my illness doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

By saying these things, the mentally ill person in front of you is already probably feeling very bad about themselves, and you have chosen to go and make it worse.

Instead of those ugly things listed above, try saying things like this:

• I love you
• What can I do to help?
• This must be very hard for you
• I am there for you, and I will always be there for you
• You are amazing and strong, and you can get through this
• Have you seen your doctor/therapist?
• You never have to apologize for feeling this way
• I’m not scared of you

It has taken me a lot of work to get to where I am now. I have also discovered a new found passion for working in the mental health field. On July 24 of this year, I completed a course and am now certified in Mental Health First Aid. No, I am not a doctor, but I now have the tools and resources to help someone through a crisis to the next step and help stabilize a dangerous situation. I am learning more about the field through volunteering, organizing suicide prevention classes, and attending any and every class or lecture I possibly can.

I recently applied for a job in the mental health field and I’m waiting to hear back from the organization. If I don’t get hired for this job, I won’t let it get me down. I’ll keep pushing on. There are too many people out there in life-challenging situations that are being ignored by society. I can no longer stand by and let them suffer.

To go from a place of wanting to end my life to now being considered for a job helping others is a testament to every single person suffering from mental illness. Suicide is not the answer. There is hope! You can overcome your situation, you are important and what you have to offer can help someone at a time when they really need someone who understands.

Love yourself enough to ignore what others may think of you seeking professional help. You will be amazed at how much just talking to someone about your problems can help. Don’t keep your emotions bottled up inside until the bottle bursts. As the late, great Whitney Houston said in the movie Sparkle, “was my life not enough of a cautionary tale for you?”

If You Think You Need Help,
Please contact a medical or mental health professional as soon as possible. If professional help is not readily available, there are crisis lines and countless other resources that can assist.

National Suicide Prevention Hotline
(800) 237-TALK
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides free and confidential emotional support to people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
San Diego LGBT Community Center
3909 Centre Street (Hillcrest)
San Diego, CA 92103
Behavioral Health Services: (619) 692-2077 x208 (on-duty counselor, business hours)
Heidorn Lifeline: (858) 212-LIFE (after-hours or emergency crisis intervention & suicide prevention)
Web: www.thecentersd.org
San Diego County Access and Crisis Line
(800) 479-3339 or (888) 724-7240
The County of San Diego’s 24-hour prevention/intervention hotline
Web: www.sdcounty.ca.gov/hhsa/programs/bhs/
Trevor Project Lifeline
(866) 488-7386
The Trevor Project provides a 24-hour hotline that provides crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning young people (LGBTQ) ages 13-24.
Trevor Text: Text the word “Trevor” to (202) 304-1200. Standard text messaging rates apply.
Web: www.thetrevorproject.org

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My name is Kurt Cunningham, I was born into a mostly happy upper middle class family in Orange County, CA. Had a great relationship with my family, got on good a school seemed to have it all. Then my dad accidently shot himself. My life changed forever. In my early twenties I moved to San Diego. Thankfully my mom and friends were still in my corner. I’d be come a well-known activist and performer, a well-liked business owner, but I’d still had not recovered from my fathers death. I’d hide the depression with alcohol drugs, Then the economy crashed, I lost my business, my mom got cancer and died and since I’d never had a long-term relationship I thought I had nothing to live for. I attempted to end my life two years ago and through dumb luck and a built up tolerance level to drugs and alcohol, I lived. Once I realized I was faced with starting to live life all over again. I “regrouped” and found my passion for helping others that maybe facing a similar situation that I had. I spend my days volunteering and searching for that perfect job in the Mental Health field.

Stigma Fighters: Dani Smith

I was born in 1980 into a family that had a long history of mental illness and disability, most notably severe Bi-Polar Disorders, clinical depression, and GAD. Two relatives committed suicide in the last 80 years, one to a self-inflicted gunshot wound, the other by throwing himself under a train (my grandmother has been in and out of psychiatric wards for much of her life). I have suffered from anxiety since young childhood, even to the point of producing psychosomatic symptoms (fevers, stomach ailments, heart palpitations, etc.). Ended up in the doctor’s office more than once fearing for my heart.

