Creating Safe Spaces to Share our Stories

“Telling your story—while being witnessed with loving attention by others who care—may be the most powerful medicine on earth.”

The Healing Power of Telling Your Story by Lissa Rankin M.D.

This past weekend, I had an amazing opportunity! Surrounded by my husband, mother, mother-in-law, sisters, friends, and new acquaintances, I had the opportunity to stand up and share my story. It was empowering!

Usually, I get really nervous about getting up in front of a group. Writing comes much easier to me than public speaking. But when I was asked if I would be willing to give a presentation to women in my church about how mental health affects us spiritually, I took it! It just felt like something that I needed to do. I looked forward to it!

I spent a week writing down and organizing my thoughts and preparing a PowerPoint presentation. A few key experiences came to mind and I felt that God wanted me to share them as part of my presentation. Normally, I am quite the perfectionist. I edit and edit and edit until things are perfect. But the inspiration of what I should share just came and I wrote it down. I have learned so much and had so much that I wanted to share and discuss!

And then, out of nowhere, a depressive episode hit! I was grateful that my presentation was already planned out and saved on my computer. I put it aside and didn’t look at it for weeks. In the meantime, I became so depressed that I could barely get out of bed in the morning and make my kids breakfast. I was completely checked-out as a mom and struggled to engage with my kids and meet their needs. Just getting dressed for the day took more energy than I could muster. I was so tired! Soon, I couldn’t drive my kids to school because I started having panic attacks while driving. I really wasn’t functioning at all and it was completely debilitating!

After missing several days of work, my husband called his mom and asked her to come help me. She has been such a blessing and I am so grateful that I have family support! Not everyone has that! Because of her help, I was able to ride out the emotional roller-coaster at home instead of going to the hospital. It was rough, but I had the support I needed and we survived!

I worry sometimes that people might thing I am being dramatic or lazy when I describe how depressive episodes affect me. I worry that they’ll judge me as being weak. I worry they might think I just need to stop being so selfish and get up and starting DOING things again. Unless you have personally been through a deep depression, you simply don’t understand. Depression can be just as debilitating as the flu, cancer, or a broken arm! (I actually got the flu while going through a depression–it was miserable! But it was easier for some reason to tell people that I was home with the flu than saying I was depressed!). Depression is a real illness that affects not only your thoughts and emotions, but also your energy levels, your appetite, your sleep, and your ability to function day-to-day. It is one of the most difficult things I have faced!

When I first started sinking into a depression, I felt discouraged and frustrated. I didn’t know if I would still be able to teach the class, but I hoped that I would get feeling better before then. It was ready to go, I just had to get feeling better! I had one month. (For anyone who has gone through a manic or depressive episode, you know that you can’t predict how long they will last! You just have to ride it out!). I prayed that I would get better soon and asked others to pray with me. I wanted to do this! I felt that God wanted me to have this opportunity as well.

A week before the scheduled date of the presentation, I started to feel better. Those who were in my home and had watched me go through a debilitating depression were amazed that I was able to get back up on my feet and teach that class with confidence. To me, it truly was a miracle!

The day of the conference came. When I opened my mouth to speak, I felt God blessing me with a new-found confidence and with the courage to share my experiences. I felt Him with me and urging me on! My nerves were held at bay simply because I was so excited to talk about mental health in a church setting. I could feel that those in attendance wanted to be there. They chose to come to my class. They wanted to talk about this! They were supporting me and encouraging me to share my story and start the discussion. I was among friends. This was a safe place!

In case you were wondering, here are a few things that I shared in my presentation. It was titled “Finding Joy and Feeling the Spirit in Times of Mental/Emotional Stress”: We all have struggles! One of my struggles is mental illness. It is my battle to fight! Mental illness has taught me, changed me, broken me, healed me, filled me with compassion for those who suffer, and prepared my heart for service. Looking back, I can see how my struggles have helped me to come closer to Christ and to become more like Him. They have helped me to understand in a deeper way why He chose to suffer and die for me. Because of my struggles, I have come to know that I have a Personal Savior who loves me and feels compassion for me when I suffer. He desires to run to me, to lift my burdens, and to take away my pain. He is my Healer, my Light, my Strength, and my Song!

