I've just discovered over at Journeying Beyond Breast Cancer that today is Blogging for Mental Health Day. I've already unwittingly joined that circle via today's previous post, but here's a more intentional effort:
My great-grandmother, for whom I am named, suffered from bipolar disorder. She was treated at Johns Hopkins in the 1930s by a college classmate of my grandmother's who had become a psychiatrist. Little was ever said about her challenges in life. My father recalls train trips from Cincinnati to Baltimore with his mother to visit her mother. He reported that his own mother had once said that she had made up her mind never to be like her mother, and that she was proud of having achieved that goal ~ as if it were a matter of self-control rather than genetic luck. Her mother broke her arm by slamming it down on the kitchen counter one day, and attempted suicide at least once.
On a more positive note, because life is always a prism of complexities, that same sadly disturbed woman ensured that her own daughter completed college at a time when few people graduated from high school, because her own parents had refused her a much desired college education. She was married to a highly successful executive, and so wanted for nothing material.
She died when I was a little girl, shortly before my own mother's death. I have some photos of her, and some of her jewelry . . .
And apparently I am also in possession of a terrifyingly damaging fragment of her genetic material, which decided to express itself full force in my own beautiful son and to kill him without warning.
Yesterday I read the testimony that another woman in my state is presenting to our legislature in support of a bill designed to promote more suicide prevention education for public school teachers. She talks about how her in-laws, after her husband and the father of her three children died, wanted her to be silent, not to mention or discuss suicide, and how she chose instead to educate herself and to speak out ~ a stance which has perhaps saved one of her children.
Could we have saved Josh if we had known what was staring us in the face? We'll never know; we lost what opportunity there was. Would we have known what to look for, had we better understood my great-grandmother's illness ~ and possibly also the illness of a cousin of hers, who seems to have slipped silently from the world in the 1800s, apparently another victim of unmentioned mental illness and suicide?
Another young person with whom I have a lovely friendship is struggling in the clutches of bipolar disorder as I write this. The past few weeks have been a bewildering nightmare for her and all who love her. I am so grateful, on her behalf, that we live in a world in which, where mental illness is recognized, we can be open and try together to provide support and help for each other ~ if we are willing to be present to the darker realities of life.
During my first year back in seminary after Josh died, I sat through a couple of appallingly ignorant statements by people who should have known a lot better and who should probably be choosing a new profession. When it happened again after some time had passed and I felt my strength returning, I spoke out vehemently in class one day. I stated that misconceptions about mental illness will get us nowhere, and that we need to recognize it for what it is and treat it , rather than blaming families or societal problems for the fact that people get sick. The professor in question apologized immediately, with genuine remorse for "having gotten a little carried away." Afterward, three of my classmates thanked me, saying that they, too, have relatives who struggle with mental illness and for whose lives they fear.
I looked at my three friends a bit quizzically and said,
"You need to speak up!"