Yesterday I drove over railroad tracks that I go out of my way to avoid. It’s something I’ve been doing for four years and I’ve been pretty successful finding alternate routes that aren’t too far out of my way.
One morning four years ago I woke up to news that a pedestrian had been struck by a train. I didn’t know that I knew him until a few hours later. And it wasn’t until even later that his death was determined to be suicide. He left behind a wife and three young children.
The last time I saw him was a few months before his death and he had appeared to be the same as always- friendly, cheerful, upbeat, positive. At that time, I was still unfamiliar with the faces of mental illness.
Four years later I have gotten a much closer look at mental illness and the impact it has on the person, as well as their loved ones.
Like so many illnesses, it is not always visible to the casual observer. Sometimes it’s hard to see no matter how close you get to the person. Unlike other illnesses, mental illnesses carry a stigma that is hard to shake. While people are quick to understand the ravages of cancer, they are skeptical of the legitimacy of an illness that shows no easily identifiable symptoms. And the obvious signs- sadness in a person suffering from depression- is thought to be in the person’s own ability to control. Unlike other illnesses where, if neglected, a person will end hospitalized or at least, under a doctor’s care, a person suffering from a mental disorder might not reach that place until they attempt suicide. (And as I’ve found out, deny their intention and not accept a mental illness diagnosis.)
It’s sobering. eye opening. challenging. heartbreaking. sad. The following video, courtesy of NAMI- National Alliance on Mental Illness ,talks about the signs.
I know this isn’t in keeping with the holiday spirit we are all embracing these days but mental disorders do not take a holiday. The mom with three children, at least one too young to have memories of his father four years later, will have an empty space in their Christmas. When my family celebrates the day, there’s a good chance that mental illness will impact our day in some way, as it does every day of our lives.
For two years I’ve stayed mostly silent, vaguely referring to someone who was struggling. Yesterday I pulled up at the stop sign. I knew that just out of sight past the line of trees was the train track that I avoid. I could turn that way, which would be the quicker route, or go out of my way, adding at least ten minutes to my travel time. But I knew that it changed nothing if I took the long way. Either way, that pedestrian that I knew from that long ago news story was in my thoughts.
I turned toward the tracks, and as has always been my routine, I slowed down and looked both ways. I closed my eyes for a split second and sent up a prayer and heartfelt message that he knew that he would never be forgotten, that he had touched so many lives and continued to touch them, even in absence and that my hope continued to be that he had found peace.
As I continued down the road, I realized that not writing about this was no longer an option. It has taken my writing hostage and I have truly felt silenced.
Mental illness has come to our family.
We will be as supportive as we can. We will do what’s best for everyone. I’m sure we will continue to learn and grow.
And as we already learned through Kris’s gender identity journey, regardless of what we do, life goes on and so do we.