Jennifer Marshall has it all: a great job, a gorgeous family and supportive friends in a prosperous suburb. The Ashburn mother of two has also been managing bipolar disorder for more than a decade, and her decision to go public with her story has educated and inspired people around the world and in her own backyard.
Marshall’s nonprofit This Is My Brave, which recently celebrated its fifth anniversary, invites individuals managing mental health conditions to share their stories through storytelling and performance in a theater setting.
“It’s something that everyone is touched by and yet it’s hard to find the words. But when you go to one of our shows, you see people who look just like your neighbor or your sister or the person checking you out at the grocery store,” Marshall said. “When we get on stage and tell these stories, the audience feels like it’s a piece of themselves up there. They can relate, and it makes it so much easier to talk about.”
2018 was a huge year for the nonprofit, with 19 performances around the country and the completion of a short documentary, which will premiere in Northern Virginia later this month. Marshall was also named a Washingtonian of the Year by Washingtonianmagazine in December. This year, in addition to 10 planned performances, a feature-length film in the works, and the organization will be launching a college pilot. Marshall is also working on a memoir and hopes to complete the first draft this year.
Marshall, 39, lives in Ashburn with her husband and two children. After graduating from James Madison University with a degree in marketing and marrying her college sweetheart, Marshall and her husband moved to Northern Virginia for work opportunities. She was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2006 at the age of 26 after two hospitalizations. By 2008, the couple had moved from Fairfax County to Ashburn, and Marshall was again hospitalized with postpartum psychosis after the birth of her children in 2008 and 2010.
As Marshall learned to manage her condition, she found that reading others’ stories online was a big part of overcoming her concern about the stigma attached to mental health conditions.
She launched her own blog Bipolar Mom Life in 2011, at first writing anonymously like many other mental health bloggers at the time. But an opportunity to write under her own byline for a national website, gave her the courage to share her story publicly.
“When I got over that fear and got the opportunity to write about my condition, I was like, you know, I don’t care what people think any more. I want to educate people. I want to be the change. I want to be someone who’s making a difference,” Marshall said. “Part of that is just being brave and deciding to stand up for yourself.”
Two years later, Marshall was inspired to find another avenue to share her story and help others tell their own. She envisioned a theater show where participants shared their stories of managing mental illness through storytelling and performance. In 2013, she joined forces with co-founder Anne Marie Ames to create This is My Brave and put on its inaugural performance in Arlington in 2014. Marshall told her own story that night and had a reaction she says many other cast members have shared.
“We hear this general reaction that afterward it felt like a physical weight lifted off my shoulders. It felt like I can now talk about everything in my life,” Marshall said. “I don’t have to hide those hard struggles. It’s a part of me, but it doesn’t define me.”
Since that first show, This Is My Brave has worked with producers around the country to organize dozens of performances and launched This Is My Brave Australia with a local partner in 2017. Last year, the organization got grant funding to work with Boston-based Principle Pictures to create a half-hour short film following four featured participants from last year’s show in Boston. The film, which premieres Jan. 31 at Arlington Cinema and Drafthouse, following the cast members’ journey through auditions and performance, delves into their backstories and follows up on the impact of their participation in the show.
With a busy schedule as a nonprofit director, writer and parent, Marshall continues to manage her own condition. Following co-founder Anne Marie Ames’ sudden death from a heart attack in 2017, Marshall found herself back in the hospital after seven years of successful management, but she’s moved forward with more passion than ever as the organization grows.
Her elementary school-aged children have grown up with the understanding that their mom manages a mental health condition and are processing it as they get older with a great support network, Marshall says.
“It’s a matter of talking to kids about mental health the same way we talk about physical health. My kids have always known that their mom has bipolar disorder, and they know that we help share stories about mental health through the organization,” Marshall said. “Kids see things and they want to understand and they want to learn. … I think the earlier you start, the easier it is.”
Marshall also says that individuals with mental health challenges can educate and connect not only in the public arena but also in smaller ways, and some of the best and most honest conversations can come up at birthday parties and playgrounds.
“You don’t have to get up on stage like all of our people do,” she said. “You can change things in your circles by just being brave and saying to your girlfriend, ‘I’m really not OK right now, I’m struggling.’ It’s that reciprocal vulnerability that’s what we’re all about.”
A screening of “This Is My Brave” short documentary is scheduled for Thursday, Jan. 31 at Arlington Cinema and Drafthouse. Doors open at 6:30 p.m., and the film starts at 7:30 p.m. followed by a panel discussion and time to meet cast members. Tickets and information are available at thisismybrave.org.