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Claudia Fernandez-Niedzielski

Shine a Different Light

It was a cold, February night in Lester, Iowa in 1992 when the world as I knew it changed forever. I was staying with members of the family who had hosted me as an exchange student in 1986. Suddenly, I was awakened by bright lights that begged me to follow them. I ran outside the house towards the church, then ran back to the home of my host family as I desperately tried to escape the voices and steps of those I could swear were chasing me. As I entered the empty house (my host family was on vacation), I made a mess. I removed all the unloaded guns from the gun case; removed all my clothes from the drawers; decided to take a bath and threw pillows, comforters, and sheets out of the window and jumped out of the one-and-a-half story house, fully naked, to escape from the voices. I don’t know how long I ran around the small town. They would later tell me that I ended up knocking on someone’s door in the very early hours of the morning and that soon after I was hospitalized. The doctors called it a full-blown psychotic episode; one that would require the use of a straight-jacket, heavy medications, and a padded cell to avoid self-harm and harm to others. The diagnosis (one that would later be changed) was schizophrenia. I cannot begin to imagine what my parents felt when they got that call. What followed was a terrifying and very dark time in my family’s life. It would take six more months of hospitalization with 24/7 care by family members, many medication combinations, electroconvulsive therapy, and the board of psychiatry in Mexico City to finally bring me back from the darkness and diagnose me with Bipolar Disorder.

The question that haunted my parents was, “How did this happen?” I had been a healthy child from the day I was born. I was capable of making friends extremely easily, I loved school and was always at the top of my class. I respected my parents and while I was always stubborn, hard- headed, and a little obsessive, there were zero indications that one day they would be faced with the reality they had in front of them. Or were there truly zero indications? Were the signs there all along and we just did not know what to look for and were unable to recognize them?

I had been in a long distance relationship for four years and the last six months of those four years (just before I traveled back to Iowa) had been extremely hard. Once my parents were informed and understood how Bipolar Disorder is triggered, they knew the indications were there way before I left. I had stopped all social activities with my friends, and I would stay in my room for long hours behind closed doors. I would find myself crying uncontrollably at work, when walking down the streets, and at home in my room. I had begun to make reckless decisions with my relationships, I was spending more money than I had so my credit cards were all maxed out, and I was always in a daze and began to not care about my performance at work. All of these things were indications of a deep, deep depression, one that would cause me to spiral out of control on that cold winter night in 1992. My doctor also found out that a couple of my dad’s uncles and aunts had a history of depression and schizophrenia. My parents would learn that Mental Illness is hereditary, just like many others. This was a huge revelation. The family history and the behaviors I exhibited before I left were all indicators that something was not right. If my parents had known what to look for; things could have been different.

It was 2015 and it had been twenty-seven years since I made a full recovery from that devastating psychotic episode. Like most of us, I had been through a lot in those twenty-seven years, and yet nothing compared to that time in my life. After my recovery, I was living a good life. I had created a thriving business and was in a very good place with my closest relationships. However, something was missing. What had started as a whisper in my heart had grown louder and louder, and now the whisper was a loud scream for freedom, for peace, for truth, for authenticity. It was a scream I could no longer ignore, and I knew right then that it was time to share my story and be free. What I did not know at the time was that by sharing my story, many more lives would find their freedom, their peace, their truth, and their authenticity. I was only the vehicle, for this message of hope was bigger than my own life and the ripples it would cause would reach people in all places.

But one of the most important things I learned through my experience is that no one can do it alone. It can be a very dark and long road for many and providing understanding, love, hope, and support are not only necessary, but are critical to the long-lasting recovery of those who live with a mental illness.

It is interesting how the universe provides you with what you need exactly at the time you need it. It was within weeks that I had decided it was time to share my story that I saw a billboard on my way to work. Right there, in big bold letters, I read, “Wife, teacher, living with depression,” next to a photo of a woman smiling. At the bottom it said, “Because mental illness is not always what you think,” followed by, “” There it was. Without knowing anything about this organization, I knew immediately that this was exactly the one that would help me with my message. To say that I was terrified is an understatement. Up to that point, aside from my family, my husband and his family and my closest friends, no one else knew my story. I had been told that I really did not want to share this because people’s opinion and perception of who I am would change if they knew my past; but I just could not keep this inside anymore.

