My family never ask about my mental illness. They never ask how I am, whether I take medication, whether it works. I’ve no idea why, because I don’t ask them why they don’t, either. We’re not that kind of family.
By family, I mean my birth family, the one in which I grew up. Of course they’re not young now, but neither is my mental illness – my parents were younger than I am now when I first became ill. And this is not a criticism of them, because there are many good things about our family. However, I think that they are probably one of many families, particularly, but not exclusively, of their generation, that could not believe that mental illness happened to them. If it was mentioned when I was young, and this was rare, it was in hushed voices with what I can only describe as alienated sympathy for the person in question.
My husband doesn’t like to talk about it either, but he will, and I think he believes in it more than I do. I suppose because he’s seen it first-hand. My daughters, however, are of the generation that discusses mental health much more readily. Young people’s distress is acknowledged now, rather than suppressed, but this does not – always – equate to mental illness – it is difficult for many to get the balance right, while trying to live lives that are rarely easy. And mental illness will emerge in every generation, fed by genes and often precipitated by events. Not everyone has good health, but, similarly, not everyone is ill.
I have been told repeatedly that I have a mental illness, and I suppose on one level I believe it. I don’t wish that I had a physical illness instead, as that would be facile, and give the impression that I view the lot of those with physical illness as easier, which I don’t. But I think that I do, perhaps rather childishly, wish that I could prove my illness to someone – to my parents.
Ultimately, though, mental illness is a construct, like many other things. I can’t make people believe in it – not my parents, not those who favour the critical psychiatry movement – and it’s even more difficult because I’m not sure that my belief is unshakeable either. If someone came up with a new way to define my experiences, then of course I’d consider it.
But uncertainty makes life difficult, and what I’m really talking about here is the break from one’s family beliefs. It probably doesn’t matter what the absolute wrongs and rights are, but it does matter if those closest to you can’t accept something that has profoundly affected your whole adult life.
For me, my family’s doubt has meant that I have never fully been able to accept that I have a mental illness. I’m not even too sure what that doubt is about, and they might deny it if asked. But while my brother’s asthma is mentioned, and my parents’ elderly ailments, my illness remains unspoken. When I’ve been more ill, it has, of course, been discussed, but only then, and more on a practical level. It is one of the unspoken shadows in our family discourse. I don’t want to discuss it over tea, and I don’t want to discuss it very much – but the only way it can be spoken of is if I bring it up, and I don’t like to, probably because it feels oddly confrontational.
I don’t know if it’s stigma or distaste – sometimes it feels more like the latter. My family are scientists, and perhaps believe both that things should be explained, but also, and more importantly, that you have control over all your actions – at least until the point when you clearly don’t. Perhaps it’s a lack of permission – you’ve been given everything by us, and you repay us by being ill. I don’t really know, and I don’t suppose I ever will.
But what I seek most is acceptance. Definitions and diagnoses, illness or distress, what do these all matter? Being heard and held is by far the most important, and I think that is why I struggle with this long silence between me and my family. Perhaps they are too analytical, or maybe they think that I will be too upset by any mention – these things stifle us all. It is true that it can often be easiest to speak to strangers, where there are no preconceptions and no needs.
I don’t think my family will change, and I am more accepting now of this. But it makes me think more of the importance of the people and the beliefs that surround us and influence us, more than we often know ourselves. It can be very hard, if not impossible, to separate ourselves from this, without taking on an oppositional stance. I can’t change my family, or their affect on me, but I can try to understand it more. And perhaps, bizarre though it may seem, it can actually make me think of things in a more open-minded way.