“Anything mentionable is manageable,” Fred Rogers famously said.
What about this? You are a young mother, a government worker in Washington, D.C., and pretty much without warning comes a post-partum psychotic break. You end up running naked on a bridge over the Potomac and might not have survived if not for the courage and kindness of strangers.
What about that, Fred?
Anything, Heather Coleman says. That is her story from a day in 2008, shortly after the birth of her second child. She was hospitalized, recovered and today lives a happy life. For most people, that episode would then have been stuffed deeply into the musty closet where we keep our shame. Heather chose a much different course. Last year in Arlington, Va., she joined a cast of people, who—through poetry, music and dramatic readings—openly shared their journeys with mental illness.
It was the debut of This is My Brave, a new movement that uses performance art to break down the stigma of mental illness.
“The angle I took with my piece was the whole concept of being naked,” Heather told me a few days ago.
To be figuratively naked with the realities of her illness invited others to do the same, she said.
“It makes us so much stronger,and we end up connecting on so many levels,” she said. “People are scared to talk about it. There is still the stigma. It’s still taboo. But I feel if we just talk about it … More people would get help. It would be a start.”
Brave takes the stage again April 18, the finale of what will be a memorable afternoon in Harrisburg, Pa. The free event titled “Creating an Authentic Life Through Storytelling” is hosted by my friends, Michael Gingerich and Tom Kaden, the founders of an equally remarkable nonprofit, Someone To Tell it To. (For my recent post on those dudes, click here.) I also will be there to share the story of my friendship with Mister Rogers.
Brave is the gift and creation of another young mother, Jennifer Marshall, who was diagnosed with a bipolar disorder in 2006. The Virginia resident was hospitalized four times in five years.
“It was terrible every time it happened. I didn’t want to go,” she told me recently. “I was taken away in handcuffs. I was so sick.”
But even in the early stages of her treatment she hungered to know the experiences of others.
“I wanted to find the stories of people who had gotten through it,” she said.
In the past few years, with her health restored, she started sharing her own story in a blog. Then, through a friend, she came upon the idea of performance art as a way to attack the stigma.
“It would be a simple production of people getting up and telling their stories with poetry or music, in or personal essays,” Jennifer said. “People with mental illness tend to have a lot of creativity.”
But would anyone dare?
“We didn’t know,” Jennifer said. “We held auditions and it blew us away. Some incredible people came forward and wanted to share. Not only did we have plenty to choose from, we had to turn some people away. That was hard.”
Jennifer and Heather were among the 13 people to share their stories before a crowd of nearly 400 in Arlington.
“You could feel the love and support radiating,” she said.
That will no doubt be the case again in Harrisburg.
Fred Rogers was right once again. Anything meant anything after all.