Battling Stigma with Stories

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This tweet from my friend Kendra hit me right in the guts.  

It came from a Twitter chat on how teachers can support students and colleagues alongside mental health. I am one of the Executive Directors of a group called S.T.A.R.S. Regina, and we decided to host this Twitter chat on #BellLetsTalk Day to open up the conversation about mental health while also raising money for mental health initiatives in Canada.

12417685_1514987248802228_4508505647200605803_nIf you missed the chat, you can catch up by checking out the Storify here.

Anyway, Kendra’s tweet hit me right in the guts because I can relate to getting emotional when it comes to the topic of mental health. I think we all can. Most of us have either experienced mental illness ourselves or have a friend, sister, uncle, cousin, grandparent, or other loved one who immediately comes to mind when we hear the phrase.

For me, that person is my mom. My mom was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2006.  Throughout my schooling, she was in and out of hospitals in Weyburn and Regina and also spent time in the Mental Health Inpatient Unit at Tatagwa View in Weyburn. For certain periods, my sister and I lived with my aunt, uncle, and cousins while my brother lived with our other aunt, uncle, and cousins. We were able to visit her from time to time but to be honest, I hated going.

The memories swirl in my head… The pungent smell of disinfectant. Long hallways with stupid street signs. A pale pink sweatshirt, her long-ago favourite. Bathrooms with no doors; no privacy for those who might hurt themselves. The stranger in my mom’s body. The empty conversation. Feeling guilty, feeling weak, feeling helpless. Hating the flowers and the “get well soon” cards for putting pressure on her. Staring at the falling leaves out the van window, refusing to let the tears fall.

 

 

It was tough for a long time. I used to talk about it more. In eighth grade, I did a research project on bipolar disorder for health, and I remember saying to my classmates: “I chose to research bipolar disorder because my mom lives with it.” I was so brave. As I got older, I started to keep it to myself more and more. I didn’t want anyone to see my mom as less than the way I saw her: strong, beautiful, confident, resilient, independent, selfless, and passionate. I didn’t want anyone to question her love for us or for others’ perceptions of her to be tainted because of her mental illness.

And so the story goes. The terrible stigma keeps many of us quiet. Afraid to speak out for fear of being seen as less competent as a parent, less able to do your job, or less desirable as a friend or partner. A few people voiced these fears during the chat.

It can be so hard to speak out when your reputation, your competence, and your selfhood are on the line. I have a few dear friends who have faced these fears and put themselves at risk by sharing their stories.

In this post, Meagan embraces vulnerability, writing about how she has come to accept her struggle with anxiety.  

“I am proud of the fact that I able to share my story. If anything, I believe that my anxiety has not been a hinderance; rather, I am now able to see it as an asset – because of my anxiety, I am strong. Although the journey has not been easy, I am now able to say that I accept the fact that I struggle with my mental health – every, single, day.” –Meagan Dobson

In this post, Katia shares about her experience with depression, acknowledging that silence is a form of complicity in the stigma.

“So instead of struggling in silence, I am speaking out. I am using my own privilege to try to break down some of that ugly stigma. It’s okay to be depressed. It does not make me weak, or unreliable, or a burden.” –Katia Hildebrandt

In this post, Dave shares his journey with ADHD and depression and urges others to share as well.

“Speak as if your life, or the life of your loved ones, counts upon it, because it probably does.  Let us raise our voices and break the stigma of mental illness.  Those who have fought this battle or are fighting this battle, you are stronger for it.  You are not sub-human, but super-human, because you have made the choice to live and made the choice that your story matters.” –David Brown

Along with these brave friends of mine is, of course, my mom. When I texted her to ask if it was okay for me to blog about our experience with bipolar, she replied, “Of course! It’s awesome!” I’ve always admired her openness and honesty in sharing her experiences.

I am so incredibly proud of and grateful to these people for telling their stories. It lets me know I’m not alone in the pain that mental illness brings and reminds me that we can find strength in these difficult experiences.  

So let’s keep talking – not just today, but every day.

It may be painful. It may be terrifying. It may put you at risk and make you deeply vulnerable, but there is power in that vulnerability – in the grace, support, understanding, and healing that come through it. Let’s continue to share our stories and encourage others to share theirs. We can find power in our collective voice as we battle the stigma with our stories.

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10 thoughts on “Battling Stigma with Stories

  1. kendraroseleier

    That was such a powerful chat, and I am so glad I could be a part of it. I am working up the courage to write my story and it is posts like yours (and Meagan’s and Katia’s) that encourage me to do it. Mental health is such an untouched area in our society and I’m hopeful that as more people talk it will become less of a scary topic.

