our mental health system didn’t fail the Florida shooter -- we did

I'm done with a few things right now.

I'm done with the arguments on social media about why the Parkland, Florida shooting happened. I stayed up late last night watching the CNN Town Hall meeting where kids who had just survived a high school shooting asked Marco Rubio to please ban assault weapons, and parents of now deceased children suggesting that their sons and daughters would still be  in a conversation that has mostly shifted to becoming one about gun control. There is place for that, and I absolutely see it as progress. What I'm done with is that along with it, we are potentially doing damage to a cause I care deeply about -- eliminating mental health stigma. 

It is obvious to us now that the shooter, Nikolas Cruz, struggled deeply with his mental health. Fault over why that escalated to a school shooting is being dealt out liberally, tied mostly to external factors, while conversations around what it must have been like in his headspace in the weeks and days leading up to day him walking into his high school with an assault weapon are sparse. People around did everything they were supposed to do in terms of protocol. A lot of help attempts, a lot of hands extended, a lot reports. I am sure he sat in chairs across from therapists, and I am sure those therapists did their very best work with what he revealed to them -- and I am also sure that protocol does not catch everything, and that he did not reveal everything, because for whatever reason, he did not feel that it was safe or worthwhile to. After seeing the aftermath of this shooting, I am more than anything willing to bet that the elements of the world around him did not lead him to believe that overcoming the things he was struggling with was a even possibility, and so we are left with these headlines and debates about causation and gun control, and the perceived failures of the mental health community. 

As a mental health advocate, these targeted debates allocating blame sadden me to no end. The world, though, doesn't seem to want to absorb the fault this one; we want to push it onto specific agencies. It is being sent to therapists, and hospitals, and the people who were supposed to do something. Guess what? The whole world was supposed to do something by now, and the whole world failed. Let us all absorb that.

I received my first mental health diagnosis at age 19, and another one three years later. I struggled deeply with my mental health in my early twenties as a direct result of reading the world around me and concluding that it was not okay to struggle out loud and that the darkness in my mind was not a safe thing for me to herald -- so I didn't for a long time. The biggest thing that got my butt on a therapist’s couch, and made the actual truth about what was going on in my head come out of my mouth when I got there, was the voices of my peers that told me that the problem I was experiencing was an acceptable and solvable one, and I was worth the work it would take to find it, even if the majority rule of society was to pull myself up by my bootstraps.

Let me tell you something – “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” was not a therapeutic paradigm they went over in either one of the nationally-accredited counselor education programs I attended, and the things you expose when you dump your brain out to a near-stranger at the risk of being hospitalized has a lot more to do with if you think certain revelations will yield something at all worthwhile than if your therapist paid enough attention in school, or prescribes the right drug to you, or anything that even happens in that office. The therapist is a vessel, a facilitator, with great influence, yes – but also a minority of therapeutic responsibility. They are batting last here, after society-at-large has had its way with each of us, only able to hit the pitches that the person on the couch even feels safe to throw out.

My mental health story having some sort of catastrophic ending was prevented because I had a friend named Kaitlin Bailey, who sat on my bed during my sophomore year of college, and when I told her what was going on in my head, and why and how I wanted it to be over, she escorted me over to Health Services and 48 hours later, I was headed home on a medical leave – so I could recover. Hear me say this, loud and freaking clear: I am still alive today because someone gave me the permission, which was lacking from society-at-large, to go get help. What is going on in Florida, and in Washington, in every way needs to also involve mental health stigma. We will make some progress, but not complete headway, without that.

Hear me also say I should have been, according to most agency best practices, hospitalized that day instead of being sent back home for a few months. I was experiencing suicidal thoughts with high frequency, and had opportunities to act on them. But I was also smart enough to know what information to withhold in order to keep from being hospitalized.

As a mandated reporter in a school system years later, I had to watch a couple of high school kids be taken off in an ambulance because of certain keywords they used in front of me, and I stand convinced that it probably hurt them more than it helped them. This is not to say anything about their time in the hospital – I’ve heard beautiful stories of supportive environments there. I’m talking about the life and world they have to return to once their mandatory hold time ended. I didn’t avoid the hospital because I didn't want to be in one; I avoided it because I’d seen how people were treated like absolute pariahs after they came back from one, even if it was paramount toward their healing. You don’t get balloons when you come out of the psych ward; you get whispered about. Someone explain to me how that’s supposed to encourage more people to ask for help. I think Nikolas Cruz would have sought help, had he believed in its efficacy.

This is the part where I could throw a lot of statistics at you, but if you would like to review my research findings and citations, click here. But what you need to know is that between 2009 and 2014, the prevalence of depression and anxiety symptoms in adolescents jumped 31%, and suicide rates jumped even more dramatically (and got even worse after 13 Reasons Why was let loose in the world). In that same timeframe, do you know what didn’t budge? The number of adolescents seeking treatment for those symptoms.

This is not a mental health system problem – those therapists and hospitals are doing the best they can. This is a stigma problem.

We’re all human beings, and we are all wired for connection. As it stands in the world today, the stigma against people with a mental illness is a straight-up toxin. I can tell you from experience that nothing fans the flames of depression more powerfully than feeling isolated from the people around you, and nothing is doing that more powerfully than the arguments floating around headlines this week about how Nikolas Cruz shot his classmates because the mental healthcare system didn't do its job. What gross oversimplification.

People get angry at the goalkeeper in a soccer game for missing a save when that ball got through ten other players on that team before it hit that net. Mental healthcare wasn’t the weak link; it was society as a whole. It was the way we have made it acceptable to shove struggling people to the outskirts, and turn a blind eye, and say, “Well that’s someone else’s problem.” The mental healthcare system did not fail Nikolas Cruz; it was the entire world at the same time, and we as its inhabitants will continue to allow darkness to fester in the minds of our friends and family members and neighbors, even unintentionally, until we bolster a societal overhaul that changes the way we treat and talk about people who experience mental illnesses and give them the freedom to step into healing.

In my graduate research, what I discovered is that there is an empirically-based way to reduce stigma and get rid of the barriers that prevent people from getting help. And, it is not just talking about it. It is talking about it A CERTAIN WAY. A research group in California piloted a program that got a person living with a mental illness to talk about their struggles and successes -- what they were dealt, and how they fought back, and lived with it, and sought continual help -- and it dramatically reduced the audience's perceived stigma over time

It doesn't matter that we talk about mental illness; it matters deeply HOW. We have to get all of these things in the discussion:

A) the rock bottom part of the story – the horrible parts
B) how the person got out
C) local and global resources they used to do it

Transparency. Honesty. Risky bravery. Shame eradication. Things that will lead other people out of isolation.

