They’re Friends, Neighbors — and They’re Mentally Ill

It’s not every day your neighbor talks openly about seeing demons or receiving electroshock therapy or having her stomach pumped. These are not topics that typically come up at the church coffee hour, school bus stop or employee break room.

But on Nov. 14, 16 Ohio Valley women and men publicly recounted their daily struggles with mental illness. They didn’t just tell a group of friends but a crowd of about 400 people at the Capitol Theatre in downtown Wheeling as part of the national “This Is My Brave” show. They spoke in the spotlight about things society generally tries to keep in the shadows. But that is changing because of programs like “This Is My Brave.”

The show was by turns shocking, heartbreaking and inspiring.

“Storytelling saves lives,” said Amy Gamble, executive director of the local chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, who organized the show with help from the national nonprofit “This Is My Brave” organization, Youth Services System and a committee of local volunteers.

The “performers” — among them two secretaries, a college professor, a social worker, a high school student and a high school teacher — shared their personal stories through a variety of creative expressions, including poetry, prose and song. They conveyed how mental illness shaped (pummeled might be the more accurate word) their lives and the lives of those they love.

They are mothers, sisters, daughters, wives, sons, fathers and friends. They are your neighbors and mine.

“I thought it would be good for Wheeling because it’s good for every community to hear and see real people who live with mental illness,” Gamble said when asked why she wanted to bring “This Is My Brave” to the Capitol. “When we associate real people with mental illness it begins to break down the walls of stigma.”

It has done that even for me, someone who has had depression for 11 years.

One woman, a Benwood native with paranoid schizophrenia, spoke matter-of-factly about the fear she feels when she hears voices or sees demons. She takes medication but admitted she still experiences these symptoms at times. These are things I’ve only read about or seen in movies — usually in quite an unfavorable light. But here was this woman baring her deepest, darkest secrets, in the hope someone might understand her, and her illness, a little better.

Another woman, a local therapist for adolescents, read an original poem at breakneck speed to illustrate what her anxiety attacks sound like in her head and how she has learned through therapy to calm herself down. It was exhausting and eye-opening.

Another woman — a mom, stepmom and administrative assistant — recounted the moment she knew she needed help with her depression. She was driving the winding road home form work, turning right, left, then right and wondered: “What if I just … don’t … turn?”

A college freshman from Wheeling delivered a spoken-word performance that took the audience on a roller coaster of self loathing, self discovery and self love.

A Wheeling mother and college professor who grew up in Marshall County told of being raped at age 11, losing two babies — one to murder — and subsequently sinking into depression and binge eating disorder. She talked about her painful discovery that recovery is a journey not a destination.

Their bravery was awe-inspiring, their tenacity to survive downright thrilling.

I admit I was uncomfortable at times, but my discomfort is nothing compared to the sheer misery and terror these people have experienced, through no fault of their own. They didn’t ask to have mental illness any more than a person asks to have type 1 diabetes. I felt angry, helpless and then determined — determined to be more supportive and help spread the word. Storytelling saves lives.

Gamble, a former Olympian, also briefly shared her story which she recently chronicled in the book “Bipolar Disorder: My Biggest Competitor.”

“It’s tremendously empowering to share your story of something you have struggled with. … We all want to be understood, and mental illness is very misunderstood,” she said via email after the show.

In addition to Gamble, the cast members included Whitney Healy, Cheryl Childers, Christina Fisanick, Libby Cosmides (whose brother, the late George Cosmides, had a mental illness), Brandi Neogra, William N. Hogan Jr., Terry Abate, Alexis Nice, Jane Schockey, David A. George, Katie Burns, Kersten McAbee, Jacqui Hores, Lara Lawson and Samantha Pearl.

“Their performances will have lasting impact on our community. I admire all of them,” Gamble said.

So do I.

Betsy Bethel is the Life editor of The Intelligencer and Wheeling News-Register.