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“Why you should change the world in one small way.” With Beau Henderson & Author Miriam Feldman

There is nothing you will do in your life that is more meaningful or will give you more joy and satisfaction than changing the world in one small way. You don’t have to devote your life to it, but we all are obligated to this earth and to each other. We live in a complicated […]

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There is nothing you will do in your life that is more meaningful or will give you more joy and satisfaction than changing the world in one small way. You don’t have to devote your life to it, but we all are obligated to this earth and to each other. We live in a complicated and troubled world and its future will be determined by what you do.


As a part of my series about “Mental Health Champions” helping to promote mental wellness, I had the pleasure to interview Miriam Feldman.

Miriam Feldman is a painter, writer, and mother originally from Los Angeles, California. After her son, Nick’s, diagnosis with Schizophrenia more than ten years ago, she began writing to document and explore the ways this new reality affected her relationship with her children, her husband, and herself. Her memoir, He Came in With It: A Portrait of Motherhood and Madness, explores issues of motherhood, mental illness and the politics of our mental health system.

She is also the founder and owner of Demar Feldman Studios, Inc., a specialty painting company that focuses on architectural finishes, murals, and decorative art for residential and commercial locations in Southern California and abroad. She holds an MFA in fine art from Otis College of Art and Design. Her paintings are in collections across the United States. She is represented by Hamilton Galleries in Santa Monica, Ca.

Most recently, she joined Bring Change 2 Mind, Glenn Close’s organization to fight discrimination and educate around mental illness. She is on the Advisory Council and has a monthly blog on the website. She is a frequent guest on mental health podcasts.

Miriam now resides on a farm in rural Washington State with her husband, Craig. Nick lives in the small town nearby. She splits her time between the farm and Los Angeles, painting, writing, and staying active in the mental health community.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit how you grew up?

I grew up in Los Angeles. I always knew that I was going to be an artist, so I spent most of my time pursuing that. It was a fairly uneventful childhood, culminating with art school and an MFA in painting.

You are currently working to promote mental wellness. Can you tell us a bit about what you or your organization are trying to address?

I am working with NAMI and Bring Change2Mind to help address the issues surrounding mental health. NAMI focuses on all aspects of the subject, from Family to Family workshops which educate, to peer support groups and advocacy. At BC2M, I am on the advisory council and I write a monthly blog for their website. Both organizations have an eye toward educating the public and eradicating stigma, two very important cornerstones to improving the state of mental health in America. I also work with MOMI (Mothers of the Mentally Ill) here in Washington State. They have more of a focus on changing the flawed policies that have criminalized mental illness and caused the prisons to become our de facto mental health providers. I feel very strongly about this issue. As much as we need to fight stigma and educate, the seriously mentally ill are suffering tragically from our existing system and it must change.

Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?

I was leading the typical, busy, working-mother lifestyle in Los Angeles when things started to go terribly wrong. What first seemed like normal teenage behavior ended in a schizophrenia diagnosis for my son, Nick. I didn’t know anything about schizophrenia, which is really quite different than others on the spectrum. There is no clear path to treatment or recovery, it often takes years for just the diagnosis, which was the case for us. Schizophrenia is like a tornado that tears through your life, upending everything. I realized that I had to educate myself, quickly, if I was going to be able to help my son and hold my family together. I hit the internet running, read every book I could get my hands on, and joined NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness. The thing was, even with all of that, I felt completely alone. The culture was beginning to be more open about mental illness fifteen years ago, but nobody talked about SMI. I couldn’t discuss it with the other moms, it was too shocking. So, for the first couple of years I hid it from everyone, even my extended family. Eventually I became more open, and it was such a relief to stop pretending. Navigating the mental health system and advocating for your kid is an enormous task. I was helped along the way by some wonderful people, and I vowed that if we made it through, I was going to give back and get involved in mental health advocacy.

Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. They don’t get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?

