Being Out About It - That Critical Step.....
11 June 1995
I know an artist who works 4 days a week at an art therapy studio. He keeps a notebook to keep straight who he's told what about what he does with his time. His family and friends all seem to have a different story. He has revealed different degrees of truth, if any, to each. He fears seeing someone who 'knows' him at a studio open house.
I know another fellow who entered an art show anonymously because he hopes someday to return to the workforce with a 'clean record' so he won't have to bear the shame and discomfort of having had a bout. He soldiered on for years in his supervisory position in a large video production department, sometimes so unwell he could barely function. Only a couple of his supervisors 'knew', but surely all around him suspected. He was falling apart. Had to go into that work place and 'keep up appearances' until he had a "nervous breakdown". He's had 5 years off work because of recurring bouts of severe depression.
Now, when I offered him a chance to excercise his considerable professional abilities in a lowkey, low pressure situation he has to decline. A condition of his pension is that he does no volunteer work (catch 22... if you're well enough to volunteer you ought to be back at your real job but... how can you work back from a complete stop without some low pressure experience...?). He can't garden for a friend, was told he couldn't be a volunteer museum guide without jepordizing his pension, definitely can't consider doing volunteer work related to what he did so well even when he was really ill with depression. So his shame, his secret is re-inforced. He's tried various medications, does his hobbies, drinks a lot of coffee, smokes and waits to be well enough to step right into his old job with a clean record.
I decided at a very definite moment to step out of the closet. It was a scary move. I was warned by my psychiatrist of the dangers: 'if you ever apply for a real job it will follow you.' But I didn't ever expect to have a real job anyway.
I wanted to raise money by appealing to the public to donate money to buy a new projector for my Movie Monday program. I believed in its future and the hospital's equipment was unreliable, I knew my success would depend on consistency. The hospital's tight budget couldn't afford it so I went public about my story with an article by Deborah Pierce in the T.C. People started contributing to a fund, it was the most positive move I've made in my recent life. It's helped me to acknowledge a whole side of who I am and live with it well. It gave me an opportunity to really succeed. My family gradually joined in and are now fully involved in supporting the endevour.
It's something we do together now. We share in the work and in the rewards. We've done 175 shows weekly over three years with style and consistancy. Over 10,000 people have attended. It's a more healthy, holistic to deal with my illness and our community. I talk about my illness. I'm probably the highest profile manic depressive in Victoria. My kids can admit the old guy's got it.
I've invited 60 of my son's grade 7 classmates and four of their teachers, two busloads, in to see a curriculum related movie (Frankenstein on Halloween). I was able to give them a quick and positive message about the institution and about dealing well with mental illness.
My older son did an art project 6 months into the MM initiative. It was a 'value shield', one part of the shield was to be 'what would you do with a million dollars?'. He drew a million dollar bill with an arrow pointing to a block shaped building labelled 'E.M.I.', the psychiatric facility where we show our movies. I was knocked out when I saw it displayed on a wall in the art room. Not only was he expressing his commitment to the value of a psych. hospital, he was boldly proclaiming that unpopular value to his classmates. We're breaking through the "stigma" of mental illness in our family. It's away of getting out of the loop.
Far from losing opportunities to work by revealing my illness, I'm getting work, because I'm 'out there'. None of my customers in my one-man garden maintenance business dropped me because of my illness, and when people have noticed that besides my movie program I do gardening, they have called me up with work. They expect I'll bring the same kind of consistant, consciencious, resourceful attitude to their garden.
I'm lucky, fortunate, that I'm well enough to do what I'm doing. One has to be at a certain degree of health and, unfortunately, luck to have enough emotional and financial support to maintain the focus inspite of the inevitable fluctuations that come with a mood disorder. But my movie program is part of my wellness campaign. Through it I've been able to embark on a whole other realm of interests. I've shaken off much of that negative baggage that comes with trying to hide a "shameful" illness. I've realized all kinds of abilities I may have never discovered if I had not taken that dangerous step.
(CMHA Hamilton Sept. 96 Conference workshop)