To Miriam…

Dear Miriam,

My head and heart have been reeling since your death. Upon seeing your picture and hearing details emerge about your struggles mentally and hospitalization, I sat crumpled in my bathroom, sobbing for you, your daughter, and for myself.

You see, I saw your face, your brown skin, and I saw a reflection of myself-a mother battling a mental illness. Having lived in the darkness of postpartum depression I know the hopelessness, fear, confusion, and pain that consumes you from the inside out. Although I’ve never experienced psychosis, I have and do experience the chaos, scattered and fragmented thoughts, paranoia, and such that comes at times with having bipolar disorder. I know that my having such a mood disorder puts me at a much more significant risk of psychosis postpartum, and that terrifies me.  Like you, I’ve been hospitalized, trapped in my own mind, wandering the halls and monotony of the psych ward, getting help, but also wanting OUT and have some sense of normalcy back…whatever’s left of it in your life at least. I know how triggering and taxing an unplanned pregnancy can be on your psyche, even when you’ve accepted and embraced the new life growing within you. I know the disconnect you can feel once you’re holding that new life in your arms minutes after delivery and long after you’ve been sent home. I know how difficult those first few months can be, and even that first year. And I know what it’s like to need help, be in treatment, but not have anyone you can really talk to about it, no one who “gets” the upheaval your mind and well-being is in. I know what it’s like to have to make a conscious choice to fight for your life daily, and being too tired to make that choice most days. I know the stigma that comes with being sick, and taking medications. I know side effects and having to rely on meds is exhausting and at times can chip away at your feelings of self-worth, and leave you doubting your capabilities to mother, to accomplish goals and dreams…to LIVE.

I know all of these things and that is why I sat in my bathroom crying for you…for me…for your daughter, and for my unborn son squirming in my belly.

After my tears came questions: were you getting help after your hospitalization? Were your boyfriend, mother, and sisters supportive? Did they encourage you to stick with treatment-were they themselves educated on your meds and illnesses? Did you have a therapist and adequate access to other mental health resources? Did you have anyone, ANYONE to talk to? Were you afraid to talk to anyone? Were you compliant in your treatment? Did you decide to stop treatment because you figured you could do it on your own, or were you pressured to by those around you? Did anyone tell you the dangers of quitting meds cold turkey or talk to you about weaning? Were you given speeches about bootstraps and soldiering on? Did your doctor think you were getting better and miss something? Were you even properly diagnosed and given the right kind of treatment? What led you to DC that day? WHAT HAPPENED?

I know that because you are no longer with us to tell your story, we won’t ever really have the answers to these questions-we won’t ever know the full truth. My heart aches with this knowledge. My heart breaks that the events that took place unfolded the way that they did and that your life was taken.

Since your death I’ve seen lots of discussion in the media about the state of your mental health, and lots of misinformation and a lack of distinction between postpartum depression and postpartum psychosis, which is what it appears to be that you suffered from. I’ve seen anger and outrage over how the police responded to your actions, and calls for an investigation on their use of force policy. I’ve seen what happened to you become politicized and I’ve seen people make ugly, disgusting comments about you, a woman they’ve never met.

I’ve seen all of this and all I can think about is your precious daughter. When I do anger wells up in me and boils, but not for any of the reasons I see it embodying others. My anger is with our community, with our people. I’m angry that within the black community there is no focus placed on our mental well-being and on mental illness. We fight to quell violence and hardship in our communities but do little to nothing to fight for resources that can help us deal with the mental impact violence, abuse, and hardship has on us. We don’t talk to our children about mental illness, other than to point to “Crazy Ray” who lives down the street and further cement stigma about mental illness in their minds. We are misinformed and uneducated. We are ignorant. We think therapy and medications are for whites only. We are held hostage by a code of silence that throughout our history has kept us safe and helped us survived but is now killing us. Our churches tell us to pray more, have more faith, live right, strive for prosperity…but say nothing about the mental illness that is often quietly sitting amongst us in our congregations.

We will fight for Trayvon and for our black boys. We will march against those who believe it’s better to close our schools and build more prisons. We will rage at police brutality and systemic racism across the board. But when it comes to our mental health and the facts on mental illness we are cold…silent…apathetic…hushed…disbelieving and ignorant of the science and biological roots of mental illness and how vital a role environmental factors play in the manifestation of illnesses like depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia.

Our national black leaders and organizations speak little on this issue and make no demands for change. I would go as far as to say it’s not even on their radar or list of priorities. Narratives and dialogue on mental health in our communities is driven and dominated mostly by white advocates. Those of us who live with mental illness and choose to face the stigma within our community and society at large often aren’t given the same platforms and amplification as white advocates. Our outrage and concern for other issues drown out suicide prevention and mental health awareness. Campaigns and efforts are not targeted at us, in OB offices we don’t see our faces on pamphlets on PPD or other perinatal mood disorders, and our doctors rarely screen us effectively for it. Medicaid provisions often keep our single mothers from being able to get adequate treatment and access to resources on the mental health front. (I speak from experience)

All of this…has me angry. Has me raging on the inside, and pushes me to do more with the space I have here. As a woman and mother of color with bipolar disorder who has survived PPD,  I look at you, your daughter, and what happened, and the role mental illness probably played in this, and I rage and I feel a responsibility. To your memory and most importantly to your daughter I feel an obligation to do more, say more, fight for better within our community. Others can rage and decry the actions of the police if that’s what the feel is important. I will rage and decry the lack of education and honest dialogue about mental illness on a national level and within our own community. I will rage and push for you so that your daughter and other women of color get educated and aren’t ashamed to get help. I will rage against the “strong black woman” archetype that keeps so many of us from acknowledging we need help and treatment on this front. I will speak up, I will fight, I will advocate for you so that your death will not have been in vain.