At age 13 I sank into severe depression and attempted suicide, and yet again at 16. I would go for days without speaking, or with extremely delayed speech and thought processes. I would bite myself in self-hatred, and sink into violent crying jags. Through intense and caring one-on-one talk therapy, I coped and made it through my teens. I lived with my longtime partner/husband for 15 years. The year we married I developed a debilitating anxiety disorder triggered by a traumatic experience, and as a result was put on psychotropic drugs for the first time. I remain on these drugs to this day, now in larger doses.

During a divorce in 2013 I relied heavily on cigarettes, painkillers, and anti-depressants to get through the emotional minefield I was swamped in. I was prescribed Ativan for panic attacks. Around this same time I began experiencing severe reproductive problems, including debilitating pelvic pain and hormonal imbalances. Surgery for this condition was performed in August 2014, removing several of my reproductive organs and leaving me infertile. The subsequent hormone crash that resulted sent me into a downward spiral of panic attacks, severe depression, and suicidal tendencies. Through the help of medication and my family, I got through the worst part of it.

I am a professional comic book artist with several bestselling fantasy/paranormal projects under my belt. I have a healthy fan base worldwide that continues to grow, and a recent film option for one of my comics series. I absolutely love my job. But I still struggle daily with debilitating mental illness, and it impacts my work, my art, my part as a mother, and being a member of a family on a regular basis. I have no interest in hiding what makes me ME…and part of that is dealing with mental illness every day. It shatters me to see others with my condition stigmatized within society, and I refuse to let it happen to me. I want to see mental illness viewed with the same seriousness as cancer, heart disease, and diabetes. It is no less valid. It is no less real.

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DANI SMITH is a bestselling “indie” comic book artist/creator, paranormal/horror storyteller, and character designer/illustrator running her own one-woman show through Quick Draw Studios. Art and writing are in her blood; creativity is her addiction, with no hope of rehabilitation. She is a tattooed tomboy who loves the occasional corset, is proudly bisexual, and is a strong supporter of women who don’t “fit the norm” and who are still discovering who they are. She adores old cemeteries, roses, tattoos, motorcycles and muscle cars, abandoned places/ghost towns, handmade bar soap, and combat boots. She is the mother of a beautiful little son, Ryker, who has inspired her to be fearless, both for him and for herself. You can find Dani online at: https://www.facebook.com/danismithcomicscreator and on Twitter @DaniQuickDraw

Stigma Fighters: Helen W.

I’ve always thought of it as having a skin too few. The stupidest things upset me. I can be happy and content but one prick and I deflate with a sick feeling of futility and inadequacy acidic in my stomach.

As a child I never seemed to get it right. I would greet beloved relatives with squeals of enthusiasm. Of course I was deserving of the biggest present. On one dreadful occasion I actually grabbed the biggest present and ripped it open. The ensuing yells and ‘so disappointed’ murmurs haunt me still.

In my teens I ran a bit wild, smoking pot, drinking, and a boyfriend in the cool group of older kids. To me my parents were disappointed, angry or at their wits end when I came home drunk, drugged in the early hours. Everything they felt and expressed, echoed and magnified inside me to immense proportions. I would go to bed feeling like the worst person in the world, wanting to never wake up, to not suffer this pain any more.

My memory of my first suicide attempt is swallowing all the pills in the medicine cabinet with a stolen bottle of wine. I repented when I started feeling sick and told my mother who made me drink salt water until I vomited. Her memory is different. Today who is correct is irrelevant.

At University my disastrous first year was spent in a Hall of Residence. I cheated on my long-term boyfriend and did the only thing I really regret – broke his heart. That short-lived affair ended, with a note under my door. I tried to hang myself, but the light fitting broke with my weight. I would alternate between wild parties, and periods when I felt desperately dreadfully alone.

The pattern continued in the years I lived in a shared house. Parties, drink, sleeping around (even though I had a boyfriend).

Then came the rape. My abuser was manipulative and sucked me into a place where I was numb. I was tied to bath taps, tied to the bed head, held down by his weight. I believed this was all I really deserved. When I got flu he vanished. Later when he reappeared one of my housemates drove him off. I couldn’t, I was too broken.

Soon I overdosed again. I remember the feeling of deep shame and abject failure that came with the paramedic telling me how stupid I was, the endless vomiting as my body rejected the drugs, and the rage of my housemate as she screamed about how much I had damaged her. I was a failure even at death.