My favorite thing to tell people is that I have a bipolar type II diagnosis, because you would never know that about me if you examined my life on paper. That was not always a safe thing for me to voice, like when I worked in a public school as a counselor. As a result of a lot of love and support and daily self care and medication and great therapists who were not mind readers, I live in a stable place and could easily keep my illness hidden, but I wear it proudly to show the people who are still figuring out how to overcome theirs that we absolutely can have a mental illness and a normal life at the same time. My diagnosis is a major one, and people did not react with kindness to it, but with fear, including the professors in my first counseling masters’ degree program, who told me that I would never be a good therapist or advocate or presence in the mental health field because of it. They told me to draw back, and stand down, and retreat.

If I had yielded to those voices then, I don’t know what would have happened to me, but I know it wouldn’t have been good with the things that were in my headspace at the time, and it’s not a stretch for me to imagine that a terrible headline in the news wouldn’t have been in the equation – but the voices that tried to ostracize me, for whatever reason or fortune was with me at the time, didn’t stand a a chance against the ones that gave me permission to fight.

We, the fighters, have to give others the permission to fight back, too. I didn’t understand depression or bipolar disorder until I was suffocating in the throes of it. If you have never been there, it is not your job to put words in a person’s mouth who is; it is, in fact, disrespectful and audacious to try. If you have been there, I think it is your duty to speak about it as you can, validation and understanding can grow. We have to clear the toxins from the air, because if one thing will take down mental health stigma – it is permission for people who are depressed or are in awful headspaces to feel that way and look it in the eye so that they can deal with it without judgment or restriction, or fear of being let go from their jobs and shunned from their families, and with connection and space and time to heal. Feeling like you have to keep your darkness hidden can be a death sentence, and I am not just talking about for the person in the darkness – I mean for the people around them, too. I mean for the students of Steadman Douglas. And when we do or don't resolve gun control, I mean whatever medium is next. There will be one -- I promise you that.

You could put me in a room of the best and brightest, most empathic and caring psychologists in the world, and it dead ass would not make a difference how much healing I found in those four walls if the rest of the world wasn't willing to change, too. We have to be that. We have to use our voices as we can. We have to change the entire world, and we have to do it now. 

The whole world was supposed to do something by now, and the whole world has failed together. Let us all absorb that together, and fix it together. We still have so much time, and let us begin right now.

how to not get depressed

I guess I should start this off by telling you that I have no idea. 
I don’t want to be an unreliable narrator, but I have no freaking idea, you guys. 

I wish this was a blog post where I could give you 5 tips to just avoid depression or feeling depressey or depressed-adjacent (there are different tiers of this whole thing), you know? Like, if you meditate enough and think about sunshine, you will be good – if I could stand at the edge of that forest and just circumvent all traffic away from its entrance, I’d do it. It is a cute idea, but not really a thing.

At least, not in my life. I used to think that was my goal as a counselor, and now as a life coach or Sherpa or whatever I am at present – to keep people from getting depressed, but you guys, I don’t know if that is even a real thing.

If there was a way to avoid depression completely, I would have found it by now, as I think it’s safe to say that I have done some prettttty thorough on-the-ground research in what being depressed feels like, and at present have one of the most aggressive self-care plans I have ever seen. I brought in the concept of Self Care Mondays about a month ago – a self-imposed day where I am not to take appointments or chip away on projects, but rather do strictly as I please. Nothing is allowed to be married to a time – and forget talking on the phone. People will not touch Self Care Monday with a ten foot pole, and I love you all tremendously for it.

This most recent round, I stayed in my house the entire day. I made breakfast, and I turned on music that I love, and then I curled up on my couch and watched Gilmore Girls reruns with some really good soup, and fell into an accidental nap. In which I had a nightmare that I had slept through a cycle class and forgot to do ten million other things, which meant that I woke up in a pretty anxious state, and discovered that the sun was down at 6pm, to boot. Self Care Mondays are supposed to make me the opposite of anxious and depressey, so what the hell gives?

I have had incredibly low energy lately – I need a lot more downtime than usual, and building that energy back takes a lot longer than it usually does.. I’m finding myself dreading social engagements a bit, and have a bit of constant low-grade feeling of dread as I go through the day, even despite my best efforts to prepare for things the day before, or go to bed a little earlier, or even eat real food that has nutrients and did not come out of a grease vat.

I commented on this to my friend Mie -- about how I couldn’t figure out the source of the drain and she laughed a bit and said, “Well, you’re forgetting the part where you’ve had a few PTSD triggers rear their heads recently, plus you started teaching a new class, and you start your business coaching this week, plus the time change, plus the holidays, and, well, your depression.”

Ah, that’s right. Depression. Depression, plus my regular life.
We call out the depression part of my mental health life more than the bipolar part of things because the depressive swings are the parts that have given me much, much more trouble this past year. (The hypomanic part of my illness is a lot less of a bother at this point in my story – it mostly translates to more energy, thanks to super helpful medication that I write a mental love letter to daily.)

And this time of year is a breeding ground for a depressive mood swing for a lot of us, I have realized. Thanks, winter. I remember my first academic advisory meeting when I moved to Boone; I shared with my professor that I had a mental illness that tended to swing into depression in the winter months, which are pretty brutal in the mountains. The first thing out of her mouth was, “Oh, honey. You moved to the wrong place.”

Even with all the self care and successes in the world, I can’t stop depression. My busyness is commented on frequently, but what is often missed is that my life is very intentionally structured and color coded to balance the things I need to get done, as well as punctuated with rest. And even with that, I still lose a day to the darkness. When I start to feel down, sometimes I need a day in bed with a book, and sometimes that’s the absolute worst thing for me – it depends on the day. I wouldn’t wish my brain on anyone – it is so annoying, and despite my pleas and PowerPoint presentations to God to let me switch brains with another human or even a mediocre-but-still-good dog at this juncture, He has said no. And so, it is just up to me to get with day-to-day management.

But here's the thing: Every time depression comes to visit, I learn something. Every time I’m down, I come out of it with something I didn’t have before. Every time it knocks, if I invite it in, and sit down with it, and listen, I can usually pull something helpful. Not always, but the ratio  sways in helpfulness's favor. It was this way before I even realized it. I can’t stop it from happening, but I can at least try to make it constructive.

