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It’s not easy to bare your soul and share your most personal story in front of a crowd of strangers, but that was the point of “This is My Brave – Napa Valley”.

In recognition of Mental Health Awareness month, Leadership Napa Valley Class 30 decided to focus a spotlight on the hush-hush subject of mental illness and host a local production of “This Is My Brave,” an international show that enlists everyday people to discuss their experiences with mental illness.

Fourteen Bay Area residents, including several from the Napa Valley, stepped into the stoplight at Napa Valley College Performing Arts Center last Saturday to share their stories about the struggles and triumphs that come with living with a mental illness. Some were comfortable to share their experiences through song and dance, while others read personal essays from notebooks.

Cindy Ivester, who owns Studio on Main in Calistoga with her husband Gene, decided to take the notebook approach. “It’s a story I’ve never told,” Ivester said, clutching a bouquet of flowers after the show. “It’s a part of me I’ve kept hidden for 40 years.”

When Ivester took the stage, she talked about attempting suicide and spending time in the hospital on 72-hour holds in her mid-20s. She said when she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, she was relieved to know there was a reason for her erratic behavior and volatile emotions.

However, Ivester called her diagnosis her “dirty little secret” because she knew if she opened up about her illness, it could cost her job opportunities and maybe even friends. But the story she shared as part of “This is My Brave” offered a sense of hope as she told the audience she’s worked hard over the past decades to keep mental illness from threatening her dreams.

Ivester didn’t originally intend to be cast in the production. She decided go to an audition as a way to prove to herself that she could open up about her bipolar diagnosis. She figured she could muster enough courage to share her story with a small group of people, but she never imagined she’d be sharing it on stage in front of hundreds of people. She even admitted to trying to back out of the product several times after reluctantly accepting the invitation.

“Oh it was so nerve-wracking,” Ivester said following the performance. “To open up to a room of hundreds of people about something so deeply personal, it’s a naked feeling. You are exposed and that’s frightening, because you don’t know how people are going to take your story. But now that it’s done, I can look back on this as a hallmark in my growth. This is part of my awakening.”

Napa resident Russ Melgar said he was also nervous about taking the stage. Today, Melgar is a personal trainer and life coach, but two years ago, he was contemplating suicide as he struggled to cope with depression. He told the audience how the “flawed part of his ego” filled his mind with a sense of self-loathing that he felt he couldn’t elude. He said he felt worthless and powerless.

Melgar’s story painted a picture of a man beyond hope or saving, but his story offered a silver lining. He confided that after hitting rock bottom and considering taking his life, his wife convinced him to ask for help and treatment.

Thanks to his wife’s love and unwavering support, Melgar said he is one of the lucky ones. After spending months in therapy, he does not take medication, but he doesn’t say he’s beat his depression. However, he said he’s confident he can “outfeel” the troublesome negativity that comes with depression.

After the show, Melgar said he was nervous to share his story, especially since producers selected him to perform first, but he said he was grateful for the opportunity.

“I think the idea behind ‘This is My Brave’ is so important,” Melgar said. “We need to open up to each other and we need to share our stories. From my experience, depression is a very isolated feeling. You think, ‘Why can’t I just be happy?’ and you feel like something is wrong with you. But there are millions of people in this country diagnosed with depression, so I knew someone here (in the crowd) would relate to my story.”

While many of the performers read from their scripts, Napa Valley native Brandon Staglin decided to share his story in song. Staglin, communications director of One Mind Institute, a nonprofit his family started in 1995 to raise funds for research to find cures for mental illnesses, has been open about his schizophrenia diagnosis for nearly 20 years. He understands that people who are newly diagnosed with schizophrenia – especially young people – can find the news frightening, so he came up with a catchy tune.

By the time his song was coming to a close, he had most of the audience singing along: “Been diagnosed with schizophrenia? Guess what – it’s not the end of ya.”

Staglin said he originally thought his diagnosis would be the end of his life, but he credits medical treatment and a loving family for helping him on his road to recovery. “A schizophrenia diagnosis is not the end of your life,” he said. “There are plenty of opportunities to get well.”

One by one, the “This is My Brave – Napa Valley” cast took the stage and shared stories of struggles tied together with a ribbon of hope. SuzyJane Edwards opened up about her battles with depression and anxiety as she experienced her transsexual awakening. “Estrogen is my antidepressant” she told the audience during her heartfelt monologue.

The cast also included Indigo Liz Logan who shared her story about living with Dissociative Identity Disorder, formerly known as multiple personality disorder. Juanita Pena discussed what it’s like to have a daughter with schizoaffective disorder.

Their stories were personal and vulnerably honest and their performances appeared to resonate with the audience. Following the show, the performers gathered with friends and family in the lobby of the Performing Arts Center where members of the audience approached to offer handshakes, hugs and expressions of gratitude.

Kristine Haataja, a representative of This is My Brave, Inc. and co-producer of the Napa Valley show, said the inaugural Napa performance of “This is My Brave” was the nonprofit’s second-most attended show since debuting in 2014.

A portion of proceeds from the show will be donated to Mentis: Napa’s Center for Mental Health Services.

To learn more about “This is My Brave,” visit thisismybrave.org.

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Online Editor/Calendar Editor

Samie Hartley is the Napa Valley Register online editor. Her column Simple & Sassy runs on alternating Sundays.