“The secret of freedom lies in educating people, whereas the secret of tyranny is in keeping them ignorant.” ~ Maximilien Robespierre.
I must have been in my forties when I learned something about my family I had never known before. I learned it around the same time as the rest of my siblings, although I was probably the last to hear it mostly due to geography. I have lived in the US for over 40 years now, while my biological siblings live in the UK. Fortunately, I have an adopted sibling who now lives a few hours away. Thanks to Covid, even that distance has grown over the last two years.
The ’secret’ was revealed accidentally, unthinkingly, by a cousin of my mother’s who had asked when it was that my mother had lost the baby. It turns out that there was another sibling, a boy, who was born prematurely and did not survive. To be fair, in those days it was not uncommon for such events not to be spoken of. It was a part of life. Infant mortality, the ability for babies born before term to survive, were not subject to the technology and techniques that we are used to now. Mothers who lost a child were encouraged with fake cheerfulness: ‘Never mind, love, you’ll have another one next year’, or that other false reassurance: ‘It was probably for the best. There must have been something wrong with it.’ And mothers went home and got on with their lives.
It is only in the last 40 years or so that talk shows and public forums have provided us with the opportunity to ‘share’ our grief, our losses. Nowadays a mother who loses a baby is encouraged to pause and acknowledge the life; to grieve and work through it, rather than avoid all mention as if it were a secret. In our case it was an interesting addition to things we did not know about our parents. When I called them thinking my mother might be upset, as she had to relive the loss, it was my father who answered the phone. When I told him why I was calling, he asked ‘what about me?’ And to be honest, I had only thought about how it must have affected my mother. But then he reassured me: ‘We old folk are resilient, you know!’ My mother, on the other hand, in her usual way, deflected the conversation into mundane topics: the weather, the laundry, anything but her feelings.
I was moved this week by the words of a politician, who was reliving the events of January 6th, 2021, in Washington D.C. It was not his recollection of the violence, the fear, the assault on democracy that moved me. It was the suicide of his son, which had happened just days before the insurrection. What was most poignant about his words was when he said that he wished they had spoken the word suicide with his son. His son had been affected by the lockdown (and I don’t know if he had pre-existing mental health issues, it sounded as if he did) and had become withdrawn, despondent. But the family had never come out and asked if he had considered harming himself (something we teach nursing students to do when speaking with people who suffer from depression). It was only in hindsight that they could see that by bringing something into the open they could perhaps have addressed it, and perhaps have prevented it.
Mental illness still carries a stigma which makes it difficult to talk about. Even in educated families, it is not openly discussed as we would talk about heart disease or diabetes. We respect the fact that people with diabetes need to monitor their blood glucose, be aware of their food choices, carry glucose for emergencies. But do we support those with mental illness in monitoring for signs of depression, providing a supportive environment, or helping them avoid triggers? What of those with PTSD? We often avoid discussing that which we fear or are uninformed about. Although the same cannot be said for the COVID vaccine! Everyone has ‘done their own research’ and knows all about the science and side effects! But for our own mental health, and that of the society around us, we should be more informed, more aware of the need to be supportive.
Of course, we cannot all become mental health counsellors, but we should make it our business to be more educated. The same is true of the need for citizens to be more aware of the ill-health of our democracy, as we see threats to voting rights and loss of personal rights. Despite the fact that the majority of Americans support a woman’s right to choose to terminate a pregnancy, and want her to be able to do that in a safe, legal way, we see the erosion of that right across the country. At school board meetings a few very vocal people are trying to dictate the curriculum choices, libraries are being told to remove books that a minority of people find objectionable. And when there is a movement to ensure that our children are educated about the good and bad aspects of American history (including the savage abuse of the Native American population, and the ’original sin’ of enslaving people of African descent), there is an outcry and fierce pushback.
If it is one thing the New Year brings, it is an opportunity for new beginnings, new approaches. We have the chance both individually and as a society, to rethink our approach to old secrets, to bring things out into the open so they lose their power. Whether the secret we are holding on to involves suicide, mental illness, domestic violence, abuse, perhaps we can find the courage to start speaking about it. Maybe our role is to listen, to hear what it feels like to experience something we have never gone through ourselves. It is impossible to feel empathy or compassion if you avoid hearing, reading, learning about such painful topics. But if we miss this opportunity, whether on the personal or societal level, we may live to regret it.
On this first Friday of the New Year, I hope you have had a wonderful holiday season, and are ready to face 2022 with what my friend calls ‘joyous optimism’! May you find the courage to try a new path, to start a new conversation, or to just be a good listener. Have a wonderful weekend, Family!