Illustration by Danielle Chenette
Illustration by Danielle Chenette

Last week I had my essay, “How to Get Your Paranoid Mother into the Poisonous Ambulance,” published at Narratively — considered a top 50 website by Time Magazine. Besides having the capability to tell my story on such an incredible platform, I was lucky enough to have the piece accompanied by illustrations from Danielle Chenette, an animator, illustrator, and printmaker originally from Millbury, Massachusetts, living and working in Chicago. I love her illustrations, and it really helped capture the theme of Mommy Dearest, which was the editorial focus of Narratively for the week leading up to Mother’s Day.

This publication was special for many reasons, but it ultimately marked a completion of a difficult journey within my writing. If you haven’t read the piece, then let me fill you in a bit. It’s the story of when I hard to return home when my mother was off her medicine and missing in Massachusetts. She has bipolar, and for most of my life, our family has had to handle the ups and downs of the disorder. It was November, 2013, and I flew home to try to convince my mother (with the of my brother) to voluntarily head into a hospital with a higher level of care to help her find equilibrium.

Illustration by Danielle Chenette
Illustration by Danielle Chenette

Well, writing this essay — and even that above paragraph — is truly monumental for me, because it marks a major transition artistically and personally. For most of my life, I’ve kept my mother’s illness a secret, but I have often felt the need to write about it. In fact, it’s almost been a compulsion, and I’ve told versions of this story before, but I’ve never told it in the memoir form and put the stamp of truth upon the pages…until now. The story of dealing with mental illness is so important because most people keep it a secret. But why is it such a secret? Why are we so embarrassed with the imbalance of the mind? How do we tell the stories we so desperately need to tell?

But even a harder question: How do we tell those stories without hurting the people we love? That question has always stopped me from truly writing the way I needed to write. I always felt that I was going to hurt someone when I told these stories, but in the piece, I didn’t hold back. I had a wonderful editor during this process who pushed me to tell the truth in a way that was authentic and real.

In the end, I wasn’t just afraid of what my mother would think about the stories — or other members of my family — and I wasn’t afraid that people would judge my mother and think of her in a negative way. To provide a bit more insight, here is what I wrote on Facebook when I shared the story:

I almost didn’t share my essay that was published on Narratively yesterday to my personal Facebook page, because it’s a personal story and ultimately people will recognize the individuals involved…potentially judging them negatively. So I asked my brother what he thought (since he is in the story), and he pointed out that hopefully more good will come from sharing it than bad. Well, I hope that’s the case. Mental health shouldn’t be something we hide and ignore. I hope it’s something we can embrace while learning to empathize with the individuals who are suffering.

Illustration by Danielle Chenette
Illustration by Danielle Chenette

Only one person (at least that I’m aware of) criticized me for sharing this story, and this person was actual a member of my family. I don’t really talk to her anymore because of her attitude toward mental health, but she wrote on the Facebook post with the intention of shaming me for sharing a story about my family that she deemed personal. But there were so many other people who wrote to me either on the Facebook post or through a private message expressing how much they valued my courage in sharing the story. In fact, someone I greatly respect wrote: “Silence killed my mom. Thanks for sharing, Joseph Lapin.” So I just wanted to say thank you to all the people who read the piece without judgement and with compassion. It means the world.

Why is mental illness still such a stigma? Why are we scared to share that our minds can become just as sick as our lungs or our cells? I’m not entirely sure yet, but I’m suddenly more confident than ever to tell my stories. Hopefully I’ll find a way to answer some of the above questions along the way.

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