My Family History With Mental Health

by Jeanine DeHoney
Originally Published: 

My aunt went Crazy when I was about 10 years old. That evening is engraved in my mind. I was standing in my grandmother’s kitchen while my aunt screamed with her head buried in her hands.

I was wearing black and white saddle shoes that my aunt had bought me. She was very fashion-forward. We used to thumb through magazines and critique outfits long before Fashion Police.

My aunt was cool. Crazy cool. The coolest person on earth as far as I was concerned. She was like an older girlfriend to me, one who talked about music (she loved Aretha Franklin), her exes and going after your dreams even if no one believed in them but you.

That night my aunt was admitted to a hospital for observation and ended up staying for a few months. When she came home we still danced around any issues about her mental state—as a teen, as an adult, even when I was married with kids.

She never discussed what caused her to go Crazy. She never mentioned that she was still mourning the loss of her newborn son who died from what was ruled a crib death only a few days after he was born. I didn’t understand clinical depression, which is what I am sure she suffered from back then. Neither did my family. My aunt never received any ongoing counseling.

When she died at the age of 54, she’d been on more than a handful worth of strong medications each day since that breakdown, and I had been her partner in self-medication. I had to get her a tall glass of water to help her swallow all of those pills.

She never lost brownie points with me. She was still the coolest aunt even during those times she was in a medicated stupor. But I knew my aunt wouldn’t have wanted others to come undone as she had. After her death, I began to divulge more about her to my daughter and nieces and my sons and nephews: how things left unsaid and undealt with could cause you to go Crazy.

And please don’t take offense to the word “Crazy.” My aunt wouldn’t have been politically correct in talking about her state of being. She would have given the finger to any other word used to define what happened to her. So I am using it because of her, and with a capital C for her.

My Crazy cool aunt would have said, “Let’s start having a conversation about this. It’s long overdue, especially for us women. If not addressed, diagnosed and treated, it will fester and grow. So look into the faces of your loved ones and listen to what is not being said, and learn the signs, even the subtle ones of postpartum depression, thoughts of suicide, panic attacks, addictions, eating disorders, ADHD, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia among others, and then move boulders to intervene.”

Too many of us go through life hiding our dirty laundry. It’s uncomfortable to discuss how after having a beautiful healthy baby, you just want to curl up in a fetal position and stay there with the curtains drawn. It’s uncomfortable to acknowledge to family or friends that your divorce dredged up issues that you thought were long buried and for the last three months you’ve been contemplating suicide. It puts us ill at ease to discuss how and why we had a manic episode at the supermarket, but it really had nothing to do with them not using your coupon.

Major stuff like this can’t be fixed with a little time, a lot of food, sex, alcohol or something materialistic. No. No flimsy bandages can cover these wounds, only sutures.

I remember watching a YouTube video of New York City’s then Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio’s daughter Chiara de Blasio who talked about her struggle with clinical depression and drug abuse. This cool young woman at the age of 19 years old was encouraging young people who struggled with mental illness to talk about their experiences.

I thought back to my Crazy cool aunt and wished she had been just as audacious. How if she had, maybe she’d be alive today, older but emotionally healthier, still critiquing fashionistas like Kerry Washington and raving about what she wore at the Emmy’s.

Many of us have a loved one who is struggling with mental health issues in varying degrees. Often it’s a disease that remains unchecked until one finally hears the screams and must take notice. That is why it’s so important to shatter the glass ceiling, this stigma associated with mental illness, and release the shame, secrecy, guilt and even anger that is its byproduct. We have to be audacious enough to create and find a safe zone for those who suffer with it to discuss their feelings without any backlash or fear of being labeled or ostracized.

It is a part of our health history, as inheritable as other medical disorders in our families, and it requires a diagnosis and course of treatment just like any other disease. There need to be more conversations about mental health at our dinner tables and in our children’s classrooms, more public service announcements, and more brochures being handed out at PTA meetings and other events.

Our mental well-being should be a public health priority, worthy of extra funding for initiatives and programs and treatment facilities, worthy of ongoing public education to help eradicate the stereotypes and negative attitudes associated with it.

We can shatter that glass ceiling if we learn to have an open heart toward those who suffer from this disease and offer them support, compassion and understanding during their most fragile or unstable moments. If we do, and teach our children as early as possible to do the same, now that’s crazy cool.

If you or a family member are dealing with mental health issues, do not be ashamed to seek help. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) offers local programs and Internet resources to help reduce stigma by educating people with mental illness, their families and the general public.

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