I tell the handsome young man in the elevator, “It’s called Alternatives and it’s for people living with mental health conditions.” He replies, “Oh, are you a chaperone?”. My heart freezes, this is one more time that I can slide under the radar. I breath deeply, and respond, “Oh no, I’m a person living with a mental health diagnosis, we come in all shapes and sizes.” I shoved an “I’m The Evidence” campaign card into his hand as the elevator doors slid open and wheeled my luggage down the hall.
My first time was both exciting and nerve-wracking. It happened at a beautiful resort in Orlando Florida, at the 2014 Alternatives Conference.
The Alternatives Conference is a yearly event where people living with mental health conditions come together and learn about best practices nationwide in community based self-directed treatments. It’s a place of community and fellowship where being a person living with a mental health condition is a unifying factor.
Most of the breakout sessions are presented by people with a personal lived history with mental health conditions and the plenary sessions are presented by some of the most inspiring people who are living with mental health conditions and can be seen as what I describe as “Recovery Rock Stars”. It’s an amazing event and it’s a place where you can be safely surrounded by people who “get it.” It’s a place of community, dignity and mental health pride. It’s common to hear people when meeting a group of new folks ask, “Are you peers?” and have people proudly respond, “Yes”. At Alternatives I heard so many people making connections and feeling like part of a community of other people who understood the struggles, disappointments and triumphs of living with a mental health condition. Identifying as a “peer” at Alternatives equates to a common experience and unlike most other places, social collateral. It was a place where it was pretty easy to be publicly open about being a person with a diagnosis.
I remember how easy it was in the days of the conference, surrounded by peers, feeling confident that no one would think less of me knowing I am a person living with a mental health diagnosis. My peers understand that my “illness” doesn’t define me. That my “illness” has taught me to reach out to others for help, to find support in others and to offer it in return. My peers understand that as a person being relatively successful in my mental health recovery, I am not less competent, that my thoughts and opinions are as substantive as those of people who are living without a mental health diagnosis. My peers, who are also working hard on their mental health recovery, understand that fighting the darkness makes us stronger and better equipped to truly appreciate the light. It’s easy to be “out of the mental health closet” at Alternatives, but still hard in general social settings.
My last day in Orlando, on my way to check out of the hotel I was joined in the elevator by two men, maybe 10 years younger than me, handsome young men, fit with late October Orlando tans. They were peers to my visible self, the part of me that looks successful and together. I carry nicely matched luggage and a confident smile which hides my fear of the depression that seems to always be around the corner, beaten back by my well stocked wellness toolkit, but still ever lurking. Friendly and smiling, one of them asks me if I’m traveling with family. I explain I’m at a conference for work. He asks what kind of conference.
I tell the handsome young man in the elevator, “It’s called Alternatives and it’s for people living with mental health conditions.” He replies, “Oh, are you a chaperone?” My heart freezes, this is one more time that I can slide under the radar. I breath deeply, and respond, “Oh no, I’m a person living with a mental health diagnosis, we come in all shapes and sizes.” I shoved an “I’m The Evidence” campaign card into his hand as the elevator doors slid open and wheeled my luggage down the hall.
It didn’t seem fair or right to capitalize on the social collateral my “peerness” gave me in one setting, but deny myself and my community for social collateral in another setting. General stigma and discrimination will never be eroded unless we are able to overcome our self-stigma.
Afterwards, I felt elated; I walked the walk and talked the talk! For that moment I was a representative of a community, my community. I hope I helped the young man understand that the idea he has that people living with mental health conditions are in need of a chaperone, or that all mental health conditions are debilitating and visually recognizable is erroneous. I hope he was able to learn something new, and maybe be more accepting of himself or a loved one who may experience a mental health crisis. I struck a small blow against stigma, discrimination, and took a firm step forward in managing my own self-stigmatizing behavior, all with a few sentences and a small orange card.
After my ‘first time’, I’m keeping my eyes open for every opportunity to share that small orange “I’m The Evidence” campaign card, to continue to be an ambassador of my community and to spread the truth that healing, connecting, and the endless possibilities of personally defined wellness are achievable.
Elisha Coffey is the Manager of Adult Advocacy at the Mental Health Association of Southeastern PA.