It’s never easy.
You avoid it, you wait around until some perfect moment presents itself, but it never does.
You put it off, thinking that your kids are smarter, more informed than most. You wait and you procrastinate and you even start to think it’s an imposition and not really your personal responsibility at all. They teach it in school, don’t they? And their friends are all going through this stuff and talking responsibly about it too, right?
No, I’m not talking about sex.
I’m talking about mental health – not sexual, mental. The state of your kids’ mental health. And like the Sex Talk we mismanage and avoid. Most of us really scramble to find the words, any words.
It isn’t easy, it’s uncomfortable, it feels like exposing a shadowy private space. It’s absolutely like wading into a murky area where you’re making it all up as you go along.
And for me, the last thing I want is to tread clumsily into someone else’s flower garden, to traipse over that gap between my private plot and someone else’s.
Problem is, people today are constantly talking about their issues, the sexual, mental and emotional stuff they’re going though and sometimes in ways that are so ignorant and full of shame that it’s heartbreaking. It hurts my heart.
And I feel a tiny bit like an expert on this stuff – I’ve spent most of my life getting educated, learning about mental illness – struggling along, getting treated, taking medication, seeing counselors. I have a made up PhD (an independent study) with a focus on living with depression and bipolar disorder.
So why is it still so hard to talk about?
Obviously like the Sex Talk, it’s still a stigma. As much as we think we are progressive and educated and open, we still feel awkward and ashamed. My doctor told me that psychiatrists are at the bottom of the professional rung in terms of respect and right up there with the oncologists among those we fear and stigmatize most.
I am such an introverted and private person and I really want to let people alone, let them have some dignity around their issues. I’m not a big believer in spilling your guts really. Let people flower and bloom without telling me about every detail of their inner lives.
But the modern world encourages so much self-revelation and over-sharing and full disclosure in every private area. Being unfiltered is all the rage – just letting anything that comes out of your mouth, the more uninhibited the better, people see it as so refreshing, so revealing. No, I’m not sure it’s always healthy or even revealing. Uncensored definitely doesn’t equal intimacy.
So there’s this weird disconnect when it comes to really important stuff like emotional health and mental illness. We gab about it about it but it’s not usually in an informed or accurate or thoughtful way.
Anyway, that’s where I found myself recently, sitting with some people and laughing about being a little ADD or OCD as we joked about funny things that my friend did. And on another day someone I know said how manic she was lately, getting a lot of things done. And we all throw the word psycho around. I can’t even imagine how schizophrenics like the way we schizo everything.
And I don’t think it’s political correctness to say that words matter, labels matter. The way we talk about mental illness is important.
And it’s super hard to do.
One night over Christmas I told my kids that I wasn’t feeling good, I was feeling over-emotional and maybe it was my meds? I kind of knew it wasn’t (I was just emotional) but I was sort of testing out mental stuff in a conversation with them. It felt a little like dropping a cuss word in front of your parents when you’re little. But no bombs went off, my son didn’t look at me like I had two heads. My daughter said she knew exactly how I felt. We talked for a long time about a lot of things and it was probably my best memory from the holidays.
But it was huge for me. At first my heart was beating hard and I was scared. And inside I felt like the fascia covering my internal skeleton was falling away, unveiling my insides, all exposed and red and pulsating. And what was left felt like a new skin, vulnerable and thin, but right there, present and alive. And scary.
That was me not hiding.
That was me trying to normalize.
But the thing is, almost every day I meet people with severe anxiety or depression or they’re somewhere on the bipolar spectrum and it grates on me that they won’t see a shrink or even consider medication (for their kid usually) for whatever reason I can’t fathom. And they ruminate and agonize or maybe they just want to obsess. Maybe it’s simply fear. Or ignorance.
But it feels a lot like shame.
So the other day I said to a friend who’s been struggling: You know, this is my life. This is what I am living with right now. This is what I’ve spent nearly my entire life learning about, living through and dealing with. So can I tell you a couple of things ….?
And I did. But I had to fight that feeling of intruding, of breaking into someone’s private space – because what do I really know about his struggle?
But I go back to the Sex Talks and how I probably didn’t so so well with those either – I relied heavily on comic picture books and metaphors and sideways chats when the kids were too young to be too embarrassed. Whatever, I could have done better.
But I wish someone would have taught mental health basics to me when I was young. My therapist friend Steve thinks we should make Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) a required curriculum in public schools, because essentially it teaches kids how to understand their emotions, resolve conflict and basically learn common sense skills for how to live in the world. I agree, let’s learn how to recognize and understand our bodies – how we think and how we feel.
To me, The Mental Health Talk is so necessary – it’s at the core of who we are in the same way sexuality is. And like sex, talking about it with the people closest to us is often the hardest. Because they are the ones whose opinion really matters and many times it’s too real, too close. And they probably don’t want to see us in a way that’s different from what they know. And that’s okay. Each of us has a comfort level and we need to respect that.
But at times I know that it’s me who’s uncomfortable, I’m the one who’d rather not hear about how the alcoholism struggle is going or how horrible the panic attacks have been. I’m the one who’s nervous about what might be revealed in someone I thought I knew.
So sometimes I have to force myself to ask – I mean if my friend had cancer would I side-step asking her about her radiation? And so I start.
How are you feeling? Are you still depressed? Are you seeing a therapist/doctor? Do you need anything – how can I help? I have a good book, know a good doctor, have a friend with the same problem …
But mostly, I want my friend to know that when we talk again I won’t fixate on it, it’s not the only thing we have to discuss. But I want her to also know that I’m here if she needs someone to listen. And I tell her I love her just the way she is.
I love her because of her disorder, not in spite of it.
But in terms of my own family I’m still nervous. When I call my kid way out West and when we chit-chat and between the details of his very busy life – in the moments when there is quiet and the silence sits between us and I can hear him breathing – do I have the guts to ask?
How are you really doing? Have you felt depressed at all this winter?
The Talk. It’s really hard. But maybe all we really have to do is listen.