The movement in advocacy was gradual, as Nick improved, it allowed me time to investigate the various organizations. I work with NAMI and I am on the Advisory Council of Bring Change2Mind, Glenn Close’s non-profit. For me the big “Aha Moment” didn’t come in regard to that work, it was about my book. I had felt so marginalized and isolated through the first years of Nick’s illness. I really didn’t think anyone understood what I was going through. As mothers, we are wired to not only care for our kids, but to fix what is wrong. I couldn’t fix this, and I was in a lonely world of frustration and grief. I had read Pete Earley’s book Crazy, which is about his fight for his son with bipolar. It helped so much to read about a father’s experience, I looked but didn’t find a book from the mother’s perspective. That was it. I decided to write a book. I decided to chronicle my family’s journey with schizophrenia I an honest, unflinching way. I wanted to put the story out into the world so that other mothers wouldn’t feel as lost as I had. Once I decided. I sat down one winter and wrote the book. Every day, like a regular job, I wrote for eight hours. I think the decades of being a painter prepared me for the discipline of writing.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began advocating for mental illness awareness?

The very first time we had to have Nick hospitalized for psychosis, I was terrified and really unsure of what I was doing. My teenage daughter and I were at the hospital with him, and honestly, every time I opened my mouth all I could do is cry. I couldn’t advocate for my son, I couldn’t ask the right questions, I was useless. My daughter ended up having to handle everything. I was wandering down the hallways when a door opened, and a woman pulled me into the janitor’s closet. I had seen her pushing a large cart piled with towels. She sat me on an upside-down bucket, and said, “Listen, I know what you are going through. My husband is like your son. I know you just want to cry forever, but you can’t. You have to be strong. This is it now, it’s not going to go away.” She put her arms around me and let me cry, then sent me back out to care for my son. I’ll never forget her. Sometimes salvation is found in the most unexpected places.

None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?

I have to say, the thing that really changed the course of my life was the NAMI Family to Family seminar. It is a 12-week educational course, led by other family members, that really gives you the roadmap and the tools you need. I had no idea what to do, I hadn’t thought about mental illness in terms of my own life. I had spent the past fifteen years worrying about car accidents and child abductions, and then out of left field came serious mental illness! The women who taught that course had a brother who was serving time in the state mental facility, and she showed me the way. I learned about the different illnesses, the legal system, the mental health system, the medications, really everything. I saw how the mental illness community helped and supported each other.

According to Mental Health America’s report, over 44 million Americans have a mental health condition. Yet there’s still a stigma about mental illness. Can you share a few reasons you think this is so?

Stigma is a huge impediment to people seeking help for their mental health. The has historically been so much shame and fear surround the subject that it was kept hidden. Nobody talked about it. In the last ten years there have been huge strides made in changing that. Organizations like Bring Change2Mind have run campaigns that educate people, celebrities have opened up, and there is a lot of social media directed there. I am happy to see this happening. When Nick first got sick, I hid everything. In the beginning I was so overwhelmed, trying to understand what was happening and hold the rest of my family together, I often thought how much I wished I knew someone who’d gone through this. I was so isolated. About five years ago when I decided to write the book, one of the reasons was to fight stigma. I believe that being open and honest about mental health will lead to greater understanding and empathy in society. It is difficult enough to deal with these conditions, we don’t need to feel marginalized and ashamed as well. We can each fight stigma by living our lives with grace and honesty, no shame.

In your experience, what should a) individuals b) society, and c) the government do to better support people suffering from mental illness?

Well, I could write a thesis on that question, but I’ll try and be concise. The “system” is broken in every conceivable way. Since the de-institutionalization movement began in the mid 50’s, we have deteriorated into chaos. The institutions were supposed to be replaced with community treatment centers, but that never happened. The de-facto facilities for the seriously mentally ill are now the streets and the jails. Mental Illness has been criminalized. We absolutely need early psychosis intervention centers and community treatment centers. We need to build a system that supports families and patients and makes obtaining treatment uncomplicated and affordable. This has to be done through policy and changes in the law. Individuals can get involved by being aware and making their votes count. That will inform society and their attitudes which will in turn inform government. We all have to work for change.

What are your 6 strategies you use to promote your own wellbeing and mental wellness? Can you please give a story or example for each?

