My mother worked in the psych ward at St. Luke’s hospital in Bethlehem for many years. Around the dinner table she would often tell us stories of the crazy people she had to take care of. I use the word crazy because my mother did.
I was never sure what to make of her callous attitude toward her charges. I think I understand now that it was the way she needed to be to survive seeing such broken people all day, day after day. But, as a boy growing up hearing your mother tell stories about the outrageous behavior of these people, and how it was such a problem to deal with them when they started screaming or thrashing, I thought what you would expect. I though my mother was callous. I thought she looked down on these people whose minds were so disordered. I had no reason to doubt it, since I had a similar relationship with my mother. Often callous.
It has been decades since I was a child, and I am sure I don’t remember all the details of my childhood properly, but the emotional impressions are there, as real as the keyboard I am typing on. Perhaps more real, considering how they shaped my life. I will be forty seven in January, and I am still learning how my childhood damaged me, and how it is still damaging me. How it will always be influencing my behavior.
I wonder how much sympathy my mother would have for me now, almost fourteen years after her death. I doubt either of my parents could truly accept how injurious my childhood was, how their decisions – or lack thereof – harmed me more surely than a knife could have, and with wounds both invisible and difficult to heal. But if she was here now, and saw what was happening to me, how compassionate would she be? What if she knew one of her children had become one of her “crazies”?
Yes, mom, I have depression. Real. Serious. Chronic. Anti-depressants. Therapy. Time at the hospital. Depression. I didn’t want this, but who does? I didn’t cause this. Other people harmed me. Others did this to me. Yes, mom. You were one of them. Yes, dad, so were you. I’m angry at both of you. I’m angry that you’re both dead and I can’t tell you how angry I am. I am angry, and also I am not. I’m not sure you could have done any better. It’s far too late for what-if’s now anyway.
I am not ashamed that I have this disorder in my mind. I am not ashamed to put this up on the internet where the would could see it. We shouldn’t be ashamed to talk about any illness, and illnesses of the mind are no different. It’s just an unknown, and so it scares people. What are we if we aren’t our minds? Mental illness threatens our very basic identity, and so we make it bad and dirty and don’t talk about it. But a growing number of people like me are talking about it. We are talking about it like the illness it is, and not something to mock and laugh at.
I wish my mother had lived to see me fall apart this year. I wish that, because she would also have seen how you’re supposed to love someone. She would have seen my wife love me this year in a way I’ve never been loved before. She would have seen my wife love with boundless compassion, but also with strict boundaries. But my mother isn’t here, so I turn to you, dear reader. There is a right way to care for those you love, and it doesn’t change just because they have an illness. If you find yourself dealing with someone who is hurting like I have been, think deeply about how you deal with them. If the first thing that springs to mind isn’t compassion, keep thinking.