What a wondrous feeling — not sure how else to describe it. I took an oath yesterday to support and defend the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the State of California against all enemies foreign and domestic. That I would bear true faith and allegiance to both constitutions and I took the obligation freely and without reservation or purpose of evasion. I promised to faithfully discharge the duties I’m about to enter serving on the Area 8 Board.
What a contrast. During the darker days of my illness, my words didn’t hold merit with many, including my doctors. People would talk in front of me as if I wasn’t there. They’d discuss my life, my history and what they thought was wrong with me. My stutter, inability to hold my body still and other physical factors made it appear I was intellectually unable to understand. On really bad days, my cognitive ability didn’t help that assumption. What I learned from close family members later, is that they didn’t realize I could understand them. That or they thought I wasn’t mentally present — and, yes, sometimes I wasn’t rooted to this dimension but often I understood what was going on around me.
When I answered a question, my answer was questioned. How could I have a good answer to a life change when I was mentally ill? All my decisions must be made from illness and not given value. Everyone else knew what was better for me. I felt like a burden, like I had zero value and I was a horrible mom because I became mentally ill and unable to care for my children. (This is still a great struggle.) The cognitive loss, crushing exhaustion, physical impairments, and the chronic pain was unbearable but everyday I woke up and tried to be better than the day before. That’s something I still practice.
Last January, when I attended the Each Mind Matters training at Fresno State, I wasn’t sure I’d make two hours, much less two days, but I had support, pushed my limits and for the first time felt like I could do something of value. Real value. I had a voice and it had merit. My story would help others. My voice could and would be heard to help those who weren’t able to speak up. It would help fight the mental illness stigma. It would show love and support to those who were raging this battle. My intention is that it’ll ripple out to those I’ll never know and be of help to their lives whether on a personal level, through legislative action or systematic change.,
I wouldn’t have known about the training if it wasn’t for my awesome social worker at Resources for Independence Central Valley (RICV). This training wouldn’t have been available without the coordination of RICV, Fresno State,United Advocates for Children & Families and the National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI – NAMI Fresno: Tell Your Story Project). For the first time, my mental illness didn’t feel like exclusion. At that training, I started to understand on the soul level that I still had worth. My words did matter. My answers did have value. My ideas, thoughts and suggestions were of merit.
Feeling that value gave me the courage to apply to the Community Leadership Academy developed by RICV in the spring. There I learned that folks with disabilities make up about 20 percent of the United States population but less than a half-percent were active in leadership positions in the community. The program trained me on Robert’s Rules of Order, reading financial reports, board member duties and responsibilities, reviews of the Brown Act and the Bagely-Keene act and so much more. The program is the only one like it anywhere and I was fortunate it was located in Fresno and could participate. (This program was created by our very own Resource Center (RICV) and is so incredible other centers around the nation, and internationally, requesting training so they can teach it in their communities.)
Soon after the academy graduation, I applied and went through the process to become an RICV board member. Such a proud, proud moment to be an active part of the program that helped me with my independence since 2011. A few weeks later, I received an email asking if I’d be interested in applying to the California State Council on Developmental Disabilities Area 8 Board.
Are you kidding me? After all these years of feeling isolated, undervalued, devalued, muted and feeling like I was less than because I couldn’t be who I was before, and now I am sitting on a local non-profit board, and had an incredible recommendation to go with my application to a state council? One that went through a few rounds of vetting and the appointment would be by Governor Brown himself?
Hot damn. I’d say I’ve come a long way baby — and I have — but I’m still stunned because I do not possess all the capabilities I had before. I’m still in the process of recovery and will be managing my mental stability for the rest of my life. And yet, my words still have worth. It’s strange, all the ideas I had, my own mental illness stigmas, that made me feel trapped and unworthy. That’s in the past because now I know my disability is not a detriment, but a needed perspective to help our community.
That oath was a simple moment of raising my right hand, swearing yes and signing some paperwork, but it was a definite life changer. It feels like a new, incredible and positive chapter has started. Many thanks to RICV and Governor Brown for these opportunities. Many thanks to Each Mind Matters folks, UACF, NAMI Fresno, and Fresno State for their support of the disabled community and organizing programs like these for folks like me. You all rock.
Note: For those of you who are interested in any of the programs mentioned above, feel free to check out the websites, call them or chat me up online.
[Facebook post from 8.15.14]