I was referred to a psychologist. I saw him twice and he thought I probably had mild episodic depression. That was it. No help no follow up.

Work was difficult. I was unable to control my moods, and was repeatedly told I was damaging others. Somehow I became a Chartered Accountant and fled to Australia.

Nothing changed in the new country, except I replaced partying for regular self-medication with alcohol. I became a functional alcoholic.

I lost two jobs, the first for visa reasons. The second was worse. My mood swings had so damaged the psyche of a junior he was afraid to work with me. That night my long-term partner took the vodka and the knives away as I lay screaming on the kitchen floor.

The first turning point came when the world became grey. One morning I walked into my GP’s office started crying and couldn’t stop. I spent about 3 months away from my job with that breakdown. For the first time I received anti-depressants.

The second turning point was when my physical health started to decline. I was given pain medication but no guidance on taking it properly. The anti-depressants were increased in dosage but to no avail. I started to loose my temper at work, and had uncontrollable back spasms. My employers deemed me a safety threat and went through a long process to terminate my employment.

Then my GP did something. Realising my situation was too much for her I was referred to a psychiatrist who also specialised in pain management. My anti-depressants were adjusted and changed until the right balance was found. I was given a regime for pain medication.

I went through therapy that showed me how my past affected my present. I could finally make peace with myself. The diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder was the final piece of the puzzle. Now I knew why I had such manic highs and agonising lows.

I made peace with my family by dragging the whole thing into the light. I talked about everything. My mother struggled with some of this, her memories disagreeing with mine. My father revealed he felt the same way I did all his life. There was, figuratively, blood on the carpet, but at last there was understanding and some peace between us.

I continue to live with periods of highs, followed by crushing lows. My long-term relationship ended but I was able to process the intense hurt, and we remain the best of friends. In my lows there are still times I don’t want to wake up, I take pills to make sure I get to sleep rather than drinking too much and trying to damage myself. I get paranoid that my current boyfriend will tire of me, even though he knows my story.

But I gained a gift in the process – empathy. No longer living in the set of rules and expectations work and society try to place around people I am open minded about people and their lives. This means if I can try to help someone, even just by offering love and support from afar, lending an ear, or posting silly messages or random hug pictures on their Facebook timeline I will. I am repaid tenfold by deep and abiding friendships and support. Finally I know why I am still living this life.

helen

I am Helen White. I studied Ancient and Medieval History at University before graduating as a Chartered Accountant. I have no idea why I chose that career path. I immigrated to Australia in September 2000, my main memory is being bemused by the blanket coverage of some kind of Olympic ceremony on the television – Sydney 2000. I continued a career in finance, to the detriment of my mental health.  In 2010 I was forced to leave the workforce. I am currently taking a break attempting to study for a Masters in Information Management. Frustratingly this in abeyance due to continued deterioration of my spine. My mind is active and stubborn. I live with my ex and 2 demanding Siamese all of whom I adore.

Stigma Fighters: Try Love Instead

She was weak.

He didn’t try hard enough.

She was lazy.

He didn’t appreciate his life.

She’s not sick. She doesn’t look sick.

He gave up.

She gave up.

He wasn’t thinking about his family.

She was only thinking of herself.

He had a choice, he chose to be depressed.

Smile.

Fake it.

Act happy and then you’ll be happy.

He didn’t make it.

She lost.

He’s a loser.

She’s not worth your time.

Give up.

Don’t judge him.

Stop judging her.

You don’t know her.

You don’t know him.

Try to understand.

They didn’t look sick, but they were/are.

It’s not their fault.

Love her.

Love him.

Take his hand.

Embrace her.

Listen.

Love.

Be there.

Just be there.

Stigma Fighters: Ethan Michael Carter

“My name is Ethan Michael Carter, and I don’t belong on this site.”

At least thats what I feel I should write, before I close down my Mac and get on with the ‘normal,’ things in my day.

But the truth is, I do belong here, and I do have a story to tell.
Maybe the inner child in me doesn’t want to stray down the dark alleys of what is otherwise known as my past? Who knows? All I do know is that I feel both apprehensive and exposed, when faced with the vulnerability that this article will inevitably bathe me in.

I was born in Buckinghamshire, in the UK. I was born into a family that would have been lucky to have been labelled ‘Dysfunctional.’ My family were — for lack of a better word — evil.