I will do this because I know, Miriam, what it’s like to be touched by madness and struggle to survive in its death grip. I will do this because your story and your death have shown me that its past time we rise up, get real, and take responsibility for our mental health….and take action.

I will step up Miriam. I will continue to speak in the vacuum until our stories and experiences with mental illness are heard and taken seriously instead of dismissed or trivialized.

I’m so sorry we lost you. I’m so sorry you lost yourself. I’m so sorry your daughter will no longer have you. I’m sorry we couldn’t do better by you both. But know that now? We will.

It’s Okay

It’s okay to have a mental illness…

…to need medication, even more than one, to manage it.

….to see a therapist for it.

…..to feel weak for having such shitty brain chemistry.

….to hate it for the impact it has on you, your relationships, your quality of life, your self-esteem, your perception of yourself and your worth.

….to be grateful for it for what it has taught you about yourself, your limits, your capabilities, your strengths…and for how it’s changed you.

…..to be scared because you have it, and to worry about everything that comes with it from the stigma it carries to the side effects of the medications you take.

….to be a parent with one. To want to have children, and have one, or many, despite living with one.

…..to take the safest medications possible for it during pregnancy and breastfeeding if that’s a choice you and your psychiatrist make.

….to be jealous of those who don’t have one, of their “normal” states.

…..to be resentful of your spouse because they don’t understand what it’s like for you to live with it daily.

…..to hurt for your spouse or loved one because you know what it’s like to live with it daily and you wish you could shield them from that part of you, spare them from seeing how deep your darkness can go or how high your brain can fly, and spare them the hurt the difficulty and weight of how heavy and distressing it can be to witness.

…..to love your spouse or loved one for standing by you as you manage the ups and downs, the nuances, the cracks and crevices of it.

….to be honest with your kids about it.

….to be yourself, to live your life fully, to create the life you want to live despite having it.

……to not let it define you.

……to embrace the parts of it that can help you grow, and learn, and empathize.

…….to feel strong because of it.

……to love yourself in spite of it.

It’s okay to have a mental illness. Don’t let anyone shame you for it. Don’t let stigma keep you silent and held hostage by it. It’s okay. As hard as it is, as dark as it can get, it doesn’t diminish who you are or what you’re capable of. It’s okay. It’s not your fault. Ever.

So take a deep, full breath, and say it out loud: “It’s okay.”

 

My Initial Response to The NRA’s “Database for the Mentally Ill” Request

“How many more copycats are waiting in the wings for their moment of fame from a national media machine that rewards them with wall-to-wall attention and a sense of identity that they crave, while provoking others to try to make their mark,” LaPierre said. “A dozen more killers, a hundred more? How can we possibly even guess how many, given our nation’s refusal to create an active national database of the mentally ill?”-Wayne LaPierre, NRA lobbyist

The NRA sickens me. Truly. They just gave a completely tone-deaf and disrespectful response to what occurred a week ago today. They believe arming school officials and having armed guards at school will prevent such tragedies. I don’t agree with this perspective at all for varying reasons, but I know there are those of you who do. I don’t want to debate that with you today. I simply want to address the question asked at the end of the above statement.

I’m a mother of two boys.

I’m a USAF disabled veteran and former police officer.

I’ve survived Postpartum Depression and Anxiety.

I currently live with mental illnesses called rapid cycling Bipolar Disorder type II and OCD.

 I take medication for these illness. 4 of them. Every day. Every.Single.Day.

I go to therapy. I see a psychiatrist.

There are days I struggle to keep it all together and not let the fact that I have some chemical imbalances stop me from living life.

There are days when I want to give up.

I have been hospitalized-not because I was a threat to those around me but because I was a threat to myself.

I am not a violent person, although I have been traumatized by and have experienced violence first hand.

I am not a threat to society.

I have no desire to own a weapon, and never have despite my knowledge of how to use, clean, and take them apart, and being properly trained and qualified on several of them-ranging from the M9 pistol I carried on my hip every shift to the M203 grenade launchers, M249′s, and M4′s I was trained to use in combat during deployments.

I do not belong in a database because I have a mental illness.

My mental illness does not mean I am a violent person.

I am a compliant, law-abiding citizen who still manages to function just like everyone else despite the effects my illness has on me.

My friends who also have mental illnesses? They don’t belong in a database either.

They are just like me: men and women, mothers and fathers living with a painful “invisible” illness but still living their lives, working, raising their children, loving, helping others, and being productive members of society.

If our mental health records should be put into a database, then every person who applies for a weapons permit or who purchases a weapon, should submit to a comprehensive mental health evaluation, comprehensive background check similar to what’s required to obtain a security clearance, and a weapons safety course. You can’t say I should be registered in a mental illness database but not even mention that a more rigorous and comprehensive screening of those applying for weapons permits and buying guns is needs to be monitored as well.

It shouldn’t take less than 20 minutes to walk in to WalMart and walk out with a gun, I don’t care what you’re using it for.

Also? No one should be allowed to own or put together an assault rifle or semiautomatic weapon. I don’t understand why such a deadly weapon should be in the hands of the man who lives next door to me.

