Last week, our Three Personal Perspectives on Mental Health forum featured guest speakers who held forth with glorious honesty on mental health and their creativity. Twilight School attendee Kim Cook tries hard to compress all this beauty into one short piece.

Break the Silence

Sometimes, the pertinent conversations are the ones you don’t mean to have.

“I’m going to talk to you, tonight,” Barry Garner told me an hour before the forum began. We were talking about the honesty of his writing, mental health and how difficult it is to just do when one is gripped by the voices that hold one still. It was wondrous, amazing, to hear someone talk who speaks my language. He told me, twice, that he almost decided not to come. I told him, twice, that I was so glad he did. I didn’t tell him how much those simple words reached me, or how they brought me to tears half an hour later.

Those words describe how someone faces the enormity of public speaking. Barry would speak to me, the individual, rather than to the forty sets of eyeballs filling the grand room at the equally-grand Salesian College Sunbury.

They also embody everything, in the words of presenter Bruno Lettieri, this “really kind of special” night was about.

Talking.

Talking about that which is too often not said.

It’s hard to know what to expect when I, as one of the audience, go into a discussion like this. People not me are discussing issues dear to my heart, and I have to trust that they’ll do the subject, and by extension me, justice. Merely bringing a subject to light is not, necessarily, meaningful. Travelling down the same baked-in wheel ruts of social discourse is seldom meaningful. Information, devoid of lived experience, might help people on the fringes, those who only see mental illness from the outside. It doesn’t reach the people who need so desperately to hear that they are, we are, understood, normal, accepted, heard, respected, valued.

This wasn’t an informative discussion. Nobody wasted time on explaining treatment, diagnosis or symptoms. Nobody spent a single word on the unnecessary practice of explaining what can be found via the application of a search engine.

They spoke, that night, about experience, passion, pain, transcendence and art.

It was a dialogue about talking.

The evening’s guest speakers spend their lives, in different ways, as passionate breakers of the great and terrible silence. Donna Melia, psych nurse, told us she just fell into her career as one pathway offered after school: “I just had a sense that I could help in a strange sort of way, be a carrier, be a good listener, be all those things I had already been most of my life.” Dianne Lee, psych nurse and psychologist, spoke of the need to understand her own mind: “I’d denied my emotions. I didn’t like to admit I have anxiety … I was going into an asylum [to work] because I needed to sort out my head.” Barry Garner, a writer who experiences bipolar disorder and brings that knowledge to life in his creativity, explained how he felt about diagnosis: “The funny thing was, I thought, ‘Thank God it’s got a name’.”

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Photo credit: Amanda Piper

Each of them had a different story, a different point to make. Donna refuted the oft-voiced notion that she is a saint for being a psych nurse: “I don’t see it as being special; when I’m working with my colleagues, amongst people I get to work with, it just comes natural[ly].” Dianne spoke about her quest to find the wise mind within us all: “When working from the wise part [of the mind], the best comes through and the best comes out in the person you’re working with.” Barry brought the audience to silence when he shared the triumph of human spirit in the depths of depression: “I just thought if I kill myself, I wouldn’t be looking at that tree. I wouldn’t be looking at my beautiful wife [or] my friends. I wouldn’t be looking at anything, only dead. I made a pact, and the pact was no more.”

It’s difficult, afterwards, to know how to process such a conversation. I took down 2500 words of frantically-typed quotes and impressions, and no number of framing paragraphs I conjure will do those words justice. The conversation can’t be analysed, repackaged into a thousand words and tied with a red bow without this acute sense of absence. Nothing I write will encompass the way the crowd responded to Barry’s tearful and moving rendition of his writing, or the passion, kindness and gentleness in the way Donna and Dianne discussed their work as the art of creating “soft places for people to fall”. A transcript may better serve, but it loses the power of voice and expression. Written speech alone can’t communicate the quiet, awed hush in the room as the guest speakers read aloud the creativity that inspired them and the creativity inspired by their experiences.

I’m left, as I search for that red bow of conclusion, to think about what drove our guest speakers to dare the stage and talk that night.

In different ways, Barry, Dianne and Donna wore their hearts on their sleeves. They risked, and they won the love, gratitude and admiration of everyone who heard their vulnerable, powerful honesty. Not all of us have experienced suicidal ideation, but most of us recall a moment where we looked up at the universe with the just-realised power to say no more. We may not be able to step into Barry, Dianne or Donna’s shoes, but we recognise that their footprints are not so dissimilar from our own. In no place did that feel more true than at the Twilight School.

We walked away from their words cradling to our hearts an affirmation of our connection to those around us.

And then, as it always does, life returned to normal. We went back to our homes, our families, our jobs, our day-to-day concerns. The conversation, for a moment a wondrous, sparkling, precious moment in time, ended. We might recite a phrase or two, reread the pieces, view the gallery, remember it during our interactions with others. We don’t forget, no, but the earth turns.

Silence returned to the world.

It’s a natural, reasonable, even rational thing. Most of us don’t have the perceived gift with words, the audience or the situation in which to continue the dialogue. Most of us are restrained by insecurity and self-doubt. Most of us hear that plague of sharp-edged voices screeching we are not good enough over and over. We haven’t the time or the access or the ability or the right, we think, and those unsaid words bob on the seething oceans of blood the voices leave in their wake.

Nonetheless, it is our job now, as the audience, to keep on talking.

That night in Sunbury, in a room forbiddingly ornate yet rendered companionable by the crowd gathered to connect, grow and learn, the conversation began. We know, because we deal with mental illness ourselves or we know someone who does, how important this conversation was and is. Isn’t that why we came? We heard speakers share their worst and brightest moments. We saw them roll back the sleeves to reveal the scars mental illness leaves in its wake. We saw our own history and our own possible future in the shape of their footprints.

They spoke to us.

It’s our job, now, to turn around and speak to someone else. Share the creativity, the pain, the beauty, the honesty. Forward the voices of those whose lives are impacted by mental illness. Put your own experience and knowledge into whatever form of art moves you. Write down the thoughts you cradled in your heart as you went home on Wednesday evening. Do whatever you can, as much as you can, to make sure the flame of this conversation never gutters and dies.

Only in our continued dialogue can we hope to show Barry, Dianne and Donna how much their courageous willingness to vulnerability and honesty shaped and inspired us.

The only way to thank anyone for such a gift is to pay it forward.

Break the silence.

Kim Cook

Kim Cook is an autistic, quirky, queer creative who writes novels and short fiction, blogs about gender and mental illness, designs flyers and administrates the Twilight School website.