With an absent father, I was raised by my mother and her relatives. It was an environment devoid of love, and because I reminded them all of my father — it was always open season for hating me; hate that was expressed both verbally and physically.

While most people’s earliest childhood memories are normally of happier or more innocent times; mine consisted of constantly facing a barrage of hate – one that was always ready to mow me down.

My crime? Simple. It was being born.

All this hate took its toll on me as a child. I began to compartmentalize the injustices, and inadvertently file them away for some unspecified time known as ‘Later.’
I became quiet at school, and I was fair game for bullies. This cycle of being bullied at home and also at school, carried on uninterrupted, until I entered my teenage years.

In my early teens, I started accessing those ‘files’ of hate that I had stored away. I’m not sure what the catalyst for this was? Perhaps I was like a volcano that had been quietly waiting to erupt? Either way, I — almost overnight — went from being a shy and almost timid kid, into becoming an overly aggressive young teen. This aggression became uncontrollable. In school the ex ‘bookworm’ that was me, now decided to throw books at people instead of reading them. I would throw chairs at teachers, and fight as often as I could. The outside world had become my sounding board where I expressed all the mental and physical pain that I was enduring in my home-life.

However, my forms of expression were becoming increasingly unhealthy. I started gravitating toward spending time with older teens, and sought my version of ‘family,’ from the gang that I had now joined. At 13 years old, I was swimming in a sea of activities that included shoplifting, fighting, sex, and — in retrospect — what was clearly the onset of an early addiction to narcotics.

The only responsible adults around me were located at the school I was in, but I was no longer on their radar for concern, as I had by this point – been branded as ‘bad,’ and someone that was ‘undeserving,’ of their time and attention. They were less interested in helping me, and more concerned with how to kick me out of the school for good.

As I continued to spiral into a cyclone of anarchic behavior and rebellious rage, I felt more and more alienated, and increasingly alone.

Ironically, through my shoplifting ‘activities,’ I found my salvation. I stole a magazine one day, while out with my ‘friends.’ I didn’t steal it because I wanted it, I stole it because we were all robbing the Indian guy who owned the convenient store. So, I just grabbed what I could and came out of the store. Later that day, while I was bored, I pulled out the magazine, and noticed it was related to boxing. As I flicked through the pages, I remember reading a featured article about an ex-boxer who was attracting a lot of attention from local security, bouncers and even law enforcement. The article mentioned how this man’s gym had become a hub of excellence for all fighters. So, me being me, I decided to train there so that I could “kick peoples asses better.”

However, it turned out that the man who ran the gym, eventually became my mentor. A mentor for not just fighting, but for life.
He took the time to look past my anger and find root causes.
He took the time to take me to a doctor, where my behavioral difficulties were diagnosed.
Maybe that’s all we really need from anyone, for them to give us their time….

Thanks to my mentors time, I learned how to control my anger, and I even learned to make peace with my hurts. I eventually trained to be an English teacher, and taught in school’s for 5 years, before I eventually migrated into the world of writing; where I now am working on a project for FX.
Not bad, for someone that was labelled ‘bad,’ and ‘underserving,’ of help!

I’ve also suffered terrible hurts since then. I lost my fiancee in a car accident, and I suffered a brain aneurism earlier this year. Both these events sent me into a dark depression that was like a fog; one that both consumed and dampened, my motivation and will.
In-fact, I see depression as a bittersweet pill. Part of depression is alluring and invites us to build a home there; while the other side of depression laces you with self-disgust, and frustrating negativity.
During this time, I was afraid to admit how I felt, or to even seek help. I felt the weight and stigma of being branded as having something ‘wrong’ with me, to be overwhelming enough to keep me from seeking advice. But again — it was my mentor that helped me, but now in my adult years.

After seeking out medical advice, I worked through the depression that was brought on by losing my fiancee and my aneurism, in a similar manner to which I had done many years earlier in my teens.

It wasn’t an easy process, it never is. Perhaps, its not supposed to be.

I guess I see life or mental health, as being a lot like boxing.
Sometimes in the boxing ring called life, we get hit by body blows that leave us reeling in pain, and often times — have us kissing the canvas. But ultimately, despite the efforts of others to help— its up to us, how long we stay down.

