When my son was diagnosed with bipolar illness, he desperately wanted someone who would listen. Someone to acknowledge the validity of his experiences when he was manic, psychotic, depressed, someone to “meet him where he was in his illness.”
I regret that I was not always that person.
I was so scared and confused myself that he worried that speaking to me about his own fear and confusion would make things all the harder for me.
And worse, maybe he thought that I just wouldn’t understand, that I would judge him. After all, isn’t that what’s happening to most of those with mental illness? Why on earth would you want to talk about your illness if you risk being judged and stigmatized? As it turns out, most don’t risk it. As a result, they are isolated and don’t seek treatment because they feel ashamed and guilty.
What makes us resist hearing those who want to explain what’s happening to them?
Many are afraid — afraid, for example, that if we talk about the horrible pain of depression and possibility of suicide, it becomes all too real and possible. If we talk about what one sees, hears, thinks, when manic or psychotic, we might encourage those experiences; if we ignore them, we can snuff them out. But regardless of whether we acknowledge them, they are very real for those who are experiencing them.
Others are just too uncomfortable with mental illness. We don’t understand these illnesses and would just as soon not have to deal with those who suffer. We’ve seen all the horror movies about psychos hovering behind doors ready to pounce, films that reinforce stereotypes. We encounter the homeless, tattered and speaking to someone who isn’t there, and we cross the street — afraid of an encounter. We fear what we don’t understand.
We all need to be open to talking about mental illness with those who suffer. We need to leave discomfort and judgment behind and find empathy. We need to ask if someone seems suicidal, allow for communication, and ask how we can help.
As the years went by, Max had one episode after another and dozens of hospitalizations. His sister and I learned to listen and stand beside him whether he was manic, depressed, suicidal or stable. Max and I eventually wrote a book together about the years of trauma.
I wanted to break the silence and in doing so, break through the judgment and stigma. But Max’s motivation was different. When he tried to talk about his illness, his friends and family didn’t want to hear it. He could see it in their faces — they shut down. He believes we all have blind spots, things we can’t or don’t want to see, and feels that understanding comes from characterizing experience through the telling of the story. By doing that, he was able to put people in his shoes.
Others who advocate for those with mental illness and their families know the importance of listening. The New York City Metro chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) launched a campaign last year called “I Will Listen,” which asks us to open our hearts and hear. The objective of the campaign is not just to reach the one out of four who experiences a mental health disorder each year, but to reach everyone else who can and should support them. Because when we all listen, we can change society’s perceptions about mental illness.