Recently, I had the opportunity to present on several aspects of mental illness at a Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) training for law enforcement officers. Afterwards, I stuck around to hear fellow Bring Change 2 Mind volunteer and former police commander, Chris Prochut, share his powerful and moving story. At one point, Chris spoke of the statistics – 1 in 4 adults will experience mental illness at some point in their lives. 1 in 4. Doing the math, that meant that roughly 7 people in the room had a mental illness. Chris invited those 7 people to stand up. No one moved.
Sitting in the back of the room, I slowly rose to my feet. I wasn’t sure if doing so would lessen the impact of the point Chris was making, but I also knew that if I didn’t stand up I’d be reinforcing the reluctance that filled the room. Chris asked me to share my diagnosis. ‘I have depression and ADHD . . .’ I responded. Then, hesitating, I took a deep breath and continued . . . ‘and I am a recovering alcoholic’.
Quickly I sat down, panicked, embarrassed and feeling like every eye in the room was on me. I had no problem sharing about depression or ADHD, especially in a room where, for an entire week, the topic was mental illness. But that last part – alcoholism – was something I’d never divulged in public, in writing, not even to my co-workers. My immediate fear was that this information could jeopardize my credibility and employability – that doors to future opportunities were slamming shut. I fervently hoped that people hadn’t heard what I’d shared or it hadn’t registered.
Why such a strong, negative internal reaction? For years I’ve been open and honest about the many ways mental illness has impacted not only my life but that of my family. I’ve encouraged others to discard their shame and their fears, reminding them that our diagnosis does NOT define us. Yet here I was, unable to follow my own advice.
The DSM-V (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition) includes a chapter on Substance Related and Addictive Disorders, legitimizing alcoholism as a mental illness. Surely that confirms that, like depression, ADHD, schizophrenia, etc., addiction is not caused by a lack of willpower or poor choices. But still, that didn’t change my perception of what the outside world thought or believed.
For the past month my reactions and fears kept lurking in the back of my mind. Particularly as I thought about a fitting blog topic tied to BC2M’s 5th anniversary. I thought about how openly, fearlessly and honestly my fellow bloggers have not only shared their diagnoses but gone on to give readers an intimate, unfiltered view of life through their eyes. I realized the hypocrisy of my fears and my decision for the past 5 years not to share this one diagnosis. If I was truly going to walk the walk and talk the talk, if I was going to stand on equal ground with the 80,000+ people who have ‘liked’ BC2M on Facebook, if I was going to encourage my own children to be fearless and open about their own diagnoses . . . if I wanted to let go of the shame and the secrecy, then I HAD to stop ‘editing’ my story.
The reality is, I am not alone. Over and over Bring Change 2 Mind has been a catalyst for breaking down feelings of isolation. Through posts, blogs, PSA’s, videos, presentations and more, BC2M has started and fueled conversations of hope, support, collaboration and strength. Addiction and substance abuse frequently go hand in hand with mental illness and unless we include these in the conversations, how can we expect things to change? Might someone feel less alone because I set aside my ego and my pride and shared ‘the rest of the story’?
5 years ago, almost to the day, I took my last drink. I credit that milestone to the honesty and support of others who shared their stories and offered me hope. How wonderful to now share this part of my story within the BC2M community, built on a foundation of honesty, support and hope. Together, may we all flourish and grow in our shared honest and unfiltered journeys, struggles and triumphs.