I spent Friday at Boston's Logan Airport celebrating Deconstructing Stigma, a project developed by McLean Hospital. It's an amazing exhibit, intended to start a conversation about mental illness and the stigma that often surrounds it. The walkway between Terminals B and C is lined with photos of people affected, including me--I've dealt with depression since I was a teenager. Although the images are larger-than-life, the stories told are human-sized: intimate and personal.
The day was emotional for me. I loved meeting some of the other people in the exhibit. Their honesty and openness moved me greatly and made me feel part of a wonderful group. Sean, who had his first panic attack at 13, when his mother was dying of cancer; Carol, who during her freshman year of college in 1958 was told by the dean to take a semester off--because mental health was rarely discussed back then, it took decades for Carol to be properly diagnosed and learn that she had bipolar disorder; Nathanial, whose obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) began when he was in eighth grade. I stuck close to Amy--a really good friend. We met when her husband Jason and I were patients on Proctor 2 at McLean. Their photo is on the wall too, with Amy's quote "We're always looking out for each other."
Howie Mandel, Maurice Benard, and Darryl McDaniels, and other celebrities are featured in the exhibit. Darryl, a founding member of Run-DMC, spoke before the reception, powerfully telling of his struggles with depression, addiction, and suicidal thoughts. But what strikes me most about the stories is that, whether famous or not, we have so much in common. We've all been affected by mental illness, and are here to talk about it, to reach out to others and say there is help.
Marylou Sudders, Secretary of Massachusetts Department of Health and Human Services, introduced the event with such compassionate comments. She spoke of her own family, telling how her mother died young from complications related to psychiatric illness, and she welcomed us with the knowledge and understanding of how these issues affect us all.
There were so many great moments, but one really stands out for me. I had requested that several people very important to me be invited, and I honestly didn't think they'd make it. They're so busy, they have many patients, would they even remember me? But they showed up, and I was over the moon to see them. These women took care of me the times I was hospitalized at McLean for depression. They listened for hours on end, they made sure I--and all the patients on Proctor 2, the trauma unit that does nothing less than save lives--were safe. They helped me get well. If you've read my books, you've seen characters of mine--nurses, doctors, healers--inspired by them, and sometimes with the same first names.
I am very thankful to Adriana Bobinchock, Director of Public Affairs and Communications at McLean, for inviting me to take part and being so incredibly encouraging and kind. Epic thanks also to Gerald Dawson for overseeing the photo shoot and doing so much to organize the event and bring everyone together. Patrick O'Connor is the photographer who took the beautiful pictures, and Steve Close is the creative director--both came to my house with Gerry, and not only did they do a great shoot, they made it so much fun.
I hope Adriana won't mind my sharing something I wrote in an email to her today, thanking her for everything and telling her my feelings about seeing the photos in the concourse: "travel is stressful but also a time for reflection--all that time in airports, and on the plane--and i've had more than one revelation on a long flight or heading to the car afterward. i think the exhibit is well-positioned to touch people at their most vulnerable, when they might be most ready to realize they need help, or to soothe their worries of being alone/different/isolated/broken." Those people are not alone--we are with them.
That is what it's all about: listening to each other, caring for each other, seeking help when you need it. Your story matters. It makes you who you are. Your experiences and emotions add up to a wonderful life, but sometimes there is pain along the way. It's better than okay to admit that--it's actually great. Tell your story. We want to listen. Actually, we need to.
Much love, Luanne