Article by Brandon Ha
I needed a fresh start. After two suicide attempts in on month, my psychiatrist was understandably worried about what I’d do with all that time on my hands after I was laid off from work.
I couldn’t go back to the finance world, nor did I want to. “What class did you enjoy in high school?” she asked me. “Photography, “I blurted out – but I had no idea whether I even wanted to be a photographer. I enrolled in a couple of classes at the local community college anyway.
From the start, one thing became clear: I was not destined to become a photographer. Some people have an “eye’ for it; I didn’t. But in the class, I did make a new friend, Rose.
With my constant burning of bridges, friends were hard to come by. During our breaks over the semester, Rose and I would often leave campus to get coffee. One day, she pulled up in her new convertible sports car with the top down. It was warmer than usual for March, but as the wind blew through our hair and the radio bumped loudly, the heat didn’t matter. As we rode through the streets, things felt normal again.
Then the music stopped. A commercial came on, promoting a new drug. “Has life been out of control lately?” asked the announcer. I found myself nodding hesitantly.
“Have there been any abrupt changes in mood or activity level? the announcer continued. “You may be suffering from bipolar disorder – but it doesn’t have to be like this.”
Could this be a sign of a cure that I needed?
I looked over at Rose, praying that she’d share my excitement. Instead, she shook her head in disbelief and said, “Bipolar people are crazy!”
It wasn’t what she said but how she said it that hurt. I knew by her tone that she meant there was very little hope to fix crazy people like us.
I wanted to slid down under the seat so Rose couldn’t see me. She didn’t know she’d been spending time with someone who suffers from bipolar disorder. Maybe I should have told her she was wrong. People living with mood disorders – or any form of mental illness – can live happy, healthy, and successful lives with appropriate treatment.
We’re not crazy, just completely misunderstood, I wanted to say. But in the end, I didn’t say anything. Mental health stigma had forced me to stay silent for so long. For the rest of the semester, it was never the same with Rose, and when class was over, I never saw her again.
Over the next couple of years, my bipolar episodes continued. I was in and out of the psychiatric hospital. Isolated at home for months at my lowest point, I finally followed the advice of my case manager and sought support. “You’ve got to check out NAMI, “she kept reminding me. After many more weeks in a depressive episode, I finally had the courage to go.
I didn’t know what to expect when I walked into the NAMI Santa Clara office. It was small and unassuming, with mental health brochures lined up along the walls. Two small desks served as stations for the Warm Line call center, and the larger break room doubled as a classroom for NAMI courses.
My volunteer duties that first day involved alphabetizing the brochures in the storage room. As you can imagine, it was boring. When I left that day, I swore I’d never come back, thinking I had better thing to do with my time.
But in truth, I didn’t. so I kept coming back almost every day. I met most of the staff and the other volunteers. It began to feel like home. Everyone was so friendly. It was a place where I could relax and just breathe. I had put a mask on around new people for so long. I didn’t realize how much I missed being myself. Within a couple of weeks, I learned about an upcoming class called NAMI Peer-To-Peer and signed up.
The class was small, with about 15 students or “peers” who had lived experience with mental illness. During the first week. People introduced themselves and began sharing their stories. I was nervous and started sweating. After all, the last time a classmate of mine had talked about mental illness she’d used that word: crazy.
But as I listened to my peers, I began to realize we weren’t crazy at all. We were fighters. We were survivors. We were heroes. We were anything but crazy.
When it was my turn to talk, I shared everything from my hospitalizations to suicide attempts to the countless side efforts of medications. I bared it all. “Oh, you too?” someone asked. We all had a laugh and began sharing more war stories with no shame or judgment. Just friends. That’s all I’ve ever wanted.
As I continue my recovery journey, NAMI Santa Clara has continued to be by my side. I’ve strengthened my voice as a mental health speaker at local hospital and schools. Through our peer-mentorship programs, I’ve learned how to become a better, more active listener and leader. I’m proud to be a mental health advocate.
And if I ever run into Rose again, I want to tell her that people living with mental illness aren’t crazy, just human. I’m one of them.
NAMI Advocate Spring 2019
Brand Ha started out as a volunteer at NAMI Santa Clara County. While he was hesitant at first, he ultimately found his “NAMI family.” Brand took the NAMI Peer-To –Peer course and became a presenter for both NAMI In Our Own Voice and NAMI Ending The Silence. He also participated in NAMI Peer Pals (a NAMI Santa Clara local program), through which he mentored several people looking to become less isolated and more helpful about recovery.
Programs available at NAMI Pierce County. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org if you want to attend classes.