In 1990, the U.S. Congress established the first full week of October as Mental Illness Awareness Week in recognition of National Alliance on Mental Illness’ (NAMI) efforts to raise mental illness awareness. So as the first full week of October comes to a close, I will share my experience and story in hopes that it decreases the stigma and increases the awareness of how important mental health is.
I often find myself thinking how uncomfortable I get when people asked “What happened?” or when a conversation leads me to answer that I lost my mom in 2010. I cringe a little and take a deep breath because I wonder after I answer if they will interact with me differently, think differently of me as a person, or treat me with “kid gloves” because “Oh how sad for her.” I promised last October to you all and myself that I would stand up and fight to eradicate stigma regarding mental illness and I have fallen short of my goal. I haven’t brought it to the forefront as much as I had planned, I hadn’t sought out opportunities to share my story and experience, and to use my voice as a blogger to keep fighting. It’s still really hard to talk about what happened – because it’s heartbreaking, emotionally draining, and gut wrenching.
I still find it hard to say out loud with hesitation that I lost my mom to suicide. I have ZERO hesitation to say that my grandfather passed away from cancer in 2016, that towards the end he became a different person both in physical stature and attitude. That towards the end he seemed so sad and so ready to stop fighting. That he seemed resigned and okay with the notion that he wouldn’t be here with us in person much longer. That I knew my days were numbered with him because he wasn’t himself anymore and because he was done fighting. That when I left his house I wondered whether that would be the last time I had hugged him or told him I loved him. That I hung up every phone conversation wondering if it would be my last. That I just hoped he would hang on for one more holiday or the birth of Grayson. It’s not shameful or stigmatized for me to talk about what cancer did to our family for even a second. I would have no hesitation talking to anyone, friend or not, about how awful cancer is.
So, why can’t I describe watching my mom struggle with depression?
Because, if I am being really honest – it’s exactly the same sentiments. I felt the exact same things that I experienced above with my grandfather. Because even as a mental health professional, as someone who has dedicated my entire working career to helping those with mental illness, violence, abuse, and poverty among many other things I feel stigmatized in sharing that suicide touched my family 7 years ago this October. I am nervous to publish this blog post. I am nervous that someone will read it and treat me differently the next time I see them. But, if I can’t find the strength to stand up and speak out as a mental health professional – how can I expect the general public to speak up and communicate? I cant. So it’s time to use my passion, my heartache, my drive to make this stop and start talking. For anyone who knows me really well – knows that when I am passionate about something – I cannot be stopped.
My mom began to struggle with depression around 2009 after the stock market crashed, the financial stability of our nation was shaky, and layoffs were happening left and right. She had risen in her career and when her department of Bank of America made mass layoff’s she was one of the ones affected. She found a new job that same day but making about 40,000 dollars less than her previous salary. She started getting really sad immediately…. Spending a lot of time talking about how she had been with the same company for almost 25 years and the thought of starting over with a new role, with a boss half her age, as a single woman, making so much less than she felt she was worth was a blow to her self-esteem that she couldn’t shake. She didn’t want to seek counseling or talk to a psychiatrist because she was fearful that it would get back to her employer and she would be stigmatized. So, as the stressors mounted she became more and more depressed. At the end of the day, she knew she needed to reach out but she avoided all offers and refused to do so because of the stigma. The loss of social status, financial ability, what others would think of her was what rocked her the most.
People would talk to me about my mom who knew how depressed she was and say things like “She needs to snap out of it” “She needs to get over it” “She’s a middle class white woman what does she have to be sad about” “She looked fine the last time I saw her.” I battled family members on approaches to “help” her. I stood up to people who said she needed “tough love” and that there was nothing we could do. I cried, screamed, yelled, and bantered with family members who said it was okay that there was a gun in the home because it was locked up and she didn’t have the key. I spouted facts and statistics and discussed safety plans. They said “That if she wanted to die, she would find a way.” “It was only a matter of time.”
Get over it? Snap out of it? It’s not that easy people. We wouldn’t tell someone who was dealing with sickness from chemo or radiation to get over it. Why do we treat people with mental health issues so very differently?
We cannot pretend that it doesn’t affect us. There is no eligibility application for mental health, no racial requirement, socioeconomic requirement, or gender. There is no rule that if you have x amount of dollars to your name that you can’t possibly be sad, because what do you have to be sad about? Yet those are the responses I got. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in 2015: Suicide was the tenth leading cause of death overall in the United States, claiming the lives of more than 44,000 people. Read that sentence again. 44,000 people died in 2015 alone by suicide. In 2015, firearms were the most common method used in suicide deaths in the United States, accounting for almost half of all suicide deaths.
I find myself looking at pictures, reading the letters I have, rehashing memories more and more particularly after I became a mother myself. I see pictures of friends and their moms doing multigenerational activities together and I feel a stab in my heart that just never seems to fade. And as I find myself a few weeks away from 7 years without her, it’s harder and harder all the time now to hear her voice in my head. I rehash that last phone conversation the night that she died with her telling her I got the Christmas play tickets in the mail and couldn’t wait to go in a few weeks with her. I rehash her saying “Me too! Love you Er, talk to you tomorrow” that last time. I say my name out loud sometimes hoping I can still pronounce it just like she did with her country accent. I find myself hoping that the mannerisms I have still resemble hers. I find myself hoping that someone/anyone will tell me that I look like her just one more time, because it’s still my favorite compliment to receive.
Yet, I still find myself shying away from using my platform as a blogger, a mom, a woman, a licensed mental health professional to scream from the rooftop THAT THE STIGMA HAS TO STOP.
My mom became a statistic in 2010. I didn’t want her to be a statistic. I wanted her to be a grandmother. A great grandmother. A cheerleader at my children’s sporting events. A hand to hold when I was birthing my children. A guest reader at my kids schools. An attendee at their Christmas plays. A high five when they scored a goal. A person to call in the middle of the night when my babies had their first colds and I didn’t know what to do. A confidant. A friend. A phone call away. A mom. I just want my mom.
So, here I am. Finally publishing the blog post Ive started and stopped about 5,000 times this week. Choking back tears over the state of our nation and world this week. Right now – I am confirming my ongoing fight. Except this year, I will act on my intentions. Watch out world – its time to step up to the plate. Its time to fight for those who cant find their voice. Its time to fight for all of the other mothers, daughters, sisters, and loved ones.