The Power of Realizing I Wasn’t Alone
It all had to be worth something.
Depression had put me through the ringer. It burned bridges, ended opportunities, and for a time, convinced me that the world would be much better off without me. I spent more of my life grappling with its symptoms than I had free from its grip. And while the worst of it is now certainly behind me, I know that I can easily slip into the unhealthy mindset depression thrives in if I grow too complacent.
Looking back on it all—even from my vantage point safely in the present—I still feel the profound pain and misery I carried while I was in depression’s grip. The scars ran so deep that even though they’re healed, a phantom pain still lingers. And a burning question nags at me in the corner of my mind:
Why had this happened to me and what was the point?
This broad, metaphysical question was something my therapist encouraged me not to dwell on when I first met with her. “‘Why?’ is an important, useful thing to ask,” she said, “but first we need to change your behaviors before you can more effectively tackle it.”
She was right. But now my behaviors are changed, and that question is still there. Had I gone through all of that—putting friends, family and certainly myself through immeasurable pain—just to say I had survived? Could I be content with leaning on so many people, using so much help, only to get back up on my own two feet and be done?
I met so many faces and heard so many stories as I recovered—all people who each struggled with their own diagnosis. Though we shared a common struggle, our backgrounds, situations and convictions were as colorful and diverse as the stars in the sky. But we were so happy to have found one another. We were able to, at long last, find people who empathized with our struggles and the way our illnesses affected us. We all felt alone once. It was strengthening to stand side-by-side for a change.
Knowing that there were still people who could benefit from hearing that they weren’t alone, that there were people who desperately wanted to know what they could do to help their friend or family member who was locked in their own battle with mental illness, I realized that my story could potentially pierce the veil of stigma surrounding mental illness and possibly help someone with what they were going through. I only needed to share it.
That realization pushed me to reach out to volunteer as a presenter—first for NAMI In Our Own Voice and later for NAMI Ending the Silence. In doing so, I added my voice to many in the hopes of tearing down walls, building understanding and sending out a message of support and strength.
These programs offer an opportunity for people like us—people who have pushed through our darkest days to come out of the other end of our illness—to channel all of our struggle into something greater than ourselves. I get to reach out to someone else who might be in the same dark place I was once in. In return, I’m reminded of how far I’ve come every time I share my story.
Every thank you, every raised hand showing someone is curious to learn more, every inquisitive face is a reminder that I’m not just resting on my laurels. And, perhaps most important of all, it allows me to look back on the mire, the pain and the misery of the past with some measure of satisfaction.
At long last, I can say it all meant something.
Joel M. Richard is 28 and a volunteer with NAMI's Ending the Silence and In Our Own Voice programs. An avid consumer of sci-fi and fantasy culture and a devoted fan of Pittsburgh's sports teams, he lives in White Oak, Pennsylvania. He can be contacted via his personal e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
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