When I was fifteen years old, my family moved from suburban Detroit to Tuscaloosa, Alabama. It was the mid-nineties—there was no Facebook, no cell phones, and I didn’t have an email address. In a matter of months I lost touch with all of my friends, most of whom I’d known since the first grade. I fell into a deep depression and attempted suicide. With the help of counseling and medication, I recovered. My brother, Matt, diagnosed with bipolar disorder just two years after my attempt, was not so lucky. When we were in our early twenties, he took his own life.
I’ve spent the last decade writing about Matt’s death, our lives, and my own experiences with depression—including my own suicide attempt. I’ve also become a mother. I’ve said in multiple articles and interviews that I will be open and honest about my past with my son. Most people have been supportive of that decision, but there are some who disagree.
They tell me:
“He won’t understand.”
“It will just scare him.”
“It could give him ideas.”
“It might make you feel better, but it will ruin his life.”
Their concerns are understandable. (Except maybe that last one.) Experts have addressed (and debunked) them, and you can find responses, tips, and studies all over the Internet. I originally started this piece by citing those responses, proving the power of openness via science. But I kept coming back to my own story, an unscientific study with two participants.
On the surface, the childhood Matt and I shared was perfect. Our parents were like the Cleavers, my friends said. Dad worked nine-to-five, coached T-ball, and barbecued on the weekends. Mom volunteered at school, made our lunches, and folded our laundry. They yelled at each other a handful of times, yelled at us a handful more, but they didn’t drink or smoke or do drugs, didn’t hit us or each other, didn’t break things or cry uncontrollably. They made life look easy, which might be why Matt and I were so confused when we found out it wasn’t.
What is wrong with us? I wondered, as my brother and I took turns falling apart. While mental illness and suicides often trickle through generations, handed down like tarnished heirlooms, it seemed our family was the exception. It wasn’t until after my brother died—desperate to understand, terrified that I would be next—that I began to question my parents.
It turned out both of my grandfathers had been depressed. It turned out that my mother had experienced extreme episodes of anxiety. It turned out that she’d worked hard to hide her emotions from us, from everyone in fact, sure that perfection was the only way to be worthy of love. It turned out that neither of our parents knew how to talk to us about all of this because no one had ever talked to them.
Silence was our tarnished heirloom, handed down through generations right alongside mental illness. It came from stigma, sure. From fear of discrimination and judgment. And it’s a devastating cycle: The stigma is rooted in silence, and the silence feeds the stigma. Talking about it is the only way to break the cycle. It’s the only way to create a safe space for people to seek help.
But that silence is about something else, too. I hear it in the comments from parents who disagree with my decision to be open with my son. I see it in my own parents. And now that I’m a mother, I see it in myself—an intense protective reflex. We’re terrified of confusing, frightening, hurting, or losing our children. We don’t want them to suffer.
There’s nothing wrong with this desire. It’s rooted in deep love. The problem occurs when we let it interfere with our children’s growth and development. Life is confusing. Life is scary. There is no way our kids are going to get through it without learning this. It’s our job to teach them; otherwise they learn it the hard way. They learn it the way that Matt and I did.
The same protective instinct that kept my parents from talking about suicide makes me want to talk to my son. I don’t ever want him to feel the way I felt—like there was something wrong with me because of my depression. Like I was broken and completely alone. Of course there’s a good chance he’ll feel like that someday, anyway, even if he doesn’t have a mental illness, because life is hard. Everyone feels broken and alone sometimes.
That’s so important I’m going to say it again: Everyone feels broken and alone sometimes. There are a lot of things I hope to accomplish by telling my son about my past, but that’s what I want him to know most of all. Whatever he is feeling, he is not alone.
This week we’re trying to raise $75,000 to invest directly into avenues of treatment and recovery. You can help us by donating or becoming a fundraiser here.