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Mental illness is a secret many families keep. We keep it to protect our loved ones and ourselves from the social stigma that still exists about this disease. Like other diseases, it often runs in families. It may affect one sibling, letting others escape its devastating effects.
This year, while preparing for the joyous union of our daughter and her betrothed, our family kept one thought in mind. Would our son be well enough to join the festivities and celebrate his sister’s wedding?
A long year of depression, coupled with a diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder, left him unable to work or enjoy the company of others. He had abandoned his creative work and alienated all but a few in his social circle. At times, I would have chosen to abandon him too, if not for my maternal ties.
In the months preceding her wedding, his sister struggled to find compassion and sought therapy herself to unravel the feelings his disease engendered in her.
As a family member, it is hard to separate the disease from the person. It can turn a kind soul into a thoughtless monster—a funny, playful person into a morose hermit. It leaves us helpless to understand and desperate to figure out ways to help. Treatment is essential, as in all diseases, but like a cancer, it can be ignored for too long until it is nearly incurable. Its location, in the brain, can make the afflicted unable to reason and seek help. Friends can feel hurt or ignored, employers have no time for an employee unable to function normally. Family members anguish.
“Has he always been this way?” is a question I have been asked and have tried to answer. He has asked it of me himself. I tell him he was a happy, funny little boy who liked to draw and read and watch Batman movies. His quirks amounted to preferring to stay home, rather than going to the circus. He dreamt about being a superhero. He tells me he identifies most with the Incredible Hulk, a superhero who cannot control his transformation of fear or anger into being invulnerable. He has never been violent, rather his anger is most likely to be internalized.
We know that trauma can exacerbate mental illness. Certainly, living in the shadow of the World Trade Center induced trauma in all of us. Some of us coped by seeking therapy. Children who went to schools in downtown NYC were screened for mental health needs, but not those who lived in the area but went to school uptown like my son. I don’t know what the origins of his mental illness are. It could be hereditary. Both of my brothers died young, largely a result of mental illness exacerbated by addiction. My father was known to have a lot of anger, often expressing it physically with women and children. Yet what I remember of him was the warmth of his laughter. His trauma’s locus was on Guadalcanal.
This is hard to write about, but I’m guessing we can all relate in some way. My son has given me permission, hoping I will find some support. He tells me that being open about his BPD helps him feel able to be himself without the pretense, which can trigger his instability. The end of this story is nowhere in sight but the end of this column is that with the help of medication and his own self-awareness, my son freely attended his sister’s wedding and was able to feel joy in the company of friends and family. That’s a feeling he is seeking to replicate in his life, by accepting the help he needs.