I know I said I was only going to post three days a week. However, I’d forgotten that it’s Mental Health Awareness Month, I decided it’s too important of an issue to step back from.
If you joined me during the April launch of this blog, then you’ll know that mental illness plays a significant role in my life . . . and always has, whether I knew it or not.
Whether I knew it or not – that’s the thing. I didn’t know I was mentally ill. My mom didn’t know she was mentally ill. My grandmother didn’t know that she was and my uncle didn’t know that he was.
Everyone just looked at our behaviors and our lives, decided we were “crazy” or whatever label they applied to us and either moved on or just accepted that is how we are. Even if they knew we “weren’t right in the head,” it simply was what it was and we all just had to deal with it.
Suicide. Substance abuse. Dementia. Toxic relationships. Broken relationships with family members. Nervous breakdowns. Inability to hold down a job.
These are all symptoms of mental illness. They aren’t always symptoms of that, to be sure. However, they are common things which occur for those of us with mental illness.
Anxiety. Depression. Bipolar Disorder. PTSD. These are all things which directly affect me. These are all things which, I suspect, have directly affected most, if not all of my “immediate” family members.
My mother died by suicide in 1981. She died less than a month before her 28th birthday. I was 12 years old. She’d turned guardianship of me over to her brother less than two months before. She was living in another state with my grandmother. All I ever knew was that she’d died by a gunshot to the head.
I didn’t know what happened to her body. I never attended a funeral or a memorial service. I finally found out sometime around 2010 that she’d been cremated and her ashes released somewhere over the Oregon Coast.
With the help of a friend, I also obtained the police and coroner’s reports.
In those reports it was very clear that there wasn’t an investigation done. It was the suicide of a woman who was separated from her husband and child, which caused her to kill herself.
Her husband, her third, had sexually molested her one and only child, me, for two years. As far as I know, he was in prison at the time of her death. The relationship between the two of us had become so dysfunctional and overwhelmingly painful for both of us, that she thought it was in my better interest to not be parented by her.
When I talked to my uncle, 30 years after her death, I found out that he blamed himself. She’d told him she felt suicidal. His response was a typical response for that time. It was seen as an attention seeking move by a drama queen and he told her to go ahead, or something along those lines. He never expected her to really do it.
I don’t blame him. for a long time I blamed my step-father because of the sexual abuse, meaning that, on some level, I blamed myself for ever having told her. Which, I’d done out of spite, to get even with him for “abandoning” me by discontinuing the abuse. I was 10.
Since 2010, after several long talks with a family member who knew my mom while she was growing up. I heard stories of her constantly moving around, never being able to live in one place for any length of time. I learned that in late childhood, early adolescence, she started talking to angels and demons. I was told that she never had been able to hold down a job for very long.
She’d grown up deep in Alabama. She grew up in a culture and era of, “don’t talk, don’t tell,” and “you don’t air family’s dirty laundry.” In a deep South religious culture, her talk of speaking with angels and demons wasn’t seen as a mental illness. It was seen as not being right with God and probable demonic possession.
My grandmother was single parenting her, when she “fell pregnant” with me, at the age of 16 by a Mexican immigrant who worked in the cafeteria where both my grandmother and mother worked. They got married in November, I was born in June, and the divorce was final in August. I’m fairly certain my lily white, Alabaman grandmother, played a role in their divorce. However, based on the things I discovered after finding and meeting my father in 2010, I’m pretty sure the divorce was inevitable.
As I listened to the stories of my mother’s behaviors and actions, I began to understand that she had likely experienced Bipolar Type Schizoaffective Disorder. Left untreated, it killed her.
When we talk about suicide, we say that the person killed themselves. We say they made a “choice.” We act as if they are to blame for their selfish decision to take the coward’s way out and end their lives.
Suicide is the final symptom, sign, and stage of a chronic mental illness.
This stigma around mental illness and suicide prevents many from seeking help. It prevents many more from seeing the signs of mental illness in friends and family members because they dismiss the behaviors and thoughts as “them just being themselves.”
Mental health awareness is important for these reasons. It’s not enough to know that mental illness exists. It has to be destigmatized and people need to educate themselves about what different mental illnesses may look like . . . both from the outside looking in and from the inside looking out.