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Mental Illness Isn't Our Family Secret, It's Our Family Struggle

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I remember the first time I visited a psychiatric unit in a hospital. I was just 10 years old and more than anything, all I wanted for my birthday, was to visit my mother. She was admitted every month or so, and the nurturing figure in my life just continued to disappear, causing me to feel adrift. Being so young, I struggled to understand what was happening and it seemed no one would tell me. I was so, so confused and always uneasy.

Mom’s illness came on suddenly the eve of New Year’s Eve, just months before. She was taken away by ambulance and a local law enforcement officer late that night, a memory my mind has never let me forget as I stared out my childhood bedroom’s window to watch it all unfold.

Visiting her in the hospital ended up terrifying me for years. I wish I never begged for that to be my birthday gift. I swore I’d never visit another psychiatric hospital ever again. Both her passing and that memory always left me hurting when they were conjured up. I felt like mental illness stole my mother from me long before her death did.

But 17 years later, I sat in a hardback plastic chair, waiting at an empty table in one of the few hospitals my mother had stayed. I had held my breath, entering that building, nervous what memories my presence there may trigger. I had been living off of adrenaline and little to no sleep as I stayed nearby for a loved one experiencing a mental health crisis of their own. Just 12 hours prior, they had been handcuffed while we both sat cross-legged on a gurney in the emergency room’s hallway, waiting for a bed. I sat there, battling my own fears as sights and sounds were triggering post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) attacks I forced myself through. I was needed and there was no way out, so I pushed myself to remain calm.

Back in that uncomfortable chair, I’m anxiously waiting to visit my loved one. I take in the room and try to remember if I had been here before. I didn’t think so, but there were many hospitals, so I couldn’t be sure. I took a deep breath, still waiting. I noticed the atmosphere was calming and safe, and I felt myself unexpectedly relax. I spent the next 30 minutes just sitting there with my loved one, trying to be supportive. In between listening to them and sitting in silence, and occasionally munching on saltine crackers, I glanced over to watch other families reunited during visiting hours. I couldn’t help but feel each reunion reminisced of loved ones being reunited at an airport after a long trip away.

I felt my eyes sting and my throat thicken and had to turn away because mental health disorders are far from a vacation, but how much more helpful to patients and their families if society viewed mental illness in more understanding ways. If they valued reunions of this nature and lessened so many hurtful stigmas. How much even I would have benefited if that were true years ago.

Growing up, I was led to believe mental illness is something to keep a secret, not share about, keep it in the family. That secret was heavy. No one understood the trauma that also impacts children in homes where severe mental illness is present. I remember once commenting on a shade of fresh blinding white paint and stating it looked like a “pysch ward.” My teenage peers were in shock when I carelessly said such a thing. Even more so that I would even know. I stopped myself from sharing all those chaotic years my parent was severely ill, remembering the family secret. We don’t talk about it, I’d remind myself.

That family secret was to be left off even on medical records when visiting my own doctor. They’d look at me differently most often anyway, so I was fine with omitting that fact. It took until recent years to start including it and realizing the majority of doctors are professional and understanding.

While many people would never see the secret of what life could look like with severe mental illness, the struggle was very real. That reality contributed to my own trauma today, but thankfully therapy helps. I’ve had to start to unbox all those childhood fears and process them. I’ve had to strive for healing. I’ve had to acknowledge my reservations about my own mental health and how, to truly thrive, I have to face so many fears.

Since that first visit to the hospital, more have only occurred, and while I’m well aware of ignorant people’s judgment, I know in those moments, I can finally breathe. Because at least my loved one is getting much needed help. They’re safe and doctors are doing for them what I can’t. Out of respect for their privacy, I do not talk about it, but it’s no longer a family secret I hold. It’s the struggle I share because I know someone else is out there feeling all the same feels, stress and worrying for someone who is dear to them. It’s that hopelessness our love can’t just “fix” them and ease their pain. That we can’t protect them from their inward fears we just can’t understand.

This is for all the families out there who have made those hospital visits, have sat supporting their loved ones in packed emergency rooms, who have sleepless nights waiting for calls to intervene. For the ones who have haggled with nurses and doctors and police officers. For those who feel like they’re drowning and lost in a broken mental health system and unable to adequately advocate for the people they love most in this world. For those of us who are grieving the onset of severe illnesses that can feel like they can temporarily steal our loved ones from us. Between us, that reality is no secret. It’s often tiresome, draining and overwhelming. But love tries. I’m here to say one thing that is certainly no secret is your love. You’re doing your best. Try to be easy on yourself. Take care of you, too.

Getty image by BrianAJackson

Originally published: March 13, 2021
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