“Maybe when he is older, he will understand mental health’s impact. He will have a girlfriend and, one day, he will get it,” my late mother whispers to me.
I nod, more to appease my weary mother. Her eyes glow when discussing her three sons. With an infectious cackle and mischievous smile, she would tease me about my eccentricities. When I absentmindedly misplaced that night’s homework assignment, she would endearingly refer to me as “Barnacle Breath.”
The emotional beacon for three fiercely competitive boys, Mom was the family anchor. Her three boys adored her, basking in hard-fought praise. Mom’s transcendent personality — the dazzling smile, the stern glare, the pragmatism and pride — invited all into her rich life. She lived, even as her body slowly capitulated to pancreatic cancer’s poison.
Underneath that hearty chuckle, though, there was a silent pain. Proud and private, she agonized over her eldest son’s mental health struggles.
My mental health issues first surfaced in high school. The inner torment swirled as I graduated from a selective undergraduate institution. Law school, and its cauldron of overachievers, threatened my emotional equilibrium. First year was a blur of consultations, classes, and clonazepam. But disciplined and determined, I graduated from law school with a solid GPA and service honors.
Cause for celebration? Sure. But, as we know, mental health can torpedo all celebrations. While in law school, my brother — a gregarious, molten-tempered personality — learned about my mental health struggles. His reaction: a potent brew of disdain and incredulity.
Misunderstanding mental health, our relationship deteriorated into short, clipped exchanges. I read the hysterical emails and overheard the enraged calls. “Matt is ‘crazy’ and ‘mentally unstable. He has made up ‘OCD’ to create sympathy.’” I hurt — for myself but, more so, for our beloved mother. Mom, sacrificing so much for her boys, was entangled in family discord. Clinging to a sense of self-righteousness, my brother and I and, by association, our devoted mother, each lost.
My brother is likable, funny, and smart. He is, at his core, good people. But his reaction reflects a fundamental misperception about mental health: it is a character flaw, not a chemical imbalance.
As mental health consumers, we expect family members to understand the emotional turmoil churning in our overcharged minds. As my brother’s stinging rebuke shows, familial dynamics complicate.
As I have gotten older, I have learned to accept this cold reality. From brothers to business executives, mental health vexes. As a result, we have to exercise caution when divulging our story.
Here are tips to empower yourself and preserve your own (mental) health:
- Distance yourself from toxic personalities.
Some people thrive on criticism, harping on others’ flaws and shortcomings. Their criticism is draining, sapping you of emotional energy. Remove yourself from these unhealthy situations.
- Establish firm boundaries.
You are your health’s foremost advocate. You don’t have to answer every question about your mental health. In a lot of cases, less is more.
- Enlist the support of mental health groups.
We are a community, an extended family of sorts. We understand your elation, pain, and every contradictory emotion in between. From National Alliance on Mental Illness to the Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder Foundation, we can provide a list of resources or just a sympathetic ear.
In short, be confident about your confidants. And, one day, your irascible brother, skeptical boss, and society will “get it.”