It's not often that I blog about my personal experiences with mental health, but since May is Mental health Awareness Month, it's time to come out... again.
I was five years old when I first experienced the stigma of mental illness. That's when my father was diagnosed with schizophrenia. It was a scary word that didn't mean much to me. But, I knew the word and his suicide, which followed just a few months later, were to be kept secret between my mother, two sisters and me.
It's been more than 30 years and I still remember when the phone call came. There I was with my eight-year-old sister, perched on the stairwell eavesdropping on my mothers phone call. "John. Mentally ill. Gun shot. Suicide. Dead." It was more than my imaginative five-year-old mind could comprehend. When my mom finally came to tell us what happened. She said, "Daddy went to heaven." I knew that was only part of the truth.
We rarely talked about my father when I was growing up. But, late at night there were whispers behind closed doors about schizophrenia and suicide. What is it? Why did it happen? And, will it happen to me, I asked my oldest sister? She didn't know either. I never saw a therapist, talked to a school counselor, or shared what happened with an older family relative because schizophrenia was confusing. Not just to me, but to adults too. Nobody really knew what it was, what to say, or how to comfort a family in grief, so we pretended everything was OK. The late night whispers eventually stopped, and the slim built, dark haired, and thoughtful man I knew as my father faded into silence.
I spent years living alone with my experience, and all that comes with it… the secrets, the shame, the pain, the grief, the depression…and never feeling normal. Mental illness and suicide was something that separated "us" from "them." Then, in my 20's when I could no longer make sense of my own depression, I got help. I remember sitting across from the curious blonde haired therapist who seemed more mystical than intellectual, more motherly than professional, and I was skeptical. My inner critic screaming that this woman could never understand. I was wrong. When I was willing to open up, she helped me change my life. What kept me sane was learning that I didn't have to be alone. And, that I wasn't alone. What happened to my father, to my family, to me wasn't an isolated event. Once I started talking, I couldn't stop. To my surprise, I stopped feeling depressed and began to experience hope.
Although, I didn't start out with intentions to become a therapist and this isn't my first career, my recovery is the reason I ultimately decided to help others. It's the reason I've decided to share my story today. Through speaking up and speaking out, I hope to provide a sense of community and encourage others to do the same. I believe that each time we speak about our experiences and each time those of us touched by mental illness “come out” there’s another opening helping to break the silence and negative stigma that continues to exist.
Mental Health impacts everyone. There is no one situation or experience that is better than the other, or one that calls for more attention than another when it comes to mental health and well being. If you have questions about your mental health or that of a family member, I encourage you to get support with a counselor, a support group or to reach out to an organization like the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).
If you are in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). They have trained counselors available 24/7 to provide free, confidential help.