Breaking the silence
Forum participants share experience, pain of mental illness
Seven men and women punctured the hidden shame, silence and isolation by offering painful testimony to a standing-room St. Paul History Theater crowd that shouted encouragement, cheers and gave robust applause.
The June 18 Minds Interrupted monologues was a declaration that diagnoses like paranoid schizophrenia, manic depression and bipolar did not erase the participants’ humanity, has not stopped them from living, and has united them to stand against society’s stigma that for lifetimes left them ashamed and trapped in their or their family member’s mental illness.
Among the speakers was Heidi Nordin of Eagan, a manager for a Fortune 500 company who lives with bipolar and borderline personality disorder, rides a motorcycle and loves Lady Gaga’s music so much her friends call her “Heidi Gaga.”
Depression enveloped her at 15, after a series of life-altering circumstances: Her grandmother, the “glue” of the family, died, she transferred from a small Catholic school to large public high school, and Nordin’s parents divorced.
“Oh my God,” Nordin said, her voice wavering, “Even after all these years, just thinking about my dad leaving creates a sick feeling in the deepest part of my soul.”
High school felt like a black hole; she cut herself and often contemplated suicide.
As an adult, her behavior “became truly out of control,” Nordin said.
She went into manic episodes, skipping medications while on “highs,” that included wild spending sprees and too much food, alcohol and one-night stands.
“There’s no moderation when I’m depressed, either,” Nordin said. “I’m like a radio channel that’s either blaring at full-blast or at such a low volume you can’t hear me at all.”
Nordin said although she still spirals between depressive and manic episodes, suffers nightmares and a racing mind and “almost constant” thoughts of suicide, she found hope through the National Alliance on Mental Illness, which sponsored Monday’s event.
NAMI Minnesota Executive Director Sue Abderholden said society’s stigma against people who suffer mental health issues is so strong, people live with their symptoms an average of 10 years before seeking help.
She said a survey last year showed that nearly 100 percent of patients hospitalized for mental illness never received a get-well card.
“There is isolation with this illness,” Abderholden said. “When someone shares their story, we take another brick off that wall.”
In Dakota County
NAMI is active in Dakota County, which is the only county in the state with an “Experienced Parent” program.
Started 18 months ago, a team of eight trained parents are helping about 50 families struggling with mental health issues.
NAMI Operations Director Suzette Scheele of Burnsville coordinates the Experienced Parent program that matches trained, experienced parents who are raising children with mental illnesses with parents who are new to the mental health system.
Experienced parents meet weekly with the families in the program to listen, provide support and connect them to resources.
“Parents who have walked this path understand,” Scheele said. “When you’re a parent and faced with these challenges and don’t know where to go for help, they trust parents who’ve walked the path.”
One mother recently was helped through the program, after she broke down in tears at a NAMI support group, expressing feelings of hopelessness because her child had been hospitalized with a mental health diagnosis.
Four weeks after entering the Experienced Parent program, the mother told the group she felt there was hope and that her child had a positive future.
That mother’s despair reflected what Scheele said she has experienced with a positive outcome.
A single mother of three, one of her sons was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder at age 3, underwent the first of eight psychiatric hospitalizations at age 5 and was diagnosed bipolar by age 14.
“There were no support groups then,” Scheele said. “You feel like you’re alone, and the stigma prevents a lot of people from getting the help they need.”
Now 22, he has graduated cum laude from the University of St. Thomas with a double major, and is working part-time while earning a graduate degree.
“He has strengths and talents like everyone else,” Scheele said. “He just so happens to be diagnosed with bipolar disorder. It’s been a challenge, but he’s a wonderful young man. I’m very proud of him.”
During the Minds Interrupted forum, speakers shared their struggles, and those of friends and relatives.
They spoke of abuse, beatings, horror movies in their heads, hearing voices, or of being a child, roiling with emotions through the years: confused, frightened, angered, embarrassed of a parent they could not understand until years later.
Sometimes, the presenters could not speak, stopped by memory too painful to admit: A surprise party, followed by his friend’s suicide; porn images that refused to leave; sobbing and making animal noises in a corner; pleading with authorities to see even if her child was arrested.
Most of the speakers had to stop as they struggled to read, standing in the spotlight, looking down, choking back tears.
People in the crowd urged them on.
And they continued; every one finished their monologue.
Several called their diagnosis a blessing, in part because of the help, support and friends they have found through NAMI.
Nordin said while she has found help and comfort in the support, she also has found she is grateful because of who she is: “Heidi Gaga.”
For more information about NAMI, go to www.namihelps.org.
Laura Adelmann is at email@example.com or facebook.com/sunthisweek.