I had thought writing this post to accompany John’s portrait was going to be relatively easy. John had provided me with his notes from a recent public speaking engagement and I had read his book Sick to Death of the Silence, Stories to break down the stigma of mental illness.
I had done my research, all I had to do now was to sit back, relax and let the post write itself.
My first draft began with a sound bite from a speech President Obama delivered recently in Montreal. The sound bite included the phrase, “falling into the comforts of the tribe.” I wanted to acknowledge that membership within a tribe (community) clearly has its advantages, but membership renewal often depends on one’s ability to conform to its identity and meet its expectations.
I was hoping such an introduction would describe how difficult it must have been for John (a corporate lawyer) to reach out to a colleague and talk about his addiction to cocaine.
Yet I was conflicted. I knew John would be the first to tell me the pressure to conform within a community of lawyers may not be any greater than the pressure someone else might experience within their own family. I could hear John say, “Everyone’s experience is different. It depends on the community. It depends on the person.”
My second draft began with a definition of the word stigma, “a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person.” It’s the main reason after all, many of us find it so difficult to open up about personal problems like mental illness or a drug addiction. John’s reluctance to reach out was directly related to his fear of appearing vulnerable and weak within a community of lawyers who are paid for “solving other people’s problems.”
But my second draft was reading like a word salad. I was rushing to summarize what I believed to be John’s central message as a mental health advocate. Talking about our mental health is the first step in our recovery. No matter how austere our communities – be it our families, friends or colleagues – we must reach out for help. We must overcome the stigma and talk about our mental health in order to receive the support and healing we all deserve.
I wanted to conclude the post by acknowledging the resilience and courage required for someone to share such a personal story involving drug addiction, recovery and hope. I wanted John to know that by sharing his story, he had inspired me to continue to share my own.
Relatively easy? What in the world was I thinking!
Silver gelatin print
Hasselblad 80mm f2.8 lens
Ilford HP5, ISO 400