I think eveytime we fall, we are given the chance to rebuild ourselves. Emotional wounds cut the deepest and leave lifelong scars. But, if we tend to our wounds correctly, we can heal stronger.

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Ethan Michael Carter is a British-born Screenwriter, Fight Choreographer and Relationship Expert.

He is currently working as a screenwriter for an upcoming television series with FX.

After a short period of homelessness as a child, he trained with his boxing coach and mentor for over twenty years – in the art of manliness and relationships. He then used what he had learnt and spent five years teaching English in schools, before working as a successful Hollywood fight choreographer.

Ethan now takes what he has learned in life, and writes about relationships on his blog, LiveMoreThanYouExist.com 

He also coaches clients from all around the world, teaching them about the true essence of manliness and dating in the modern world. Follow him on Twitter @Carter_inc

Stigma Fighters: Danny P.

I have lived with depression and anxiety for nearly as long as I can remember.  For years I would not fully acknowledge that simple fact.  During my teenage years I turned to drugs and alcohol to help me cope with the pain and shame I felt.  In my twenties and thirties I was on and off antidepressants, I went to therapy, and yet I still didn’t really consider myself as someone who had depression and anxiety until fairly recently.  I never attempted suicide.  I have never been hospitalized.  This line of thinking was a way to separate myself from people who were really messed up.  I would always go off my medication once I started to feel better with the assumption that everything was better now and I didn’t need the medication anymore.  I wanted to be “normal”.  Who doesn’t?

I lead a pretty regular existence in my external life.  The medication and therapy helped me cope better.  I am married and have two sons who are now in their teens.  I also teach elementary school.  However, I continued to battle depression and anxiety.  I did this primarily on my own.  I felt I had to keep my two lives separate.  A few people in my life knew about my struggles, but because of the stigma (mostly my own) I felt like I needed to keep this a secret from the rest of the world.

About three years ago, at the age of 41,  I had one of my worst episodes of depression that once again pushed me back onto medication and into therapy.  It was different this time.  I had always managed to push my way through my episodes before.  I mean I was miserable, but I still managed to function.  I did get through this episode, but I felt more out of control than I had ever felt before.  It scared me.  A LOT!!!  I didn’t feel safe.  I thought I would have to be hospitalized.  I would make it through work somehow (those close to me noticed something wasn’t right) and then just come home and cry.  I would often cry in the car on my way to and from work.  I remember very clearly thinking my family would be better off without me.  I didn’t want to be alive.  I didn’t know if I was going to make it out of this episode, but it did begin to get better.  After a couple of months the medication began to kick in and I began to stabilize.

I started taking it a bit more seriously.  Instead of just letting my general doctor take care of prescribing me medication I went to a psychiatrist.  He questioned me for about an hour about my history and then told me I have episodic major depressive disorder and generalized anxiety disorder.  I hadn’t noticed it really before he pointed it out, but over the years my episodes would come more quickly each time after going off of meds and the severity of the episodes began increasing.  I made a choice at that point that my goal was no longer to go off of medication.   I’m still on it more than 3 years later and am not sure I’ll ever go off.  I’m open, but at this point I see no reason to.

As I was coming out of my depression and working on some things in therapy it became clear to me how difficult it was for me emotionally to keep my depression from people.  It takes so much energy to pretend like everything is okay when I’m falling apart inside.  Not only that, but it was like I was living a lie.  Because… I was.  I decided I was finished with that. So I started telling people who were close to me.  My wife already knew, but my parents did not.  Many of my friends didn’t know either.  I also had a conversation with each of my sons about it, who were then 9 and 12.  The conversations were really good and each of them asked me questions and tried to understand.

Through that process an amazing thing happened.  Pretty much everyone I told responded sympathetically.  Some would tell me about their struggles, or those of a family member or close friend. I realized in those instances that my talking about it gave them permission to share their own experiences. I didn’t have to pretend anymore.  Even though not everyone knew, there were multiple people in all parts of my life who knew about it.  I still had the same issues, except now I didn’t feel so alone with them or like I had to work so hard to put up a false front.

Over the last several years I have come out in the open and become an advocate for people with mental illness.  I have participated in two Out of the Darkness Overnight walks sponsored by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.  This summer I started a blog about my life with depression,  I have also created a private support page on Facebook for people who have been affected by mental illness.  It has become a supportive community and has created a space for people to talk freely about things they can’t discuss in other areas of their lives.  I will take another terrifying step next weekend when I will speak for 10 to 15 minutes at my church about my story and ending the stigma. There are typically about 150 to 200 people at church and some of my friends will be coming also.

