By Jacquese Armstrong
I Educate the Next Generation by Disclosing My “Mental Illness”
I’ve lived most of my life literally walking through the valley of the shadow of death. And yet, hope and resilience follow me as if I know the way out. But the one thing I have no hope of changing or getting over is being considered a throw-away person in this society.
These are the words I choose to start the introductory essay in a memoir of essays I call Informed Naivete. One could think that my assertion is a bit skewed or harsh, but these are my thoughts associated with the aftermath of the dreaded “s” word.
Often, I’ve thought that if everyone who has, or cared about someone with, a mental illness stood up against stigma, we would outnumber the rest. Where would the stigma be then? And stigma is real. It can not only make your social life uncomfortable, but it can greatly affect your ability to earn a decent living.
So, why do I choose to disclose my mental health challenges? Why would I publish articles under my birth name, publish a poetry chapbook on my mental health challenges and welcome the chance to speak on mental health challenges and stigma and why am I so adamant about it, knowing what I know?
Although I am a psychiatric survivor of 35 years, I have only disclosed since 2006 when I agreed to be interviewed for a documentary on mental illness and minorities. Now, I have many projects that would be all but impossible to do without disclosing. Of course, it was a journey.
Before 2006, my “mental illness” was my most well-guarded secret. I lost a lot of friends in those first couple of years in the 80s and there were whispers and stares, but then I moved more than once. Because I was still in and out of the hospital, I developed lies and kept them going.
The lies were used to patch the holes in my resume, explain the eight years it took me to finish college, the many colleges I attended, the disappearances, and the work absences. The world definitely doesn’t make it easy for you to resume the race and the charade becomes a job within itself. It also led to undue stress and anxiety. It fueled my paranoid symptoms, which at the time, were not under control at all. I was always in a state of flux, wondering who knew.
I came to realize that I was stigmatizing myself by living in fear and shame, playing into the stigma game. I asked myself, “How can I call for an end to stigma and discrimination if I am ashamed myself.”
It’s almost like making the decision to go natural with your hair. When I did, it wasn’t popular and it’s still not aesthetically pleasing to some employers. I looked at myself in the mirror one day as I blow-dried my hair and curled it with a curling iron and asked, “What’s wrong with my hair?” This was the day of a huge self-embrace. The 2006 documentary I participated in was another. Looking back, that decision was the beginning of my making sense of this mess.
Self-disclosure provided me with the freedom to come out of the shadows into the sun and be the person my Maker intended me to be; who I am. It was a tremendous boost to my self-esteem.
Years ago, at the age of 34, my grandparents had a discussion with me about my illness. They said, “Jacquese, this is God’s Will for you…you have to accept it.” Then, I thought they were “crazier” than I was, but now I see the wisdom in what they told me.
First of all, you can’t heal from something you don’t accept and you must try to heal. You can fight against it, but in the end, you’re fighting against yourself.
Second, most people want to find purpose and meaning in life. Why am I here? Why am I suffering? For me, if I have to suffer (and I have), then let me help someone else to rejoin society without missing too many steps. Let me enable them to embrace the opportunities I lost because of my challenges.
I started Project Onset, still in its infancy, which is a part of the African-American Outreach program of NAMI-NJ (National Alliance on Mental Illness-New Jersey). Through testimonies from a person with mental illness whose onset happened in college (me), a parent of a college-age student and a mental health professional, young adults and their families receive an education on how mental illness can occur in those crucial years.
In the end, I just want to be able to make some sense of my pain and helping people is the best way I know to do that. So, I educate, motivate and inspire on a grassroots level because I know it’s needed. It is a purpose-filled life, driven by the desire to help eradicate stigma for the next generation of survivors. That is why I make the decision to disclose my psychiatric illness. It helps me to take control of my destiny. I know that only I can control whether I feel ashamed or not. Stigma feeds on shame.
So, imagine if everyone with, or who cared about someone with, a “mental illness” stood. Then, we could all just get back to the business of living.