Yes, you have the right to bear arms, but maybe the kind of arms you’re entitled to bear should be re-evaluated. Yes, you have the right to protect yourself in case of a threat or danger…but we all saw how that played out with the Trayvon Martin incident, didn’t we? Maybe we start redefining what a threat is and what self-defense actually looks like. Maybe we start asking ourselves some hard questions and making some compromises. Not saying I’m right. Not saying the solutions or answers to this are simple. Just thinking out loud here.

You have the right to bear arms, but guess what? I have rights too. I have the right to have access to mental health services and resources that aren’t underfunded and understaffed; services and resources that have qualified professionals working for them who treat us with the respect and dignity we deserve just as much as “normal” people.

You have your rights. What about mine? And the other 1 in 5 people who live with some form of mental illness in this country? You have a right to arm yourself…we have our rights to privacy…and to the same life you do.

Those who live with mental illness are not all dangerous. We don’t all need to be tagged and stored in some database. If you REALLY think we do, then I say you should be too. Because while you may not have a mental illness you could be just as capable of violence. ANYONE with access to a gun can quickly and easily become a criminal-yes, even “responsible good guy gun owners.”

I am mentally ill. I am not violent. I don’t belong in your database. Stop stigmatizing me and those just like me. Stop using us to redirect criticism and calls to action by saying we are the problem. We are not your scapegoat.

I guess the old cliché is true: “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” No you can’t. Not when their greed disguised as advocating for”rights” is stronger than their desire to admit they could stand to learn a few things.

Go fuck yourself, NRA and hold another press conference when you have something more substantial to say.

Let’s Wake Up From Our Inoculation & Get Real About Violence & Race in America

I didn’t find out about the shootings in Newtown until early Friday afternoon. I don’t spend my mornings watching the news and had spent all of Friday morning playing with Alex and writing my previous post.

When Alex went down for a nap, I settled in on the couch and pulled up Twitter, looking forward to catching up with my friends & posted links.  That’s when I found out. Tweet after tweet expressed shock, terror, anger, and talk about mental illness, gun control…As my mind scrambled to try to figure out what had happened, Bertski started yelling and cussing, his voice angry and choked up with emotion. I ran to the room and found him staring at his computer screen, his face a mix of anger and disbelief. Following his gaze, my eyes met the headline on CNN’s front page. I stared at it, unable to process what I was reading. When I did I quietly went back to the couch and started reading what was coming in about the shooting.

20 children dead. Kindergarteners. First graders. Teachers hiding their students and sacrificing their lives to save those of their students. Assault rifle. A hundred rounds of ammunition. My whole body started shaking, my heart sank, tears blurred my vision. Pain, shock, and disbelief gripped me and rendered me unable to speak. I turned to Twitter to try to express my grief, only to realize that it was too much, too triggering, to overwhelming, the arguing and hateful comments too disgusting. I turned everything off and tried to focus on cleaning my house while processing the grief slowly consuming me.

What happened in Connecticut has shaken me to my core. I’m disgusted, enraged, and mourning the loss of life and desperately wishing the families affected could experience comfort and peace in the midst of their grief.  I’m horrified that such young children were subjected to such terrifying, cold-blooded violence, and feel both grateful and guilty that Brennan had a fun-filled, SAFE day at kindergarten, while the children in Newtown did not and will never have the chance to again or become the people they were destined to be…..

Over the last few days, I’ve read hundreds of tweets and a large amount of posts by people expressing much the same emotions I myself have been feeling. I’ve found solidarity and join in with those expressing outrage and asking as my friend Stephanie did: “If not now, then when?” When will we care more about the lives of our children, and human life as a whole over our “right” to own an assault rifle, or an arsenal of weapons in our homes…even if they are for hunting or so-called “protection?” When will we look at the context of the time period and intent of our forefathers when they originally wrote the second amendment and realize, that the context in which our society now lives is drastically different from the one back in the 1700′s? When we will look at updating an outdated perspective?

I’ve also seen people discussing mental illness, both the need for better mental health care and access to it, as well as the need to “protect” ourselves from such “dangerous and unstable” individuals. “Put them away where they belong, they aren’t fit to function in our society.” I’ve seen the media and others instantly assume that mental illness was to blame for the killer’s actions, even BEFORE we knew he really did have some mental problems we now know were never addressed. I’ve seen heated arguments about gun control, rights, and people demanding we FINALLY do something to make it so these kinds of events are less likely to occur.

So I want to take the time today to address two very important things that I think need to be thought about and acknowledged in the aftermath of this latest tragedy to rock and horrify our nation. I waffled back and forth with whether or not to say these things and make them part of the conversations we’re having with each other and the questions we’re asking, the arguments we’re making. After some thought-provoking and civil conversations with friends who urged me to share my thoughts, I’ve decided to just go ahead and say somethings that I know are not going to be well-received, seriously thought about, and given validation. As I discuss the following points I beg you to not forget that I am in NO WAY diminishing or intending to trivialize what occurred in Connecticut, Wisconsin or Colorado. Bear in mind that I am just as horrified, enraged and heartbroken as you are. But please open your mind up and seriously ponder what I have to say.

