There are the things you just don’t talk about.
As a second grader, my dad dumped my freshly purchased school supplies onto the concrete in the Kmart parking lot, sorting the piles according to true necessity. The colorful 24-pack of Crayola crayons, among other things, didn’t make the cut.
When I was 16 years old, my dad asked to borrow my blue Ford Taurus to run a quick errand. He called a few days later from Canada.
As an older teen, I spent one New Year’s Eve with my best friend, praying prayers of safety and protection over my dad because he was out attempting to “help” law enforcement at a nearby bank robbery.
There are the hurts you just don’t share.
My dad held many different jobs over the years and lost just as many. The provision of financial stability was largely left to my mom, as no one could predict the days my dad would wake up and be unable to get out of bed to go to work.
When my dad’s body lay on ice at Olathe Medical Center, in an attempt to cool his body temperature and restore function to his brain after being deprived of oxygen for four minutes, we told others that this desperate situation was caused by an accident. It wasn’t.
I spent my 25th birthday holed up in our guest room, house full of grieving relatives, so I could focus on writing my father’s obituary after he had taken his own life.
The first three incidents above were caused by my dad’s manic episodes; the last three by his depression. My father, like so many others, suffered from mental illness. In particular, Bipolar Disorder.
Last year, I saw a plea from a friend on Facebook that asked her friends to spread suicide prevention awareness. I would like to take that a step farther and spread awareness about – and acceptance of – mental illness in general. It is more prevalent than you’d think. In just the last few years, we’ve discovered that many families we’ve known for decades have dealt with mental illness in secret, hiding these stories and their suffering in silence.
We don’t have whispered conversations when we learn of a cancer diagnosis. We don’t raise our eyebrows in hushed silence when we hear of a teenager diagnosed with diabetes. Mental illness is physical. There are physical changes in the brains of bipolar patients. And the chemical differences in the brain are also real, observable, and measurable. So, why do we treat it so differently from physical illness? Why the stigma?
One of the most impactful moments in the days and weeks following my dad’s suicide were words spoken from a true friend at his funeral:
He didn’t choose to take his own life. He lost his battle with depression.
He lost his battle; he didn’t choose. In the throes of clinical depression, I don’t believe suicide is a clearly chosen path. I don’t believe the decision my father made on September 20, 2009, felt like a choice to him.
Do you know how I know that?
Because there are the genuine moments.
The love, the pride, the passion for life.
I remember the countless times he sat across from me at IHOP, stacks of pancakes between us, looking straight into my eyes and reminding me of how much he loved me.
Or the times he went out of his way to tell me how proud he was of me, dropping a heavy hand on my shoulder as his blue eyes started to glisten.
And there was the way he lit up a room, always cheerful and never afraid to reach out or be the center of attention. Like the time he was late to meet my group for prom pictures, so he went to GoJo’s Japanese Steakhouse with a secret plan. As we awaited our hibachi chef, my group of friends and I were shocked to see none other than my own dad walk out, tall red chef’s hat perched on his bright red hair. (Thankfully, he didn’t actually stay for the cooking… but we sure did get some good pictures.)
My dad loved life. He loved my family dearly. Unfortunately, the gripping fog of mental illness can shatter that reality just like physical illness wreaks havoc on the systems of our body.
I mentioned above that we don’t have whispered conversations over someone’s cancer diagnosis. But the truth is, we used to. The New Jersey Governor’s Council on Mental Health Stigma describes the history of how cancer was perceived. “Stigma and cancer have a history that many may not remember. There was a time when the public thought that cancer was contagious and always fatal. Employers wouldn’t hire you if you had cancer, families wouldn’t allow their children to play at houses where someone was living with cancer. Insurance didn’t properly cover cancer treatment or prevention. Because of stigma and the related silence, research dollars were not prioritized for cancer. In looking back to less enlightened times, we can now see that it wasn’t necessarily the cancer that was fatal, it was the stigma. The same exists today with advocates tirelessly working to stop the mental health stigma that afflicts so many.”
The stigma surrounding mental illness has drastically changed in the last few decades, but it still has a long ways to go. Families dealing with such illnesses shouldn’t have to hide the difficult moments. If we can discuss these topics without raised eyebrows and hushed conversations, if we can provide the same open love and support we provide to those dealing with diagnoses of physical illnesses, these families are more likely to step out of the shadows. They are more likely to reach out, to tell their stories, to look to us for support.
Let’s be ready when they do.