Telling his own story
Local man shares experiences to raise mental health awareness
GREENFIELD — A local man hopes to use his new-found gift of storytelling to help others.
Glenn Johnson’s story is one of growing up with a mentally ill mother, whose delusions spiraled further and further from reality. Since he’s started telling it publicly, he’s realized it’s a common tale that most keep hidden. He hopes his candor and courage can inspire others to speak out about their own experiences.
He first told his story at a March “story slam” event, and was surprised by how many people came to him afterward with similar stories.
“Now that I’m telling my story, others are telling me theirs,” Johnson said. “I’ve been amazed at how many friends have significant mental health issues in their history or in their family history.”
Johnson didn’t always find his own story easy to tell, and he had never told it to a crowd before. When he heard about a springtime series of story slams, he decided to give it a try.
He called the contest’s phone line and left the first line of his story in a voicemail.
“The letter from my mother was thick,” he began, “and even though the return address was the Leonard Morse Hospital psychiatric ward, I opened it on the outside chance she had sent me a check for my birthday.”
The judges were drawn in, and Johnson was one of 10 picked to take the stage at Hinge, a Northampton bar.
“I was so scared,” he admitted. “I kept having to remind myself that I was excited — not terrified. It’s all about perspective.”
That was in mid-March, and most of the storytellers were first-timers. Johnson’s story didn’t win first, second, or even third place, but he wasn’t discouraged. Following the contest’s theme, “second chances,” Johnson decided to take another shot at competitive storytelling.
By the end of the month, he found himself up against seasoned storytellers from far and wide at a slam during a storytelling conference held at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
Johnson took second place in the “scarred for life” story slam at UMass, with first going to an Arkansas storyteller. Since then, he’s gone on to open for another story slam, warming up the crowd for other amateur storytellers.
He’d like to do more with his storytelling.
Johnson said he’s been doing a lot of soul-searching lately, and has decided that he wants to use his personal experience to make a difference.
“I decided at the start of the year that I want to play a role in mental health reform,” he said. “My family has really been affected by mental health and the mental health care system.”
Johnson would like to change the workings of the mental health system, by working from the outside as an advocate.
“I’d like to see less reliance on psychiatric drugs, more involvement by psychiatric survivors in policy making, and more support and research into mental health alternative treatments like peer support and mediation,” he said.
Johnson said he’s seen the current system fail in treating his mother.
“My mother has been in and out of different psychiatric wards for three decades, and been prescribed a ton of drugs,” he said. “The system really failed her; she’s worse off now than she was 30 years ago.”
Johnson’s mother is still institutionalized.
“Her diagnosis has changed,” he said “Now, they say she’s manic-depressive, but it changes depending on what medicines are working at the time.”
Johnson has been dealing with his mother’s mental illness for most of his life.
“It all started when I was about 13,” he said. At the time, his mother and father were going through a divorce. With their father out of the house, Johnson and his two brothers were under their mother’s care.
“Things got harder. My mom wasn’t always in touch with reality.”
Johnson said his mother sat them down, showed them a slide-show that she’d made of pictures of their father out in public with other women, and demanded that they tell her who they were.
The three boys didn’t realize just how bad things were.
“We didn’t know that what we were going through was any different from another divorce.”
Things deteriorated. Their mother told them that their house had been bugged. She said there were people chasing the family, and that the company their father worked for had him replaced with someone else. “She’s our mother. We relied on her for our own picture of reality,” Johnson said. “It wasn’t until she was locked up that we realized she was paranoid.”
With their mother institutionalized, Johnson and his two brothers were sent to live with their father, which was scary at first.
“Nobody ever sat us down to say ‘your mother is wrong; your dad’s not trying to kill you.’”
He said he felt like there wasn’t anyone to talk to about his problems at home.
“Nobody ever asked us (about our home life), and we never volunteered it,” he said.
At 13, Johnson said, he didn’t know where to go for help. As a young man, he didn’t want to ask for help and he didn’t feel like anyone would listen to, or believe, his story anyway. He was proven wrong when he and his siblings got counseling as teens. Johnson hopes he can encourage others to speak out, so they can get the help they need.
“I’ll tell my story anywhere that will have me,” he said.
Glenn Johnson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.