My mom put herself in the hospital when I was 15. She wanted to commit suicide.
I found this out only by cleaning her room one day, as I came across her journal. Now, I am not normally one to snoop. In fact, I am a rather private person, yet, something compelled me to lift the spiral notebook out from her nightstand drawer and take a look at what was inside.
You see, I was living alone during this time. When my mom abruptly left and then I found out she had checked herself into a hospital, I took action. I called a friend of hers, who had some connections, and got a job working full-time at a dive pancake and steak truck stop in town to wait tables after school.
I worked most nights until close.
I also told a few “lies” so that I wouldn’t have to stay with my dad. My brother and sister went to his place, but I knew for me it was not safe … not physically, emotionally, or mentally. So, I told a few lies. I said I was staying with some friends, when in fact, I stayed by myself at our house for three full weeks.
I would get up and go to school, I was a sophomore in high school at the time, with honors classes, and a ton of homework. After school, I would get a ride to the restaurant, and then work a 6-8 hour shift waiting tables, and dealing with some of the rudest people ever. Usually somewhere around 11:00 PM or later, I would get a ride home.
We lived in an area that wasn’t the best neighborhood. In fact, there was a woman in our courtyard who was “known” for coming at kids with a knife. I still remember when my sister innocently asked one night at dinner, “how come she’s never come at us?” To which my mom didn’t miss a beat and answered, “have you met your sister.”
LOL, to say I was a bit scrappy … well, that was a mild understatement.
Plus, to be honest, I was full of rage back then. I was full of anger, hatred, and contempt for my dad, my mom, my family in general, and for God. In fact, there was a LOT I was angry about. Things up to that point had been hard. And, I carried the brunt of it.
Finally, my mom got the courage to leave him when I was 12 years old. It was a new beginning, and it was the hardest period of my life. It was for all of us. My younger sister was only six at the time. In between all that, my mom ended up having a partial, then full, hysterectomy, and my brother had been diagnosed with Type I Juvenile Diabetes only two years prior.
I know that there has to be a better word … but, shit show is all I got. It was the epitome of the biggest shit show ever. My dad was extremely manipulative at that time, with his own mental illness driving all kinds of crazy. And, then my mom, in between all the hormonal stuff, also was diagnosed as being clinical depressed (and, I would offer, sometimes even manic and bipolar).
The more my dad pushed, the worse my mom got. I can even remember having a big conversation with my dad very clearly informing him to stop harassing my mom about me (I had made the decision to cut him out of my life for the first time … it wasn't until I was 22 that I fully stopped all contact with him). That if he didn’t, then I would willingly go get a judge, myself, and tell them who he was and what he did, so that he wouldn’t get to see my brother or sister either.
He must have believed me, because he stopped harassing her. The ironic thing is … I have all the same characteristics as my dad. In fact, I look exactly like him. I fought with this for a long time. I thought my destiny was written that I was going to be just like him. My mom used to tell me, “but, you use those qualities for good.”
I always thought that made me sound like a damn superhero.
At some point, that was part of my revelation in my healing journey … it did make me a superhero. And, it was all because I made a choice. A choice to not be him. A choice to use all those qualities for good. I started to realize that every characteristic lives on a spectrum. Each has it’s own duality and extremes. You can choose to use them for your own personal gain, or you can choose to use them in service to others.
For each, either is a gift or an Achilles heel, a weapon even.
Coming back to the story I was telling you... I was home alone. I was working full-time, and coming back to a not-so-nice neighborhood in the late hours of the night and no one knew. I would get home and then make sure everything was locked up tight, then I would go upstairs to my bedroom and wedge myself between my bed and nightstand, cry myself to sleep, and wake up and do it all over again the next day.
When my mom came home, everything was different. She was different. She was lost, and often times so in her own world that we couldn’t reach her. She was heavily medicated and was getting electric shock treatment at the time (sometimes multiple times a week). This was extremely difficult, as I personally have my own biases about this type of treatment and still to this day cannot get onboard with it.
I had great difficulty understanding the mental and emotional state my mom was in. She actually checked herself into a facility twice. Back then, I only saw her as being weak. I didn’t understand depression. I thought it was “made up.” Because that’s what we do in our culture … that’s what we’re taught. We dismiss it, we push it under the rug, we make fun of it, we think it’s bullshit and made up, and we don’t believe it’s real.
I felt ALL of that … and, of course, even more anger.
From the time my parents divorced, when I was 12, until well through my college years, I got thrust into the role of being a parent. I was the responsible one (no wonder I have had years of unlearning and untethering myself from being a high-functioning codependent … my life has been filled with codependent cycles and expectations). I took care of my brother and sister at that time. My mom just wasn't able to. I worked nearly full-time at the restaurant, then at Walmart, and then at the local bank in town.
I hustled, grinded, maintained my grades and my honors classes, and looked for every way I could get myself out … out of my situation, and out of my town. I lost myself in books whenever possible, or any excuses that kept me away from home. I used to watch the movie “Irreconcilable Differences” nearly every weekend. The running joke was that I was studying it so that I could divorce myself from my family, as well.
To me, it was no joke … I was!
I lashed out in all kinds of ways, especially throughout college and into my early 30s. I found lots of ways to “take the edge off” (mostly through alcohol, working out excessively, and pushing myself to limits repeatedly trying to prove something or to excel, or both). I compromised my own health and well-being multiple times, as a result. I made stupid choices, and felt lost and alone most of the time.
Alone, lost, confused, angry, and just “over” all of it.
Yet, despite all the emotions, I always found a silver-lining. I was the eternal optimist, and truly believe that everything that happened has a purpose. Again, this made it hard for me to fully understand the depths of hell that those with depression and mental illness go through.