I’m both excited and terrified about sharing my story in public.  Despite being a teacher, I do not like public speaking.  But I have made a decision that I am going to share my story and use my experiences to let others know they are not alone in their suffering.  I’m anxious, but I’m also happy for the opportunity to share that message with so many people!  I will continue to talk about it and create opportunities for people to talk openly about mental illness.  I’m proud to be a mental health advocate and am grateful to not be living in the darkness anymore with my mental illness.  unnamed

Bio:  My name is Danny Price.  I live in northern California with my wife and two sons.  I am a husband, father, teacher, youth leader, and now also a mental health advocate. I have a blog at depressioninthelight.blogspot.com where I write about my experiences living with depression and anxiety.

Stigma Fighters: Sarah Griffith Lund

The Pain without a Name
by Sarah Griffith Lund

We didn’t know. We never knew what to call it. We didn’t have a diagnosis then.

If you had a mood disorder or a mental illness before the 21st century, then it was understood and treated within the limitations based on the research, knowledge and resources available at that time.
What is more likely is that the brain disease wasn’t diagnosed or treated at all. It was also common then, as now, for people with mental illness to not seek help or treatment. Fear of being labeled, of losing a job, of getting locked up in the mental hospital or getting experimented on kept people silent about their inner struggles.

I’m hearing this from my readers, people like me who know what it’s like to grow up with mental illness in the home. For a lot of us growing up, for various reasons, the people we loved weren’t getting the mental health care they needed and deserved. And whatever help they were getting wasn’t talked about. Fathers and mothers disappeared for days and weeks at a time, leaving children at home to wonder what would happen next.

Our loved ones were misdiagnosed, over-medicated, dismissed, couldn’t afford help or refused treatment.

This left us as children pretty much in the deep pit of the unknown. We didn’t know why moods shifted so rapidly or why a parent couldn’t work or even get out of bed or drank too much or committed suicide.
We didn’t understand that a parent withholding love or affection was a result of an untreated mental illness, and not, as many of us felt, a reflection of our own self-worth. I tell the story in my book Blessed are the Crazy: Breaking the Silence About Mental Illness, Family, and Church about how this was so hard for me to understand as a little girl.

My dad lived his whole adult life with untreated bipolar disorder. His typically manic behavior spiraled into delusions and psychosis which frightened me as a child. I wanted to believe his delusions but they confused me. I was raised by the religious teaching to honor your mother and father. I did not know how to honor his bipolar because it scared me. For a long time I could not separate my father from his brain disease.

It wasn’t until I started talking about the impact that mental illness had on my life that I started to heal. Now I know that to keep the trauma of mental illness silent is to give it power over me. Breaking the silence lifts me out of the valley of the shadow of mental illness. As a little girl I was taught that it was not polite or ladylike to talk about such things, about ugly things, about painful things, about the secret things. I was taught to wear a pretty smile on my face all of the time, no matter what I actually felt on the inside.

That was then.

This is now.

Now we know that mood disorders are nothing to be ashamed about, apologize for, or cover-up. Mental illness is not a punishment from God or a sign of personal failure or weakness or a character deficit.

We know that mental illness is a real disease of the brain.

We know that prevention, treatment and recovery are options.

We know there is hope.

And we know we are never going back.

We are never going back to the silence, stigma and shame.

We are never going back to the lobotomies, the ignorance, the demonizing and the dehumanizing of people with a disease.

For a better future for the children of today and tomorrow, we are breaking the silence about mental illness now.

This is a new day.

We are naming it out loud. We are understanding the causes and the treatments. We are getting evaluated. We are getting the help we need.

Too many people are suffering silently from a pain with no name.

We can change this by offering accessible support and advocating for mental health education in the public schools, and funding mental health screenings. Early detection and treatment of mental illness can prevent severe brain diseases and suicide.

It’s up to each one of us to name mental illness and by so doing, to rid it of the immobilizing shame, stigma and silence.

It’s up to each of us to tell our stories.

It’s up to us to mobilize a movement for mental health.

If not you, then who?

