Nothing prepared me for this.
This is not the life my upbringing prepared me for. I don’t just mean the special guest speakers we had in home economics class who tried to introduce us to the subtleties of silver, china, and stemware. No, I was also misled by the books I read.
If Life Is a Bowl of Cherries, What Am I Doing in the Pits? and Please Don’t Eat the Daisies led me astray. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a total fan of Erma Bombeck’s writing style, but the quirky suburban life she loved and lamented was not what I got. Bombeck and Kerr both made light – and fortunes – of portraying the petty foibles and cute misunderstandings of women and their husbands, women and their children, women and their neighbors, women and other women.
Daily disasters with dishwashers, sticky-fingered children, and clueless husbands were an endless source of amazement and amusement for them. They soldiered on, supported by an innate buoyancy, faith in the divinity, and the occasional glass of wine.
My glasses of wine have been more than occasional. My disasters have not been humorous. I do not have children, and the cats are somewhat deficient in making adorable conversation in high-pitched, lisping voices. Sometimes all I can get out of them is “meh,” which is pretty much how I feel too.
As for the trappings of the genteel life, we eat off paper plates more often then not. I did once have a set of Limoges, but only because I was acting as a pawnbroker for a friend who needed ready cash. I fed one of the cats on the Limoges saucer, just to say that I had.
My parents used to say that their house was decorated in early married junk and I have followed in that fine tradition. Most of our furnishings are a demonstration of the maxim: If it’s not from Kmart or Goodwill you won’t find it here.
No one’s life prepares them for clinical depression, hypomania, bipolar disorder, or any other mental illnesses. I’ll wager that even psychologists’ kids don’t have a clue when they escalate from picking scabs to experimenting with lit cigarettes. Maybe their parents don’t either.
Either the mental disorder has been going on so long that you don’t know what it’s like without it, or it comes on so suddenly that you desperately hope that it goes away just as suddenly. Or it comes in a way that you can just convince yourself is no big deal. “I overspend? That’s just because I love shopping, not because I have mania or need to validate myself with expensive things.”
Perhaps people who grow up with a mentally disturbed loved one have a chance of understanding the underlying mechanisms. But with the number of families who don’t discuss the “elephant in the room,” or pass it off as, “Your sister is just high-strung” or say, “Uncle Ted is a little odd. Just ignore him,” not even that exposure may help.
How do young people learn about mental illness? Or even – gasp! – get help for one? If not at home, maybe at school? The National Association of Secondary School Principals cites the U.S. Surgeon General’s report saying that “one in five children and adolescents will face a significant mental health condition during their school years” and that the ratio of school counselors to students is 471:1. Add to that the fact that most school counselors have been shifted away from offering personal and emotional support to offering academics-only services. (http://www.nassp.org/Content.aspx?topic=57948)
Most of us struggle alone. Some never find a proper diagnosis and treatment. We have to be our own resources and our own advocates much of the time, even if our illnesses do not allow us to get out of bed. If we have one family member – or even a close friend – who understands, we are lucky beyond measure.
I wish that I had been even slightly prepared for the life I now lead, instead of the one I was “supposed” to have. No one can predict the future, but why can’t we at least have a bit of mental health education in school? I suppose that’s a lot to ask, when even sexuality education varies from the merely adequate to the appalling, when schools are barely able to stay abreast of the teach-to-the-test curriculum, and when Texas’s governor vetoes a bipartisan bill allocating resources for mental health, based on lobbying by Scientologists.
Do I sound bitter because I didn’t get to live the genteel suburban life? Probably. But there are aspects of that life that likely would have actively impeded my search for mental health. So I’ve had to do it on my own, or nearly so, at least until recently. A lot of us go DIY for mental health.
But a lot of us are accomplishing it. Living the life we have and not some fictitious pie-in-the-sky one. We may not have been prepared for it, but we muddle through anyway – and sometimes even realize that imperfect real life is better than a perfect lie.