This was originally published in Loop Weekly online on June 7, 2017.
I have been to approximately 243 graduation ceremonies in my 26 years as a reporter, but I can say without hesitation that I have never been to a ceremony like I attended June 1.
My niece Molly has always held both a soft spot in my heart and been a tremendous source of heartache. She has battled emotional and mental illness issues for most of her 19 years with us. Her mom, my sister, has been her unwavering champion all while being the target of most of her rage.
At times, it has caused large fractures and emotional damage across my family. I heard about much of this damage from afar, supporting as much as I could by phone from the South. One of the biggest bonuses of moving to Methuen has been the chance to be an in-person support for both my sister and for Molly.
Being here, seeing her often, I began to get a different perspective on my niece. I saw the wonderful girl that was there between the outbursts. I saw what triggered the anxiety attacks and how close she came to ending up in longer-term mental health care.
Too many of us write off mental illness as a plague upon our society without actually taking the time to see the people behind the issues. It doesn’t help that any time there is a mass murder or horrific tragedy, mental illness is seemingly always at the core. As a result, the media has been complicit in creating a blanket categorization of anyone with mental illness as a looney or a crazy person.
It’s just not the case. Some with mental illness are too ill to be functional in society. But so many, the vast majority of those suffering from depression and other ails, can manage the illness with support and live productive lives. Getting over the shame and stigmas to ask for that support is so often the hardest but most critical step.
Molly has lived with her father in Florida and, for much of her teen life, with her mother here in Methuen. She has bounced between schools as teachers and administrators have taken the easy path in passing her on to the next paper pusher in both states’ pathetically convoluted and painfully inadequate mental health support system.
Finally, Molly found a true home at Haverhill Alternative School. She found a dedicated team of educators, many like Patricia Wood from Methuen, who saw her individual abilities and taught her to embrace and coexist with her disabilities. They worked with her on life skills and on minimizing the bursts of anxiety and self doubt that had crippled her along most of her educational path.
Molly went from a scary turn in mental hospitals just a year ago to a cap and gown as she and her three other senior classmates were celebrated at Winnekenni Castle, the setting itself yet another sign of how principal John DePolo and his staff go to incredible lengths to celebrate their pupils’ successes.
My sister was selected to give a speech representing the family’s perspective, a heartfelt message that had the room in tears, honoring the students, the parents and the unwavering commitment from the staff to get to this once unimaginable finish line.
The teachers personalized speeches for each graduate, and in sharing their courageous journeys, all families got a welcome reminder that their battle, while unique and personal, was a shared triumph in what often feels like an isolated and insurmountable fight.
Molly is as bright as she is shy and unsure of her worth and abilities. She scored many awards beyond the diploma at the ceremony in what became a night my family will never forget.
Being part of the mental illness struggle, we become jaded and focused on all the so-called leaders that fail our children. This is the first time I got to meet the champions at HAS that my sister has raved about for the past year.
After the ceremony, I found myself embracing folks who were strangers just two hours before — wishing I could duplicate their passion and playbook for seeing the gifts beyond the illness.
I pray for my niece every night, that she can have one more day of victory over the unpredictable demons that wreak havoc in her brain. At a castle high atop a steep and winding road, I discovered hope that this was indeed just the beginning of a lifetime of victories.
Over Medium is both the way Tim sees life (cynical with a runny yoke of optimism) and the way he likes his eggs. Reach Tim at 978-633-8800 or by email at email@example.com.