March 9, 2011

Guest Post: You've Helped Me

Our next guest post comes from another Jen!  "Daisybee", as her friends call her, blogs at Suicidal No More about living with mental and chronic illnesses to inform, educate, and offer hope.  As a consumer advocate for people with mental illnesses like herself who does PLENTY of public speaking, Jen has great experiences to share with us at UII.  She says that having lived with several invisible illnesses - including Schizoaffective Disorder, Sjogren's Syndrome, and Fibromyalgia - for many years, she is excited about the efforts UII is undertaking and feels this blog is an excellent advocacy tool (her words, not mine:)).  Jen, we welcome and salute you!

"You've Helped Me"

Bayside HighSchool sits directly across the street from the county jail, so the view from the parking lot is not exactly one that inspires hope for the future. As I entered the high school early on a November morning, I was filled with a mixture of anxiety about the task at hand, and looking forward to trying to give that very thing the surroundings lacked – hope – to the students I was about to meet. One of my fellow members of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)Dick, who has a daughter with Schizophrenia, and I were meeting up there to take part in the Great American Teach In of 2010.

Our task was to speak about mental illness, and mine was to speak about my own. As we took a tour, a school staff member told us that students could be enrolled at this alternative high school until they graduated or reached the age of 24, and that it was a school of last resort, the place that would accept students who had been expelled from other public high schools or who had recently been detained in the juvenile detention center. These facts made me a bit nervous about what we were going to encounter. I pictured teenagers throwing spit balls at me and laughing as I talked about very personal matters, and wondered how I would make it through five classrooms of this. I was soon to find out that my fears were unfounded.

Instead of laughing, the students listened intently and quietly without causing any disruptions. Sure, there were a few who slept through our presentation, but I imagine that I would find a sleeping student or two in most high school classrooms at 8:00 A.M. What I spoke to them about were things that I don’t bring up in everyday conversations with most people I come across: my high school era depression, the addiction I had to self-injury as a teenager and young adult, the years I suffered from Anorexia Nervosa, and the more recent struggles I have gone through with Schizoaffective Disorder. I figured that there were students who could relate to some of the discussion, particularly about Major Depression, which is such a common illness, and I longed to give them some hope that they, too, would one day recover from that, as I did. As Dick and I told these young people, suicide is the third leading cause of death in high school , and the second leading cause in college students, so it is important to get help if one is dealing with depression and suicidal thoughts. We stressed that suicide is never a necessary choice, and that there is affordable and accessible help available.

While these subjects were easy for me to discuss, I was not confident in my ability to disclose the details of the past decade of my life. Talking about being psychotic with Schizoaffective Disorder can be tricky no matter who the audience is. In the past couple of years, I have spoken to police officers, volunteers at a performing arts center, and the staff of a community mental health center. For six years, I have also written a blog where I discuss my disorder frankly, and try to give information and inspiration to those who might not understand mental illness, as well as those who live with it and feel alone in their battles. Talking to teenagers, however, was new to me, and yet, somehow, it ended up feeling much easier than I expected it to. I told them what it was like to experience auditory hallucinations (i.e., hearing voices), visual hallucinations, and delusional thoughts. I described some of the beliefs I had when paranoid and delusional, and how I had wandered around aimlessly, moving from place to place as I could not keep a roof over my head, and feeling lost as I could not attend college or work at any job for years. I told them about voices telling me to die, the deluded thoughts that I had about how I was supposed to die, as well as the luck that I had in surviving several suicide attempts and in avoiding one that would have most likely been lethal.

