This Powerful Photo Series Challenges the Way We Talk About Mental Illness

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As a woman of color living with depression, Dior Vargas knows a thing or two about what it’s like to feel marginalized. She decided to do something about it.

Vargas, 27, embarked on a moving photo project that provides a space to recognize mental illness on a public forum. Deemed the People of Color & Mental Illness Photo Project, the idea behind the series is to create a community that helps people of color with mental illnesses feel less alone.

“I wanted to humanize mental illness in a way that’s more accessible to others,” Vargas told The Mighty.

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Vargas says she arrived at the idea after connecting with other women of color with mental illnesses on Twitter. She found solace in finally sharing her experiences with others who have similar stories. This comfort, she says, was something she lacked growing up. Mental illness is a topic notoriously swept under the rug, and Vargas felt that those who do speak out about it are most likely caucasian.

“Maybe if I’d seen equal representation [of people of color] growing up, I wouldn’t have felt so alone,” she told The Mighty.

A self-described “Latina feminist mental health activist,” Vargas’s feminism plays a large part in how she thinks about mental illness.

“It’s what first sparked my thoughts about the different dimensions of individuals and giving voice to people who are silenced,” she said.

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Since the project was officially launched last fall, Vargas has received more than 30 submissions, all of which are posted on her website. She’s additionally working on an anthology of writings by people of color about their experience with mental illness and is currently accepting submissions.

See some of the remarkable submissions below.

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Amanda

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IleanaLopez

Jaime

JillianFord

h/t Mic

Photos courtesy of the People of Color & Mental Illness Photo Project

To submit a photo or piece of writing to either of Dior’s ongoing projects, email her at dior.vargas@gmail.com.

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The Day My Baby Boy Was Diagnosed as ‘Profoundly Deaf’

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Thinking back on the date September 12, 2012 stirs many deep feelings inside of me. It was our D-Day… Diagnosis Day. The day my baby boy was diagnosed as being profoundly deaf. The day the life I knew ended and the day a new life, one as the parent of a child with special needs, began.

I see myself sitting in that little room alone with only my baby and the doctor who broke the news. I was scared, sad and lost. I didn’t know where to go, what to do, how to think or why. Why him. Why my baby? Why me?

Now, almost two and a half years later, and after another diagnosis of sensory integration disorder, I wish I could tap myself on the shoulder and whisper to myself a few secrets about the future. A few little secrets that would have lifted my downcast head and dried the tears upon my cheeks. Secrets that would have given pause to my fears and replaced them with little glimmers of hope and tiny inklings of wonder. If only I could have seen then what I see now, this is what I would have told myself that day:

“You may not be able to heal him, but he will heal you.”
He will heal you of your flawed definitions of “perfection” and “normal.” There’s no such thing as normal, and perfection is the love, innocence and joy he exudes. He will heal your desire to control life and remind you of the importance of faith. He will heal your selfishness and replace it with compassion and empathy.

“You will meet amazing people along the way, people you could not imagine a life without.”
The doctors, specialists and therapists you connect with will make an impact that lasts a lifetime. You will forge deep bonds with other parents who are going through similar issues, and they will be a built-in support system you come to rely on.  

“You will learn about unconditional love.”

We all long to be loved and accepted no matter what we do or who we are, and your child is no different. He cannot do anything to earn your love; in fact, he will bring a lot of challenges you didn’t expect, yet you will love him more than anything. Likewise, he will see you in your most exhausted, frustrated moments, and still, he will be your biggest fan.

“You’ll be part of a miracle every day.”
After Junior gets his cochlear implants, you will see a miracle every single day. Tears — happy, happy ones — will sting your eyes when he hears you whisper, “I love you” and whispers, “uh lub oo” back. You will call to him from downstairs and he will run out of his bedroom, wondering what you want. You will ask him to hand you his plate and he will. He will try to sing along at church, he will ask you for more apple juice, he will bob his head when the radio is on. He will always be deaf, and yet he will hear you. And you will never, ever take that for granted.

