While driving, I sometimes get random thoughts, noteworthy of a blog. Thanks to Siri, I’m able to quickly capture my ideas through voice memos before my thoughts wander off someplace else, making me forget anything important I want to remember.
(on a side note, who here remembers the old Sesame Street skit where Ernie used to tie a string around his finger whenever he needed to remember something? I did that before as a kid. The string reminded me I had to remember something, but I always forgot what it was I had to remember. Gosh, this is sounding more like a Winnie the Pooh quote.)
Let’s move on to my earlier thought before I forget.
Remember when we used to describe a person who was quiet and didn’t show much emotion as the strong, silent type? I don’t often hear that phrase anymore to describe a person, and I’m glad. I mean, how strong is a person who is silent, especially when it comes to their mental health? Isn’t that an oxymoron? For generations, it was seen as a positive trait, to be the strong, silent type. You’re cool, collected and can withstand internalized pain. Movie stars portrayed this imagery very well, often looking cool and sexy in the movies if they were stoic.
Unfortunately, many cultures continue to teach their kids to keep their feelings inside. Don’t express them. Crying is only for the weak. I belong to a culture that certainly has its hurdles when addressing mental health issues. So, how do we break this pattern? Is it something that can happen overnight? Or does it take generations of education, awareness and courageous individuals to break the mould?
My older brother was diagnosed with schizophrenia by the time I was sixteen years old. It was a tumultuous time in my life, and I can’t even begin to imagine what he was going through. My family (like many other families facing mental illness) feared the illness. We feared the shame, the stigma and the never-ending gossip that existed beyond our home. We didn’t talk about his illness and regrettably, I feel that was one of the many horrific things we did that made his illness get worse. He never received the compassion he desperately needed. We made his illness more about how it inconvenienced us, rather than understanding the pain he was going through. I was told never to tell other friends or relatives that he was in the hospital getting treatment. I was told, there was nothing wrong with my brother. I was told he was cured. I was told not to talk about it.
So I kept silent.
How long was I silent about my brother’s illness? I was 40 years old when I finally told a dear friend that I have a brother with schizophrenia. I only scratched the surface during that conversation. For over twenty years, I was the strong, silent type. I didn’t talk about my brother. Many of my friends didn’t even know I had a brother. I didn’t talk about how frightened I was of him during his symptoms. I didn’t talk about how angry I was at my parents for not finding help. I didn’t talk about how lonely and confused I was. I didn’t talk about trying to understand his illness. I didn’t talk about how I wish I had a normal family life: one without illness, without anger, without the shouting, without the fights, without the beatings, without the bruises, without the tears.
Yes, I was the strong, silent type.
As an adult, I lived with depression (but didn’t even realize it until much later in life). I lived with anxiety, and was fearful of big crowds, loud noises and new faces. I had anger problems, finding it nearly impossible to cope with my running thoughts and insecurities. I was in and out of relationships, never understanding why I needed to fix myself. Yes, I said it. Fix myself. The truth is, a piece of me was broken.
But that’s OK because I was the strong, silent type.
We’re moving forward in the right direction when it comes to talking openly about our struggles. I see this especially in men who have had a much harder time living as the strong, silent types. I proudly see men’s groups getting together to chat about their emotions and troubled pasts. I see men speaking openly about their mistakes and poor choices, wanting to change and better themselves for their families and loved ones. I’m optimistic that in a matter of time, talking about our mental health, talking about our personal struggles will become a social norm, widely accepted by all cultures.
When I got into the office today, I concluded that if I was the strong, silent type before, I’m proud I’m the complete opposite of that today. I’ll gladly call myself the weak, talkative type any day when it comes to my emotions and mental health.