The internet and multi-tasking have changed the way I read. I leap off of the page and into the internet like a ping pong ball free-associating from topic to topic. Sometimes my internet improvisational reading routine dead-ends and I return to my original starting point, and sometimes it leads to illuminating connections.
For instance, I’m currently reading Ron Chernow’s biography on Ulysses S. Grant. When Chernow was describing Grant’s ruddy good looks that contrasted to his later emblematic scruffy, weathered face, I got out my laptop and googled “Grant, young”. Then googled “Grant and his wife Julia”, and then “Julia’s and Mary Todd Lincoln’s dislike of each other”, then “Mary Todd Lincoln’s loss of her son”, and then I went back to my book.
Similarly a few days ago I was reading an article in the NY Times about the tragic life and death on the streets of Nakesha Williams, and that led me to a follow-up interview about forced hospitalization. This article mentioned the noted psychologist and Dialectic Behavior Therapy creator, Marsha Linehan and her work on radical acceptance. So I googled Linehan and watched a few youtube videos from the ‘90s about her work with individuals struggling with thoughts of suicide. Then I clicked on a 2011 article about a then 69-year-old Linehan who shared her own personal experiences of being hospitalized as a young woman and her own struggles with madness and self-harm. She said about her “coming out” in the article, “I just thought — well, I have to do this… I cannot die a coward.”
I thought back to the videos I had seen of Linehan from the ‘90s, presenting in front of hundreds of people using “othering” language: those people who struggle with thoughts of suicide and self harm. Those people.
I don’t know what having been closeted for so many years about her own experiences felt like for Linehan. I’m hoping, since coming out, that she is currently experiencing freedom and deep connections with people who have had similar histories. Reading about her journey was inspiring to me, and I am so thankful she found the courage to tell her story.
Each year we conduct a “Lived Experience Survey” of our staff in order to highlight and honor what each of us bring to Pathways Vermont and to ensure that our staff mirror experiences of the people we are serving. Our 2017 survey results for our 85 staff included 78% of staff having experienced mental health challenges, 44% having experienced homelessness, 21% having been involuntarily hospitalized and 22% having attempted suicide in the past.
At Pathways Vermont, we believe that a key way to help mental health services get better results is breaking down the artificial separation of “us” (people giving services) and “them” (people receiving services). We value the lived experience in the people we serve, as well as in our leadership, staff and volunteers. We are proud of our staff and their journeys.
We are proud to be in the company of Nakesha Williams and Marsha Linehan. We have experienced homelessness, we have been locked up in psychiatric wards, we have self-harmed, we have had thoughts of suicide. And we are the family, friends and neighbors of people who have experienced homelessness, have been locked up in psychiatric wards, have self harmed or had thoughts of suicide. Some of us have survived. Some of us have thrived and live to help others. Some of us have died. We are in this together, and together we will build a better way forward.