“I’m having horrible anxiety. Being on the bus brings with it so much change. I’m going to see someone to give me and my girls the tools to help on the road. We’re going to heal as a family.” That’s what I said in front of over 50 professionals a few months ago in Los Angeles.
Since being on the road, and long before, I’ve been told a million times how brave I am. I’ve been told that our family deciding to sell our home and convert a school bus to use as a tiny home to travel the USA to create a new narrative of recovery for those struggling with mental health and addiction is “risky,” “crazy” even.
“Let’s go connect with others and help those who have lost their voices to mental health and addiction.”
We’ve been on the road now for five months. It’s taken all that time to get used to downsizing from a 2900 square foot home to 250. Our two girls (thirteen and eleven) have bunk beds, and my husband Tim and I have a master suite in the back that doubles as office space for me. It wasn’t intended to be that, but it is. There’s a bathroom, a shower, a decked-out kitchen with an apartment sized refrigerator that I’m just starting to utilize, and there’s even a desk.
Tim came up with the bus idea. “Connection is the currency of wellness,” he said, quoting John Travis. “Let’s go connect with others and help those who have lost their voices to mental health and addiction.”
According to the National Alliance of Mental Illness, one in five people within the U.S. struggle with mental illness. Furthermore, suicide is the second-leading cause of death for people aged 10–34; yet, just over half (50.6%) of children aged 8-15 with a mental health condition have actually received mental health services.
Tim and I have been mental health advocates for over a decade and felt the pull to do more than just talk about it from the podium of our laptops or industry conferences.
As an advocate, I’d struggled with not wanting to share parts of my story of mental illness. I loathed the moment I saw people pass judgment upon me when sharing my story as if I were broken. “F**k that, my bouts of anxiety and depression do not define me,” I thought. I am a strong, successful woman who happens to have a mental illness. I am not a mental illness! And yet, I, too, still felt great shame and stigma when having to ask for help or when sharing my story — even to professionals.
I remember witnessing the Mardi Gras on Oxford Street in Sydney, hearing the chant: “I’m gay! I’m proud! Get over it!” Back in the eighties, it was considered “brave” to come out and claim that one was homosexual. It was brave because one could be potentially ostracized from his or her family, community, and job. People with mental illness feel that way when talking about needing help for their illness. I think, unconsciously, that’s why, as a society, we have adapted the showing of compassion by calling someone brave for sharing their story of mental health struggles.
The Merriam Webster dictionary defines being brave as “having or showing mental or moral strength to face danger, fear, or difficulty: having or showing courage.”
Would we call someone who just shared a story about his or her broken arm brave? If someone came up to you and said, “Hey, I think I have a heart issue. I’m going to go to a doctor and get help to fix it,” people would most likely say, “Of course you are. Duh. Go right now!”
“Fuck that, my bouts of anxiety and depression do not define me,” I thought.
Yet, if we say we have anxiety or depression or are using alcohol or food in ways that no longer benefit us, we are called brave for talking about it — or call us “clean” when we’re sober. Such language suggests that mental illness is somewhat immoral and implies that those of us who have it are broken and need to be repaired in order to fit in with society. Those same connotations do not arise when sharing about needing help or sharing about one’s physical ailments.
It’s outright discrimination!
Why must one feel like they have to place on their superhero cape and panties, pull up their bootstraps, feel the fear and do it anyway, in order to share their story of struggle without judgment? My God! Mental illness is not a moral issue. Just because you can’t see it doesn’t make it dangerous.
The secrecy surrounding mental illness is what makes it dangerous; therefore, sharing our story is perceived as being brave.
Since the 1960s, when the gay rights movement first began, there’s been a steady cultural shift — not just in communities and in families but also on a systematic level. It took, and continues to take, people being brave and speaking up and standing up for gay rights and giving the LGBT community the attention it deserves.
That’s what we must be committed to doing for those of us who struggle with mental illness, so that we, too, get the help, respect, and treatment support we deserve.
So far, bus life has brought with it many lessons.
I’ve learned that my own mental wellness must always come first, and panic attacks will happen anywhere, especially in the middle of nowhere. The sense of helplessness and loneliness I have felt on the road when having mental illnesses flare-up reminds me why our family decided to do this trip in the first place. I’ve also learned that eating out every day is overrated and exercising outside in an RV Park full of strangers because our bus’s ceiling is not high enough for me to do jumping jacks, nor stable enough to jump in, is essential to keep the anxiety at bay.
Our 1994 Thomas beast of a bus has already had two significant breakdowns — one in Clovis, New Mexico and another in Fresno, California, and we’ve blown our budget every month since we’ve been on the bus — that’s the negative side of traveling. The positives are far greater. The family adventures, the community events that bring strangers together and end the stigma surrounding mental health and addiction. The meaningful connections we have made — not just at our events, but in the RV parks we stay, the gas stations we stop, and the emails we receive after someone has spotted us on a highway then later reaches out for help, are all experiences that have already made our trip well worth the so-called risks our family have taken.
I dream of a day, before I die, where my family and I can look back and think of the year we got on a bus and took part in something considered brave — and is now considered as part of an everyday conversation. That day will finally make any perceived risk beyond worth it.