Against the advice of my mother, I showed up for the orientation session of the Stop Stigma Sacramento Speakers Bureau with a draft of my story. I was told I would be asked to share it as part of the group activity after the orientation. It was the first time I had written what I was about to share, and it was the first time I have heard myself tell my story out loud to people I did not know. When it was my turn, I could barely get the first sentence out without crying and by the time I was done, I was sobbing. I felt completely vulnerable, scared, exposed, and somehow, ironically enough, I also felt free! Not only had I endured the moment, but those who listened to my story were also in tears and obviously moved by what I had shared. If I needed validation to know that this was a message more people needed to hear, I got that! That evening in October of 2015 would be the first of hundreds of times that I would share my story. I have never looked back. Now my mother is one of my biggest advocates and supporters, as are my father, my husband, and my children.

What had started as a desire to share this message so that I could live in my complete truth and feel free quickly transformed into the need to share a message of hope, recovery, understanding and love. A message for all those who, like myself, live with a mental illness and do so in silence due to the stigma our society still holds as we struggle to do everything we can to live as normal a life as possible. Stigma, in case you did not know, is one of the top reasons why people with a mental illness do not seek help, causing many to continue to suffer in silence, self-medicate, become violent, lose families, become homeless, and in many cases, decide to end their life by their own hands because the pain is simply unbearable. How could this be? No one who is ill with cancer, diabetes, heart disease, or many other illnesses would avoid seeking help for fear of being stigmatized, but those with mental illness do so every day. The need to share a message of hope, recovery, and love once again transformed into something even bigger. This time it was bigger than I ever had imagined: this time it was purpose.

My purpose was to inform, educate, and motivate others to see mental illness as what it is: an illness of the mind. My purpose was to encourage, inspire, and guide others to seek the help they need despite their fears and, finally, my purpose was to shine a different light into mental illness and together illuminate the way for all those living in silence so that they can begin their walk out of the darkness, just as I did.

But one of the most important things I learned through my experience is that no one can do it alone. It can be a very dark and long road for many and providing understanding, love, hope, and support are not only necessary, but are critical to the long-lasting recovery of those who live with a mental illness. I know that as human beings, we fear what we do not understand, and mental illness is still completely misunderstood by many. In many cases it is easier to ignore and continue to pretend that nothing is wrong rather than speaking up or seeking help because of what “they may find out”.

This is why my purpose now is to ensure that people truly understand what a person with a mental illness goes through every single day; that they know the fight we fight every day we wake up just to function like a normal person; that they realize that there are more mentally ill people in the world not just living, but thriving despite their illness; that this is a secret most families share and yet very few admit, discuss or share openly with others; that not one person that knew me would have ever been able to say that I was mentally ill and none of them believed me once I shared that I was; that truly, mental illness is not always what we think; and finally, that just like you, most of us are working extremely hard to make a living, raise our children, find peace, be productive members of society and be the best we can.

We not only need but we MUST, together, SHINE A DIFFERENT LIGHT into the lives of those who are mentally ill and, together, create the space where people like me feel safe, loved, understood, and supported

I have spoken now hundreds of times in front of groups, organizations, middle school, high school and college students, US Army Corps of Engineers, government agencies, and have made appearances on TV and radio shows. Every single time, someone always reaches out to me after I am done to share their own story with me. Every time it is either themselves, a family member, or friend who is mentally ill and who, like many, find themselves not really knowing who to turn to or who to talk to. The mere fact that someone else is sharing what it is like to thrive while being mentally ill is enough to create hope for them and their families. To paint a picture that ALL mentally ill people will be able to thrive and have a happy and successful life would not only be irresponsible, but also a huge lie. However, just as huge of a lie is the assumption that all mentally ill are homeless, drug users, unstable, unpredictable, irresponsible, criminals, suicidal, and so many more “labels” society has adopted for us.

As a society, we have made great progress in many areas. Unfortunately, we have lived in the dark long enough when it comes to mental illness. We not only need but we MUST, together, SHINE A DIFFERENT LIGHT into the lives of those who are mentally ill and, together, create the space where people like me feel safe, loved, understood, and supported. It is time to begin a movement to end the stigma on mental illness. It is time to write a new story and it is time to ILLUMINATE the way for those who are seeking a brighter tomorrow because they cannot do it alone. Would you join me on this movement today?