World Mental Health Day is on October 10. Every year, this day raises awareness of mental health issues, and this year, in particular, the theme of “Make mental health for all a global priority” couldn’t be more on point. Mental health in the family and mental health as a society is suffering more than ever. Having been raised by a mom diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and then having a younger sister also diagnosed with the same mental illness gave me first-hand knowledge early on in my life of the challenges that come with caring for loved ones who have a mental illness. Mental health in the family seems still to be neglected. Mental illnesses are more common than we may think. In the United States alone, nearly one in five U.S. adults live with a mental illness. Navigating life when mental illness is in your family tree or when mental health issues present themselves is far from easy and seems more complicated than it should be with our flawed healthcare systems. Mental illness is not a “one size fits all” kind of disease or disorder, and, unlike a broken bone or even something like cancer, there is no fix or cure. I don’t think one can truly understand what mental illness means without experiencing it for themselves, as clearly evidence with society’s responses to tragedies that may involve someone with a mental illness. For me to be able to chat about mental health in the family with another human being, a fellow writer at that, who also has had two family members with mental illness has been a rare treat and an incredible connection to make.
This episode of my podcast is with award-winning published author and essayist Marin Sardy. Her work has appeared in numerous journals and publications including Tin House, The Rumpus, and the New Yorker, wherein an excerpt from her memoir, THE EDGE OF EVERY DAY: SKETCHES OF SCHIZOPHRENIA, was published that you can read here. Marin’s book shares her history with mental illness in the family. Through a collection of essays, she tells of her own experiences with mental illness that fractured her family, with schizophrenia claiming both her mother and brother. You can read Marin’s book and learn more about her at MarinSardy.com.
Here are just a few of the gems from this episode with author Marin Sardy talking about mental illness in the family.
“It occurs to me that mental illness and madness are not the same thing. Mental illness is a set of brain malfunctions with psychological effects, like paranoia, delusions, insomnia. Madness is a state of incoherence – paradoxical, or nonsensical, or untenable. Madness sometimes arises from mental illness, but it may arise in other ways as well. This distinction is important because mental illness is not contagious, but madness often is.” (from Marin’s book)
I think that’s a very important thing for people to understand about children who have a parent with a mental illness, is that they don’t get that reassurance about reality, and that was a contagious thing for me – that was a place of contagion. But it wasn’t like I caught my mother’s schizophrenia, there were things I needed to learn that I didn’t have someone to teach them to me.
- People lacked the vocabulary to even describe what was happening. They didn’t have the words. And in the absence of words, you end up with an absence of concepts. It was this very vague generalized sense of something being not alright. What I realized when doing those interviews that never struck me before in thirty years: Nobody ever asked me what it was like to live with my mom. So after my parents divorced, I lived with my mom, my brother and sister and I lived with my mom half the time, and my dad half the time. I lived this totally bifurcated life. My dad asked in a general sense – how’s everything going over there? Is everything okay? – but he didn’t ask specifics. Nobody else did either. That also was a source of madness.
In my book as well in the process of writing it, I turned to looking at broader culture and history of mental illness and how it has been dealt with as a way to begin to see forces acting on my whole family and shaping how they could or couldn’t find ways to address it. I am encouraged to see that culture is changing. People are talking about it and learning about it more. In my family, it was so shrouded in shame. In this transition we’re in, it leaves people wondering: what can I do? I don’t think there’s one answer to apply to everyone.
I came to understand I think that in being connected and staying connected and listening and caring and doing all the things we think of as being a good friend to anyone, regardless of the state of their mental health, that makes as big of a difference. It’s not going to solve everything, but I think historically it’s been ignored. A lot of the agency got taken away from people with mental illnesses.
There’s a profound ignorance of our own mental health care system. People have this idea that if someone needs help you just go to someone’s office and put the wheels in motion and it happens. Myself my whole family went to extraordinary lengths to get the system to help us help them with very little success overall. A lot of that is because both my mother and brother weren’t particularly amenable to receiving treatment through the establishment, some of that valid, some due to illness but some due to they didn’t like how they were treated. My response to Monday-morning quarterbacking: Where was the help? First of all I did everything I could. Second of all, no matter how much of a risk, if there’s nothing you can do about it, there’s nothing you can do about it. For people to come and tell me what I should have done when they have no idea what the system is, what the situation is, or what I tried or failed to do, I just don’t have time for that.
As a public conversation and what I’m always trying to put forth is let’s establish a system that actually works, better, for the people dealing with the mental health problems and that also empowers the people who want to help them, and empowers them themselves, and is properly funded so that it can actually do all that it proports to do…all these things.
I have in the past year remembered something that I forgot for a while: I can just go and have fun and enjoy life at times. I think it’s easy for caregivers to forget that. Or to feel too guilty to partake of that forbidden fruit. It’s so clear to me now that if I had done that a little more for myself leading up to my mother’s passing, she would have done just as well as she did, and I would have done better than I did in terms of how I was feeling and my own mental health. Giving yourself joy and relaxation and fun does not take it away from somebody else. It does not take anything away from somebody else. That’s just a little nugget to throw in there…
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