I’ve spent the last two years intensely focused on writing a novel about a family coping with mental illness. This is a topic that I know about intimately both from the family situation I grew up in and now as the parent of a “child” with bipolar disorder (he’s 21 now).
One thing that really struck me as I was raising my older son was that schools and his doctors would address his father and I as though they expected us to have no mental health issues ourselves. That would be ideal, of course, that you’d have one member of the family who’s sick, and the rest of the family healthy and able to care for them. That’s not always how things work with mental illness, though, where genetics and environment play intertwined and not fully understood roles in the development of the various disorders.
Here’s an example for you. When my son, I call him Martin in my novel, was young, a number of his teachers felt that it was very important for him to arrive at school on time. Working against that imperative were his depression, some of his medications which made him sleep more or worse, his mania – which could cause him to stay up too late and then go to bed in the early morning. And then there was Mom. All of the upheaval caused by his illness resulted in my being more depressed, which led to me having more trouble getting out of bed. His father and I had been separated for a long time, and he supported us financially, but I needed to take Martin to the doctor and to his various therapists a lot, and it became clear that despite my aspirations, I wasn’t going to have a great big career. People asked me if my sons did extracurricular activities, and I asked whether therapy appointments counted, because we were in doctors’ offices three afternoons a week. So a good mom would have been up early and packing lunches and waking Martin and his younger brother up, but I was, as often as not, pulling the covers over my head. It took a bunch more therapy for me to work beyond that.
There are a lot of social forces that come into play around mental illness, and I would like to use this space to talk about some of those, since my novel is a place where I tell stories. Those stories are no less true for being partly fictionalized, but they are a different quality of truth than statistics are, a heart truth perhaps.
We know so little, doctors know so little about the mental disorders, that there are a world of things to say about them. I’ve experienced depression. I’ve experienced crippling anxiety. I have found relief from medication, from spiritual practice, and from therapy, but I understand that others have not. My son is better today, but he certainly is not cured.