Although I have been a mental health professional for 28 years, I learned most about my own stigma through having lived experience with mental illness. This was 12 years ago … when I developed severe major depression.

My family had moved to Southern California from the Seattle area only 9 months before, when my husband accepted a new pastoral call. I was 36, had two elementary age children, went through a stressful re-location, and then landed the worst job of my life after arriving in California.

I had always been a goal-focused person: able to take on challenges and, in most instances, succeed.  But it seemed there were too many challenges happening all at once. I was rapidly developing anxiety problems, losing my focus and confidence, and, worst of all, finding myself unable to sleep. Combine all this with a genetic vulnerability toward mental illness … and swiftly, it became too much for me.

Although it had rarely been discussed openly, I had long been aware of  the mental illness on my mother’s side of the family. Early in life, I developed a steely determination to avoid such a fate. One of my deepest drives was to never have problems like my mother.

My grandmother had an unnamed mental illness. Nobody talked about Grandma’s ailment, and I’m not sure they knew what it was. But my father told me one day, in a rare moment of openness, that one time Grandma was psychiatrically hospitalized. It seemed she tried to jump off the roof of the house – she thought she could fly.

When I was a child, we had to be very quiet around her because of her “nerves.” Although grandma was gentle and loving, she could not tolerate lights, noise, television, or active children.

My mother is diagnosed with bipolar disorder. While I was growing up she had to be hospitalized a number of times for what was then called “nervous breakdowns.” She was treated with Electro Convulsive Shock Therapy (ECT), and took medication that made her seem less lively, detached, and kind of dull. She hid the bottles of medication in her bedroom dresser, tucked between her nightgowns. She never let us four kids see her take it.

As an observant young girl, I got the impression this medicine was something to be ashamed of because it must be hidden from others. I also learned early on that the kind of hospital she went to was not something to tell people about. Not if you want them to like you. I sure wanted to be normal and accepted, so I learned the rules quickly.

Rules we learn from our families aren’t easily changed. So, as an adult, even though I was a therapist myself, when I began having symptoms, I felt too ashamed and overwhelmed to seek help until it was too late. I plunged into the most devastating depression imaginable. Seemingly overnight, I went from being the treatment provider to being the treated patient. I no longer knew myself. I felt like I had shattered into a million pieces.

Why take the risk to share this story publicly? Why violate the rules and beliefs that I learned as a child? Especially that mental illness is something to be ashamed of, and that it is not something nice people talk about? Why? Because I have come to believe that those are lies.

In recovering from my own depression, I learned how profoundly I was affected by stigma – both external (which came from the culture surrounding me) and internal (which came from within me).

The stigma I held – about my mother’s mental illness, and eventually my own, kept me from properly addressing my symptoms as they arose.  This was not a recipe for healing. Instead, it was the key ingredient for disaster.

When I finally got treatment, my stigma was a gargantuan wall I had to break down to fully accept treatment for my life-threatening case of depression. It’s not an exaggeration then, to suggest to you this: My stigma almost killed me.

Am I a little scared to write about this? Yes. But stories need to be told. And … I spent enough years being ashamed. All it did was contribute to me getting sick and staying sick. It compromised my humanity and robbed me of my joy. My wise mother had a good reason for giving me the middle name Joy. I intend to live up to it!

The great American writer Maya Angelou said this, “You may not control all of the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.”

It is critical to do everything we can to combat stigma in all its forms. It was stigma that kept my mother from ever properly managing her mental illness. It was stigma that made me wait dangerously long before seeking therapy. It was stigma that prevented me from benefitting from treatment for many long months. I consider it a miracle that I even survived those terrible days.

But, fortunately, I have not only recovered, I have pro-covered. In short, to me that means I came out of it an upgraded edition of myself – Lisa 2.0 if you will. My life is fuller, more joyful and abundant than ever. I now have a better understanding of myself – both my strengths and my vulnerabilities.  I am acutely aware of the many holistic and healthy practices that are necessary for sustained wellness. My effectiveness as a social worker has been deeply enhanced. I have even worked through most of my stigma.

Overcoming my stigma allows me to share a bit of my story. I hope it may give you some understanding and help you overcome any stigma that you have toward those living with mental illness.

10 Recovery Lessons I learned the Hard Way:

  1. The pathway to joy is gratitude.
  2. What other people think of me is none of my business.
  3. Mental illness can strike anyone, at any time.
  4. It is no one’s fault.
  5. I can choose to forgive myself and others for not knowing or doing what was best in times of trouble.
  6. People recover, and often develop lives that are more purposeful and satisfying than the ones they had before their illness.
  7. Wellness requires a holistic approach – supporting all aspects of the human being.
  8. Wellness is a lifelong commitment and a daily lifestyle.
  9. Getting well and staying well isn’t possible without “grit.” (Definition of grit: “the tendency to work strenuously toward challenges, maintaining effort and interest over years despite failures, adversity, and plateaus in progress”).
  10. Resources, education, and support are extremely important. Here are a few I recommend:

NAMI (link)

Pacific Clinics (link)

Each Mind Matters (link)

Bring Change 2 Mind (link)

 

“If stories come to you, care for them. And learn to give them away where they are needed. Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive.”                -Barry Lopez, author of Arctic Dreams