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I invited 12 people to write about their mental illnesses for the first time. Here’s what happened next.

The writers' workshop “Writing Away the Stigma” based in Pittsburgh Pa., helps participants 'come out' about their mental health illness. (Video: The Washington Post)
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Ainsley and Camille were the two I worried about the most.  Ainsley, because she seemed so fragile, sitting so stiffly in a chair around our conference table, as if she was sucking in her breath, afraid to exhale, awaiting judgment.  Camille couldn’t stop second guessing her work.  If I soothed her doubt about what she submitted one day, she insisted that she was lost about what to do next.

Ainsley and Camille were two of the students selected for a class I created and taught this winter called “Writing Away the Stigma.”  More than 150 people—nonprofessional writers–from across the country had applied for the class which had room for only 12.  Over the course of five weeks, with only one three-hour meeting per week, the students, ages 20-60, were expected to write a publishable creative nonfiction narrative from start to finish—a true story about how they or someone close to them had fought through serious mental illness.

[Ainsley’s essay: The life of a supermodel sounds glamorous, but I lived it and became severely depressed]

There were many reasons I wanted to teach this class, beginning with the stigma attached to mental illness.  Stigma is such an awful and damning word–defined as a mark of shame and packed with punishment.  Because people are mentally ill they are denied jobs and often shunned and ridiculed in neighborhoods, schools, even in their own families.

I know as someone who has edited and written many books and articles about people with mental illness that the vast majority will recover.  And while medications are helpful, it is usually the grit and determination of those who suffer that eventually lead to productive and satisfying lives.  Their stories need to be told in order to eradicate the stigma and change the way in which people judge and relate to them.

True stories are the most powerful persuaders.  Readers remember and retain more information longer—and are more easily influenced—when ideas are communicated in narrative, rather than in a straight exposition of facts.  Stories are fascinating and compelling learning tools not just for readers but for writers themselves.  Writing and rewriting, thinking and rethinking, can clarify and bring meaning to writers’ tumultuous journeys.   This is what I have been trying to do most of my life: teaching new and inexperienced writers, how to recreate their lives to make an impact and change the way they think about their lives.

I felt especially responsible for and protective of these students.  Most had attempted, threatened or imagined killing themselves.  Would they be strong and together enough to withstand criticism from me and the group, not to mention the pressure and frustration of writing under deadline?

As we sat around the conference table each week, I saw Elaine who had locked herself in closets and undergone electroconvulsive therapy to fight off her depression for decades.  She flew into Pittsburgh each night from Chicago for the class.  And there was Chris, a former high school teacher, who had served three tours of duty in Afghanistan haunted by the memory of a little boy who had lost half his body in an explosion.  He commuted each week from Cincinnati.  They were all so brave, and they were relying on me to help them through the trauma of remembering to discover a purpose and a meaning for ostracism they had endured. The workshops were free, compliments of a local foundation, but the participants, interrupted their lives and traveled at their own expense.

Ainsley had come the longest way—from a small isolated ranch in Idaho where she had found a partner and a place to help temper her severe depression after twenty years of struggling. Camille had actually relocated; she had just lost her job in Detroit. So she packed up her belongings, got in her car, drove to Pittsburgh, found an apartment and made up her mind that “Writing Away the Stigma” would launch her new start in life.

Camille, 28, had been diagnosed with clinical depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder. She was haunted by her mother, who killed herself when Camille was a teen. Camille describes her mother as narcissistic and threatening, a compulsive liar and master manipulator. “I could see myself in her behaviors: the long days in bed, the emotional eating, and the shirking of responsibilities.  I could not help thinking about my worst fears materializing: I’m just like her.”

Ainsley had been famous—or, at least, her face had been famous.  A fashion model at 17, plucked from a small town in rural Canada after winning a beauty contest, Ainsley had appeared on the covers of many fashion magazines.  She had lived in New York, Paris, Milan, Manhattan, and London. At 20, she had been diagnosed with depression. When she was accepted to the program, she too took a big chance, relocating temporarily for six weeks, just to take the course and write an essay.  During the first class, she told us: “I was in the unique situation of hawking happiness when I lived its extreme opposite. If I was living the dream, a life that others would kill for, why did I spend most of my days wanting to die?”

