I tend to work a lot of hours. So last January when Mariah, our teenage daughter, hit a wall of pain and anguish and asked us to take her to an in-patient psychiatric facility, I wanted to say something to my colleagues here about why I’d be in and out of the office so much.
And with Mariah’s permission and my wife Mary’s OK, I sent an e-mail to the staff explaining the situation. Now a fair number of people around here have known Mariah since she was brand new. And since she was doing the mail here at the office after school, a lot of our newer folks knew her, too.
I wasn’t surprised then by the empathy, support and caring I found in the responses we received. This is quite a remarkable company we have, and I knew people would envelop us with their thoughts and prayers and actions.
What astounded me then, but no longer does, was the number of colleagues who came to me and wrote to me about mental health issues in their own families. For some it is their kids, or siblings, spouses, children of best friends. It was immediate and raw and soothing, scary and reassuring. It was and it is an epidemic. And by acknowledging that depression and anxiety and eating disorders had visited our door, it was some sort of permission to let the stories loose. It was cathartic for them and certainly for us.
I remember as a kid, my mom told me about a relative, or maybe it was a friend of the family, who had been diagnosed with cancer. It was serious. It was probably going to kill her. And what she told me, and what stuck with me (since I can’t even remember who was sick) was: “Don’t tell anyone it is cancer.” It was to go unspoken.
Today, that is the fix we are in with mental health. The stigma remains. Many cancers are curable. HIV is a chronic disease. Most gays are out of the closet. And we don’t talk about schizophrenia or anxiety or depression or suicide or eating disorders. We don’t think about locked wards in mental health hospitals or alternative therapeutic schools for our kids.
We should think and talk about it, and since the spring, at least, Mariah has been asking me when I was going to write about all this. It’s too personal, I’d say. It’s your business, I’d say. And she’d say that other kids and other parents need to know.
Now it is 11 months later. And it has been one hell of a year. Mariah has been in-patient several times, there have been weeks and weeks of day programs and six weeks of full-time residential care. She made valiant attempts to get back to school at OPRF and couldn’t do it. And now she is at an alternative school in the far west suburbs, riding the “short bus” each day and making her way. With hard work, good care and love, she’ll graduate in June with an OPRF diploma.
It is not assured. But it is possible. And it is what we aim for on strong days and on days when we hit the skids.
Because we don’t talk about these things, you likely don’t know that there are remarkable people at our high school who work every day to make a way forward for teens like Mariah. There are great therapists. We know one. Psychiatrists. Dieticians. BHAs (behavioral health associates) who somehow make it possible to walk out the door of a locked ward with your kid on the inside. There are brothers and friends and aunts and uncles. Friends on Facebook and a couple of cruel young men on Facebook I’d get to if I could.
We’ve shouted too often. And we’ve cried. We’ve been to the ER. And we have adjusted medications. We’ve been assessed and we’ve been evaluated. We’ve cursed Blue Cross and we’ve given thanks for good health insurance. We’ve cut the strings off sweatpants and we’ve learned to talk about lipids, not fats, in a food plan.
Now it is Thanksgiving. We’re all here. And we’re talking about it.