I did not know what mental illness really was until I was close to twenty. Before, I thought mental illness was something which resulted from a deficiency at birth and was genetic. This thought scared me as I grew up knowing my mother, grand mother and great grandmother were ‘mad’, as we were told from a tender age.
My mother was the first of five children and my grandmother was one of more than five, and my great grandmother was also from a large family. No one told us about mental illness or what caused it or why it happened. We simply thought it was an unfortunate curse on at least one member of the family, and prayed never to ‘get it’! Some of the ‘folklore’ facts I grew up just knowing were;
- If you kept your problems to yourself you would ‘overload’ and go crazy.
- If you fell too much in love you would go crazy.
- If you had too many bills you would go crazy.
- If you had no friends you would go crazy.
- If you were too ‘bright’ in schoolwork you would go crazy.
- If you hated anything too much you would go crazy.
- If you were alone in a house by yourself you would go crazy.
- Crazy people were not liked by the community.
- Crazy people ended up homeless and living like vagrants.
- Crazy people were murderers.
- There was one type of crazy but different levels of ‘madness’.
- The world of humans hated being around crazy people, so being crazy was not an option.
There are many more ‘misinformed facts’ we were bombarded with as children and it was difficult to stay close to ‘crazy mad folks’. However, I loved my family and always tried to not ‘get’ any of those 12 things associated with madness! Children understand fear, safety and survival, and can adapt when necessary. I became an excellent storyteller, and enjoyed the royal lineage from that ‘duke’ who was my grandfather’s uncle!
Everyone wants to be accepted by their peers and those they interact with, however this was a challenge for us. The stigma associated with mental illness can be quite cruel and unkind to little children. If you said a bad word (aka answering back), someone would say it should be expected because of your ‘mad parent’. If you got upset because someone hit you, or you were being bullied and cried, they would tell you to control your crying, because it was not ‘a big thing’. If you continued crying then the adult would pull out the ‘shadow of fear’ and advise you would become ‘mad’ like your parent if you did not stop crying.
We were not allowed to feel ‘free enough’ to defend ourselves, or to express, or to be regular ‘normal’ children. No, we were marked as broken and had to work towards being acceptable by society.
It took many years before I realized, the child I was, never needed to change. The society we lived in was broken and needed information and action to change and repair its dysfunctions. Looking back, I realize people were afraid of us being hurt by what they did not understand. Even my mom did not understand why she went ‘off’ ( another word for crazy). Eventually we thought it was because of #2.
My mother lived an almost ‘normal’ working life until she was in her forties and had her third nervous breakdown. She is one of the most articulate, intelligent and innovative women I know. She fought for as long as she could to raise and support her four daughters on her own. She is a published author and continues to live her life independently.
It is my hope that in sharing some of the stories from my past, it will influence the way others treat the children and family members of mentally diagnosed people.
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Originally published at medium.com