Saturday, October 3, 2009

Hello, my name is Willa, and I have a mental illness

I try to post more often.  The last week has been spent in a story so stereotypical that those readers who have or have tried to get disability benefits will find it banal.  And until it has an ending, I can't tell it in Prozac Monologue mode: reflections and research on the mind, the brain, depression and society. I am not reflecting yet.
So I tempt fate with the following.  Si Dios quiere, God willing -- I will say the following at the opening of Mental Illness Awareness Week Sunday, October 4, 6:30 PM, at the Anne Cleary Walkway, University of Iowa Campus, Iowa City, Iowa, a candlelight vigil to remember those who have died from mental illness and to support those who hope to survive it.

Hello, my name is Willa and I have a mental illness.

Hello, I am the Reverend Willa Marie Goodfellow, an ordained minister, an Episcopal priest who has served congregations, campus ministries, and diocesan staff in Iowa for 27 years. And I have a mental illness.

I have major depressive disorder. The mortality rate of breast cancer is 23%. The mortality rate of congestive heart failure is 50%. My disease has a mortality rate of 15%. Of course, if you’re dead, your mortality rate is 100%. If you’re alive, 100% is your survival rate.

There are factors that increase my particular risk of death, how long I have had this disease, the number of episodes, the severity, the anxiety features.

There are factors that decrease my risk. Having strong relationships within a truth-telling community through my church is one of them. A couple weeks ago I returned to a congregation I served in the past, and told them that I am going on disability because my depression has not responded to medication. I knew what would happen. I knew there would be tears. I knew that at the back of the church, while shaking hands, somebody would tell me that he has a mental illness, too. A woman told me that it took thirty-five years for her husband to find a med that finally seems to be working. At coffee hour, somebody else told me about his mother’s antidepressants. 

We are not alone. When I feel crazy because I cannot see this disease, I cannot show you the broken bone, I still know that I am not the only one. I can call on friends who know exactly what this is.

Once I did a funeral for a recovering addict. Well, it was one part funeral, three parts Narcotics Anonymous meeting. After I welcomed everybody, “Hello, my name is Willa and I am a sinner,” and said some prayers, then people told their stories. I will never forget what the convener of the NA group said, “We are celebrating tonight. We won this one. Don died clean and sober.” And ever after I have hoped that somebody would stand up at my funeral and say, “We won this one. Willa died of... natural causes.”

To that end, I am going to live with this disease the way Don lived with his. Openly -- I have a mental illness. Actively -- I will answer ignorance with education. Politically-- I will meet discrimination with change. And in community -- I will support and be supported by others who share this illness with me, so that we can survive it together.

photo by Nevit Dilmen,  Permission granted to copy under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License

4 comments:

  1. I'm the girl who came to speak to you afterwards, and just remembered to seek out your blog. I plan to keep reading it because to see someone who has been fighting so long and is still so proactive and taking the time to share their story is so powerful, and I want you to know I will keep you in my praters.

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  2. Thanks, Monica. And thanks for your part in this movement. Beautiful picture in the Press Citizen!

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  3. I agree with Lucy, hang in there. You are doing the right thing by writing about your disease, this is a good way to emit some of the emotions that you are carrying.

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