I felt a wrench in my heart when I stopped running support groups. It wasn’t the late nights or trying to make each one worthwhile. It wasn’t even that I had some version of burnout (I didn’t). It was missing out on the next installment of everyone’s story. I knew by then that even the parents who seemed to have things under control were often living a version of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride.
There was Joe, who worked in construction and got up in the dark every morning, yet drove around several nights each week trying to find his 15 year old son. He knew his son was using a variety of drugs and he also knew if he could keep him safe for a few more weeks, there would be a slot in a program for him. There was Annabelle whose son, Bobby, tried to jump out of 2nd story school window when he was 9. She fought to get him in a therapeutic program and when she finally did, her own mental health problems surged up. There were Rick and Susan, who problem solved like crazy to make sure their daughter graduated high school. She would only eat one kind of pizza, sold several towns away, so they would drive those miles several times each week to avert the obsessive, restrictive food focus that bled into other parts of her life.
I wondered if Joe’s son got into the program and if it helped. I worried that Annabelle was so exhausted from fighting for services and wellness for her son that she had no energy left to battle for herself. I fervently hoped that Rick and Susan – who did so much to get that diploma – got their daughter into a college and that she stayed enrolled. And I wondered if they all thought about my story and my son’s journey, too.
Support groups are ground zero for telling your story. There is no wrong way to share it. You can make it short and hit the high points. You can ramble, cry, smile and pick up the thread. You can tell it all at once or in installments. Others will nod, maybe comment or offer help and you know they are your comrades in arms, fighting the good fight with you.
Talking about your experiences in a support group can be therapeutic. Others can see where you sailed through and where you were flying by the seat of your pants. They might jump in and point you to resources you need or suggest strategies you haven’t thought of. You learn what parts of your story make others sit up and nod and what parts don’t get the same reaction. While you are getting help, you are also learning to tell your story.
For many of us, there comes a time when you decide to tell your story publicly to someone else. Maybe it’s a journalist, maybe it’s a legislator, maybe it’s an audience of people who’ve never raised a child with mental health needs. You want them to understand, to be moved, to feel the injustice, the hurt and the determination to make things better. You are willing to forgo your privacy and expose your pain in order to help the families coming along behind you. You want to make a difference.
Storytelling is one of the most powerful tools we have. It is the medium for translating emotions and experiences into action. Personal stories can educate about challenges and inspire people to do something about them. Leaders often call great stories “inspiring” while journalists call them “compelling.” But most of us have to learn key storytelling skills. We start by knowing we have a story to tell and it deserves to be told well.
When you tell your story in a more public way, you consider other things as well. Your time (or print space) is limited, so you focus on what aspect you’d like to tell. If you want to make a point about lack of services or too-high-to-jump-over barriers, you think of what would be most dramatic things to highlight. Sometimes you choose the parts that are most likely to help the families coming along behind you. As Patricia Miles writes, this is the first skill set of family partners: the decision to blend their private story with their public role.
Telling your story isn’t only about touching people or creating change in the system that serves our kids and families. Just as the stories from Joe and Annabelle and Rick and Susan stayed with me, our stories stay with the people who hear them. After someone hears a parent tell their story, I am often asked – sometimes a year later – what happened to that youth or those parents? Did the young person get better or achieve their promise? Did the parents leave those times of crisis behind and become able to step back a little? Or if I was the one who told my own story they ask, How is your son doing? We often have no idea who remembers us and who is rooting for us. And that’s actually pretty cool.
Change, they say, happens one person at a time. Just like storytelling.
Lisa Lambert is the executive director of Parent/Professional Advocacy League (PPAL) and a Children's Mental Health Network Advisory Council member. Lisa Lambert became involved in children’s mental health as an advocate for her young son in 1989 through the CASSP family network in California. After moving back to Massachusetts, she began supporting families whose children and youth had behavioral health needs. Her areas of expertise include mental health policy, systems advocacy and family-driven research.
Lisa Lambert is the executive director of Parent/Professional Advocacy League (PPAL) and a Children's Mental Health Network Advisory Council member. Lisa Lambert became involved in children’s mental health as an advocate for her young son in 1989 through the CASSP family network in California. After moving back to Massachusetts, she began supporting families whose children and youth had behavioral health needs. Her areas of expertise include mental health policy, systems advocacy and family-driven research.- See more at: http://www.cmhnetwork.org/take-mental-health-to-heart/we-dont-tell-you-lambert#sthash.iXnbDKDd.dpuf