It’s a strange and unnerving thing to be told you have a talent that you never worked for, that you never asked for, and that seemed to appear out of thin air, with as much reason for being as one of those potatoes that resemble Mother Teresa.
This is what writing has been to me. It’s a talent I want to use to help people, but its existence seems flimsy. At any moment, I expect it will disappear, like a thin fog in the hot sun, and it’s a fear that can be paralyzing.
When I was in graduate school at the University of Oregon, I was determined to write stories about people on the margins who lacked a voice in our public discourse.
While I was preparing a story about Portland’s permanent tent city for the homeless, Dignity Village, I lost a book of full of notes vital to the writing.
Distraught and disgusted, I spent the night guzzling whiskey by myself at the local bar. That night at home, I took out a bottle of sleeping pills I had acquired from a friend, counted out 100 of them and spread them across my desk.
I was convinced that I was unworthy and incapable of reaching my potential. I felt I had let down the struggling Dignity Village residents, who had trusted me with their stories in hope the telling could make their lives better. I was ready to just be done with it, and I swallowed two or three pills before coming to my senses.
This was not an isolated incident. For much of my adult life, I have periodically faced bouts of depression and thoughts of ending my life.
This is the first time I have ever publicly shared these struggles. I am still ashamed of them. I come from a privileged background. I have loving and supportive family and friends. I have always felt feelings of unhappiness were my own weakness.
Yet for some reason, it’s easier to write about this to strangers than to tell a dear friend about it face-to-face.
That is why I am constantly humbled by the courage and strength of local Shasta County residents who have decided to participate in the Brave Faces Portrait Gallery.
The gallery combines photographic portraits with oral histories I conducted with the Brave Faces about their long, perilous and uplifting journeys through suicide and mental illness to find recovery and wellness.
A project of Health and Human Services and funded by the Mental Health Services Act, the gallery is part of our Stand Against Stigma campaign, which strives to end discrimination and myths about mental illness and suicide.
But I believe it is more than just a campaign. The Brave Faces Gallery is a call to action, a movement to end artificial divisions that exist in our community and cause unnecessary pain and suffering.
Every year, one in four people struggle with a mental illness and about 40 people in Shasta County will die by suicide, the ripple effects emotionally traumatizing hundreds more family members and loved ones.
It’s staggering that such common afflictions are so thickly veiled in shame and fear that they’re rarely discussed, often hidden for years. I know I have always felt it necessary to hide my own.
Unlike diabetes or cancer, a mental health diagnosis can overwhelm the rest of the person’s character in our eyes, the stigma can blind us to the contributions they make and the beauty in their hearts. Many of the Brave Faces have spoken about denial, that many people are in denial about their mental illnesses because of the stigma associated with them. And it can be the biggest hurdle they face to seeking the help they need.
It’s time to stop viewing people with mental health challenges as “others,” as people not of our communities and families. The numbers say they are us and we are them.
You can join our movement to end the stigma at our Brave Faces Portrait Gallery launch today from 6-8:30 p.m. inside the Downtown Atrium, 1670 Market St., where five Brave Faces will share their stories and messages of hope. The festivities will start with an open gallery showing of all the portraits from 6 to 7 p.m. From 7-8:30, you will hear from Iris, Kimberly, Steve and others, people who you will find are remarkably like you or people you know.
I have listened to them practice their speeches, and it is both shocking and inspiring to hear them openly discuss their struggles. They will share things that many people have never heard discussed so honestly, intimately and eloquently.
Through the Brave Faces I have discovered an undeniable truth: the isolation and harsh judgments people face because of their diagnoses can be worse than the illnesses.
It’s time that we help our friends and loved ones who are struggling come out of the shadows. It’s time that we all help each other heal.
Marc Dadigan is a Community Education Specialist for Shasta County Health and Human Services Agency, for which he works on the Stand Against Stigma campaign to end the stigma often associated with mental illness and suicide. He is also a freelance multimedia journalist whose writing and photographs have appeared in the Christian Science Monitor, California Watch, Indian Country Today and many other publications.