It was summertime in East Tennessee, early evening. The driveway had finally cooled off enough for me to sit without burning my skin. The rest of my family was inside, but I was feeling blue again and wandered outside to be alone.
I was eight years old. By then, “my blues,” weren’t new, but I didn’t call them “my blues” yet. And that was the problem: I didn’t call them anything, and I needed to if I was going to be able to explain them to my parents. So I sat in the driveway and brainstormed.
Like many eight-year-olds, the most intense sadness I experienced on a frequent basis was that of being homesick. Perhaps that’s why my first idea was to tell my parents that I “felt homesick even when I’m home.” That would convey that I often felt really, really sad even when I had no reason to, wouldn’t it?
But maybe they wouldn’t understand that “homesick” meant “sad.” Maybe grown-ups didn’t remember what “homesick” was. I kept thinking.
Earlier that day, my little brother and I had watched an episode of Winnie the Poo in which Eeyore was followed around by a dark raincloud. He would try to dodge it, try to fake it out, and try to spin away, but the raincloud stuck with him, blocking only his portion of the sunshine. That’s sort of how I felt, I thought. It wasn’t that I didn’t know it was sunny and that I had plenty of things to be happy about; it was that this stupid cloud wouldn’t leave me alone, and I couldn’t feel the sunshine. Sometimes I would tell myself to fake it–answer questions about my day cheerfully, try not to get so annoyed so easily at my brother, just pretend to be happier. But every time I tried that, I felt mortified. Surely everyone could see the cloud. I felt fake and fake felt silly.
Ok, I decided, my parents would be able to understand the cloud. I got up and dusted the tar bits off the back of my legs.
It turned out my parents would have understood no matter how I explained it. They’re clinical psychologists, for goodness’ sake. But I was expecting some confusion. I thought I needed to buck up for a potentially embarrassing conversation. (It was weird, I knew, to compare myself to a melancholic cartoon character.)
My parents were in the living room: Dad playing his guitar, Mom reading. I sat on the floor facing them. “Mom? Dad?” They looked up, though Dad kept strumming.
I took a breath. “I always feel homesick, even when I’m at home!” I blurted.
Dangit! That wasn’t what I meant to say! I was supposed to use the cloud metaphor! Ok, ok, I’ll just start over, I thought. “Wait, wait…actually….it’s like this cloud I saw on Winnie the Poo…”
When I had finished with the cloud, my parents looked surprisingly nonplussed. This couldn’t be good, I thought. They must not have gotten it. If they knew what I was trying to say—that I felt like a sad donkey—surely they’d look concerned. My metaphor must have failed. I needed a new one. I had to improvise.
“Okay, or…it’s like if something ever tries to make my heart happy, my heart can’t float up. I mean, it tries to, but it’s like… giant, ugly gray hands…yeah, gray hands, with lots of warts…they reach up from my stomach and grab my heart and pull it back down! So see, my heart can’t float up and I can’t be happy. That’s the problem.”
Ok, that was it. That was my best shot. I looked up from my hands in my lap–hands I had been imagining as those gray, warty hands.
Now, my parents did look concerned. They get it now, I thought. In retrospect, perhaps they were mostly alarmed by the graphic quality of my metaphors. But I felt like I had gotten somewhere. I had spoken out loud of my blues, so they were no longer my private weight. Sure, by describing them to my parents I had made them real (doing so had been a worry of mine) but they were real enough to me already, I figured. And I was sick of them and I was scared of them. I wanted my parents’ help.
It is difficult for me to say (though not difficult for me to imagine) precisely how different and how much more difficult my life would have been if my parents had not been overwhelmingly eager to help. When I say this, please note what I am not saying: I am not saying that my life would have been different if my parents had not been clinical psychologists. That summer did not mark the moment in which my parents became my therapists. (That moment never has and never will arrive.) It marked the moment in which my parents fully realized that I, their daughter, needed them, my parents, to help me cope with a unique challenge.
I have tried and given up writing this piece many times. Each time, I finish the section above, read it a few times over trying to squeeze out some momentum, and then I get up from my desk.
This process repeated itself until I finally realized why the two sections–the Day of the Metaphors and everything after it–have posed such uneven challenges for me. The answer, I think, is this: Surely no one, especially people whom I know and love, would blame eight-year-old me. No one would have told eight-year-old me to be ashamed.
Up until the Day of the Metaphors, I was a victim: a little kid who was being bullied by her own brain chemistry. If you don’t agree with my characterization of the “bully,” remember that until the day I tried to name it, the “bully’s” identity wasn’t yet the point anyway. The point was that I felt so sad so much of the time, and could not figure out why. Whether or not one agrees that brain chemistry was the bully, most people feel sympathy for a kid who feels bullied, no matter what the cause.
But, that day, I chose to exchange my victimhood–and its freedom from culpability–for answers, or at least for help seeking answers. I traded in passive innocence for active agency. Asking my parents for help was the first of many decisions I would make about my mental health. And there it is–why everything after that moment is so much harder for me to write about. Decisions are much easier to judge than feelings. And what medium is more open to silent, scathing criticism than a blog post? (Those silent judgments, the ones to which I will never have the opportunity to respond, are the ones that intimidate me the most, far more than anonymous vitriol from Internet Crazies.)
But I decided to write this post anyway, and here is why: I do not feel required to write more than this post. That is, I do not feel obligated to expose the decisions I have made about my mental health to public debate or discussion. After all, my personal history–the body of decisions I have made–is not the point. The point is this: I believe that parents can be the most helpful allies any child or adolescent has when making decisions about and confronting the many challenges of mental health. Being an ally does not require field-specific knowledge or experience. When a child breaks her arm, a parent does not need to know how to reset the bone in order to be a good parent. A good parent just needs to accept that the bone is broken and be willing to help the child receive appropriate medical care. The same principles apply to mental health.
Perhaps it is a cop-out for me to simply make these assertions about the importance of parental support without providing examples from my own life to prove the point. That has, after all, been the approach I have taken with the rest of these essays. But any guilt I feel for shortchanging the evidentiary backbone of this essay is assuaged by my belief that while our individual stories may be entertaining or even useful to others, they are ours to give; we don’t owe them to anyone. Perhaps you are comfortable relating some but not all aspects of your physical health to others. Maybe you’ll mention a dentist appointment but call a colonoscopy a “check-up.” Mental health works the same way, whether or not it should.
Besides, the length of this essay is already violating every rule of online blogs. Still, perhaps I will return to this subject later. I do feel I’ve opened a bit of a pandora’s box here, but that lid was always bound to blow. This is a website co-authored by a clinical psychologist and her….let’s call it “emotionally complicated”…daughter; mental health was bound to come up.
And for now, I’m going to call that enough.