For lack of a better title….

I saw a speaker today who is heading up a Mental Health Awareness campaign starting with the state of New Hampshire.  I was speechless.  His story was powerful and moving and is one of those things that could happen to anyone.

He was a lawyer and eventually a judge on the state Supreme Court.  He shared the story of his son who developed a severe drinking problem to the point of getting himself arrested and eventually incarcerated.  He told us about the environment he grew up in where no one talked about mental illness.  Mental hospitals were scary and referred to as the “nut house.”

He talked about different periods of time when his son wasn’t operating at full potential but making it through High School, College and Grad school ok enough.  He shared how often his son was drinking.  It got to the point he and his wife went to an alcohol counselor for advice.  They faced the fact their son was an alcoholic.

But it escalated.  They kicked him out for awhile and he lived on the street, ate at homeless shelters.  What they didn’t know was that underneath the drinking was mental illness.  They didn’t know anything about that.  Living in the streets exacerbated the illness.  They eventually let him move back home because they felt like horrible parents putting him out.  And then he beat his father up so badly one night, he was arrested while his father spent months in the hospital recovering.

Can you imagine being a Supreme Court judge and this happened to your kid?  You are loving and supportive parents but haven’t the slightest idea what mental illness looks like.  He’s a good person with a bad problem and was using the alcohol to soothe his pain.  It was the prison that discovered and began treating his mental illness.  Years later, he is happily married and a father doing well.  

I frequently share how difficult it was to grow up with my parents.  Some might assume them emotionally distant or cold.  In fact, that’s probably the only way I have been able to describe it but that makes it sound like malice.  There was nothing at all malicious about them.  They had terrible parents and vowed to be better parents themselves.  And they absolutely were, by far.  It’s just the bar wasn’t that high either.  I choose to call them emotionally inexperienced.  The good news is after 40 years, they are doing considerably better.

What I don’t often think about is what it’s like raising a child like me.  Listening to this man speak felt like it could have been one of my parents telling our story.  I worry all the time that if my parents call or text me it’s because one of them is in the hospital.  I bet they worry every day that they could get a phone call about me.  And they have.  I’ve called in the middle of the night from the hospital with my head split open.  I’ve called to tell them I needed a lawyer.  Luckily, they knew the booze were a symptom of depression and PTSD because those things came first.  I didn’t have to suffer any judgment.  But sometimes I think it would be easier to suffer their judgment over their worry.  I hate myself every day…every single day for what my family goes through because of me.  Yet, if I had cancer I probably wouldn’t hate myself for them needing to help me.  

Coincidentally, I came across this quote today before the meeting and it summed up the last 5 years quite perfectly for me:

“Before you pass judgment on one who is self destructing, it’s important to remember they usually aren’t trying to destroy themselves.  They’re trying to destroy something inside that doesn’t belong.”

The final point this speaker made quite powerfully was how pervasive smoking was when he was a kid.  Every room in houses, every table at restaurants had ash trays.  He figured there would never be a time when an ash tray would be obsolete.  And yet, they are now.  He shared how when he first had television he would see news of African Americans being beaten in the streets which deeply disturbed him.  He didn’t see how we could ever overcome that and yet, he got to go to Washington to see Obama get sworn in.  He said that growing up, no one admitted to having mental illness and decades later we still don’t.  How can we be past ash trays and have an African American for President and still place stigma on mental illness?

He said what I have said before “You don’t tell your friend with diabetes to get over it.  Why would you tell a mental illness sufferer that?  Yet we do.  How ridiculous is that?”

This gentleman has been doing a number of talks in schools and so many of your children are beginning their experiences with mental illness.  Some of you know and are getting them the support they need.  Some of you don’t believe in mental illness and tell your kids to toughen up instead.  Some of you just think your kids are moody or hormonal or just different when, in fact, it could be something more troubling.

We stigmatize it in places of business.  We make fun of our “different” co-workers.  We take advantage of their slips to step over them and self-promote.  We use their “moments” as lunch table fodder.  But we don’t realize the billions of dollars in productivity lost when they are out of the office or in the office but not functioning on all cylinders.  We don’t think about what our jokes, rumors and self-promoting do to hurt them further.  

I know from firsthand experience.  I have been bullied for years.  I can’t hide my PTSD.  Everyone I work with knew I was at the Marathon and some of them were trying to help me get out of the city that day.  Many of them are incredibly supportive and give me some runway to not be perfect.  But not all of them.  Some of them took advantage of my bad days which is why I can’t afford my mortgage right now.  That needs to change.  It needs to change in schools.  It needs to change in businesses.  It needs to change in our homes, our communities.  

I am incredibly grateful to have gone to this presentation today.  I feel hopeful that a real movement could happen if we talk about this stuff.  That’s why I am open about my struggles.  It’s not for attention or pity.  It’s horribly embarrassing and shameful what I carry with me.  It would be so much easier to go back to the days when I couldn’t even tell my best friend where I had to go Saturday mornings after sleepovers at her house.   It’s much easier to just have my Thursday appointments  without explaining that’s my bi-weekly therapy without which I wouldn’t be alive or capable of dealing with bullying.  My issues have held me back professionally on many occasions because it’s easier just to let people think I can be an asshole or limited rather than explain there are just better approaches which work for me mentally; in which case I would thrive.   It kept me from graduating college the first time around and having to do it later while working full time.  

But somebody has to start the dialogue and I have never shied away from that responsibility.