I stood in the doorway of the parish where I worked, waving goodbye to a visitor. One of dozens who would pop in throughout the day to make a donation, register for a program, drop off information, or just to visit. She stopped on her way out and turned with a smile, “You have probably the perfect job,” she remarked, “you must just be happy all the time.”
“Yeah, it’s quite a blessing,” I replied with a grin. Inside I was wailing.
In those days, we were smack in the middle of a mental health crisis we were only beginning to realize we had. Challenges with one of our children – diagnosed now with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) – had been mounting for years, crossing the line from temper tantrums and willfulness into something notably different and distressing that we felt powerless to do anything about. It took every ounce of energy each day to function at even a quasi, normal level. Every smile, every wave, took an inordinate amount of effort and energy each day. It was exhausting.
In the midst of this, I recall attending a presentation on 12-step recovery programs. At one point, the speaker mentioned a popular AA tenet that was brand new to me. In describing the experience of walking with others through step five’s “admit to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrong,” he explained the step’s profound, freeing and healing power as it underlines that “we’re only as sick as our secrets.”
This short summary of a single step in a recovery process for addiction continued to resonate with me throughout the days and weeks that followed. For years our family had been putting gigawatts of energy each day into preserving a secret that was indeed killing us on the inside. Excuses to family and friends for canceled plans, tears in the car turning to smiles on walking into the office, the anxiety leading up to family trips and special occasions; keeping a lid on it all was eroding all our foundations.
Weeks later, while leading a parish bible study, I was startled to discover the urge to share the truth of our family experiences welling up in one of our small groups. For a while, I resisted. I was a leader in the community; how could I be that vulnerable? People need to see I have it all together. Somehow this was an example of my own failures in parenting in coping with life. All of these thoughts and fears bubbled beneath the surface as I found myself inexplicably telling a small part of our story.
When I was done, I wanted to run and hide from the anticipated looks of disappointment, discomfort, feigned condescending sympathy. Instead, I stayed while one lady I did not know leaned across the table to touch my hand. With tears welling in her eyes she spoke in a whisper, “we’ve been struggling with those same things in our home. I never ever told anyone. Thank you so much.”
In that moment, we both were free.
While numerous efforts to reduce the stigma around mental illness have become more prevalent over the years (think Bell ‘Lets Talk’, and mental health awareness campaigns sponsored by various groups in September, October, and May), the plague of silence, underscores the long road we still have to walk before speaking with someone about mental health challenges becomes as normalized as discussing a broken bone.
It’s hard to describe the sense of freedom and empowerment that can come from speaking our secrets out loud to others. But there is no denying the relief that comes from a burden shared. Today, after much forced practice, I find it easier than ever to discuss with family friends and parish events the reality of my own and our family’s mental health challenges. In every instance, that sharing has made it easier for another to step forward, often for the very first time, to share their particular struggles. It has helped me to realize that, while it is true that secrets are part of what makes the challenges of mental illness even more challenging, the antidote, while not easy, remains fairly simple; tell someone, anyone.
Peace and God Bless,
Deacon Eric Gurash
(If you are experiencing mental health challenges in your family and are looking for a safe place to share. Contact me about joining an Emmaus Family Support Group)