The malady families try to hide; Ending the mental illness taboo
On the surface, I had given people the impression I was living an ideal life. I had a college degree. I was the mother of three beautiful children, an active member of my church, and was loved by a devoted husband.
But my world fell apart the day my husband had me involuntarily admitted to a psychiatric hospital after I tried to commit suicide. It was the right thing to do, as difficult as that was for me to admit at the time.
I was diagnosed as bipolar and the psychiatrist had plenty of evidence to back that up: manic and depressive episodes, reduced need for sleep, lost touch with reality and extremely suicidal.
At that point, it was hard to argue – especially since bipolar disorder is a genetic illness and I was well aware of how other family members had struggled with mental illness. Too often, if someone says, “Let’s talk about mental illness,” the hurried response is, “Let’s not.”
It’s a taboo subject.
But it’s long past time to end the taboo.
That’s why I have become more comfortable sharing my story and the story of my family, even going so far as to write a book in which I detailed my struggles. I believe it’s important to openly discuss the realities of mental health disorders so that people not only feel they can come forward, but also can be understood and shown compassion. Because when mental illness winds its way through a family, it leaves no one untouched.
My grandfather, for example, was married seven times and once held my grandmother at gunpoint to force her to remarry him. He also “prophesied” that I would die in a car wreck, but that he would take me up on a mountain and bring me back to life.
My father became so delusional that one night he was in the cemetery talking to his dead father, whom he claimed was giving him instructions on how to solve the organ-donation crisis, an important cause for him. Someone called the police.
On another occasion, police escorted him off school property after he started dancing on the football field with the cheerleaders during a game. He once “adopted” a needy family he met in a parking lot and made extravagant promises about how he would help them financially – promises he in no way could keep.
I had him committed to a psychiatric ward and, as he walked away, he screamed that he hated me and would never forgive me, words that sting deeply to this day.
He was soon released and eventually killed himself.
I survived my own suicide attempt, but struggled to lead what could be considered a normal life. Like my father, I even was banned from school property after I showed up unannounced and, in a manic state, badgered my younger son’s biology teacher over what I thought was an unfair test grade, yelling at her until she gave him full credit.
My family struggled along with me and I feared my marriage would end. I have three children and all were affected. The two older ones even made the difficulties they faced as children of a bipolar mother the subject of their college-admission essays. At one point, my younger son went to live with relatives so that he could be shielded from the exhausting existence.
So, clearly that woman who appeared to have the ideal life had anything but an ideal life.
One thing I learned over time, though, was that opening up and talking about my problems was important – both for me and for others. That is why I am convinced it is time to end the taboo that prevents us from talking about mental illness.
The voices of those with mental illness need to be heard. They and their families need to understand that anyone, regardless of race, religion, gender, age, or economic background, can be affected.
After all, sometimes you need to discuss difficult things if you wish to make them better.