First: I hate the way each time something like this happens and captures national attention, the immediate conclusion people jump to is ” this is SUCH a heinous act of barbaric violence that only someone who’s mentally ill could commit such a crime.” Do I believe that there are some mentally ill people who become violent? Yes, definitely. However I believe that it’s a small percentage and know that the majority of those living with mental illness are not violent towards others and have no intent to be. I have a mental illness and while I’ve tried to harm MYSELF I’ve NEVER thought of actually committing a violent act against another human being. So when I hear people instantly associate senseless acts of violence with mental illness, it infuriates me, because I know that doing so only perpetuates the stigma surrounding mental illness, and compromises the efforts to make mental health and the resources it so desperately needs, a priority in this country.  It damages & undermines the empathy and understanding of mental illness that thousands of people are trying to advocate for in this country as well. For more thoughts on this, please read this letter from a mother whose son has a mental illness: “I am Adam Lanza’s Mother.”

What I do believe more is that there are some very sick bastards out there with no conscience, who for whatever reasons they deem important, senselessly embark on killing sprees-either for fun, some kind of glory, revenge, or to send some kind of message they can’t communicate in another form or fashion. I think instantly labeling such people as mentally ill, especially before it’s even been verified, is not only sensationalistic in regards to the media, but also dangerous because it gives these killers a subtle immunity if you will from the justice system and public opinion. It gives these killers the opportunity to capitalize off of the insanity defense and increases the chances they will be institutionalized in an understaffed or funded mental health facility instead of in jail or on death row where they belong in my opinion.  So, I firmly believe we need to be very careful about automatically associating mental illness with violence.

Second: This is going to be very hard for the majority of you to swallow and I’ll be honest and let you know it’s as equally difficult for me to say, because I know that when you force people to confront harsh realities outside of the bubbles they live in, their first reaction is a visceral one; they instantly get defensive and reject what’s being presented because really listening to and acknowledging what’s challenging their belief and world view requires asking themselves some rather uncomfortable and tough questions. I know, because I’ve experienced it myself, several times, especially within the past year and a half.  I also know what I’m going to say will be met with a ” this is NOT about race, race doesn’t play a part in these tragedies, and you can’t compare this to what has just happened.” But I’m here to say that whether you choose to acknowledge it or not, race DOES play a role when it comes to violence and how we respond to it in this country.  Socioeconomics also plays a role, but they really just intersect and sometimes overlap each other so I’m making these points understanding this fact.

Let me be honest and say that as senseless and horrific as what happened in Newtown is,  and as heartbroken as I am over the loss of life, I’m also very aware that this kind of violence occurs EVERY day in minority & poverty-stricken communities and receives very little, if any, attention either on a state or national level.  When senseless violence rocks these communities, no one in the media EVER instantly considers mental illness as a contributing factor, or as an explanation as to why someone decided to go on a killing spree. There are no “we need to ACT NOW and demand our elected officials to make access to weapons more difficult. This is UNACCEPTABLE!” expressions of outrage-at least not on a national level.

I also know that if there is any outcry or demands for change from citizens in these communities those cries for justice and real change are often ignored, stifled, and stalled by politicians who care more about advancing their own “more important” agendas than getting their hands dirty and dealing with the complicated and messy reality of life in urban areas.

You’re going to hate me for saying this but do I believe the reasons for the lack of attention and demand for change are steeped in racial bias? Yes, you’re damn right I do. I know it is, because I’ve witnessed and have family members who have lived it, pushed and argued for change, for help, and been ignored or beaten down by a system designed to stay broken instead of fix the problems. Now I know and have spoken over the years to lots of white friends, co-workers, classmates, etc who adamantly and even vehemently claim that what happens daily in the inner city is not on the same level as what happens in communities that don’t experience violence everyday. I’ve even had heard white people during class discussions on violence and race say that it’s not as serious of a problem because it’s “expected” to happen in urban communities, because “that’s just their way of life. That’s the ghetto. Those people choose to live that way instead of choosing to live the right way.”

My response to this bullshit (and yes, racist) argument? Tell it to the thousands of families that are slaughtered on a regular basis, in cold blood. Tell it to the thousands of school children who are shot and killed in school, walking home from school or while they are outside playing because one of their relatives had a “beef” with someone and that person decided the only way to handle being “disrespected” was to kill everyone attached to the person who supposedly wronged them.; to “send a message.” Tell it to the families of those who are killed on street corners and the front steps of their homes…to the parents of children whose throats have been slashed and bodies thrown away in a dumpster.

Perfect examples of cities with this level of everyday crime are Chicago, Philadelphia, and Camden, NJ, a city that can’t afford to pay their police force so they’ve laid them off.  The crime and violence in Camden is so vile, that the city council has given up and reached out to the state and federal government for help. Are they getting it? Not enough to solve the crisis happening there.  In Philadelphia where my mom is a school administrator in charge of dealing with students who have violated the district’s “zero tolerance” policy, kindergarten-second grade students are constantly being brought into her office because a knife or gun was found in their book bag. One six-year-old girl told my mother she took the pistol from where her mother stored it because she wanted something to defend herself if something happened while she walked to and from school. She was terrified of that daily journey. 4 days later, after being in my mother’s office, she was found dead in an alley down the street from her home with her backpack still on. Was there an outcry then? A demand for stricter gun control laws and a more threatening police presence? No. Why? Because it’s an everyday occurrence. It’s “expected” so “there’s not a whole lot that can be done to fix it.” Too much politics, too much bureaucracy, not enough REAL action or solutions being implemented. Murders in inner cities happen because that’s what “we” do. It’s normal. So we just “deal” with it as a way of life.

So what’s my point?

