By Cecile Bibawy
Since the publication of my book Loving Her Mind: Piecing Together the Shards of Hope, many people have shared with me their realization of the importance of opening up about their struggle upon discovering they are not alone. You can never tell your story in one go. Tell it a chapter at a time. Patients might significantly benefit from doctors and medical practitioners opening a “chapter” of a struggle they can share to open the communication about what might be going on. Alternatively, another’s story can be shared, like mine and the millions who struggle with mental illness.
Keep the Secrets on the Playground
If we stir up conversations about mental health and hardship, the secrets will lose their power, and those struggling will seek help. The only secrets left will be those whispered by the children on the playground.
When we were children playing in the yards and swinging on the swings and climbing the monkey bars, we told secrets. It was thrilling to share secrets with my friend because it was information that was just for the two of us. As I grew, the secrets I kept were no longer from my friend but from my mother. Nostalgia grossly lacking, the information, just between the two of us, was sinister and downright impossible.
When I was twelve or thirteen, my mother began telling me that certain relatives and classmates (my best friends) were psychopaths - evil agents of the devil who were out to get her. They were a threat to our family and we needed to stay far away from them. I was not permitted to tell anyone about these criminals because that would tip them off to the fact that she was aware of their evil and heighten the danger. I kept quiet.
For six years, I told no one about my mother. Even after I finally realized at 16 that my friends and uncles were not evil and discovered that my mother suffered from schizophrenia, I didn’t speak about it. Because of the incessant verbal violence, paranoia, distrust, anger, and fear at home, and the isolation from friends and family, I wished throughout high school that an aunt or uncle or family friend would arrive to save my siblings and me from our misery.
When no one came, I began to silently satisfy myself with the idea of the county’s children’s services to whisk us away to a better life. Maybe then I’d have friends. Maybe I wouldn’t be so awkward. But that never happened. We were alone.
I don’t know if any of my schoolteachers, doctors, or Sunday school teachers knew about my mother. If they did, the subject was never discussed with me. I was fortunate that anytime I wanted, I could talk to my father about what was going on. But he was in survival mode the whole time that I was growing up and processing the monumental effects of my mother’s brain disease on me and the family. As her caregiver, he concentrated all efforts on maintaining her treatment, keeping her medicated, making sure our basic needs were met, and going to church.
Resources were scarce - or we didn’t know of them. If there were support groups, counseling, or hotlines, we had no connections. I was never encouraged to talk about the silent monster called schizophrenia that roamed our home and infiltrated our lives in every imaginable way. And I was never asked.
In college, where I slowly started to open up to one or two trusted friends, new fears loomed. What if they don’t believe me? What if they laugh or scorn my words? What if they say I’m exaggerating or turn and run the other way? These fears were based on actual occurrences. So I remained quiet about my mother, my childhood, and mental illness and avoided bringing anyone to the house. My secrets were safe.
Our biggest secret - that we had mental illness in our family - practically wiped out the possibility of discovering resources for support.
My parents placed a high importance on the opinions of the doctor. I doubt my mother’s psychiatrists gave my dad suggestions or resources for our family, like communication tools and coping strategies. If the family doctor or pediatrician had known what was going on, any information from them would have been taken seriously. This would have helped tremendously.
It's a scary thing to talk about a personal encounter with mental illness - a thing marred with the unjust stains of blame, isolation, guilt, and shame. When we begin to tell our story, the walls shatter, the stigma dissipates, and hope is realized. We realize that we are not alone. We find someone kneeling beside us in our not-so-dark place helping us pick up the broken pieces. We all must tell our stories.
About the author: Cecile Bibawy spreads truth about mental illness, encourages people to tell their story for healing and stigma slaying, and promotes health of mind, body, and spirit. She homeschools her children with her husband in Sunbury, Ohio, and teaches fitness classes. Cecile is a speaker, teacher, and author. Connect with her at cecilebibawy.com, Facebook, Instagram (@sincerelycecile) and her favorite coffee shops. Loving Her Mind: Piecing Together the Shards of Hope is available for purchase at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
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