Not Just Our Story
The stigma drags everyone along, even when you want to share your story openly.
On a recent episode of One Mind’s Brain Waves show, Brandon Staglin asked why I used a pseudonym when publishing my book. Unexpectedly overcome with emotion, I started tearing up during my answer. Fortunately, I managed to hold it together to finish the interview.
But I’ve been thinking about it ever since. I’ve answered that inquiry dozens of times, why did I suddenly lose my composure with Brandon?
“Breakdown, go ahead and give it to me." -- Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers
For context, my wife and I decided to publish our story under a pen name so that we could preserve the privacy of extended family members who felt uncomfortable about the truth coming out. The stigma can have real repercussions on people’s lives; even if someone hasn’t suffered a mental illness themselves, the fact that it has emerged within their family can lead to prejudice.
I really struggled with the decision. It felt disingenuous to me—writing a book advocating for an open discussion about mental illness and then hiding behind a pseudonym. In fact, at one point, I told my wife I didn’t want to move forward. “But Pat,” she argued, “if we can help even one person, does it matter that they won’t know our real identities?” She won me over in the end.
But I still feel uncomfortable about it, especially when interacting with those who have shared the whole of their stories with courage and conviction. I have so much admiration for these people. Brandon is not only an example, but he’s one of the most prominent. After everything our family has experienced, I have a good idea of what he has accomplished in his life. For someone to have gone through the hell of serious mental illness and come out the other side not only surviving but thriving is nothing short of incredible.
“Sometimes you gotta get scars to get what you deserve." -- Andy Grammer
When a family member is going through that nightmare, it’s easy to feel hopeless. Nothing seems to help; the love you so desperately give becomes lost in a haze of psychosis. You find yourself focusing on the dream of recovery. You cling to it, fearing that a loss of faith could quickly slide into a lack of strength. But, deep down, the doubt creeps in. You keep stamping it out, only to feel it wriggle back. This becomes a constant battle, trying to maintain hope while battling that ever-rising despair.
That was why Brandon’s question had such an impact on me. Given his own story, our family’s victory came into sharper focus. I became overwhelmed with thoughts of my wife, about how she accepted and overcame her condition. I revisited my own mental health journey and those of our children. The fact that we remain married, and in love, and that we enjoy such a close relationship with each other and our kids—these are remarkable achievements. And I’d love nothing more than to shout about them to the rest of the world.
“I think I made it perfectly; I wouldn't change a thing." -- John Denver
But I can’t--because it’s not just our story.
Our extended family members read my manuscript before it was published. It was hard for them; some wanted to bury the past and not think about it. Others, as I noted, were concerned with how the stigma might affect them. Also, I’m pretty sure several couldn’t figure out why we even wanted to talk about it, let alone publish a book. Wasn’t it enough that we had survived?
In the end, we came to the pseudonym compromise. It’s not ideal for me personally, but it works for the family. More importantly, it works for anyone who might read our story and find it helpful. For some, it might give them insight into how to manage their own brain illness, and that’s worth everything. For others, it might provide a family with strength to keep the threat of total despair at bay. But if you want real inspiration, just look to Brandon and the Staglin family:
“And in the end, I'm happy that I was diagnosed with schizophrenia, that I developed schizophrenia, because it's given me a purpose that is very valuable to me in my heart, in my mind...just a long, long journey, and it has really turned tragedy into triumph."