Sure there were some extremely dark days, but there was always good ones. The sun also shined at some point, and somewhere there was always a glimmer of hope. I used poetry as a huge outlet to express all the feelings. It gave me an outlet, a release.
Back then, I couldn’t understand why others weren’t able to tap into this, as well. I mean, “just suck it up, right? Tomorrow is another day.” — yep, that’s what I expected from myself and others. To “just bounce back,” to be resilient, to not let it “get the best of me.”
And, for me, that worked … that, and a LOT of tears. For my mom, it was most definitely different.
It was only when I started to really do my own healing work, that I started to understand mental illness more. As I began my healing journey, I started to ask questions. Trust me, this didn’t go over well in the beginning. I asked the tough questions and I come from a family that doesn’t talk. At least not about heavy stuff, or real stuff, or anything close to mental illness.
But, me being me, I was relentless. I wanted, needed, answers. It has been a long process in uncovering generational trauma in my family, patterns of abuse and mental illness (which has long and deep roots on both sides of my family). Pieces began to fall into place. And, having my mom live with me recently for 20 months has opened up even more.
When I fist left corporate, and moved to Austin from Milwaukee, I responded to a post where my response went viral. I then received a call from an editor at CNN.com and was asked to share my story. I can remember talking with her and feeling numb afterwards. I had no idea what all I shared, as I was not in the habit of telling people my story … particularly where it relates to my family dynamics. Yet, here I was.
[To read the CNN.com article: https://www.cnn.com/2015/05/29/health/defeating-self-sabotage/index.html]
To say I had what Brené Brown calls a “vulnerability hangover” is a huge understatement. I panicked. I couldn’t remember what I told her. When the article came out and I read the first words, I almost passed out. “I cannot share this,” I thought. “There is no way.”
And, even as I wanted to puke, and every part of my being was on edge, in that moment, I remember sitting there on that Friday afternoon and hitting share as I posted the article to my social media channels. Something inside me knew I had to share my story as there were others who needed to hear it. And, the responses that came in blew me away.
My story went viral. I was showing up on networks across the country. I was the feature story on CNN.com's health section for over a week. I had people reach out to me across the country asking for help, as they were experiencing similar things. That was one of the first times I knew why I carried my story … it serves as part of the work I am here to do.
As I said before, “God gave me my childhood so that someday I would step into my purpose."
Let’s just say, I have had a slew of what I call, “defining moments,” to bring that reality to play. And, it’s those defining moments that have allowed me to step into the fullness of my purpose, to use my voice and share my story, and to build a deeper relationship with my mom.
Now, 35 years later, my mom and my relationship has never been stronger. We talk regularly and openly about our family dysfunction, our traumas, mental illness (hers, and that of her mother and bothers). We talk through things regarding my dad. We move through layers of forgiveness and understanding.
We talk. We listen. We cry. We heal.
I honestly can say that I still don’t fully understand the realm of mental illness … but, that I am committed to continue to learn. I also can tell you that I know firsthand that it's real. We tend to think mental illness is either something that people are making up, something that is only in someone’s head, or something that we don't need to take responsibility for … as in, it’s their responsibility, not mine.
And, it’s high time we begin to change that perspective and dismantle the stigma and shame around mental illness, once and for all.
It’s become extremely prevalent in our culture and I think there is far more work we need to do to understand the realms, nuances, and the ways that it shows up in our every day lives. Mental illness affects not only the individual, but it also affects anyone and all who are around that person. It affects our cultures, our communities, our relationships, and our work.
We all have a responsibility to understand mental illness more and, in doing so, we need to come from a place of deep compassion, kindness, love, forgiveness, and generosity. From a place where we can hold the assumption that people are doing the best they can with what they have, and one in where we give people the benefit of the doubt. Because mental illness is something that is taking over so many peoples lives, and the results are truly deadly.
And, for me, personally, I am learning more and more about mental illness every day. I have deeper conversations with my mom, who has done so much healing over the years, and has truly found a way back to her power, in the process. In addition, more and more of my family members have been diagnosed with various aspects of mental illness. It seems to be a theme in my lineage.
Again, we all have a responsibility to learn how to lead inside it and from it, not only by leading ourselves, but also to create environments to help others lead themselves as well, as we continue to navigate this very interesting, very dynamic, very unknown, and sometimes very volatile and confusing landscape around mental illness.
As Brené Brown says, the only way we can eliminate the shame and stigma around topics like mental illness, is to get vulnerable, and to breathe life into the conversation around it. We need to take responsibility for our part, whether we are the one carrying the mental illness ourselves, or we have found ourselves carrying the burden for others.
It's only in talking about mental illness, asking questions, showing up to truly listen for understanding, and allowing space for the breath and vulnerability to live that we can begin to comprehend the magnitude of what mental illness holds, and create real awareness around what we can do, individually and collectively.
Leadership is a choice. And, how we choose to show up in the conversation around mental health matters. Each conversation can be a pathway to shift the stigma, to open up deeper understanding, and to access the healing we ALL need.
For me, I choose to be in this conversation. I choose to continue to keep learning and understanding. And, I choose to come from a place of compassion, love, and grace.
With deep reverence and love,
Special Note: I read this blog post to my mom. In fact, at the beginning of this month I told her I wanted to share more of our story and asked if she was okay with me doing that. As tough as it is for her (and me) to share the past, she realizes that our story might possible be able to help someone else. So, she said she wanted me to share this.
We cried together when I read it to her. We talked more. We celebrated the healing we have done together. And, I couldn’t be more proud of my mom and her courage. I once thought she was so weak, when in fact, all I see now is her strength and courage. My mom is my hero. She’s a fighter, a survivor, and a total badass.