Donna, my wife, and I have been certified as presenters for the “In Our Own Voice: Living With Mental Illness” speaking program by the National Alliance On Mental Illness. We went through the training in early 2015. Since then, we have shared our story as a couple about 18 times. I have given more than a dozen additional ones on my own. Even before that time, we had spoken to groups about a half-dozen times involving our experience with major depression and severe anxiety in our lives.
In all, we have presented that aspect of our history almost 40 times. And virtually every time, the most powerful moments come after we have talked to the group as a whole.
Following almost each talk, Donna moves off slightly to one side and I move off slightly the other way. Each of us usually then speaks one-on-one with people who want to share some of their story, ask personal questions or simply relate some often emotional reason why our presentation touched them. There often are tears. There are hugs. There are quiet hand-squeezes.
Those people have had an epiphany, in many cases, that they aren’t as alone as they had presumed.
I remember one of our presentations several years ago. A rather long line of people were waiting to talk with me. A younger woman in line, standing beside a younger man, caught my eye because she was crying softly. Tears still glistened in her eyes when her spot in line reached me. She didn’t say anything. Both she and her husband appeared to be, at most, in their late 20s.
“My wife was just diagnosed two weeks ago with major depression,” the young man said. “Can you please tell us what we’re in for, what we can expect to happen?”
They both appeared a little frightened, very worried. I tried to explain to them that there just was no way of predicting, that the illness could fade as quickly as taking some prescribed medication or that it could be a long, difficult road ahead. By the time we were finished, both of them seemed slightly more at ease. I said a silent prayer for them as they walked away; I still pray for them when I recall our conversation.
Another time, at a presentation for about 25 people in a small Catholic chapel, I again was approached by a woman in tears. She was quite a bit older than the other woman. “Hearing you talk, I could relate to everything you were saying,” the woman said. “For the first time in 30 years, I found out someone has gone through the same things I’ve gone through.”
She found out she’s not alone in her world marked by mental illness. None of us is alone that way, whether we struggle with a mental illness or cancer or divorce or job loss. And none of us is alone if we love and care for someone who is experiencing something really difficult in life.
In the history of the world, written by God, your character and your plot line are unique, special and significant. Your story has a purpose. It matters. Someone needs to hear it.
So, my friend, tell your story.