Storytelling: Jennifer Marshall of This is my Brave

Jennifer Marshall is the co-founder of This is My Brave, a national storytelling series dedicated to discussing mental illness. Jennifer was diagnosed with Type 1 Bipolar Disorder in 2006 at the age of 26, and was hospitalized four times in five years. Writing about her life with a mental illness has helped her healing process, and This is My Brave's mission is "to end the stigma surrounding mental illness by sharing personal stories of individuals overcoming mental illness" through storytelling and other art forms. You can read her blog Bipolar Mom Life or follow her on Twitter at @Bipolarmomlife. She lives outside of Washington DC with her husband and two children.

Jim: I love the idea of This is My Brave. Can you tell us a little about how your personal journey with Bipolar Disorder led to the the creation of this event?

Jennifer: This Is My Brave was born from my personal experience of opening up about my bipolar illness on a public platform. After going through four psychiatric hospitalizations for manic episodes - two during the years I was having children - I wanted to make something good come from the pain and suffering I had endured. When my second child was almost one, I started writing a blog I titled Bipolar Mom Life. I wanted other young women to find my story when they typed in "bipolar" and "mom." I wanted them to know that they weren't alone, that they could get well, and that they could make their dreams of having a family come true if they put the right plan in place. I wanted them to learn from my story and find hope.

But I wrote anonymously at first. My parents and husband were worried about stigma. I was more interested in allowing people to really connect with my story, and knowing my name was part of that, I thought. My mom warned that other mothers at my kids' schools may not want their kids to play with mine if they know I have bipolar. My dad was concerned about future employment. They asked my purpose in putting my story out there. I told them I wanted to help people and if just one person was inspired to not give up because they read my blog, then I will have succeeded. Their combined pressure for me to remain anonymous remained strong, so I kept writing under a pen name.

In 2013 I attended a memoir writer's conference in Seattle (Cheryl Strayed was the keynote - love her!) and was deeply moved by all the people I met who were so open about their lives and their writing. It was at that conference when I received a call from an editor of a website I had recently written a piece for. She loved it and wanted me to write more for them, and they'd pay me. I was thrilled and decided I was ready to stop hiding. When I got home from the conference my first piece for WhatToExpect.com went live with my name on it and my disclosure of my bipolar illness. The piece ran also on the homepage of AOL.com and I received an outpouring of support from people online and in person thanking me for sharing my story. In return many opened up and shared theirs. I felt a tremendous weight lifted off my shoulders, like I could finally be myself to everyone. Bipolar isn't all of who I am, but it is a part of me and it's something I have to manage every day. I needed to be able to let that part of me out.

Months later I had the idea to launch a theater production. I wanted to give other people a platform - similar to the one I had when I opened up - to stand up and share their story of overcoming mental illness through poetry, original music and essays. I met a woman who would become my co-Founder, Anne Marie Ames, as together we shared a mutual passion for doing something to end the stigma. We launched a Kickstarter and raised over $10k in 31 days to fund our first show.

Jim: I thought the analogy of "coming out" that you used in your essay at the debut event was excellent. Has it been a challenge to find storytellers and artists willing to openly discuss their mental illness?

Jennifer: Yes and no, but for the most part, no. The reason I say yes is that we always have folks who sign up for auditions and then cancel at the last minute or don't show up. I think the fact that it does take a certain amount of bravery to put yourself out there and allow yourself to be vulnerable enough to share your story so openly. Especially when it comes to mental illness because there are so many elements of the various conditions which are not understood. But the more we share, the more people have the opportunity to learn and the more we're able to break down the stigma surrounding common conditions like depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, PTSD and more which many people suffer from in silence.

Jim: As an event organizer, I know it is hard to choose just one, but has there been one particular story told at This Is My Brave that you think captures the project?

Jennifer: The diversity of stories, viewpoints and creativity is what makes This Is My Brave what it is: a platform for individuals to share their stories of overcoming mental illness. But if I had to point to just one story, I'd have to say Danielle Fiorello from our New York City production this past October captured it all. The feeling of vulnerability when she first started out at the podium, her unbelievable story of why she is here today, and the beauty and inspirational message of her artistic talent as a singer/songwriter. She brought down the house in NYC as the last cast member to perform that day, and she continuously reminds me what an extraordinary experience it was to be in the show, a familiar echo among our This Is My Brave alumni.

Jim: Wow! Thanks for sharing Danielle's story. And thanks for the interview! I look forward to seeing you again this year at HippoCamp Writers Conference.

Jennifer: Thanks Jim. Looking forward to August! 

If you would like to learn more about upcoming events or just want to watch more stories, check out This is My Brave.