This past weekend, I had the privilege to participate in a class to prepare me to be an In Our Own Voice (IOOV) presenter. The class was led by two trainers from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) in Georgia. I recently became active in NAMI of Cobb County and this was my first exposure to any of the training programs.
According to the NAMI website, IOOV is a unique public education program developed by NAMI, in which two trained consumer speakers share compelling personal stories about living with mental illness and achieving recovery.
IOOV presentations are given to consumer groups, students, law enforcement officials, educators, providers, faith community members, politicians, professionals, inmates, and interested civic groups.
The goals of IOOV are to meet the need for consumer-run initiatives, to set a standard for quality education about mental illness from those who have been there, to offer genuine work opportunities, to encourage self-confidence and self-esteem in presenters, and to focus on recovery and the message of hope.
Although I was eager to become an IOOV presenter, I was nervous about this training. I knew that I would have to stand up in front of total strangers and talk about my story of depression. I have been doing a lot of writing about my illness and I have become very open about it. But this felt different. I felt different. I looked around the room at these people who have fought mental illness. I listened to their stories. And I felt different.
Most of the people in the room were quite a bit younger than I am. Some of the people had been in jail or prison. I never was. Some of the people had never really lived on their own yet. I have a wife and four children and live in a nice subdivision. Some did not have experience with public speaking.
I have conducted many training classes and made countless presentations. Some have been hospitalized many times. I was only hospitalized twice. These people are not like me. I am not like them.
As the class progressed, we spoke about how we came to accept our respective illnesses. As I jotted my notes to prepare for my presentation, a thought came to me that was like an awakening. I thought to myself, “I have not totally accepted my illness."
Yes I had depression, yes I was treated, yes I recovered, yes I am better. I know all that. But I still have this disbelief in my head. Did I really do all of the things that led to my severe depression?
Did I really stay in my bed all day for weeks and months? Did I really almost lose my family? And even if I did, I’m better now. I’m not depressed anymore, right? I work every day. I have become active. I think positively. It’s been such a long time since my major depressive episode. I’m OK now. I’m not like these people.
Then I discovered that all of these things I do now, such as running and thinking positively, are part of my coping skills. Every one of us in the room has a number of things we do to cope with our illness. Some people meditate, some have a strong support system, some journal every day.
All of us have good days and bad days. All of us do what we can to have more good ones than bad ones. And then, I discovered that all of us have hopes and dreams. We all want a great life for ourselves and our families. We all want to eradicate the stigma of mental illness. And we all want to give back, to help others who are in pain, to educate the public, to advocate for those who suffer, to repair the world.
After two days, I am now prepared to be an IOOV presenter. I am looking forward to my first presentation. But I learned so much more from these two days. I learned that I am not different. I have a mental illness. I cope with it every day. I have had bad times. I have good times. I have hopes and dreams. I want to help wherever I can.
The class is over and I have several new friends now. The ones who were in prison, the ones who didn’t get a chance to go to school, the ones who don’t live on their own, they are all my friends, my community, my family. They are NAMI. I am NAMI. We are NAMI, and we are better together.