As winter slowly, agonizingly morphed toward spring and Daylight Savings Time came along yet again last weekend to mess with our minds and bodies, things have seemed somewhat off in the collective universe. One look at events in our polarized nation tells you that, but it’s also true on a personal level.
I’ve always written to process, and whether anyone out there reads this or not, it’s what I’m doing here. Recently my thoughts have been in a variety of places, thanks to a convergence of thorny and complicated events involving family members, acquaintances, movies, and our nation’s fitful — if still mostly lacking and buried — attention to mental health issues.
Being the parents of a young adult and four teens (yep, Jeremiah counts after living with us for a year) presents a host of challenges, especially now as we embark on a series of significant life transitions and landmarks. I turned 50 in January and Jill hits the mark later this month. 2015 marks 20 years we’ve been together and 10 years since Jill’s mom died.
By June, Nicholas will finish college and Kate high school. Among our 2016 graduates, Ben remains on tour with Newsies while Emma and Jeremiah plan college visits and summer dance intensives.
All this results in a collective holding of our breath, with each person wondering, “What’s next?” And the only way we’ll know the answer is to see it play out one step at a time.
I’ve always said the kids were so close in age that we’ve developmentally belched our way through life, and that’s largely true. As parents, however, we’ve worked hard to help each find their singular path, even when we would have taken another tack or direction.
Until you experience parenting, you don’t realize how hard that is to pull off, as preconceived notions of what your kids will be become realized, dashed, or expanded upon exponentially. And somewhere along the line, parents realize that their power to alter their kids’ path is anything but omniscient. You just hope it’s not compromised along the way.
Some time ago, I realized this: You can talk to, influence, help, offer, beg, plead, hope and pray, but you cannot "prevent" someone from making a bad decision. That’s true no matter how hard you try, and believe me, we’ve tried.
Or, as a friend said on Facebook this week: “Free will. God’s best/worst invention.”
Part of this long ponder started, as it often does, with movies. Given that we had not seen any of the top nominees for the Academy Awards, Jill and I started playing catch up last month. And we found an interesting theme while watching three Best Picture nominees — “American Sniper,” “Birdman,” and “Whiplash.”
Any casual observer with a remote interest in movies can point to those titles and recite the basic plot in one or two sentences. If you’ve seen the films, you can point to the broader themes of anger, frustration, hate, and love. All three also have an underlying current that pulses through them, the unrelenting push to be the best and the toll that it takes on the protagonists, their families, and friends.
Say what you will about their artistic and entertainment merits, but the spectre of mental illness underlies each movie. “Whiplash” and “Birdman” are fever dreams, films relentless in their pace, obsession, and pursuit of tragedy. Tragedy of another kind — war and its devastating effects on soldiers and their families — courses through “American Sniper,” with the horrifying ending of the protagonist making it home safely and being killed by a soldier with mental illness of his own.
As parents of a child with a diagnosed mental illness, Jill and I watched all three movies through that prism. We felt the sweat and blood of “Whiplash,” saw the tighty-whitey walk through Times Square in “Birdman,” and sat with dread waiting for the end of “American Sniper.” At small points, I felt the filmmakers had witnessed pieces of our lives.
What people don’t seem to understand is that mental illness is chronic, not cured. It’s only suppressed and/or managed to the best of an individual’s ability. As a parent, it’s a never-ending waltz — 1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2-3 — that becomes a loop of expectations and hopes vs. realities.
Mental illness is not something you necessarily see, except through actions and reactions you are forced to deal with. It’s most effective when it eats away at a person silently and slowly. That’s because outbursts create awareness that something is wrong, and mental illness gets its power from its ability to mask and deceive.
Our situation as parents is not unique. Chances are more likely than not that others you know deal with this, too. What we’ve got to do is talk about the sad state of mental health care in this country, and do something about it.
This was made abundantly clear last month when Jill and I attended a benefit for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, an organization she has worked with in her role with the American School Counselor Association. The benefit, which helped bring attention to the rising number of suicides and veterans, was timely. It was held two nights after the Oscars, and as the trial of the American Sniper killer came to a close.
Speakers included Major Gen. Mark Graham, who with his wife Carol is the subject of a new book, The Invisible Front: Love and Loss in An Era of Endless War. The book tells the story of the Grahams, who lost one son (Kevin) to suicide and another (Jeff) in combat eight months later.
The story is devastating, though not without hope, as the Grahams have turned their attention to the increasing numbers of soldiers who return home with mental illness and post traumatic stress disorder. Graham, a two-star general, stands tall and straight as his talks start, but he tears up when talking about his sons.
“My sons died fighting different battles,” he said. “When Jeff died in combat, we were told how heroic he was. No one mentioned Kevin. And my wife and I thought, ‘We had two amazing sons, not just one.’”
As a society, it’s easy to recognize and to forget, to push unpleasant thoughts to the background and out of the way. When times are tough, it’s easy to focus on what’s right in life and not confront the things that are wrong. When you are dealing with something as difficult as depression or mental illness, you have to find someone to talk to about it. You have to find treatment, no matter what it takes.
We have amazing children. I have a wonderful family, warts and all. Occasionally I have to remind myself of that fact, but in case I need a reminder, all I have to think about is what the Grahams went through. You can’t help but be thankful, committed, and even more determined than ever.
Go hug your kids — as often as you can.