    Reply
    1. raquelbellefleur Post author

      Thanks, Kendra! I’m glad you feel encouraged by this post as well as Meagan’s and Katia’s. I hope someday you can begin to write your story, but don’t worry if that day isn’t today or tomorrow. It takes time to feel ready to share, and although I believe sharing stories helps break down stigma, I would never say it’s anyone’s responsibility to share their personal experience with mental health. That would be an unfair burden to place on people who are already oppressed and marginalized. So take your time but keep reading stories like these and know that you are not alone.

      Reply
  2. gillianmaher

    Raquel, thank-you so much for this post and for hosting that Twitter chat. I’ve never been involved in one of those before and I was grateful to be apart of one especially for mental health. I too have a parent who struggles with mental health as well as some really close friends who have/are battling also. I really value the openness to which you speak about your own personal experiences with your mom and can empathize with every emotion you’ve described throughout your story. “The stranger in my mom’s body.” What a perfect embodiment of what it’s like to have a parent in this situation. My dad struggles with PTSD and paranoia and sometimes I don’t even know who he is or what he’s even talking about and you’re 100% right… it’s like he’s a complete stranger in the shell of himself. I must say though, your mom sounds like a really strong woman and she’s lucky to have such strong support from her daughter! All the best in your journey with STARS and breaking down the stigma… you’re doing really well so far!

    Reply
    1. raquelbellefleur Post author

      Thank you, Gillian! I’m glad you could be involved in the Twitter chat and find some value in the sharing that happened there. I really appreciate you sharing about your dad’s experience! Back when my mom seemed like a stranger to me (she now takes medication every day and is totally herself), it was so hard to interact with her. I felt like I had to pretend that everything was normal when everything was so wrong. I’m sure you know what that’s like some days. Thank you again for the encouragement and for sharing! It’s so important to have support through these struggles.

      Reply
  3. Kelly

    A dialogue about mental health opens an opportunity to have a discussion. Having watched my father experience brain-trauma, other members of my family struggle with depression and now my mother begin to struggle with memory loss, my whole life has been impacted by mental health.
    As someone with depression, being open about such things is not easy and, as I tweeted, has impacted my own career. The reality for many is that being open about such issues stigmatizes them. Although we may receive support from some people, there are still many times when people are not supportive. But that’s not the most difficult part.
    The most difficult for me takes place within – it is not imposed from the outside but my own struggle with myself. Talking about this issue is important as it begins the dialogue but this is not something that will end. It’s always there. Every day.
    For each person it is different.
    I am now a parent who is watching my own children deal with some of these issues and, unfortunately, I have to also wonder how my years of depression have affected them.
    Because this is so difficult I’ve already written and deleted this reply – it’s still an issue that causes me to hesitate – for fear of….. but it’s important that people know that facing our fears is the only way to step forward.
    “The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step” Lao Tzu
    Each day is a new journey – for me, the hardest step begins before I start to walk.
    Thank you for sharing your story – it is one that I have experienced from both sides – as a child and as someone who continues to walk with depression. Let the conversation continue….

    Reply
    1. raquelbellefleur Post author

      Kelly,
      Thank you so much for rewriting your comment and posting it. I am so glad you did. I’m sorry that you and members of your family and your children have struggled/are struggling with mental illness. I won’t say I understand what it’s like or I know how hard it can be, because everyone’s experiences are unique and difficult in their own ways; however, I will say I support you fully and I think it’s amazing that you have started to speak out about it. I think the best thing about sharing these stories is knowing we are not alone.

      Reply
  4. larissamack

    Raquel! Thank you so much for this open and honest post. I worked in an inpatient mental health facility for a few years and so mental health is definitely a passion of mine. Your mom is a very brave soul and so are you!! The twitter chat that occurred on #BellLetsTalkDay was wonderful and I am so glad that it sparked conversation! We definitely need to keep talking about mental health – not just on that day! Thanks for sharing!

    Reply
    1. raquelbellefleur Post author

      Thanks, Larissa! I’d love to hear about your experience working at that facility sometime. I imagine that could be an incredibly draining job to do some days. I’m glad you enjoyed the twitter chat and yes, we definitely need to keep the conversations going.

      Reply
  5. Pingback: The Untold Story – Kendra Leier

  6. Pingback: No, I’m not okay, and yes, you can help | Katia Hildebrandt

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