I attended a fundraiser in Denver this past week that supported the Carson J Spencer Foundation. The foundation was formed by Dr. Sally Spencer-Thomas to honor her brother Carson who lived with mental illness and eventually took his own life. Many attendees were impacted by suicide including the host, renowned photographer John Fielder, who lost his son to suicide in 2006. The Carson J Spencer Foundation is making a huge difference in prevention and of providing hope.
Although the evening was about the loss and tragedy of suicide, it was also about the triumph and resilience of the human spirit in the midst of illness and stigma. I was joined for the evening by Jeff Vankooten, one of the Invisible Disabilities Association’s (IDA) board members. Jeff has lived most of his life with bipolar disorder. I shared his thoughts here a few years ago in It’s All In Your Head.
Jeff and I had a great chat with a couple of sisters around one of the cocktail tables. As we talked about the evening events, I had the opportunity to discuss the IDA and why our mission is to help people believe in people. One of the sisters shared that her son was diagnosed with ADD and his friends and teachers oftentimes had misconceptions about the diagnosis and how her son was impacted by it. Her concerns for her son were no different than Jeff’s when he shared about having type II bipolar disorder.
This post might seem to be about the cruelty of the stigma we place on people living with illness and pain, causing them shame and forcing them into silence. Yet these disabilities and pain have another side to them as I continued to share with the mom of the son with ADD. People who live with suffering in their lives have an amazing tendency to cope with whatever struggle they are dealing with daily. People not only cope, but they start to use the skills to become overachievers and experts. In his previous Disability.Blog post, Jeff noted, “I can uniquely understand the despair of others, and listen with an attentive ear to those who are suffering. That depth of empathy resonates with people who seek me out to be a compassionate ear and persistent source of hope.” Jeff also speaks professionally on the resilience born out of his tribulations.
Another friend and IDA Ambassador, Pete Ohlin, has lived with ADD and depression most of his life. This combination of illnesses led him to discover an amazing gift which may otherwise never had been realized without years of suffering and enduring. When he couldn’t sleep while in college, he would walk to the music hall and play the piano for hours until his soul was at rest. This was the only time when Pete felt at total peace. The vibration of the piano strings resonated deeply within his body, which somehow helped soothe his emotional scars. Pete’s gift has not only helped him cope with his own life – his music resonates with others as well. In 2008, Pete met a Navy Seal commander who suffered from PTSD. As Pete began playing one of his original compositions, the commander immediately felt at rest.
I noted to the mom that her son might just find that his ability to live daily with ADD not only positively impacts his journey in life, but the journeys of others. I think of the many people today who are embracing the person they are with a disability such as IDA Ambassador Lori Frisher. Lori has turned her hearing impairment into an asset of inspiration for many through her dynamic speaking ability. My friend, Tommy Spaulding, lives with dyslexia and is the New York Times bestselling author of “It’s Not Just Who You Know.” He learned that relationships did not require perfect reading skills, but the love from your heart. There have been many who have lived with dyslexia such as Albert Einstein, Leonardo da Vinci and others. I also think of Temple Grandin who earned her PhD living with autism.
Let’s face it: we live in a world of difficulties. Oftentimes it is the workarounds and coping and striving and climbing and fighting and straining that helps us triumph in the midst of suffering. We can do this together. Let’s lift each other up instead of tearing down. Let’s envision a world where we all will be “Invisible No More.”