Living with depression is sort of like tornado or hurricane season – you don’t exactly know when the storms are going to hit, but there are indicators, and things you can do to try and mitigate the impact. But, what I have learned is that the times I go down the hardest are the times when I’ve tried to ignore what I know is on its way, out of denial or some cute form attempted self-preservation. Bless my heart. So, here are a couple of things I try to do during my hurricane season:

Look at depression and darkness as teachers. Being depressed was even more annoying to me – and a colossal waste of time – before I made a point to look for something to take back into the non-depressed world. Depression is cyclical -- it comes and goes, and I know it'll come back, so I always try to take good notes -- literally, in a journal -- to help me see if I'm taking the best care of myself, or giving things weight that I shouldn't. If one piece of criticism from an acquaintance sends me into self-deprecation, that tells me that I'm probably neglecting things that make me remember my value -- so I'll head to a trusted friend, or listen to a TED Talk or sermon that helps center me. I always try to use darkness as an arrow, and not a destination.

Give yourself permission to be down. I have a sticky note on the back of my front door that says, “You have permission to be where you are today.”  Permission to be up and joyful, but more importantly, permission to be down, and to take my time while I'm there. You don’t have to rush it away, and I have found that if I try to, I miss what I'm supposed to use to grow. Also, permission to rest as much as is realistic – for me, this means having entire weeks where I don’t make any social plans when I know that’ll be a drain. Or, weeks where I put social things in blocks where I know I’d otherwise sit at home and ruminate. I love Self Care Monday, but I know it’s not universally realistic – so how about daily self care? Something every day that makes your soul sigh with relief, even in a dark place.

Figure out what you need, and learn how to ask for it. Remember that you know yourself better than probably anyone else. Your darkness isn’t the same as other peoples’ darkness, and you don’t have to navigate it the same way. I was talking to a good friend about how I have to have lots of white space and rest time when I start to feel low, and she said, “Oh, I’m the opposite. I have to stay engaged in the world, or I get lost.” Guess what? Either one is okay – you just have to know how certain things make you feel, and try to live accordingly.

And then tell your people what you need. Seriously, tell them. They may not know. I know that I need options – instead of people trying to “force” me out of the house, I need friends who give me the freedom to go find a way to connect whether it’s through texting or putting on real people clothes and having coffee. 

I wish navigating this world was simple -- but it isn't. There's not a guidebook, but there are patterns and helpful takeaways, but know this: your experience with low points and darker moments is not the same as anyone else's. Use that to empower you. You are not alone in it, but you know your world here the best. Let people in, and listen to those experiences from others. We are all healing from something, whether it's something major or just getting from day to day; we are all just walking each other home.

For me, this means more writing. More note-taking. Getting to bed earlier. Not skipping my hour of centering quiet time in the morning, even if I do hate that alarm clock when it goes off. Before I got out of bed today, I sent "good morning" texts to 10 or so friends, and you would have thought I'd sent them a winning lottery ticket, which made me feel more energized than my usual third cup of coffee. It probably means putting my Christmas decorations up earlier than I ever have before, to make my home at night a bit cozier. You know what you need -- you know what makes life feel softer -- you have the right to ask for it. 

Figure out what you need, and learn how to ask for it. 
Here's to the next round, and how we grow as a result of it.

XOXO, 
AP

a letter to myself, after leaving an abusive relationship

 
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This post originally appeared on the One Love Foundation blog.

[This is a letter written to the woman I was 9 months ago. These are the things she needed to hear, and that I can now put a voice to after months of therapy and healing space. This is everything I wish someone had said to me on the morning after I left my abusive relationship.]

Dear Amanda, 

First of all, take a deep breath. There are a lot of things that you need to do right now, and the first one is to just breathe. Second of all, take your time. Get out of bed slowly, if and when you are able. When you do, take a look at the woman in the mirror. She has a whole world to rebuild. If that sounds daunting, try to reallocate that weight to be hopeful for the new and beautiful things that I can see from where we are now. It’s going to take some time for you to get here, and that time will not always be easy, and that’s okay. Healing is like that. Third – and you may not be ready to believe this yet, but we’ve got to break the ice on this – none of this was your fault.

You thought you could fix him; save him. You thought that if you stayed, he would finally love you in the right way, instead of the way that kept you isolated, and up at night, and hiding things. You offered that man every square inch of warmth in your heart. The fact that it didn’t heal him says nothing of any insufficiency on your part, and everything of how cold and despondent he really must have been, despite your best efforts to see the situation in any other light. 

Here’s what you need to know. Not to spoil the ending, but your life has absolutely expanded in his absence. But his departure doesn’t get the credit for that; your life would have expanded regardless. You know who you are, what your purpose on this planet is, what you deserve, where you’re headed, what you are worth. You have always known, and those things were never contingent on his staying or leaving, but it sure is easier to hear all of that without his voice in your ear constantly telling you that you are too much, to slow down on your dreams, or:

“That didn’t happen.

And if it did, it wasn’t that bad.

And if it was, it’s not a big deal.

And if it is, it wasn’t my fault.

And if it was, I didn’t mean it.

And if I did, you deserved it.

That voice is gone now. I know you don’t really know what to do without it, but hear this – there are better, kinder, more truthful voices coming to take its place. You don’t have to listen that one, The Wrong One, anymore – and I’m sorry that you ever felt like you had to in the first place. The good news is that you found the strength to walk away from it; that was a hard thing, even though most people talk about it like it should have been a really easy decision. They mean that with love; only some people really know the extent of the hold he had on you, the power of abuse, and even fewer people know the whole story, which is that he stripped you of your identity and made it sound like he was doing you a favor, made you feel like you had to stay, and even worse — that you had to keep how terrible things really were all to yourself — and you spent months too paralyzed to look for a way out.

But you did find it — the courage to leave, rather than exist in a world where you took whatever you could get and accepted that you were merely tolerable instead of exquisite and radiant and unstoppable, which are all things you only realized that you are after he left and you had to wake up in a quiet house and look in the mirror again.

His house was cold; his heart even moreso. There were no mirrors on the walls there, though. You couldn’t see the strong woman in the mirror. You’ll wonder later if this was intentional.

But it’s your first morning. It’s your first morning turning over a new leaf. And it’s really hard here. The girl you’re looking at in the mirror – I know that she’s terrified. Be there. Be terrified for a minute – or angry, scared, sad. Feel those things, and stay with them until you figure out what they have to teach you. It would be really easy to just call and let him back in for the 400th time, and start the whole cycle over, which he will invite you to do, peppered with the same old things he doesn’t mean like, “I’m sorry” and, “it was the bourbon” and, “but you’re the love of my life.”

You may have been, but he wasn’t yours, and that is all released to the wind now.
There is actual love out there.
You have so much of it within you; nurture that for a while. Breathe. Take your time. 

None of this was your fault, but oh, you will grow from it. 
The girl in the mirror will smile again, soon enough. 
She will find joy, and pour herself into things that will flourish.
The anger and fear and confusion will pop their heads in from time to time.
They’re still around, but they will be the white noise behind laughter, 
singing in the car, life stories in coffee shops, 
or under the stars.

