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The silence that kills us
On June 30th, 2010, I told the world about my struggles with mental illness.
For those of you late to the game, my name is Michael Gray Kimber and I suffer from intense anxiety.
My claim to this glorious tradition is genetic, fuelled by years where I smoked pounds of marijuana, ate poorly combined with one helluva quarter-life crisis.
I’d like to say I told my story to the world for some noble purpose such as combating the stigma surrounding mental illness.
That isn’t exactly true.
My first love had just ended with the girl who helped me get through the worst time of my life. I wanted to explain how grateful I was to her for having loved me when I didn’t love myself. I wanted to remember how much light there had been in the darkness because her shadow was cast next to mine.
The Cure began as a love letter to all the people who reminded me who I was when I forgot. It was a way of remembering that some of the best times in my life occurred during my mental breakdown. That there had been so much gained amidst all the loss and I didn’t want to forget what it was like. I wanted to capture all that love, that love that had a become a hundred pound weight in my stomach, to write a story of how I came to stand again after I fell.
I hadn’t taken into consideration what would come from that blind leap.
Suddenly my blog went from having a few hundred followers to a few thousand. In the blink of an eye, I had fans in the US and all over the globe. My work was being featured in magazines and mental health websites. On the year anniversary of my breakdown, I signed with Anne McDermid and associates, the literacy agency that represents the cream of the crop of Canadian authors.
I didn’t realize that I was changing the course of my entire life with that first post.
Any employer who wants to do a Google search on me will be able to read those same entries on my anxiety, the nightmare three months of insomnia and my battle with depression. I’ve been told that health insurance will be more expensive when I’m in a job where they provide it. Any girl I ever pursue will be able to read my vivid descriptions of the first girl I ever really loved and what she meant, means and will always be to me. The last girl I dated read every entry. So did her parents.
With that first post I was out.
And I’ll never be able to go back into hiding.
Thankfully I’m a writer and mental illness is expected of me. Creativity and insanity are supposed to go together like peanut butter and jam, insomnia and anxiety, my eyes and a beautiful woman’s naked body.
However it strikes me that there is a fallacy in this argument as most of the people I know who have mental illness aren’t writers. Why would we associate writers with mental illness?
Writers talk about their feelings. Maybe it isn’t that creativity is inextricably linked to mental illness. Maybe creativity just gives us the courage to talk about it.
I’m lucky. Somehow my mental illness gave me a career. The best moments of my artistic life have come after my illness, after taking medication and going through therapy. I was warned I would lose myself but I’ve never been more Mike Kimber.
I know a lot of people that aren’t as lucky as I am. Coming out for them is more difficult.
Some are doctors and as such are sworn to secrecy in the knowledge that if they divulge their own experiences they won’t be allowed to practice. Some are family men who don’t want their life insurance policies to become more expensive based on preconceptions about mental illness and the ability to take care of yourself. I know of a girl whose parents blame themselves for her brother’s mental illness as if their parenting could somehow change the structure of their DNA. So she keeps her own illness to herself. I know the people who refuse to look into the reality of their disease scared of what they believe they will find there. Trusting instead to the intuitions of a society that for the most part has no idea what these diseases actually are.
Lost in the shame of what we fear we might be, 2/3s of us aren’t getting help.
Everyday we lose more brothers and sisters to suicide. Everyday our people are getting killed because we are ashamed of something we have no reason to be ashamed of.
At one point the shame might have served a purpose when society was locking us in cages, cutting into our brains and electrocuting us. Staying hidden meant staying alive. It’s lucky that mental illness isn’t confined to one area, one race. If the genetics that made us what we are was carried by one race the world would have come together and killed us to hide from what they didn’t understand.
Let me show you the work of insanity.
Listen to the soothing and beautiful sounds of Beethoven’s music, read the incredible words of War and Peace, see the works of Vincent Van Gogh, lose your breathe as your eyes dare to touch Michelangelo’s David and his masterwork the Sistine Chapel. Abraham Lincoln wrote the emancipation proclamation that would free the slaves while battling crippling depression. Sir Isaac Newton proved the existence of gravity and gave us an empirically understandable universe. Albert Einstein showed us how much the world was changed by where you looked at it from and Godel showed us the limits of reason. In the process of ripping ourselves to pieces our people burned books and wrote poetry that become the pages of history.
These are only some of the most famous examples that we know of. We are doctors, we are lawyers, we are artists, business people, revolutionaries, zealots, your friends, your parents, your lovers.
We are your homeless, your drug addicts, the people who sometimes make it difficult to love us when we need it the most.
We need help from professionals, from the people who love us, because the war against yourself can only end when you stop fighting and start living. The battle against yourself is where the terrors are built. In the shame of trying to be what we aren’t we make ourselves worse.
The greatest movements that changed society’s thinking were lead by the people most affected. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X had to fight for black rights. Harvey Milk had to stand up for gay people, as did Matthew Shepherd.
We can’t allow our struggle to be a weekend boating trip for wealthy citizens looking for a good cause. We need to stand behind each other even when the person isn’t eloquent, doesn’t look damn good in a suit and hasn’t been lucky enough to fully recover from their illness.
No one can do this for us. Because they won’t know who we are until we tell them. Until we reveal ourselves and kill the illusions that our silence creates.
I know the shame. I know the guilt. I have blamed myself for being weak, for being sick, for lacking the emotional strength to carry my small burdens in a world where so many people carry so much more. Yet how is it your fault? No one would ever choose to feel like this.
It’s terrifying to know the world won’t understand us immediately. To know that we can’t change the world without facing that terrible life altering exposure.
2/3s of us aren’t getting helped, because we don’t know how many people stand with us. They don’t know how many people will stand by their loved ones.
To paraphrase Harvey Milk in his famous speech on the Stonewall riots:
In our times of darkness, I ask my brothers and sisters to join me in this fight. For themselves, for their freedom, for their country, for their children and their children who stand a strong chance of inheriting their parent’s illness. We will not win our rights by staying quietly in the shadows. We have to come out to fight the lies, the myths, the distortions, the easy answers they sell to the desperate. We are coming out to tell the truth about mental illness, for I’m tired of the conspiracy of silence, so I’m going to talk about it. And I want you to talk about it. You must come out. Come out to your parents, to your friends. Come out for your friends, your family, and let our collective voices show the world who we are.
Our silence has killed us long enough.
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