  • That when things like what happened in Newtown occur, the immediate response and assumption by the media and public is 1) if the killer is white, he probably acted so violently because he’s mentally ill, and didn’t get the adequate mental health care that could’ve prevented his violent actions. When it’s a white man committing these kinds of horrifying crimes, the media and police work overtime to snuff out and explain his motives for doing so. If he has an illness, then that almost gives people some kind of…I don’t know what the right word is, but it gives them something to partially explain away his behavior. “Of COURSE he did this because he’s mentally ill and unstable.” Me personally, my first response is that he must be some kind of vengeful son a bitch who decided for whatever sick & twisted reason that his relatives and the KINDERGARTENERS he didn’t even know deserved to feel his wrath.
  • There is never any national attention, sensationalism, outrage and calls for more restrictive gun control laws unless something this violent and senseless occurs in a predominantly white, suburban community where exposure to violence is not an everyday reality its citizens have to live with. It’s not “real” or worth addressing until it happens in their backyards and touches them, and then there is outrage, there are vigils, there are relief funds, there is mourning. And guess what? There damn well should be. Yes- we need to stop and mourn the lives of those innocent children who died way too young & were robbed of becoming who they were destined to be. Yes, we need to help their families recover and offer them whatever they need to make it through this. Yes, we need to honor those who gave their lives to save others. Yes, we need to help the children who witnessed this unbelievable horror who will forever be traumatized and most likely develop PTSD as a result. But we should be doing the same for those who endure this everyday in communities deemed as lost causes.  We need to be just as outraged, just as saddened, just as heartbroken, and just as vocal for the forgotten and broken down communities who don’t have enough voices to speak & fight for them-for their children. They are American citizens too and their kids are America’s children too.  The fact that we only cry out for some and not others disgusts me just as much as the violence in Wisconsin, Colorado and now Connecticut.

Also? In President Obama’s address to the nation on what happened in Newtown, he said we need to quit with the bullshit politics and get real about fixing this problem, “whether its at a temple in Wisconsin, a movie theater in Colorado, an elementary school in Connecticut, or a street corner in Chicago.” Guess what? That was the FIRST time in my ADULT life I have ever heard an elected official in high office put the violence that happens everyday in urban communities on the same level as the violence that occurs in predominantly white communities and say we it’s past time we deal with this shit.

We need to focus on mental health care in this country. We need to pressure our elected officials to change our gun control laws. But while we’re focused on addressing the immediate needs in the aftermath of what happened in Newtown, we need to think long-term and look within to have a much larger conversation on the racial, and socioeconomic issues that breed violence period. We need to confront ourselves and get real about getting to the real roots of these problems. We need to change the way we teach our children about differences and tolerance of those who are different from them. We need to level the playing field for everyone, no matter what race, creed or sexual orientation. Until we do, the governing systems and climate of our culture will continue to be unbalanced, riddled with double standards, and experience the heavily resistant movement toward the “post racial/post modern” society we mistakenly claim to already be.

****************UPDATE***********************

After I published this post yesterday, I came across an essay today expressing & expounding brilliantly on what I talked about here. It helped me feel proud for sharing my thoughts and it was gratifying to read someone else sharing similar thoughts. It was written by Tim Wise, a noted author & speaker on race relations and white privilege: “Race, Class, Violence, and Denial: Mass Murder and the Pathologies of Privilege.” I’ve been an avid reader of his writing and perspective for close to a year now-I highly recommend taking some time to read and reflect on what he presents in his other essays.

No Shame Day: My Thoughts on Stigma, My Story

When I jumped on the Twitter this morning, I saw a tweet with a link to a blog  on Huffington Post titled, “No Shame Day: Working to Eradicate Mental Illness Stigma in the Black Community.”

After reading it, I clicked on the #NoShame hashtag and saw tweet after tweet from African-Americans detailing their struggles with mental illness and sharing how the stigma within the Black community regarding mental illness has had an impact on them.

I went to The Siwe Project website and cried reading story after story of other Black men & women who have had to suffer in silence because of how crippling and degrading the stigma is. Suffering from and living with a mental illness is difficult enough-having to battle and fight against stigma in addition to it makes it excruciating. It chokes out hope, leaving a person feeling alone, isolated, and unable to use their voice to advocate for themselves or their mental & emotional well-being.

I cried. A lot. I’m still crying as I type this. I wish I could put into words how encouraging and empowering it is to see other minorities living with depression, anxiety, and Bipolar Disorder. Seeing a photo of an African-American woman in a t-shirt that says “Bipolar II” makes me cry with relief because I recognize that I’m not a freak. I’m not weird. I don’t have a “that’s for white people” disease.

I’ve mentioned it before and I’ll say it again:

Black People Don’t Talk About Their Mental Health

 We don’t believe in the science that says our minds are malfunctioning due to imbalances in brain chemistry. We don’t believe in the science that shows that stress, trauma and other environmental factors can alter a person’s brain chemistry and thus lay the foundation for a mental illness or mood disorder to build itself upon.

We don’t believe in anxiety because the Black Church tells us that we are “too blessed to be stressed.”

We don’t believe in depression because really, we survived slavery, what in the world could we have to be depressed about? If our ancestors could survive oppression and if our grandparents could endure the cruelties of racism and Jim Crow, then we can get through anything. Without complaining about it.

To be diagnosed with something other than a physical illness just means that you have “issues” , and are “crazy.” And if you are “crazy” you and your family don’t talk about it. You don’t get help for it. You are shamed into silence, an embarrassment to your family.

