Starving the Stigma

stigma #1by Brian Keating

Courtney Smith is no stranger to stigma.

Growing up, she didn’t know the word. She just knew that things in her home weren’t “normal”, like everyone else.

Her mother suffered from mental illness, and she figured out as a child that what was going on wasn’t good. She doesn’t remember exactly when she made the decision, but she definitely came to the conclusion that her family life needed to be hidden. As a result, she stopped liking any kind of attention whatsoever, and that’s still something that she struggles with today. While she now knows where it comes from, her natural impulse is still to shy away from any attention directed her way.

Courtney therefore became very introverted, a clear shift from how extroverted she remembers being before her mom was hospitalized when she was eight. She also decided that the way to not deal with her family situation was to get really good grades, get a great education, and then get a good job. From the time she was ten, she began counting down the years she had left at home until she could move out and be on her own. She therefore made getting straight A’s her number one goal in life, and would argue and debate with her teachers if she got anything less.

She saw her stellar academic progress as paramount to her future, which wasn’t about what she wanted to be in life, but instead about getting away from her family situation. Similarly, she never really considered what hobbies or interests she enjoyed, but rather what would look good on a job application to help her escape her home. She never really considered what she herself would enjoy and want to do professionally, which led to a personal crisis when she realized this right before graduating college.  Her need to get away controlled everything.

Courtney’s life with her mom was extremely unpredictable, and she never knew what to expect.  Sometimes Courtney would come home to find her mom sleeping for days, and sometimes her mom would not be there for days or months at a time.

Courtney saw her mom as a person, but not as a person with an illness. The biggest thing that she’s learned about mental disorder as an adult is that it IS a serious illness. When people would tell her that her mom had an illness, she would say, “Well, she’s still a jerk!  When does she have to take responsibility for being a jerk?”  Courtney’s mom also struggled with drug addiction, and growing up Courtney thought, ‘If you love us, why would you do these things?’ She now realizes that while this is a reasonable question for someone who is not ill, being mentally ill can make it very difficult to choose to do something, or not.

Courtney didn’t understand that until later in life, and she had a lot of arguments with, and experienced a lot of distance from, her mom.  Courtney’s mom didn’t help her get ready for prom because Courtney didn’t want her there. Looking back as an adult, Courtney can see how bratty she could be, and that sometimes her mom was doing the best she could. Now that she has a network of support and lots of people sharing their experiences with mental illness, she realizes that a lot of the behavior her mom exhibited was particular to the illness, not her mom as a person.  She’s learned how to separate the illness from the person and not make her mom’s condition equivalent to her entire personality.

Stigma #2This realization is one of the things that contributed to her starting a project called “Don’t Feed Stigma”, designed to help others dealing with mental illness. She’s learned how to separate the illness from the person, and look at all of the positive aspects of a person besides the illness. She’s also been practicing having grace, mercy and compassion for people and what they’re going through, and she’s realized in hindsight how little of those qualities she had for people previously, including herself.

Last year, Courtney did a weekend personal development program called the Landmark Forum.  Her big realization during the weekend was that for someone who focused so much on the future, she really couldn’t picture herself anywhere else except where she was. When people asked her, “What’s your life going to be like when you’re 40?”, she literally couldn’t imagine herself reaching the age of 40. Since she was 16, Courtney has expected to come home to find her mom dead or missing. She would want to make plans, like go on a trip or move to another state, but defer because of her concern about her mom.  She found it easier to not even think about it, but instead focus on getting through the day, and to avoid the anger and resentment that would invariably arise.

Doing the Landmark Forum helped Courtney see that her current behavior was based on the upset decisions she had made when she was eight years old.  It also helped her ask the question, “What do you want to do with your life?” – a question she is still figuring out today. By realizing that those decisions made in childhood were stopping her, Courtney was able to free herself up to consider her future, and to take actions to realize her goals.

Taking the course also helped Courtney get started with her project by taking the necessary actions. Previously, she would have any number of good ideas, but she would never get past having those ideas to take actions about what was important to her. Now, she is taking actions regularly, including inventing and expanding her Don’t Feed Stigma project.

Since taking the course and starting this project, Courtney hasn’t necessarily learned anything new about her faith, but she’s learning how to implement concepts that are important to her, like forgiving and forgetting. She is learning how to have mercy and love when it doesn’t make logical sense to do so.  In this process, she’s developed a closer spiritual relationship with God.  She realizes that she had been saying that she trusted God, but due to negative things that had happened in her life, she didn’t think the good things she wanted would happen either, which is counterintuitive to the trust she professed to have. Now she understands how to authentically say that she trusts God to take care of a situation, and then leave it alone.

Courtney blogs regularly about her experiences with mental illness. She’s expanded her audience dramatically since she started, with her latest blog post garnering over 500 views. She’s shared her story with everyone in her network and beyond, and she’s freed up in her life because she can no longer hide out or pretend that her history didn’t happen now that she’s put it out there to the world.

Courtney has begun to recruit a team to help share their stories and host online meetings using Google Hangouts. She’s also made several connections and begun developing partnerships with organizations that she may have not even had the courage to visit before starting her project.  Recently she met with Coastal Behavioral Health Care in Sarasota, Florida, and she will be giving a presentation soon to a countywide meeting where all of the local organizations meet monthly.  She’s creating a lot of new relationships, taking bold new actions, and generating momentum.

Courtney envisions the Google Hangout aspect of her project taking off soon as a way to spread the project’s influence and reach.  She knows that a lot of mental health organizations struggle with social media, perhaps because of the sensitive and sometimes difficult subject matter.  She thinks she can bring a light-hearted attitude to these online interactions, making them uplifting, even with a sense of humor, where appropriate.  She sees the Google Hangouts being a free way for local organizations to connect with the community and find out what’s important to community members, addressing issues and topics that wouldn’t get asked or brought to light otherwise.  Courtney’s day job is at a non-profit, so she’s familiar with the challenges these organizations face and looks forward to helping them use technology to reach a wider audience.

Regarding the issue of the stigma surrounding mental illness, Courtney views it as pointless to deliberately keep yourself ignorant of something that is not going to go away.  She now understands how common mental illness is, and in her view, once you admit it, it seems ridiculous how much energy people spend trying to hide it.  She says that it’s an illness just like any other condition, and she encourages people to do their research about it.  She says, “Knowledge about anything is the quickest way to stop being afraid of it.”

Courtney is looking for topics for Google Hangouts.  She wants to know what scares people about mental illness, and what questions they have.

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Coraline Maxton says:

I have lived a tough life too because I had a lesbian mother and in those times people weren’t really open-minded to accept it. I spend years feeling ashamed of her and even abandoned her but later as I realized my fault I never really had the guts to contact her! During the Forum I broke down and blurted the story out to my coach. Although it was difficult and scary I contacted her and we cried on the call for 4 hours. The forum got me, my mum, back and I cannot thank enough. She is flying next month to see me and I am so excited about that. We do Skype everyday and now life is complete!

Mindy sullivan says:

Thank you for writing this story, although I found your link did not work. I too am a writer for this landmark website and I raised 2 daughters with emotional conditions. Both were foster daughters and one was adopted. One suffers from depression most likely as a side effect of being born of drug addicted parents. She was relatively easy to work with compared to the older adopted daughter who fears from bi polar disorder and drug addiction. There were times when I was on the phone crying to the county workers for help when she was violent or missing. Their response was always some form of “you adopted her…she’s yours now”. Thank you to Courtney for having the courage to do the forum and to confront this and I know first hand how easy this subject is NOT.

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