“You will get the encouragement to keep going when you need it most.” 
There will be days where you’re tired and sore about your circumstances, but you will also come to rely on the little breezes that give you rest and encouragement. Just when you feel ready to give up, something will happen to keep you going. You will meet another parent further down this path that can give you a glimpse of good things to come, someone will send you an encouraging article or quote, or your child will do something to remind you that it’s all OK. It’s all worth it.

“You would not change him.”
Yes, there are many parts about his deafness and sensory processing issues you will want to change. You will long for a good night’s sleep (I might leave out the part where he’s still not sleeping through the night at 2 years old.) You will be sad when people treat him different for no reason, you will get jealous of the parents who don’t seem to work as hard as you do, and you will still ask “why.” “Why” will never end. But, you will also come to a beautiful place where you accept every part of who he is and realize that all those parts make up the perfect little boy you love.

I know you can’t imagine what this path is going to hold. God created this path for you… you’ll never know why, but you’ll take great comfort in knowing it didn’t just happen. You were made for this. It will be a trek, but always remember this: the higher the mountain, the more incredible the views. And from here, the view is pretty good. You’ve come a long way. Sure, there are some other, higher mountains in the distance, but a future me will have to share those secrets later. I’m sure the view will be even better.

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When I Was Honest About My Autism in My Online Dating Profile

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10398525_1104670020650_2626378_n Do you remember the old saying that there are plenty of fish in the sea? Well, I’ve had a hard time accepting that the past couple of months. In the process of losing a special girlfriend, I fell into a bad place. I thought she was amazing. In my efforts to work on myself to show her I could be better, I wrote several blogs about our relationship — “The One That Got Away” was featured on both The Mighty and The Autism Society of America’s blog.

During this time, my self-esteem was at an all-time low. Out of all the women I dated, this one clearly mattered the most to me. But I learned you can’t wait to see how things are going to turn out; you need to live your life the best you can and let whatever will be, be. I needed to move on and make sure I didn’t make the same mistakes twice.

That’s when I entered the world of online dating. It was something I’ve always encouraged my mentees with autism to try. It seemed like a good alternative for those who have difficulties with face-to-face communication. For me, communication with my peers, no matter the method, now comes easily. It wasn’t always this way. Being able to speak on a national level about my life with autism gave me the opportunity to build confidence in who I am.

With the end of this break up, though, I wanted to try something new and something I’ve advocated for in our community for years. I decided to try it for one month. I started off with eHarmony and later joined Match.com, OkCupid and Coffee Meets Bagel.

As the trial month went on, I noticed both positives and negatives to the online dating scene. First, there’s no guarantee when you reach out to someone that they’re going to contact you back. This was probably the hardest part of my experience. How do you make that amazing first impression? I tried many things: I complimented photos, asked questions about interests listed on their profiles, told jokes, etc. The first week was definitely the most challenging of all because nothing seemed to work. I was beginning to lose hope.

When I thought all was lost the “aha!” moment happened inside my head while I was pitching a story to a local news station about my giving a speech about autism awareness at J.P. Morgan. I had a moment of clarity. I didn’t need a gimmick. I didn’t need a pick-up line. Maybe I just needed to tell them who I was. Who I really was.

I start telling these women my story — how I was nonverbal until I was 2 and a half, how I was diagnosed with autism at 4, how many people thought I may never have a girlfriend, how now, at 27, I’ve become a professional speaker who’s had several relationships. It was just a shot out of the dark. “Why not?” I kept telling myself. What do I have to lose at this point? I sent my first message to one woman on eHarmony before I went to bed, and at 2 a.m. my email ring went off on my iPhone with a response.

“Jasmine wants to get to know you.”

That moment right there was enough for me. The next day we started talking, and even though we ultimately didn’t end up dating, that wasn’t my last message on a dating site. The next day, I sent out more messages; more and more women were responding positively.

