I don’t listen to the radio anymore. NPR feels like a constant assault of bad news and fear-inducing headlines. Oddly, I’m not much for listening to music while I’m in the car so during long drives I’ve turned to podcasts to occupy my mind and one in particular, Family Ghosts, has become a favorite. People come on the show and investigate family secrets and legends, a process that is at once exhilarating and cathartic. The stories are fascinating and, if there is a single truth that spans all the stories, not everyone is exactly happy to talk about ghosts long locked away in the closet.
A few weeks back I wrote about one of my own family’s ghosts, the death of my mother 15 years ago. It’s not so much a ghost as it is a shadow, a very long shadow that still touches us to this day.
I received a lot of positive feedback from friends and colleagues, people commending me for talking about mental illness without shame and addressing it as the medical issue it is. Many shared their own experiences and the pain they experienced at not feeling like they could talk about it. This silence is what makes mental illness so deadly. Shame and fear keep us from talking about it. Shame and fear lead those suffering to take extreme measures, either intentionally or not.
Others were not so complimentary. One of my siblings immediately dashed off a rude text accusing me of colossal selfishness. My father felt betrayed. I know this because my other, non-texting sibling told me via a phone call. My father hasn’t yet spoken to me about it; he hasn’t called me, and I haven’t called him, which is okay. I’ve let him know that, when he’s ready, I’m here. In the meantime, I wait with an open heart and ear, and hope that he knows how much I love him.
I shouldn’t have been surprised or hurt by their reaction yet somehow I was. I know my father and siblings hurt from my mother’s passing as much as I do, yet there has been an unspoken law in our family that we are never to talk about it, even though talking about it could help us all. By addressing my mother’s death head on, I broke our family’s agreed upon silence. It doesn’t matter that I spoke the truth. The bottom line is the truth is painful and, in their eyes, I transgressed.
This is the wreckage that severe depression leaves in its wake…and precisely why we need to talk about it.