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creating a change in the world

Posted Mar 06 2009 2:21pm
We are the people who we have been waiting for
-Alice Walker

Last night I had a great experience. I have been interested for some time in becoming involved with the local Crisis Intervention Training for police officers, which teaches them about mental illnesses and how to deal with people who have a mental illness. I have read excellent things about this program and how it has changed police departments that offer it across the country, because officers learn how to help people in crises. As you may be aware, there are an alarming number of shootings that involve people who have a mental illness and police officers, as sometimes officers who do not know how to approach a person with a mental illness in a crisis situation end up feeling they need to use lethal force. If I could help change the way one person is treated by police officer when they need help and don't need jail, then it would be worthwhile to do whatever I need to do to make that happen.

The local CIT training here is done by NAMI and other groups. I went to watch the speakers from NAMI a few months ago, when they did their most recent training. The training is a week-long process, but the speakers are there on the second day of the course. This course is done twice a year here. I was very impressed, when I went to observe, the way that the speakers (who were mostly people I know from NAMI) told their stories and fielded all sorts of questions from the police officers. I thought to myself, "This is what I was meant to do". To a certain degree, I do believe that life has purpose, and that their are reasons why things happen. I think it is possible that the reason I have had to deal with Schizophrenia all these years is that I was meant to help raise awareness about it and combat the stigma that exists in society.

So, some time ago, I wrote down the story of my mental illness in order to be able to submit it to NAMI for their review. Last night I got to sit down with some of the board members of the local NAMI chapter and read my story, and discuss my illness. I disclosed details of my life in this recounting that I do not normally share with anyone other than my therapist and those of you who read this blog. I was nervous, partly because I am always nervous about speaking in front of people, and partly because the memories are still painful. Also, I still have a part of myself that fears disclosure and fears the labeling of my delusions and hallucinations as what they were and are - things that are not real, things that are a part of psychosis. A part of me wants to hold onto them, because I fear the repercussions of disclosure.

I cannot tell you what an empowering, life changing experience it was for me to read this story out loud to three people who did not laugh, did not judge, did not act shocked or embarrassed by the personal details and the telling of my truth. They listened, they paid attention, and after I was finished, they gave me feedback, which was mostly positive. They told me that I had an amazing, powerful story, and that it would change people's lives if I told this story to the police officers in the CIT class. They told me that they were surprised how much I understood my illness even though I still have the illness, and that it was interesting that I can talk about delusions as what they are. They said that I remembered quite a bit very well, even from periods when I was delusional. Overall, they made feel like my story mattered, and that I could create a positive change in the world by telling my story. They made me feel I had merit, and that - as the poem says - I could "be of use". I left this meeting feeling excited and honored that I might be included in the CIT training program, where I might really be able to create a positive change in the world.

Telling my mother about this experience on the phone, I was happy to hear that she was actually proud of me for it. She said something that was very kind. She said, "I am more proud of you for this than I ever would have been if you graduated from that Smith College". It was nice of her to say that, and the fact that I could have ostensibly attended that college is still a sore subject for me, and was something I had mentioned in my speaking to the board members. That year - the year I ended up in a homeless shelter instead of at Smith - was the year my delusions began. It was a pivotal point in my life. It was a time when I lost something that really mattered to me a great deal, and when my confusion about reality began.

The truth is, I have lost a lot to this illness. I have lost a lot of things that I could, potentially, have accomplished, without this illness in my life. To have that fact validated, and to have the experiences mean something is a great feeling. I do not want my entire story to be shared only on a blog anymore. I want to tell it to more people, to explain what this illness is, what it does, how it affects people who have it, and what the world could do to improve the lives of people who have mental illnesses. This is just a starting point.

"To Be of Use"

by Marge Piercy

The people I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
They seem to become natives of that element,
the black sleek heads of seals
bouncing like half submerged balls.
I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.

I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who stand in the line and haul in their places,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.
The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.
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