Blog /Mental Illness
An underlying sense of counting down – A rhythm deep: a defeated force has overcome me. I fret and frown only wading in the muck existing here in what is blackened life. Feeling enshrined in overwhelming strife. Darkness is slowly pulling me under. I yell for help but no one is there to hear it. The darkness won't let go of its hold on me. For, I stand at the boundary of light and darkness. All of the strength All of the courage that I once held in my heart is no longer there. No one can save me. I don't want to fight anymore There is no more possibility. Time has come to halt all the pain, so I can now relish into eternity. I want to be gone out of this world of conscientiousness, undetected by the occupants of this world. I've given into darkness. Goodbye forever… Or so I thought. Today, I am alive and I continue to rise! Above is a poem about feelings I have felt about ending my own life. Suicide is a tragic event, and I share my story on surviving suicide to shed light on darkness. I want to cast light into the areas of shadows. This past week, Don Cornelius shot himself in the head, allegedly taking his own life. We lost a legacy that impacted pop culture and gave significant influence to that of black performers. Don Cornelius was the founder and host of Soul Train. However, his son Tony Cornelius said in a CBS interview that his father was "very unhappy about some things" and had health problems. Today I take a stand. It’s time to deal with the horrific pain many people face and help others through their grief, as opposed to them taking their own lives. All creatures instinctually value life. Even a blade of grass or flower fights for the privilege of life. It’s time to listen carefully to the stories of others so our knowledge of suicide can deepen and grow. If we persist in this process, digging and sifting, like rocks beneath the surface of a plowed field; the reality of suicide can end. Some suicides may be sudden and impulsive; others are the result of dealing with hardship and pain over many weeks, months, or even years. From my personal experience, a person who is considering suicide is experiencing severe stress and is at a serious personal crisis. Risk increases as the crisis, or the individual's perception of it, worsens. Feelings of control and self-esteem deteriorate. Shame and guilt may lead to self-alienation and isolation. Suicide is completed when the emotional pain is so unbearable that death is seen as the only relief. Suicide is a result of extreme hopelessness and helplessness. The contemplation of suicide comes to those who feel that nothing or no one can help them. Not only does the person who has taken their life end, suicide has repercussions for everyone involved. The grief it causes is intense and prolonged. The loss of a loved one who committed suicide is forever felt. This I know, because my cousin recently took her own life. Why? I do not know. What I do know is that her face will never be seen again, her voice will never be heard again. She is forever missed and many people have been hurt. The darkness need not surround us! No more struggling… No more pain…. "Life is an opportunity, benefit from it. Life is beauty, admire it. Life is bliss, taste it. Life is a dream, realize it. Life is a challenge, meet it. Life is a duty, complete it. Life is a game, play it. Life is a promise, fulfill it. Life is sorrow, overcome it. Life is a song, sing it. Life is a struggle, accept it. Life is a tragedy, confront it. Life is an adventure, dare it. Life is luck, make it. Life is too precious, do not destroy it. Life is life, fight for it." ~ By Mother Teresa
I wonder if Yasmeen Vaughan and I ever crossed paths. We're both about the same age and build. We're black women from Oakland. She graduated from Mills College and I grew up near there. Judging by her photos we have similar taste in fashion. Maybe we passed each other in a clothing store or at a flea market.
According to the Oakland Tribune, Yasmeen went missing a few weeks before Christmas of last year. Reports from her family claim she lived with untreated mental health problems. Relatives said that was the reason why Yasmeen isolated herself from them. So having no contact with her for a length of time wasn't new. When I first heard this story in January, I became worried for Yasmeen. When Africans Americans go missing, often the media passes us by. The U.K.'s Daily Mail reports that black people make up 40% of suspicious disappearances, but missing white women get the most media coverage. Which is why black cable network TV One created the new series "Find Our Missing."
Yasmeen's mental health problems caused my concerns to grew even more. I thought about Mitrice Richardson, a young black woman from South Los Angeles with bipolar disorder who disappeared a few years ago. She drove to an expensive Malibu restaurant that she couldn't afford and was acting odd. Some in the restaurant described her as behaving like she was on drugs. The staff called the police. Richardson was taken into custody by the Malibu Sheriff Dept., but released late night/early morning by herself. No family members were contacted to pick her up. If you've never been to Malibu, it's mostly beach, windy roads and cliffs. One year later, she was found dead in a deserted Malibu area.
Unfortunately, Yasmeen's story has a similar ending to Mitrice's. In mid-December, a security guard found her alive, clinging to rocks at the Oakland Estuary. Who knows how long she had been in those frigid waters. She died at a hospital a few hours later. The body was recently identified about one week ago. Yasmeen reportedly had no wallet or identification on her. What really pained me reading this story in the Oakland Tribune was a quote from her mother.
"'(Yasmeen) had cut herself off from all her friends and family. Part of the problem (with getting help for mental health issues) is the stigma that people of color have for reaching out for help.' Deborah Vaughan said she had not spoken to her daughter for weeks before she was found."
Another life loss because of mental health stigma. If only she knew good help was out there and having a mental health issue does not make her inferior. I wish she would have known that she could have a mental health issue and still live a quality life. I see testaments of this everyday at my job. Stories like Yasmeen and Mitrice's are another reminder of why what we do at PEERS is critical. Stopping stigma literally saves lives. I don't want Yasmeen Vaughan to have died in vain. Her death fuels my drive to inform the community about mental health. If she was anything like me, I think Yasmeen would want me to do just that.
