By Jessica Lewis Watson
Recently, I started giving NAMI [National Alliance on Mental Illness] scheduled talks, booked by my local NAMI president, Diane Zell, in Champaign County, Illinois. I have schizo-affective disorder with intermittent delusions and paranoia. While, I have a Masters Degree in English, and previously taught university before going on disability, speaking in public about the subject of mental illness was new to me.
When Diane asked me to join her in telling my story of being mentally ill and her story of having a mentally ill loved one, I felt frightened that people hearing our presentations would judge us harshly. My then-boyfriend certainly did. He asked me not to speak out about my illness because he felt I would be showing a weakness which exposing would cause me harm. Nevertheless, I wish to fight stigma and to reassure people that those with mental illness are worth respect, and that they can do much of value in society.
My first speech was in front of about twelve women from a church group in my town of Champaign. They made a casual atmosphere in a private home where I felt a feeling of interest and respect right away. I told of my story of becoming delusional for the first time when I was 31 and visiting Paris, France. I had thought all the colors there were speaking to me with special import and symbolism. Every moment was terrifying as I went around the various public parks asking strangers who were wearing red or blue if they could get me a job.
My audience asked Diane and me interesting questions after our presentation, and we found we gave comfort to members who had come in contact with mentally ill people. We also opened a window of understanding for those women who had not previously had experience with mental illness. I felt personally rewarded when our group of women thanked us profusely and invited us to join their group any time. I told my then-boyfriend afterwards that it had been well worth exposing myself.
I eagerly agreed to do another talk with Diane, soon. We gave a more formal speech to a finely dressed philanthropic group of women in Champaign. It went well, and some people who thanked us afterwards said they had been surprised that someone functioning well as a sometimes writer could be at times delusional. Mental illness can happen to anybody.
My latest presentation was with a mixed group of about five police officers getting Crisis Intervention Training for mental illness situations in Illinois. After telling the officers about my experiences with delusions, one of the head teaching officers there said that I had given him a “gold nugget” of information: that colors could be meaningful to a person in mental crisis. He said that in the future he would send out an officer in blue or else brown uniform depending on what he could find out about a mentally ill person’s consciousness as regards color in crisis.
I plan to continue to speak out for our NAMI cause, and I am looking to publish my two-hundred-page autobiography, Delusions in Paris: A Memoir. I believe that speaking out about my mental illness will help people understand people with mental illness better and thus will treat us with respect.
Jessica Lewis Watson is a photographer and writer with schizo-affective disorder. Her work has appeared in such magazines as Log Home Living, Writer’s Digest, Health Foods Business, Mushing Magazine, Diversion, Good Dog! and many others. She lives in Champaign, Illinois.
2012 Copyright Jessica Lewis Watson
Originally printed in the NAMI Voice, the national publication of The National Alliance on Mental Illness.