Over the past two years, I have been admitted to my local psychiatric hospital four times, attended an intensive outpatient program for four months, plowed through 18 months of dialectical behavior therapy, attended weekly individual therapy sessions, and visited my psychiatrist every two to four weeks. Currently, I take three medications on a daily basis. That in itself is a lot for anyone, but then add this key component to my life: I’m a mother.
Explaining mental illness to anyone can be a challenge at times, but explaining it to children is a feat of its own. My youngest daughter would never really understand and I can only hope she never remembers this period of life. I can’t say the same for my bright and inquisitive six-year-old. I couldn’t hide the signs of self-harm, lie my way through hospitalization, or hide my numerous appointments. So, here’s what I did:
1. I told the truth.
I had very serious conversations with my daughter. I explained that my illness requires medication and appointments. I also told her that some doctors I see are for “meetings” where we talk about mommy’s illness and these doctors tell mommy ways to not get worse and stay healthy and strong. Each time I required inpatient hospitalization, I explained that I just needed some extra care in those moments so that I could stay safe.
2. I kept it simple.
I left out any details that complicated things or led to excessive questions. Each time my daughter asked if I was going to die, I’d laugh the comment off, hoping she wouldn’t find out that I’d considered taking my own life. These simple answers worked well. Eventually things returned to normal, and many of the curious questions faded away.
3. I planned out details carefully.
I had wounds and scars on my arms and legs for months. Therefore, I planned my clothing out carefully to avoid my children’s attention. I also planned out showers and clothing changes so my girls wouldn’t see the self-harm wounds. Since children are also creatures of habit, I scheduled my appointments on the same days each week.
Through everything, I think the best thing I did was be upfront and honest with both of my daughters. Honesty is the best policy, but also I feel very strongly that the only real way to fix the stigma that exists with mental health currently is to stop hiding in the shadows and disguising mental illness. If I had cancer, I’d be talking to my daughters… why should my struggles with borderline personality disorder (BPD) and major depressive disorder (MDD) be any different? I hope my honesty will not only help the next generation dissolve the stigma, but also allow youth to know it’s OK to not be OK and get help.