[Another student essay: Pulling your hair out is actually a mental illness. Here’s how I learned to stop ]

The first assignment, due the second class, was to write a brief proposal—an outline or abstract of the one story that captured their struggles with mental illness. It sounds rather simple, but was a tremendous challenge, for what my twelve students really wanted to do was to write the story of their entire lives, from start to finish—their hospitalizations, their medications, their suicide ideations, their feelings of rejection, and their recovery.  Their journeys through mental illness were remarkable, but I had to continually remind them, “You are not writing a book—just an essay.  What are the incidents in your life that most affected you and caused a change, made a dramatic impact?  Pick one or two and make it matter. That’s what readers will want to hear and read.”

Another obstacle: Because they understood each other so well and felt comfortable sharing, I had to constantly interrupt them to force them to focus on each writer’s story—what was written on the page.  I found out later that many members of the group would meet privately and email each other before and after the workshops to say what they couldn’t say in class.

“I was extremely anxious—hoping to find a group of like-minded people who could understand what I lived through—and that is exactly what happened,” said Ainsley.  “I have never been able to speak so movingly and truthfully about what I experienced—but everyone came into the situation with zero judgment—it was a safe place.”

The second assignment was to write a scene—one small story, no more than 500 words, capturing an event that evoked an awareness that precipitated positive action—something that helped them reverse a downward slide.  That scene would serve as the launching pad for their entire story.

Each workshop session brought forth a conflicting mix of excitement, anticipation, fear and dread.  What would their fellow workshop participants think of their writing? What would I or my assistant think?  Writing workshops can be devastating as well as cathartic.  You try to be honest and direct with each student because you know they have come to learnbut at the same time you try to be gentle and polite, knowing how much each student has at stake.

For Ainsley, there was more at stake than I knew at the time.  “I left my life back home and this was the only thing I was concentrating on every day,” she told me later.  “For sure I was about ready to cry in class, but before the class, writing and revising, I was bringing myself back to those times where I cried all the time every day.  I hadn’t felt those feelings for years, but revisiting it on the page in Pittsburgh, was really emotional. I spent the month being very on edge, crying more by myself than I had in a long time.”

Camille wasn’t crying, but she was forever complaining because she felt stuck.  She wanted me to tell her what to write and instead I told her what I tell all struggling students: “Write your story, trust in yourself and your instincts, and you will discover where it takes you.” This was unsatisfying—vague, she complained.

One scene in her first draft was especially powerful and heartbreaking.  Her mother had obsessively taken pictures of her children since they were born, documenting the family as they grew up—until one day she suddenly snapped the camera shut, popped out the batteries and proclaimed: “That’s enough.”

But it wasn’t enough, as Camille wrote: “I was sitting in the living room reading when she started flipping frames over one by one.  She never said a word as she reached across the couch and yanked a picture off the wall. Each day she would turn down more, and each day I would cry harder.  She was trying to make us disappear, to pretend her children never existed.”

I was moved by her image and the heartbreak it must have caused and I blurted out that I would never forget that image—even if I might not remember who wrote it.  At first, she was taken aback, unsure of how to take my remark, until she realized that for me, her teacher, it was ultimate praise.  That moment, she said, “was huge for me.”  And it reaffirmed my initial advice to trust her instincts.

A similarly pivotal event for Ainsley came when a classmate, Heather, wrote a long story about being forced to stay in the hospital, incarcerated, after taking an overdose, begging to be released.  Her physicians resisted despite her protestations and Heather wrote that in retrospect it was just as well because, “Had they let me come home, I would have immediately killed myself.” Her scene played out beautifully and her timing was perfect, and I remember jumping up and exclaiming, “Great!”

I had meant, “What a great sentence! A wonderful last line to the scene!”—but suddenly everyone in the room was laughing like crazy.

“And I had this moment,” said Ainsley, “when I thought that if somebody had told me ten years ago that there would be a day when I was sitting in a room full of people sharing my story and everybody else’s story about wanting to die and that we would all be laughing about it, I would have never believed it.  That was a magic moment for me.”

For me, for all teachers trying to guide, inform and inspire their students, there are those magic moments in the classroom that make your efforts worthwhile.  You wait for them and live for them, never knowing, of course, when they will occur and the impact they will make.  I remember that scene just as vividly as Ainsley does.  At that point I knew, as we all laughed together, that I needn’t worry anymore about this group of students and the seemingly overwhelming challenge they were facing.

They were going to be just fine.

Lee Gutkind is founder and Editor of Creative Nonfiction magazine. He is also a professor at the School for the Future of Innovation in Society at Arizona State University.

 Read more inspiring essays about mental illness:

An open letter to the Whole Foods shoppers who consoled me when I learned of my dad’s suicide

I told the truth in my sister’s obituary, so that others might choose to live

My dad killed himself when I was 13. He hid his depression. I won’t hide mine.

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