I’ve begun talking with a few amazing women, and I have to say, I’m excited to see what happens next. My confidence was low, but the best lesson I think I learned from a rocky and shaky couple of months is that there’s a right person out there for everyone, you just have to be willing to work on yourself and be true to who you are and what you have to offer.

For those on the spectrum, I hope you hold that dear to you every day. We all have our quirks out there, but at the end of the day you have to be comfortable with who you are before you can expect someone else to do the same. Be who you are, love who you are, and ultimately, whether it’s in a relationship or not, you will be happy with your results every time.

You can read this original blog at Kerrymagro.com.

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This Burn Victim Turned Tattoo Artist Is Helping Hundreds of People Regain Their Confidence

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When Basma Hameed was 2 years old, she and her 8-year-old brother were playing in the kitchen. He decided they should surprise their parents by cooking a meal for them. While trying to move a pot of boiling oil to the sink, he tripped over his sister and spilled on her. Hameed suffered burns to 40 percent of the left side of her face.

“Growing up I would hate going to school because you’re constantly being stared at and made fun of,” Hameed told The Mighty. “This was on my face; it’s not like I could hide it.”

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Until she was 16, Hameed underwent 100 different surgeries and procedures but still lived with red discoloration on her face and visible scarring. Plastic surgeons told her over and over again they’d done all they could for her and she would just have to live with the marks. Finally, she grew sick of hearing “no.”

When Hameed was 17 she became an apprentice at a tattoo parlor in Toronto while simultaneously studying medical aesthetics. She applied her knowledge from both fields to herself — she began tattooing her own face. Little by little, she worked on covering up and blending her scars and discoloration with tattoos.

“I was so happy,” she told The Mighty. “When I started seeing improvement, it was everything. That little bit of improvement gave me the confidence to go outside and live my life.”

Basma Hameed (left) with a client (right).
Basma Hameed (left) with a client (right).

Hameed knew right away that she wanted to help others regain their confidence as well. After four years of freelance work with several plastic surgeons, she started her own business — the Basma Hameed Clinic.

“It’s the best feeling in the world because you know you’re doing something that’s literally changing people’s lives,” Hameed told The Mighty. “I’ve seen the transformation in front of my eyes so many times. After we do a few treatments, [the patient] becomes a brand new person. I’m so grateful that I’m able to do that for them.”

Check out some before and after photos of some of the clients at the Basma Hameed clinic below: 

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Her clinic has locations in both Toronto and Chicago, and she’s received widespread media attention for her success as a paramedical scar camouflage specialist. She’s even developed and marketed her own scar-concealing makeup.

But despite the success of her business, the most important thing to Hameed remains the message she represents.

“I want to share my story because it gives hope to people,” she told The Mighty. “Don’t let anything like that stop you from living. Don’t let it control your life.”

See Hameed in action in the video below: 

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Why I Consider Myself Lucky To Have Siblings With Autism

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I’m no autism expert.

Who I am is a sister, daughter and mom of autism, which makes me something of an autism student.

Our home was uniquely balanced. There were eight kids — four girls and four boys. The four boys all have a range of disabilities. Us girls became mom’s right-hand ladies: babysitters, walkers-to-school, sharers-of-chores and all around brother-helpers.

Yes, our home was uniquely balanced. It was also beautifully unique.

Most of our neighbors never liked us for long. We challenged them to change, to open their minds. My mom never allowed my brothers to be treated as little disabled boys. She believed in them and treated them as boys who were uniquely challenged to learn skills. She knew those skills could be learned if the world would allow for unique answers. This, coupled with the different places my brothers landed on the spectrum, often looked wild and weird to outsiders. (Also, the neighbors weren’t fond of us teenage girls having noisy parties when mom worked. Oops!)

So, siblings, hear me when I say, I get it. We’re put in a unique position, and we don’t always like it. We’re sometimes looked at with pity and distaste and expectations, and we don’t always like it. But please also hear me when I say, We’re the lucky ones. We’re put in a unique position.

