Why I Choose to Talk About My Family's 'Secret' History of Mental Illness
I never met my grandfather. He died by suicide when my mom was just a little girl. The story: a veteran, a father with four little girls waiting at home, my mom being one, got drunk one night and fell off the Ambassador Bridge. That’s the story, at least the one my mom and her sisters were told to tell all the kids at school.
When I started college, my mom started acting strangely. On Valentine’s Day of that year I remember she went missing. No phone call, no note, nothing, just gone. Little did I know that would be the first of many of her disappearing acts. A few months later she was diagnosed as manic depressive, or bipolar.
These are a few of my “family secrets,” the things no one ever spoke about, the things that I wouldn’t learn until early adulthood, the things that I would find out inadvertently through a slip up in a conversation or through some disastrous turn of events. These are the things my family was too afraid to talk about.
I first started dealing with depression when I was in high school. It’s hard to exactly pinpoint when I had my first bout of depression. I just remember the numbing feeling. It was like someone had turned off all the lights inside of me, and I couldn’t get them to turn back on. I remember feeling alone, yet all the while wanting to be left alone. I didn’t want anyone’s pity or to hear the looming question, “What’s wrong with you?” Because truthfully, I did not know what was wrong with me.
I did not know why I suddenly was dealing with this ugly monster of depression, this shadow that never left my side. I would deal with periods of depression for weeks at a time and sometimes longer. I’d have thoughts, like “Why am I even here?” or “If I were to disappear, no one would even notice,” or “No one would miss me if I was gone,” but I was too afraid to take my own life. I remember thinking what a failure I was. I felt so useless.
No one knew. No one knew I was walking through depression on and off throughout high school and college. I never told a soul. I felt so ashamed. Here I am, this girl involved in church and school, honor roll student, school newspaper editor, student government leader, pageant girl (basically the classic overachiever), struggling with thoughts of depression and suicide. I felt so ashamed. Who would believe me? Would people treat me differently? Would they laugh? If they knew I was struggling with something so heavy, would anyone stay?
To this day, I still occasionally deal with heavy thoughts, but those times of heaviness are a lot more few and far between. I have learned and am still learning to ask for help when I need it. I have learned that my voice is my most powerful tool, to say things like, “I am not OK,” or “I need help,” or “I need to rest.” My faith in God helps a lot, too. I have learned and am still learning to put my hope in someone so much bigger than me.
I understand now that my “family’s secrets” are not something I have to walk in the shadow of the rest of my life. Each day, I can choose to hope. I can choose to live. I can choose, in those heavy moments of life, to take my thoughts captive and replace them with truths. I can choose to exercise discipline over my mind and choose my thoughts carefully. I can choose to ask for help. I can choose to speak up, even if it’s hard or my voice shakes a bit. I choose.
When my vision gets a little blurry and when I am too weak to find my way back to a positive place, I find comfort in friendships that will reroute me back to a healthy place. They open up the curtains and remind me to let the light in. I find comfort in friends who reflect compassion, empathy, understanding, patience and humility. They remind me I am not alone.
When I hear stories of people who have taken their own lives, I have deep sense of understanding for them that I cannot explain. Some may call them, cowardly, weak or selfish. When I hear these stories, I see men and women, girls and boys who simply lost hope. They are people who got tired and they couldn’t find light anymore.
For anyone who has ever struggled with depression or mental illness of any kind, if we were together at this every moment, I’d give you my hand and hold yours tight. Because I have been there, too. I was once so ashamed of my story, but now I see so much purpose in it, to bring hope to people who are still hurting.
Secrets can weigh you down, isolate and make you feel ashamed. My family’s secrets are not a cross I have to bear. I am free to let them go, to talk about them, to not allow them to become my story.
Remember: There is always, always hope. Don’t forget. Even on your worst day. Even when the phone stops ringing. Even when you feel unlovable and unloved. Even when you feel ashamed. Even when you feel alone. Don’t give up. Please, don’t give up. There’s a bigger picture than you can imagine right now. There is purpose in your pain. You have a story to tell. You are here to help someone else. You are never alone. There is always hope. Don’t forget it.
Stephanie K. Taylor