I have been racking my brain trying to recall when it was that I first “met” Gabe, and I just can’t. It’s not because it was unremarkable, it’s because I just feel like I’ve always know him. Gabe has that way about him – he makes everyone feel like they are his buddy. He’s approachable, knowledgeable and down to earth. Gabe is one of a kind, and it has been an educational treat to follow his success. Nominated in three different categories for the 4th Annual WEGO Health Activist Awards, Gabe was a finalist in the category of Health Activist Hero. In 2014 He was nominated for Psych Central’s Mental Health Hero Award. He was gracious enough to answer a few questions that I had for him. Thank you Gabe, for all that you do to bring awareness, help others, and kick ass in general.
An Interview With Gabe Howard
Nicole: Hi Gabe! I’m new to this interview thing, this should be fun. Thank you so much for taking part in The Lithium Chronicles’ Mental Health Warriors 2015 Blog Event. When I decided I wanted to do something to acknowledge Mental Health Awareness Month, you were one of the first people to come to mind. I had to snag you. So thank you again. I want to congratulate you on being chosen as a finalist in this years WEGO Health Activist Awards for Health Activist Hero, what an accomplishment, and very well deserved.
Gabe: I really, really want to thank you. I know I am preaching to the choir a bit, but this is really hard work. The hours and the pay are terrible. 😉 The things that make it worthwhile are meeting great people and being recognized for the work I do. So, thank you for both being a great person that I got to meet and for recognizing the work that I do.
Nicole: Just in case anyone is new here to Earth, and doesn’t already know, you’re a Mental Illness Speaker, Writer, and Activist. Why did you choose to go this route? Was there a defining moment for you where you said to yourself, “I have to do this, it’s my calling” or was it more of a process?
Gabe: Ha! You make it sound like I’m famous and I’m just a little guy. Don’t stop, I’m just pointing it out. 🙂
It was both. It is a calling. I mean, helping people is a calling. Before I was diagnosed I used to volunteer for all kinds of things. I enjoyed giving back; meeting people, and I really liked the warm and fuzzy feeling I got. The process was going from helping people as a volunteer thing to helping people as a career choice.
I started out in computers. I think everyone in the 90s did something technology related. It paid well and I enjoyed it. When I was diagnosed — or when the illness finally was more than I could handle on my own (and I wasn’t really handling it well, mind you) it really changed my focus. After a period of time I was fired from that job (stigma at its finest) and then I had to sort of reinvent myself.
I started volunteering for mental health charities — both because I wanted to help other people like me and because I was attending support groups, etc., and I wanted to contribute. That volunteerism turned into speaking and writing and eventually I was hired by a mental health non-profit and it just kept growing. I work every day and I hope it just keeps growing. 🙂
Nicole: In addition to your own site gabehoward.com you have your own blog Don’t Call Me Crazy on Psych Central, and before that one on Healthy Place, where I read some great tips written by you on how to manage your anxiety. Do you ever find that your anxiety tries to invade during any of your public events, or do you have that pretty much under control now?
Gabe: I think the biggest lie people living with mental illness tell themselves is that “we pretty much have it under control now.” Believe me, by comparison — I’m a recovery rock star. I was diagnosed in 2003 and the difference is amazing. I have coping skills, experience, and treatment and I worked so hard, so very hard. But, mental illness is an asshole — and it never, ever goes away 100%. So sometimes, despite my best efforts, I lose a round. But, that is okay. I just pick myself up and keep moving. That is all I can do.
Nicole: Have you had your own personal experience with stigma?
Gabe: How much space do you have? 🙂 I’ve been fired from my job, told I’m having an episode when I disagreed with someone (respectfully), ignored, mocked, laughed at, insulted, attacked.
I think you’d be hard pressed to find someone with mental illness who hasn’t been discriminated against. The stereotypes, the fear, the misinformation is so strong that most of the people discriminating against us don’t even realize they are doing it. The majority of stigma doesn’t came from malice — but from lack of understanding.
Nicole: I can’t count how many times I’ve been told the same thing; “you’re having an episode.” It’s like a weapon of ignorance to be used against you.
Gabe: It isn’t difficult to find a reason to discount someone’s opinions, thoughts, or voice. Whether it is because they are young, old, male, female, white, black, smart, dumb, mentally ill, religious, not religious, wrong religion, gay, straight, and on and on and on. If someone is closed minded they will find a reason to ignore you. While it hurts me when they doing this — it really says more about them than us.