1. EXERCISE I began a regular yoga and meditation practice about four years after Nick was diagnosed. I’ve always been active, but preferred other exercise. With all the demands of caring for him, I had stopped. I realized one day that I needed to get back to some kind of routine and chose yoga because it was close to my house. Well, I was in for the surprise of a lifetime. I had never been interested in this stuff, it seemed to “woo-woo” for me. But it wasn’t! I can honestly say the yoga and meditation have changed the way I live my life. It has taught me so much about mindfulness, being in the moment, and gratitude. I think it is essential that we all do some kind of regular exercise for our mental and physical well-being, and for me yoga has also become important to me spiritual well-being.

2. LAUGHTER When Nick was evicted from his apartment and about to become homeless, my husband and I were at our wit’s end about how to help him. Our life was a circus, trying to wrangle Nick and get him help while still raising our three daughters. We were having a serious discussion one night about what to do and the list was daunting, homelessness, traumatized sisters, lack of good treatment. Suddenly he stood up and said, “you know the eviction is really going to mess up his credit rating!” like it was the end of the world. I looked at him and said, “I really think his credit rating is pretty low down on our list of problems right now…” and we both just started laughing hysterically. It’s true that we often have to resort to gallows humor when it comes to mental illness, but I believe that laughter is one of the most powerful ways to find relief and feel close in trying times. It’s what has kept me sane and my 40-year marriage intact.

3. ACCEPTANCE This is something that is rooted in my yoga practice but has come to be an important factor in my whole life. I’ve stopped beating my head up against the wall! There are things that happen that we cannot fix or change, like mental illness, and we have to accept that reality. That doesn’t mean we stop trying, or working toward improvement, but the energy spent on denial can be used for other things. It’s a waste of energy to be angry about misfortune. I’ve learned, later in life, of the peace that comes when you learn acceptance.

4. ALL THE HEALTHIES By this is mean all the things that keep you physically well: eating the right foods, being moderate with alcohol, not smoking, regular doctor appointments, taking care of your teeth. This may seem like a no-brainer, but I think a lot of people overlook the connection between physical health and mental health. Having chronic physical ailments can erode your mental health as well. It is also an investment in your future. I am 64 years old and I think I’m healthier and more active now than when I was 35. I can do a handstand in the middle of the room, something I couldn’t have imagined when I was younger. Handstands do a whole lot for my mental health!

5. HONESTY I try to be honest with others, to say what I mean and mean what I say. This allows you to avoid misunderstanding and unnecessary pain, so much of that comes from not being clear when you speak. I’m careful with my words, I don’t overstate things, and I try not to ever speak out of anger. I use the old “stop and count to ten” method, so little of what we say in anger is even what we realty mean. I also make it a habit to be open about the mental health issues in my life. I believe that this opens a path for others and demonstrates a freedom from stigma that we all desire.

6. THE TO-DO LIST IS NEVER DONE I have made my peace with the fact that I will never get everything done that I want. I just transfer the unfinished items to the next day’s list and keep putting one foot in front of the other. I don’t chastise myself; I just go from the assumption that it will never all be done. The affords me a huge amount of freedom and very little regret.

What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources that inspire you to be a mental health champion?

The most important book that I’ve read is Surviving Schizophrenia by Dr. E. Fuller Torrey. It is the most comprehensive survey of the whole landscape; Dr. Torrey is a beacon.

No One Cares About Crazy People by Ron Powers, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist who has two sons with schizophrenia. It tells his story and traces the history of mental health care.

Who Lives Like This? Podcast with Elizabeth Aquino and Jason Lehmbek is about and for caregivers of special needs kids. It is an enlightening and irreverent look at that world.

MILF Podcast (Mom’s I’d Like to Follow) with Jennifer Tracy focuses on telling women’s stories, all kinds of women in all kinds of situations.

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

There is nothing you will do in your life that is more meaningful or will give you more joy and satisfaction than changing the world in one small way. You don’t have to devote your life to it, but we all are obligated to this earth and to each other. We live in a complicated and troubled world and its future will be determined by what you do.

How can our readers follow you online?

Website

Blog

Book Info

Bring Change 2 Mind Blog

Facebook

Instagram

Twitter

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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