I don’t hide the fact that my mother is mentally ill.
I realize that mental illness is a topic that makes people uncomfortable. Yet keeping silent about an experience as profoundly life-altering as mental illness makes those who deal with mental illness in their families uncomfortable. So, which is right? Should I hide my mother’s mental illness so that others don’t feel uncomfortable, or do I speak about it and what I can to lift the taboo of mental illness?
Mental illness, after all, often has a physical basis like many other chronic illnesses. Mental illness isn’t something that one invites into their house. The mentally ill and their families are victims of a devastating disease, and are further victimized by the cloak of silence that society expects them to wear. Polite society and convention make mental illness shocking to discuss.
Mental illness isn’t the only taboo in our culture that leaves individuals twice-victimized: once by the experience itself and a second time by society. The combination can lead to a third victimization of self, brought on by silence, embarrassment and self-loathing. There are other examples. Poverty. Sexual violence. Developmental challenges. Abuse. No one asks for these things. A person who experiences these things did nothing wrong. Yet society – polite society – wishes to cover it with a cloak of silence to prevent a general uncomfortableness.
Leonard Cohen said, “There is a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in.” Talking about a taboo makes cracks in the cloak and lets the light in. The light shed on these experiences helps lift out of the dark those who struggle with these experiences. The light alters what society considers to be taboo. It slowly adds these forbidden topics to those that are openly discussed. This slowly makes it easier for victims to share their experiences and feel empowered. The more empowered people feel, the more they discuss things that effect them. The dialogue changes and behaviors change. Eventually the norm changes. After all, the norm by definition is what most people do. Think of the topics that were considered taboo 25 years ago. 50 years ago.
I try to make a point not to shy away from acknowledging my mother’s schizophrenia. I pretend it’s like discussing any other feature about her that is relevant to a conversation, even though I realize it’s not. I try to demystify mental illness by making it seem as normal to discuss as diabetes. I try not to whisper. I try not to lower my eyes when I say it. Yet, whenever I mention mental illness, I sense the slight jolt, the breath held too long. People aren’t used to such honesty. They know that mental illness, like so many other topics is not something that society wants to keep in the dark. Talking is the way into the light.
One of the ways.
The other way is through raising our children with honesty and compassion. Show them not to feel embarrassment for a situation that is not of their causing. Teach them that it’s okay to acknowledge a weakness and it’s okay to seek help. Tell them not to be silent if society stamps a taboo label on their experience. Parents, teach your children about equality and personhood and how to be strong.