“I don’t know” An answer to a question or a conversation stopper

It was 1980-something, I was 12-years-old. We live in Simsbury, Connecticut—a very heterosexual, WASPY town in New England. My parents always told me to never tell your religion to anybody, not even to talk about the subject of religion.

It is Sunday and I am in Granby, the next town over, at a friend’s house. I don’t know this friend well. We are playing with dolls and then her mom tells us it is time for them to go to church. I am supposed to go with them since they are responsible for me for the day. We pile in the car with her brother and sister and on the way we go. I have never been to a church. Her mom makes conversation with the kids in the back seat. “Do you go to church?” she asks me. “I answer “No.” I remember what my parents taught me. “What religion are you?” she asked innocently. Just then, I saw Nazis marching my family to the death camp, hysterical laughing German soldiers shooting the people I loved in the face in my head all for answering this woman in the affirmative. So, I said, “I don’t know.” Good old, I don’t know. The answer you say when you want to hide who you are and not make an issue of it. The best answer off of someone’s anti-Semetic crack pipe. I don’t know. It would never open minds and hearts, it would never help the world embrace all the diverse religions and races and ethnicities. I said, “I don’t know.” “How do you not know your religion,” she asked quizzically. “I just don’t,” I said. And, at that, the conversation led someplace else. I breathed a sigh of relief. I dodged another one. But did I dodge it well? I missed an opportunity to educate and open minds, take people out of their comfort zones.

I am in high school in the mid-nineties. I attended an alternative private day school a few towns over in Hartford. We are in gym class, hanging all over the weight lifting equipment. Lisa, a girl a year older than me, starts asking kids what their sexual orientation is. All are answering her straight. When she comes to me, I am not sure how to answer. I really don’t understand her question. Whatever I said would permanently label me throughout my school years and perhaps my life. I quickly searched my mental file for some answer. I shrugged at her and said, “I don’t know.” I expected her to laugh at me and ridicule me. But all she said was “That’s okay, you have plenty of time to find out.” I let out a sigh of relief. But from that moment on it brought out the question why is sexuality so important to people. It forced me to research different sexual orientations and realize the prejudice there is out there on the GLBT community. Looking back on that gym class afternoon, I realized that many of the students whom she asked could have answered one way because they were hiding who they really were. While I experimented with both sexes in high school and college, today I am happily heterosexual.

I bring up these examples because as a mental health advocate I am forced every day on whether to hide who I am with people or to use conversations as teachable moments. When I tell people what I do, that I am a writer of a blog on mental health issues and a mental health advocate, it always scares me because the stigma is greater. But a few weeks ago, I came to the conclusion that the phrase “I don’t know” no longer applies to me. My battle with mental illness has shaped who I am as does my rich Jewish heritage and my early experimentation of my sexuality has allowed me to accept the diversity of all people. To me, erasing stigma is about changing how we have conversations with people and opening the door for teachable moments. My business cards have my blog’s logo on it and from now on I will talk about my past proudly because I can change minds.

How Stigma Kills

People ask me why I want to write a column like this. But aren’t you embarrassed of your own story they say. My reply is always No. My story, based in the past, is merely a grounding point, a place to start, a place to show you I have experience with the issues so you can trust me better. In future columns, I’ll be seeking out others to write their stories and even doing some political/advocacy writing. I just haven’t gotton to all the possibilitiies yet. I have to slow down and write each column at a time. Back to story for a moment, the personal story can have power too. Jenn Marshall’s This is My Brave, Inc. uses storytelling and performance to change minds about mental illness. Jenn is bipolar and writes a blog about it at http://www.bipolarmomlife.com. I ask you to go to Youtube and type in This is My Brave for a list of performances of stories they’ve done.

My point is that mental illness is only embarrassing if we let it be. Mental illness is something that happened to us, only a part of us. Used skillfully and as a tool, our stories can educate people to know they are not alone. They serve to show legislators that people with these issues are real and strong and need services not stigma. I only wish our brave veterans would share more about what they go through on the inside so the rest of the country they fought for can really, truly have their back.

