I was twenty years old when my mother had her first mental breakdown. Mine had been a somewhat sheltered life. Aside from my father’s untimely death when I was only eight, I had not seen much of the dark side of existence. I certainly knew nothing about mental illness and the dramatic symptoms that seemed to so suddenly change my mom from a strong, independent woman into someone paralyzed by depression, paranoia and manic episodes. As I witnessed her decline that summer I was overtaken by a state of anxiety that made me feel as though I might surely die. I would visit her during the daylight hours and then return to my apartment in the evenings where I attempted to understand what was happening and to rally help for her among my aunts and uncles whom I was certain would have much better insights into her condition than I had. Mostly though I suffered from my own form of mental stress experiencing panic attacks that threatened to render me useless in the battle to bring my mother back to a healthy state of mind.
I slept little during that period. In fact, that August marked the first time that I was plagued by insomnia. I generally lay awake each night silently crying and feeling as though an elephant was sitting on my chest daring me to breathe. I felt so very alone, convinced that nobody might possibly understand how worried and sad I was. I was walking through those days in a continual daze, pretending to be in control of my situation while actually wanting to run away screaming in desperation. As my mother’s symptoms grew worse I realized that I had inherited total responsibility for her welfare. Circumstances forced me to grow up by a factor of one hundred. While my friends, save those who were fighting in the jungles of Vietnam, were still enjoying the adventures of college and the freedom of their youth, I understood that if I didn’t take charge my mother and my brothers would be in danger. I took a deep breath and became my mother’s keeper in a strange relationship that would span four decades. It was something that I would have happily given up if given even half a chance but the reality was that there was nobody else who could do this for her.
I was as imperfect at being unselfish as anyone might be. There were times when I was hardly able to function myself and when I resented the cross that I had to bear. I became an Academy Award worthy actress, hiding my fears and pain along with my mother’s tragic story as though it was an ugly and unspeakable secret. My unwillingness to open up to people who might have provided succor to me only made things worse but I was not yet ready to accept that I would be far happier bringing the truth into the light. When my mother became well again I naively believed that all of us were going to be fine and that I would never again have to face such a daunting experience. Sadly, she was sick again in only a matter of a few years and I fell apart at the realization that her illness was going to be a chronic fact of our lives.
I continued to be quite secretive about my mother’s fight with mental illness. My own stress increased to an unfortunate level as I quietly and continuously watched for symptoms that would alert me to get her to a doctor before she devolved into a more serious state of mind. I failed to mention my own bouts with anxiety and mild depression but they were quite real and they made me feel as though I wasn’t nearly as strong as I needed to be and that I was somehow defective.
At some point I was no longer able to maintain my silence. I began to speak of my concerns, my feelings of guilt, and the sense of despair that often overcame me. At first it was only the most trusted friends who heard such things but eventually I found the courage to talk with my doctors and finally anyone with whom I had contact. I learned that nobody was going to think ill of me or my mother. Nor was I abandoned. In fact, my admissions generally lead to sharing of similar stories and unlikely alliances. Over time I realized that we all fall down from time to time for one reason or another. We may lose a loved one, face a terrible disease, endure the breakup of an important relationship, fail in achieving a goal, become a victim of violence or suffer from mental illnesses of our own. The truth is that we are both fragile and resilient beings. As such we experience ups and downs throughout our lifetimes. Sometimes are lows are so devastating that we feel as though we may not make it through to the light of day.
I have found that there are always kind and empathetic individuals who are just waiting for our cries of help. All that we have to do is open up our hearts and we will find them, kindred spirits who have also had moments of brokenness and terror. They lovingly provide us with comfort just when we need it, but they will not be able to do so unless we are willing to confess that we are hurting. In acknowledging our humanity we take the first steps toward healing. It took me far too long to admit that I was as imperfect as I am.
I remember kneeling in prayer in the office of an assistant principal who cried with me as he spoke of the people in his family who also suffered from severe mental illnesses. I found succor from a doctor who was giving me a physical for work. He noted the checkbox that indicated that some of my relatives suffered from depression. He gently guided me to a confession that radically changed my life as he assured me that I had no reason to feel guilty about the times when I resented my role as a caretaker. I have had countless individuals hug me in an embrace of solidarity as they outlined their stories of struggles with either their own or someone else’s mental illness. Never once has anyone reacted negatively to my recounting of the journey that me, my mother and my brothers had taken in the house of horrors that was the reality of mental illness. Instead with each telling I felt reassured that I was not and never would be alone.
We all want to be viewed with dignity and respect. It is difficult to admit that we have feet of clay or that we make mistakes and yet it is in facing the demons that attack us in the middle of the night that we find the clarity and calm that we seek. Not only do we find a clearer focus for ourselves, but often we help others as well.
I know of two young ladies who are dealing with very difficult situations. They are far more advanced than I was at their ages. Rather than hiding the hurt and the pain that stalks them, they have been willing to share their feelings and the efforts that they have made to set themselves aright. They write blogs and speak to other young people. They tell of their journeys and admit that they still falter from time to time. The work that they are doing for themselves and for others is not just laudable, it is important. They are living proof that even the seemingly most perfect individuals often find themselves struggling to cope. They are both exceedingly beautiful, intelligent and talented, hardly the type of women who might falter, and yet they have. Their willingness to unmask their struggles is inspiring. They prove that the world is far kinder and gentler than we may imagine and that even the most remarkable among us may need a safety net now and again. It’s as easy as voicing the word “help” to begin the process of healing. We all fall down but there will always be someone willing to pick us up if only we ask.