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Gabrielle Blackman-Sheppard's Story
In coaching and NLP, there is a lot of emphasis on the importance of walking the walk as well as talking the talk. Gabrielle Blackman-Sheppard risked a lot in writing about her life when it was not going so well. Her courage, as well as helping her and her family make sense of her experience, is also helping readers with Bi-Polar Disorder and other mental health issues.
According to MIND, one in four adults suffers from mental health issues. Surprisingly, though, it is still taboo. There was nothing on the market that was accessible for people going through what I'd been through,' says Gabrielle. I'd lost the ability to function properly for months. In a deep depression, I lost my ability to read, I lost my ability to write. I could only read two or three words a day.'
This left Gabrielle feeling incredibly isolated. 'There's nothing out there to keep you company, to connect with you. So the idea came to address the three levels of illness. When you can't read and can't write, people can just look at the little cartoons. The next stage was for people who could start processing text again. It was a real challenge for me to capture such a huge cataclysmic experience in short sentences.'
Gabrielle wanted the book to go further for people who were that much further along their own personal roads to recovery: 'I started crafting some questions for them for when they are a little better still and reach a stage in their illness where they can start reflecting.'
'I needed to write it for myself to make sense of what had happened to me. So, first and foremost, there was a selfish therapeutic need. Once I had written most of it, obviously, not all in one go, I wanted to bring a smile into the waiting rooms of psychiatrists.'
Gabrielle was used to being asked by her own psychiatrist, 'What can you do now, that you couldn't do last time I saw you?' She took an early copy of Bi- Polar Girl to show him what she had done. 'I thought doctors would laugh it off but he absolutely loved it. He said, "We have the knowledge of the symptoms and medication but we don't have knowledge of the experience." He was so lovely and encouraging, he took it to a medical conference and everyone loved it.' Gabrielle was getting positive feedback from other people, too. 'When my neighbours who had seen me go through it read it, they said, "We had no idea what you were actually going through." I used to give my little homemade copy to friends and families of people who'd been ill.'
Bi-Polar Girl is such an open, raw yet confident book, I had wondered if Gabrielle had been afraid to be so honest about her experience. 'Worried is not the word' she says. 'I was a professional coach. To suddenly collapse with such a destructive, cataclysmic, catastrophic deep reaction... To this day my father and mother don't speak about his illness. The shame reaction came from years of that but also, I struggled with, "I've lost all credibility as a coach."' Instead, Gabrielle says she has been moved by the number of people who have said how brave it was of her, thanking her. 'I've lost no friends and no professional standing. On the contrary. I did not expect that. I coached myself through. By showing your own fragility and weakness and fear, at some level, you allow others to do the same. That's not what I set out to do, though. I was struggling.' Her book's organic evolution has been another lesson for Gabrielle.
'I've always been the kind of person who makes things happen. It was good for me to let things happen.' Apart from the text, the illustrations, showing Gabrielle's journey through various stages of her illness, are delightful. They are extra meaningful to her as they were done by her son, Greg Blackman. This started with a birthday card my son drew for me, when he was 15 or 16. When I started writing, I said to him, "Would you, knowing what you know, having grown up with me, draw me?" I showed him the text and said, "If I asked you to draw them what would you do?" He started drawing emoticons for what I'd done and then sent me additional drawings which I then wrote text for. It was me in my 40s.'
The book has also been important for her parents. Gabrielle's father has the same condition and her experience has allowed her to explain more about her dad to her mother. 'My dad has said, "My god, if I'd had something like that."' Gabrielle is delighted by the positive reception her book has received. 'I'm like a little child that's amazed anything's happening at all. I'm just sitting there with a big grin on my face waiting to see what's going to happen next. I'd be beyond joy if this little book could reach people who need to be reached, help doctors communicate with their patients. A little magical companion, a little smiling companion, for whoever needs it. I'm nearly in a way not wanting to direct it. I've written it, it's out there and I want it to be free to work its magic. 'I remember one day giving the draft to a person who wasn't engaging at my local psychiatric hospital.' Watching her go through each page before giving it back really moved Gabrielle. As far as advising other coaches who are wondering how much of their own struggles to share, she says, 'It's entirely up to them. I always encourage people to clean out their emotional state from guilt and shame. Take a big broom and clear that space. I would encourage them but no one has the right to tell them. The reward is magnificent.'
'My son is now expecting his first biological child, he has adopted his partner's child. Only thing I will say is that we are told that mental illness is on the increase and that by 2025 a quarter of the population will have experienced mental illness. This little child will be coming into the world with a one in four chance. If that happens, what other family could love it, understand it, support it, and encourage it as well as we could? We will love and understand and support and we will put ourselves at his disposal.'
'I may be clinically depressed but I am happy. I can be severely depressed, the more I go into depression, the more challenging remaining with a buoyant spirit is.' This is where Gabrielle's coaching background helps the most. 'My own counsellor was brilliant, she just walked with me. I'm not coaching other people at the moment. I am using my skills on myself but have a waiting list for when I'm ready to return.'
By Eve Menezes Cunningham
This article first appeared in Rapport magazine (Winter 2011/12)