Mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of
Leslie is a lover of the arts, a philanthropist, and an accomplished businesswoman. She is also a caregiver who has spent her life supporting loved ones with psychiatric disorders.
Well before she married internationally renowned artist Dale Chihuly, who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder a couple of years before they met, Leslie was familiar with the deep depressions and extreme highs associated with the disorder.
Growing up in the panhandle of Texas and Oklahoma, Leslie witnessed her mother cycle through depression and mania that eventually led to unexplained absences from the family. Leslie only later learned the mysterious absences occurred when her mom was hospitalized.
When I was in the third grade, I began to notice my mom’s mental health decline, where she had big ups and big downs. It was very hard for me because I was still a child, but I was on the front line. I had to become the parent to my little sister and the caregiver to my mom.
During one of her mom’s hospitalizations, Leslie received a delicate red rose ring in the mail from her mom. More than 40 years later, Leslie still wears it as a way of remembering her mom, who succumbed to mental illness and took her own life at the age of 76.
Even as an adult, losing my mom to suicide was shameful. I couldn’t talk about it at first, but then I realized there was nothing to be ashamed of and that by being honest about her death, I was able to get the support that I needed to heal. I also realized that by talking about it, I was helping others cope and understand.
Leslie’s unyielding support of her mom, as well as for other family members and friends who suffered from psychiatric disorders and addiction, gave her the compassion and empathy she would need as she and Dale learned to cope with his mental illness.
I think my experience with my family prepared me to be a good caregiver and partner to Dale. The story of Dale and me is a story of overcoming and doing things to make the world a beautiful place in spite of the personal losses we’ve experienced.
As Leslie reflects on the trajectory of her life as a mental health caregiver, she understands that when she was growing up—in the late 60s and early 70s—shame prevented people from discussing mental illness openly. Now, as an adult, a wife, a mother, a mentor, and an advocate, she is making a commitment to raising awareness about mental illness and erasing the stigma of these illnesses.
She and Dale chose not to hide his diagnosis of bipolar disorder from their friends, family, or staff.
Talking about mental illness is a huge step forward, and I hope as a society we get to a point where we can all speak openly about these disorders without fear of judgment. Mental illness is like any other chronic disease like heart disease or diabetes. It’s not something that will go away, but it is something that we can work with and manage.