My statement started with a question.
"Why, if you have cancer - or another physical disease - do people reach out and embrace you, but mental illness is something to be shunned and not spoken about?"
I heard that question often growing up, from both my parents. I knew that my father had bipolar disorder, and I knew what the perceptions of that were. Even though he was healthy for my whole childhood, my parents began a conversation that they knew would likely be a lifelong one for our family.
Recently, someone reacted negatively to my writing about my father. Writers - especially in today's easily-searchable blog culture - spend plenty of time fretting over which stories are theirs to tell, and which rely too heavily on the supporting cast in their lives.
There have been many things that I have not shared about my family's experience, because they are not my story. That said, there is a reason my parents began a conversation about stigma years before my father got sick. They realized how powerful and damaging a force stigma is.
I refuse to be embarrassed by mental illness. I refuse to let denial and shame hold back information that could help someone. I refuse to not speak about something that is so important in my life, and in the lives of millions of people.
Nearly 20 percent of Americans will have a diagnosable mental illness this year. A quarter of those people will have an episode that seriously impairs their life. If one in five people suffer from mental illness, that means nearly every family in this country can relate to my story on some level. And yet, despite this, patients and their families feel ashamed and alone because these invisible diseases are talked about in hushed whispers.
A mother who chooses to speak out from the unimaginable hell of losing a daughter, or a family discussing addiction in an obituary are taking the brave step of telling other people "you are not alone; yes, these are 'real' diseases; please, seek help."
In my own tiny way I can contribute to that conversation. It isn't about garnering clicks or grabbing attention - it's about being able to make a small difference. The father I grew up with has all but disappeared, but I can honor that man, and the question he planted. I can share his words directly when he asks. And if one person chooses to ask for help, or a family is able to shed the weight of secrecy, then we have made something positive come out of a horrible illness.
That's why I speak.
He slides open the screen, and walks into the breezeway, breathing heavily. After four weeks in rehab, Dad is home. He glances to the left, into the bedroom that is no longer strewn with dirty clothes and dishes. It’s unrecognizable. Discarded jeans have been replaced with fresh flowers, and a the smell of paint lingers in the air.
He doesn’t step in; doesn’t take a moment to consider the hours spent lovingly reconstructing his world that was in disarray. Instead, he yells a hello to his mother, sitting in front of the t.v., and walks out the door into the backyard.
Lighting a cigarette is a brave move for a man who has just spent four weeks in a rehabilitation hospital for a stroke. A warning sign, the doctor’s said. A wake-up call. Even when I listened to those words, handed like a gift beneath the fluorescent hospital lights, I knew they were false. Don’t hope, I told myself. Don’t build it up.
In the eight years since my father’s mental breakdown, I have run the gamut in terms of the effort I put in to his illness. Sometimes I am the dedicated daughter, stopping by daily to invite him to get out of bed and come on a walk. Just once, he shocked me by saying yes. That day we trudged through the spring mud, and jumped when a snake crawled across our path.
Other times, I try to let go; release my expectations; have none. How are you, may be a question, but I ask it without expecting a response. I become adept at holding conversations with myself, and try not to be offended when I walk in and my dad waves half-heartedly from the bed, before rolling over.
Depression doesn’t only crush it’s victims; it can crush their family and friends as well. Because if ever a disease lent itself to resentment, it is depression. It is watching a loved one slowly kill themselves. It is wanting nothing more than to scream, wake up, but knowing that that is far from that simple. It is watching Dad light that first cigarette, then another.
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