I remember my 30th birthday well. I was given a surprise party by my two best friends; they coordinated an amazing fete without having met, while living on different coasts. It was really wonderful, but my real gift that year was passing a grave milestone I had set for myself. I had somehow convinced myself that if I lived to be 30, I would have crossed a threshold that ensured I would not become schizophrenic like my brother.
I made it. I had dodged a bullet, or so I thought. What I didn’t know then was that a numbing and severe depression would overtake me decades later. I come by this naturally. Disorders of the brain, including, but not limited to depression, alcoholism and other addictions, exist on both sides of our family tree. My family is not unusual in that regard. One in three of us will suffer from mental illness at some point in our lives.
I was plunged into an abyss from which I could not get out on my own. The New Englander in me figured I could pull myself up by my bootstraps; I wasted a year of my life thinking like that. The reality was that I barely had the energy to feed myself and dropped 13 pounds before I even had a name for my indifference to life, everyday social interactions, or the fall leaves that I had always looked forward to each year.
Most of you would never guess this about me and that’s exactly why I am telling you now. My silence has been at odds with my desire to erase the terrible stigma that is all too real and pervades our common vernacular, the workplace, places of worship, and our private conversations.
There is something safer about sharing it now. The Affordable Care Act means I can not be excluded by an insurer for my pre-existing condition, nor can I be dropped because of it. This is a Godsend not just for me, but for the millions of Americans who suffer from some form of mental illness. My brother lost his insurance just 20 days after his first psychotic break; he was deemed uninsurable—too expensive. Unworthy.
I am a survivor because my mom made me get help. I’m a survivor because of a wonderful therapist and an anti-depressant that worked like a bloody miracle for me. I am alive because a few friends stood by me when I was not much fun to be around, and when isolation and sleep were my only escape from this exhausting life. How lucky I am.
At the end of the month, I will be 57, twice as old as my brother was when he took his own life. I want to honor my good health and my life with a birthday wish that was also his: to give to mental health research so that we can improve treatment options and one day find a cure.