Today is World Mental Health Day and this is my story
I met my late husband, Eli, when we were 8 years old. At 13 we “dated” (I wasn’t allowed to date yet, so that meant speaking on the phone every night for the better part of a year), we snuck a kiss at the back of a restaurant at 16, and then started dating for real when we were 18. Deeply in love, we got married at 22. In our community, marriage at this age was the norm.
Eli was a kind and gentle soul, who loved fiercely. He got so much joy from helping his friends out and no job was ever too big, whether it was helping with a move or if they needed something in their house fixed (he was great at fixing stuff). He always went out of his way to make sure people felt included. Those who knew him, remember him always smiling. However, hiding behind that smile was the pain of mental illness that he carried alone for many years.
It was only a few short years before his death - when the symptoms had become impossible to ignore - that he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and began treatment. Mental illness is not discussed openly in our community and there is a great deal of stigma attached to it, so we only shared with family and a few close friends.
Twelve years ago at the age of 35, he lost his battle and died by suicide. At the time, the family decided to tell the world that he died in an accident. We justified to ourselves that it was for my kids (then 7 & 4), because they were too young to understand the truth. However, underneath lay the fear of stigma and judgment from those around us.
“Are you divorced?”, “No, I’m widowed”. For years, my silent prayer would follow, “Please don’t ask how. Please don’t ask how”. I hated myself more and more each time I repeated the lie but I was a prisoner to my fear. So, together with my grief and shock, I continued to carry the secret. The weight was too much for me and I shut down a part of myself, going numb. I didn’t dare touch this wound, even in therapy, for fear of falling apart if I got too close.
Almost 10 years later, I woke up to the realization that I was wearing so many masks, I had no idea who or where the real me was. Shame (or the avoidance of it) had become my driving force. I knew I couldn’t live the next half of my life this way and dove into the deep inner work that was required to make a change.
In reclaiming the last pieces of my Self, I told my kids the truth about their father’s illness and death, as I now share it with you. Now 19 and 16, having witnessed my struggles as well as my journey through healing, they understood why I made the choice not to tell them sooner.
“Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” – Maya Angelou
My better is speaking my truth. My better is owning my story, messiness and all. My better is choosing courage over fear. My better is removing the masks and being vulnerable for the sake of connection and healing. My better is practicing self-compassion and forgiveness. My better is choosing to thrive, not just survive. My better is taking a stand against the stigma surrounding mental illness and suicide. My better is using my experience and the tools I have learned along my journey to support others in theirs.
If you or someone you love is struggling, please reach out. We are all in this together.