Monday, January 30, 2012
The Horrible Disease
My heart breaks for my old friend, who had watched her child try to cope with his mental illness for years. In various communications about memorial services, times, places and such, it became clear that there are others among those of us who spent time together as children, who have watched helplessly, as our own children fight the unseen specter of the many faces of mental illness.
When I was a child, growing up in the 1950s and 60s, we didn't talk about such things. And frankly, not much was known about some of the various disorders we now have names for: ADD, ADHD, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, autism, Aspergers, even depression.
I graduated school with about 50 women, some of whom I had known since preschool. We all grew up in the same city, and most of us have attended at least one reunion. When we were in our 20s and 30s, we went on crash diets, bought new outfits, plastered smiles on our faces and went to our reunions firm in the knowledge that no one knew of our deepest secrets, the impending divorces, financial troubles, problem children. But we came together because we love each other. By the time we attended our last reunion we had been through enough together that most of us no longer worried about "looking good".
For example, when Katrina hit, friends from all over the country rallied to help our New Orleans classmate get her hands on some money until she could go back to her job. That one event opened me up to the fact that in many ways, our childhood friends remain our closest friends, even across vast distances of time and space.
In 2010, when I returned to the city of my birth for a reunion, I met with a childhood friend who has Aspergers Syndrome, a form of autism. She told me how when we were small, her parents didn't know what to do with her. How she herself didn't understand what was "wrong" with her, and turned to alcohol at a young age in an attempt to cope. She told me how, as a recovering alcoholic, she now understands a little more about herself. We spent an enjoyable hour together, I was able to make amends for the thoughtless cruelty I, among others, treated her with when we were children, and she was able to say, she hadn't really noticed but forgave me anyway. She also told me how hard she works to make eye contact with everyone she meets, and I was able to tell her I thought she did just fine. I left our meeting feeling refreshed and renewed.
With the death of one friend's child, others of us rally around her. Those of us who have children with mental illness now openly discuss and support each other. Mental illness is an incurable disease. It is sometimes invisible. It is insidious, treacherous, and crafty. It tells some of its sufferers that they have no disease. It requires constant vigilance, but most cases it is treatable. It is also exhausting. Its sufferers must cope with it day by day, breath by breath. My own loved one suffered for most of his life before finally, after several suicide attempts, he now has a tenuous hold on understanding himself, sees his doctor regularly, takes his meds, and seems to have let go of misplaced shame.
Day by day.
Breath by breath.
Those of us who have loved ones who suffer from mental illness need to hold fast to one another, we need to understand that it's not our fault, and we need to give each other hugs. Lots of big, bone-crushing hugs.
- ▼ 2012 (14)