The Pain without a Name
by Sarah Griffith Lund
We didn’t know. We never knew what to call it. We didn’t have a diagnosis then.
If you had a mood disorder or a mental illness before the 21st century, then it was understood and treated within the limitations based on the research, knowledge and resources available at that time.
What is more likely is that the brain disease wasn’t diagnosed or treated at all. It was also common then, as now, for people with mental illness to not seek help or treatment. Fear of being labeled, of losing a job, of getting locked up in the mental hospital or getting experimented on kept people silent about their inner struggles.
I’m hearing this from my readers, people like me who know what it’s like to grow up with mental illness in the home. For a lot of us growing up, for various reasons, the people we loved weren’t getting the mental health care they needed and deserved. And whatever help they were getting wasn’t talked about. Fathers and mothers disappeared for days and weeks at a time, leaving children at home to wonder what would happen next.
Our loved ones were misdiagnosed, over-medicated, dismissed, couldn’t afford help or refused treatment.
This left us as children pretty much in the deep pit of the unknown. We didn’t know why moods shifted so rapidly or why a parent couldn’t work or even get out of bed or drank too much or committed suicide.
We didn’t understand that a parent withholding love or affection was a result of an untreated mental illness, and not, as many of us felt, a reflection of our own self-worth. I tell the story in my book Blessed are the Crazy: Breaking the Silence About Mental Illness, Family, and Church about how this was so hard for me to understand as a little girl.
My dad lived his whole adult life with untreated bipolar disorder. His typically manic behavior spiraled into delusions and psychosis which frightened me as a child. I wanted to believe his delusions but they confused me. I was raised by the religious teaching to honor your mother and father. I did not know how to honor his bipolar because it scared me. For a long time I could not separate my father from his brain disease.
It wasn’t until I started talking about the impact that mental illness had on my life that I started to heal. Now I know that to keep the trauma of mental illness silent is to give it power over me. Breaking the silence lifts me out of the valley of the shadow of mental illness. As a little girl I was taught that it was not polite or ladylike to talk about such things, about ugly things, about painful things, about the secret things. I was taught to wear a pretty smile on my face all of the time, no matter what I actually felt on the inside.
That was then.
This is now.
Now we know that mood disorders are nothing to be ashamed about, apologize for, or cover-up. Mental illness is not a punishment from God or a sign of personal failure or weakness or a character deficit.
We know that mental illness is a real disease of the brain.
We know that prevention, treatment and recovery are options.
We know there is hope.
And we know we are never going back.
We are never going back to the silence, stigma and shame.
We are never going back to the lobotomies, the ignorance, the demonizing and the dehumanizing of people with a disease.
For a better future for the children of today and tomorrow, we are breaking the silence about mental illness now.
This is a new day.
We are naming it out loud. We are understanding the causes and the treatments. We are getting evaluated. We are getting the help we need.
Too many people are suffering silently from a pain with no name.
We can change this by offering accessible support and advocating for mental health education in the public schools, and funding mental health screenings. Early detection and treatment of mental illness can prevent severe brain diseases and suicide.
It’s up to each one of us to name mental illness and by so doing, to rid it of the immobilizing shame, stigma and silence.
It’s up to each of us to tell our stories.
It’s up to us to mobilize a movement for mental health.
If not you, then who?
Sarah Griffith Lund is an ordained minister in The United Church of Christ and Disciples of Christ. She’s served congregations in Brooklyn, New York, Minneapolis, Minnesota, and New Smyrna Beach, Florida. She holds degrees from Trinity University, Princeton Theological Seminary, Rutgers University, and McCormick Theological Seminary. Her new book _Blessed are the Crazy: Breaking the Silence about Mental Illness, Family, and Church_ is a raw, honest look at her father’s battle with untreated bipolar disorder, the helpless sense of déjà vu as her brother struggles with bipolar, and serving as the spiritual advisor to her cousin, a mentally ill man executed for murder. Through the challenges and despair, Sarah shows how churches as be safe havens for people who have brain diseases and for their loved ones. She blogs at www.sarahgriffithlund.com and is on Twitter @revlund and on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/SarahGriffithLund