For years, I’ve been in the “eliminate stigma” camp when it comes to mental illness and addiction. After all, I struggled with undiagnosed ADHD, non-hyperactivity, and general anxiety disorder from childhood into adulthood. Along the way, I self-medicated with alcohol.
It took me a long time to get help, especially for addiction. I was terrified people would find out. As I shared before, I suffered from alcoholism for 15 years before spiritually flatlining in 2002. (This June 21, God willing, I’ll celebrate 20 years.)
Mental illness and addiction shaped me, so it makes sense that I wanted to make a difference in this space. When I had the opportunity to join WellStone, the nonprofit mental health center serving Huntsville, Cullman and surrounding communities, it was like coming home. I feel extraordinary amounts of empathy for those struggling with mental illness and substance use disorder (SUD). When I see people hurting, I hurt. When I see people resisting recovery, especially because they’re afraid of what others might think, I wish I could change their minds.
I was a reporter for a local TV station when I went to treatment. Before embarking on this journey, I told my news director and GM. There was no announcement or goodbye when I left, but tongues wagged. A friend, who has since passed, called me when I got back. “Are you okay?” he asked. The rumor was I’d had a nervous breakdown.
No, Tony. I didn’t have a nervous breakdown (although I certainly could have). I was grateful for his concern. He was one of three friends to call. I remember two cards, one from my sister, Heidi, and another from my husband, David. They contained powerful quotes that still inspire me:
- “Go out on a limb; that’s where the fruit is”
- “Leap and the net will appear”
Another TV personality went public with her breast cancer diagnosis several years earlier. Her courageous battle became the subject of news stories and led to North Alabama’s largest 5K. I point this out only to demonstrate how differently we respond to diseases of the body versus disorders of the mind. It never occurred to me to share my story with colleagues, let alone viewers. Addiction was shameful. Why tell anyone other than my innermost circle that I needed this kind of help? That I had this kind of problem. This kind of pain. Yet, by sharing her story, the other journalist, whom I greatly admire, raised significant funds for—and awareness of—breast cancer. Shouldn’t we do the same for mental illness and substance abuse?
Yes! That, in part, is why I became more vocal about my own struggles, first when I worked at an addiction recovery center, and now as Director of Development at WellStone, where I’m raising money for a crisis diversion center, and as a board member of Not One More Alabama.
I had an a-ha moment recently. Patty Sykstus, co-founder of NOMA, Daniel Adamek, founder of Little Orange Fish and I were brainstorming one day. Daniel said he was frustrated with the distinction between physical and mental health. “We’re looking at it all wrong.”
“That’s it!” I exclaimed.
“Great,” he laughed, “Then please explain it to me.”
Health is health. It involves the physical and the mental (and spiritual, if you want to go deeper). Very few people go their entire lives without an ER visit, so why should a mental health crisis be such a stretch? We shoot for annual checkups with our GP. Why not have our mental health evaluated from year to year with a psychiatrist? How many of us haven’t tripped on a rock and sprained an ankle or split a chin open? It seems reasonable, then, for us to go through rough patches in life, take a figurative fall, and need stitches for the mind, so to speak, from a mental health professional. We all need help healing.
Some people have diabetes, a chronic disease that requires a lifelong management plan. That’s often the case for people with chronic mental illness, whose treatment can include a lifetime of therapy and/or medication. Then there’s addiction. After nearly two decades, I still go to 12-step meetings. We don’t “graduate.” Meetings are part of my treatment plan. Meetings are essential to my health.
What about prevention? As awful as they are, we get colonoscopies. If there are signs of cancer, patients are treated accordingly. What if annual mental wellness check-ups could help identify mental illnesses before they advanced? That could potentially mean the difference between depression and major depression or even suicidal ideation and suicide.
Mental illness and addiction are hard for people to wrap their heads around. It’s easier to grasp diseases with tangible symptoms, like a tumor on an MRI or a fracture on an X-ray. But symptoms of mental illness show up in what are often erratic behaviors that are difficult to comprehend. And tolerate. (Worth noting: technology is evolving, and experts say some mental illnesses can now be diagnosed through MRIs. Scientists also recently identified a biomarker in people with major depression and for the first time observed brain signals associated with obsessive-compulsive disorder.)
There’s no question I inherited substantial risk factors from my late parents. Just like David has a family history of heart disease, I have one of mental illness and substance abuse. It stinks that the odds are against us genetically. It troubles me more, though, that we have passed these increased risks onto our daughters. It’s no one’s fault. It just is.
So what do we do? We monitor our health and theirs. We see doctors who specialize in mental and physical health.
Because health is health. Illness that affects one over the other isn’t a reflection of the person, but a result of the human condition. Sometimes the body gets sick. Sometimes it’s the mind that suffers.