If not now, then when?
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Bio:
Sarah Griffith Lund is an ordained minister in The United Church of Christ and Disciples of Christ. She’s served congregations in Brooklyn, New York, Minneapolis, Minnesota, and New Smyrna Beach, Florida. She holds degrees from Trinity University, Princeton Theological Seminary, Rutgers University, and McCormick Theological Seminary. Her new book _Blessed are the Crazy: Breaking the Silence about Mental Illness, Family, and Church_ is a raw, honest look at her father’s battle with untreated bipolar disorder, the helpless sense of déjà vu as her brother struggles with bipolar, and serving as the spiritual advisor to her cousin, a mentally ill man executed for murder. Through the challenges and despair, Sarah shows how churches as be safe havens for people who have brain diseases and for their loved ones. She blogs at www.sarahgriffithlund.com and is on Twitter @revlund and on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/SarahGriffithLund

The Dark Battlefield

My family has a history of mental illness, pretty much all of it completely un-diagnosed. When I say my family is crazy, I’m not elaborating. Some are more crazy than others, but all of us deal with depression and anxiety to some degree.

I’m writing this post anonymously because it’s a hard one to discuss…the affects that someone elses’ mental illness can have on you.

Mental illness is hard, it’s this battlefield, rutted in darkness. Everybody is shooting, trying to get the enemy but often getting other innocent people in the process because they just can’t see. The darkness is suffocating, blinding, maddening. Everybody wants out of it – those who are fighting the illness, those who are fighting for someone who has the illness, and those who are innocent bystanders.

Someone I care about has a bunch of mental illnesses that are undiagnosed but blatantly there. This person lives in their own twisted perception of reality, and truly views themselves as the victim. This person cannot comprehend that maybe, they aren’t the only victim in the story. This person cannot see that their actions are seriously hurting those they calm to care about. This person won’t get help for their mental illness, they won’t accept the fact that something is even remotely wrong. “It’s just depression,” they say, only it’s not just depression. I deal with depression and anxiety daily, I know what it looks like…what it inflicts on others and while it isn’t always pretty, it’s not this.

This person seeps out toxic poison from every pore. This person’s presence creates more issues for my own mental health, because this person asks and asks and asks and doesn’t realize the extent of what they are asking, of what I am giving. I shake and tremble in their wake. A phone conversation drains me, and a visit destroys me. It takes me forever to bring myself back to a place where I can honestly say I’m alright.

Mental health is a bitch, a cruel tormentor that knows just how to destroy families. It’s not like an illness such as cancer, where you would never even presume to give up on someone suffering from it. You would fight for that person, because they didn’t ask for that cruel disease. Mental health is just as cruel and nobody asks for it, but it’s harder to not give up on someone because it affects your own mental health so much.

Having children myself, I look at them and want to cry. I want to cry because I shudder at the mere thought that maybe one day, I will affect them in the ways that this person affects me. I don’t want to do that to them, not now or ever. I don’t want to make them feel trapped with lips sewn shut.

It’s different when someone is trying to see through the darkness, trying to get help. When the person isn’t getting help and flat out refuses to, they cause destruction to not only themselves but everyone around them. In that darkened battlefield, they’re shooting in every direction and enjoying it. They are not working together with the other voices, not calling out their position so other’s know when to duck.

And no matter what, those that they hurt are to blame. And that’s a hard thing to handle. It’s your fault I’m so sad. It’s your fault that I left you for years. It’s your fault because you sided with this other person, my abandonment is justified and now that I’ve returned, you MUST make it up to me. You must do all that I ask because if you don’t, you’re terrible people and I am and will always be the victim.

You have to know when to slam the door, to take the broken pieces of your own mental health and sanity and cling to them, protecting them from the destruction.

Making that call in itself is almost impossible, because of the guilt. The thoughts that if this was cancer, there would be no question. But it’s not cancer, it’s an attack on the soul and spirit and the will. When you’re handling your own illnesses that attack your soul, spirit and will…having someone else attack you as well is extremely crippling.

Stigma Fighters: Bipolar Babe – Andrea P.

I am passionate and extremely involved in mental health engagement in my community. I launched www.bipolarbabe.com in May of 2009 and created a logo with a talented artist titled ‘Bipolar Babe: Stomping out Stigma.’ Thereafter, I designed and distributed bipolar babe postcards, which read “Creating a World of Understanding, Empathy, and Acceptance for Those that Have a Mental Health Condition.”