That’s why seeing photos and reading tweets & stories of others boldly declaring their diagnosis’ has me in tears. I’m both humbled and emboldened by their courage to speak out loud because I know how difficult it is culturally for them to do so.

Finally. Black people are finally starting to talk about their mental health. Their struggles, their diagnosis’, the treatment they are getting.

Finally. I’m meeting other African-Americans who are “like” me. I’m not alone.

So I’m writing this post today to lend my voice to the movement that is saying enough is enough, let’s silence the voice of stigma by raising our own.

Many of you already know my story because you’ve been reading it here, for the past year and a half. But for those who don’t here it is:

My name is A’Driane. I have been struggling with mental illness since I was 16. In my early 20′s I was diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety (GAD) & Depression. After the birth of my second son I suffered from GAD and Postpartum Depression. Although I was in treatment for both, my shifts in mood and symptoms became much worse.

I was diagnosed a year ago this month (OMG it’s been a year already?!) with rapid cycling Bipolar Disorder II in addition to my GAD. I take 3 medications daily to manage my symptoms and have an excellent psychiatrist. Being in treatment for the past year and becoming educated on what Bipolar Disorder is has helped me recognize that I first started having manic and depressive episodes in my early 20′s.

My psychiatrist believes that there are several things that have contributed my developing this illness. Family history (my grandfather is schizophrenic), environment & trauma (I was abused in my childhood & teen years) and the changes in hormones after the birth of my children all created what she calls my “bipolar biology.”

My treatment plan involves medication, therapy, yoga, dancing, writing, and painting. I’ve also found a few fantastic online support groups on Facebook, and read books, blog posts, and articles to help me understand everything I can about my disorder.

Compliance and the road to stability has not been easy and there are days when the weight of it all overwhelms me and I want to give up. There are days when no matter what I do, my illness still gets the better of me and I want to give in and give up hope.

But I don’t because I want to make it. I want to live. For myself, for my boys, and so others can know that it’s possible to live a healthy life.

My hope is that days like today, and having a month like July deemed, “National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month“, will help de-stigmatize mental illness in our community and culture.

African-Americans don’t seek treatment for mental illness because they don’t understand what it is and what it is not, so I’m hoping No Shame Day and increased awareness educates our community and encourages those who are suffering to seek treatment.

We CAN eradicate stigma in our various communities, regardless of race. But it’s going to take more open dialogue, more people choosing to own & tell their stories, and most importantly, being educated.

Dedicating days to doing all of these things are crucial to helping change the conversation around mental illness. I’m proud to be doing my part.

For more No Shame Day stories, you can click here, and you can also read a piece from Ebony Magazine by writer Mychal Denzel Smith here

Have My Struggles with Mental Illness Caused Developmental Delays in My Son?

We took Alex to the pediatrician today for his 2 year checkup.

Alex has always been on the small side when it comes to his weight,(even though he weighed 6lbs 7oz at birth) so I was expecting a conversation about how much he’s gained, what we can do to help him gain more if needed, where he’s at on the growth curve, etc.  I was expecting to talk about he’s gone from eating nearly everything as an infant to close to nothing as a toddler and has redefined the term “picky eater.” I was expecting to talk about his Early Intervention evaluation and the 25% language delay he has. I was hoping to talk about constructive and healthy ways to handle his tantrums when he doesn’t get his way and his moodiness.

What I wasn’t expecting was a conversation about how my mental health was to blame for a decline in his growth back when he was 9 months old….back when I was battling PPD & severe anxiety.

I was not expecting to be told that my mental health has been having a negative impact on my son’s development.

There I was, sitting in the pediatrician’s office, stammering and trying to defend myself.

“I was on medication…I…there were days I was sad, but…I did my best to make sure all of his basic needs were met…I mean, yes I did struggle with bonding with him, but…I…I tried to push through it…I did my best.”

There I was, sitting in the pediatrician’s office, having my worst fears confirmed and exposed.

Despite everything I’ve done to prevent it, I’ve damaged my child.

Of course he’s moody and temperamental.

Of course his language is delayed.

Of course he’s not doing as well as he should.

Of course he was a fussy baby.

I was depressed during my pregnancy.

I was depressed and anxious for the first year and a half of his life.

PPD & anxiety dominated me.

I didn’t bond with him the way his dad did.

Out of the two of us, I was the parent who was unhealthy.

It’s my fault.

I tried to get help. At my 6week checkup I told my OB how I was feeling. He sent me to my primary care doctor who said I was just a tired new mother of two kids. She said she doubted I’d feel the way I did for very long and said she thought I was fine. But I pushed anyway and she reluctantly wrote me script for a low dose of Zoloft. I took it for a year. I sought counseling. The first two therapists I talked to told me what I was experiencing was normal because I was a single mother. “Nothing is wrong with you, who wouldn’t be stressed?’ I kept hearing. I kept getting worse. When Alex was 10 months old I found Postpartum Progress and started getting treatment at the Postpartum Stress Center.  I found the #PPDChat Army and started talking to other sufferers & survivors. Getting help enabled me to start emerging from PPD’s grip, but my anxiety and mood swings became more drastic. I read a blog post about something called Bipolar Disorder 2 and cried because I knew that I was having the same symptoms. Two weeks later I was diagnosed and started seeking treatment.

Since then I have been doing everything I can to get better and get healthy. I have fought my way out of the darkest corners of my mind and done my best to still provide a healthy environment for my sons in spite of my struggles with motherhood and illness.

