The Art of Speaking Up


One of the things that triggers my anger and frustration is injustice. I cannot abide it. In another lifetime I would have become a lawyer, in particular to fight for the rights of the mentally ill. I’ve said since I was first diagnosed as a teenager that I wanted to be a mental health advocate, to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves. This picture above speaks to my sense of justice. For one thing, I think it is important to bust stigmas and help others help themselves. But this picture also says to me that passion, bravery, and honesty are key tenets to a healthy life and society. If everyone remains silent, nothing will change. Without brave, passionate people like MLK Jr., nothing would change. So this is my new goal: to be passionate, brave, and honest. I was talking to my cousin last night about what “lights her fire,” ignites her passion. She wasn’t sure yet but she was actively looking for it. I am on track to follow a lifelong passion: to help people. That’s my bottom line. I want to, in whatever way possible, help improve the lives of others. My own life has been so tumultuous, my experiences so dark, that if I can let just a handful of others know they’re not alone and avoid some of the hell I went through, I will consider myself successful. Ideally I’d like to help many more than that, and if I actually achieve my goal of becoming an NP, I will be able to.

The first time I remember standing up to injustice was in 4th grade. There was a 5th grade girl, Tina, who was bullying me and my group of friends. We took it for a while, I would tell my mom but there wasn’t too much to be done in those days (1994 wasn’t that long ago but at the same time was a million years ago). I decided to take matters into my own hands. I am not proud of what I did next. I got up on the monkey bars and somehow got Tina to get up there with me. I chatted her up, then I told her off, and pushed her off the monkey bars. I don’t think she was hurt and clearly violence is never the answer, but I was 9 or 10 and didn’t know very many things about things. What I did know was that she was doing something wrong and someone needed to stand up to her, but no one else was. That was my ungraceful solution. I did get in trouble but once the full situation came to light, I wasn’t punished beyond sitting on the bench for a while during recess.

This story does not make me look great, but I bring it up to illustrate my unquenchable need for justice, even at a young age. Today I am just as bothered, or maybe more so, by injustice: like the American student just released from North Korea who has died likely from the massive brain damage that he sustained while in captivity; or the pregnant mother of three who called the police to report a robbery and was instead shot and killed when they arrived; or the victims of the London apartment tower fire, whose living conditions were so unsafe that they led to the massive blaze. Et cetera, et cetera. It makes me so angry.

When I was 14 or so, I was committed to a psych ward for the first time. If you want to see some injustice, visit a teen psych ward at a fair to middling hospital. The way we were treated was unconscionable. I never should have had grown men sit on top of me to hold me down just because I was scratching myself. I shouldn’t have been forcibly sedated so many times just because they didn’t want to actually talk to me and deal with my problems. Granted, I was a handful because I was going nuts. I know now that I’m on the Bipolar spectrum but they hadn’t yet figured that out, so they had me on I think just Effexor, which made me manic and wild. I stole cutlery from the cafeteria to use to cut myself with, staples from school to scratch with (the hospital was a type of open campus with different buildings for different purposes), and once I tried to run away. I didn’t try very hard, I basically ran and hid for a while until they found me. Thinking back on it I can’t even put myself in the headspace that I was in at that point. Imagine losing all your inhibitions, feeling full of wild energy, a perverse sense of mischief, a need for attention, and being trapped in a locked, supervised hotel of hard knocks. I lost it. My Dr. there rarely talked to me so no one was changing my medications or really even trying to figure out what was going on.

One of the fights I got into was over a calling card. You had to have one to call out of Lodge (the name of my unit), so I had memorized the number on mine, not needing the card any more. A friend I had made really wanted to make a call but didn’t have the money to call out, so I suggested that I dial my calling card number and then she could make her call. I don’t remember exactly how anyone found out, but Sherri, one of the nurses, came up to me in full blown rage and yelled at me for sharing a calling card, demanding that I give it to her. There must have been a rule against it that I didn’t know about, but I didn’t see the harm and I know my parents wouldn’t care about donating a call to a friend. Sherri was livid though, and when I explained that I had the number memorized, it wasn’t a physical card that I had given Nicole, she became virtually apoplectic because she didn’t know what to do next. I believe I was punished, but I don’t remember how. I do remember getting really angry with her in response to her own anger and explaining why I thought what I did was right, how it didn’t hurt anybody, and I was free to make that choice. Well, there was my mistake. I wasn’t free there, and I wasn’t allowed to make that choice. This was a teaching moment for me. I learned that grown-ups didn’t always approach things logically and that sometimes I was on the moral right, even if I broke the “rules.”

I could tell you about all the times I was wrapped up in straight jackets and locked in padded rooms (no joke), each time more dehumanizing than the last. I could tell you about the time I helped a girl escape by propping the alarmed door open so she could sneak out. Or when I reported my pregnant roommate for punching the wall and breaking a hole in it. But that’s not the point of my story.

Treatment for mental health is still often inconceivably awful. The horror stories I heard from other patients the last time I was in the hospital (I got out in January 2016 having been there for about 3 months, held because I tried to kill myself and broke my neck and back, yeah yeah you guys know the story) made me fear being put inpatient ever again. The second unit I was in was bad enough but apparently it was paradise compared to some of NYC’s other hospitals. I wish I could think of a specific story right now but they are all eluding my brain. Suffice it to say that living conditions were deplorable and people lived in constant fear of both staff and other patients. Sounds like an incredibly healing place.

Which brings me back to now. I don’t want people to experience the same things that I did. I would like to work in the system and work to change the system. If no one does or says anything, nothing will change, but if someone works at it, or many someones, they can make a difference. The challenge is speaking up and doing it well, for ears that can deliver change.

Our mental health system is broken. Around the world people face similar issues regarding access to proper and timely treatment. I just read a post on twitter from someone in the UK who waited on a list for a YEAR before receiving therapy even though they had been in crisis. In certain parts of the world, therapy is so taboo, especially for men, that it’s not even an option. I realize there are cultural differences at play but this is why we need to be passionate, brave, honest, and vocal. “Be the change you want to see in the world,” Gandhi said.

I have a friend who is a playwrite. She embodies this ideal, busting open the doors with her truth telling. She gave up her son for adoption to a gay couple. Her one-woman show about the experience is called “Babymama: One Woman’s Quest to Give Her Child to Gay People.” She actually spoke about it in a video that ended up on Upworthy. What I admire about this the most is that she is using her talent to talk about very taboo subjects in an artful manner. We need more people like her in the world.

I actually have a lot of friends who work to tell their truth. One such friend writes a blog about life, love, marriage, her daughter, and recovery from addiction. Another is a motivational speaker on the West Coast who talks about sexual trauma and related issues. She wants women to find their inner power. Yet another writes a blog and other articles about her history with trauma, adoption, mental illness, you name it, and has been incredibly brave to share her story.

We must not stay silent about the the things that matter. These women know that, and so many more that I haven’t mentioned. I hope to be a part of this trend, to say things that matter, to care, to remain passionate, honest, brave, and vocal. This is what I strive for, and I hope that I can make a difference.

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