Posted by: Jim Laurie | November 25, 2010

The Stigma

There is a reason the subject of mental illness is so vitally important to me. I know it intimately. Having lived with chronic clinical depression most of my life, I’ve learned to deal with it, to function, to manage. In that way, depression is similar to alcoholism, another topic I know a great deal about. Just like I’m not sure people realize how many seemingly well functioning alcoholics there are, I doubt they see past the barriers we erect to simply make it through another day, depressed. I’ve told my story in other posts so I’ll try not to repeat myself here. I’ll tell another part of the story, the part I don’t talk about openly.

I grew up knowing about suicide. There were uncles and cousins who took their own lives. No one talked about it. When they did it was only in a hushed, shameful voice. I grew up understanding shame quite well. As an adult, I understand there can be a genetic component to depression. The fact there are so many suicides in my family is not simply a tragedy. It’s impossible to ignore the genetic link.

I’ve always tried to be open with my kids about everything. Besides, you really can’t hide stuff from your kids. When my son was 13, he was struggling greatly in school. He would come home in tears daily. One day there was a commercial on tv, a public service announcement about depression and your local mental health clinic. He looked at me and said, “mom, I think that’s what’s wrong with me”. I remember the moment because I’m quite sure my heart stopped. I knew I couldn’t ignore it or make light of it. I took him to a local counselor and we got lucky, they hit it off great. Turns out his problems in school were related to some learning disabilities that had gone undiagnosed earlier. His struggle ate away at his self esteem to the extent, he never fully gained it back, as far as school went. The counseling helped him a great deal though.

A few years ago my son came into my office at work early one weekday morning. He was pale and shaking and asked me if I could take him to the emergency room, he didn’t know what was wrong with him. I talked to him as we made the 20 minute drive to the doctor’s office. I recognized the signs…he was having a panic attack. I tried to calm him down, and fortunately, there was a doctor available to see him. The doctor calmed him down further, explained what was happening. He now also takes medication and sees a doctor on a regular basis. He’s doing well now. Depression and anxiety occur quite often in unison.

My son and I are alike in many ways, including sharing the mental illness of depression and anxiety disorder. My daughter and I are like many mothers and daughters I suppose. We are often at odds. As I said, I’ve tried to be open with my kids about my depression and their father’s alcoholism. The discussion flows easily with my son. My daughter however, doesn’t want to talk and has done a good job at burying her feelings. I recognize it so well because at her age I was much the same. Except my mother wouldn’t have wanted to talk about any of it. We have a pretty good relationship, we can talk about lots of things and enjoy spending time together. But I’ve been aware for the last several years, there’s a delicate balance to maintaining our relationship.

I’ve only told this story to two people in my life I was very close to. But I want to tell it again now. My daughter is the opposite of her brother in most every way. She was a straight A student, she has lots of friends, is involved in lots of activities. She seems to have it all together. She’s always seemed more mature than her years. I so often look back and wonder what I didn’t see.

When she was around 13 I received a call at work from her jr high counselor asking me to come in for a talk. It seemed one of her friends had gone to the counselor because she was afraid my daughter was going to harm herself. Apparently she had mentioned suicide. Another moment in my life I will always remember clearly. The world stopped. I met with the counselor who could only give me vague details of what had gone on. I met with all her teachers and asked if they had seen anything or knew of anything going on. They were all as shocked as I was. I made an appointment for her with a private counselor. I tried talking to her but she was angry. Angry I’d talked to the counselor and teachers, angry I was making her go to a counselor and angry I was making her tell her dad why I’d been called to school. A lot of 13 yr old girl trauma going on back then.

For a few months I took her to the counselor. She either wouldn’t talk or only talked about things that were fine. She told me it had all been a big misunderstanding, a joke that got out of hand. However, I knew her friends well, the same group of girls are her friends today. There was something they heard or saw that gave them reason to be very concerned. Eventually, things calmed down. I couldn’t find anything in her behavior or notice any changes to give me a clue to what had been going on or was going on now. She continued through high school with a 4.0 GPA taking honors classes. She was very involved with the music programs and has always been responsible and trust worthy.

Yet still, I worry. I don’t know if depression will be something she must deal with too. As mature and responsible as she is, I know in some ways she’s still a little girl. I don’t know if she will come to me if she needs help. I’m not sure she wouldn’t be ashamed of it if she did need help. She’s used to being very independent and she is headstrong, with attitude (I don’t know where she got that). And there’s nothing I can do, but be here whenever she needs me.

So there you have it. I have two children. My son is now 25, employed as a mechanic and a truck driver, married and has a child on the way. My daughter is 21 and in college, getting her accounting degree. They were each at risk of being a teenage suicide. I could have lost one or both of them. Every time I hear of another suicide, especially a young person, my heart breaks a little bit. And it makes me angry.

Why can’t we talk about mental illness freely and openly? Why do people feel ashamed of having an ILLNESS? It’s not a weakness of character, it’s not laziness, it’s not feeling sorry for yourself, it’s a disease people. It’s not a joke.

I want to repeat that for anyone who may have missed it, it’s an illness, not something you toss around lightly to disparage people’s beliefs or make them feel small. And damn those of you who do it.

Things are gradually getting better. The stigma still exists. I dare anyone to try to prove to me it doesn’t. I feel it’s only fair to warn you. I am a mother first, and I will always do everything in my power to see that my children lead happy and healthy lives. Speaking up and speaking out is the least I can do.

Thanks for taking the time to read this.



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