Yesterday morning, I did the unthinkable and took all four of my kids with me to my appointment at the psychiatrist’s office. Usually I reserve this time, as I did my OB checkups when pregnant, to focus solely on myself and my health without the distraction of caring for my children. It’s traditionally been a tiny block in my jam-packed schedule when I during joy in the luxury of being taken care of, rather than worrying about my children behaving in a quiet, formal setting.
Also, if I’m being honest, and I am, I didn’t want to explain exactly why I was visiting the psychiatrist and answering uncomfortable questions like, “Will I ever have to come here, mommy?” or, “Why do you keep coming here if you’re feeling OK?” Quite simply, I didn’t want to get into those discussion with them, because it made me feel ashamed.
Yes, it made ME feel ashamed, the same woman who tells everyone about her life with Bipolar Disorder and promotes ending the stigma surrounding mental illness. I’ve done public interviews about my mental illness journey and co-edited a bestselling mental health anthology, and I was scared. I didn’t want my children to see me as perpetually broken, because I know that I will be going to these appointments for the rest of my life. Even though I accept with open arms and am grateful for the medicines I take, it still makes me feel like a failure to a small extent because I can’t live my life happily without them.
This week I realized that I wasn’t only avoiding taking my kids with me because it was a hassle, but because I wanted to hide that little uncomfortable area in my soul away from them, even though they know about my mental illness and we have discussed it regularly. When my options for childcare went out the window due to scheduling issues and time was cut short by dawdling kids, I had to make a choice between canceling the appointment and sucking it up and taking the entire herd with me to the shrink.
As with anything in live, especially living with a mental illness, perspective is crucial. The staggering $110 same-day cancellation fee certainly had a lot to do with my decision to take the harder road, but it wasn’t the deciding factor in my choice. It dawned on me that in order to truly break down the doors of mental illness stigma, I needed to show my children this facet of my disorder management. Not only would it normalize the environment for them if they ever wind up needing to go to a mental health professional for help, it also showed them that completely normal-looking people went to this doctor for care and guidance.
My sons held doors open for people entering and exiting the waiting room and politely chatted up others in the room, just as they would at any doctor’s office (talking to anyone and everyone is a Southern thing, I think). There are so many hideous pop culture stereotypes of the mentally ill (we aren’t all frothing at the mouth and in need of straightjackets … on a daily basis, anyways) that it’s crucial to show others, especially kids who will one day be in charge of the world, that mental health management is a normal thing that we all need in one way or another.
They accompanied me into the nurse’s room for my weight check and to go over my symptoms/medication adjustments. They even piped up a couple of times when she asked me questions about how well I’d been sleeping or if I’d been irritable … talk about hearing a few home truths, HA! They also went into the actual doctor’s office with me and voiced their pleasure at the availability of comfortable chairs. They listened when she asked me questions and answered any questions she had for them. They also gave her and the nurse hugs before we left (as they do whenever they meet someone new that they like).
I want them to know that anyone they ever encounter who is receiving help for mental illness is trying to bravely talk about their issues. Part of ending the stigma involves unmasking those who suffer, and for me, this is a subtle way of doing that.
I also considered the effect that their presence would have on other patients in the office. Having a group of normal but nice kids in the office seemed to have a relaxing effect on the clinical formality that usually reigns there. I was careful to make sure that the kids weren’t too loud and used good manners, but I didn’t completely silence them, either. So many mental health offices emit an awkward air of embarrassed anxiety, and by breaking down the barriers caused by stigma, I believe we can lessen that.
I know that many people wait in their cars until the last minute before entering the waiting room, even parking their cars in more hidden areas in hopes that no one they know will see they are visiting a mental health professional. Family Medicine offices don’t have that feeling, and neither have any pediatrician or ENT offices that I’ve visited; patients don’t wait in their cars hiding broken arms until they can discreetly enter the Urgent Care office or refuse to make eye contact with other patients in the lobby. Generally speaking, in this day and time, there is no shame in seeing a doctor for a physical ailment, and by creating an honest dialogue by being unashamed of our mental illnesses we can do the same for mental health.
It’s my prayer and my wish that if you are living with mental illness, you will feel emboldened to talk honestly with your loved ones about the various parts of your journey. Not only are you helping them to better understand you and your life, you’re also showing them that it’s OK to seek help for themselves if they need it, and to be supportive of those they meet who are doing the same.
Related post: The Cloud of Depression