Mental Illness. Two words. Many assumptions. Two words, synonymous with guilt, shame and stigma. Two words, misunderstood. Two words, silenced. That is why I am here today to speak to this silence. I am here to share my story. By adding this story to the collage created by many, I aim to change perceptions and create awareness. I am not trying to shift the tectonic plates of your brain enough to create a mountain, in fact I know I can’t, but I am aiming to create a small earthquake. I hope that this earthquake will bring up awareness, spark new ideas and form positive perceptions of the words mental illness and the disease itself.
There is a story of a man who grew up with little but formed his own future. He graduated from Georgetown University, and was accepted by Stanford Business School. Surprisingly, he turned down the offer for a local start-up by the name of eBay. He married, had 3 daughters, and worked so hard, always striving for new ideas and innovations. This man, and the smartest person I knew, was my father. He had mental illness.
My dad passed away from mental illness 3 and a half years ago. I had no idea that he was suffering until I found out that it took his life. I ask myself why I didn’t know, or even if I wanted to – but when I look at how mental illness is portrayed, I understand. Less than 15 people knew that my dad was suffering from the time he was diagnosed until his death, and I wasn’t one of them. 15 people is way too few, but serves as a definite call to action. We need to be the change for those suffering in silence.
When the news was shared with me, I didn’t know what mental illness was or what it meant – even though explanations were attempted. All I knew was that it had stolen my father, and that it was overpoweringly terrifying. But my perceptions have evolved, and I am no longer scared. My tragedy is an opportunity for me to start the conversation about mental illness, and to be part of ending the stigma around it.
What my dad was going through was the result of a disease. He was not crazy. He did not want this difficult illness much less cause it himself. My father was brilliant, and the most caring parent I could wish for. And yes he had bipolar, OCD and depression – but that did not form his amazing character. I know that what I just said is the truth, but I also know that ignorance can blind people and that is what has always been hardest for me. Some people might think that my dad chose to die, because the way that he died is traditionally thought of as a choice – suicide. But his passing was the result of a sickness. The mixed up chemistry in his brain had a horrible fatal result, just like any other disease would mess with your body.
That is the actuality of the illness. As a society we have to dig up this actuality and learn to honor and believe it. When these truths are mangled, twisted and turned into offensive stigma, the silence and pain continues on. So things need to revolutionize – we need to be able to talk about mental illness like any other disease. The volumes on the voices that that offend, discriminate, and isolate people struggling – should be muted. The voices that are talking about mental illness like a disease and respecting the struggles of the people dealing with it – those voices need to be shouted.
My mom tells me that pink clouds are the mark of someone who has passed smiling down at you, wherever there are pink clouds right now, dad – this speech is for you. I am doing this for you – to give back to all you have given me. I love you and miss you all the time. I promise that things are going to change, that mental illness will not be something to be ashamed of and the conversation will start. We need to bring change to mind, and educate the truth. Also – I am going to edit my earlier analogy – I do want to create a mountain, but with small earthquakes, and you are going to be one of the many. The negative perceptions of the disease will be destroyed by the shaking in your brain, and newer more positive ones rebuilt. The news of these earthquakes will spread around the world, with many more people offering support. I believe that this mountain will form, it will be tall and strong and proud. Many people will climb this mountain, and it will be harder for some than others, but the ends will justify the means. The view from the peak of the mountain will make the whole journey worth it, because there will be those beautiful pink clouds smiling down on this marvelous mountain that has been created. Thank you.