Friday, October 29, 2010
To Be Heard: one of the best nights of my entire life, and an incredible honor (Consumer of the Year Award)
When you are held captive by a mental illness, you go through a lot of isolation. You have some really horrific experiences, and you have them all alone, all the time. Nobody can see what goes on inside your mind, what haunts you, what drives you to harm yourself or keeps you up all night. Nobody knows the self-hatred, the terror, the traumatic experiences, the delusional hell, the voices, the things you see that others can't. Nobody usually says, "Hey, it's going to get better", because when you have a serious mental illness, it's very difficult to verbalize your experiences, even if you do have someone who would care enough to listen to you do so, and when you are psychotic, as a rule you do not know that you are psychotic in the first place.
Five years ago one night, I sat on the bathroom floor of the tiny mother-in-law apartment (attached to a house) I lived in, with a Bible, a bottle of vodka (even though I don't drink, normally), and a loaded .357 magnum in my hand. I looked at the gun, placed it inside my mouth, and came very close to pulling the trigger. But I didn't pull the trigger. That decision led to the following day, when I was taken by police to the hospital for the hospital trip that would finally lead me into the realm of recovery.
So tonight, when in front of a couple of hundred people, the executive director and the president of our NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) chapter gave me the Consumer of the Year Award, and said things like, "Jennifer changes people's lives when she tells her story," before she gave me so many more compliments on being a survivor of what I lived through, but more importantly on the work I've tried to do to create awareness, advocate and teach people about mental illness.......well, that experience really meant a lot to me.
My mom was there. The same mom who came to visit me in several hospitals at different times; who showed up to see me even after I had destroyed her car in one of my suicide attempts and she had no car and had to ride the bus; who tried to get help for me when she didn't know what to do or what was really the problem, that mom was there. And so I said to the audience, "I did not get to where I am now by myself. My mom is here, and she was there for me, and my wonderful case manager and my excellent therapist have helped me, and the people of NAMI have become like a family to me." I meant that.
Not only was I so honored to see in the program some lovely, kind words written about what I've done as a member of NAMI, but one by one, people in the organization came up and told my mother how I did a great job as a speaker and that people who heard me speak were amazed, and that some had tears in their eyes. My mom hasn't heard me speak and I don't tell her everything I do with NAMI, so it was neat for her to hear about that, and it was really very flattering. I felt incredibly honored.
The president of NAMI Pinellas told me, "This is a huge honor and you completely deserve it." I was so grateful for this recognition, and for the fact that one of my peers in the consumer council was the person who had nominated me for the award, and that the board had voted and decided to give me this award. I can only compare this night to what it must be like to have a wedding. There was this huge outpouring of kindness, there was absolutely delicious food, and there was dancing. I even danced! If you knew me you would know I don't dance, but my mother talked me into it.
My family has so many problems that everyone kind of has to look out for her/him self, and we can't always be there for each other. So it was important to me to recognize the fact that my mom has made a lot of efforts to be there for me, when she could, even though she had her own constraints. Nobody else was there when I was locked up for months in the hospital, and it was important for me to bring her with me to this event tonight so that she could see that I've come through, in a way, to the other side - at least to some extent.
NAMI is a truly wonderful organization. Other people who received the awards tonight are great advocates, and one is a police officer who has saved people's lives when they were suicidal because she has gone through the Crisis Intervention Team training of which I'm proud to be a part, and that training happens because of advocates I know in NAMI who have been tireless in their efforts for many years. 1,000 police officers in this county have been educated on mental illness through our C.I.T. training, and 10,000 throughout the state of Florida have as well. The people who make that happen do it as volunteers, do it without being asked, do it because they know how important it is, and do it without asking for any recognition at all. For them to honor me, when I am in awe of them myself was an amazing experience. NAMI has changed my life in the past few years.
I first went to a "Consumer Connections" support group looking for a place where I might belong. I then went through Peer to Peer training and attended a number of the education meetings, before I ended up involved in the Consumer Council. This year we revamped that council, and I'm the secretary of it. We meet twice a month. We created a brochure, and we created resource packets to give to local hospitals, and we are only a small group of people. As Margaret Mead said, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed it is the only thing that ever has." Truer words have never been spoken.
To be heard, especially when you've been a part of a cast-off group of people, stigmatized, deserted and ignored by society, is an empowering experience. To be heard when you're saying words that are vitally important to you because of the experiences of yourself as well as the experiences of countless other people who you want to speak up for, well, that is very empowering.
Tonight it was reiterated over and over that I've been heard. I will continue to use my voice whenever possible to raise awareness about mental illness, to tell my story when it might make a difference, and to shine a light in the darkness in which I once lived, where many people still exist. I would not have become able to do this as a public speaker without the encouragement of NAMI's members, and I appreciate them all a great deal. The person who sat on that bathroom floor five years ago is eternally grateful to be alive, and to not be living in isolation anymore.