In May, Greenville joined the ranks of big cities like New York, DC, Denver and Chicago with its first performance of This Is My BRAVE®. Fourteen local community members boldly shared their personal stories that evening and dazzled Greenvillians. All fourteen performers have one thing in common. They suffer from mental illness and live happy, full lives. In addition, they are strong and proud and very BRAVE.
Mental illness is not an easy topic to discuss, especially when you are talking about yourself. Yet this group was energized by the opportunity to help others understand mental illness by telling their personal stories through poetry, essays and songs. This Is My BRAVE®, founded by Jennifer Marshall, is a national community of advocates dedicated to destigmatizing mental illness. Jennifer learned first-hand how powerful and therapeutic it is to live openly and not hide her diagnosis of bipolar disorder from others. She created This Is My BRAVE® to offer a platform for other brave individuals to share their stories of living with mental illness.
Mental illness is widespread in the United States. Approximately 1 in 5 adults (43.8 million) experiences mental illness in any given year. While nearly 1 in 25 adults (10 million) lives with a serious mental illness. The onset of mental illness is generally early in life. Half of all chronic mental illnesses begin by the age of 14; three-quarters by the age of 24. Mood disorders, including major depression, dysthymic disorder and bipolar disorder, are the third most common cause of hospitalization in the U.S. for those aged 18 to 44.
With these staggering statistics, we must all be BRAVE and talk about our mental health. In a recent interview Rebecca Shafer, the Greenville producer of This Is My BRAVE®, opened up and shared the details of her life with mental illness. Rebecca suffers from anorexia and bipolar disorder. Interestingly enough while growing up friends and family often referred to her as “overly dramatic.” In her 20’s while living and working as a teacher in Nashville, Rebecca was first diagnosed with anorexia.
I asked Rebecca to describe her feelings while suffering from anorexia. She responded with the following questions, “Why did I starve myself for so many years? Why did I exercise every calorie I put into my body? Why was I consumed with the exact shape of my every inch of body?” She then explained, “My emotions were everywhere and unregulated and I needed a way to survive. My way of surviving was to starve my body, go numb and feel nothing. I was not thinking for myself, my eating disorder thought for me. And the cycle kept repeating. My anorexia told me you are fat, ugly, unlovable and worthless.”
Thanks to the intervention of family and friends, Rebecca received treatment for her anorexia at Nashville’s Renfrew Center in 2014. Soon her body began to recover and she gained weight. However, she was still unable to regulate her emotions. Something was still wrong!
Rebecca shared, “One of the worst things about this time in my life was that I lost the trust of the people closest to me. I had always been the one everyone could rely on and now I was not there for them. I struggled with my identity. I felt all alone.”
Then in February of 2015 she had a weeklong manic episode. Ultimately this episode helped doctors piece together what was going on with Rebecca. She was diagnosed with type 1 bipolar disorder. Discovering this chemical imbalance has made all the difference in explaining Rebecca’s behavior, her unregulated emotions and her eating disorder. She finally had the information she needed to understand her disease, manage her symptoms and ultimately enjoy a stabile life.
While Rebecca cannot totally prevent manic episodes, she now understands her triggers and can manage them. She takes her medications and attends therapy on a regular basis. In addition, she focuses on maintaining a regular schedule, eating well, exercising, getting good rest, daily prayer and communicating with the people who are important in her life. The very same activities that we should all incorporate into our lives.
Mental illness is a lonely journey. Rebecca had never thought of herself as “one of those people.” So after being diagnosed she needed to find others who understood her life. She found encouragement and hope by reading Jennifer Marshall’s blog, BipolarMomLife.com. Ready to bravely share her own story, Rebecca decided to bring This Is My BRAVE®, to Greenville to help others living with mental illness. More than 40 people showed up for the auditions and 14 cast members were selected to share their stories at this first-time community event.
Rebecca no longer feels alone. She is partnering with local mental health organizations such as NAMI and Mental Health America to build a community of mental health advocates. She is also developing a community of storytellers – BRAVE people who have become stronger by opening up and sharing their personal stories. And on the personal front, Rebecca is teaching again, living independently and has regained the trust of family and friends. “I am someone who is considered BRAVE. I am grateful to be alive. Life is so good,” concluded Rebecca.
For more information about This Is My BRAVE® go to www.thisismybrave.org.