While I’m the first person to pretend that everyone’s family is perfect besides my own, the reality is that we’ve all got problems and there is no “perfect” family. Some people don’t even consider their biological relatives their family. Instead, they choose their family to be close friends that they love and care for throughout the years. Families are filled with varying personalities, often with many conflicting ones. Some families, like mine, can be ravaged by mental illness.
Yup, I said it. Mental illness. Two words most of us avoid using and cringe upon hearing. Images of the mentally ill are of those that sit in wards of mental hospitals rocking back and forth and muttering to themselves or of people so deeply depressed they don’t get out of bed. Often, people with mental illness are thought of as lazy, irresponsible, and just plain crazy. But while these images and stereotypes pervade our culture, the face of mental illness is actually much more common than that. People who suffer from mental illness get up and go to work each day, stand next to you at the supermarket and pick their kids up from the same school as yours. The woman in the above picture is a face of mental illness. That woman is my mother.
From a young age, I knew something was different with my mom. She often let me stay home from school even when I wasn’t sick, would become very sad and cry some days and would fight and yell with my grandparents the next. Sometimes, she would disappear for weeks at a time, leaving me in the care of my grandmother. One time, before she left for one of these periods I asked her where she was going. We stood in in front of the refrigerator, staring at my white socks against the red linoleum floor. Leaning over me she simply said, “To become a better mom.” And being that I was only a kindergartener, I replied excitedly, “Oh, so you’ll be able to know when I want a Kit-Kat bar before I ask for one?!” A small smile, easily misinterpreted as a grimace, flashed across her face and all she said was, “Mhmm” and walked away. I never questioned it again.
By the time I was ten she had returned from her latest stay in a rehabilitation facility. (By this time I had learned she was going away to places for people with mental health issues. It wasn’t until several years later that I learned she also suffered from an addiction problem. Which leads me to ask, which came first, the chicken or the egg?) Despite whatever progress she had made in the weeks she was gone, things fell apart when she came home. Within five days I had moved in with my dad permanently. The first few years of living separately, we barely spoke and when we did it always ended in an argument of epic proportions, the only result being my tear stained pillow.
As the years progressed, our relationship fluctuated. We’d see each other occasionally if she came to visit my grandparents on the weekend but other than that, I never saw her. Sometimes we got along really well and other times we were ready to wring each other’s necks. (This depended on whether she was sober or not.)
Within the last couple of years, while living with my grandparents and being in closer contact with my mom since my dad can no longer act as a buffer, I have witnessed the pain and anguish she suffers from her illness. One morning she’ll be happy and by the afternoon she can be raging and screaming over the littlest thing. It hurts to watch someone that you are supposed to look up to be at the mercy of a disease they can’t control. All you want to do is help but there’s nothing you can do, especially as a daughter. Your mother is supposed to take care of you, not the other way around.
Now that I’ve learned that it is not my job to take care of her, I tend to stick to the sidelines now, watching my whole family unit as a whole. Stepping away from the family, I can see traces of mental illness throughout it. It’s not just my mom who suddenly became mentally ill like one person in a family may get a rare physical condition. Others in the family have illness themselves, just not to such a severe degree. And therefore, the person who suffers the most is usually told to “man up” or “get over it” or is kept hidden away as an invalid, not spoken of amongst friends or other extended family. Mental illness is stigmatized as being something that we should be ashamed of and something that should be kept secret within a family.
I’ve even struggled with this. I am not ashamed to say my dad got cancer and died but I am very reluctant to share my mother’s story about her issues with mental illness and addiction issues. The distinction, it appears, is that my dad did not choose to get cancer and that somehow my mother chose to have a mental illness and addiction problem. But this is wrong. My mom did not choose to have mental illness. She wants to be happy and functional more than anyone in the world. Mental illness is not something that individuals can control. People who suffer from these diseases don’t choose to be this way. They are people, like you and me, with good traits and bad- which makes it so hard to be close to them because it would be so much easier to consider them a complete villain and eliminate them from your life. But because they are human, they are not all “bad”. Despite the screwed up things they may have done they still do good things that redeem them in some way-just like the rest of us. But because they are stigmatized with the label of mental illness, they must suffer being judged almost every day of their lives.
This is why I’m finally speaking up. The more we pretend there is no problem, the more it gets ignored, and the worse it becomes. My mom suffers from mental health issues and so do others in my family. I’m not ashamed to say it any longer. By revealing the truth to their lives, I want to give them dignity by saying that their lives do not have to be kept hidden like a dirty little secret and they do not suffer alone. Which leads me to say that I have my own mental health issues that I deal with myself.
After going through many traumatic events throughout my life, I suffer from anxiety. It wasn’t until this year that I came to acknowledge it and address it as such. I won’t go into much detail as I’m still learning how to cope with it, but I do know what it feels like to be unable to control your own thoughts. Every day I am doing a balancing act of controlling my thoughts and therefore maintaining my mental health rather than succumbing to the negative and toxic thoughts that stream through my head.
And so I end with this. I know how mental illness can affect a family’s dynamics. I see how its unpredictability can destroy relationships. But I also see the resilience these families have– that no matter how rough and messed up things get, we manage to pull together and love each other regardless of our mental state. Because first and foremost, we are a family. And we love each other no matter what.