Note: This is a transcription of the speech given on September 20, 2018 at Fordham University.
Thanks for coming out tonight to Fordham’s Psych Club’s first ever Mental Health Speak Out and Open Mic Night. I’m super stoked to be here and help be apart of providing a safe space for people to talk about their mental health experiences, raise awareness, and break down stigma.
My name is Cori Amato Hartwig and I’m a writer, musician, editor, and mental health activist. Along with my impressive resume of being an unemployed recent grad—I run the weirdly viral mental illness meme account on Instagram, @manicpixiememequeen. I started the account started in March 2017 after I had the worst manic episode of my life to date, and I was overwhelmed pretty much every aspect of my life. So naturally, I started making memes and posting them for strangers on the Internet to see. Originally, it was just a place for me to shout my feelings and experiences into a void, but the account started gaining traction, and then I realized: “Holy shit. Other people get this too. It’s not just me.” And now the account has 70,000 followers or something absurd. My previously perceived sense of isolation because of my mental illness has completely dissolved in this community built around finding solace in humor and through sharing my experiences openly.
Recently, I was featured in NYLON Magazine; they wanted to interview me about mental illness memes and their potential benefits and pitfalls, and to me, I really could not name a pitfall. The interviewer asked me if memes are “normalizing the negative behaviors and mindsets that come along with having a mental illness,” and I told her that memes are not the problem. Silence is the problem. Silence is not strength and it never will be. Silence is poison. We need to normalize mental illness and the experiences that come along with it. We also need to normalize treatment for mental illness.
Of course, that part of the interview was not published—along with comments I made about the accessibility of treatment and healthcare for mental illnesses.
The day that I sent that interview off to NYLON, Lizz contacted me on Instagram asking if I would come to Fordham and be a guest speaker. Honestly, I am totally honored that she’d even extend the invitation. Then I realized that this is so much bigger than just me making memes about mental illness. It’s not about the memes at all, actually. It’s simply about having a public platform—whether that be comedy, writing, music, or art—it’s about having a public platform to safely express and share experiences and create a dialogue, because the mainstream media isn’t doing it. So it falls on us to start talking and keep talking.
We’re all here tonight despite the stigma, despite the guilt, despite the lack of dialogue, despite the pain—despite it all, we are here tonight.
Unfortunately, there are people who are not here tonight.
In January, I was in the hospital at risk for a cardiac arrest due to anorexia. Luckily I had access to professional care, even though my parents had to pay up the ass in copays and medical bills in order to save my life. Without them and without treatment, I would be dead, and I would not be here tonight.
A month after my own brush with death relating to mental illness, my uncle killed himself. It was not his first attempt, and Keith was not my first uncle lost to suicide. In June 2014, right after I graduated high school, my uncle Todd took his own life.
My family is incredibly open and we’re all clearly afflicted by mental health issues to some degree or another. We have bipolar, depression, anxiety, phobias, obsessive-compulsive disorder, addiction, eating disorders. We’re like the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual in the form of a family. Growing up in this large, vocal, and mentally ill family helped me realize where the shame part of mental illness fits in. The answer is it doesn’t. I’ve excluded shame from my personal narrative; I refuse to carry it. I have enough shit to carry otherwise. But we’re subjected to silence so frequently that we start thinking that we should be hiding and that we should be quiet and that we should carry shame.
So tonight, we’re going to do the opposite of that. We are not going hide, we’re not going to be quiet, and tonight—there is no shame in this room. We’re going to leave the stigma at the door, and we’re going to have the most fun and supportive session of group therapy that you’ve ever been to.
If you feel safe and able to do so, share your story, share your experiences, share your art. Tonight this space is ours, and I want to make sure that everyone feels comfortable and no one feels pressured. So, whether you are here because you want to share or if you’re here just to listen, all I ask is that we keep this space respectful, unassuming, compassionate, and supportive. I also want to make sure that what is shared here is respected with the confidentiality that everyone deserves.