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The Courage to Speak and the Courage to Listen

December 17th, 2012

About ten years ago, my husband, Mike, was diagnosed with depression. The diagnosis was a relief. It gave us all at least a partial answer to the frustrating question of why his thinking was always so labored. Why it was such a struggle to think clearly and concisely and without circular rationale. It gave him a context for the obsessive patterns of thinking he could remember even from his young childhood. The diagnosis provided a doable plan of treatment that allowed him to find relief from what he described as a rampant and never-ending train of thought (about whatever concern was taking over at a given moment) that took every ounce of his energy to control. And the treatment worked. With varying stages of success for those ten years. Until through a series of converging circumstances, it didn’t.

Mike’s depression often manifested itself in obsessive and compulsive thinking, especially at times when control of his thoughts was more of a struggle. In more recent years, I came to believe that he developed his own views of reality to cope with what his mind would not allow him to accept about his life. His thoughts were consumed with greater and greater levels of anxiety and often moments of panic as he began his last downward spiral.

Mike was a gentle man by nature. He was so much more than a man plagued with depression, although the illness impacted him daily in ways even I can only imagine. I had never felt any cause for concern with Mike, never any ounce of fear except for the hard presence of his occasional suicidal thoughts. But, in those last months, I noticed myself feeling afraid, then pushing it aside. Afraid of the desperation I saw in his eyes. The fear he, himself, had — not knowing how it might manifest itself. The sheer and unreasonable lack of control brought on by this illness called depression became overwhelming. I found myself afraid to leave our children with him simply because I knew his own drowning thoughts would prove far too great a distraction. In the last few months, I saw growing evidence of how manipulative the disease can be — how it warps reason in the mind of the one battling it. And how quickly and extensively I saw Mike become manipulative in an effort to maintain the fragile order of his mind and the reality within which he could cope with living. It frightened me. It frustrated me. It blew my own mind. It stretched me more than anything I’ve ever faced.

Why do I write these descriptions?

Because it’s time. Isn’t it time? In the wake of the unspeakable tragedy those in Connecticut (and indeed our nation) face, isn’t it time to speak? When we see and try to make sense of the horrific, unfathomable actions of a man mentally ill, isn’t it time? For, don’t we assume this gunman was mentally ill — to target those who are so glaringly innocent of crime, to overcome every instinct of humanity from protecting our young to self-preservation? When we’re faced with picking up these pieces, isn’t it time to finally speak?

My husband had a mental illness. He struggled with it for many years, and for most of those years, I considered this fact to be his story. I rarely spoke of it, mainly out of protectiveness for him. So he could stand in equal footing with those he met, with a clean slate, and none of the preconceptions that are so prevalent. I always felt it was his story to tell — in whatever way and to whomever he chose. Yes, there were those in our family or close circles who knew of his depression, but I felt the dialog of the illness should be authored by him. And rightly so. He was the one dealing with it. Some would say suffering from it.

It wasn’t until the level of frustration in my own head became more than I could handle that I began to crack the shell of what was really happening in our family. To acknowledge for myself and to those closest to me the poor decisions stemming from Mike’s thinking that were jeopardizing all of us. The disappointment. The fear. The anger. The hurt. The irrational nature of an illness not in proper treatment. The inability to discern what was Mike’s choice and what was prompted by depression and thinking patterns. The moments of crisis invading our lives.

When Mike died, I had to let go of the need to protect him. It was the only way to cope. His story of depression became my story. Living with mental illness. Surviving mental illness. And I finally realized that it had always been my story too. A story just as relevant as his, though the illness wasn’t mine.

In the wake of tragedy in my own life, I’m forced to ask, “Isn’t it time for courage?” The courage to speak and the courage to listen. As the whole nation mourns the loss of these little ones, isn’t it time for courage — to boldly speak and to just as boldy listen to the stories of mental illness impacting our lives, our families and our children? Would the outcome for Mike have been any different if I had chosen to open those stories sooner — when the specter of suicide wasn’t so blatantly and relentlessly present? Would that intervention have saved his life? I don’t know. Would the story of Sandy Hook Elementary have been just another pre-Christmas Friday if this man’s stories had been exposed sooner and more comprehensively? No one can know. But I have to believe if there was ever a time for the relentless courage to speak and to listen, this is it.

It’s time to find the courage to speak. To acknowledge our pain, our confusion. To reveal the realities and reject the stigma of mental illness. To recognize that secrecy and shame are our greatest enemies in this battle. And to speak. When we know in our hearts something just isn’t quite right — to speak. When we notice the shift in predictable actions — to speak. When we wonder, “is this normal?” — to speak. When we know we need help — to speak. When it’s getting harder than we think we can handle — to speak.

It’s time to find the courage to listen. To close our mouths to gossip and disdain and whispering. And to open our ears and eyes to understanding. And compassion for these silent struggles. To dare to open our lives and thus our hearts to others, finding it so much harder to reject what we’re determined to love. To put aside the notion of tiptoeing through the backyards of the lives around us, sneaking criticism and comparison. And to step up. To step to the front door, in plain view, and knock. To knock insistently with love and compassion in hand.

I’ve been blessed by those people knocking. Even when my instinct was to run away, to shush, to deny. The insistent blessing found me. And now it’s my turn. Isn’t it time?

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One Response to “The Courage to Speak and the Courage to Listen”

  1. Gwen Cotton on December 17, 2012 11:09 am

    It is time. Knowing that it takes a great deal of courage to speak, I admire you for what you are going through and all you have been through. I’m thankful you have your precious family and your God. Thanks for speaking out.

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