When you think of an ideal childhood setting, what comes to mind? For me, lots of room to run, lots of siblings to double as friends, loving parents, good values and strong faith. That was my childhood. I did not recognize until I was much older that my childhood also came with a misconception of what mental illness is. Growing up in Traverse City, I was never allowed to even see the infamous State Hospital. Heavens know, getting “too close” could be dangerous. Ignorant thinking perhaps, but acceptable thinking in the 1960’s.
It was not until I was in my teens that it actually came out that I had two great aunts that resided at the State Hospital. It had been a well kept secret. My mother, being a very compassionate woman, would bring them to our home for an occasional outing. I remember the blank expressions and constant movements they both had, not understanding why; it was very frightening. I remember thinking, “I never want to end up like that.”
Perhaps it was that type of thinking that made it impossible for me to recognize my own depression in my thirties. I had a life-changing event in my life that left me feeling a “very deep sadness.” I would cry over the slightest thing. I felt no one understood how miserable I felt. Nothing seemed fun anymore. Very vividly, I still remember saying to my husband, “I wish I could see what it will be like one year from now.” “Why?” he asked. “So I can see if I’ll ever be happy.” I just could not imagine feeling that way forever. The following year was very challenging. I had to force myself to get up every day and try to make it a good day for my son. I had grown up in a warm, loving home, so it was very important that his childhood memories not be of a “sad mom.” Ever so slowly, the forced smiles and laughs became natural smiles and spontaneous laughs. It took a lot of conscious effort to make myself do things, to try to think positive, to learn to enjoy my family again. On the anniversary of those fateful words, I reassessed my feelings. Yes, I was happy. Yes, I truly enjoyed life again. Without the support of my family and friends I don’t think I could have made it. Small acts of kindness and words of encouragement and understanding were monumental in my recovery.
Ten years later, I began to see my dad often sitting quietly, expressionless, with tears in his eyes; I could not fully understand what was happening. A farmer at heart, forced to work to support his large family, he was always a quiet man, but what was happening? At times he seemed relatively happy; other times he was very subdued and sad.
Several years later I could no longer deny something mentally was going on with him. He was not his “old self.” It was like he had an invisible shield all around him. He was not willing or perhaps unable to join in on conversations or to do his normal Grandpa play with the little ones. He was not willing to accept the fact that something was happening to him. Encouraged by my mother, he would “try” medications but ask why; it was not him that had a problem. Sure, he would try therapy, but only to make his point that there was nothing wrong with him. After all, mental illness was a weakness, a reason to be put away. He was never able to accept his mental illness. He continued to distance himself from everyone. Things he used to enjoy greatly, he would no longer participate in. He went from walking daily for a couple miles, to sleeping 12-14 hours daily and sitting alone numerous hours. Several times I discovered him sitting in the dark, crying. He was never willing to talk about his feelings.
Being a nurse, I wanted to understand what was happening and, of course, fix it. Even though he never accepted his illness, I believe my family grew to understand his illness. Keeping his “true self” separated from his illness was an important key. Seeing beyond the illness helped us deal with his actions and continue to see him as our loving dad. A person does not choose mental illness; mental illness does not discriminate, affecting one in five people.
Sadly, he passed away a couple years ago without ever overcoming his illness.
I hope that someday, everyone will see mental illness for what it is. No one should have to go through it alone, therefore not getting the help and support so needed to recover. Prejudice and misconceptions can be eliminated with educating one person at a time.