My father does not breathe any more. That’s just a way of saying that he’s been dead awhile now. Today is his birthday. He died half a dozen summers ago. I lost track of how old he’d be or how many candles he’d be blowing out now if he were still breathing. He was a big man, so no doubt he’d be blowing all those lights out.
My nature is to be optimistic and see the glass as half full, not half empty, as the saying goes. Yet, when it comes to my dad and crazy, that man was full on crazy. Even now looking back, the most lasting memories are the crazy ones. And I use that word “crazy” with a mixture of endearment and heartache.
To see a loved one go crazy on you changes you. Crazy also conveys for me the feeling of being overwhelmed by something and not knowing what to think of it, as in, “Oh, man, that’s crazy!” It’s when something doesn’t fit into our ordinary, everyday or fit into neat little IKEA organizational cubes.
My dad didn’t fit into lots of things. With him it’s easy for me to see what was missing…all the missing parts to our family life together, stolen by mental illness as if by L.A. gang bangers.
However, on his birthday anniversary, instead I will conjure up some other memory. A memory of joy, if even a drop of joy mixed into this crazy full cup of family life. And it is of this: me, six years old in a red and white candy striped tap dancing costume. Him bringing me red roses after my first recital.
Mental illness is a strange communion, a cup full of crazy with drops of joy.
So I’m getting ready to share part of my story with the world. This part of my story is about the severe mental illness in my family and how loving them has changed my life.
It’s amazing how hard it can be to talk with someone about mental illness. It’s also hard to admit to having mental illness. Latest news reports say that pretty much the most stigmatized illness is mental illness. And it’s 100 times harder to ask for help if you happen to be both mentally ill and in the military. Our veterans coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan are attempting suicide in record numbers.
Whether or not you are returning from a combat zone, or if the battle is strictly in your head, it’s time to start talking with each other about mental illness. It’s time to ask each other for help. It’s time to get support.
All of our illusions of independence create a false sense that we are indestructible, invincible, and immune to brokenness. Truth is…we are all human and not gods. And so we will tear and crack, bend, and break apart.
Our minds truly are fragile, though agile things. And when our mind breaks, when our thoughts crack, when our sense of reality bends a little too far our of reach…we need to ask for help.
And we need people who can help us. We need people who can see the fear in our eyes because we can’t always admit to feeling afraid of what is going to happen to us. We need people who will patiently listen to the subtext of what we are saying, because we don’t always know how to explain it.
We need each other to be real, to stop hiding the pain, so that we can live free.
This Independence Day, I am thinking of all the veterans who struggle with mental illness, such as depression and post traumatic stress. I pray for them to exercise true courage and get help. Here’s one place to start: Soul Repair Center