We look fondly on little babies and guess who they resemble more and pray they don’t inherit Uncle Gerry’s hairline. We guess how tall or short they’ll be and imagine what their tiny squeaky voices will sound like. Eye colour, straight hair, curly hair, brown hair, light hair, the fine funny furry dark hair crawling up their backs that resemble Uncle Leo – do we wax a baby? We teasingly remark about playing sports or dance or delving in the arts. Will they be book smart or the fire cracker in the back of the class?
Oh the things we think about when we stare at these innocent little beans.
Does anyone ever wonder or worry if their baby will be the one to carry on the family mental illness?
You know the ones that present themselves at family functions like holidays, weddings, and in crowded places? It’s those skeletons you try to hide in hushed conversations like that one time grandma was thrown in the “loony bin”. I’ll tell you, as a child I still heard all about it over my shoulder when I was playing with my toys. It was the whispers in the front seat or run ins at the grocery store with nosy people while I rolled oranges down the aisle.
It was those late night chats on the phone. I could only hear one side of the conversation but I always knew someone in our family wasn’t “right in the head”.
My mom said my birth was uneventful. Aside from a heart murmur and my Aunt saying that I looked like a wrinkly Yoda, I am fairly certain that when they looked at me as an 8 pound healthy baby, they never thought that those conversations about “crazy relatives” would be about me one day.
My grandma used to tell me stories of when I was a little girl. I’d put on dresses and refuse the shoes because I loved the feel of the grass and mud between my toes. She said that she could watch me twirl around her garden for hours if she could but she knew that she would have to eventually wash “my damn feet.” I attended a library club even though I couldn’t read yet. So I went home and wrote my own books using stick figure pictographs that made absolutely no sense. Everyone in my stories had these ridiculously intense CoverGirl eyelashes including the family pets.
And everyone had pink lipstick.
I liked the dramatic effect.
Every time I read someone the story it was a different version and every time I read it, I made them laugh.
And I loved that. Entertaining people with my silly stories made me happy.
Throughout school, I excelled in English but my heart belonged to the sciences and helping others in need so I became a nurse instead.
Now what happened in between the 8 pound Yoda, the free spirited child, and the ambitious bright eyed ER nurse with the squeaky soled shoes? It could have been a combination of a series of unfortunate life events, misfiring wires, a mixture of chemicals that never quite balanced out, hormones, and DNA from two parents with positive backgrounds for mental illness.
I got pregnant.
It was like the missing puzzle piece to my illness; everything just fell into sync.
I became mentally ill and no one saw it coming.
I got my dad’s brown hair, brown eyes, my mom’s thin frame, my grandma’s Italian features….
I also got their illnesses.
I am the 1 in 5.
I am the family skeleton in the closet. The one that you try to hide at functions or ignore all together like the hockey moms who huddle in their tight legging wolf packs.
I am the one you whisper about over coffee or beer or text feverishly about to your girlfriends.
I know this because I was the child who overheard it all.
I know this because I was the adult who used to take part in such conversations or I get dragged into them now. You should see people’s reaction when I say, “Excuse me. I have a mental illness.”
I am the 1 in 5.
Being diagnosed with bipolar depression and anxiety was devastating at first. As much as I’d like to think that I know this beast that runs through the wires of my mind, this illness is very much like an unpredictable storm. It can strip me down to my core some days, weeks, and even months. And what does that mean? That means some days my only goal is getting out of bed and existing; where watching a cat stalk a squirrel while picking at a hamburger for 20 minutes is the most productive thing I’ll accomplish.
Then there’s the flip of the coin where I’m so elated with just about every.damn.thing going on in life, that I want to rub my face in your face because I need you to know that everything is happy.
I’m like an unfiltered bag of nuts.
Then there is BOTH.
When my wires criss-cross and they don’t know if I should be manic or depressed.
My skin itches and I want to jump out moving of cars.
Then by the grace of my doctor and medications and self care, I’ll climb out of every episode and back into my skin and into some sort of middle zone —
Now, I am not writing this with the intention to make you feel sorry for me.
My life isn’t awful.
Again, my life isn’t awful.
I have to remind myself of this when I’m in a depressive phase.
I had to give up my nursing career because I destroyed my spine and well, mentally, I just can’t. So now I write.
Turns out, instead of barefoot and across the grass, my free spirit twirls itself across pages and it doesn’t care if the world knows what her secrets are.
She likes helping people.
I find so much joy in pouring out my heart here whether it’s funny or sad or whether I’m reminiscing about my childhood.
The only thing is, I wish I could see your faces when you read my stuff.
Oh and the next time you open your mouth and start gabbing in a circle about someone with a mental illness, you should think twice.
It’s someone’s life your talking about – their human struggle against an invisible illness that’s trying to snuff their spirit out.
Would you talk about someone with cancer in the same light?
*PS. Childhood mental illness is very real. If your child is exhibiting signs and symptoms of a mental illness, please do not hesitate to get them help. This doesn’t mean that you’re a bad parent if they’re struggling. Getting them help early on will help THEM. Please, reach out. https://www.kidsmentalhealth.ca/