In the same way that the GLBT community had to come out in order to raise awareness about who they are and their issues, the community of those with mental illness must do the same. However, we must do it in the most respectful way unlike the pride parades of the GLBT community. We must start blogs, testify in front of legislators, join organizations like This is My Brave and NAMI and share our stories with schools and colleges, tell our stories to law enforcement in order to change the way police treat the mentally ill.

And yes, our stories, parts of them that is, are embarrassing. But we can heal ourselves and just make the embarrassing parts part of what happened. We don’t have to fear the darkness. Chances are someone out there experienced the same thing and lives in the darkness every day.

The Secret Sauce to Self-Reliance when You have Bipolar Disorder or any mental illness

Living with bipolar disorder type 1 for twenty years has not always been easy but I have developed a secret sauce to survival. The following suggestions will help you form a guidepost for living your best life. Disclaimer: In addition to these suggestions, I also take a cocktail of medications and have done so for over ten years.

Love. I wasn’t always married but having the love and support of my husband allows me to heal from episodes faster. The support and understanding of my father and stepmother is also critical to me. I know many of you have hurt family and friends during your episodes. Rebuilding these relationships is critical to establishing your support system.
Meditation. I try to meditate for 20 minutes each day, sometimes when I wake in the morning or right before I go to sleep at night. This helps clear my mind of the day and any intrusive thoughts I have been having.
Exercise. I love running but I’m not super-disciplined about getting out there. I go to the gym three times a week at my best. At the gym, I run on the treadmill for 30 minutes and do strength exercises and work on my core. Right now, I don’t do classes as I prefer to workout alone. Find some form of movement you love doing and do it, even if it is just walking or dog walking.
Journaling. I journal every day in a plain Moleskine. You can use any notebook or piece of paper though. This helps me organize my day and plan my work life. I also get to see where my head is at and where I’m going toward. Mood charting is good too. There are lots of sites on the internet where you can print out mood charts. Try DBSA to start.
Yoga. Again, like running, I’m not totally disciplined about doing a yoga practice. I go once a month, sometime twice, to a yoga class either at my gym or at a private studio. I always feel stretched and calm afterward. I am currently developing my own yoga practice for home use.
Eating Healthy Foods. I don’t mean always shopping at Whole Foods either. I try to eat a diet balanced with vegetables and fruits and lean protein, very little red meat. I try to snack on almonds and seeds of various types. I drink green smoothies once a week from the juice bar.
Water. I try to drink a lot of water during the day. I carry water bottles around with me which I constantly refill. This helps to flush out germs and bad bacteria and keep my vocal chords hydrated.
Therapy. While I don’t go to therapy weekly anymore, I see my psychiatrist every three months unless something comes up. I also keep my old therapist on speed dial in my cell phone in case I need to talk out an issue.
Herbal tea. I drink a mug of herbal tea every day, mostly green tea. Sometimes I drink hot water with lemons in it. I rarely drink coffee or caffeinated beverages unless I am out for coffee with a friend.
Limit Sugar. I try to limit sweets and sugars from my life. I use honey or agave if I want to sweeten tea or something. I avoid baked goods and candy, but sometimes I treat myself to something.
Blogging. Regularly blogging here and for the International Bipolar Foundation helps me stay commited to these practices and develops an authentic writing voice. You don’t want to share everything but thinking of your blog as a magazine and writing in journalist’s style is helpful in giving your blog direction.
Keeping an eye on my finances. Fortunately, my episodes through the years have not incurred a lot of debt and within a few months I was able to pay everything off. When I have periods where I can’t work a regular job, I’m careful to live on a budget. I know my income and what I spend. I evaluate the necessity of each purchase I make and whether it suits me and will make me happy. I will write more about personal finances and wellness in future columns as well as have some interviews with personal finance experts.