On Saturday a few friends and I went to the Overnight Walk Kick-Off Event in Seattle. We were there as representatives for our Washington Chapter, but mainly the goal was to introduce first timers to the National 17-mile Overnight Walk, and encourage those still thinking about it to take the plunge.
I was honored to be invited to speak as someone who’s done it before. The operations team was great at sharing all of the factual info like the walk route, the fundraising goals and other general information. But during the Q&A session someone raised their hand and asked: “What does it feel like to do the walk?”
And that’s where I came in.
I’m not really accustomed to public speaking, but something about being in a room full of people who just “get it” gave me more confidence than I’d normally have. It was totally off the cuff, and honestly I don’t remember a lot of what I said, but I do know I started like this.
“Hi, I’m Cristi Comes. I’m a Board Member of our Washington Chapter. Last year I did my very first Overnight and it was a life-changing experience. I volunteer and raise funds for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention for two reasons. One, because on Christmas 2010 I lost a lifelong friend to suicide. And two, because I have bipolar and have been suicidal in the past.”
I went on to talk about my experiences fundraising. Things that worked for me. The physical challenge of doing the walk itself. And the emotional feelings and support, and empowerment I received by doing the walk. I talked about how it’s been a big part of my grieving and continued healing,
I cried just a little, so that’s a big win. But mainly I just spoke from the heart and I *think* I got the message across about why I believe they should walk.
Several people came up to thank me for sharing, especially those who struggle themselves or have attempted suicide in the past. But one woman stood out to me.
I couldn’t tell you her age but she did say her son is 30. So there you go. She approached me sheepishly and said, “I can’t believe you just blurted out bipolar like that.” It wasn’t said in a judging way by any means, it was more like awe.
She continued to kind of stumble around what she wanted to say, “Last year I, well…I struggle…and I well…I had a bad year, and I haven’t told my children. Do you think I should?”
Whoa. What a powerful question.
But I didn’t hesitate for a minute.
I said, “Yes, I think you should, for two reasons. One, you’re their mom and they need to know this about you. I’m sure they love you and would want to know so they can be there for you. Two, if you have an open and honest conversation with them they’ll learn something about mental illness. They just might be more aware and able to help in the future if they see signs of you struggling, or even if they see a friend struggling.”
“But what if I say it and my son just says I’m crazy?” she said.
I said, “I hope he wouldn’t. But listen, mental illness is a real illness. If you went to him and said you had cancer, would he call you crazy? No. By telling him you can help him understand.”.
It’s possible that this woman could tell her kids and be hit with ignorance and stigma. It absolutely happens. But in my opinion, if we are afraid to share openly, if we continue to keep our mental health struggles hidden in shadows, things will never change.
People who don’t get it will NEVER get it unless we bring it out of the darkness WITHOUT SHAME. Open communication and education is our only hope to destroy ignorance. And if we fight ignorance, we actually help those who are struggling. Those who are afraid to reach out for fear of unkind words, ugly looks and bad opinions, just might see a doctor if we stop the stigma.
After mulling over that woman’s story, another thought occurred to me. Mental illness can be genetic. Imagine if her son sits at home right now struggling himself, but hasn’t told her for the exact same reasons. What if he’s thinking SHE will call HIM crazy. Imagine how much stronger mother and son could be if they openly shared without shame.
On Saturday this statement was never more true to me.