I also shared my experiences in 2016, when I went through my first manic/depressive episode following the birth of my third baby. The scary part was that I didn’t know what was happening to me! I couldn’t sleep. I had a racing mind and crippling anxiety. I had this new-found energy that made me feel super-human! I didn’t feel like eating, because I was too distracted by the many thoughts in my head. I wanted to do a million things at once! Plus, I had boundless energy–I felt like I didn’t need food! I would wake up in the middle of the night with bursts of energy and an intense desire to run or clean my house or write so I could expend all of that pent-up energy! This manic episode escalated over a period of 4 months and I ended up in the hospital. It was there that I was diagnosed with bipolar 1 disorder and that my journey with this mental illness began.

I shared how hard it was to go back to church after that experience. It wasn’t that I didn’t believe in God anymore. It was because I wondered how many people knew that I had just spent a week in the mental hospital. I wondered what they would think about me and if they were gossiping about me behind my back. I know that most of this was internal. People were kinder to me than I expected, but there were also moments when I felt judged or hurt by someone’s words or actions. Or even sometimes by their “inaction”. It hurts when people don’t approach you or ask how you are doing because they think you “don’t want to talk about it”. I did! I wanted to talk, but I still felt so vulnerable. I needed to know who I could trust and who I could open up to. I needed to be reassured that my friends loved me and didn’t judge me. It was hard at first and it took time, but eventually I started feeling stronger and going to church became easy again.

My presentation went better than I expected! It was a packed room and what followed my sharing was a great discussion about how we can help those that are going through times of mental and emotional stress. We talked about simple ways that we can reach out, lift burdens, and show love to those who are suffering. We talked about loving and not judging. We talked about how we can show the same care and concern to those dealing with mental illness as we do to those dealing with any other “physical” illness. It is the same! Mental illness is not a sign of personal weakness or a lack of faith or spiritual striving. It is a sickness! Urging someone to “pray harder” or do more spiritual activities isn’t helpful and won’t make them better. It is not a spiritual problem, so focusing only on spiritual solutions is ineffective!! (Not saying that prayer doesn’t help–prayer is powerful! But instead of telling someone who is struggling to “pray more”, you could offer to pray in their behalf, that they will get better!)

I realized after that presentation that there is something I feel really passionate about–we need to create safe spaces where we can share our stories! We can start in our own homes. My kids, at a young age, know what depression looks like. They know that when Mommy is depressed, she is sick. She stays in bed a lot and feels tired. She can’t do all the things she normally does with them. They have to help out more at home and be more independent. They have to go to Daddy when they need something. Sometimes Mommy needs extra help at home. It’s ok!

My kids also know what “anxiety” means. They’ll even throw around the term “panic attack” because they have heard me talking about it! I don’t think that they are “too young” or that they should be sheltered from these “adult topics”. We haven’t discussed suicide with them yet, but someday when they are older, we will have that conversation too! Mental illness runs in our family, so I want them to be prepared! I want them to know how to recognize signs of struggle in themselves and others. I want them to know how to help a friend who is struggling. I want them to have tools and coping skills in place, as well as safe people they can talk to. I am showing them by example how to get back up after a period of depression and move forward. I am showing them how to face the darkness and get through it! I want them to know that they can live with a mental illness and still find joy!

Where are your “safe spaces”? Where do you feel comfortable sharing your struggles, whatever they may be? If some places feel “unsafe”, what can you do to change things? A few years ago, I created a private Facebook group called Mothering with Mental Illness. I needed a safe place where I could share my struggles with other moms who understood and wouldn’t judge me! When I started blogging this year on, I found another safe space! Another place where I felt “safe” was actually in the mental hospital! I was among strangers, but we all had one thing in common–we were all there because we needed help! We didn’t have to pretend that we were ok. We were all at our wits ends trying to deal with the ups and downs of mental illness. We were there to heal and to support each other in our recovery. It was a safe place! I hope that as we move forward, the world can become a little kinder and more welcoming. I hope that we can learn how to create safe spaces where we can be vulnerable and where we can connect with others. I hope that we can have the courage to stand up and share our stories!