But even though I know all of this, I can’t help but think that Alex’s pediatrician is right. I can’t help but read the research on various websites like womenshealth.gov that says

Researchers believe postpartum depression in a mother can affect her baby. It can cause the baby to have:

  • Delays in language development
  • Problems with mother-child bonding
  • Behavior problems
  • Increased crying

Or this post from Postpartum Progress back in 2008 that says a study finds antenatal depression can contribute to developmental delays. Or this one from 2011 that discusses the risks of not being treated for depression, anxiety, or another mood disorder.

I’ve read post after post about the impact my mental illness during pregnancy and postpartum could have on Alex as he develops and have hoped and prayed he’d still be healthy.

Back in December I had spent a 2 therapy sessions letting go of the guilt over not being treated for my depression during pregnancy, and forgiving myself. When I was pregnant with Alex, I had never heard of antenatal depression, and my OB never mentioned it. Whenever I talked about my mood swings and sadness, he said it was normal and just because of changes in my hormones-”don’t worry too much about it,” he said. “Once you have the baby, you’ll feel better-this is just a  physically challenging pregnancy and it’s stressing you out. Try to take it easy,” he had reassured me. It took me until this past December to forgive myself for it.

And then there I was, sitting in the pediatrician’s office today, listening to him,  feeling all the shame, pain, fear, guilt, and negative emotions of the past 2 years wash over me.

I’ve spent the afternoon and this evening being angry and ashamed of myself for just taking everyone’s word for it. For being sick in the first place. For going untreated. I feel like I should have done more, even though I know in my heart of heart’s I did all I could.

Maybe the pediatrician was just voicing his concern and opinion. Maybe he’s right. Maybe my mental health during the first two years of life is to blame for the delays in development and his mood swings. Maybe it’s not to blame and Alex would’ve been like this if I had been happy and healthy. Maybe Alex will grow out of this and be just fine.

I don’t know what to make of this, really. I’m trying to process it all and not let what happened today settle in and take root, making me question my self-worth and value as a mother. I’m doing my best to keep in mind that I’m doing everything I can now and getting him the help he needs to keep thriving. I’m trying not to blame myself.

But it’s so damn hard y’all.

The guilt is suffocating.

When The Shame Monster Attacks, Remember That You are Enough

My word for this year is LOVE. In all caps. Not sure why it has to be in all capital letters but I do know that when it came to me, that’s how I saw it in my mind; in big, bold, gigantic letters, all capitalized.

It seems only fitting that LOVE is my word for 2012. It’s also the word God woke me up with on my 29th birthday AND is in the verse I’m meditating on this year.

“He has brought me to his banquet hall,
And his banner over me is love.”

(Song of Solomon 2:4)

It’s only the second month of the year and I’m already pondering and learning a lot about what love is…as well as what it isn’t.

Yesterday was a perfect example of what love is not.

Love does not produce or induce shame.

If someone is attempting to shame you or if you feel ashamed of who you are or what you struggle with, that person is not loving you they way they should and you deserve.

I repeat that person is NOT loving you the way they should and you deserve.

Shame and love don’t go together….at all.

I had an interaction yesterday that left me reeling and full of unhealthy emotions. I felt unworthy, unlovable, incapable…and full of shame about something I only partially have control over.

My ability to be a good, healthy mother to my son was questioned and even thrown in my face as if to say, “You’re a good mom sometimes BUT because of your mental illness, I’m not 100% sure you can do this.”  As if to imply that despite all the work I’ve done to find the right diagnosis and medication, and despite my progress in therapy, NONE of that is enough to overcome the fact that I live with a mental illness. NONE of that overcomes the fact that this person saw the worst parts of me for 2 years….

It hurts when a friend or loved one who’s been close enough to see you at your worst, and in your most vulnerable moments, uses that knowledge to attack, shooting you with hollow round bullets instead of love, understanding and grace.

But as bad as that shit hurts and tears your insides apart, it’s nothing compared to the Shame Monster who is stirred awake by such destruction and devours you whole.

That’s what happened to me yesterday. The Shame Monster came to eat me alive and because I was already reeling from pain, I let him.

But after having two conversations with supportive and loving people in my life, who know about my weaknesses and struggles, I was able to remember one thing

I AM ENOUGH

That one sentence, that one declaration was enough to shrink the Shame Monster to the size of an gnat and become something I could easily swat away.

I am enough.

I don’t have to hustle for worthiness.

I don’t have to compromise who I am to prove otherwise.

I don’t have to work for grace or love because they are already freely and unconditionally given to me from God and the REAL friends & family in my life.

I don’t have to overcompensate or prove myself to anyone.

I am enough.

Period.

And that is something I’m learning about love, loving myself, and how others should love and treat me.

We can’t change other people or how they treat us most of the time. But we can change and even choose how we respond and react to them and even situations that arise and try to make us feel less than.

We can choose to respond to ourselves with love, remembering that we already are enough, which in turn chokes out shame before it can even erupt and overtake us.

And? I am a damn good mother. Yes I had PPD. Yes I live with anxiety. Yes I am Bipolar.  But I’m a damn good mama because I do what it takes to attain and maintain my health. And that….is enough. End of story

Circle of Moms Top 25 Blogs on Postpartum Depression: Why I Want to Be Listed Among the Awesome

 I was winding up a relaxing catch up session with my cousin Addye D. late yesterday afternoon, when I happened to check my email and received the shock of a lifetime:

Your blog Butterfly Confessions has been nominated to the Top 25 Postpartum Depression Blogs by Moms – 2012 list on Circle of Moms!

