May 22 Bethany Hemingway: I had a secret
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette – As a teenager, I started to unravel. And after a half-hour conversation with a psychiatrist, I was given an ultimatum: commit myself to a psychiatric hospital or be committed. Fifteen-year-old me, faced with the threat of involuntary commitment on my permanent record, signed myself in.
For the last 12 years, I have had the privilege of a lifetime to work as the Staunton Farm Foundation’s senior program officer. But I have not been honest with myself or others. Because of the stigma we work so hard to address, I haven’t shared that I live with mental illness. Until now.
For decades, people have warned me never to disclose my mental illness. They said it would make me appear less educated, less reliable, less predictable, and less, well, everything. I’m telling my story to shine a light during Mental Health Awareness Month.
Institutionalization as a teenager did not go well. In fact, the trauma of it all pushed me further into my illness. Armed with first-hand knowledge of the workings of the mental health system, I knew better than to seek help again.
By hiding my pain and illness, I graduated from high school with a 4.0 GPA and a college plan to study biochemistry. As you can imagine, college exacerbated my untreated mental illness, and I began self-medicating. Daily suicidal thoughts were a reminder that I was not okay.
In psychology class, however, I began to learn about mental health. I studied. I discovered. And eventually, I realized I needed to seek treatment. By doing the work to process previous trauma, medication, and therapy, I began to turn the corner.
There was one issue, however, I couldn’t overcome. The narrative in my head kept telling me that if I revealed my illness, I would not be allowed to work in this field and be of value to another person. This work — helping others — was the only time I felt alive, and it gave me hope and direction.
In 1937, more than sixty years before my own mental illness diagnosis, Matilda Staunton Craig, aka Aunt Daisie, had a bold idea. She wanted her farm overlooking the Ohio River to become a place of respite for “persons suffering from curable neurotic, mild mental and kindred ailments, wherein persons undergoing treatment may have the benefit of fresh air, sunshine and rural surroundings in ample ground for work and recreation.”
She believed that a healing, peaceful environment and a change from daily life could help alleviate people’s mental ailments. She also had a therapeutic vision of healing within nature that could divert individuals from institutionalization.
Aunt Daisie would not live to witness the era where people living in asylums would move back into the community. And while funds were expected to create community-based treatment centers, the dollars never materialized. Instead, these people were confronted with stigma and suspicion. They were diverted into different systems — jails, prisons or nursing homes — creating even more disadvantages.
And though it was easier to institutionalize someone against their will 85 years ago, it still happens. Believe me.
Aunt Daisie’s farm is no longer standing, but her vision of treating people with dignity, respect, and humility endures through the Staunton Farm Foundation, which funds mental health and substance use challenges in Western Pennsylvania. In my eyes, Aunt Daisie lived her authentic life. She was a rebel, a woman before her time. I feel connected with her.
As an employee, I carry Aunt Daisie in my heart, honoring her legacy with the work the Foundation does. This “work” is not just a job to me. It’s personal because I am “one of those people”: psycho, crazy, hyper, overemotional, frantic. I live with an invisible disability that is still highly stigmatized in our culture.
Yet, my work is the life I live. I am a survivor, still healing and finding a path to inner peace and happiness. I live with my mental illness. It’s a journey to find balance, just like anything in life. But I have a great support system, an encouraging boss and board, a therapist I connect with, and medication for stabilization.
I am aware of my privilege, knowledge of systems, and decent health insurance. For 12 years, I have hidden behind this privilege, keeping secret the most important part of why I do the work.
After 85 years, not much has changed. People living with mental illness end up in different systems. I am lucky. I am one of many who live with an invisible disability and have a successful career. I know many professionals in our region who also experience mental health challenges but are afraid that sharing their story would jeopardize their livelihoods.
Even as I write this, my family is fearful of the repercussions of how this will affect my career and how others perceive me. But as a mental health crisis is unfolding among our children and teens, it is time for people like me to speak up and normalize mental health conditions. We need to encourage people talk about their struggles just as we talk about our blood pressure or vitamin D deficiencies.
Eighty-five years ago, Aunt Daisie believed in humanity for everyone, especially those who struggled with mental health challenges. I invite you to share the vision she crafted to help your fellow human without judgment.
Bethany Hemingway is senior program officer of the Staunton Farm Foundation.