One of my favorite parts of stories is that they are never done. Once we have told them, they shift and our past continues to be shaped by our future experiences. That is why I wanted to start a "Storycatchers: Continuation" series, to capture the way our stories shift, grow or contract after we have told them.
I could think of no better way to kick this series off than to check in with some of the tellers from our March Storycatchers: Voices from our Mental Health Community event. This event was certainly one of our most powerful, and the stories shared the most vulnerable and impactful for both the tellers and the community. So, I wanted to check-in and ask the tellers how they were feeling now that they had shared their stories. What has changed? What has stayed the same? What advice would they have for anyone else thinking of sharing?
Our first check-in is with my friend, Nick. Nick and I met because of this event, and after reading his e-mail submission I knew not only did Nick have a powerful story, but that he was a powerhouse throughout his life as well. In the audio of Nick's story, we had a slight hiccup so if you listen in, here's just a few more powerful points to Nick's story. With the help of a great best friend, he gave himself one more chance, and wrote an amazing come-back story. Nick fought his way back losing over 360 pounds. He started by counting the steps and mapping a route around the block where at the beginning he needed to bring a folding chair to stop and rest. Now, he plays hockey and is able to workout six days a week. He has never stopped striving and believing he can, one breath at a time. Read his thoughts on the process of sharing and listen to Nick's incredible story below.
Why did you decide to tell your mental health story?
I decided to tell my mental health story for two reasons: 1. It's therapeutic for me. I've been through some pretty dark times in my life, and the positive support I receive helps me find the strength and confidence within to continue the fight. Mental illness is not a battle that can be won; it can only be fought...and even then, it's a nearly impossible fight to go at alone. As with any military campaign, it's much easier to stand victorious when you have an army instead of a single warrior. 2. To help other people. Though I've made it through the thickest part of the woods relatively unscathed, the stories I heard at the event brought to light that there are still so many others that are now where I was seven years ago. I know that with my successes, combined with my personal charisma, I can provide a ray of hope to the people that are in those dark times. NAMI provided hope for myself and my family. I am merely paying the "good" forward.
Was getting up in front of a packed audience scary, exciting...both? How did you calm yourself? Explain how you felt while you were telling your story, and after you heard all of the stories.
Getting up in front of the audience was neither scary nor exciting. My father was a Public Information Officer (one of his many responsibilities) with the Outagamie County Sheriff's Department. He was the guy that the TV stations or newspapers would dial up when they needed a comment on a story. He has been a wealth of information for me speaking in front of large groups, to the point where I consider it one of my top personal skills. As I shared my story, I felt empowered. I knew that my audience was comprised of people that are struggling, or know someone that is struggling as I once did. To be able to stand in front of that group and say, "I know what its like. I can't promise that it'll get better, but you'll never find out if you give up the fight. Just keep breathing. Give yourself a chance, because you are worth it" is an empowering experience. As I listened to the stories of others, I felt that there is much work to be done in the area of mental health, but that the reward of continuing the work diligently on this societal epidemic is the enrichment of that same society. These marginalized people have stories and experiences that improve the lives not only of those still struggling, but of all people, everywhere. We can all take a lesson in empathy.
What most surprised you about sharing your story?
What surprised me most from sharing my story was the shock it still stirs within people who hear it. I lived my journey. I've told the story so many times to so many people that the incredulity of losing 367 pounds while overcoming schizophrenia has lost a smidge of the "wow" factor. When I told my story at the event, it was a stark reminder that what I've overcome is remarkable, something not everyone does, or even gets an opportunity to do. The reaction to my story reminds me to appreciate the life I have the ability to lead; to not take anything for granted. Not everyone gets a second chance.
Since you've told your story, what has changed? What has stayed the same?
Not much has changed since I shared my story. I'm still me. I still swear at the TV when the Penguins give up a goal, I still share adult-themed jokes about breasts, clams, and hot Italian sausage at my job. I've been open on social media about my story, down to the intimate details, so getting up in front of a group wasn't that big of a change. Honestly, living my story solidified me into the man I am, rather than altering that man. I live the personality I've always had, perhaps with an additional sprinkling of confidence, ego, and competitive fire to want more and more out of life.
Has telling your story opened any new doors/possibilities for you?
Telling my story has opened an additional door for me. I have been approached by NAMI Executive Director Maren Peterson about speaking at NAMI events in the future. I look forward to sharing my story more often, and with people who could benefit from hearing it.
Would you tell your story again?
No doubt, I would (and will) share my story again and again, with anyone who wants to hear it!
What advice would you give someone else who is considering sharing their story?
The advice I would give to someone considering sharing their story is that its an intensely personal decision. Not everyone is comfortable with opening up their lives. The vulnerability and exposure is something that, once out there, cannot be taken back. Be prepared to deal with sideways glances and outdated conceptions of what mental illness is, as well as the set of stereotypes associated with your particular illness. I didn't shoot 32 people at an Aurora, CO theater; yet when some hear the word "schizophrenia", they think that I am a ticking time bomb, a tragedy in the making. However, if you are prepared (as well as you can be) to deal with that, the support you receive from the vast majority of people you will encounter is worth every bit of pain and struggle you experience. My dad calls it, "Throwing your hat over the fence"...the idea is that once you jump in, there is no going back. You test yourself, and when you do, you find more strength and confidence than you ever believed could live within your heart. That strength and confidence will bleed over into every facet of your life.
Why do you think telling your story matters?
I love the story of Pandora's Box. That when all the evils of the world were released, the counterbalance to all of it was Hope. My story is important because it illustrates Pandora's Box to a "T". I've experienced much of the dark evil the world has to offer. Some of it was of my own doing, some of it was not. And yet, I still stand, weathered and beaten, but not defeated. I am the living proof that no matter how dark the night gets, the sun will rise the next morning. In order to get there, you just need to keep breathing. My story is the Hope.
Listen to Nick's story HERE
Stay tuned as we continue to roll out more follow-ups with our tellers in honor of Mental Health Awareness Month.