The Talk

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.

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13 thoughts on “The Talk

  1. YES!! I wish I lived closer so I could run over and hug your neck!! You have a truly uncanny and endearing way of poking innocently at the unseen wound. It’s fabulously disarming and really welcome because of who you are. Beautiful, Beth.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Dixie. Usually the first person to read me and the first to lift me up and encourage me. Thank God for the Dixies of the world and in particular my own Doodle.

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  2. As always, you make me think. I wonder if our educational system is set up to teach the “easy things”—while avoiding the really important issues that make up life—and how that could be changed during this testing craze. I wonder how I can create a more open, accepting environment with family and friends, so that each person feels safe to share, or question, or open the discussion about what is important in his/her life. I wonder if your last sentence holds the key—“…maybe all we have to do is listen.” Thank you, Beth, for yet another thought-provoking writing!

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  3. Talking about our minds and mental health does feel like walking on a rope bridge over a deep chasm sometimes…. it can be so emotional on both sides. My biggest fear, worry, panic button is when someone says, “I feel great, so I’m going to stop taking my medications…” This usually means that someone (like me) has to watch as the person ends up on the long trip to when they crash. I know it is awful for other person – but it is exhausting for the one(s) left behind on the way and when the crash comes. The pain is free flowing, and that feeling of terror for the other person is so damaging for the loved ones – what will they do this time, how can I help drag them out of the abyss, why won’t they just keep taking their meds….
    If it happens too often, people will leave
    I know you are brave my friend, you should be so very proud of yourself – I’m proud of you….

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  4. I so appreciate your sensitivity and candor Beth. We have so many sources of social stimulation in our lives, yet so few opportunities for intimate connection. And we are all craving to see and be seen. Thank you for living your life boldly and honestly. It encourages us to do the same. Love you Beth ❤️

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    • Cheryl thank you so much for your amazingly kind and generous words – and for your support of my writing in general. I have had my doubts and insecurities about blogging but when I read your comments I always feel uplifted and ready to get back to it! Hope you all are well — looking forward to the bike season I am sure. What a great team the Smith-Winberrys make!!

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  5. Oh Beth! Why do your blogs always make me cry? It’s always a good cry. I think that Patricia Cockrell nailed it when she said you have an uncanny way of poking at the unseen wound. I would add that you do it with such love and honesty that your words tend to swirl around inside my head and heart days and days after I have read them. And you make me think and wonder- and try and change how I approach my daughters, my family, my friends, my patients, myself. Thank you for continuing to share this amazing gift with us.

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  6. I had forgotten about this one and I’m so glad to read it again. I sometimes think the school systems tackle the easy stuff, the cut-and-dried mechanicalness of teaching the classic school subjects, because they don’t understand what happens later when the basics of emotional health as not addressed in any way. You may not remember my long-held ideas for adding some simple exercises to the elementary, even pre-school curriculums that are games that would teach kids things like compassion and empathy by having the kids form circles and each child then has a chance to see how it feels to be inside at the center of the circle, then feel what it’s like to be on the outside, unable to break into or join the circle. etc. Kids learn a lot by experience and usually understand the implied lessons later in life. Even the simplest games and stories can teach so much about feeling included and other social skills. I’ve talked about it quite a bit over the years and people always seemed to like the idea, but nothing ever came of it, that I know of. It could also be done very nicely with a church group or the boy or girl scouts.

    Anyway. Thank you so much for your brave honesty. I love you!

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