Breaking the Silence

We met at Taco Bell during a rainstorm. My brother and I grabbed a bite to eat before attending a program that night hosted by NAMI (National Alliance for Mental Illness). After eating burritos and a Mexican pizza, we headed to Windermere Union Church for the program. This was their fourth year hosting the annual interfaith event.

My brother drove over an hour on the highway, in the rain, to meet me. I invited him to come with me. He’s been sleeping a lot these days, most of the day. It’s part of what he deals with as a person with a brain disorder.

We arrive at the church and enter into the building to find homemade desserts, coffee and NAMI literature spread out everywhere. I pick up the most gooey chocolate dessert I can find. It’s easier to carry the mental illness pamphlets with a buttery sweet cookie in my mouth.

We sit towards the front and wait for the program to begin. I look around the room, secretly trying to decode the “consumers” of mental health. It’s hard to tell. I secretly wonder, “where are all of the crazy people?”

We are treated to a presentation of the newly created curriculum designed to teach public high school students about brain disorders. The program is called, “Breaking the Silence.”

We watch a video of fresh faced teens talking about their own struggle with coming out of the closet with schizophrenia, bipolar and anxiety. I note that the teens don’t look crazy. They look about as normal as a teenager can look.

The second half of the program features an attractive and slender woman in her early 30s giving her testimony about her struggle with bi-polar disorder. She shares that her lowest moment had much in common with an incontinent geriatric patient, simply because she was too depressed to get out of bed–for days. She looked “normal” too.

How could this be? How is it that brain disorders have a way of secretly residing in otherwise normal people?

Then I really started wondering: What is normal? Who is normal? What is crazy? Who is crazy?

Perhaps people with brain disorders are really just ordinary, normal people.

Maybe I’m the one with the problem.

As we left the church that night we walked outside to find dozens of luminaries surrounding the building. While we gathered inside the church the youth group had literally surrounded us with light as a sign of hope.

On the ride home that night my brother and I talk about the program. He tells me that he finds the word “crazy” offensive even though he uses it, too.

When I try to categorize people into sick and healthy, normal and crazy, diseased and well, I am doing something that is not helpful. I think part of the reason I label others is to protect myself from being uncomfortable with a person who is different from me.

I use labels to distance myself. What I don’t always realize is that these same labels that keep me feeling safe actually dehumanize people.

Is it possible that breaking the silence includes people like me, too? It’s not enough for people with brain disorders to break the silence. I need to break the silence about the way I judge others. It’s this kind of judgement and labeling that leads to bullying because it enforces the stigma associated with brain disorders.

People are not their brain disorder.

Having a brain disorder does not limit the value of a person’s life.

A person is not any better or worse a person because of having a diagnosed brain disorder.

Yet that’s not what we typically say and think. Part of breaking the silence about mental illness is talking about how poorly we treat people who are diagnosed with brain disorders.

Maybe next time I will think twice before I scan the room, looking for who’s crazy and who’s not.

And I’m grateful to my brother for putting up with his ignorant little sister. I hope I don’t embarrass him too much.

8 thoughts on “Breaking the Silence

  1. Right on, Sarah! Just as we who are white need to be responsible for addressing racism, so too we who are as yet undiagnosed with disorders need to stand in solidarity with those who have been. There are all kinds of implications for parish ministry here. And I loved the youth group’s luminarias!

  2. Thank you! Coming out isn’t easy. I love many people with brain disorders, and yet still find myself labeling. I think you are right that I do it to protect my frightened self.

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