I just read an article about a seventeen year old in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. Typically, I would not talk about any person or any cause they may believe in because no one needs me to bolster their own support. If you don’t believe in what you do, I can’t help you. And truthfully, if you can’t get your own name out there, then you really need to learn how.
But this teenager struck a chord. Maybe it is because her cause is so much like my own. Although strangers, she and I share some of the same thoughts, although the reasons for doing what we are doing is completely different.
The girl in question, Alexis Kauchick of the Eternal Essence Candle Company has been tragically affected by mental illness. This does not make her special. Those of us who suffer daily from mental illness intimately know the real battle that is fought and the battle that is often lost. Alexis, especially at seventeen, can know the consequences of mental illness but there is very little she may be able to comprehend of the true horror of these diseases. And they are horrible in their darkness and their crushing disappointment; no one without the diseases can understand it completely.
But Alexis doesn’t come across as one who is trying to understand. This may be her age, but I think rather, it is wisdom.
Alexis Kauchick makes and sells candles. She donates the proceeds to various organizations that involve themselves in the care and empathy of those with mental illness. She lost her step-brother and a friend both to mental illness, one from a aneurysm (possibly from being an alcoholic) and the other to suicide. Both tragic events, but both so common in this world.
What makes Alexis special is not the candles, nor those she lost, but rather her mission: raising awareness of the diseases that come under the umbrella of mental illness: bipolar, depression, etc. She states broadly that mental illness is often overlooked and misunderstood. She wants to start the conversation…or at least continue it.
I am always skeptical about those who profess to want to help, even when they do the work and try hard to be an participant in the solution. Maybe it comes from years of watching as friends, family and even doctors walked away from me simply because I have a disease they can not understand and they fear like they fear little else. Maybe it is from the years of listening to the words, “Just get out of bed,” or “just try harder,” or my favorite, “it is just in your head.” (Well, duh).
All of this negativity, the times of darkness and great disappointment from those I thought I could count on, or at least were supposed to be ones I could count on, made me extremely doubting, extremely rude and especially extremely disbelieving. I am not one for do-gooders, I think unless you actually know what you are fighting for, you would do the world more good simply listening.
But this teenager intrigues me. I have never heard of her nor her company, and I haven’t actually seen her financials to know the truth of her story. What I know is that very few seventeen year olds get on the mental illness bandwagon. They might raise money for the poor, or donate their prom dresses, but most seventeen year olds can not conceptualize the breadth of mental illness and it certainly isn’t one of the more popular – get you on TV – kind of charities. Mental illness is not recognized in mainstream media (unless they can spin it) much less outside of those who find refuge with others like themselves. Simply put, you will probably put a lot in and get little for your effort.
Can Alexis make a difference? I don’t know and I don’t think I care. The topic of understanding mental illness is still in its infancy. The idea of actually learning and comprehending the ins and outs of the diseases is not accepted by parents much less the community at large. It is a taboo subject in our homes, in our schools, even at times in our doctor’s offices.
How many candles one little girl sells isn’t the point. The point is that someone, young and potentially influential may be able to begin the idea in her neighborhood, in her school. Alexis isn’t the only one out there trying to bring awareness to these diseases, she is just the latest to make the news. So her reach, while maybe temporary great will only last as long as it can – until the rest of the world gets bored. Then it will be the school and the neighborhood that benefits.
The truth is we want the conversations to begin and where they begin doesn’t really matter. Whether it is in the lunch room in some high school, or when we teach our children that other, different children are not bad the goal is the same.
I don’t mean to belittle the goal. It is a goal worthy of mentioning, and I even hope that Alexis’ new fame lasts longer than one news cycle. I want her to succeed because I want what she wants: for the conversations and the thoughts to move in a direction of healing.
Alexis doesn’t have a mental illness, at least not any reported. What she has is an idea. And I concede that everything great started with an idea. But the mental illness community will not find relief from their discrimination, their disappointment, their fear, until others rise up. Until someone stands up and loudly proclaims that not only do they have a mental illness but they are as important and as valuable to this world as anyone else. Someone has to get up on that soapbox.
I don’t know when our cause will have a Margaret Sanger, or a Susan B. Anthony, or a Martin Luther King, Jr. I don’t know when mental illness will be fought not internally but in the outside world. I don’t know many brave enough to stand on that soapbox for mental illness and survive being known for one of the greatest feared and often discriminated diseases this society has ever deemed true. Mental illness stigma has been going on for centuries (AIDs had a shorter shelf life); it is hard to see the future from the ugliness of the past. And no matter how many times we tell ourselves not to look back, it is there. And the past is to this day some of the most important lessons those of us with mental illness will ever learn.
Where is the soapbox man? Or will it be a woman? I can tell you it most likely won’t be a seventeen year old from Florida, but rather someone so loud and so loquacious to finally begin the true dialogue that must occur. Whether it happens in my life or not is not a question I will ever answer in the positive.
Until that person finally comes and shows us what normal really looks like, in all of its dark and depressed ugliness, I guess we keep hoping seventeen year olds have the wherewithal to make some candles.