The Face of Mental Illness

             I want to introduce you to the strongest woman I’ve ever known.


Her name is Peggy. She’s named after her grandmother and carries many of her physical characteristics– the dark hair, the long legs, the slender frame. While Peggy was lucky to inherit those fabulous genes (picture the total opposite in every way, then you have me), she was also unfortunate enough to carry the genetic make-up for  several mental illnesses (not passed down from her grandmother).

My older sister, Peggy, is 36 years old. She suffers from Bi-polar Disorder, Anxiety Disorder, Social anxiety, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, Conversion Disorder, and not surprisingly when you look at that all-star line-up, Depression.

At this exact moment in time (because it fluctuates often and unexpectedly), Peggy is what our family would call “stable.” What that looks like for Peggy is that she is functioning pretty well in the day-to-day. She volunteers part-time at a non-profit coffee shop, she is practicing driving again, she publishes the newsletter for a major network called NAMI (National Alliance for Mental Illness). She still attends therapy groups three days a week, but she is down to taking about 18 pills a day.

If you are unfamiliar with the ridiculously broad spectrum of “mental illness,” here’s a drive-by lesson in Pill Taking 101. Your psychologist refers you to a psychiatrist. Your psychiatrist recommends medicine to offset some of your symptoms. While you hopefully trust your psychiatrist to make his best, highly-educated guess, this is not an exact science. You hope for the right brand of medicine, know that the dosages will likely have to be played around with until you get the right amount, and you must be patient because as far as science has come in the last 50 years, it still takes several weeks for the medicine to “settle” in your system and take effect.

That still doesn’t really add up to 18 pills on a good day (upwards of 30 during times of instability). Let me explain the beating your brain is taking when you ingest the pills to offset your illness. While your symptoms become more manageable, the side effects of the pills do not. So, naturally, now you need medicine to offset the side effects of your medicine. It’s pretty safe to assume that your body will have a hard time falling asleep at night after that rigmarole, so maybe you have to throw down a sleeping pill while you’re at it. And so on, and so forth. That’s oversimplifying things, but you get the general idea.

I can’t even remember to take my multi-vitamin every morning!

I joke that Peg is the pill pusher in our family, because– whew!– that takes some serious organizational skills, a skill set that has become a second language to both Peggy and my mom.

One of the things I’m very proud of my sister for is this vision she has for how she thinks mental illness should be presented, advertised if you will, to the general public. It’s no secret that when people think of the term “mentally ill,” they feel a negative reaction. That’s natural; if you are honest with yourself, you could admit that.

At first, I did too.

Photo credit: Peggy Johnson

Photo credit: Peggy Johnson

But Peggy has championed the phrase “Break the Stigma” to illustrate the point that mental illness unfairly carries a negative connotation. Look at her. She may wear her own brand of crazy but there is nothing bad or scary or threatening about her. And that is true for most of the people like her.

“Others like me”– that’s her phrase, not mine. I joke that she’s faking the whole thing just to join the therapy group. Ole’ girl will do ANYTHING for a reason to get a new t-shirt. Ha!

No, no the therapy group does NOT wear matching t-shirts.

I like to make lame jokes.

But isn’t it funny to think about what other people’s shirts would say if everyone had to wear one?

Besides, what would Peggy do? Make a quilt of all her bazillion different shirts and wear it like a toga?

So, why does society associate mental illness with crazy? And why does crazy always equal bad?

Fear is a natural answer. The average person doesn’t know how to react to someone who is mentally ill and behaving in abnormal and strange ways. We’re all afraid of what we don’t understand.

Also, I think there have been several high-profile criminal cases showcased by the media that presented an  inaccurate image of the mentally ill. Serious crimes have been committed, many people have been emotionally ruined, none of that is to be taken lightly. But I am bold enough to remind you that mental illness or not, those crimes were the result of a handful of unique individuals with unique differences, not an entire population.

This is the typical face of mental illness:
Fine, she's cute. But I refuse to stop referring to her as Butt Munch.

Fine, she’s cute. But I refuse to stop referring to her as Butt Munch. Til the day I die.

You probably wouldn’t even recognize it as such if you passed Peggy on the street. (Unless of course, she passed out cold right there in front of you in the middle of the sidewalk, which she has been known to do on occasion. Big tree fall hard. She can thank Conversion Disorder for that.)

Peggy is strong beyond reason. She is beautiful, she is funny, she is determined, she is insanely intelligent, she is a gifted writer, she has no rhythm thus making impromptu dance parties HILARIOUS, she is passionate, she is caring, she is courageous, she is optimistic. She is worth the time it took you to read my blog.

I don’t know why God made her the way He did, but I firmly believe He created her with purpose.

On behalf of Peggy and millions like her, Break the Stigma.

Visit for more info.

The other strong woman in my life-- my mom, Becky (pictured here with my ever-supportive dad)-- because mothers are fiercely protective of their children, no matter their ages. She is the glue that holds us together. "Her children arise and call her blessed."

The other strong woman in my life– my mom, Becky (pictured here with my ever-supportive dad)– because mothers are fiercely protective of their children, no matter their ages. She is the glue that holds us together. “Her children arise and call her blessed.”


3 thoughts on “The Face of Mental Illness

  1. Thank you Sister for writing such a great story on my behalf, as well as all the others dealing with mental health issues. You have begun the fight to break down the barriers associated with this disease. I couldn’t have been blessed with a more loving, supportive and encouraging sister. Part of my successful recovery has been because of you. Love you always! Break the Stigma!

  2. Pingback: Patty Hearst, Marvelous Mad-Hatters, Guardians of Our Souls, and Bucking Horses: Mental Health Monday | A Way With Words

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