“You just do the best you can with what you’ve got,” is how Alana Nichols describes her continued drive towards excellence and ability to earn three gold medals in both alpine skiing and basketball so far during her athletic career as a Paralympic. Her statement is so true and applicable to everyone we encounter daily. Even people who suffer from a mental illness do the best they can with what they have.
I watched Alana’s story on 60 Minutes Sports on Showtime recently. I was in awe of her unstoppable motivation to push her limits and challenge her athletic abilities daily. At age 17, Alana broke her back in three places leaving her paralyzed from the hips down. Her choices were pretty clear – shutting down and falling into a deep depression or figuring out how to put her phenomenal athletic abilities to work in her new body. She chose the latter.
While I love inspiring stories as much as the next, it made me reflect on how we rarely hear amazing stories of people with mental illnesses. It’s an invisible and shameful illness and is difficult to explain and describe. Even invisible illnesses such as cancer, multiple sclerosis, heart issues, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s garner much more compassion and sympathy than mental illness. People with mental illness are questioned about the validity of their illness and shamed into silence. Furthermore, support for those suffering or caregivers is slim to none.
I shared my feelings with a friend after I watched Alana’s story. My friend also has a son who suffers from a mental illness and lives at home at age 32. She is a speech therapist and told me of a couple and their young son she met with. The boy had recently been diagnosed by a neurologist with Tourettes. What she also noticed in his file was a chart note the boy’s pediatrician made about his mental illness, “He’s a boy. His behavior is boy behavior. Deal.” When I hear stories about my friend’s clients’ son, it makes it blatantly obvious why people are silenced into shame and often continue leading a miserable life without support or resources. If we can’t trust a doctor or health care provider for reassurance and support, who can we trust?