“Not all those who wander are lost.” J.R.R. Tolkien
At times it seems that she is everywhere. Walking down Walnut Avenue, crossing National Road by Vance Church, strolling through Wheeling Park. She is always determined in her strides. In the summer her tan, muscular legs pump her shorts-clad body all over the city. In winter her wiry hair juts out from under her knitted hat in spidery threads around her aging face. Sometimes she has loud conversations with someone no one but she can see. Other times she hangs her head down as she walks, staring at her scuffed white walking shoes. In the nine years I have lived in Wheeling, I have never seen her in the company of another person.
Every town seems to have a woman or two like her, a seeming nomad pounding the pavement day in and day out in all kinds of weather. In my hometown, her name was Lollipop. In Oakley, a neighborhood in Cincinnati where I lived for a few years, her name was Grandma. Unlike Wheeling’s bike-riding Charles Waldrum, these wandering women are not seen as helpful or heroic members of their communities. They are seen as oddities — harmless, hapless souls who somehow manage to find their ways back home each night. The one thing all of these women have in common is that they suffer from mental illnesses. In fact, up until one summer afternoon about four years ago, the only name I knew for this wandering Wheeling woman was “Crazy Lady.”
In the same way a person might label a neighbor they see every day as “blue truck guy” or “the lady on the bike,” people nicknamed her in a way that other people might recognize, and it broke my heart every time I heard it said.
Although she never walked the streets, my grandmother Jean was a crazy lady. She struggled all of her adult life with mental illnesses, including bipolar disorder, which was not diagnosed nor treated until she was well into her sixties. How would I feel, I wondered, if strangers referred to my grandmother as Crazy Lady? How would other people feel if the women they loved were called that?
Talking About Mental Illness
While there is nothing shameful about having a mental illness, the stigma attached to mental illnesses remains. Many people are afraid of persons they perceive to be “crazy,” which often leads to isolation and alienation.
Being an advocate for mentally ill persons comes in many forms — psychiatrists, counselors, shelter managers, peer group coordinators and so on, but the general public must work arm-in-arm with these experts if the stigma around mental illness is to change. One of the best ways of doing so is sharing personal battles and triumphs with mental health. Being open and honest, even if only within your social circle, changes the way we talk about mental illness. Knowing that the woman who works in the office next to yours has anxiety or the mom of your child’s friend is in treatment for depression not only normalizes mental illness and the people who struggle with them, but it encourages others to get the help they need.
I learned decades ago that the 12-step group saying is true: “We are only as sick as our darkest secret.” Talking about mental illness shines a light on those secrets and pushes us to seek treatment. Some of the worst stigma around mental illness comes from within ourselves. Knowing that others suffer, too, can lead to reaching out for help.
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Busting Mental Illness Myths
Another powerful way to decrease the stigma around mental illness is to debunk the myths so commonly believe and perpetuated.
Myth No. 1: People with mental illnesses are more violent and dangerous than others.
Fact: Mentally ill persons are not more likely to be violent and dangerous than others, but they are more likely to be victims of violence. Studies show that one in four mentally ill persons will be victims of violence in any given year.
Myth No. 2: People with mental illnesses are “damaged beyond repair.”
Fact: People with mental illness are not lost causes. Many mental illnesses can be treated effectively using a variety of tools. People with mental illnesses simply experience the world in different ways than others.
Myth No. 3: Mental illnesses are rare.
Fact: According to the National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI), “One in five Americans experiences it in their lifetime. One in 25 Americans experiences a serious mental illness in a given year that substantially interferes with or limits one or more major life activities.”
Myth No. 4: Mentally ill persons cannot live on their own.
Fact: Although about 33 percent of the homeless population in America are persons with severe mental illnesses, many persons with mental illnesses can and do live on their own. Their success increases with access to a professional and social network that can provide guidance and assistance with a variety of tasks.
Without a doubt, though, the easiest way to overcome stigma around mental illness is by doing something that should come naturally to us all: being a good neighbor. This doesn’t mean making the lives of others your responsibility. It doesn’t mean that you have to go out of your way to care for someone you don’t even know, but it does mean treating persons with mental illness with the same respect you treat others.
A few months ago the woman I see walking all over Wheeling, passed me on the street, and instead of looking off in the distance or at my phone, I looked up and smiled at her. “Hi,” I said. “My name is Christina.” She grinned and said, “My name is Delores.”*
*Name changed to protect her privacy.
• Christina Fisanick, Ph.D., is an associate professor of English at California University of Pennsylvania, where she teaches expository writing, creative non-fiction and digital storytelling. She is the author of more than 30 books, including her most recent memoir, “The Optimistic Food Addict: Recovering from Binge Eating Disorder.” She has been a Weelunk contributing writer since 2015. Christina is a 1996 graduate of West Liberty University and a member of Ohio Valley Writers. She lives in Wheeling with her family.