The parts I highlighted in bold were the only words I initially saw and the overwhelming shock that came with understanding what they meant led me to immediately close the email. After a few moments I passed the phone to my cousin and friend Stephanie and just sat there with my hand over my mouth in stupefied gratitude and shock.

When the shock had ebbed enough away for me to recover I re-opened the email, read it through, followed the links  attached and was blown away when I saw the other moms who’d also been nominated…moms I knew. Mamas I had met only a year ago through their courage and transparent words on my computer screen…mamas who embraced me, encouraged me, talked with me, and walked with me through one of the darkest periods of my life. Mamas who became friends, confidants and some of my biggest supporters, mamas who comprise a fabulous army known as the #PPDChat Army on Twitter & Facebook.  I was listed among these incredible women?! Again, I was overwhelmed with emotion and had to back away from the computer to process it all.

I couldn’t sleep last night because after my initial shock and emotions about being nominated subsided, there came the desire to want to be listed, to indeed be one of the 25 who make the list. After that came guilt and the thoughts that tried to rob me of the joy of this accomplishment: “Should I want to win?” “What is this some kind of popularity contest? Is this why you write? To win things, to make lists, to be recognized and applauded? A’Driane get a grip, girl! Stop being so vain,” the guilt laced thoughts screamed at me.

But this morning when I woke up, I didn’t feel anymore guilt because I understand why I want to be listed among these incredible women and I don’t think my reasons and desire make me a shallow, glory seeking hound.

I want to be listed because number one, it help me remember on the rough days that  my transparency means something, that it’s more than just me sitting here spilling my guts on the internet. Practicing transparency is no easy task and it is by no means for the faint at heart. It takes courage to own your story, out loud, in black and white for the world to read and think what they may of it. You know how many people disparagingly told me I shouldn’t do this? That I shouldn’t share these kinds of details about my life? Do you know that no one in my family openly talks about depression or mental illness though it has affected several of us? I don’t do this solely for awards or to be applauded, or even to try and get thousands of page views. I do it because I want to change the dialogue about mental illness, especially among women and mothers. I do it because I want to be a voice, a person who helps others embrace their humanity by vocalizing mine.

I also want to be listed because black women suffer from postpartum depression too, as well as other minorities. It’s no secret that mental illness is a taboo subject among the black community and that the stigmas surrounding it are deeply entrenched, almost impermeable. But I’m trying to change that, and while you may think I’m pulling a race card here, I’m really not. Facts are facts. Blacks, Latinos, Asians and other races & cultures don’t talk about mental health and perinatal mood disorders. And if they aren’t talking about it, that means they aren’t seeking treatment if they are suffering. There needs to be more awareness, more open, shame-free dialogue and more healthy, strong starts for mothers of color and their children. Part of why I’m fighting my way through college right now is so I can become a licensed clinical social worker & therapist to make this happen on a professional level, advocating and pushing for effectual change. Women of color need better resources both online and in their communities. I want to be an online resource they can come to for support and an encouraging virtual bear hug when they need it. I just want to do my part, and being listed in a community that boasts over 6 million moms can maybe help these women of color find what they need.

So do I want to be listed among the awesome? Do I want you to vote for me? Do I feel guilty or shameful about asking you to? Yes, yes, and no, I don’t. Don’t think of it as voting for me, a person. When you cast your vote for me and the other mamas listed think of it as helping to erase the shame and stigma surrounding mental illness. Think of it as helping to give mamas and their kiddos a strong, healthy start. Don’t we all deserve that?

Speaking of the awesome, DUDE-PLEASE check out all the blogs listed and VOTE for them! I’ve been voting for everyone :) Why?  Every single one of these mamas has shown so much courage and strength by giving in to vulnerability and letting you see their struggles and triumphs. Reward their wholeheartedness and leave them encouraging comments, let them know you support what they’re doing and that it’s not in vain.  To see the list of blogs nominated and to vote you can click on the badge to the right under “Honored!” or click this link: http://www.circleofmoms.com/top25/top-postpartum-depression-mom-blogs-2012 Voting lasts until February 21, 2012 and you can vote for your favorites once a day every day :)

Congrats to all the mamas who have been nominated!!!!!!!!!

And God…you continue to amaze me. Thank you for being so faithful and just plain AWESOME.

Speaking Out on PPD, Motherhood, & Mental Illness

I made mention last week that I read one of my blog posts about PPD, motherhood and mental illness, during my university’s chapel session. This particular chapel was conducted by the Culture & Arts Association, one of my favorite clubs on campus, and the theme of the chapel was called “Through My Blurry Lens.” Several students spoke on various aspects of culture, bravely shared experiences they’ve had, and I was honored to be among them and do the same.

I read my post “Stealing It All Back….with Gratitude,” a post that was inspired by photos I took for a project conducted by the incredibly awesome Karen Walrond from Chookooloonks. Her gratitude.2012 project is designed to help develop a gratitude practice through photography AND your subscription helps an important charity. For more info you can click here, or the “gratitude 2012″ button over yonder on your right. Thanks for doing so and without further ado, here’s my reading…..if you think it would help someone you know who’s struggling with PPD, please share it as my prayer is that it gives them some hope that recovery DOES happen. There is light at the end of the tunnel….

“the shadow proves the sunshine…” (Switchfoot)