Out of the Darkness

Let me preface this post by saying that, unlike the others, it is not about bread. Instead, and in light of it being Mental Health Awareness month, I want to focus on the importance of speaking openly about mental heath. Though I shared this story a few weeks back, I wanted to share it again in hopes that it might resonate with you or inspire you to support a cause I am deeply connect to.

In June, I will be participating in the Out of the Darkness Overnight Walk in Boston along side my sister Angela, her boyfriend Scott, and her good friend Dan. Together we are working to raise funds for the American Foundation of Suicide Prevention and raise awareness of mental health and suicide prevention. If this is a cause you also feel passionate about, please help us by donating through our fundraising website below and taking the time to read our stories about why we are connected to this cause. Even the act of sharing our stories and encouraging others to show their support will go a long way in helping us:

http://www.teamrise8.jigsy.com/support-the-team

With that, here is my story: 

Mental Illness.  Depression.  Suicide.  The conversation centered on these topics is often cut short even though millions of people around the world fight a daily battle to overcome, survive, and live with their effects.  This includes my sister and best friend Angela, who I will be walking alongside come June in the Out of the Darkness Overnight Walk in Boston.

I have to admit; the first time my sister made an attempt on her life I didn’t see the signs and I didn’t know quite how to respond.  I had just graduated from high school in Texas and moved to Indiana to start the first year of undergrad at IUPUI.  I was fully absorbed in the milestone of finally moving out from under my parents’ thumb, the excitement of reinvention in a new place and on a larger campus, the thrill of being able to live off campus with someone I strove to emulate every day of my life growing up, and who continues to serve as a role model now for her intelligence, big heart, and resilient spirit; my older sister Angela.

Looking back, maybe I should have noticed how tired she was most days, her struggle to get out of bed, those moments when her emotions would suddenly overcome her as she made her own transition graduating from the same university and planning the next years ahead.  It’s only now that I know the outward smiles and exuberant displays of “happiness” were to ensure that I was happy and that I got the best experience being in a new place, starting a new life in a new school.  The protective older sister in her wanted to shield me from what she saw as a burden, a cloud that encompassed her and risked raining down on anyone who got near.  The overly-eager-to-prove-I-was-an-adult younger sister in me wanted to match each beat and unquestionably accept this projected self.  This is what it is to be an adult, I thought.

When I first went to visit her in the hospital, after she was brought in for an overdose of anti-depressants, I held her hand and sheepishly asked, “Why?”  She squeezed back, hugged me and said, “I’m sorry.”  Then, we kept saying, I love you.  I love you so much.  I just want you to be happy.  This is all we could say at the time; both of us wanting to be a strong support for the other but not quite knowing how to put into words what that meant.  There existed a barrier created out of the assumption that talking directly about her depression, her suicide attempt, her experience with mental illness would only make it too real, too much of an elephant in the space between us.  On my side, there was also the assumption that only certain people had the “right” to talk about it.  Doctors could talk about it.  Mental health professionals could talk about it.  Those who actually experienced it could talk about it.  I was the naive younger sibling, the undergraduate pursuing a degree in psychology with only pre-requisites under her belt.  What “right” did I have?  How could I possible understand what she was going through?  And then there was the gnawing guilt on both sides.  At the time, I could only tell her that I loved her.  That I would always be there for her.  That I would always be there loving her.

It was only years later, when faced with the same situation again, we would learn to say more.  This time I had just graduated from a Master’s program at IUPUI and had transitioned to start a new life as an AmeriCorps Vista at the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Nashua in New Hampshire where Angela was completing PA school.  Again we were roommates and, again, I failed to spot the signs.  By this time, she’d been officially diagnosed with Bipolar Depression, was on medication, and was seeing a therapist regularly.  Earlier that day, I’d received a text with exclamation points and smiley faces.  A few days before, we’d laughed about something stupid.  I took it as a reassurance.  And though it was the fourth time she’d been hospitalized, I didn’t see it coming.

I went through the same loop of emotions.  The same line of questioning; why didn’t I see it?  But, in the moments that followed, something would change.  With the guidance of a great mental health team and drawing on strength of the relationship we’d developed over the years, we were brought to understand the importance of removing the barrier that prevented us from talking openly about her experience with mental illness.  To realize that sharing in the experience, talking through feelings, and coming to a place of mutual understanding is not a burden of added grief or knowledge, but a gift of deeper connection; a freedom from being confined in a mask of projected happiness or the presumption of having to read the signs in silence.  Rather than creating a greater separation, learning to talk openly in this way has only made our relationship stronger.

Though my sister still fights a daily battle, she has drawn strength from the support of friends, family, and trained mental health professionals.  After working hard to achieve her goals and overcome obstacles, she is now working as a PA in Portsmouth, NH and kicking ass at it.  I am so proud to be on this journey with her and to be walking alongside her during the Out of the Darkness Walk in June.

There are a lot of reasons why participating in this walk is important to me.  I walk in honor of my sister Angela, who is not just someone I grew up with but someone I’m deeply connected to; someone who I see as a part of me.  I walk in hope that everyone who lost someone to mental illness, depression, and suicide, and those who still struggle through it each day, feels a little less alone as I join thousands of others on this Overnight Walk.

But most important, I walk to open a conversation that too many people hesitate to engage in.  Because of the stigma, because of the misconceptions, because of the good-intentioned yet flawed belief that their truth might burden others or their concerns may be impolite to bring up.  Together, we have the power to slowly erase barriers that surround our ability to talk openly about mental illness and come to a place of acceptance and understanding.  I walk to break through the stigma.  I walk to understand the stories and experiences of the people around me.  I walk to bring what has so long been veiled in darkness into the light.

I hope you too will join the conversation, by showing your support and donating to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

teal beads

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