I recently watched a 60 Minutes Overtime piece, Stigma of Raising a Mentally Ill Child, and it got me thinking. Mom’s were asked how raising a child with a physical illness is different from raising a child with a mental illness.
The response in unison was casseroles!
I have been thinking a lot about the casserole theory. It’s true, but why? What role have I played as a mom of a child with severe mental illness to perpetuate this theory? What is my role in deconstructing the stigma that goes with mental illness? Big questions.
I blame myself in part for not being the recipient of delicious casseroles. Ben was three years old when we received our first diagnosis. I felt overwhelmed, incompetent, and scared. I was embarrassed and frustrated by Ben’s behavior. I lost confidence in my parenting. Stress levels were through the roof.
Early on, I didn’t have the words or experience to talk about Ben’s challenges. I either exaggerated the behaviors to prove he really did have a disability and he was not a rude spoiled brat. Or I withdrew and avoided people and situations. I had no idea how best to support Ben let alone know what I needed.
I was very guarded. The first six years were isolating. No casseroles.
The first three times Ben was admitted to psychiatric hospitals, I only told a few people. Family and the few friends who knew asked how they could help. My consistent response was “thanks, but we’re good.”
Social get togethers were always so difficult. I dreaded the innocent question “how are the kids”. Do I lie or tell the truth? “Ben is doing ok. He only put three holes in the walls this week.”
Over the past three years, I have slowly found my confidence to respectfully talk about mental illness and our families challenges.
I have come to appreciate how frustrating it has been for family, friends, and all those who care to be kept at arm’s length. I have also accepted that by being open about Ben’s mental illness, we run the risk of losing some friends and straining relationships. And that is ok.
Mental illness is scary, messy, and uncomfortable.
I will never fully understand most of Ben’s thoughts and behaviors. And I will never underestimate how hard he works to get through a day. I feel passionate about raising the mental illness flag and helping to educate others. I do not want my children to experience the stigma and think that they are “bad people” who do not deserve the opportunities and resources afforded to others.
If I continued to “hide”, then I am perpetuating the stigma associated with mental illness. If I’m not transparent with others and approach mental illness like a physical illness, then I should not expect casseroles. Some people will always be judgemental, however, so many more will truly care.
Here’s to “coming out” of the mental illness closet one courageous conversation at a time.
And by the way … for me, casseroles translate to friends and family listening and not offering advice, going for hikes, watching the kids when I have a meeting, and allowing me to be unguarded and brutally honest.