People don’t take the time to see each other. We make judgments, we attach labels, we assume – we often do not see. I believe in seeing, hearing, learning, and being present with one another. The worst thing that a person can feel in this life is invisible. To be seen is to be truly alive.
This is me. I couldn’t love this picture more.
Photography by Dean Whitbeck. www.deanwhitbeck.com
On Friday, May 19th, 2017 in my home town of Richmond, Virginia as part of #IfYouCouldSeeMe, a project I envisioned in a bout of synesthesia in the shower last year, I said out loud, on stage, in a room full of 40+ of my closest friends and total strangers, that I live with anxiety and depression. I shared what that feels like in the mundane, everyday applications of my life. Six other brave souls spoke for 5 minutes, 10 minutes, 20 minutes about their own mental health diagnoses. Our pictures hung from the walls. Enormous posters (2 ft x 3 ft) showing every flaw and wrinkle – but also bringing to vivid life the magnificent, individual spark of each participant. Sadness, mania, aversion, irreverence, hope, kindness, pensiveness came to vivid life through the eye of our magnificent photographer and co-conspirator in changing the world, Dean Whitbeck. It was the next phase in a journey that began for me 26 years ago.
I was 13 when my Bubbe (grandmother) told me that when my Zayde (grandfather) was about the same age as I was then he began to feel something was not right with his mental health. No one knew what mental health was back then. He had no language for what he was experiencing but he knew something was wrong. It was the late 1930’s and he went to his mother because that’s what we do when we are kids and something feels off – we go to our parents having faith that they will guide, support, and nurture us in our uncertainty.
Kevin Palmer sharing his experiences with major depression. At #IfYouCouldSeeMe, May 19, 2017.
However, my great grandmother was a Ukrainian Jewish immigrant – expelled from her birth home for the crime of existing as a Jew on the planet. When her youngest child, a sweet, sensitive, sad faced boy with blond hair and blue eyes approached her with his concerns that something was not right she told him to keep his mouth shut. I am certain that she said this out of fear and love but a message was sent. She told him he was fine and if he kept saying things like this someone would lock him up. He was a child. His mother painted a terrifying picture and he believed her. That was the end of the conversation. It would be nearly 15 years until he received a schizophrenia diagnosis that he carried through the rest of his life. His ultimate savior, protector, partner and defender was my Bubbe.
Shortly after they were married his symptoms could no longer be avoided. He needed help. When he was diagnosed members of her family, and his, encouraged her to institutionalize him, dissolve their marriage, and move on. No one would blame her. She had not known what she was getting in to at 19 years old when she married this man after only knowing him for a few weeks.
She refused and they spent 47 years taking care of each other.
“He didn’t deserve to be put away like an animal,” she told me that day when I was probably too young to hear the story she was telling. That was the magic of my relationship with them though – they never tried to hide the truth from us. Zayde had this diagnosis and sometimes he was unsure of what was real, sometimes he was abrasive, standoffish, or just “weird”. We all accepted all of these pieces of him because he was also generous, gentle, funny, and loving. He was more than just a “schizophrenic” – he was one of our people. He loved us and we loved him. No aspect of his life was meaningless or insignificant because he had people who loved him. Without him none of us would be here. He was essential.
Ray Bullock describes bi-polar as a carnival you can never leave. #IYCSM 5/2017
The people who wanted to put him away assumed that no aspect of his life could possibly have meaning and no one would ever be able to see beyond the diagnosis. To them, he was imperfect, unclean, and should be cast out, branded with the scarlet letter “S” – his life no longer had an ounce of meaning. They implied that he couldn’t be of value to the world. They were wrong.
The day this story was shared with me I remember feeling the deepest most helpless sadness for my 13 year old Zayde. As I have gotten older I have grown to feel enormous relief that the Universe, in its infinite knowledge, put my Bubbe in his Philadelphia taxi cab on that fall day in 1952 when they met, went on their first date, and began building the foundation of what would become my family. Her courage saved his life. It gave him a life. It gave me a life, my children, my father, aunts and uncle, cousins, and on, and on. So, so many people on this earth today, then, and long before have not been so fortunate.
What their parents and siblings recommended – institutionalization – was the norm at that time. That’s just what you did. Like vacationing at the beach, hanging drapes, and eating with a knife and fork. If someone had a diagnosis or disability that you didn’t understand or made other people uncomfortable you tucked them neatly away in a facility. You spoke of their existence only in hushed tones to trusted confidants. It would be a tragedy if “people” knew you had “one of them” in your family.
Malik Hodari lives with PTSD and the shame of what being a war hero means. He shares his story with honesty and a smile that lights up the world. #IYCSM 5/2017.
It’s funny how something as mundane as a conversation with your grandmother can change your life forever. That day I didn’t realize that my life’s purpose was revealed to me. No one is disposable. Everyone’s voice has a place on this earth and I was destined to be someone who helps people find their voice by sharing my own, providing space for others to find, refine, and share theirs.
That day was the beginning of It Runs in the Family; #IfYouCouldSeeMe; ReStory; Life, Motherhood, and the Pursuit of Sanity and every other thing I will ever do that shines light onto darkness. My truth is that learning to tell the story of my family, my own diagnoses, my struggles as a human living on planet earth in this time, my perspective, philosophy, and pain has been the most healing, empowering, and enlightening experience of my life…other than parenthood. My Bubbe and Zayde taught me that everyone deserves love, acceptance, and dignity. It is through their example that I have begun to give these gifts to the rest of the world. Everyone has a story to be told and everyone deserves the opportunity to share their story with the world.
There is no end to the power that comes with finding our voice, sharing our truth, and embracing the pieces that we all, so often, try to hide from the world. In this process, we reclaim our narrative and remind others that they are not alone in their grief, struggle, and feelings of “otherness”. #IfYouCouldSeeMe was only an idea, an intention, until these brave people had the courage join me in bringing it to life.
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