But we suffer the consequences of their ignorance — and that isn’t fair and needs to change.
Nicole: What has been the biggest challenge for you to overcome when standing up as a face of mental illness?
Gabe: I am easy to ignore. Oh sure, people listen. But, when I am done saying what I have to say it is really, really easy for people to think, “Well, sure. But, he is bipolar, so he’s probably wrong.” I find myself saying all the time “I’m not making this up” because I’m easily dismissed.
Every day I am marginalized, ignored, and discriminated against. And all I can do is put on a brave face and keep moving forward. Living with bipolar is hard and being marginalized is hard. It is a one-two punch that leaves me emotionally drained a lot of the time. But, just because the game is rigged — doesn’t mean there isn’t value in playing it. My work will, hopefully, make life easier for someone else.
Nicole: Do you believe that our society is making strides when it comes to acceptance and education regarding mental health?
Gabe: In a manner of speaking, yes I do. People are much more open about seeing a therapist for example. Mental Health charities are bigger than ever before. There are a lot more support groups in 2015 than in 1995. All of these things are positive and worthy of acknowledgment.
But, if you need a million dollars and start with zero and then 10 years later you have $100,000.00 – You are making strides toward that million — but you would still be a long, long way off.
Nicole:What do you believe needs to be done in order for people to finally realize that mental health is a priority?
Gabe: First, and I can’t believe I have to say this; people need to realize that mental health and physical health are (ready for it) — health. Everyone has mental health just like everyone has physical health. If you are alive you have mental health — most people have good mental health. But things like grief and trauma can effect anyone. Mental Illness (like me living with bipolar disorder as example) is a chronic life long illness that occurs less frequently — but we aren’t throw away people.
Second, let’s start teaching mental illness, suicide awareness, mental health in schools. Pretty much every 5 year old on the planet understands broken bones but most people will never break a bone. Knowledge is power.
Finally, get the correct information. Society believes people with mental illness are dangerous — I’d be afraid of me, too, if I didn’t know better. Violence is scary. Replace fear with facts.
Society needs to accept responsibility for our collective mental health and, at the very least, learn the basics.
Nicole: I absolutely believe the school has a responsibility to be teaching our kids about mental health. Look at The Girl Scouts down there in The US. They teamed up with The International Bipolar Foundation and are now receiving patches for completing Mental Health courses. It’s Brilliant!
Gabe: Children are little sponges when it comes to knowledge. There really is truth to the saying you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. If you grow up believing something (like the mentally ill are violent for example) and then one day someone says, “Hey, that thing you have believed your entire life isn’t true.” — You can see where a normal person would resist.
Nicole: I have to talk about how difficult it is at times to put your story out there and be that person that lays everything out for other people to judge. I have been personally attacked, on Twitter and my Facebook Page, and sadly sometimes my first reaction is to call someone a dickhead and proceed to get down and engage in the same type of behaviour that they are gunning for. I am working on it though, but I am definitely guilty of this. Look at that troll last Friday when I did the #FF with the “inspiring peeps” He Retweeted me and called us, and a bunch of other awesome people “sycophants”. My reaction was to call him a dickhead, but, I closed my laptop, then I opened it, trolled him, thought, “he may need some help for some issues” and blocked him. I know it upset some of the people I mentioned in the tweet, others not at all.
Gabe: I love human emotions because the appropriate response is to feel anger at being attacked. I was called a war profiteer and accused of taking advantage of people with mental illness – so anger is the appropriate emotion. That said, it isn’t the best response. The best response to consider the circumstances — as you said, he probably needed help himself. It is also possible he truly feels this way but because he doesn’t understand. Not every “attack” comes from a place of malice — sometimes it comes from a place of misinformation, misunderstanding, or just plain old stupidity.
I have a process in my head when someone attacks me where I can choose to educate or instigate. Believe me, I want to instigate. I want to stand up and yell at the person for treating me, and my friends, so poorly. But, I realize that making an enemy will not further my goals — making a friend will. And, if that person doesn’t listen, it is important to remember that social media and live audiences, public forums, etc, are public. Someone is always watching and I want them to see me as a trusted source of quality information and someone who raises good points. I can’t educate anyone while calling them a dickhead — even though I fully acknowledge it would sometimes feel good. 🙂
Nicole: And that is why you are the professional and I am not. I bow to you, friend, and thank you for doing everything that you do. Thanks for taking the time to talk with me and answer my questions. I hope you never stop roaring. As you always you say, you’re #awesomepotatoes