Today my eight year old son heard a different story. All along we’ve told our child the story of how his grandpa Griffith was a great animal doctor who loved taking care of people’s pets. This is true. We told our son that his grandpa died before he was born, and that grandpa was a good person and would be very proud of his grandson. This is also true.
It is important for me as a mother that my child first hears the story of the blessing of his genetic inheritance from his maternal grandfather: love of creation, love of learning, love of healing, love of life.
Today it was time for my son to hear a different story. Today, just as causally as you’d talk about what happened at school, I told the story of his grandpa’s illness. I told the story of when grandpa’s brain got a sickness and how it changed all of our lives.
It was time because my son began to tell himself and us a story that I knew wasn’t true. Projecting his own life story onto me, he innocently said something about how much I must have enjoyed spending time with my dad. And that’s when I knew it was time to tell a different story.
I didn’t use the technical term “bipolar disorder.” I decided to just talk in a clear and simple way.
“I actually didn’t spend that much time with my dad. He was a great animal doctor. But when his brain got sick, we didn’t spend much time with him. My mom got a divorce and we moved away to live with grandma. I was about your age.”
He looked up at me silently. Then I said, “In our family we need to take special care of our brains because so many people in our family have a brain illness.”
He went onto play with our dog who this whole time was laying right beside him. He said, “I love you sweet girl” to the dog.
A little bit later I added, “You know, today I am going to yoga, then to meet with my counselor and then my personal trainer. I do all of this as a way to help keep my brain healthy.”
I knew the day would come when I would start telling my son a different story. Today was the day.
He is ready to know this story. As he begins to face his own mental health challenges with worrisome thoughts, he is ready to learn coping skills. He is ready to know that it’s not his fault that he has worry.
It is a bittersweet day. As I reflect on this experience of telling a different story, it feels a little bit like peeling off the cover layer of our family crest, and underneath the pretty pictures, finding something less organized, less shiny, less perfect.
It feels vulnerable and it feels right. My hope is that by telling these different stories we can let him know that he comes from a loving and creative family that is blessed with beautiful minds that need attentive nurturing and care. The gift in breaking the silence about mental illness with the next generation is that it equips us with awareness of warning signs of symptoms and motivates us to focus on prevention.
I am grateful for today and the gift of telling the different stories with care, compassion and without fear.