THE REAL WORK BEGINS

By Erin Mahone

May just ended a few days ago. I am exhausted. I live with a mental health diagnosis. May is Mental Health Awareness Month. I am Jewish. May is Jewish American Heritage Month. I am a mother. May is Mother’s Day. And May is my husband’s and my anniversary. We have reached the end of the marathon of celebrating, recognizing, honoring, and being aware. I’m done, right?

Nope.

It’s pretty easy to “recognize” on special days and during designated months. There are events, feel good commercials, curated sections of the library, unique desserts, sandwiches, or coffee drinks commemorating these occasions.  It is more difficult to live in awareness every other day, or month, of the year. Life is busy and we are distracted much of the time with the business of living our lives. How can we also be expected to stay in that space when there are SO many nuances to 21st Century life that never existed before? Here’s the thing though, once you are “aware” it’s impossible to turn back – to unlearn. Once you know about the truth of another person’s struggle, ignoring it becomes a choice.

The thing is that the real work begins on June 1st (in this instance). The day after the Awareness month ends. It’s no secret that life is busy for most of us but the simple truth is that it can’t be so busy that we overlook the humanity of others. If we limit appreciating our mothers to one day per year that’s pretty sad. If we refuse to acknowledge the challenges in our mental health system beyond one month per year nothing can ever change. If I only appreciate my husband on our anniversary … you get the point. It’s a sustained effort that makes this world the way we want it to be.  

There are times when I become overwhelmed by the magnitude of the work. I see people in pain, not getting what they need, being misunderstood often by those who love them the most, and I feel helpless to make change. I had to learn how to slow down, be present, prioritize, and most of all to remember that change takes time and I am only one person. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. That is so hard and often discouraging.

In January of 2007 I sat, for the first time, in the General Assembly building listening to people share their stories with the budget and finance committee encouraging the legislators to support more funding for community based services. I learned the truth of what individuals and families faced every moment of every day in living with a disability, or a mental health diagnosis. Once I heard I couldn’t unhear. I was furious discovering there were so few resources available to help. My life was changed forever.

I grew up in a family in which there were people living with disabilities, mental health diagnoses, and addictions; I was no stranger to the reality of struggle. I was lucky to have a family that rallied around one another in times of need, so in many cases we had not experienced much of what I was hearing. It was also true that those who came before me were of another generation. One that hadn’t yet come to recognize the full dignity and agency that all people should be afforded. They felt they had to hide, couldn’t ask for help, and often survived with less than because they didn’t believe they deserved a normal life. It was an old mindset and my eyes were opened to the new way of thinking. The thing is that so many of these families had been showing up for decades. Long before there were mental health or disability awareness months. They were pioneers. They spoke up before anyone was listening.  

In 2014, I worked with a local photographer to capture the images and stories of a group of local Holocaust survivors. As I sat with these individuals over the course of six months, I absorbed the harrowing reality of “man’s inhumanity to man”. It became all the more clear how important it is for us to be present with one another – to bear witness to the stories of those whose experiences are vastly different from our own. It’s how we understand compassion. The survivors were compelled to share their stories before their lives were over. They needed the world to know what is possible when we don’t show-up; when we look the other way.

We think that change is made through grand, sweeping actions, but in truth change is made one person, one action, at a time. I recently spoke at the Festival of the Book in Charlottesville. I talked a lot about mental health advocacy, getting involved in the legislative process, and speaking out through action. A woman in the audience came up to me and asked how she could get involved. I encouraged her to call, email, or visit with her representatives, to get involved with organizations whose legislative agendas she supports.

“Is that all?” she asked me, “That feels so small.”  

“Yes, but imagine if everybody did it,” was my reply.

I often remember the words of the Rabbi who stood before us one Friday night and said “One plus one equals one.” I agree. I believe in what is possible if we keep showing up after the commercials and 5k’s, after the special foods and flower arrangements. One person at a time to create a great wave of compassion and action. To remind the world that we are here and we expect our voices to be heard 12 months of the year.

Awareness months are important. I value the opportunity I have in May to reflect on, and celebrate, the many of the different aspects of my identity. But it’s June now and I’m still all of those things. I don’t want to wait another year to reflect again, to have important conversations. Instead, I want to show up every day with the willingness to sit across from another person and hear their story, share mine, and work together to create a world in which one plus one creates a collective amplified voice for change.

About the author: Erin Mahone is an author, performing artist and speaker, producer and mental health advocate. She is the founder of the #IfYouCouldSeeMe Project and the ReStory workshop series, author of If You Could See Me: Life, Motherhood, and the Pursuit of Sanity, creator of the one-woman show It Runs in the Family, a mom, a wife, and a passionate optimist.

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