Life will be abundant again. Write that on the mirror, in case she forgets. 
in case she forgets that love is coming.

Love,

Yourself. Always.

how Young Life saved me in more ways than I thought

 
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I spent last night in a room with a couple hundred friends hearing about the good things Young Life is doing in Greenville, SC. I met my own Young Life leader, Laura, about 11 years ago way back in Virginia. She was always hanging around my soccer team. After I didn't get into any of the Ivy Leagues colleges and my identify was shattered, she took me to get Mexican food and I told her that I was finally ready to listen to who this Jesus guy she kept talking about actually was. We ate burritos, and talked about it. The rest of the story from there is a real beauty; let me tell you about it.

Young Life club is the first place where I got up and told my life story because someone told me it was important -- my first public speaking engagement. I spent summers at Rockbridge and Frontier Ranch. I was a leader at Byrnes High School long before I worked there as a counselor, and I got to be loud and talk about God and do life with girls there who I am still friends with now. We had Bible study and talked about boys, and soccer, and One Tree Hill -- and they were the first people, in our "spot" at Ice Cream & Coffee Beans, who I told when I decided to take a medical leave of absence from college, so I could go home and focus on healing and figuring out my mental health. (And not a lot has changed -- some of them are dating men who they will marry, and we still talk about hard things over brunch when they are in town, and they are stuck with me for life, just like I said.)

 
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While I was figuring out how to heal, Windy Gap is where I'd spend weekends running the ropes course in the snow by day and listening to speakers like Steve Chesney by night, who reminded me that God had integrity, and that I could trust His voice even when I couldn't see His hand. I didn't really do either of those at the time, if I am being honest, but man -- it helped so much to be in a place that whispered it to me constantly.

I ended up interning there that summer, my sanctuary in so many ways -- still battling depression, except I had accepted that that was just how the rest of my life was going to be. I learned to fish and love McDonald's and taught people how to square dance. I was so well-loved there; I had 14 roommates who poured love out just by breathing -- so imagine a one-on-one conversation. My mentors Jenny Moffat and Kayla Simoneaux caught on to my struggles so quickly, and in pure love, pulled me in for a meeting and told me that barely existing was not the abundant life that God had called me to, and that I was worth actual healing, and I called a new doctor that day. (After Maggie's murder, when the incessant calls from Inside Edition and Fox News came, there was no other place I was interested in for seeking refuge, and I hid out in the Adult Guest Lodge for a week for Healing, Part 477.)

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I spent a summer working at Wilderness Ranch, traversing remote trails in Colorado, making hot chocolate with nutmeg and cinnamon and treated creek water and singing Psalms out loud from the tops of mountain peaks. I was still so depressed, but I learned how to pray from my guts there, and that God really does love me -- all the parts of me, even all the dark and twisty parts, even and especially if I was depressed forever and ever, and even if I never did get my act together. I learned how to breathe at the Ranch, in those mountains.

 
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Before my Wofford graduation, my YL team leader, Angie Ratterree (who kept me in her community even though I only really had the relational capacity to run Power Points at club) sat with me in a Starbucks and told me me that my walk with depression was going to be a superpower for the rest of my life, if I would only stop treating it like a handicap.

When I got to grad school, I stopped being a leader, but I got to be Team Mom to the college leaders in Boone, and make them hot chocolate with cinnamon and nutmeg, while they sat in my big green chair talking to me about life and God and hard things. It's the same chair Maggie would sit in, but cross-legged. 

I sat cross-legged on a couch with my friends Ashley and Sam a couple of weeks ago here in Greenville, after dropping off all my old YL t-shirts. I don't wear them, and a high schooler will enjoy the shirt from when Bermuda came to Windy Gap way more than I will.) Before I left, Ashley handed me an invitation to the Greenville Young Life Banquet: "You should come! I have a seat at my table for you!"

And last night. Oh, last night I got to hear stories from three high school kids who sew me, eleven years ago -- met Jesus through Young Life, and I could see sixteen-year-old me in those stories. The full-circle-ness of this ministry astounds me. I do not know where my story would have gone without it -- I really do not. 

To my YL leader angels and friends of this ministry -- please, for the love, do not stop telling kids about how much Jesus loves them exactly right where they are -- that they have a seat at the table, and all of their doubts and questions and dark and twisty parts can come, too. Their leaders were there, too. I feel so thankful to have been a part of a ministry that shepherded me and held me so well, even though I didn't see it all the way at the time. I sure did last night, teary-eyed.

And, most of all, to Laura Wright -- thank you for not giving up on this mission before you got to me. Thank you for changing the life of that soccer player in the Harvard hoodie. None of us knew how beautiful this story was going to be, in that hallway, or at those camps -- but we do now. So thank you, and keep going.

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depression, bipolar and honesty: a candid interview

[If you'd like to hear an audio of this interview, click HERE.] 

Becky McCoy: “I am here with Amanda Phillips, and we met at a writer’s conference last year, right?”

Amanda Phillips: “We did! Last summer; almost exactly a year ago!”

B: I was so overwhelmed. My complete introvertedness was severely challenged that week, because there are, like, thousands of women at this conference, and Amanda comes running over, and was just like, ‘Hi! Hi! I’ve been wanting to meet you!’ and I was trying to go through my Rolodex really fast, but my brain was melting, and then I figured out who you were.”

A: “Yeah, I’m a lot. I used to be an introvert, if you can even believe that.”

B: “No, I cannot! So, let’s talk a little bit! This is the mental illness series of this podcast, so why don’t you explain a little bit about how your symptoms and diagnoses might be different or similar to those with the same diagnosis.”

A: “Totally! I’ll try to make this SparkNotesy, because it can be a long story. I was diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder when I was a sophomore in college, and the way that happened – it was my first diagnosis – so Major Depressive Disorder just means that you have what are called Major Depressive Episodes. I’m also a counselor now, so I’ve learned more about the science behind it and can actually tell people about it a little better. So, you have a depressive episode, or a persistent depressed mood, or inability to be engaged in life, all these things – for two weeks – it has to last that long; it really has to linger.

So I had all of that, but we all thought it was grief because I had a friend who had passed away tragically at the time – except it wouldn’t go away. I was flunking out of classes and I was a pretty good student. It was all stuff that didn’t make sense. I just didn’t care about school; I couldn’t care. I couldn’t care about the things that I knew that I liked; it was really strange.

