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Deconstructing Stigma: Finding a Way to Recover from Mental Illness

February 8, 2018 Print

The following story features Joe F., a 33-year-old author from New York and participant in our Deconstructing Stigma: A Change in Thought Can Change a Life mental health public awareness campaign. Told through the eyes of its participants, this campaign boldly challenges the misconceptions of what those with mental illness look like and is intended to spark conversation. To learn more, visit

Since elementary school, Joe has had trouble with something that comes so naturally to most people—sleep.

“I would be up until two in the morning, rolling around in bed. At 3am, I would get up, get dressed for school, and go back to bed in my clothes for a few hours. That way, when my alarm went off, I could just run to the bus stop.”

Deconstructing Stigma participant JoeDespite his sleep patterns, good grades always came easily to Joe. He played music and was good at sports. Yet Joe frequently felt anxious. Just days after he started college, the 9/11 attacks happened and placed a cloud over daily life. One night, Joe felt unmotivated to do schoolwork, and a friend introduced him to the drug Adderall.

“I finished a five-page paper in just a few hours. I went to the doctor and told him I had tried it. I walked out of there with a prescription for Adderall, along with a benzo for anxiety and an antidepressant.”

It was the start of a decade-long love/hate relationship with medication. The drugs would help for a year or so, and then the upper and downers would impact Joe’s sleep. He would have major depressive episodes and wind up in detox and the hospital. The cycle would repeat again and again. Making matters worse, Joe began having psychotic episodes, talking to himself about spaceships and someone trying to kill him. Doctors prescribed more medication.

“My insides were numb, melting. I wanted to kill myself every second.”

It was 2013 when Joe decided there must be another way. He found a new doctor who taught him meditation techniques and proper nutrition and referred him to an herbalist to help manage his symptoms. Joe repaired relationships with friends and family. He wanted to give back and looked to the diary entries he made over the years as a possible way to help others.

“When I was a mess, people were handing me 300-page self-help books. I wanted to write something short that described how I was feeling and what I learned.”

Joe has published three books of insight and poetry about his illness, with part of the proceeds going to mental health organizations. He still sees a psychiatrist regularly. Someday, he wants to work with kids with learning disabilities or mental health issues.

“Writing helped me find some light and some peace. Hopefully, it can help others out there feel like they aren’t alone.”