Stories: Diana

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When did you first become aware that you had a mental illness?

This is a complicated question. I first started noticing symptoms around age 15, but I didn’t want to believe that I had mental illness, so I actively avoided the subject. By the time I was 18 and in college, it was clear that the symptoms weren’t going away, so I was forced to look at things in a more realistic light. Even then it was a gradual process, fraught with a lot of shame, learning, and unlearning.

Did you talk about it with anyone? Who? If no, why not?

I initially discussed it with no one, save for having arguments about it with my parents. I thought that talking about it would make it real, whereas if I ignored it, it would just go away. This was naïve thinking, of course, but at the time it was the only method I had for dealing with my emotions. The first person I truly discussed it with was the therapist that I started working with in college.

How did your family respond when you were first diagnosed?

My parents were extremely concerned, and rightfully so. They repeatedly pleaded with me to seek treatment, and while I begrudgingly agreed to some things, I didn’t actively participate in it so things stayed the same. At the time, seeking treatment was akin to admitting that I was a failure, which was a terrifying possibility. My role in the family was to be the smart, self-sufficient child, so living up to that expectation was paramount.

Why did you decide to become a young adult Ending the Silence presenter?

Becoming an Ending the Silence presenter was a natural choice for me. I was excited at the prospect of helping to educate young people. Although they are rarely discussed in the open, mental health and mental illness impact everyone. As a life skill, it is critically important that young people are informed on these topics, so I wanted to be a part of that. Additionally, when my illness was first emerging, I didn’t have any positive models of what it looked like to seek help and learn to live in recovery. I hoped that I could be a concrete example of that, someone who could show firsthand that mental illnesses are, in fact, treatable.

How has being a presenter made an impact on you?

It is not uncommon for individual students to come up to me after the presentation and confide that they, too, are living with mental illness. That they feel compelled to share that with me is not only validating, but also demonstrates how necessary these conversations are. Some students even disclose in front of their whole class! Honestly, it makes me feel proud of them – I certainly wasn’t in such a place of acceptance at that age, so it’s encouraging to see how open-minded young people are. Many of them haven’t been silenced by shame and old stereotypes, which is so exciting! This makes me grateful to be able to present, since I know that I am providing something that students need and feel connected to.

How has being a presenter made an impact on how you talk about mental health?

I think the biggest impact is that it has encouraged me to be more open.

What is the question you most often get asked by the students?

Students often ask questions about different diagnoses. They’ve heard the words before but don’t really understand what they mean, much less how they look on a human level. I also get questions about medication – if it’s dangerous, how it works, whether you can get addicted to it, etc. – which underscores how many harmful misconceptions there are around this topic (and how early it starts!).

Why is it important for you to tell your story?

I think it’s important for everyone to tell their story! Stories are such a powerful vehicle for empathy, understanding, and learning, all of which are essential to creating a more compassionate world. For me, personally, telling my story is a way of reinforcing the lessons that I have learned, while also passing them on to others. Plus, I think there’s no more powerful way of degrading stereotypes than speaking up. Putting a literal face on mental illness helps to humanize it, which is the first step toward opening minds.

How do you feel when you are telling your story?

Being an Ending the Silence presenter is so good for me because it reminds me of how far I have come. Undoubtedly, there have been nights when I’ve really struggled with symptoms, then dreaded having to do an Ending the Silence presentation the next morning because I felt like such a fraud. During the presentation itself, though, I always feel better. It reminds me of all the work I have done to get to this point, how much I have learned, and really, all the days that I survived when I didn’t think that I could. So, it has been validating, having consistent opportunities for that.

On the other hand, I do sometimes question myself. Ten minutes is such a short period of time in which to tell a pretty complicated story, and I sometimes wonder if I am idealizing things, glossing over the worst parts, or minimizing how painful it actually has been over the years. It’s hard to create depth of understanding with such a short window of opportunity. Ultimately, I try to focus on sharing what I needed to hear as a young person: that mental illness is no one’s fault, and that there is hope. I will admit though, there are instances when I still struggle to believe those things myself. That’s something that I am constantly trying to reconcile.

Tell me a little bit about the culture you were brought up in, and how that culture views mental illness? Was shame a part of that view?

Absolutely. From a socioeconomic point of view, my parents are both very educated, so they were very open to mental health treatment from that perspective. However, we were also a very Catholic family, so I definitely had a “healthy” sense of guilt from a young age. Because of my depression, I feel like I was predisposed to being hard on myself, and a lot of the Catholic tenets – the emphasis on purity, the imperative to confess your sins – definitely amplified that tendency.

What makes NAMI-NYC different than other services you’ve used?

NAMI-NYC is infinitely more inviting. There is an inherent assumption here that everyone around you “gets it” on some level, so it makes it much easier to connect with people authentically. I’ve never felt like I had to be on the defensive here, or to convince anyone of the validity of my experience.

I have seen this a lot as the facilitator of the Young Adult Support Group as well. So many young people have felt judged because of their illness – by their parents, their so-called friends, even their clinicians, whose literal job it is to help and support them! I’ve seen how relieved people are to have a space where they know that they not only won’t be judged, but that they will be accepted and invited to contribute. It provides a sense of validation that I believe is essential to healing. I think this also makes it easier for us to laugh about our experiences. Living with mental illness, we’ve all done our fair share of nonsensical and completely irrational things. Knowing that we’re in a safe space allows us to speak freely about this and to find the humor in it.

How has NAMI-NYC changed your relationship with your family?

NAMI-NYC has changed my relationship with my family in that it has changed how I relate to myself. In the past I have dealt in extremes, either calling my parents constantly or not contacting them at all. Part of this had to do with growing up and establishing my independence, but a big part of it also concerned my belief that I wasn’t capable. I’d either feel so unprepared to deal with my illness that I’d desperately cling to my parents, or I’d associate them too much with the genesis of the illness and therefore cut them off completely. In my time at NAMI, I’ve learned a lot more about myself, the supports that I need, and what healthy boundaries look like, which has empowered me to include my family in ways that are genuinely supportive of my well-being. This is a slow and ongoing process, but already it has been so satisfying. Getting to know my parents and my siblings as an adult has been very eye-opening. Now that I feel less entangled in their emotions about my illness, I’m able to see them more completely as people, and I look forward to what that process will bring.

How has NAMI-NYC changed your life?

NAMI-NYC has given me the opportunity to be a part of something. I have spent much of my life feeling like an outsider, so it has been so unexpected and wonderful to find a community where I know I belong. NAMI-NYC has also given me the confidence to advocate for myself and my needs, not only around my mental health, but generally speaking. Having so many opportunities to talk openly about some of my deepest vulnerabilities has taken a lot of the fear out of that process. As a result, I can speak much more clearly about what I want and need from others in my life, which feeds back into my wellness and my recovery. Now that I don’t have to worry about what I’m going to say, how I’m going to say it, and whether it will come across in a negative light, I can finally focus on my actual goals.

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