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May 9, 2014
Pebbles, Potholes, and Perspective
Walking Alone with Mental Illness?
by Sarah Hancock

It’s here. May is Mental Illness Awareness Month. Which begs the question, how aware of mental illness are we if we have to dedicate an entire month to becoming aware of it?

Many with mental illness and their family members are aware of one thing — walking alone.

I walked alone with my illness for more than 12 years. I worked with a plethora of doctors, counselors, nurses, and caseworkers. People say I am one of the lucky ones because I had treatment, I guess they’re right. But while enduring 12 years of failed treatments, I felt I walked alone.

I was fortunate to have family members willing to love me, despite my illness. However, even though I had family, church members, leaders and what others might have perceived as a host of support, I felt alone.

Tried as others might, they just didn’t understand. They weren’t okay with my illness and the behavior it caused. (I’m not saying it was all out of my control, but you’d be startled how your brain thinks when your chemicals are truly out of whack.) I just couldn’t seem to find the magic wand to instantaneously cure me.

Consequently, I felt increasingly isolated. Even amongst family and friends, I felt utterly alone — a shattered sliver of who I’d once been — slowly slipping into silence. People heard me, but they didn’t listen. People looked, but they could not see.

This past week I had the opportunity to speak with a group of parents, loved ones and people with mental illness. In my effort to provide hope, I must have painted my life in a way that didn’t go into the raw nitty-gritty despair.

Sure, I shared with them some struggles. I even shared some of my dark times. But I guess I shared it in a way so polished that it glossed over the anguish I and so many people with mental illness (and their loved ones) experience.

For several members in the crowd, it must have appeared like the young woman standing before them in a business suit never even had mental illness. At the end of the presentation, a father spoke up saying, “Well, you are where you are because you just weren’t as sick as my son.”

His comment saddened me. It bothered me not because I felt the road I’d trod was any more difficult than that of his son, it bothered me because I realized this father felt alone in his search for a better life for his son. He’d lost the hope that his son could ever become healthy. He’s lost the hope of seeing his son live a “normal” life. He’d lost hope; he felt alone.

Truth be told, if my parents had sat at a similar meeting only five years ago, it would have been my father’s eyes brimming with tears who told the person that his daughter was a much graver case. I was.

What changed? I honestly don’t know how it started. But after 12 years I’d become so fed up with my illness-riddled brain and living like a ping-pong ball bouncing in and out of institutions, group homes, hospitals and crisis houses that I was angry. To say I lived an unstable life is grossly understated.

My inpatient doctor had long ago given up on me. Many of the hospital’s staff had also given up, often referring to me as a “girl racking up frequent flier miles.” During my heaps of spare time, their disparaging comments rattled around in my drug-dulled yet frightenly noisy head. I was sick of it. I’d had enough. I decided to defy them all. I’d show them. I’d do what they couldn’t. I’d fix me.

I determined my first priority was leaving that group home. Doing so meant defying nearly all my providers, family members, and some of my friends who couldn’t see me functioning independently. After all, I hadn’t in more than 12 years.

I discovered my exit strategy, renting a room with a sweet Angel of Mercy for next to nothing. Much to the dismay of almost everyone I knew, I moved. Doing so required getting a job. I did.

Soon thereafter, I came across the National Alliance on Mental Illness’ (NAMI) Peer-to-Peer class taught by trained Peer Support Specialists. For the first time in my entire life, I met people with my illness who lived independently. I brainstormed with them, learned a bucket load of “Wellness Tools” and started forward on the recovery Journey.

Yes, I still had symptoms, but gradually through my diligent use of the new found tools and medications, I became more in control of that which used to ravage my life and mind.

Within months of beginning to think more clearly, I decided that I needed to go back to school because some of the treatments destroyed my ability to remember my college education or work experience. I discovered stipends and grants specifically set aside for people like me. I found funding for the retraining of my cob-webbed mind.

After much hard work and determination, I graduated with my masters and found a job where I can help others desperately seeking a ticket onto the Recovery Rail.

Why do I share this with you? I want you to know mental illness is real. There are no fairy godmothers, no stars to wish upon, no magic-lamp-genies with spontaneous healing. Anyone who says differently is selling something much like every fairy tails’ evil villain, promising lasting happiness with a catch.

More important than raising awareness of mental illness, we need to become aware of Recovery. For what seemed like eons, I felt alone treading the road of mental illness. I never met people living with it successfully because I didn’t know where to look.

If nothing else, look at me and find hope in knowing that anything is possible. With proper support, recovery isn’t just possible — it’s probable. There is no deadline on potential.

This past weekend I participated in a 5k NAMI Walk for mental illness. It wasn’t a celebrity-studded, glamorous event, with television channels falling over themselves to cover it. But you know what, it was awesome. Thousands participated. I stood in the crowd, reveling in the knowledge that I am not alone.

I walked with a host of others carrying banners, wearing t-shirts bearing the faces of loved ones, raising money to help educate people like me about how to take their lives back, provide classes to family members and educate the public through presentations on mental illness. I walked with a team I created called Recovering Hope and walked with supportive friends.

At every turn, additional friends cheered me on. I wish everyone in my situation and that of my family had an opportunity to participate in a NAMI Walk. It felt like fueling an emotional gas tank with a high grade of love and support. I didn’t feel alone.

Team Recovering Hope at San Diego’s NAMI Walk on May 3, 2014 (I’m the one wearing the number 6327). Our team raised $1,840 to help people with mental illness and their families. Photo by David Hancock. Used by permission.

Many of you will argue that Heavenly Father never leaves us alone. However, walking with a chemically imbalanced brain robs one of the ability to feel the comfort and peace of the spirit, regardless of what one does to bring the spirit into her life.

To circumvent that dilemma, it felt like Heavenly Father had orchestrated the NAMI Walk to prove to me that He is always at my side, even when I cannot feel it. I am not alone in this fight and neither are you. Promise.

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