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Scrolling through my Twitter feed this morning, I spied a message from Marie over at Journeying Beyond Breast Cancer. “Will you join me for #mhblogday?” Happy to oblige, (it’s Marie, after all), I clicked on the link, and found myself at the American Psychological Association website. There, I learned that May is Mental Health Month and has been since 1949, declared as such by the United States Congress which recognized a need to educate its citizenry about mental health and its importance to our overall well-being.  Over sixty years later, and it seems like we still have some talking to do . . .

Today, the American Psychological Association is appealing to bloggers everywhere to join their Mental Health Month Blog Party in hopes of raising awareness about mental health and decreasing the discomfort and stigma around it. The APA is off to a commendable  start – “blog party” initially takes the fear out of “mental health” for me and, for a moment, I envision all my favorite bloggers mingling over hors d’oeuvres exchanging ideas on how to debunk all the myths that make mental health a “socially unacceptable” topic of conversation. Why is that, I wonder? Consider depression, which according to the World Health Organization, is one of the most common mental health concerns affecting about 17 million Americans. Unlike the “common cold,” its symptoms unapologetically made public, sniffles and sneezes and loudly blown noses, a tell-tale trail of balled-up Kleenex in its wake, the “common” depression seems more like a secret never to be told.

Easier perhaps to simply camouflage depression with the routines and rituals by which other people have always defined us. Privately we may wonder if the despair and depression following a cancer diagnosis will dissipate soon, and so we wait for it to go away instead of telling anyone about it. We may just accept it as part and parcel of the disease and so it becomes a part of who we are. Like the scars that have altered our bodies. Like the fear of recurrence that may disturb our sleep.  Perhaps only those affected by it appreciate the extent to which cancer changes the color of a life being lived, which is why it is so important to talk about it.

Very shortly after the diagnosis, I remember thinking about the woman ensnared within The Yellow Wallpaper . . .

 There are things in that paper that nobody knows but me, or ever will.

In some ways, like Charlotte Perkins Gillman’s main character, I too felt diminished. Diminutive within cancer’s giant complexity. Depressed by it. Altered by it. Often wondering if the woman I used to be had disappeared forever within its labyrinth, and willing her to come back.

Why had Charlotte Perkins Gillman written such a story? On this day, it seems fitting to share the story behind her story. In 1913, long before Congress declared May Mental Health Month, she explained:

Why I Wrote “The Yellow Wallpaper”
Many and many a reader has asked that. When the story first came out, in the New England Magazine about 1891, a Boston physician made protest in The Transcript. Such a story ought not to be written, he said; it was enough to drive anyone mad to read it.
        Another physician, in Kansas I think, wrote to say that it was the best description of incipient insanity he had ever seen, and–begging my pardon–had I been there?
        Now the story of the story is this:
        For many years I suffered from a severe and continuous nervous breakdown tending to melancholia–and beyond. During about the third year of this trouble I went, in devout faith and some faint stir of hope, to a noted specialist in nervous diseases, the best known in the country. This wise man put me to bed and applied the rest cure, to which a still-good physique responded so promptly that he concluded there was nothing much the matter with me, and sent me home with solemn advice to “live as domestic a life as far as possible,” to “have but two hours’ intellectual life a day,” and “never to touch pen, brush, or pencil again” as long as I lived. This was in 1887.
        I went home and obeyed those directions for some three months, and came so near the borderline of utter mental ruin that I could see over.
        Then, using the remnants of intelligence that remained, and helped by a wise friend, I cast the noted specialist’s advice to the winds and went to work again–work, the normal life of every human being; work, in which is joy and growth and service, without which one is a pauper and a parasite–ultimately recovering some measure of power.
        Being naturally moved to rejoicing by this narrow escape, I wrote The Yellow Wallpaper, with its embellishments and additions, to carry out the ideal (I never had hallucinations or objections to my mural decorations) and sent a copy to the physician who so nearly drove me mad. He never acknowledged it.
        The little book is valued by alienists and as a good specimen of one kind of literature. It has, to my knowledge, saved one woman from a similar fate–so terrifying her family that they let her out into normal activity and she recovered.
        But the best result is this. Many years later I was told that the great specialist had admitted to friends of his that he had altered his treatment of neurasthenia since reading The Yellow Wallpaper.
        It was not intended to drive people crazy, but to save people from being driven crazy, and it worked.”
 
 

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