Tag: mental illness

Mental Health and Family: New Essay at Narratively

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.

On a Deadline and Brandon Marshall on First Take

I’m on a deadline, and I’ll be up late tonight working on the piece.  Plus, I’ll get up early in the morning to work on it. So this will be a short post.

This morning, I watched First Take, and I was surprised by what I saw.  Brandon Marshall called into the show, and he started to discuss issues of mental illness.  He started to talk about stigma and the people on the South Side of Chicago.  Take a listen to the video.  I’m going to think about it a little bit more, and then I’ll write a blog about it tomorrow.  Maybe you’ll want to share your thoughts in the mean time.

How My 23-Year-Old Self Spoke to Me — New York in the Fifties

Tonight, I’m listening to Monk’s Dream by, who else, Thelonious Monk.  The track on right now is Body and Soul.  When it comes to music, I often think that I’m stuck in the past.  I mean, if I was living in the 50s and 60s, would I have even known who Monk was?  Would I have appreciated him?  Would I have seen him on television?  And I find myself wondering,  who is Thelonious Monk today? You know, I’m scared that he might just be some DJ or electronic guy, and I have been missing the boat.

But that’s not what I wanted to write about tonight.  What I want to write about tonight is a message I received from the past.  Yes, the past.

In graduate school, I took this class called New York in the Fifties, taught by Dan Wakefield.  In that class, we read Salinger, Baldwin, Miles Davis’ autobiography, Kerouac, as well as others.  For the final project, we had to write an essay on a book we were reading and how it related to the class.  Well, being the smart ass that I am, which I’m some what proud of — my grandfather, Poppy, would probably be pissed.  He always told me not to be a smart ass — I wrote a personal essay on how Kerouac’s On the Road changed me.

Well, it was the first time I really wrote about my mother’s mental illness.  It was the first time that I confronted those memories on paper in a way that wasn’t just journal entries.  And well, rereading the piece inspired me.  I’m about to share a piece of that writing with you.

But first, a bit of context: Honestly, yesterday I was having a tough day.  Freelancing is tough.  You don’t get paid much right away, and it’s difficult to come to terms with having no security.  So, I had this idea to pitch a piece on Kerouac.  And I pulled out the essay from Wakefield’s class.  And it brought tears to my eyes.  Not because I thought it was good writing, but because I heard a voice, my voice, speaking to me, reminding me, of the principles and thoughts I had when I was younger.  That I should continue to have today.

Here is that piece of writing:

“I see many similarities between the 50s and now, and it is the reawakening of a great spirit.  The American spirit.  The spirit Kerouac saw during his travels.  I see this spirit in Obama…I see this spirit in my friends who are trying, desperately,  to create art in the face of a recession.  I see this spirit in my little brother, waiting to graduate high school so he can take on his road.  I see this spirit in myself.  This spirit is madness.

“I’m only 23, but I’ve driven all over the country, taken trains across Europe, and I read and listen and search all forms of art and thoughts for a truth.  Kerouac has changed my life and millions of other people by showing us that we’re all mad in a certain sense.  He showed us that there is a way to react against the delusions of American values by pursuing the true American Dream — the promise of adventure and discovery and equality.  I know this is all highfalutin ideas, and I’m not grounded, really, but I’m finding a great relief in this writing process.  I’m finding a great freedom in my mind.  I’m not scared anymore…But here are my thoughts on Kerouac and the 50s and what I’ve learned from your class.  My whole life I’ve wanted to be special.  I’ve decided on writing.  I’m often scared that the way I see the world is so different and my values are not shared.  I often fear going forward with my writing career.  But if many of the standards of America are delusions, than so is my fear of failure within that system.  I’m mad.  I know it.  I’m going to find my own way to express myself one day.  One that fits.”

Well, it was good to hear my voice.  And for a moment, I couldn’t be happier.  Because whatever it is that I’m after, I’m still trying to find it.