This is “Mental Health Week.” It amazes and pleases me to see that there is a week set aside in our culture where we’re invited to celebrate health of the mind. In contrast to the fifties when I grew up, nowadays we’re informed about things that previously could not be named: depression, bi-polar illness, anxiety, and PTSD among others. PTSD is a condition that only recently has been given a name and treatment plan in the diagnostic manual used by therapists and doctors.
Having grown up in an atmosphere of extreme shame and silence, with only the term “eccentric” to apply to the extreme behaviors and patterns of my grandmother and mother, it still amazes me to see ads for medicines on TV in that promise to combat these conditions. I loved my mother, who left me when I was six with my grandmother, and I loved Gram too. I don’t know if it was karma, payback or simply synchronistic timing, but I was the same age as my mother was when Gram left her behind to seek her fortune in the big city of Chicago. I grew up in an atmosphere of arguing, broken dishes, weeping, and watched the two women I loved tear each other apart when my mother came to visit us. I also watched my grandmother literally sink into a hole in the couch in the living room, endlessly smoking. She’d pace, rant, and seemed lost in some kind of darkness that I wanted to escape. They both had abandoned their daughters. My mother denied me as her daughter. These behaviors and conditions had no name.
Years later, during my own career as a therapist, and as I was writing my memoir Don’t Call Me Mother to try to shape what happened into a story that made some kind of sense, my mother was diagnosed on her deathbed with manic-depressive illness. Finally, this thing that had haunted us for decades had a name.
I’m grateful that depression is not a dirty word like it was when I grew up—though I never heard the term until I was in my twenties. At that time, it seemed to apply to suicidal people like Virginia Woolf or Hemingway, which meant it was a very bad thing, something that could lead to death, but only for “other people,” many of whom were famous. No one in our own family would/should/could have such a problem. The stigma against mental problems of any kind was paralyzing. Even when a classmate and good friend of mine killed himself when I was sixteen, the word “depression” was not uttered by anyone. And within a few weeks, people were trying to get back to acting cheerful despite this tragedy that I mourned for years. It was understood that the good people of my small town didn’t want to be tainted by discussing the death of a boy who was so desperate that he took his own life. And none of us knew he wanted to die.
There’s still a huge need for more education about what mental health and mental illness is. People need to know that there is a continuum and that each person’s struggle is unique. No two people experience anything in exactly the same way. It’s interesting that “OCD” has become a household term that we can claim as an issue without having to die from shame. It’s become a joke: “I clean my house a lot, I’m a little OCD about it.” People now speak about depression more openly—there are memoirs, movies, and blog posts about it, but still, depression is still a grey cloud that hovers over people all over the world, and too many people still struggle in silence.
Amy Ferris, editor of Shades of Blue: Writers on Depression, Suicide and Feeling Blue has set out to do something about this silence and loneliness and shame. Last year she put out the word to friends and writers who have stories about depression and suicide, and many people responded with a huge range of stories—naming what could not be named, offering hope and support and community that will help others who are still lost in the silence. Seal Press will release the book in October but you can pre-order it.
I am inspired by the quote by Louise DeSalvo, author of The Art of Slow Writing and Writing as a Way of Healing, who explored the psychohistory of Virginia Woolf and her family in Virginia Woolf-the Impact of Childhood Sexual Abuse on her Life and Work. In her introduction, she says, “…as [Virginia] put it near the end of her life, ‘Only when we put two and two together–two pencil strokes, two written words,…do we overcome dissolution and set up some stake against oblivion.’ Virginia Woolf was engaged in a lifelong effort to put together those words which helped her overcome her own feelings of dissolution, which set up her own stake against oblivion. And, fortunately, we too can read her words.”
I believe that writing and exploring the deep truths of our lives, especially the ones that society wants us to keep silent, is a way to help the world heal from the stigma that only words can offer.