This past week I have come into contact with several people who have loved ones who are struggling with mental illness. I can understand their pain because I have lived the experience myself.
I remember the day when I was 19 years old and found out my mother had almost died during a mental health crisis. I had just arrived home from a rather tumultuous freshman year of college, my Olympic dreams nearly shattered and my mother, my biggest supporter unable to help me and in fact needed me to help her.
When someone you love has a mental health crisis you don’t have a lot of time to come up to speed on all the terminology that healthcare professionals start to throw around. Psychosis, manic-depressive, schizophrenia, involuntary commitments, state hospital vs. private institution, etc..etc…etc.
We didn’t have the internet over thirty years ago, so I packed up my notebook and headed to the library. (After all these years I have still kept my notes). I was on a crash course to understand a jargon that was foreign to me. Cancer I understood. Mental illness I could not comprehend and yet I had to find a way to help get my mother back again.
It was one of the most difficult times of my life. People who do not have a loved one with mental illness cannot understand the enormous amount of pressure it is to keep secrets about why someone is or is not available. In some ways it is like their lives get erased, if only temporarily.
For me in all my youthfulness, went about telling people that my mother had a mental breakdown. Most often I got surprised and shocking looks and often a change in conversation because people did not know what to say.
The sad thing is here we are over 30 years later and things have not changed much. We are still talking about the stigma of mental illness, our society continues to fear what they do not understand and people living with mental illness still live in secrecy and shame. And those family members with loved ones still don’t have a basic understanding of mental illness.
The only way I know how to help with change is to talk about mental illness and continue to share my personal journey in the hopes it may help other people. I dealt with my difficult situation the only way I knew how which was to talk about it. It helped even if most people did not understand.
One of the most unsatisfying lessons has come full circle. Someone who I had admired most disappointed me the most during my mother’s illness. But sadly years later this person who showed no compassion would be struck with her own mental illness.
There is no mincing words: mental illness is a cruel disease that affects the entire family. The best thing we can do is be kind to one another. You never know if your family will be affected by mental illness too.