The Power of Telling Your Story
Bringing mental illness out into the open
We hide. Since time immemorial, people have been sent the message that they have to pretend to be something different than what they truly are because emotions, deviations and differences make people uncomfortable. So we hide.
Until a few years ago, I kept the circumstances of my life and family largely to myself. I wouldn’t say it was a secret that my grandfather had schizophrenia or that my mother has bipolar disorder or that I live with anxiety, but I didn’t go around saying these things out loud because that’s just not what you do. Then one day I was driving home from work and I said out loud to myself alone in my car, “Why the hell not?”
From that moment, my life changed forever. I decided to stop hiding. I decided to stop pretending that I know what the hell I am doing and just be honest that life is hard and I am just showing up every day putting all that I have out in the world. Sometimes it’s enough, and other times it’s not.
Since that day in my car, and every day since, I have committed to becoming an advocate for mental health, mindfulness and the development of a more compassionate and self-aware human race. Just a few small goals to keep me busy on my days off.
THE CLEANSING QUALITY OF LIGHT
Through the course of writing my one-woman show, It Runs in the Family, and the subsequent completion of my first book, #IfYouCouldSeeMe: Life, Motherhood, and the Pursuit of Sanity, which is set to be released this year, I have heard from hundreds of people, both strangers and those I have known for years, thanking me for coming forward with my truth.
“Thank you for making me feel like it’s OK to talk about my anxiety,” they’ve told me. “It’s so nice to know I’m not alone and that I don’t have to be ashamed to talk about my mother’s mental illness,” others have said.
There is no end to the power that comes from feeling safe to come out of the shadows. When we stop hiding, that honesty is a gift we can give to others; but most of all, it is a gift we give to ourselves. We are free. Shame and fear no longer hang overhead influencing our choices. It is never too late to make this choice.
I recently spearheaded a new project in which I convened a group of amazing adults all living with a mental health diagnosis, and we produced a portrait exhibit with incredible photographer Dean Whitbeck. Each participant performed a story live at the gallery opening of their lived experience with their diagnosis. For me it was anxiety; for others it was bipolar disorder, agoraphobia, major depression, PTSD.
In a room full of family, friends and strangers, these people of different backgrounds, life experiences, ages, races and professions shared a single truth with the world: If you could see me, you would know that I live with a mental illness. This is a challenge in my life, but it does not define my existence on this planet, and I do not accept any limitations the world puts on me as a result of this diagnosis. I have no reason to hide anymore. Seven people shared that same sentiment in seven deeply individual ways.
Through the course of this journey from silence to proud oversharer, I have found my voice. It has been the single most terrifying, exhilarating, purposeful thing I have ever done – aside from parenthood. In a world that is fractured, divided, in which people are often blind to the circumstances of those they don’t know or understand, it is more important than ever to tell our stories. It is through this type of unifying act that we can begin to heal the wounds caused by hiding and misunderstanding.
Erin Mahone is a wife, mother of three, director of Cultural Arts and Jewish Engagement at the Weinstein JCC, a writer and a storyteller. Learn more at IfYouCouldSeeMe.com