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June 19, 2015
Pebbles, Potholes, and Perspective
Stomping out Stigma in Philly "with The Crazies"
by Sarah Hancock

Bing. The fasten seatbelt light blinks on with barely a passing notice from the man seated next to me. He’s plugged into his phone, watching a thrilling movie.

I eye him closely and then turn to eye the guy on the other side of me. The man with the phone is probably as tall as I am (a short 5’4”) and sizably muscled through his short-sleeve shirt. The man on my other side is slight, also short and silent. He’s slept his way to Philadelphia, undisturbed by the fasten-seat-belt noise.

But the light excites me. Philadelphia is an exotic, East Coast destination, teeming with opportunity. Why? I come with a plan and purpose — presenting at the Psychiatric Rehabilitation Association’s 2015 Workforce Summit on Improving the Lives of People Post Electroconvulsive Therapy.

My mission? To boldly go where no one else will. Yes, I’m quite literally the only person to speak on my topic at a conference. Or at least, I have yet to locate anyone.

For some reason, doctors and researchers just haven’t breached the idea of improving life after ECT (electroconvulsive therapy) — except for myself and a singular peer-reviewed journal editorial written by two Irish people suggesting it’s something to look into.

Yes, folks, other than the three of us, no one else seems to care about life after ECT, assuming that because the person is temporarily not experiencing symptoms, the situation is rectified. Isn’t it enough that the person is no longer symptomatic? Nope.

Here I sit on the airplane, eagerly awaiting touchdown. I’m practically popping with excitement to share my exciting opportunity to change the world of psychiatric rehabilitation for ECT patients. This has to be the first time I have ever flown without talking to at least one of my seatmates. We haven’t even made eye contact. Weird.

I’m actually the passenger that others dread. I’m the one interested in the travel plans, job and even life story of the others. I’m the one movies joke about when a weary traveler sits down, ready to sleep, until they get begrudgingly drawn into a conversation with a complete stranger.

On the other hand, my husband says I have never met a stranger. I’m not really sure what that means; I meet new people all the time — they just aren’t strangers for long.

This flight was different. Not even a sideways glance from my fellow travelers. Instead I found myself practically teeming with things I wanted to talk about, and no one with whom to talk. I’d been separated from my college friend when our original flight was delayed three hours and the two of us were rerouted through different airports to get to our final destination.

Bing. “This is your captain speaking. Flight attendants prepare for landing.” For a moment, I entertain the idea that President Uchtdorf is my captain, cleverly disguising that familiar German accent. I grin. The muscle man catches my smile.

“Excited for Philly?”

“Yeah, never been here before.” I shrug with a sheepish roll of my eyes. “You?” The plane shudders on impact with the runway.

“Oh I travel all over for business.” Our plane rolls toward the gate.

“Cool. I’m here for business, too — a conference.”

“Really? Which one?” The plane comes to a rest and passengers begin unleashing themselves from chairs.

“Psychiatric Rehabilitation Association’s Workforce Summit.” I smile. I’ve worked hard to get this far. Not everyone presents at conferences and somehow I qualified to talk about something I’m passionate about. I have to admit, I take pride in my humility.

“So, you work with the crazies?” He stared at me, his eyes searching mine. He laughs.

“I prefer to call them people living with mental illness.”

“Yeah, The Crazies.” He laughs again. I smile to hide my hurt.

“Well, I’m here to present on helping people living with mental illness achieve their fullest potential.”

“Sounds like a lost cause to me. You must be glutton for punishment.” He reaches for his bag.

I swallow my building anger. “Actually, you’d be amazing what people can achieve when they have the right support.”

“Right.” He laughs again, nodding his head. It reminds me of the dismissive head nod of “Dr. In,” my inpatient psychiatrist. I dig through my purse, searching for a business card and hand it to him.

“Sounds like you’ve bought into what the media says about mental illness. If you’d like to know what it’s really like, check out my column on living successfully with mental illness. I write about my life with schizoaffective disorder.”

“What’s that?” He wrinkles his nose.

“Basically a combination of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.” I smile.

“But you’re normal.” He turns, staring at me in disbelief. “You’re presenting at a conference.” He shifts his backpack, anxious for the passengers ahead of him to move.

“Yeah, you wouldn’t believe the wild ride.” It’s my turn for the awkward laugh. “I’ve been in remission for more than five years now. Recovery happens.”

“But,” he pauses, “you look normal.” Passengers begin to file up through the aircraft, making way for us to follow. I grab my backpack from under the seat in front of me.

“Yeah, I think there’s little ‘normal’ in all of us.” I grin. He grins back.

“I’ll check this out.” He says, indicating my card. “Thanks.” And with that, he leads me out of the airplane, wishing me success in my conference presentation.

Amy Palmer, my childhood best friend, came to support me when I gave my presentation.

The entire week, I ran into professionals of all walks of life attending a variety of conferences in Philly. Almost every temporary resident of the Downtown Philly Marriott making an effort at small talk in the elevator, stared at me with wide eyes when I shared that I was in Philly for the Psychiatric Rehabilitation.

I heard several comments about gratitude for their not working with “psychos,” praying for my safety in my work environment, asking about whether or not I was in my right mind by choosing to work with “those people” and so many others, too numerous and equally disturbing. Again and again I shared my card with people who felt I must “be a saint to work with them.”

Apparently stigma is alive and well in Philly. Truth of the matter is, stigma is all too alive and well wherever you go. The conference was amazing. I met so many people who have done amazing things with people for whom they provide services, but even more inspiring was meeting more people like me, who live miraculous lives of recovery. There were a lot of us!

So, do me a favor. Share the hope of living successfully with a severe mental illness. With our continued efforts we can change stigma, eradicate the concept of “The Crazies,” creating a more inclusive community where “they” becomes “us”—one seemingly normal person at a time.

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