whose story was so compelling and amazing that I went up to her and asked her if I could give her a hug.
She said yes! So I did.
Then I proceeded to sob all over her! It felt like I could barely get my story out, because all the tears were just flowing down my face.
She is a kindred spirit.
To give you a little context, I went to church this morning, a little late, as usual. Today, there was a service and a special collection to benefit the Spokane chapter of NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness). There were three guest speakers, who shared their stories. The first speaker was a woman about my age, and the second speaker was a man, perhaps a little younger than I. He has paranoid schizophrenia, poor guy.
The last woman was about my mother’s age, and she shared with us her “white picket fence story.” She had a husband, and four children, and a lovely house with a green yard. She taught Sunday school in her church. She volunteered in her community. She had a great life.
Then, she had a “little incident,” which landed her in the hospital – not in her hometown. She was in the hospital for a few days, for a mental problem. She said she was able to put the incident away “in a place, back in the corner or my mind, in a box, on a shelf.” Only a few people, close friends and family, knew…
Then, a few years later, she had another incident, this time not so small, and she found herself in the hospital, the psych ward, for many weeks. When she completed her treatment, her secret was out… She couldn’t hide it anymore. Instead of being able to be contained in a box, it was a big trunk that she couldn’t lift any more. She went to therapy, and got on meds, and she started to heal… She found NAMI and it made such a profound difference in her life.
She is a woman who lives with bipolar disorder. She said that doctors told her to say, “bipolar,” because no one really knew what that meant. (This must have been the 70s or something. People knew what “manic depressive” meant, but not “bipolar”).
I found myself tearing up a little in her story, thinking of my mother. The speaker was so warm, and told her truth with such self-directed compassion, that I didn’t feel sorry for her or anything. I just felt compelled by her story. She said that you have to do your own healing work – no one can do it for you.
After the service, I went over to her. I walked up to her, asked her for a hug, and said, “You could be my mom.” I shared that my mother is bipolar: she was diagnosed when she was 63 years old. She has had several “little incidents,” about half a dozen to date. She doesn’t take her medication. Instead, she drinks red wine and a lot of it. I also shared that my dad is gay, and that I was sexually abused when I was a little girl. Mom was so busy repressing her bipolar, not showing it to anybody, holding it together… Dad was also distracted, having secret late-night affairs with men in parks… That the household I grew up in “looked so beautiful, so normal from the outside! Pay no attention here! Everything’s fine! Move along!” But that the gaps in my parental supervision allowed for me to be sexually abused by a babysitter. I also developed anxiety, depression, PTSD, and later, alcoholism, because of all the strain.
She said, “Of course you did! What a stressful house to grow up in!”
She shared that she and her husband reluctantly shared their stories in their own congregation one day. (She says she’s a “Catheran,” a Catholic Lutheran! Ha!) She did not want to share her story, but her pastor insisted. Then, at the end of the service, the pastor had them in the receiving line, to shake people’s hands as they walked out of service. She said she was so nervous that people might judge her. But they didn’t, she said, “Over and over, people shared their stories with me. They struggle with mental illness; someone they know struggles with mental illness. They thanked me for having the courage to share.”
Anyone, anyone at all, can experience mental illness. I do: I have anxiety and depression. My symptoms are much better, now that I’m medicated. I remember, though, being filled with abject despair, knowing that no one would care if I died, that no one would notice. I remember sobbing all the time – not sleeping, eating, being able to get up off the couch. I remember.
There’s this stigma, all the time. You are a grown-up: you should be able to control your thoughts. You should be able to get up out of bed and have enough energy leftover to live a productive life. You should be able to read or watch the news without weeping for the little starving children everywhere. Pull yourself up by your bootstraps! Who needs help? Pansies! That’s who!
But we live in a world of brokenness – that can only be mitigated when we share our stories. That is what heals us. That is what makes us whole. When we lament for each other, celebrate and dance with each other. When we love each other.
Asking for help is always a sign of strength. It almost never feels that way, but it is.
I’m so grateful I met this woman today. I will call her up this week and invite her out for coffee. Then we can get to hear each other again. What a gift.