I was talking with a friend the other day who is really struggling with some heavy issues in her family. She’s been wearing the “everything’s fine” mask for years and is finally ready to shed it. She is ready to open up and share the pain and the sorrow she is experiencing. She is finally ready to acknowledge the darkness that comes with mental health illness and the heartbreak that can come with loving someone who is mentally ill.
I’m proud of her. What she’s doing is outside her comfort zone. Admitting that not everything is sunshine and roses is a brave, bold step and I commend her. Not everyone shares my sentiment. There are those who feel that by sharing the negative side of mental health illnesses, especially the negativity that can come with parenting a child with a mental health illness, my friend is somehow contributing to the cultural misunderstandings of mental health illness and those who suffer with it.
I disagree. I believe that we have to get over the idea that only the positive aspects of our lives as parents of kids with mental health issues can be shared with others. Life is full of both positive and negative, beautiful and ugly, triumph and tragedy and we must be exposed to both else we end up with a skewed perception of reality. How can we truly appreciate something wonderful if we’ve never experience anything horrible? How can we fully enjoy good health if we’ve been never even had a sniffle? Expressing the challenges we face in life isn’t the same as wallowing in negativity. As a matter of fact, ignoring and denying your true feelings can be extremely detrimental to your health.
I believe that people, especially those in the mental health community, are capable of seeing the negative aspects of mental health. I believe that once we are able to acknowledge the natural regression that comes with mental illness, any illness for that matter, (ever heard of a cancer patient who has been in remission but is back in chemo?) the rest of society will be able to accept it too. We can’t expect the uninformed masses to accept a truth that we refuse to accept first. The key to getting the public to understand and accept mental health illness is for us to understand and accept mental health illness, even the not-so-pretty side.
My friend has tried a great many tactics while dealing with her mentally ill family member. They’ve tried counseling, medication, in-home programs, residential programs – you name it, this family has gone through it. Now it seems that my friend is so fatigued, so battle-weary as it were, that she has taken to pussy-footing around this family member. The problem with pussy-footing around the mentally ill is that you never know what’s going to set them off. I know this from experience. I lived with someone who is bipolar for more that 12 years and I became adept at what I call “emotional contortion-ism“. That’s what I call it when you alter your personality, change your speaking patterns, your habits, the way you stand, dress and breathe so that you don’t upset the mentally ill person in your life. I now believe it is ridiculous for anyone to do that and I believe it is socially irresponsible to expect a whole society of people to do that to accommodate a select group of people.
Now, please don’t misunderstand me. I’m all for a more compassionate, understanding and patient culture, but the reality is the world does not revolve around the mentally ill and we cannot expect it to. I agree that our society needs to be educated and become more aware of mental health. I believe that is a social responsibility we all must participate in, but I also believe that our children are going to have adapt to meet, at least some of, society’s expectations. Maybe if we’re lucky and work diligently we’ll be able to create a middle ground where everyone will be more readily accepted.
To come back to my original point, I don’t believe that burying the darker side of mental health illness is beneficial to anyone. Stopping the expression of your own pain and struggles as a parent is extremely unhealthy for you and your relationship with your mentally ill child or family member. By ignoring the negative side of mental health illnesses and only allowing the positive stories to be told we are feeding into the cultural delusion that mental health illnesses should be cured after the first treatment. It’s like we’re still locking the mentally ill away in asylums, but now we allow them out when they’re squeaky clean and can express positive, upbeat, culturally acceptable stories of their triumph over mental illness. But the second they express a negative thought or emotion we shove them back in the padded room and lock the door.
“God help me. I’m alone. There’s no hope.”
Above are words that Marie Balter uttered in desperation while hospitalized at Danvers State Hospital Insane Asylum. But hope eventually saw her through. However, it is thoughts like those portrayed on the wall of this former patient room at Metropolitan State Hospital that would hold some patients at bay… making them feel hopeless like Marie did. Later in life she went on to graduate from Harvard Grad school and bring about reform in the very hospital that originally held her down. When asked if every patient could get well she replied, “Its not up to us to decide if they can or can’t. Just give everybody the chance to get better and let them go at their own pace. And we have to be positive – and not always insisting on their productivity as a measure of their success.” The above was taken from a website called Abandoned Souls – Abandoned Spaces.