I’ve come to believe that the problem with mental illness is not the illness itself but the stigma and shame we shroud it in. To tell my family’s story is to acknowledge that there was another member of our family. Doctors and experts would and did call it a mental illness but that feels like such a cold, dismissive term that does no justice to the humanity of the diagnosis.
Our fourth family member was always with us. Sometimes a shy, obedient child that waited patiently to speak when no one else was around. Other times an angry child that did any and everything to be seen, heard and assuaged. Mom took medication to subdue our fourth family member, but it often choked the light out of her. My vibrant mother became a sad shade of gray. While the child napped, we waited for my over-subdued mom to awaken as well.
I made a mistake when I broke my family’s silence about our mental illness on my podcast. I told our story as though my mom was the antagonist. I exposed the pain we’d lived in from my perspective and regardless of my intent, I portrayed it as her cross to bear. That was the problem with our family though. We always looked at the illness as her problem, her issue, her violation of the lives we wanted to live if only she would take care of that incessant child that popped up at the most inopportune times. The illness could have attached itself to anyone but my mom carried the weight of it around with her while we asked her to keep up and keep quiet. She deserved so much more from us.
When we lived in the country of South Carolina, there was a plant called kudzu. I used to love when I would see it blanketing an expanse of trees and ground plants. My dad told me it was a dangerous plant because it choked the life out of the other plants but I couldn’t help but love the deep, vibrant hue of the leaves and the green wall it created wherever it sprouted. The silence of families that live with mental illness is like the kudzu. Everyone looks at the smiling pictures and the cheerful small talk like it’s a sign of a trouble-free life. Meanwhile the silent kudzu is choking the life out of everything it wraps it’s vines around.
If a family is lucky, the choking silence will culminate in an explosion. It has to if the family dying a slow lonely death has any chance at survival. The saddest story is the family that never cries for help. They will suffer in silence until they die; lonely, bitter, and confused at why their family had to suffer when others thrived.
What would have changed had we taken on the illness as a family? If we had looked into why flashes of the mental illness came and went, what the medicines meant to suppress it would suppress in my mother, what life could have looked like had we not tried to bury it beneath embarrassment, shame and anger for so long.
I don’t know what it looks like to embrace mental illness but I think I’d like to start by calling it something other than an illness. Maybe by a name. I always liked the name Israel. Or Dan. Or Karen. No. I’d rather not call it Karen. They’ve gotten a bad enough rap as it is.
The name will come but the important thing is that the name is not my mother’s and it is no longer her cross to bear. Our family member has been in the dark for long enough. It’s time to cut the vines of the kudzu so we can blossom as a family again. So we can live in all our glory. Does that mean small talk might not be so small for us? Maybe. But if all you want from our family is small talk then you needn’t worry. You can find that any old place. We don’t have time for that anymore. We have a family member we need to discover and understand for the first time in 34 years.