Before May started, Kristen and I chatted about Mental Health Awareness month. (We don’t live anywhere near each other, but I like to picture us sitting at a cozy table with pie and coffee. Coffee was definitely involved, but the pie and table are imaginary. A crone can dream.) If you combine our families, we are collectively managing depression, crippling anxiety, PTSD, bipolar disorder, autism, ADHD, addiction, and OCD. I may have forgotten some. We agreed that it’s important to discuss mental health, to not be ashamed, to allow others the space to look within, recognize potential problems, and seek the help they may need to be happy, thriving human beings.
But when it came time to actually write about our experiences, we hesitated. We stalled. We looked at it from different angles. The problem we had is that much of our experience comes through our family members, through loving and helping and watching and living with them. Kristen finally put words to it:
I can’t tell their stories… It is intrusive, inappropriate, and wrong on so many levels. At best, it’s exploitation for a good cause.
I agreed. I have often felt that my family members are intelligent, humorous, and gifted, and they can tell their own stories when and as they see fit.
It’s interesting for us to watch how that develops. Though we are the generation that saw the birth of the internet (yes, younglings, that was us—you didn’t invent the internet, or sex or drugs or rock and roll or swear words, though you’ve been unique in your use of all of them), we are amazed at how much the younger generation feels free to share, and share instantly. It is sometimes difficult for the mother crone to know when to step in and say, “are you sure you want everyone to know that?” versus saying, “that was brave, and I’m proud of you.” Protective instincts battle with encouragement. This happens at all levels of motherhood and development, of course, but when you mix the Instant Age with mental health issues, there are fresh questions that we don’t know how to answer.
A bit of our floundering comes from the pushback we have to our own parents. Their generation was very much against sharing mental health struggles, at least in our experiences. My dad used to call psychiatrists and psychologists “quacks who are crazier than their patients.” There has been reluctance from various family members at various times to admit that autism or other mental health issues could have a genetic component, because they feel responsible. (Side note: you aren’t responsible for which genes you pass along!)
Kristen noted that there are family members who still believe those living with mental illness
just need a boot up the ass, and refuse to accept that addict [relatives] are (diagnosed) anxious.
We both found that it’s becoming easier to understand why our families were like this, though. Kristen explained the culture her family grew up in:
The Catholic Church—or at least the Boston Irish Catholic culture of the 60s and 70s —made suffering desirable and stoicism a virtue. To [them], shame was a bigger trauma than the physical and mental suffering.
My family grew up in the Midwest. They did not have quite the same culture of drinking and brawling that Kristen described as the stereotype of her previous generation’s solution for mental health crises, but I did hear a lot about faith being able to knock the depression right out of you.
But we can see why doctors were seen as quacks when we remember the history of mental health care in this country: terrible medications that would leave you comatose, shock treatments, and forced lobotomies. Given the cultural pressures and the medical options, it is easier to extend grace to those eager to sweep mental health issues under the rug.
Thanks to medical science, we have better options than our parents and grandparents. Thank God for new medications and treatment options. Thank God for greater awareness. Thank God for beginning to learn the difference between the faith of “offering it up” when there is unavoidable suffering, and the grace and mercy involved in acknowledging and alleviating avoidable suffering. We may still be trying to figure out how much to share and when, but we have the tools to be able to offer at least some relief, and to know better than to ignore the problem.
Kristen summed up our experiences perfectly:
Hey, our families have skewed wiring and they are still our favorites.
I told you she’s wise.