Since I was in college at the time, I was living in a community of friends; I was away from my family, so no one really had any context for it. I ended up going to my college’s Health Services center and getting a referral for a Major Depression diagnosis, and was actually struggling at the time with some pretty heavy suicidal ideation – it was a super dark time. I actually ended up taking some time off to go home for counseling and treatment and started meds, but it never really got all the way better with medication. The suicidal stuff, that went away – that was an isolated period for me, but the depressive symptoms, I would have periods, still, even after the diagnosis and medication, where I wouldn’t want to engage or be social. I would be irritable with people, things that weren’t really characteristic of me and it was hard because it was so contrary to who I really knew I was.

So I did different medications for years, and really struggled to find one that took care of it. And I did the rest of college like that, and then I moved to North Carolina to do a Master’s program in School Counseling, and people were like, “Oh, you had depression and decided to be a counselor!”  -- No, I was laying in bed all day and was binge-watching Friday Night Lights and wanted to be Tami Taylor. That’s why I applied to those programs; because I wanted to be Tami Taylor. It was all a big accident. But I went to grad school, was still super depressed, was on a lot of medication, and I was 21 that fall – so early 20’s. And I started seeing new symptoms, like that I wouldn’t need to sleep at night. Or I’d sleep for an hour. I’d have elevated moods with a lot of energy, which was new, and it felt really nice compared to being depressed and wanting to sleep all the time. I’d have these periods where I’d, like, not max out a credit card, but I’d drop a lot of money shopping or one time I drove from Denver to Virginia without sleeping – things that were like, “Hmm…what’s this?”

And I was actually in a class on mental health in schools and we went over the symptoms of this thing called Bipolar Type II, and my roommate and I were like, ‘Huh, these are all really similar to what’s happening right now’ and I actually went to my psychiatrist and was like, ‘I don’t know, man, what about this?’ – because he hadn’t seen the hypomania stuff before. So I’m diagnosed now with Bipolar Type II, so that’s similar to Bipolar Type I – but the manic stuff that you hear about with Bipolar Type I is a lot more subdued, at least it is in my life. So we just added on some medication to cater to that part, and it was like everything clicked again. I could experience a normal range of emotions again, and wasn’t depressed and despondent all the time – it really, really helped. It just took a long time to figure it out. It took a lot of different doctors and a lot of different medications, but then once we got the right name on it and had a little more explanation for things, that’s when I could go from, ‘the meds aren’t working and I’m broken’ to ‘oh, THIS is what it is. THIS is how you treat that,’ and it made everything make a lot more sense.”

B: “So, how would you say, because I think especially with depression and bipolar, people automatically have a thought in their head that they think they understand what that means. So, why don’t you explain what major depressive disorder and bipolar look like for YOU?”

Amanda: Yeah, so the thing with Major Depressive Disorder is that you’re diagnosed with that only if you’ve never had a manic or hypomanic episode. Like, if it’s just depression, you have MDD. But then when you add in mania or hypomania to that, that’s when you go over to Bipolar Type I or II. That to say, with Bipolar Type II, which is my current deal, you still experience bouts of depression, but you have the ‘up’ moments, too.

In my life, it’s kind of like when I wasn’t medicated, it was a lot of numbness. I think people think that depression means that you’re really sad; it’s not quite that, it’s more that you just can’t feel anything. And this is really hard to explain, but I’ll try. Even though I’m on a medication paradigm and I have a regular therapist, and I have friends who know about this and I have a great support system, and I have a really intense wellness plan that involves nutrition and sleep and fitness and self-care and centering activities – sometimes I still get depressed. Like, still. And I think that is so hard for people to understand, because normally I’m so lively and vivacious and doing things.”

B: “Right, like ‘Aren’t you fixed, Amanda? You’re taking meds!’”

A: Right! Like, ‘aren’t you better now?’ – and no; it’s a lifelong management thing. I still have depressive episodes, even with all of those things I do to try and NOT, and I think it’s been interesting for people to see that. I actually just had one; it lasted about two weeks, and I more or less disappeared from social media, I wasn’t really out and about, I didn’t really have the emotional energy to do my regular coffee dates with friends, all the things -- like I just couldn’t function. I just wanted to be in the bed ALL the time, and people were like, ‘…YOU?’ and I’d be like, ‘YES’ – it’s like if you got a physical diagnosis; and I don’t like to compare two things like this, but if you got a diagnosis for cancer or something, you’d have to reevaluate the way that you take care of yourself. It’s kind of the same thing here. You have to reevaluate.

And so people were used to seeing me on Instagram stories or whatever, like, ‘Oh, Amanda, she’s running around with all the energy, doing all the things!’ and when I slipped into my recent depressed mood, people didn’t get [the shift]. The best way I can explain it is from a comic called Hyperbole and a Half. It’s an excellent resource from this girl Allie, she’s a blogger, and she has this cartoon where it compares depression to having goldfish – so people are watching me on Instagram, and they’re used to seeing me and my goldfish, how much fun me and my goldfish have – and then one day I was just like ‘my goldfish are dead’ – it’s almost like people would go, ‘oh…well, have you looked for them? Are they over there?’ and I’d say, ‘No, no, they’re dead’ – and then they’ll say things like, ‘oh, well goldfish are always the deadest before the dawn!’ or ‘well let’s make finger puppets out of them!’ or ‘well what about bees? Have you tried liking bees?’

And I’d be like, ‘why can’t anyone just acknowledge that my goldfish are dead?’

And that’s how I’ll explain it to people. I’ll say, “I don’t need you to try and make finger puppets; I just need to let you know that I’m struggling right now, and the best thing you can even say is just, ‘Man, let me know what you need.’”

B: “So, to everyone listening, if Amanda and I ever post a picture of a dead goldfish on social media, you know what’s up.”

A: “Well, I actually am afraid of goldfish. I just hate looking at them. I think they’re creepy. I don’t know, I’m a weirdo.”

B: “So at what point did you realize – you said with the bipolar part, you were in class and thought those symptoms sounded familiar, so with depression, how did you figure out that you weren’t just tired or sad or low? That this wasn’t just severe emotion? That this was actually something that needed help?”

A: “So for me, and I’m super open about this, because I think that’s important. So, I was in college, and I had struggled with stuff before – with difficult things before – but that semester, fall of my sophomore year, I had a friend from back home pass away very tragically, and I felt that grief and bereavement and all of that was there in August, but then we hit Halloween, and the other people who knew her had been able to, not go back to normal exactly, but they were going to class and watching them got my wheels turning. Also, it was such a deviation from my normal functioning in a way that made me very scared because I was basically a triple major – Biology and Spanish with a Neuroscience concentration – like, school was tough, but I could do it prior to then. But then that semester, I just could not handle things that I could normally handle, and it wasn’t just academics – it bled into my social life. I was a Young Life leader, and I knew that I loved that, I knew that I loved the high school kids that I got to mentor – but I just couldn’t, if that makes sense. I knew it was a thing that I was passionate about, but I just couldn’t feel that passion, and I couldn’t feel that passion for anything, and so I just stayed in my room and I slept all the time.

