“Accept and love me as I am, not who I used to be or who I could become.” — Joyce Drush
For the past 3 years I’ve shared Facebook Notes about why the NAMI Walk is so important to me. As my friend’s experiences with mental illness have progressed over the years, so has my understanding of what support and advocacy really means. Three years ago my note was about the long nights on the phone when she was suicidal, trying to deal with the voices telling her to hurt herself…two years ago it was about a long period of psychosis, the result of professionals’ failure to take her (or me) seriously as the voices took over and she started to lose control…last year it was about the importance of human connection, and what maintaining this friendship has meant for me. My post last year was pretty popular – it was shared on several mental health sites, and published in the NAMI magazine. But when I look back at it now, there’s a piece of it that bothers me – my repeated reference to her getting “back to herself” or back to the “old” her.
For me, the past year has been about acceptance. My friend is still extremely depressed, but she knows who I am, and what’s happening around her, and on good days we can have great conversations. But sometimes in the middle of a conversation she’s suddenly responding to the voices, or talking to somebody I know isn’t there, or matter-of-factly telling me about how her watch and earbuds let her teleport. Medical and environmental stressors over the past few months have pushed her to the brink of what she can handle emotionally, and unfortunately are likely to get worse before they get better. Sometimes when things get to be too overwhelming, she stops fighting and lets the voices take over, or shuts down completely. In the past, I would get frustrated by this – in the beginning, I’d feel the need to point out to her that she wasn’t making sense, or try to reason with her. After lots of trial and error I realized that wasn’t the way to go…I learned how to talk to her during those times, but I still felt frustrated and discouraged that she wasn’t “herself.” What I’ve realized over the past year is that she is who she is, and it’s awfully hypocritical for me to try to get her to be more positive about herself when I’m still not really accepting her for who she is. It doesn’t mean that I don’t still hope for her that one day the voices are gone and she can be happy and at peace and fully in our shared reality. But it does mean that she is still a whole person, worthy of love and acceptance, regardless of what she’s experiencing. I’ve learned to be supportive and compassionate in responding to the emotion of what she’s saying, even if the words aren’t logical. And it’s made a difference, for both of us. As I stopped taking things personally and stopped trying to “fix” her, she went from picking fights to telling me how I was the only one who ever really tried to understand her. For me, instead of ending every phone call feeling frustrated and upset, I felt more empathy for her.
Supporting somebody in dealing with mental illness doesn’t just mean supporting them in seeking treatment, although this is an important piece. It also means supporting them in being themselves, in adapting to a “new normal” – and helping them see that no matter what is happening in their life, they are still deserving of respect, love, and acceptance. This may seem like common sense, but stigma is a huge barrier to making it a reality. Society as a whole recoils from the idea of hearing voices, from diagnoses like schizophrenia, from those “crazy psychos” who must be mass murderers in the making. Until people can adopt a more realistic understanding of mental illness, and accept people with mental illness as fellow humans dealing with a medical condition, stigma will remain a barrier. It shouldn’t be this way, and it doesn’t have to be. Statistics say that 1 in 4 adults in the US will deal with a mental illness at some point in their life. As I’ve talked about my friend’s experiences (with her blessing), I’ve seen the “No kidding, me too” phenomenon in full force. People have shared their own stories with me, about themselves, their family, their friends…stories I never would have known without having that conversation. Mental illness is a part of all of our lives in one way or another, and it shouldn’t have to be a secret. Organizations like NAMI and BringChange2Mind work to fight the stigma of mental illness, and to raise awareness of the need for improvements in the mental health system. I walk because I hope to support a future in which people like my friend will have an easier path to walk.