What’s your class?” my six-year-old asked me as I kissed her goodnight before going to log into a Zoom meeting.
“It’s to help other families that have mental illness,” I said. “Like Papa Sully.”
I didn’t have much time, so I gave her another kiss and a pat, and scurried into my office to complete a class that would allow me to run support groups for other friends and family members of people with mental illness.
My father’s mental illness — bipolar disorder that presents as a very severe depression — has always been an open dialogue in our home. When my daughter was born on my father’s 51st birthday, I watched him hold her, knowing that just weeks before we were in the emergency room of this same hospital, me trying to get him the mental health treatment he desperately needs.
In the 14 years of my dad’s illness — my whole adult life — I’ve spoken openly about his mental health. I’ve come to the point where it’s almost easy to stand before a support group or class full of people whose loved ones are in mental health crisis, and share my story. I write about it regularly. And yet, having pointed conversations with my daughters about their Papa is tricky, especially because they’ve never known him any way other than how he is now: a subdued man who lives in a nursing home, because he can’t care for himself.
Still, as my girls get older, I want to make sure that we’re talking about my dad’s illness, in order to give them the vocabulary and the emotional practice to be able to speak openly about mental health. Here’s what I want them to know.
Mental Illness Can Change A Person, And That’s OK
The grandfather who my girls interact with is not the same man who raised me. Sure, there are threads that connect them, like his love of pizza. When I was a child Friday was always pizza night, and my dad calls without fail every Friday to ask me to have a pizza sent to his nursing home. But his flamboyance and confidence that defined my childhood are nowhere to be seen now.
Yet, my girls have taught me that’s ok. They know and love my dad for who he is now, without always mourning the man he used to be, as I do. When I tell them stories about my dad, they sometimes look surprised, but I just explain, “That was before he got sick.” In that way, we honor who my dad used to be, and how his personality has evolved during his illness.
Talking About Mental Illness Helps
Over the past 14 years I’ve found a lot of healing in sharing our story. My older daughter is beginning to realize that her Papa isn’t quite the same as her other grandparents. Soon, she’ll wonder why he’s in a nursing home where most residents are decades older than him.
I want the girls to always feel comfortable asking questions and sharing stories about mental illness and its impact. Sharing stories brings people together and breaks down shame and silence — two qualities that are still all too common when it comes to mental illness.
Mental Illness Is A Biological Disease
This part can be scary to think about. No one — including him when he was younger — would want my dad’s current life. Still, it’s important to recognize the reality that there is a biological and genetic component to mental illnesses, and they are passed through families.
That said, genes are not fate: environmental triggers play a huge role in the development and progression of mental illness. I want my kids (and my siblings), to always be realistic about the predisposition that we have to mental illness. If anything, that will help us prioritize our mental well-being even more, and take steps to get help quickly if we ever need it.
Most importantly, the message wrapped underneath all of these lessons, is the idea that mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of. My generation is more open about mental health than our parents were, and I hope the stigma will be broken down even further by the time my girls are grown.
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