I like to talk. Preferably to people. For as long as I can remember, I wanted to be the center of attention. Probably because growing up I received very little of it. I grew up not knowing a lot of things but one thing I did know was that of all the things to talk about mental illness was not on that list. Mental illness. Stay away.
It didn’t take long in my development, however, for me to realize that I was what many would label as “crazy.” Knowing that I resolved to be the fun kind of crazy. But as much as I loved being the life of the party I also had a side of myself that was in constant emotional pain and self-loathing. I tried to find contentment in being the class clown in high school and the comic relief in my college theatre productions. All the while I was suppressing how I really felt but I was certain those feelings were nothing anyone would understand. Yeah, there were times when I just wanted people to feel sorry for me but all in all I couldn’t shake the long-held belief that if I was to receive any affection from people it was only from making them laugh. No one cared how I really felt, I insisted.
I would face my biggest challenge when I suddenly joined the US Army when I was 21. It was then that the joke would be on me. What began as a way to escape “real world” responsibilities and demands quickly turned into an experience so mentally exhausting that it eventually led to my first (but certainly not last) psychiatric hospitalization. I gave it my all but still couldn’t keep up with the grind. Whether it was shooting, throwing grenades, or dealing with the same toxic people day-in and day-out I just couldn’t survive. After months of trying to keep myself together I finally imploded into a catatonic state in front of my fellow soldiers and was carted off in a stretcher. I remember being so ashamed of myself at the time. There was no way I could face my platoon when I returned from my week at the psych ward let alone face my family. I felt like such a failure which at that time was quite the familiar feeling. Not too surprisingly, the only thing I liked about my job in the army was giving military intelligence reports because, hey, at least I got to speak in front of an audience.
>When I was discharged I had to face my family and friends back at home but there was no way I was ever going to tell them that the reason why I had to leave the army was that I had a mental breakdown. That was absolutely out of the question. I had to find a way to redeem myself and hopefully, this feeling of failure would seem like a distant memory. But month after month, year after year, hospitalization after hospitalization, it was becoming evident that I had serious issues that needed to be addressed. Even as I slowly began to seek help in the form of talk therapy and, eventually, medication I still refused to talk to most people about the severe despair going on in my head. I just couldn’t allow myself to go there. Okay, maybe within a very very small circle but I can guarantee I will never do anything like, say, make a Facebook post about
It wasn’t until after making it through a two-month manic episode and the subsequent crash that I came to the realization that if I was to find any kind of peace in my life then I would need to start speaking out. (Well, first I actually came to the realization that I was bipolar but that’s a story for a different time.) And not just to a select few individuals. I felt compelled to speak publicly to the world. For all my low self-worth I at least knew that I excelled at communication. I just needed to train myself to be just as confident at speaking about mental illness as I was at making silly jokes. It took a while but once I really started putting myself out there it became clear that I had found my calling in life. I was fortunate enough to be elected president of my college’s Active Minds chapter which allowed me to host mental health events on campus as well as share my story for the first time in classrooms. Like most things I sucked at the beginning but I never gave up. I often felt like it but I never gave up. I didn’t want my advocacy to end there, though. I quickly discovered a blossoming mental health community online full of a diverse array of voices but with a common goal of speaking out loud about their experiences and paving the way for more and more people to do the same as well. After many years of trying to fit in with people who didn’t know the real me, I finally found myself surrounded by peers who understood my pain and encouraged me to express my vulnerability to a wider and wider audience. There was something about feeling free to be me that made the pain that much more bearable.
And yes, the pain is still there. But I accept that. Because as long as I’m not alone and I have people to speak to, well, I guess I can keep on keeping on. Thankfully, there’s never been more platforms to share our mental illness journeys than there is today. This is truly a luxury not afforded to so many who have suffered in silence for so long. Whether it’s writing for Stigma Fighters, hosting Facebook Lives for The Mighty, producing a This is My Brave show or giving presentations at schools and conferences across the country I can’t see myself doing anything else with my life. For something that once filled me with paralyzing fear and distorted my self-image, it’s amazing how far I’ve come.
Yes, I still doubt myself. I still wonder if it all means anything in the grand scheme of things. I still break down in tears when it gets too be all too much. But I do know this: I like to talk. So talk I shall. Preferably to people.