Wednesday, June 22, 2016

The Amazing MHA Conference and a Few Things I Took Home with Me

If you’ve been following along lately, then you’ll know that I spoke at Mental Health America's conference on June 8th. I knew that MHA was a well established organization, but I had no idea that the MHA has been a mental health advocacy organization since 1909. It wasn’t the only bit of new information I learned. I was there for a blip, but I gained so much from the experience. This entry will be long, but I wanted to share with you how I dealt with anxiety. Although I mastered my panic anxiety disorder decades ago, I still have performance anxieties that flare up.

What a shame I was only at the conference for a few hours. Because of the way my flight worked out, and because I couldn’t afford to stay for the whole conference, I flew in Tuesday night, slept the sleep of the jet lagged, then awoke, got ready, packed for my return flight, checked out of the hotel, then rushed off to the conference.

One aspect of anxiety I still deal with is a fear of reaching out to strangers. It’s more comfortable staying home, but it’s also much more boring. This one is an easy one for me to overcome, but I do still need to give myself a push. Once I was registered, I made it a point to meet the people who had helped make it possible for me to be there: America Paredes and Erin Wallace. They were so patient with me as we worked out the travel and panel details over the past few months. My daughter with epilepsy has been having a difficult time these past six months. You have no idea how disruptive her behavior and episodes have been to my schedule, but America and Erin do (Thank you, ladies). Then I sought out my fellow panel members and introduced myself to people. One of the first attendees I met was Amy Oestreicher. She is a TedX speaker, and her enthusiasm for life was refreshing.

Kim & Amy
I soon found Kim Zapata, a fellow panelist , and we struck up a great conversation. I am mostly apartment bound and my social life is one of a stay-at-home school dad. Nobody I know blogs about mental health, or, frankly, cares about the subject, so it was a delightful pleasure to trade blogging stories with a fellow mental health writer. Kim already knew me, which surprised me. When she first began her blogging journey, mine was one of the first blogs on depression that she found. She even found what I wrote helpful. That was very humbling for me. I don’t often get the opportunity to meet face to face with people who read my work. Kim was doing what I wanted to be doing more of, which was freelancing successfully, so I eagerly took mental notes. In fact, I’ve just started reading How to Be a Well-Paid Freelance Blogger by Carol Tice on my flight from Utah, so it was perfect timing to have that conversation.

We couldn’t find Natasha Tracy, the other panelist, so we found a table for the keynote and continued talking. We also struck up a nice conversation with a couple that was already at the table. I couldn’t believe how well I was doing socially. Now, it’s possible that they all have a completely different take on our conversations, but people don’t generally smile warmly while being tortured.

Then Amy popped by. The couple I was chatting with turned out to be Amy’s parents. If I thought Amy was amazing, her parents were more so. When you raise children with disabilities, handicaps, or difficulties, you grow tired of people who don’t share that experience telling you how to parent better. I found kindred spirits in Amy’s parents. We talked about the balance between caring for these children, raising them to adulthood, and letting them take chances with life—letting them live. I was so glad to have met them.

As I sat listening to the passionate keynote speech by Paul Gionfriddo about the history of the MHA and the need for better attitudes towards mental health in this century, I was struck by the presence of all those bright minds in the same room with me, all dedicated towards normalizing mental health, removing stigma, and promoting wellness. I don’t mean to gush. I was more than a little intimidated and in awe by the whole experience. I knew the MHA was big, but this conference showed me exactly how big they were.

Soon, it drew closer to my panel’s time, and I became suddenly nervous. Would I tic? Would I completely forget what I was supposed to say? These were my main concerns, so I stepped outside and let the sun beat down on me, let the breeze blow across my face, leaned on my cane, and just breathed. Controlling anxiety begins with controlling your breathing. It didn't take long before I was ready.

I finally got a chance to chat with Natasha. We’ve known each other for years and have chatted often over Twitter, so meeting her in person was fun. She began blogging about mental health two years before I did. We didn’t have a lot of time to chat, but our shared journey helped her feel like an old friend to me. Then it was time for the panel.

The theme was “Managing Mental Health: Let’s Blog About It”. Kim gave her presentation first. She was strong and inspirational. Then it was suddenly my turn. My shtick is humor, so I was glad that the audience laughed where I expected them to. I plan on writing my presentation up as a blog post, but I probably won’t be able to recreate it. Years ago, I discovered that I give terribly dull talks when I memorize them, so I memorize the outline instead. That way I can stay on point, but still interact dynamically with the audience. I even rolled my unfortunate unzipped fly moment earlier that day into the presentation. It made sense at the time, but for the life of me, I cannot remember how it tied in. If MHA never invites me back, we can point to that moment as the likely culprit.

I remembered everything except sharing my final slide with contact info. I also forgot to mention that my book was on sale…for the conference. If I felt bad about my amateur self-promotion efforts, when Natasha go up, I wanted to crawl underneath my seat. She was so powerful and organized. She didn’t miss a beat self-promoting herself. She also spoke passionately as an advocate for bipolar disorder.

Then the audience had questions, fielded by our very capable moderator, Mike Thornsbury. He did a great job moving the conversations along. We also had a fantastic audience. It really was a memorable experience for me. When people came up to me after the panel and thanked me, or asked me for advice, I was quite humbled. Sometimes I just see myself as a clown, but I forget that others see me in an entirely different light.

Since this entry is already massively long, I’ll spare you the fiascos of my flight home and just summarize with two points. Besides, the real drama was getting strip searched by the TSA on my way to the conference. They claimed my leg brace triggered some type of chemical alarm. The flight back home was a lark in comparison.
  1. The Price. I was so thankful that I had no ticking during my presentation. I didn’t even need my cane, which was ready by my chair. However, as the day wore on, I leaned on that cane more and more. My knee injury was the first thing to pay the price for my jet set jaunt, but the following day, I began a five day ticking episode. I couldn’t even walk. It was tough. But I’d do it all over again. I loved every minute of my trip, especially my short time at the conference. Ticking and insomnia are small prices to pay for such an opportunity.

  2. The Critique. There are so many things I’d like to see done differently. Next time, I’ll practice with a power point presentation so I have muscle memory to aide me in getting that self-promotion slide in. I’ll also have business cards. Although I am glad I wore a shirt & tie to the conference, thus not sticking out like a bum in a sea of Dapper Dans in suits & ties, not having business cards was an amateur move. I’ll also opt for a redeye flight next time so that I can enjoy more of the conference. I’m going to be wiped out by the trip anyway. I might as well get the most out of it before I crash.

    Another thing that I learned is that I am funny. The audience enjoyed my humor. My blog readers used to enjoy it, too, but since my divorce it has been very rare around here. I plan on changing that. In addition, I am one of a few people with ADHD who can write about it coherently, so I should build upon that skill.

    I need to lose 30 lbs. I'm just too uncomfortable in my frame. If I want to do more conferences like this, I need to improve my health and my stamina.

    Lastly, meeting the girls was a highlight in my blogging adventure. Kim left the conference to head over to Blog U, something I've thought of attending before, so maybe I should make plans for that conference, too, or one like it on this side of the continent. Over all, meeting Natasha & Kimberly has inspired me to do more—to step up my game. MHA was a great experience. I would love to be invited back again. I can’t thank all of you enough for supporting me in this journey.

If you thought this article was much too long, you’ll be relieved to learn that my book is a perfect length.