Written by David James
Edited by Maureen Danielle G
“I spoke so much about being a manic-depressive. I want to bring everyone back to my earliest memories of this companion of mine. Some people call this companion I have an ailment, or worse a terrible nightmare from which some people cannot awaken. I know that I have nothing to be ashamed of. I have nothing that should garner a stigma.” Richard Dreyfuss, Academy Award Winning Actor
A while back, my Twitter friend Linda Diaz of Lauryn's Law tagged me in a post for an article from Washington Post about Rachel Griffin. Rachel is a singer/songwriter in New York, as well as a grad student at NYU. Rachel suffers from Mental Illness, and she recently put a call to action on Twitter with the hashtag #iamnotashamed, so that people can openly disclose their mental illness. The comments and Tweets were overwhelmingly positive.
For many of you reading this, you may be thinking, "How can she do anything if she has mental illness?" or "Why would she admit to this?" The answer is easy. By creating awareness, Rachael is creating understanding.
There is so much stigma and stereotype surrounding mental illness around the world, and many people opt to dwell on that as opposed to the reality. They picture people with mental illness as extras from One Few Over the Cuckoo's Nest, walking around institutions in bathrobes, drooling on themselves; or as maniacal characters such as the Joker from The Dark Knight; or the depressed, black clad Emo such The Cure's Robert Smith . Sufferers of mental illness are all of the above and none of the above.
Yes, there are the tragedies of famous people like Vincent Van Gogh, Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, Kurt Cobain, Heath Ledger and Robin Williams who struggled with mental illness. All were brilliantly creative people who battled their demons, but in the end, lost. These are the stories that we are all familiar with because of their fame and tragic end. But there are people who have triumphed as well. Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, John Nash of A Beautiful Mind fame, Charles Dickens, former Today host Jane Pauley, 60 Minutes reporter Mike Wallace, NFL Hall of Famer Charles Haley, Princess Diana, and Star Wars’ star Carrie Fisher. That is not to say their lives were not without incident, but they were able to thrive.
I admire these people as well as feel their pain. I too suffer from clinical depression, and have for many years. When I was young, I knew there was something different about me. I would go through long spells where I felt off, knowing that something was wrong, but not knowing what. I would sit in class and think that I was the only one that felt that way. As I got older, I would begin to feel desperate, to fear the future, to worry about little things, to blow things out of proportion, to lose sleep over things I had no control of, to feel lonely and sad, and to feel so down, it seemed that there was no way up. I took comfort in beer, and would drink enough to help me calm down and sleep. I would often drink to excess with my friends on weekends. I thought it was part of having a good time, of being in my 20's and fitting in, I was smart enough to know alcohol was a depressant, but I didn't care. Looking back I realize it was because I felt so low that I would use it as an excuse to numb myself to the perceived reality around me.
In my 30's, as my first marriage was falling apart, in large part due to my self-destructive behavior, I finally reached out for help. I spoke to my doctor and was prescribed for Zoloft. After a while, it began to work. The feelings of despair began to dissipate, and the anxiety that had helped provoke my fears was lessened. For the first time in years, I felt somewhat normal, and began to work on putting my marriage back together. Unfortunately, I made the mistake that many do; I declared myself cured and stopped taking my medication. Things quickly fell apart again, and because of that, so did my marriage. I was soon divorced, living in a small apartment and seeing my son Peyton every other weekend. I went back to not only beer, but vodka as well. I would come home and mix a strong drink to help me calm my nerves, relax, and blot out my feelings so as to get to sleep.
I never considered myself an alcoholic, I never turned to the "hair of the dog" in the morning, never missed work or even drank at work, but I could see myself becoming overly dependent on it. My lowest point came after a minor outpatient procedure. The procedure was on a Friday morning, and I spent the afternoon and evening in an anesthesia induced haze. The next morning, as the last of the anesthesia wore off, and my mind raced, I felt the most incredible psychological pain imaginable. I wept, cried and at my lowest thought about how easy it would be to stop the pain by taking all of the Ambien in my medicine cabinet. Then I remembered my son, my recently widowed father, and other family members, and knew I couldn't. I made an appointment that Monday and renewed my prescription for Zoloft. This time, it didn't work like before, and my doctor changed me to Cymbalta which did the job. I knew then that this time that the depression was not temporary, but my permanent companion. Once I had my mind back in order, I got my life in order. I soon met the love of my life, Lisa, who became my wife. We had a beautiful daughter, Emmalee, bought a new house, and all seemed well, as I was living the American Dream.
Well, all this came crashing down on October 8, 2014, when I received the call that Peyton, just 13, had hung himself; he later passed away five days later on the 13th. This could have plunged me into a darkness from which there would be no return, but I was determined that I would survive. I went and had my meds adjusted, got into counseling and support, and made a conscious decision not to let myself find comfort or escape in anything; be it food or alcohol. Apart from a slip on the first New Year's Eve without Peyton, I have been well, and continue to do so.
Part of my recovery meant preserving Peyton's memory and helping others. Thus I began the #Products4Peyton and got deeply involved with the #PeytonHeartProject. Both allow me to open talk about Peyton's death, suicide awareness and prevention and advocate for mental illness.
Every day is a challenge. The fog has lifted from Peyton's death, and I never know what will trigger the tears, sadness, or anxiety. I take my medication, talk openly about my struggles and try to help others to also open up and seek help. My hope is that one day, the stigma of mental illness will be lifted, and the people suffering will be treated with the same dignity and respect that other illnesses receive. Until then, I will continue to tell my story and proudly proclaim "I am not ashamed of my mental illness!"
Author's Note: The first time I posted on Twitter, I received a tweet from someone under the handle of @jailina_ telling me that because medical science hadn't conclusively proven mental illness, then there really wasn't anything wrong with me, and that it was all in my head. If you deal with mental illness, and someone tells you this, ignore them. Studies of the human brain are still going on, yet the human mind is still a mystery. Stay strong, ignore the naysayers and tell them #Iamnotashamed.
David James is a 50 year old teacher and coach from Conroe, Texas, and also a mental illness advocate. He founded #Products4Peyton and is involved with the #PeytonHeartProject, following his son’s death.
David has also lobbied in Texas for the passage of HB 2186 which requires all school districts in Texas to provide mandatory suicide awareness and prevention training for all staff members. It was signed into law by Governor Greg Abbott in June of 2015.
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