And I was sitting on my bed with my friend Kaitlin one time, and I was like, ‘Kait, don’t you go through Tuesday, and you just do the things you know you have to do to get through Tuesday so that you can get to Wednesday, and then you just do that again, you know what I mean?’ – and she said, ‘No, I don’t know what you mean.’ So it was kind of like knowing myself, and also getting some context from other people – like, ‘hey, is this just me?’. I’ve always been an open book person, so I’d check in, and even my suitemates would ask me if I’d thought about taking some time off, and luckily I was in a community that had even a little bit of context for how the things I was experiencing were not baseline for me, and the same thing happened when I got diagnosed with Bipolar Type II. And with that second diagnosis, I was much more excited about it, because I was like, ‘Hey, this finally explains it! This finally makes everything make sense!’  and I was super stoked about it.

But then I came down from that, and realized that when you tell someone that you have Bipolar Disorder, whether it’s Type I or II, that puts a bubble in their head, like, it’s just part of our society – they make an assumption, whether you like it or not, because we make those assumptions about everything, and I got a lot of strange reactions. I came back to school – I got diagnosed on spring break, and I was like, ‘hey, y’all! I have bipolar disorder’ – I was excited, and I know that sounds so strange, but after four years of med trials and and antidepressants not working, you start to develop some feelings of self-inadequacy, but this and the med changes that we made – oh my gosh, it’s like I could access my feelings in a healthy way again and I was so thankful for that. It was like being able to see again; it was like I was underwater and could come up for air again – I can’t tell you what a relief it was.

B: “And that’s what I always tell people. Like, ‘I know you don’t want to go on meds…’ but as soon as the meds got in my system, I felt like myself for the first time in a really long time, and I didn’t even realize that I hadn’t felt like myself, and was just a cloudy version of it.”

A: “Exactly. And I think I had been on…I can’t even tell you how many combinations of things before I found a thing that worked, and even when I found a thing that worked, I still had to make adjustments to it. It’s very high maintenance, but it had come to a point where I was like, ‘Well, I guess I’m just going to be tranqued out on these forever.’ But I was working at a camp one summer, and my bosses were like, ‘Hey, you don’t have to do this. You can go back to the doctor and tell them that this isn’t working. You have every right to say, ‘No, I think I can have a better quality of life than this.’ I think people, when they find out they might need medication [get scared], and I’ll say, ‘Yeah, the first one might be perfect, but it might take until the 10th one, and you have every right to have that process to find the thing that works just right. You don’t have to settle for whatever. You are worth that journey, that investment in yourself.”

B: “So for you, getting help looked like going to counseling, trying meds, and then you said figuring out all the different lifestyle changes that you could make?”

Amanda: “Yeah, just being honest with yourself. A lot of it, with medications especially, you just have to be super vigilant about your life. Like I know that when I am in a season that’s more hectic, and if there are more stressors that are going to be present, I have to make an effort to have more downtime. I can’t just go-go-go-go go. I preach self-care as gospel to people even if their lives are the easiest things in the world, but you just have to figure out what you need and learn how to ask for it from yourself and from the people around you. I think that’s what it comes down to. So with my most recent depressive episode, all my friends were out at a bar on a Friday night, and I was like, ‘You know what, I don’t like to drink when I feel down, because it just doesn’t lead to anything good for me,’ and so I stayed in, and a couple of them came over to my house and we watched a movie. Part of my job right now is being at a lot of social stuff, and being around a lot of alcohol, but I know – like I know – that when I’m down, when I’m feeling depressed, I just shouldn’t touch it because it just doesn’t help. So you know, to an extent what makes you feel better and what makes you feel worse, and it can kind of suck, but it’s important. Imagine – and this is not hard for me, because I just did it – but imagine that you broke your arm, and it was just you – the people around you didn’t break their arms. But you’re in a cast, and you’re having to learn to write again with your other hand, and it’s painful, and the other people around you can write with whatever hand they want to, and so it’s really frustrating, but it’s like – hey, your arm is broken, and you have care for it. You don’t have to treat it like a handicap, and I absolutely don’t think my illness is a handicap. I think it’s my greatest superpower. All that to say, I know that when I was taking a certain kind of medication, I couldn’t touch alcohol at all, even if I was feeling alright, because it would counteract the medication. And I knew that if I skipped the gym that it would affect my mood – I knew that. It’s a lot of preventative care, but it’s also a matter of vigilance. When I was in that depressed mood, I had to remember that I don’t do well struggling in a vacuum, and that I had to tell my people.

To anyone listening, if you’re having a hard time, whether or not you have a diagnosis, PLEASE – FOR THE LOVE – tell your people. Even just that you’re having a hard time. And as they are able to, they’ll swoop in if you let them know what you need. I think the greatest thing for me is when people give me options, like, ‘hey, if you want me to come sit with you, I’ll come sit with you. If you want to come sit here, you can do that. If you don’t want any of that, let me know.

The hardest thing for me is when I’m feeling depressed and people are like, “well just come to this thing” – I want to be like, “hah, I would, but I don’t want to, because I’m tired” and that makes me feel awful, and like I’m disappointing people. I have really bad FOMO. I just love being around people, and that is so hard for me, because I just do not have it in me. I call it functional v. relational energy. When I’m depressed, I can get up and I can pull stuff off if I have to, but it is the bare minimum. And if you want to talk to me about anything else, even for 30 minutes, I just can’t; I just can’t be present for that. And it’s not anybody’s fault, it’s just because I am operating at a deficit. And it’s not because I don’t love the other person, or don’t want to do whatever the thing is, it is just truly that even with all the self-care I do, I’m just in a depressive swing. In this recent one, I had some stressful stuff at work, and really just minor stressors, and I truly believe that if I hadn’t been in a depressive swing, I would have been able to handle all of that just fine. But since it was phasing that way, I was running on fumes. And I just didn’t have the energy to be my relational self – the hardest part of depression for me is that I have to turn that off to just exist – and that sounds really morbid, it wasn’t a suicidal moment by any means – but I had to preserve every ounce of energy I could just to function, and that is terrifying when you thrive on extroversion.

B: So do you feel like you understand what triggers The Dark Place? When you feel like you’re at your worst?

