By Erin Mahone
As someone who lives and breathes mental health in virtually every aspect of my life, it is difficult to remember the time when I was in pain, hiding, and unable to fully express my struggle to myself or the world. For the past 5 years, I have been a vocal advocate committed to ending the stigma that surrounds mental health and related issues. I tell stories, sing songs, write, produce, facilitate, and speak reminding people everyday that it is ok to step into the light of our own imperfections, to own them, to own our stories. But it wasn’t always like that for me.
For the first three and a half decades of my life I believed in my core that I had to earn the right to be loved, to be worthy of the life I envisioned for myself. I had to do everything the way you are “supposed” to. I had to show-up with gusto everyday. I believed I had to prove, and explain, earn, and apologize for my existence every second. There was only one problem, I never did anything the way I was supposed to. I had to work REALLY hard at EVERYTHING. Untreated anxiety and depression kept me trapped inside my own head and standing in my own way. At times in my late teens and early 20’s I made stupid decisions that put my life at risk more times than I’d like to admit which acted to reinforce the belief that deep-down I was garbage.
I am, and always have been, a performer, a singer, and a writer. When I was young, I thought I wanted to become a Broadway star. It just made sense to want that. I could sing, I could act, and everyone told me that’s what I should do. So, I tried. I went to New York, I did all kinds of ridiculous acting work, children’s theatre, dinner theatre, singing in bars, and a lot of bartending. But untreated anxiety and depression kept getting in my way. I would often get so anxious before an audition that I would either just cancel and stay home, or I would go and embarrass myself. Or worse, I would get cast and then become so overwhelmed by the process that I would have to drop out of the show. I hate to schmooze, I hate to hob-knob, and I generally hate everything that is required in the world of self-promotion...unless it can be done on the sofa.
It took me so long to realize a few important things. First, I did not want to be on Broadway. Part of the anxiety and the self-sabotage was truly that I just didn’t want to do what I was doing. It’s funny because I didn’t know back then that I could be an artist the way I currently am, in this beautiful, cathartic, collective way. Twenty years ago I thought I was supposed to suffer. I thought misery needed to be a part of the process. It’s quite a cliche at this point in my life. That’s the old way of thinking that an artist has to suffer for their art. Today we know differently. Today we understand that asking for help, getting on medications if that’s what you want, meditating, yoga, reiki, or a million other mental wellness practices are, not only acceptable for an artist, emotional wellness makes the art BETTER.
Second, and most importantly is the realization after many years of therapy, writing, meditation, and medication, I do not have to earn my right to be happy. I am breathing so I am worthy. In case you need to hear that today please know - you are breathing so you are worthy. Being alive is all we need. Before I got the help I desperately needed for my mental health, I was not able to internalize this truth. The lies that fear and uncertainty tried to make me believe about myself were all I could hear. They were so loud. Imagine a drill sergeant screaming with a bull-horn in your face every minute you are awake telling you that you are worthless. That’s anxiety and depression. For me at least. The help I received has allowed me to quiet those voices.
In May 2014, I produced my first one-woman show called “It Runs in the Family.” This collection of songs and stories was a love letter to my family, my struggle, and my debut in the world as my true and honest self. I stood on that stage and shared the truth of growing up in a family surrounded by other people’s mental illnesses, my own mental illness, and how desperately I have always tried not to get my “crazy” on other people. I had no idea what to expect when I stepped on that stage for the first time. Would people understand? Would they still love and respect me? Would they treat me differently? I had to find out.
When the curtain closed on that first performance, I knew with certainty that by stepping into that terrifying light I had changed the course of my life forever. Endless throngs of people came up to me that night, and continue to after every performance, thanking me for speaking out and for doing so with love, humor, and humility. I could never have known how many people had been hiding just as I had been hiding my entire life. Through the creation and continued performance of that show and now other related projects, I realized that it is in the removing of the mask and embracing our own vulnerability that people love us more, respect us more. When we are hard and covered in that protective shell we spend so much time worrying about the shell that we don’t have the energy to connect with others. I removed the shell and everything changed.
When I realized the sheer magnitude of people who were also waiting for the right time and a safe space to begin the process of telling their own stories I knew what was next for me. I would make the space that I never had and I would open it up for others. We would join hands, step into the light side by side, and hold space for those who weren’t ready yet. In May of 2017, I created the #IfYouCouldSeeMe project because I believe in the power of stories for change. These art and storytelling events shine light into the darkness, help us all to see the humanity in ourselves and in others, and can be the place where big change begins. The normalisation of conversations around mental health is essential if we ever expect to have comprehensive, effective services to help people recover. We have to speak out. #IfYouCouldSeeMe was only an idea, an intention, until brave, incredible people had the courage to join me in bringing it to life.
No one is disposable. Learning to tell my story has been the most healing, empowering and enlightening experience of my life. Everyone deserves love, acceptance and dignity. There is no end to the power that comes with finding our voice and embracing the pieces that we all 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’. The worst thing that a person can feel in this life is invisible. To be seen is to be truly alive.
One of our most recent participants had this to say, ““I really had no idea how changed I would feel. It truly is magic. I believe!!” Read more about Donna Joyce’s journey.
Please join us for our next event on January 22, 2021 at 7:30 pm. Tickets are $10 and all sales benefit the sustainability of the project. Reserve your spot!
Erin Mahone is the author of the book, If You Could See Me: Life, Motherhood, and the Pursuit of Sanity. She is the founder of the #IfYouCouldSeeMe project, the creator of two one-woman shows It Runs in the Family, and a new show Shark-Woman Meditates. Erin earned her Master’s Degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling at Longwood University and works as a counselor and clinical supervisor. She lives in Virginia with her husband, three children, and a furbaby named Kismet.