Karen Liberman wants us all to know that it is never too late. That is why she is compelled to share her story. Although she is no stranger to the podium, she starts by telling us that tonight is special. Tonight she is with her people. As she sees it,
Like many of us, Karen grew up in an era when mental health was a topic that was simply not discussed. As a young child she had many questions about her mother.
Yet, no one said a word about it and no explanation was forthcoming.
Somehow Karen understood that it wouldn’t be acceptable to seek answers. For decades she maintained her silence around this history. As far as she knew, mental illness was a sign of weakness and this was to be avoided at all costs. It would be a long time before she would meet anyone who would show her otherwise.
So, in the meantime, she promised herself that her life would be different; she was never going to be like her mother. She would see to it that she would set her goals, work hard and be in control of her future. Many of us can relate to that perspective – who hasn’t tried the mind over matter approach at least once in their life?
Karen recounts that as a young adult, her life appeared to be right on track. She seemed to have it all; a high profile career and a flourishing personal life. The outward signs were in place, a husband and beautiful home. Then why, did she feel so awful inside when she should be so happy? What she didn’t know at the time was that having a parent with a depressive illness can increase the likelihood of mental illness. When you also consider that, on average, 1 in 5 Canadians will suffer from depression at least once over their lifetime; Karen was definitely at risk to become ill. However, early intervention was not in the cards for her and the only option she knew was to do her best to soldier on.
Not everyone around her was convinced that all was OK. But when asked her reply was always, I’m Fine. This, in spite of the fact that inside herself, she felt anything but good. Those of us who have struggled with mental illness, can relate to this part of Karen’s journey. It is this sameness that teaches us the understanding and compassion for those who are not getting the help they need. It’s easy to laugh at or criticize others for their ignorance or denial, but we’ve all been there. That is why it is so urgent to lift the stigma around mental illness, so that people can get help early on – before they become even sicker.
Karen wasn’t so lucky. Try as she might, she just couldn’t sort out what was the matter until she was diagnosed with severe clinical depression. This next period of her life was marked with multiple hospitalizations and psychiatric interventions. But nothing really worked for her. Karen admits that she believed for a long time that hers was probably a hopeless case. Part of this attitude may have been because she had limited experience with peers who could serve as a role model for her recovery. At the time she did not understand how peer support could help her but now knows that could have been a really useful and valuable resource.
Looking back, Karen describes incidents about her treatments and hospitalizations with insight and a good dose of humour. For those of us with lived experience it’s easy to relate to her story. This approach is a very powerful way to show the human side of mental illness especially to those who are unfamiliar with this world. What a wonderful way to bridge the gap between fear/stigma and understanding. As Karen says, this is what a crazy person looks like. Well, after you have had a few laughs together, what’s so scary about that?
Eventually for Karen, it was a new medication that in her words, miraculously turned things around for her. She believes that the road to recovery is different for everyone. So it’s really important to keep trying different things until you find something that works. She advises that above all, do not give up. There will come a time, as Karen says, that sadness and despair have run their course and HELL NO, takes the baton. After all, if Karen could move from a place of utter hopelessness to recovery and thriving then it’s possible for anyone else to do the same. She also says that the most special part of the journey is finding the people who “get you”.
This is the gift of my life and my life’s work. You see, for me, hope, healing and recovery are not individual attainments or life states. Like the best meal or song or spectacular view, these are most profoundly felt when shared with others. (Karen Liberman, 2011)
Karen Liberman’s Gala Dinner keynote highlight at 6:00pm, Thursday, May 1, 2014. National Conference on Peer Support, 2014.