I consider myself to be somewhat of a veteran in the world of mental illness. For the past 10 years my family has been immersed in children’s mood disorders as first one and then another of my three daughters was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. We’ve been through the medication changes, the search for doctors and therapists, numerous hospitalizations, residential treatment; we’ve navigated the school system and deflected the stares and suggestions that our parenting skills were the root cause of our daughter’s out of control behaviors. Mental illness is definitely in my comfort zone.
But recently, I have been rethinking my self appointed veteran status. I’ve come to realize that my comfort zone is just that – a zone that keeps me ‘safe’, thereby limiting my ability to learn, to grow, and to be a true advocate.
Last fall I was manning a booth at a fundraiser for a local mental health organization. People stopped and chatted, picked up a flier, asked a polite question or two. A middle aged woman approached, rather disheveled and disorganized, and began telling me her story. The conversation was one sided, disjointed, jumping from one topic to the next. She was disabled, out of work, she had held a high level position for many years. Now she was at risk of losing her housing, had no insurance, her psychiatrist would no longer see her, she was faced with choosing between medications for her asthma or medications for her bipolar disorder. She couldn’t afford both. Her name was Shelley.
I could feel the discomfort rising in me. Was it her instability? Her situation? My own limited experience? Heck, I was great with children’s issues but what on earth did I know about homelessness and unemployment? She moved on to the other display tables. Another person at my booth remarked that Shelley seemed manic and suggested that perhaps some of her story might be fabricated or embellished. I wondered if they might be right.
A while later Shelley stopped back. This time I forced myself to push aside my discomfort and sat down with her and listened. The more I listened, the more my discomfort dissipated and the more I became angry with the quagmire of a system that was clearly failing Shelley and many others. I felt helpless. Not only because of the broken system, but because of my limited knowledge and experience. Shelley and I exchanged email information and over the next few weeks I sent her whatever limited resources I could find. I learned that everything she had told me about her past employment was true. I was ashamed that I had ever doubted her abilities.
This week I attended a luncheon for a large, national mental health organization. As I sat at my table surveying the crowded room, who did I see at the next table but Shelley! For a fleeting moment I hesitated, wondering if I should or could reach out to her. Then our eyes connected and we both smiled and greeted each other with hugs. She looked great – focused, articulate and happy. She shared with me that the past 6 months had been rough, repeated hospitalizations, homelessness, sleeping in her car. But she also shared some good news. During her last hospitalization the doctor diagnosed her with diabetes and since then her health has improved dramatically. Shelley thanked me profusely for my help. Help, I asked? What had I done? I didn’t have the skills or resources. You listened, Shelley said. You gave me hope to keep trying, to not give up.
As I sat listening to the speakers at the luncheon, I surveyed the other people at Shelley’s table. I was particularly aware of one woman who stood out from the group. Her attire was, well, a bit unusual. Her royal blue dress hung at an odd angle, the clasp in the back was undone. She wore black knee high stockings and bright red shoes. Frequently she stood up to take a carefully aimed cell phone picture of the speaker. As she headed to the buffet table for the third time (she was painfully thin), a cream colored coat, 4 sizes too big, wrapped around her and belted tightly, I found that old feeling of discomfort creeping up inside of me.
What makes us feel uncomfortable? Fear? Lack of knowledge? Inexperience? I believe the answer is (d) – all of the above. By acknowledging our limitations, our lack of experience, we have the opportunity to step outside our comfort zone and to become better at supporting and advocating.
As I drove home I felt a twinge of regret. I wished that I would have taken the time to learn the story of the woman in the royal blue dress. What were her struggles? What brought her to the luncheon? What were her needs? I promised myself that the next time my discomfort surfaces, I’ll face it head on and take a big step outside of my comfort zone.
Nanci Schiman is a licensed social worker with a Master’s degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She has over 10 years’ professional experience in child and adolescent mental health, family support, advocacy, writing, public speaking and collaborating with local and national mental health organizations. On a personal level Nanci and her husband are parents of three daughters ages 16, 18 and 20. The oldest and youngest were diagnosed with bipolar disorder at ages 9 and 10 respectively.