On the horn with Madeleine recently, she asked me: “Mom, did you read Nicholas Kristof?” This is a question that she often asks and always makes me happy. That my 20-year-old daughter reads The New York Times and keeps such close tabs on her favorite columnists warms the cockles of my newswoman’s heart, whatever the heck cockles are. (And are they normally that cold?)
Turned out Kristof’s column a couple Sundays back raised an issue that cuts close to home for us. He called on the news media to stop neglecting mental illness — to address it honestly, compassionately and comprehensively, looking at real people who struggle with depression or eating disorders or suicidality or P.T.S.D., rather than weighing in with generalizations after the latest mass shooting. “All across America and the world, families struggle with these issues,” he wrote, “but people are more likely to cry quietly in bed than speak out.”
No one likes to talk about mental illness. The thought alone unsettles, embarrasses, terrifies. After my father attempted suicide with sleeping pills in 1974, he spent nine days in a coma and six months undergoing pure talk therapy at the Institute of Living in Hartford, Conn. — which worked — and I spent those same six months not answering the unspoken questions of everyone at school. One kid who dared mention my daddy’s stay in a psych hospital got promptly shushed by a teacher. And I remember thinking, more or less, “What the fuh?” The message was clear: This type of illness, with this type of hospital stay, is not to be discussed.
Bullshit. We need to talk about it. It hits people.
My father recovered from his depression and went on to live another 18 years — no psych meds, no recurrence, though the coma probably hastened his dementia. My sister and husband weren’t as lucky. I’ve now written about all three of them (two in my last memoir, one in my next one), so I’ve obviously overcome any lingering reluctance to discuss suicide in a public forum.
It’s all out there; I’m all in. I don’t have much choice in the matter. Because, face it, if I decided I couldn’t talk about the people in my life who’ve been affected by mental illness, I WOULD HAVE VERY FEW THINGS TO TALK ABOUT.
As a people, 21st-century Americans are open to discussing so many things: our sex lives, our hoarding, our fights against life-threatening ailments. But when we try to discuss this brand of fight and this brand of ailment, our jaws lock. We can’t go there — not because it’s all too alien. Because it’s all too familiar. Because too many of us have cried quietly in bed ourselves, or have heard a loved one’s weeping.
There’s no cause for shame in mental illness, no cause to feel isolated. We only think we’re alone because we’re so tight-lipped, so scared. Every time I’ve lost a beloved someone to suicide, people have emerged from the shadows to confess that they had, too.
How can we combat this scourge if we don’t face the darkness squarely? How better to nurture and bulwark our own peace of mind than to name the insanity, call it out, give it form, understand it, find its weakness, see its depths? How better to stay sane and alive ourselves — which are, in the end, one and the same thing?
So let’s talk about it. Really. And let’s start now.