Helping my mom teach my brothers has made me a better person, a better daughter, a better sister and a better mom. I learned to see ability where others see none. I learned to follow clues and symptoms to find actionable answers. I learned to feel the love returned where others might fear it’s lacking.

And now that we’re all fully grown, I have four fantastic friends in my brothers. Yes, they sometimes annoy me, as I’m sure I annoy them. Yes, they sometimes seem like work to me, as I’m sure I seem like work to them. We’re siblings. That’s what we do.

Because of each other, we’re better, happier and more successful. Siblings have a unique opportunity to connect with someone who truly knows them and who truly loves them for who they are and who they’ve been.

No matter who you are or who your sibling is, don’t let that opportunity slip away. You may not become best friends in the end, but you can always be best siblings.

Trust me, it’s worth it.

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This post originally appeared on Autism Answers With Tsara Shelton.

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Why Our Daughter With Autism Is Everything We Dreamed She’d Be and More

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We loved you long before we ever knew you. From those early wishes and hopes for what your untold future would be, to the first beats of your heart and kicks of your feet. We made plans for you, aspiring deeply to paint a picture hand-over-hand of the future you would have, one as beautiful as the love we felt for you.

We read to you every night as you nestled deep inside my womb, uncertain if you could even hear us, but believing that you could. As we lifted the words off the page we let them be your story, written by another, but told by our hearts. We allowed ourselves to think you owned them as if they were meant for you.

We engraved those words upon your baby blanket so when you made your entrance into this world we could wrap you in their warmth and familiarity. We folded you tightly like a package, the visible corner underneath your Heaven-made face read:

           Gaze at the stars,

           and watch the moon rise.

           Each day there are miracles,

           in front of our eyes.

           Dance to the music,

           and sing like the birds.

           Let stories and books,

           bring the magic of words.

           Enjoy friendship and laughter,

           your whole life through,

           and the love that we feel,

           as we welcome you.

        My Little Miracle by J. Beck and J. Croydon

We watched you grow, and it was ever clear you marched to the beat of your own drummer. You did things your own way, in your own time and within your own expectations. There was never a dull moment within your presence. You lit up each room you entered like the Fourth of July, all eyes on you, everyone else taking a back seat. There were days we feared you would fly so high you would never come back down.

We worried when they said the you that was so special and yet so hard to read, had autism. What would that mean for all the things we wished for you? Would all of our dreams for you now be just out of reach enough to make us ache?

We watch you grow now with this invisible label you wear upon your sleeve, always shedding your layers to reveal what’s underneath — the raw, take-all-or-take-nothing you. You are this amazing force inside a pint-sized body, a constant tangle of knots we’re trying to undo. You refuse to be unwound.

We’ve overflowed with joy as you have checked off each of the dreams we had for you, one by one without even knowing it. You just love looking at the stars. You take in everything like it’s art; the sky to you is like a giant canvas, the stars small specks of paint. Music moves you, your body constantly moving to a silent symphony that plays only for you. You’ve loved books since you could hold one. The first thing we learned you loved to do was count words and letters. When you were 4 years old you told me there were 12,052 Z’s in Daddy’s chapter book. You were so proud of yourself. Words are definitely your magic, and boy do you love to laugh. Your laughter echoes through our home and down the street.  It’ss impossible not to join in.

We know you will always be uniquely you, and that is just fine. You’ve paved the way, so just continue to lead us behind you, sweet love. We didn’t even know what we wanted until we got it. It’s funny how life works out that way.

Today I realized my heart couldn’t be any more full when you approached me to give me a card you had made. You told me you had been reading your baby blanket every day and that you wanted to write me back a letter to tell me how you felt. Before I even read it I felt my emotions take away my words, no matter what your feelings were; just knowing you were willing and able to share them with me was more than I could ask for. What it said was far more than anything I could have expected:

Dear Mommy,

I am really glad that you are my Mommy.

I love you so so much.

No matter where you are I will always love you.

Love,

Me

We know you feel loved. You my love are our little miracle.

This post originally appeared on Learning to Let Go: A Different Dream for Us.

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