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Mentally Healthy Honesty

June 19, 2010

Mental illness is a chronic disease. Anyone who has lived with it in any capacity knows that it is as real and pervasive as cancer. I’ve always thought of it as cancer of the soul, and I have lived with it most of my life. Never, thankfully, my own, but have loved people who battle mental illness, and it seems no different to me than watching people battle any other physical disease that takes over your life.

Except that with mental illness, there is guilt and shame.

Myles and I have been very public and honest about his battles with depression, which manifest as alcoholism. Although others have thought it was strange that we’re so open, we had very clear reasons for doing it. We wanted to try and eliminate shame, create an open dialog about how real it is, how we are handling it, what it does to lives. After all, according to the World Health Organization, 1 in 4 adults has a diagnosed mental illnesses. Given the shame factor, I’m guessing that’s under reported.

In the roughly three years that we have been dealing with his alcoholism, I have watched him go into himself and work on it with incredible vigor. And it still seems, most of the time, like he feels he’s losing the battle. I have loved him for 17 years now – and the end of our marriage did nothing to lessen that love. I know him, and every day, the struggle on his face is visible. He looks like someone who is climbing the highest mountain, with no Oxygen and no training. I watch him slog through, and it breaks my heart. As often as not, he is surly and crabby and detached. I know this has nothing to do with me – or any other external thing – but the deep disorder in his body and mind that has him constantly anxious, drained, terrified of losing it all. Or terrified of having to keep hanging on and not knowing if he’ll be able to (or if he even wants to, which makes him, then, feel guilty.)  But goddamn, he is trying, and for that reason alone, he is afforded limitless compassion and trust.

Today, I took a gaggle of girls bowling, which would mean he was alone for at least an hour. But the bowling alley was full, and we returned early. I dropped our daughter off at home to let herself in while I ran to the pharmacy. She caught her father with a bottle of wine. His initial impulse – as is almost always the case with addicts – was to lie to her. He said it was a gift. She knew better.

He called me immediately. Those of us who have lived with mental illness know the panic when the phone rings. The truth is, every time he calls, no matter when, I brace myself for really bad news. He explained the situation to me, and something very interesting happened.

I was happy. At that moment, all that occurred to me was the instant honesty, the instant “dealing with it,” admissions not only about the event, but the fear and anxiety and everything else. Out in the open. Not passive aggressive and snarky, not deceitful.

By the time I got back, he had been honest with our daughter. She was devastated. And we will all talk through it as a family, learn from it. Learn that we ALL have fears and weaknesses, we all have challenges, and have to face them on a daily basis. That when we are honest about them, and allow people to help and support us, we get stronger and feel safer. None of us are perfect all the time.

He didn’t drink, and that’s great. But what’s more important is that he was honest immediately. He’s devastated, but also grateful. It was not only a close call, which is scary, but he again looked straight in the eyes of everything he has to lose if his disease wins. And why it’s worth trying to get it under control. And he learned, again, that all he has to do is be honest, and he has support.

I want it to go away. It is desperately hard to love someone who is battling depression, regardless of how it manifests. Supporting them becomes a full time job that is exhausting all they way in your soul. The fear of what’s coming next is always with you. And, just to be clear, people die from mental illness. They commit suicide, they drink themselves to death, they…..

I did not ask to have this in my life, and neither did he. But I now have to “fight” it every bit as much as he does. I have to hold things together for my daughter, but I  also need to figure out a way to help the world see that mental illness needs every bit as much attention as physical illness. That it robs people of just as much, and is every bit as real. That there is no shame in it – it is more pervasive in our society than cancer, heart disease or diabetes.

I don’t know how to think about what happened today. I think maybe it’s like getting an alarming PSA reading when you’re fighting prostate cancer, and then finding out it was just an infection. But I do know that I was reminded why honesty matters so much to me. Honesty is the manifestation of trust. And unless we trust each other, we can never fully be present with each other – and that is the only way to grow as people, families, communities and societies.

And now, pizza and movies with a girl who needs to learn that love is strong, compassion stronger, and that creating a strong network of people around us is the only way we’re gonna make it in this world. You have to trust people with your flaws, and then you’ll know what love is.

After all, 50% of her DNA is his. For all we know, she has inherited his predisposition for depression, anxiety and addiction. She needs to be able to approach that with strength and honesty rather than shame. As do the millions of other children who will grow up to be the 1 in 4 adults fighting mental illness.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. mometarily anonymous permalink
    June 19, 2010 5:10 pm

    My wife has struggled with mental illness since adolescence. Once upon a time the bi-polar manic swings served her well (incredible focus, life of the party, etc…). It was absolutely one of the things I found most appealing about her (besides the fact that she’s brilliant. You’re right, Alyssa, the intelligent ones are far and away the most appealing). I could handle the depressive episodes because there was always the relief of the next manic phase.

    Well, over years her disease changed. The manic swings have switched from being ‘life of the party’ to an ADHD-like cacophony going on in her head. Now the choices are sullen and withdrawn, or too wired and irritable to be successfully engaged in anything but her own thoughts.

    I’ve come to see her mental illness as a third-party to our marriage, and sadly it has been a better suitor than I have. The disease’s existence now gives her not only an explanation for her symptoms (near-complete social isolation, difficulty relating, non-existent libido), it gives her a twisted co-dependent comfort aroused by her depression.

    I applaud you and Myles for your honesty and openness (not with us, because that really is a way-distant-second to the importance of your honesty among you both, and your daughter). Depression and mental illness both foster and feed-on duplicity, ‘white lies’, shame and secrecy. And these aren’t the exclusive domain of he or she who has the clinical diagnosis, but too easily become ‘defensive’ mechanisms, or coping strategies for those who love them. Sadly, I know whereof I speak.

    Thank you! Thank you on behalf of at least one other person who wrestles (though not as successfully as you) with similar demons.

  2. Anon permalink
    June 23, 2010 9:29 pm

    Thank you for writing this. From someone who is too chicken to be as open as you are. So kudos for your courage and openness.

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