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Image courtesy of Bipolar Babe

Thus began my journey into the world of mental health engagement, and the results have been impacting and encouraging. I create conversations free of stigma in my community by having launched an online forum and a blog on the babe website and I networked endlessly to build my Bipolar Babe brand. I did not know what my efforts would produce, but it felt right when I was asked to speak at a non-profit mentorship program about my personal experience.

The presentation was so satisfying that I accepted further requests to speak, but in my heart I knew the people that I wanted to reach the most with my story were the youth. During this time, I also made my basement suite a place for youth with a mental illness to gather in a peer support group, which I called the Teens2Twenties. I engaged youth to help them in any way possible to stay well, form friendships, and most of all, share their own experiences for healing.

Through my active networking efforts, I met many supportive individuals along the way and we formed the Bipolar Disorder Society of British Columbia (BDSBC) in January 2010.  We received charitable status in June 2010, having our application received months later and approved in a mere 29 days.

We also worked tirelessly to create a variety show: Bipolar Babe Fundraiser, and so began our non-profit society with only a few thousand dollars in the bank. Our society has been in existence for over four years now and we have five programs dedicated to the service delivery of peer support and mental health education. We now have a staff of five and I moved quickly from the position of Board President to Executive Director of BDSBC.

The success of our programs and community engagement has been both impactful and effective. I lead the Stigma Stomp Classroom Presentation Program and we present to an average of 2000 students per year, and provide three peer support groups for countless people struggling with mental health challenges. I lead the majority of the program delivery by being a presenter and a group facilitator, but we also have excellent support staff members that make the programs possible.

Over the years we have accomplished many things, and have held numerous awareness events called “Stigma Stomp Day” and “Clara’s Big Ride: Hats off to Clara Hughes Fundraiser and a Daytime Legislature Welcoming Event.” I have been featured personally on local radio shows speaking to the issue of mental health, my personal story, and stigma numerous times. I have also been on several television news casts promoting our organization, and showcasing the work that we do as a society. We have also gained a significant amount of print coverage and all of these successes may be viewed at: http://bipolarbabe.com/news

Lastly, I have personally been extremely engaged in the mental health community by applying my writing abilities. I am a blogger for HealthyPlace.com for my blog called ‘Surviving Mental Health Stigma Blog.’ You may find this blog here.  I also brought my community engagement a bit further by becoming a contributor/author to an anthology published by Brindle and Glass called “Hidden Lives: Coming out on Mental Illness.” I am truly grateful to have the opportunity to engage both with youth and adults in their mental health journeys, and I plan to continue building on both my writing career and community engagement work with BDSBC.

I also brought my community engagement a bit further by becoming a contributor/author to an anthology published by Brindle and Glass called “Hidden Lives: Coming out on Mental Illness.” I am truly grateful to have the opportunity to engage both with youth and adults in their mental health journeys, and I plan to continue building on both my writing career and community engagement work with BDSBC.

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Andrea Paquette is founder and Executive Director of the Bipolar Disorder Society of BC, also known as Bipolar Babe in the community.  She is a mental health speaker, published author, advocate and above all a Stigma Stomper.  She created the Bipolar Babe Project with the introduction of Bipolar Babe in 2009.

Andrea has reached thousands with her message of hope and resilience in middle, secondary and post-secondary schools, workplaces, and throughout various community organizations and events.  Her Bipolar Babe persona has reached great heights locally and internationally as she is the winner of Victoria’s 2013 CFAX Mel Cooper Citizen of the Year Award and the recent Winner for mental health Mentorship Award given by the National Council for Behavioral Health out of Washington, D.C.

As Executive Director for the Bipolar Disorder Society of BC, Andrea worked with a board of directors to grow their modest non-profit from a project to a reputable organization dedicated to mental health awareness and support focusing mainly on youth.  Andrea’s classroom presentations have received outstanding reviews from students and teachers alike.  One young individual stated that he was now less nervous about meeting his biological father who has bipolar disorder after participating in a Bipolar Babe presentation.
Andrea has been interviewed by numerous media personalities notably having been on CBC on three separate occasions and CTV numerous times.  She is grateful for having the opportunity to share her personal message that “No matter what our challenges we can all live extraordinary lives.”