“The weeds of our past cultivate the blossoms of our future.” Karen Boliver
Back in 1993, when I started on my healing journey of advocacy to address the issues of trauma, abuse and mental health, this comment was a familiar theme for pretty much every type of presentation that I was involved with – “You don’t look mentally ill”. I would finish my talk or performance and someone would make this statement to me. I will admit that this sentence always took me aback, and wasn’t quite sure how to respond in the beginning.
I was grateful that people would make their way forward to converse with me. I did enjoy the opportunity to make new acquaintances and help keep the dialog going. But I would be baffled by this statement, especially after having poured my heart out pertaining to some of the horrors I had experienced in life.
Hmnn…“mentally ill”, I never thought I was mentally ill. I was given this label because of a diagnosis of post traumatic stress disorder and major depression. I lost count of how many well meaning therapists and doctors let me know that I am “mentally ill” and my life as I knew it was over. Scary stuff to hear and quite depressing and it didn’t take me long to figure out the severe ramifications one would have to endure when this label was bestowed upon you. It certainly wasn’t a welcome gift from society. What I did know, was that I was profoundly impacted mentally, emotionally, physically and spiritually by the trauma and abuse that had been a part of my life.
My younger siblings had their own trials ands tribulations with post traumatic stress and depression long before I ever had to contend with these health concerns. A visit with David in the Veterans Psychiatric hospital has long been etched in my mind. He was heavily sedated and so lost and confused – it was heartbreaking to see him this way. David was a kind gentle soul with a million dollar smile; what happened to my brother? We spoke for awhile and then I asked him, David, are you telling the doctors about what you experienced in our home growing up? Clarity came to his face and with conviction he simply said, “Mike, they’re crazier than me.” We both laughed…no, David wasn’t mentally ill – he was a deeply hurt soul trying to find his way in a life he no longer felt a part of. Back in the late 70’s they weren’t asking – “What happened to you?”
New Hampshire is a small state and my advocacy and musical endeavors had me traveling throughout the state. I had the good fortune to attend many conferences, peer support meetings, Consumer Council meetings, peer support centers and let’s not forget, my voluntary ‘visits’ to the psychiatric hospital, crisis respite center and day treatment programs. Unfortunately, the folks I met in these settings also had the dubious distinction of being labeled mentally ill. Some of these folks were a bit disheveled in their appearance and their manner and some would be shaking from being over medicated. And sadly, some were homeless. I don’t know, but to my eyes, they looked confused and in a world of hurt. I was honored to gain their confidence and friendship and give witness to their stories of pain and suffering. This was a huge learning curve for me that went beyond my own struggles and that of my siblings. I came to learn that these wonderful human beings had endured great hardships and abuse in life. No, they weren’t mentally ill, they had been hurt in life and no one was really listening to them. And all too often they were told to “forget about it, it’s in the past”.
I’m still learning all that I can how trauma and abuse affects our lives. I expect it will be a lifetime of studying. That’s okay, because today when I see a homeless person, someone talking to themselves, or someone who is aloof and cut off from others, now I quietly ask myself, what happened to them? And I silently offer a little prayer of peace and love to give to them with the hope that they find the help and healing that they deserve.
“I cannot believe that the purpose of life is to be happy. I think the purpose of life is to be useful, to be responsible, to be compassionate. It is, above all to matter, to count, to stand for something, to have made some difference that you lived at all.” Leo C. Rosten
Take care, Michael Skinner
PS. This is worth checking out – helps to raise our consciousness on who is hungry in America.
Hunger Through My Lens – Hunger free Colorado – PBS News Hour: Picturing hunger in America
What does hunger really look like in America? Fifteen Colorado women — real-life experts — document how hunger impacts their lives and communities for Hunger Through My Lens to create positive change. Watch the PBS News Hour report about the advocacy project and participants who are taking aim at hunger with cameras to put real faces and stories to the overwhelming statistics, and the join the conversation with us on social media.