It was by the grace of God and my employer P.E.E.R.S that I was given the great honor and privilege of attending the Alternatives 2011 Conference held in Orlando, Florida. Alternatives is the oldest national mental health conference organized by and for consumers. I met a diverse group of people who were eager to share personal stories with me, a complete stranger. In my awkwardness, I found myself listening attentively, nodding my head and making many facial gestures. It can be quite overwhelming hearing people’s stories and not getting around to share my own. I’ve come to the conclusion that people like sharing their stories with those who listen, but they aren’t very good at listening to other’s stories.
I struggle with and become quite anxious when it comes to telling my story of recovery. What I’ve come to realize about myself is that I don’t feel safe sharing my story with everyone. Everyone isn’t interested in hearing my story. There have been times when I’ve shared my story and felt what I said wasn’t taken seriously. Those situations left me feeling devalued. The purpose for sharing my story is for my own healing, first and foremost, and to be an example for those faced with similar life experiences.
The first workshop I attended at the conference was “Crafting Your Story,” presented by monologist Elizabeth Kenny. It was priceless. She answered many unresolved dilemmas confronting me and provide various tools I could work with. I finally found a process and technique to telling my story. I have so much to tell. I just can’t tell it all at one time (something I always find myself doing). This practice will help me stay focused on one story at a time. It has also helped me discover and uncover those testimonies deep within that, when shared, will heal, deliver and set others free. My stories are too powerful to keep to myself. I learned how I could obtain my goals and overcome tremendous obstacles in telling my story. I will perfect my story and delivery when presenting before an audience.
Trusting the process and myself is a good place to start. Elizabeth encouraged us future storytellers to think and say to ourselves, “I’ve always had (fill in the blank).” And we should ask ourselves such questions as:
What’s the point to what I am saying?
Did you hear the fullness of what I said?
Is it clear where I’ve come from and where I’ve gone?
What would happen if I told my story backward?
I learned from Elizabeth that it’s important I captivate the audience’s curiosity when getting my point across. As I establish an emotional connection without getting too emotional, I’m able to share my most intimate memories effectively and with clarity. I must admit, after the workshop I wanted to apply these techniques right away.
Elizabeth held several group exercises. The one that impressed me the most was “Telling Your Story without Emotions.” I don’t want to overwhelm my audience by being overly emotional. I leaned to practice until I reach a place of telling my story with a tone that doesn’t waver, but keeps the audience engaged. Elizabeth told us that 90% of the time the audience has heard a story like yours before. It’s the 10% they haven’t heard. And that’s you, telling your own story, not someone else’s story. The benefit to telling your own story is that you decide what and how much you want to share.
It takes skills to reach this level of storytelling. Here is an exercise I took away from the workshop:
- Get color-coded index cards and write a word, sentence or paragraph (whatever comes to mind), on separate cards.
- Write a topic for whatever word(s) you’ve written for each card. You can go into as much detail as you want about the word.
- Shuffle the deck. Pull a card daily, weekly or monthly until you have completed a story for each word on a card.
This practice will allow me to empty my soul, let go of all my fears and get focused on one experience at a time during my storytelling. As I study these topics, I will eventually reach a point where I am able to retain and maintain each topic, and tell my story with a natural flow.
I’ve discovered a greater confidence within myself for the love of people. It’s been my goal to help others find themselves (the Will) and accept, love and encourage themselves for who they are, and capable of becoming. I thank you Elizabeth for being a beacon of enlightenment.
This year's theme for the 25th Alternatives conference is "Coming Home: Creating Our Own Communities of Wellness and Recovery." I felt right at home at the "Oral History Projects: We've Done Them and You Can Too" workshop. I love audio and good storytelling, which is why I host our PEERS podcast. Oral history is more than what sounds good to the ears. As co-facilitator Oryx Cohen from the Empowerment Center noted in the presentation, oral history can be a tool for social change.
Often what I hear from consumers is that a major help in their recovery process was when someone gave them a voice and cared enough to listen. Oral history stories play a part in silencing stigma. Someone not knowledgeable of mental health issues can hear the story and voice of another's experience. I think that's far more powerful and educational than getting your information on mental health from a film or news story that displays the same old stereotypes of people with mental health challenges as being subhuman and incapable of functioning in society.
With the Internet, oral histories posted online can reach consumers all over the world. Cohen told the crowd that a consumer institutionalized in South Africa called him on his cell phone in United States. The consumer had access to the oral history project Cohen directed called Mind Freedom. Of course, Cohen wondered how some man in South Africa found his cell phone number. But, that speaks to power of letting someone tell their own story.
Social change takes some change, as in money. Co-facilitator Bill Shumaker chronicles stories of mental health recovery from consumers in Arkansas. For his ongoing project "In the Voices of Experience and Recovery Oral History Project," Shumaker's team was able to attain $25,000 in grant funding. Smaller oral history projects may not require as much. Shumaker also emphasized seeking legal help to draft an interview agreement for subjects to sign.
At the end of the workshop I filled out an evaluation form. One of the questions asked if we would use the information learned in the workshop. Bill Shumaker and Oryx Cohen definitely planted a seed in my head. My answer to that question is, "Oh yeah."
Oryx Cohen and Bill Shumaker