Hey NAMI Family. It’s Ashley.

I’m ready to talk. For real. It’s time.

Every year around this time, we tell stories of recovery to inspire you and connect you to NAMI’s mission. This year, as I conclude my time as Executive Director, I’m ready to tell a little bit of my own.

When I think about what it means to end stigma, I know that sharing our stories is both the beginning and the end. Every time I decide to take a risk – to crack myself open a little without knowing what will come my way – I’m never disappointed. I feel that hesitation, the doubt that I’m sharing too much, putting myself out there too far. What will people think? And every time I push past that feeling and do it anyway, I am surrounded with a swell of love and connection, of genuine caring. Lifted up by people who say “you’re not alone”.

During my 5 years at NAMI Seattle, you have heard from me in many a ‘Letter from the Executive Director’, on topics from crisis intervention to the impacts of immigration policy on mental health. I love to write. I love talking to you. I love knowing that we’re all in this together, that so many of us care about and value similar things. That we’re willing to share some of ourselves to change the way things are.

Sometimes there’s a loudness in the things we don’t say.

I haven’t talked at length about my own mental health struggles. Or at all. I have found it easier to lean on my other identities: as a mental health professional, as the kid of two parents with mental health conditions and a list of impacted family members so long it’s easier to name who does not have a mental health problem.

But I’m getting braver. About once a year, I have too much static and darkness pressing in on me keep it to myself. Eventually it overflows.

Last week, I sat at my desk and looked down at brightly colored workout pants that have seen better days, my running shoes with a hole over the pinkie toe. It was not an impressive outfit, definitely not something I usually wear to work. But it was an accomplishment that I had mustered the strength to leave the house. I kicked my feet up on my desk and laugh-cried.

The dark hilarity of it bubbled up inside me and I decided to share this photo and the day’s experience with high-functioning depression and anxiety on my personal social media. I was floored as comments poured in, people stopping to tell me they’ve been there, too.

“I know this feeling.”

“Girl, saaaame.”

“I feel this so much. Thanks for sharing.”

“Thank you for sharing. For breaking the stigma wall. For being real. I have struggled in such a way but found it tough to be transparent on social media.”

“Holy cow can I relate. Thank you for sharing this so the rest of us feel so much less lonely.”

And last: “I’m so glad you’re here to spread love and realness.”

Realness. That struck me. For almost a decade, I’ve worked in mental health. These commenters are people who know who I am, and what I do. Real people I’ve stayed in touch with after three cross-country moves. People who have privately sent me messages asking for help for themselves, for someone they love. Yet even after all these years, I find it so hard to put my mental health struggles out there.

This is what NAMI is: the power of a single story to create connections and pull people out of the darkness.

NAMI leaders reveal some of the most painful parts of their experiences, and the most tender shoots of the hope and reality of recovery to perfect strangers. They are brave in their vulnerability in a way that inspires and humbles me. Though this is my last official ED letter, it’s not goodbye. My sincerest wish is that NAMI Seattle continues to grow and thrive – because we need this place.

Please join me in making a gift to NAMI Seattle today.

I’m so glad you’re here to spread realness. Until next time.

Wishing you hope, light, and peace.

Ashley signature

Ashley Fontaine