A: It’s kind of a mixed bag for me. So I don’t know if my dark place is typical. So with the one I just had, nothing bad had happened. Nothing really triggered it. Sometimes, for me at least, it can just happen out of nowhere and I think that is the nature of bipolar type II; I think that Major Depressive Episodes can definitely happen from triggers – my first one did. This past summer was the three-year anniversary of my best friend’s murder, and I knew that was coming. I knew that day was coming, and that it was going to be a hard day, so I did a lot of preventative stuff and I shared that with people and made a list of her favorite stuff so we could do Maggie’s Favorite Things all day. And people were responsive to that – I talk about her all the time, so people knew all her favorite things anyway, so people said, “Sure, let’s go on a walk and do stuff you guys loved.” – So instead of that day being really hard and dark like it had been previously, instead of it sending me into the dark place, it ended up being a day where we celebrated her spirit.

So you do have to think ahead. People tell me all the time to watch Game of Thrones, but I’m a sexual assault survivor, so I really don’t want my leisure time to be watching a show that has a lot of that in it, you know? Like, I’m good. It’s about knowing yourself. I can go to dark places all by myself-- some people can handle stuff like that, and that’s fine, but I can’t, and that’s okay. There are just things that I have to stay away from, and that’s okay. I wouldn’t change all of this stuff because it’s allowed me to be a better understander of hardship for people, so it’s truly about being honest with myself. Do I need to take a nap right now, or do I need to go be around people? Do I need a distraction, or do I need a self-searching moment? I’ve learned a lot about how self-care and self-masking can look a lot alike but they’re different, and every person has a different relationship with them and way that they deal with things.

It’s a lot of work, and I’m super extra all by myself, especially when it comes to self-care and tyring to stay out of depression, but sometimes it just happens and it’s not your fault, and for me it came down to respecting myself enough to know that I needed to slow down and take care of the depressed moments when they do happen instead of just trying to run through them.”

Becky: “To what extent do you feel like dealing with a depressive disorder and bipolar has impacted your life in general, but also on a daily basis?”

Amanda: “I guess before I really had a handle on both of them, I felt like they made everything harder. But now that I have learned more about them, I don’t really see them as deficits. I see them as platforms to be open and share with people. I’ve spoken about it at medical schools, about my experience with the diagnostic process and timeline I had. I’ve spoken at my alma mater, and I write about it super openly. Maybe there’s criticism out there – when I worked for the public school system, there certainly was, so I left the public school system. I think that God picked this life out for me specifically, and that all of these things – depression included, but all of my difficult things, I don’t think any of them are accidents. And I think that part of reclaiming things that should maybe be dark and scary is remaining open about them, and the important thing for me there is having that openness after I have processed things, instead of going to the internet for therapy.

I’ll just say, ‘Hey, I’m struggling’ – but I won’t really say more than that until I’ve sat with that moment and gone through it and picked out what I need to learn from it. As far as daily life, I think it’s just made me be a more present presence for people. When I say, ‘How are you doing?’, I mean it. I want a whole essay. I don’t mean it the cute Southern way – how you’re doing really. I want to be like, ‘....are you fine? It’s okay if you’re not.’ So daily and in general, I think it’s made me focus on being an open person, because I think that invites other people who are struggling to be like, ‘oh my gosh, me too, I could use some help.’ And if I can’t help them, I try to connect them with someone who can, whether that’s a friend to have coffee with, or like, let’s go see a therapist, or go to this meeting.

I think it’s been a really cool avenue. You know those shows about mediums? I don’t even know if this works as an analogy, but I read this book by Brennan Manning – there was this play he referenced where this guy goes to a well to find a healer, because he wanted to be rid of this darkness and the healer said, ‘No, healing is not for you.’ And I’m a very spiritual person, and for years, I prayed and prayed and prayed, like, “God, why is this my life? Please, I don’t want to be depressed anymore. This is awful, this is painful, I hate it, it’s exhausting, it’s miserable; why would anyone want this?” And I prayed and prayed and prayed, and it stayed with me, and later in the play the guy is walking home and this dude tracks him down and says, “Hey, I need you to come with me. My daughter is in this cloud of darkness, and she will not listen to anyone, but she will listen to you.’ And so it talks about how that experience with darkness is truly a gift and I try to look at it that way or else it’s just too awful.

You could just dwell and ruminate on it if you want to, or you could find ways to turn it into a superpower. They’re both a lot of work. You just have to pick which one you want to do. That to say, sometimes, like in this recent funk, I went from doing great to just being in the bed. But that’s okay, and my job now is to look at that period, pull what I need to glean from it, and try to use it to help people – however that is going to look.

B: When you’re in the dark place, what encourages you most to get through that moment? What do you need?

A: I guess I need the freedom to say, ‘Hey, I’m in the dark place.’ And I just kind of do that, whether or not I have the freedom to. I just have to let people know. Hannah Brencher, she’s an author and a friend of mine, she writes about this and says that if you tell people that you are out sunbathing on the dock, but really you are suffering in the swamp, but they don’t know to look for you there…it’s about letting people know, ‘This is where I am. I don’t know how long it’ll last, but there you go.’ If people don’t know you’re struggling…how are they supposed to know? People might pick up on stuff, but they’re not mind-readers. That’s my first step.

The options are what’s most helpful, instead of pressure. And I tell people, ‘you don’t have to fix this. In fact, you can’t fix it. You don’t need to try and make it better, you just need to let me know that it’s okay that that’s where I am right now.’ I think people just don’t know what to say, or how to approach it.

Also, I go back to thinking, ‘Okay, I’ve been here before. I’ve gone through this before,’ and something that helps me is remembering that it’s the nature of my illness that the dark place is going to happen, but it’s also the nature of my illness that it cycles back out. When I was suicidal, I didn’t really have that notion that things would cycle back out. So things that were helpful there were knowing that there were resources, and knowing that there were people who were willing to help me do the work it took to get out of it. It’s always a learning experience, and it is always helpful to have people who are like, ‘Oh, you know what, we’re going to skip the bars and come watch a movie with you, and we don’t even have to talk.’


Thankfully, my tribe of people and my social supports are incredible, and I say all the time that the algorithm is off somewhere, but no one can tell God. I live three hours away from any family, and so I think my friends in South Carolina know that and so they swoop in, but I know that it is not like that for everybody. And I’m always thinking about that – like I have this crap diagnosis that was supposed to sideline me and didn’t, but not everyone has the resources that I do, and not everybody has these social supports, and not everybody has a job where they can just take time off if they need to. I’m always thinking bigger. I’m always thinking about how it’s not like this for everyone, and that’s what moves me into these advocacy platforms. Like, ‘let’s think about how to raise money for these groups that support people who don’t have organic supports, and let’s start a foundation, and let’s change the whole world, because why not? What else am I gonna do?