Finally, I described one of the best things that had ever happened to me, which was, surprisingly, being taken to a hospital in handcuffs and kept there for five months under the orders of a judge. It certainly did not feel like a positive experience at the time, and only with years of reflection did I come to consider it one of the best things that had happened to me. I had been hospitalized many times before that, but had always been released within a week or two. I had never been properly diagnosed nor had any effective treatment, until that judge decided that this time I wouldn’t be leaving so quickly. Thanks to the good graces that exist in the universe, I had been put on medication that worked for me. It did not work immediately, however. If I had not been kept in the hospital for months, I probably would not have been put on successful medication. But once it did work, I began to think clearly again for the first time in years, and was able to come to grips with the fact that I had a serious mental illness which I had been living with for a very long time. After those months in the hospital, I went to live in a group home, and after ten months of that I moved into an apartment. I told the students about how I have now lived in that apartment for four years, which is the longest time period I have ever spent living in the same place as an adult. I told them about going back to work part-time, finding a therapist who was extremely helpful to me at the community mental health center, and returning to college part-time. My purpose in telling them about these successes was to let them know a person with a serious mental illness can get better.

After I finished speaking, some of the students asked really interesting questions. One young woman said how she was on medication for a mental illness herself, and she wanted to know if I had ever taken the same medicine, or if I had ever been in the same psychiatric hospital where she had been a patient. Another asked what gave me the courage to stand in front of this classroom and talk about such personal information. I said that, even though I was nervous, it was a worthwhile experience for me because of the possibility that I might help one person, and make a difference in one life. “You have,” a young woman in the front row said. “You’ve helped me”. I felt fulfilled right then, and grateful to this girl for having the bravery to say so in front of her entire class.

The teacher of our last class period mentioned that the student body had lost one of their members last year to suicide. She said she was very grateful that Dick and I came to speak at this school about this topic, because many of the students in her English classes wrote about emotional issues, being depressed, or feeling suicidal. She said that she had students leave suicide notes on her desk, which made me extremely grateful I got to have contact with the young people in her classroom that day, because there was obviously a need for information about mental health in their lives.

In addition to talking about my own story, Dick and I both talked about the stigma that enshrouds mental illness, and the fact that people with mental illnesses are really not more likely to commit a crime than people without mental illnesses, according to NAMI. In fact, those of us with mental illnesses are far more likely to be victims of crimes than to commit them. We talked about the stigma perpetuated in Hollywood movies, and the differences between those stereotypical portrayals of people with mental illnesses, and the reality that we are actually just regular people like everybody else. I really wanted to stress the fact that having a mental illness does not mean you have a personality defect, a character problem, or that you deserve to be made fun of for being different. The students seemed interested in this aspect of the presentation, and I felt it really got through to them when some of them opened up about their own illnesses, or those of their friends.

At the end of the day, I was tired, but actually felt refreshed. I truly came away from that school building, across the street from the ugly county jail, feeling like I had made a positive impact on some young lives. Even if the impact had been a small one, I knew, because of the young woman who told me so, that I had made a difference, and I think making a difference makes any given day worthwhile. I felt, also, like I had come full circle from the suicidally depressed and painfully shy teenager I once was, afraid to speak up in a classroom or talk to my classmates. My first suicide attempt was when I was fifteen years old, and back then I never thought there was hope for me to feel happiness again, much less become a public speaker about mental illness. I was able to use my voice now, to speak out about that which too often remains shrouded in darkness and secrecy where stigma sprouts like a cancer. I know that telling my story is the best way that I can combat that stigma, the stigma that keeps so many people who live with mental illnesses from getting the help they desperately need, and I always feel gratified after doing so. I can only hope that one day, one of the students living with a mental illness in that high school will find the help she needs, and maybe she will even want to speak out, spread awareness, and become another voice in the darkness, offering a helping hand to those who are lost and need one.


  1. Thank you Jen "Daisybee", that was an inspiring blog entry! You set a good example for so many people and I am very glad that you survived to tell your story to others and hope you will continue for many years to come.


  2. Thanks, Kate for your comment on my post.

    Jen Pettit- Thank you again for letting me write a post for this blog, and welcoming me here. I really enjoyed doing it, and I love the advocacy work you are doing with UII!


I'm excited you're here - and can't wait to read your comment!

* Transparency Note *
If you are commenting as someone affiliated with a professional organization to promote said entity, please identify yourself as such. I'm not opposed to hearing from you or your organization, but must ask that you provide transparency by stating this for my readers and myself. Thank you for your compliance.