B:
If you were talking to someone who was struggling with any mental illness, how would you want to encourage them through that?

A: I would just say, ‘I believe you. I believe that is a real thing for you. And it sucks, but it’s okay. It’s okay to struggle. Oh my goodness, it is okay to struggle. You don’t have to pretend like it’s not there, and you don’t have to put a bow on it. Some people aren’t going to understand it, and that’s okay, too. They just can’t. I didn’t understand it until I went through it. So do your best to try to find people who can, and let them know. Please don’t do it in a vacuum. People will do the best they can, and they may say some things that are unhelpful, and you can just say, ‘thank you for sharing’ – but just don’t listen to the voices that tell you to stop it or stuff it or white-knuckle it or just get over it – let me tell ya, ‘white-knuckle it’ was not a thing that either of my counseling Master’s degrees went over. It’s total crap, and it’s actually part of the problem. So stop white-knuckling it. Wave the white flag. I have so much urgency on this. I have so much urgency to find out a way where supports are easier to access, and especially more socially acceptable to access. That’s why I’ll make my Facebook status, ‘hey, I’m going to therapy today!’ or ‘hey, I’m depressed right now’ alongside all of the fun stuff, because you can actually have both and do both. You can have a full life, and struggle with depression. You can do both, and still thrive. You’re not gonna thrive all the time, I don’t. And people are like, ‘whoa, that’s interesting’ – because if I just showed that I get to go to restaurant openings and do all these fun things, that’s a lie, because I also get depressed. It’s both, and it’s okay.

I know that there are certain jobs and situations where it’s so taboo still, and not safe to talk about, so I’m over here like, ‘let’s find a way to bust up on all that.’ I call myself a troublemaker for that. I want to figure out how to change the world so that anybody struggling with anything feels safer to struggle out loud, because I think that’s what’s going to save and change lives. And that’s a very big mission statement. It’s actually a bad mission statement, because mission statements are supposed to be geared toward some target population, but no, my target population is every human being on the planet. So, take that. Who am I not to try and be the one to try and pull all of this off? And I’m not the only one working on it, but I’m very loud and for some reason, people listen to me, so I’m just gonna go with it. Why not? It sounds like fun, and it’s going well so far. I’m seeing my own openness and bravery being respected by other people, and I’m seeing things happen at age 26 that I never thought I’d pull off in my life.”

Becky: “A couple of fun questions for you before we go – what are you loving right now?”

A: “Definitely Diet Coke. I was off of it for a while, but I am back on so hard. Also blasting bluegrass music through my house – especially the old Avett Brothers albums.”

B: “Next question – what’s your favorite food?”

A: “Not even a maybe – chicken burrito, no pico, all rice on the side instead of the cute little lettuce deal. I can finish it all in one sitting and be so happy; I am not sure why anyone let me be a fitness professional.”

B: “What are you doing to take care of yourself?

Working a little less, and being more intentional with my downtime. Making sure that my leisure activities are refueling and not draining me. I won’t give out of a defecit.

"tear down those statues" -- a word from my father

My father, a history buff and Civil War reenactor, had a piece published in The Washington Post on Sunday and just didn't think to mention it for four days -- classic. 

My father has spent much of his life researching the history of the Confederacy and the contributions of Robert E. Lee -- and then he has spent much of the past few days having honest conversations with the people around him, and has landed somewhere new. Thank you, Dad, for teaching me how to engage with people in constructive dialogues, and always keep my own social constructs under a critical lens. I value his lens here. I think it will be helpful for anyone who is trying to navigate this whole Confederate monument deal. This is not my arena of expertise, so I yield to him; feel free to share and respond.

Here is his statement, in full: 

"I used to be a defender of the Confederate flag. That's over now. It ended yesterday with the insanity that happened in Charlottesville, Virginia, my home state.

I cared about that flag because it represented a different time in America when Virginia chose to side with other southern states and go to war. Never mind the reasons for that decision now; the decision was made and Virginia called on its sons to defend her. And some of my ancestors answered that call, and fought for Virginia in the American Civil War. Some of them died in that war, and they died following that flag. We grow up honoring our ancestors here in the south, and so for that reason a lot of latter day southerners have honored that flag - myself included.

But after what I saw yesterday in Charlottesville, I have to change my way of thinking about the Confederate flag. I have to accept now it has been stolen from our collective southern heritage by the worst elements of American society. The racists, the haters, the ignorant. The KKK, those so-called "white supremisists", those modern day Nazis. They have taken the flag that my ancestors followed and perverted it for purposes that I consider to be evil and immoral. I saw a photo taken in Charlottesville yesterday of a man parading with a Confederate flag alongside another man holding a WWII era Nazi party flag. I cannot tolerate that. If the Confederate flag *wasn't* a symbol of hatred before, it has become one now, because low people have made it one. They have stained that flag beyond redemption in my lifetime, and have quite probably stained it forever. As long as I live, I can never forgive them for that.

Robert Edward Lee is a personal hero of mine. I admire and respect the man for many reasons, but none more important than for the way he conducted himself after the Civil War. He could very easily have taken to the mountains, gathered others around him, and waged a bloody and destructive guerilla war that would have fractured America even further than the Civil War itself had done. Instead he signed an honorable surrender at Appomattox, went home, and began doing all that he could to start rebuilding the country. He accepted a job at a small struggling Virginia school and spent the rest of his days working to educate young leaders who would themselves work to rebuild the state and the nation into a more just society. Robert E. Lee died doing that work, and I respect and honor him for it. The many statues and memorials honoring him in America are well deserved and serve to remind Americans that honor, duty, and working for justice as Lee tried to do are worthy standards to live our own lives by.

But after the events of yesterday, if I could do so I would go to Charlottesville, knock that statue of my hero down with a sledge hammer, and throw the fragments into the sea. And do you know who would stand beside me and help me do it if he were alive today? Robert E. Lee himself, that's who. The same people who have co-opted and disgraced the Confedrate flag now shame and disgrace other memorials to our past, such as that statue of Lee in Charlottesville, and they do so apparently with a complete lack of understanding that their words and actions dishonor the man whose statue they rally around, and that they disgrace the most important things that Lee stood for in his life.

Robert E. Lee would weep if he could see what those people have done in his name. As a Virginian I am weeping now at the shame of it.

Take down those statues; take down and hide away those flags. We Americans have obviously failed to learn the lessons of our great and terrible Civil War. As long as something like the events that happened yesterday in Charlottesville can still happen, we don't deserve to raise our eyes and see the image of a man like Robert E. Lee. He would be ashamed of what we have become."